Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Free-form game

In my previous entry I wrote about the problems of fixed story lines in games what I didn't mention is that there may be a flaw in having a story at all.

The Dragon Age example I gave is a good illustration of this rigidity. Having reached the castle I was presented with three options to defeat the boss, whichever I chose the end result would be the same boss=dead; next quest please.

So let's imagine a different style of game. You live on a rural-feudal world think sword and musket level when you're invaded from another dimension by aliens using portals (yep a form of Half-Life) your objective is to free your world... that's it. How you do it is up to you. So steal weapon caches and form a resistance, blow up the caches, steal some blow up others. Destroy the portals on this side, destroy the portals on the other side, do it alone or with others, take out the leadership. No get the keycard to open the gate unless you want to use that gate which you don't have to no breadcrumb trail that you have to follow if you want to 'finish' the game something that exists even within sandbox open-world games.

Okay sounds good to me, but there's a problem. Someone tried to create an MMO like that and it didn't work; players like the breadcrumbs. They got lost or confused or bored when told 'do what you like' they actually wanted structure. Now is that due to the level of exception in that we expect games to tell us what we can do at every point, or do we really need that level of structure to enjoy a game?


Orphi said...

Reminds me of the venerable “Frontier Elite II”.

What the hell was the actual “point” of that game anyway? The manual spends entire chapters explaning how the controls work and how you perform various actions, but at no point does it actually tell you what you're supposed to be doing.

Seriously, the game received rave reviews, but I never really saw the point of it. Trading is impossible; it takes a ridiculous amount of time to travel from place to place, and any tiny profit you might randomly happen to make is more than eaten up my the fuel costs. Oh, and 12% of the time, the autopilot will fly into the side of the hanger bay door, killing you instantly. Combat is impossible; the enemy craft are drastically faster, more manouverable and better armed than you are. Not that you can actually steer the ship anyway. And exploration is a little bit pointless, given that every world and space station is just another collection of half a dozen bright green and lilac polygons.

The author did, at least, have good taste in music.

On the other hand, possibly my all-time favourit game is “The Settlers”. (I'm kind of upset that it no longer runs, and they're not making new versions any more.)

You can play a random map, you can use the editor to design your own map, or you can play one of the campaigns. In the latter, you have a goal, but you can achieve that goal in any mannar you wish.

It's very open-ended, but it's also really great fun. There have been instances where I crawled out of bed at 6AM and started playing, and it wasn't until 6PM that I realised that I was extremely hungry and thirsty, having not eaten all day. And then I'd stay up until 2AM or something insane like that just to finish off the game. That's pretty damned addictive!

[Damnit I wish I could still play it!]

I guess it depends on what you want from a game. And that begs the question, “what makes games good?”

Some people want a challenge. Saying “hey man, just do whatever you want” isn't much of a challenge. Surviving the 7 Hours War is.

Other people want to explore. It's all very well making a game where you can go anywhere, but if it all looks utterly boring, why would you bother?

Look at Flashback. That game is ancient now, but at the time I was willing to spend hours playing it just to see what the next screenful of lush computer graphics looks like.

Slightly more modern is Abe's Oddessy. Like Flashback, it's basically a slow-paced platformer much like Manic Miner. Unlike Manic Miner, it has jaw-dropping visuals and atmospheric music and sound. Even with the low resolution and horrid DCT artifacts and crunchy sound, it's a lush audio-visual masterpiece — which also happens to be a game. [Actually, a game with irritatingly unresponsive controls, but anyway…]

Unfortunately platformers are deeply, deeply uncool today, so there will never be another Abe's Oddessy or Flashback. And apparently god games are unpopular too, so no more Settlers.

I guess what almost all games have is a sense of achievement. You want to feel that you've accomplished something. You don't want it to be too easy, but you don't want it to be too hard either. You want to have to work to get somewhere. And I guess a game that lets you do absolutely anything doesn't provide much of a sense of achievement.

It could of course be that this MMO you mention just wasn't very good. The guys who did Flashback also made a game [I believe never actually released] called Universe. There was seemingly little or no point to it, but it was just so damned gorgeous to look at that you'd spend hours wandering around sight-seeing. Well, you're not going to bother doing that with an average-looking game, are you?

FlipC said...

The fundamental part of a free-form game seems to be making the players want to explore, FallOut3 was very good at that with the odd bit of unique scenario dotted around made you want to traipse along rather than use the quick travel function.

But yes there was Elite and the various SimCity versions, but I've not come across an FPS or RPG (would you count Elite as an RPG?) that takes the same stanch regardless of their open-world nature.

I think you're on the right track with the sense of achievement, perhaps it's the instant gratification that's needed. If you do a load of stuff and don't see any immediate result you might think why bother and decide the game was boring. Hmm a little like the recent Red Faction demo I played where you could destroy the buildings, you got some kudos for it but what's the point?

So let me do what I like to achieve an overall objective, but reward me for any small step I take that seems to accomplish that goal and make me interested enough to keep going through it - hmm yeah I can see why plotlines stick to you good guy, kill bad guys ;-)

Orphi said...

Right. If you're going to make a game that's open-ended, put some work into it. It's much easier to design a level where you can go anywhere verses one with a predetermined path, but if there's nothing interesting to see, why bother exploring? Make it worth the trip!

As for achievement… well, different people like different things. Some people aren't very patient, while others are.

And shooting things doesn't necessarily equal a sense of achievement. Remember the imfamous elevator scene from HL2:EP1? The one where all the lights are out, you have no ammo, and a seemingly endless succession of zombies attack you while you wait for for the God-damned elevator. It got to the point where I had to actually use the crowbar to kill them because I had absolutely no ammo left!

There's no sense of achievement in killing enemies when it makes no apparent dent on their number. Pushing through a tight area, maybe. But just standing there getting beaten to a pulp? Not so much, no.

FlipC said...

But creating an open-game costs more money compared to a linear-game. Better to make it linear and just make the players think it's open; a bit like Mirror's Edge I suppose.

Games create a requirement for immediate gratification. You might well be prepared to sit through a two-hour film for the final battle, but expectations differ when you're supposedly in control. I want to see what I'm doing have an effect now damnit!

Oh and yes HL2:EP1 I was thinking of running through the whole game again after Prototype to get my shoot on to contrast with the verbose Dragon Age. But that elevator; even on the first run you just know that something's going to turn up around those fences when you flip the switch and there's nothing you can do about it. It's actually like the end of FEAR2 you're just forcing your way through a mob, but HL is worse in that you get little respite from it and you have a companion to keep safe. OMG I've just realised - it's a bloody escort mission :-)