An unusual side effect of the rise of digital distribution is how prominent game sales have become. This trend started out with Steam having discounts during the holidays and other major events. Eventually this expanded to daily, midweek and weekend sales. Since then, the act of reducing a game’s price has moved to the console and handheld markets.
Checking on Amazon.com, with exception to big name titles (Mario, Halo, Diablo, etc), many games do not retain their full price for long. Their price will steadily be discounted, or the game will be a part of some kind of sale event. Lately there have been discussions about the effect these sales are having on the gamers’ mentality. Some people believe that sales are hurting the industry as it is conditioning people to wait for sales to buy games.
Personally I find that idea to be BS and the reason has to do with basic economics. Specifically with one quote in particular by economist Jonathan Reeves:”Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.” What people in the game industry need to realize is that just because you price your game at $50 doesn’t mean I’m spending $50 to buy your game.
Josh Bycer’s guide to buying games:
This next statement is going to sound weird but hear me out: I may spend a lot of money on video games, but I don’t spend a lot of money on video games. Most if not all of my disposable income in some way goes toward playing video games, and I can easily spend two to three hundred dollars per month on games. However, while I may spend that amount per month, I stretch my dollar out by not buying games at full price.
A regular consumer who buys games at retail price ($50-$60) may over the course of one month only buy 2 or 3 titles. I however, with waiting for sales may end up with anywhere from 10-20 games per month. Besides sales, I also buy indie titles which are also normally less than a retail game.
My secret is as follows. I do not spend more than $30 on any game, regardless of platform. There are only 3 exceptions to this rule:
1. If it’s a game that I’m absolutely dying to play- ex: X-Com: Enemy Unknown.
2. If it’s a game that will not drop in price for a long time- ex: Mario Galaxy 2, Diablo 3
3. If it’s a game that will become rare before it becomes cheap- ex: Shin Megami Tensei series.
Thanks to these rules and keeping my eye on sites like slickdeals.net that track sales, it’s easy to keep track of major sales. Because of my system, my spending habits vary per month based on what is on sale. I may not buy anything for 2 to 3 months, and then buy 30 games in one month (thank you Steam Summer Sale.)
By keeping to this, it has allowed me to play a variety of games that I would not have played otherwise. Picking out games for $10 or less, means that I don’t have to worry about blowing a huge amount of money on a game that I may hate. And there were plenty of times that I found an amazing game on sale, that I would not have even glanced at if I was going to buy it for $40 or more. But enough about my spending habits, let’s get back to that quote and the game industry.
How Dollars and Cents Add Up:
The perceived thought from publishers and people in the industry, is that they’re losing money because of people waiting for sales. My argument is that sales are not hurting the industry and that quote is exhibit A.
The value of a game is not something that is truly decided on by the developer or publisher, but by the consumer. The Call of Duty and Madden fans who buy every sequel, I’m willing to bet would not wait five months for a sale. To them, $60 for their favorite series is a no-brainer. But for someone like me, I wouldn’t even glance at one of those games unless the price was 20 or below.
The beauty of these sales is that they expand the fan-base and give a game that may not have sold all that well, time in the spot light. Both Arcen Games and Introversion have said in the past that being a part of a Steam Sale, gave them more sales with their titles than ever before.
When publishers say that sales are costing them money, they believe that instead of getting $60 from someone, that they are now only getting $20. However that is not the case as it is instead of getting $0 from someone, they are getting $20.
For every genre there will always be dedicated fans who buy games on day one or week one. But with the # of people playing games expanding there are plenty of people who want to try new games. However, they don’t want to gamble $60 on if they are going to like the game or not. Instead of rejecting game sales, publishers should be embracing them, especially on niche titles that wouldn’t have had a huge fan base to begin with.
At this very second, I have a list of games that I check out every few days to see what their price is. And when it hits that magical number for me, I’m going to buy them. In the meantime I have plenty of games to play while I wait it out.
When older gamers talk about the good old day’s one of the key points they bring up is difficulty. Namely those games back then were harder and therefore better. In my last look at difficulty in design, I talked about looking at what made classic games challenging was more important. If a game was difficult due to poor design or a confusing UI, then that’s not really a good challenge.
Lately with games like Diablo 3 and Demon’s and Dark Souls, discussion about difficult areas are usually shut down by the usual retorts from expert players that the game is fine, and that people aren’t good enough. However without saying this too oddly: it’s easy to make a hard game. The quandary and where a good designer is needed, is being able to separate hard from challenging.
If the player feels like there is no hope of playing and the game is messing with them, then they’re not going to stick around for long. Good difficulty is not about pounding the player into the ground, but presenting something that can be beaten either by player skill or character development. To help differentiate between the two concepts, here are some points I’ve found that tilt the balance towards a game being hard.
1. Removing Choice:
A classic example of what makes good game design, is giving players choices. Different spells, weapons, moves, armies etc. But to make a game hard, designers like to create situations that require specific solutions which mean that not every choice works.
One of the most annoying things when playing a game, is to spend hours building a character or army of your choosing, to discover that it’s no longer viable and that there were only a few options that would be consider “correct”. A staple of RPGs is featuring optional super bosses that are designed in such a way that unless you go into the fight with the correct skills and party members, you’ll have no hope of winning.
In Diablo 3, players have a lot of choices how to define their character, thanks to the limits on active and passive skills. Along with each active skill, a rune can be assigned that modifies the skill further. Playing on normal and nightmare difficulty, the enemies are balanced enough that a variety of strategies can work. But things change once you enter the latter two difficulties: Hell and Inferno.
Enemy stats are boosted to the point that some skills and choices are no longer viable. Playing the Witch Doctor class, choices like summoning dogs don’t work due to the stat difference between them and the enemies. Skills built around slowing enemies also aren’t as effective both due to the faster speed and innate resistance special enemies have at the higher difficulties. Since enemies do so much damage, it’s important to have a skill for escaping and one for backup healing, which once again forces the player to make pre determined choices about their builds.
While Diablo 3 is 2012’s example, last year, Deus Ex: Human Revolution ran into this problem with the boss designs. The issue wasn’t that the bosses were impossible to fight, but that all the choices that the game offered the player were thrown out the window except to fight.
For players who were already focused on combat, these fights weren’t that bad. But if you were playing the game using stealth and the stun gun, you would be incredibly out gunned for each of the fights. The DLC episode: The Missing Link did partially fix this with a boss that could have been beaten with stealth. But that didn’t fix the bumps in the road players had to alter their play style around.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
If the only way to succeed at the end game is to use pre-made builds then there is a problem with balance. Now, it shouldn’t mean that every choice should make the game easy and granted some choices would be better than others. However, if you give the player 10 options, 6 of them should not instantly become useless at a certain point.
2. Using the game mechanics against the player:
A video game is about a series of rules that are followed by both the player and the game space itself. When the designer circumvents the rules it can lead to unfair challenges. This was a point in my latest article “The Anatomy of a Bad Game“, if a designer breaks their own rules, it can lead to “cheap difficulty”
The first example comes from Dark Souls. I’ve talked previously about the Capra Demon fight in my analysis: In which the battle takes place in a constricted area with three enemies making it hard to move around and use the camera effectively. A later boss fight: The Caterpillar Demon is similar in how the camera has a tough time tracking it. During that fight, due to the size of the creature, the camera constantly gets stuck preventing the player from seeing the creature’s tells for when it is about to attack.
I know that people have argued against me on this example stating that the fight was easy for them. But it doesn’t matter if it was the easiest fight in the world or the hardest. When a section of a game is designed to be difficult by the inherent rules ,design or technical issues of the game, this is not good design. This motto also applies to the next example.
In Diablo 3, the designers have gone on record stating they want the player’s skill selection and attributes to dictate success or failure. To facilitate that, if the player is about to be attacked by an enemy, even if the player moves out of the way, the attack will still connect. The reasoning was that they don’t want quick fingers to have a factor in success.
On paper this sounds reasonable and fair, but when players move on to the higher difficulty levels this become a problem. Playing on Hell and Inferno, enemies move naturally faster, and the “fast” modifier for special enemies occurs more often. What happens is that enemies are so quick that the player can’t run away from them. This means that once the enemy begins to attack, it will connect regardless of the player’s position, preventing the player from escaping.
This leads to plenty of cases where the player has no way to survive and their only option is to die repeatedly. The problem with this design decision is that the designer’s used their rule about enemy animations to then create scenarios that are built against the player.
Star Wars Jedi Academy
Another example was the infamous “sniper town” level from Medal of Honor. The level tasked players with moving through a destroyed town while being targeted by snipers. However, the snipers themselves blended in so well with the less then detailed textures making it hard to spot. Adding frustration, the snipers could kill the player in a few shots, which due to how hard it was to see those, means they’ll usually get a free shot on the player. The sniper town level design was copied in Star wars Jedi academy, but replace sniper rifles with laser rifles.
Lastly is when designers take the balance of the game and throw it out the window for the harder difficulty levels. Examples of this are mainly seen in games with RPG design but can also be seen in some action titles.
What happens is that to make each difficulty level different, the designers tweak the attribute values of enemies without any regard for balance. If the player can only take 5 points of damage, making every enemy’s attack do 12 is going to make the game harder, but not balanced.
This is one of the reasons why I don’t like to play Turn Based RPGs on anything other than the normal difficulty. Since player interaction is limited to choosing commands, there really isn’t anything the player can do to get around the difficulty increase other than spending even more time grinding out levels.
As an example from an action title, Nier was an action adventure game similar to Zelda which came out a few years ago. The game featured two difficulty settings: Normal and Hard. The problem is that the difficulty of the game swung too far between being easy and frustrating based on the difficulty.
When playing the game on normal, basic enemies take two hits from the player to die, and the player must be hit 12 times in a row to die. On hard, those numbers are reversed, and when the player is fighting groups of five or more basic enemies at once, the player could be killed before they even knew what hit them.
I’m not sure if this is just me, but I find games that are frustrating difficult as boring to play as ones that are ridiculously easy. Walking into a room and dying within seconds doesn’t interest me, neither does having to play a game optimizing everything using a guide to stand a chance.
There is a fine line between creating something that is a challenge, and something that is just masochistic for the player. The trick is to understand how to test the player with the design, without overwhelming them.
In my recent analysis of A Valley Without Wind, I talked about how the platforming gameplay didn’t feel as refined as I would have liked. As I thought about it more, I started to think about why certain platformers fared better than others. Why is Super Mario Brothers as highly regarded as Super Mario Galaxy? Why do we get such a thrill running and jumping across rooftops in Assassin’s Creed or going after skill orbs in Crackdown?
Platformers are up there as one of my most played genres of all time. Super Mario Brothers was the first video game I played back in 1988. Platformers have evolved from the 2D era to 3D, then in a strange situation found resurgence with 2D again with titles like Explosion Man and Super Meat Boy.
Super Mario Galaxy
When it comes to platformer design, either 2d or 3d, there are three elements to examine: on the ground action, what you can do in the air and finally the environment itself. Different platformers over the years, each have their own take on these three aspects.
Run, Run as Fast As you can…
Let’s start with the ground as it is the simplest of the three. This is simply the act of giving the character “weight” in the world. If you remember in the original Super Mario Brothers, Mario would never jump as far when standing in a stationary position as oppose to running before leaping. When it comes to ground movement, there are two design philosophies that are followed.
First is movement being based on locked speeds: walking and running. When the player pushes either the key or analog stick, the character will move at one speed constantly. Pressing a modifier button will cause the character to run, which also has one speed. There is no in between, either the player is not moving, at walking speed, or at running speed.
The second type is using a gradual system. Instead of using one or two locked speeds, the player has more control over it. In this system, there are two extremes: stopped and full on running. Depending on how far the player moves the analog stick, determines their speed between the two. Push the stick a little bit, and the player walks, a little more and they move quicker. Push the stick as far it will go and the player runs.
The gradual system has become adopted primarily by 3D titles as it coincided with the analog stick becoming popularized. However some 2D titles like Super Meat Boy also use this, due to the challenge level and need for greater control. The other consequence is that it made button control for movement not applicable due to not having the level of control with a button compared to an analog stick. This can increase the difficulty of a game dramatically, which anyone who played Super Meat Boy using a keyboard could attest to.
Super Meat Boy
In terms of which one is better, the gradual system is used more when movement is more important. However, if the challenge of the game is making tricky jumps and not about ground movement, then the lock speeds can work.
Next up let’s talk about what happens in the air. The amount of possible actions in mid-air are far greater compared to the ground. For instance, in Mario Galaxy, players have more than 5 different ways to jump that affect distance and height.
In the past, the original design of air control was that there was none. Meaning that once you hit the jump button that was it, and you could not affect the character until they land or died. This kind of control was one of the reasons why a lot of early games were so difficult due to the precise actions needed to survive. As consoles entered the 16 bit era and beyond, this type of design was mostly replaced by allowing the player to control characters in mid air.
Another major design decision that changed the design dramatically was the option to allow the player to hang from ledges. This affected how the level was designed, as it gave the designer the luxury to create leaps that were beyond the character’s jumping limit forcing them to make leaps of faith. The problem with edge holding is that as a designer, you have to prepare for the player to try to reach any point by trying to hit the exact point on the ledge that’s needed to activate it.
In games designed around fast movement or time trial style gameplay, edge holding can be more trouble than it’s worth. The reason is that the mechanic of edge holding is always automatic and automatically hanging on to edges when dropping will cost precious seconds. Also the mechanic can be viewed as training wheels and hurt learning the game.
If you want the player to focus on making precise jumps and moving as quickly as possible, the safety net of holding onto edges can prevent players from learning about making those jumps. As an example: many of Super Meat Boy’s levels rely on the player having a constant momentum to make the jumps or wall run safely. If the player would constantly stop to grab a hold of edges, they would not be able to build the momentum needed to get through the harder levels.
Other aerial movements that have become popular among designers are double jumping, wall running and air dashing. The point about these additional moves isn’t to trivialize the platforming but to be integrated into the player’s actions. No one wants to play a platformer where the character has infinite mid-air jumps as that would be boring.
These moves should be used to help the player get to where they want to go, not trivialize the challenge. This is why setting up hidden areas or alternate paths using additional moves is a popular past time. As it allows novice players to get through without having to worry about advance mechanics, while rewarding expert players for learning the mechanics.
Going From Point A to Point B
Lastly, how the player moves on the ground and in the air can be all for moot if the environment doesn’t provide an adequate challenge. The difficulty when it comes to platformer level design, is balancing out the design of the levels with the move-set given to the player. The basics would be not setting up traps or challenges beyond the scope of the mechanics, like pits that are longer then the player can jump.
Good environmental design should be almost puzzle like. The player is at X, and they need to get to Y, with the world or Z in their way. For games built around multiple mechanics, it’s always good to challenge the player with the basic mechanics first, while having advanced mechanics as side options or alternate routes. Eventually those harder mechanics will become standard but by then, the player should have a grasp of the basics. That philosophy can be seen in titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Dust Force, and are a good example of subjective difficulty from my article.
The thrill of exploring the environment has a real world equivalent in the sport of Parkour. The joy of playing platformers is not about infinitely jumping in mid-air until you reach the end, but about using the tools and abilities at your disposal to succeed. This feeling is why games like Crackdown and Assassin’s Creed worked so well in regards to movement.
Crackdown was more about turning the environment into a puzzle. With agility orbs placed all throughout the city, the player would have to figure out the best way to reach them along with climbing up the different buildings. As the player moved through each district, the buildings became taller to match with the player improving their agility.
In the Assassin’s Creed series, the game was about creating a constant state of movement. Players were able to climb up almost every crack or edge protruding from a wall to allow them to reach almost every point in the different cities. My only problem with AC is that the designers never took this design and made challenges and different exploration elements around it to the same degree as Crackdown.
I would love to see someone take the idea of Parkour and translate it to a game, similar to how the Skate series attempted a more realistic gameplay with skateboarding. The platforming genre may seem simple compared to other genres due to its focus on movement above all else. But its simplicity allows for a wide variety of games, from the accessible Super Mario Galaxy series, to challenging titles like Super Meat Boy, Dust Force and what could be the greatest platformer in all of time and space.
Progression is one of the core tenets of game design and its purpose is to keep people motivated to continue playing. Each genre handles progression differently, for example beating a map in a strategy game or achieving positive growth in a city builder. There are two categories of progression: player based and game based. Player based is the player improving at the title while game based is the designer providing hooks to keep the player invested. For this post, we’re going to ignore player based as I want to focus on the ways designers can keep someone playing.
With every genre, there are different ways that designers can keep people playing and it would be too long to list every mechanic. Instead we can break them down into three categories based on how often they occur.
Short Term Mechanics:
Short Term Mechanics are events designed to occur constantly. Usually every few seconds to a minute and happen so fast that most often the player doesn’t even have time to process each individual event. Getting experience and money in a RPG or fighting a wave of “fodder” enemies in an action game are examples of this.
There are two purposes for these events to happen. First is that they act as a basic motivator to the player and show them that they are making some progress within the game. While each individual event may go unnoticed by the player, due to the rate they occur, the player will see a steady rate of growth with the mechanic over time. The second use is that they act as gateways to the next form of progression: midterm mechanics.
Mid Term Mechanics:
Midterm mechanics are those that the player expects to happen over the course of one session. The term “session” is relative to the specific game and can be different based on the genre. For example, playing an action game, a session could be until the end of the level, a hard to reach checkpoint, or about 20 minutes. While in an MMO it could be sitting in front of the computer for several hours of normal play, finishing a quest chain, PvP content or doing a raid event.
Mid term mechanics have a sense of permanence to the world depending on what the mechanic is. For example: leveling up in a RPG, beating a level, unlocking a new power and so on. The important point is that unlike a short term mechanic, the player will remember and look forward to a midterm mechanic.
As with short term mechanics, one reason to have midterm mechanics is that it is part of the process for the final type: long term mechanics. Most gamers base their play-time and accomplishments on achieving midterm goals due to the rate that they are unlocked and their importance to the gameplay.
Long Term Mechanics:
Lastly are long term mechanics, which are mechanics or goals that will happen over the course of several play sessions. These mechanics are in a sense, an extension of mid term mechanics as the player will have to complete multiple midterm mechanics to complete a long term mechanic. Some examples are: reaching max level in a MMO, beating a single-player game, completing a multi-part achievement and achieving a post game goal.
Long Term Mechanics are important for completing a game, or as a personal goal for the player to achieve. Since long term mechanics are an extension of midterm mechanics, most players will not be thinking about long term mechanics until the end of the game or after completing several midterm mechanics. There is an exception for hardcore gamers who could play the game in the most optimized fashion to get through the game the fastest way possible.
The Balancing Act of Progression:
There are several important points that need to be balance when dealing with progression, some unique to each category and one for all three.
For short term mechanics even though the player will experience them the most, you can’t base the entire game off of them. The reason is that mechanics of this type are like candy. They may taste good, but no one can eat candy all the time, as they’ll eventually get tired of it. The interaction of short term mechanics is too insignificant to hold the player’s attention without having something to build to.
A pitfall some designers fall into is trying to extend the duration of short term mechanics to make them more meaningful. Such as overwhelming players with equipment choices in shops or increasing enemy attributes to prolong fights. Short term mechanics are meant to be quick, a player should not have to spend several minutes organizing an inventory or thumbing through a shop to find what they want. If the designer wants to make a fight between the player and enemy more challenging, give them new abilities but don’t make it just a ten minute fight with a fodder enemy.
Another part about extending the duration of short term mechanics has to do with loading screens or clunky UIs. Playing RPGs or strategy titles where the player has to go through multiple menus or systems, these transitions should be as quick as possible. If it takes more than ten seconds to go between menus or access systems which the player will be going through constantly, that time begins to add up and can make the game tedious to play.
With midterm mechanics, the problem with them is that because of the effect they have on the game world, there can only be a limited # of them possible. Eventually the player will reach a point where a midterm mechanic will no longer be applicable such as reaching the max level in a RPG. When that happens, not only does the player lose the progression of the midterm mechanic, but also the short term mechanic that it was attached to.
One workaround is to give short term mechanics ways to effect multiple midterm mechanics. Such as earning experience counting both towards leveling and currency, like in Demon’s Souls . Even if the player reaches max level, the act of gaining experience can still be use to purchase items.
Because of the relationship between short and midterm mechanics, if the player can no longer gain anything from a short term mechanic, they may not be motivated enough to continue playing for midterm. For instance, without a short term mechanic to act as progression, the player could play for an hour but may only spend 20 minutes actually progressing in the game. As only the midterm mechanics would be providing any progression to the player.
That same process also applies to the relationship between mid and long term mechanics, but worse as the length of time between the two is far greater compared to short to mid. One of the problems with motivating people with post game content is that by the point that it becomes available, short and midterm mechanics are already used up. Spending hours to get to the point that you may be able to complete an extra hard challenge that may only take a few minutes isn’t fun for a lot of people.
Lastly there is one rule that applies to all three groups. In order for a mechanic to be used for progression, regardless of its group, the player must know explicitly how it works and when it takes affect. In other words: randomized events cannot be used as a form of progression. In order to motivate the player they need to know that if they get X amount of gold that something good will happen, or made it past Y to beat a level.
Randomized events due to them not being set have no build up or actions leading to them. However if the player knows that at a specific point, a randomize event is set to happen that would be different. An example would be playing a game where every time at point X, the player would be given a random upgrade which is how the treasure rooms work in The Binding of Isaac.
The Binding of Isaac
Playing Diablo 3, the act of finding loot in the world is not a form of progression because of the randomness of the design. Someone could get lucky and get a piece of gear they need after five minutes of playing, or someone could go 6 or more hours without finding any new upgrades. The act of buying items from the auction house is an example as it has the short term mechanic of collecting gold, coupled with the mid or even long term mechanic of purchasing something off of it.
Continuing with Diablo 3, I’m finding it very hard to stay motivated to play through the end game or known as Inferno difficulty, due to how a lot of the mechanics around progression disappear. Once you reach max level, there is no need for experience (short-term) as the character has unlocked all possible skill upgrades (mid-term). Crafting (mid-term) will not yield anything amazing as the best equipment comes from elite drops. This downplays the need to find gold (short-term) as the best gear will not come from crafting or from the stores (with the exception being the auction house.)
The consequence is that there is only one form of progression left: defeating elites (mid or possibly long term) and bosses (long-term.) But going back to an earlier point, if the player is spending hours playing the game, but only making a few minutes of progress, they’re going to get tired of playing.
This kind of problem can also be seen in a lot of MMOs, where the end game just consists of Raid or PvP content with no short or midterm progression. Instead the player will just have to look forward to long term mechanics for their character to show any signs of improving.
DC Universe Online was especially bad in this regard during the time I played after it went Free-To-Play. In order to qualify for end game raids, players had to repeat missions daily to get enough special currency to fully outfit their character with basic end game gear. This gear would be outclassed by what they find in the raids which would require even more grinding to get.
Keeping someone invested through gameplay is a challenge. As more designers look to DLC to keep people going, they need to remember that there is more than one way to progress in a game. No one expects to play a game forever, but if people are getting tired after 30 minutes, then there is a problem.