One of the more interesting news pieces this year would have to be the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. In which fans who did not like the ending choices petitioned and complained to Bioware to the point that they recently released an update with new ending scenes. As someone who hasn’t even finished the first one, the story aspect of the argument doesn’t interest me one way or the other. But the argument does raise an interesting point about entitlement and creative control and at the end of the day: Does the developer or the fans have the greater say?
For the Fans:
The amount of investment and access to the development side fans have is unique to the games industry. Thanks to forums and betas, fans can see how the game they are waiting for is shaping up. While mods allow fans to improve upon the game in question or design something completely new. The Defense of The Ancients craze and Counter Strike both originated as mods to popular games that the designers did not originally think of.
When someone watches a movie or a TV series, their investment is nowhere near the amount of time someone playing a game has. With RPGs, MMOs, and persistent games, someone could easily spend a 100+ hours on one game. For fans of that level of dedication, in many ways, they have as much of an insight and investment to the game as the developers themselves.
Looking at Mass Effect 3, it’s easy to see how fans could be disappointed with how the game ended. We have a trilogy, where each game could be played for at minimum 15 to 20 hours. Perhaps more for fans who explored every inch of the Universe. Not only that, but they were controlling a character of their own creation and made decisions that shaped the development of the story across the three games. With all that investment, the stakes were high for players to see how all that time culminated in the ending.
In a consumer driven industry, when a product comes out that is less than acceptable, the consumer has the right to complain to the manufacturer. And there are plenty of cases where companies have changed their product based on the feedback from the consumer. However, video games are not your usual product which is where the other half of this debate falls.
While video games are products for consumers, there is a lot more that goes into video games creative wise then other products. Designers, artists and programmers spend months developing every inch of the game and creating and fine tuning the game. At the end of the day while a game is a product, some of the best games released have the passion and creativity we see in art.
With that said a fan, no matter how invested in the game or knowledgeable, is still a fan. They did not spend one second or cent on the creation of the game. And regardless of how the fan feels, the designer has the final say of the product. Does someone have the right to complain? Yes. Does someone have the right to force the creator of a project to change their vision regardless of the quality of it? That’s a tough one.
If you go up to an artist and tell them that their painting sucks and they should change it to suit your vision, chances are they would punch you in the face. To put it bluntly, a designer has every right to tell people who want them to change their game to shut the f#@k up. At the end of the day, the designers are the reason why the game existed in the first place.
As someone who is both a fan and interested in the development side of game design, I’m torn on the matter. I can see things from the fan side and if I was a fan of a product and wanted things to be different, I would complain. However, as someone who wants to be a designer, if I spent all my time and energy on a game with a specific vision in mind. Then someone complains and demands that I change it because they didn’t like it, I would tell them to f#@k off. Did these fans help design the game in any way shape or form? No, so why should I change the game from the original intent, just to appease them?
Both sides of the debate have valid concerns and I don’t have a clear answer to which side is right. But there is a deeper issue that I want to briefly touch on.
Art vs. Money:
The Mass Effect 3 issue is a small part of a greater issue of games seen as products or artistic statements or in other words: consumerism vs. art. As a product, consumers have the entitlement to demand change, but when it comes to art, the creator has the last say on it. As a designer, the question is where do they fall on what their games represent? If Bioware cared only about their vision of the game, they could have easily told all the complainers to shut up and that would be the end of it. However, how many of those people would be in line to buy Bioware’s next game?
One positive out of the Mass Effect issue, is that it stands as an example that games have reached the point that they are affecting people in the same ways that a painting, movie or book can. What that also means, is that the issue of whether we view games as art, or as products is only going to get bigger. With that said, I can only think of one way to end this debate for now:
Personalization is one of the best ways of giving players progression and choices in games. Being able to create a character or army to the player’s specification allows them to connect more to their character and is a great motivational mechanic to keep people playing.
Team Fortress 2 with its bevy of items is one of the best examples of providing replay-ability and longevity to a game. Because of the popularity of personalization, more designers are experimenting with it in their designs.
With Diablo 3, players can mix and match active and passive skills for each of the five classes, allowing two players using the same class, to be very different in terms of utility. While in Age of Empires Online, you can equip every build-able unit and structure with a variety of gear and take advisers into battle that provide age specific bonuses.
While all this looks great on paper, personalization needs to be kept in check as we’re seeing cases where designers are not able to see the forest for the trees with balance. To talk about game balance and personalization, there are two areas we need to focus on: single-player/cooperative, and competitive design.
With a backlog that could rival The Tower of Babel, I’ve found that my game preferences shift on a daily basis. Some days I want to play a game where every single detail matters . Other days I want to run around blasting the hell out of whatever monsters/zombies/aliens that get in my way. Shoot Many Robots definitely falls on the latter side, but sometimes there is such a thing as being too simple.
The plot of Shoot Many Robots is that the robotocalypse (or robot apocalypse) has happened. It’s up to P. Walter Tugnut and his RV of weapons and similar looking relatives to save the world.
The gameplay is a combination of Contra andTeam Fortress 2, with a pinch of Diablo for good measure. Each level consists of you and up to three friends saving the world, by destroying one robot at a time. Enemies are mostly of the run at you variety, with a few other varieties appearing in later levels. Besides your gun, you can equip one special weapon and can punch, slide and ground pound any enemies that get in your way.
What makes the game endearing comes in the form of upgrades. As you defeat robots, you’ll collect bolts which is the game’s currency and experience. Using the bolts, you’ll be able to purchase new equipment back at the RV, which is the game’s hub. Equipment unlocks with each level up, and players can find crates randomly during the game that can unlock new gear as well.
Upgrades fall into Team Fortress 2′s weird category. Besides new guns, you’ll also be able to equip: jet-packs, tutus , wings, belts and many more. Each new piece of equipment has a variety of attributes to them allowing you to outfit your Walter however you choose.
The upgrades do a lot to keep players motivated and as you go through each of the three difficulty levels, there will be better equipment to find. The problem with Shoot Many Robots is that while the upgrades are varied, the rest of the game is not.
The game recycles the majority of its content. Across the three difficulty levels, the enemy types don’t change with exception to having higher stats. Level design is repeated with only slight variations in paths. In fact, there are only three types of levels in the game: standard run and gun, survival mode, and the final boss of the difficulty fight. While the game was enjoyable to play with my friends, the lack of variety began to take its toll.
What hurts Shoot Many Robots the most was that the designers were planning on releasing DLC to expand the game, which was even mentioned for those that beat the game. However it was cancelled leaving the game in this state. The base idea of the game is good, but without more content the game never went anywhere.
Shoot Many Robots as a base idea is a good game. For people looking for old school gameplay with a few modern twists thrown in, it works. But the lack of variety and developer support prevented it from growing in the same way as Team Fortress 2 and Payday: The Heist has.
When it comes to PC game classics, X-Com UFO Defense stands tall; over 15 years old and still highly regarded. From its use of multiple game systems, to an amazing dual progression system, it’s a game that people can still play today. However, while X-Com is a prime example of great game design, it’s also an example of poor UI design.
Before I get started, I just want to make the following clear: I’m not attacking the gameplay of X-Com. To be fair to the game, the problems with UI could easily stem from the fact that this game was made during the early days of PC game design. Both technology and design theory have evolved drastically. None of the issues mentioned in this post should deter anyone from replaying X-Com, as the design still holds up today. With that said the issues with the UI are universal and are important points for designers today to be aware of.
Both Strategy titles and RPGs are about making multiple decisions: Deciding what units to build, equipment to wear and so on. In order for the player to make informed decisions, they of course need accurate information to go on.
This UI misstep is when designers spread out information and the decision between multiple screens. What happens is that it’s cumbersome having to go back and forth between several screens to accomplish one task. What can happen is that with all the details involved, it’s easy for the player to forget them while switching, causing more frustration to the player.
In X-Com one of the most important decisions the player has to make is what squad members to take on each mission. Each person’s attributes are randomly generated at start and are increased as they survive battles. Time Units or TU are important as the more the person has, the more they can do during each turn, along with the bravery stat and another one that comes into play later on.
The problem with X-Com’s UI is that to make this decision, the player has to go through 5 screens to make it:
1. The soldier info screen showing a list of all members.
2. Each individual’s attribute screen.
3. The hanger where the vehicles are located.
4. Selecting the troop transport and then available spots for squad members
5. Assign people to the ship.
While the complete set of actions would take a normal player about 5 seconds to go through, that series must be repeated every-time the player wants to decide who take on a mission. Unless the player has the information written down somewhere else, or has a good memory, they’ll have to repeat it several times when assigning multiple people.
What makes this such an unusual problem has to do with the design of the screens. Here is the screen where players’ select squad members to examine for step 1:
Now here’s the screen where players assign squad members to the ship in step 5:
Notice any similarities? Both screens share the same design and have a lot of unused space. The red circled area would have been a great place to put a button that would link back to the attribute page, or for step one link to the ship assign screen. Besides quick access to relevant information, another solution is to repeat the information that is important on multiple screens.
As an example: Equipment swapping is common in RPGs, both from a store screen and from the player’s own equip screen. Due to the rate that players would replace gear, its common practice to repeat the information relating to the equipment attributes on each screen. This allows the player to quickly see how the new gear stacks up to what they are currently wearing. Incidentally this is also a minor problem X-Com, as to view the stats of new equipment, the player has to visit the ufopedia and then head back to the equipment screen to designate what items should be put on the ship.
To decide what information to repeat and where can come from play testing. If you notice that there are some actions or screens that you are repeating constantly over the course of playing, it would be good to find a way to condense the action down The best ways to condense would be to either repeat the relevant information or provide a quick link to it if it’s not possible to fit it on the screen.. By doing this it will streamline the UI and not waste the player’s time with unneeded actions.
Symbols are an important part of human comprehension. They allow the human brain to remember their purpose easier and can be used universally. For instance: In the US, we all know that the color red on an octagonal sign means to stop.
The other use is that a symbol can condense information down making it easier to understand. Instead of a sign giving a worded warning about radiation, the radiation symbol can be used to allow someone to quickly see and understand.
Due to the # of interactions and mechanics in a strategy game, symbols are important to prevent the player from being overwhelmed by information. But the problem is that every strategy game features its own unique mechanics which means having a different terminology for symbols. One game may designate magic attacks with a blue sphere, while others may use a star for example.
During X-Com’s turn based battle system; the player uses a different UI. The problem is that the designers created a bunch of symbols that are unique to the game:
Looking at those symbols along the bottom of the screen it’s hard to tell what exactly the function of each button is. Fortunately, the issue of confusing symbols has one of the easiest solutions in the form of tool tips. A simple description that pops up if the player hovers over the icon for a few seconds. Some strategy games go a step further with advanced tool tips, where if the player hovers for a few more seconds, more information is displayed.
UI Design is a tricky concept as you won’t know how everything will flow until you are playing the game. Creating an easy to understand UI is important to learning Strategy titles due to the variety of rules and mechanics involved. The last thing a designer wants to happen is someone being completely overwhelmed by screens of information. If playing a game about being a king during the medieval era, is more complex then actually being a king during that time, then someone has some streamlining to do.