Video Games Do's and Don't's for Developers (Volume II)
I promised I would write this one a while back, but I haven’t quite had the chance yet. Primarily because of being busy with things in life and secondarily because I had not yet come up with a good enough list of do’s and don’t's that I thought was worth writing an article about. But alas, it was only a matter of time before I a had a few free moments and enough annoyances with certain developers. Hope you guys enjoy reading it.
Don’t: Ask us to buy a game we haven’t had a chance to try out.
Do: Make demos available.
Meaning: I can’t stress this enough: demos, demos, demos, demos! I remember a few generations back when I started buying game magazines in order to play the demo discs that came with each new issue. It was a pretty awesome idea that was made easier thanks to advent of the CD era for gaming; I could usually expect demos for most of the biggest releases and usually before the games were even out. You would think that with the movement of gaming from physical media to downloadable media and the rise of high-speed internet that demos would be a no brainer for most developer; but no. A lot of today’s most critical game releases don’t have any demos whatsoever and sometimes don’t even have in-store demos for you to try out. Think of the biggest releases of the past two months: Saints Row the Third, Assassin’s Creed Revelations, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, etc. Not one of them has a demo released anywhere and it kind of blows. I mean, sure Uncharted 3 had that multiplayer beta and Saints Row had the Initiation Station, but they’re not real demos of the most important portions of each game.
I understand that sometimes demos are not the most ideal for certain genres. It’s hard, for example, to gauge the depth and scope for games like Skyrim in a demo that is only a few minutes long. I also understand this takes away resources and time from developers that are, of course, busy developing the actual games in question. But the thing is that developers seem to underestimate the power of a good demo. Don’t believe me? Check out Xbox LIVE Arcade. XBLA is a system that functions and functions very well; it’s just doing everything right when it comes to game distribution. Part of the reason I’ve purchased as many Xbox LIVE Arcade games as I have is because every single one of those titles had a “trial” version available for download. Downloading these trials has more than once pushed me to buy a game that I might have otherwise ignored. “Trial” versions are what hooked me to From Dust, Bastion, and Costume Quest. So why don’t developers get onboard with this for their bigger titles? It seems as if a lot of developers and publishers behind big name titles don’t release demos and when they do it’s usually out of desperation. They treat demos as a last resort to get sales going when a game isn’t doing so hotly on the charts; but this is a bad strategy. So please, please developers: think demos, think sales!
Don’t: Make your MMORPGs static.
Do: Have “random” world events.
Meaning: I’ve never been much of an online gamer, much less of an MMORPG gamer, to be entirely honest. The first and last MMORPG I played for a while was a 2D Zelda rip-off called “Graal.” It was, more or less, an online version of A Link to the Past, and it was all my ancient computer at the time and my 56K internet could handle. I enjoyed it for a plethora of reasons, not the least being that, despite its graphical simplicity, the game had depth and choice. You could do all sorts of things in Graal: explore dungeons, buy a house, sit in a café and chat, kill enemies, kill other players (although PK’ing was usually frowned upon), etc. In retrospect, Graal was actually a pretty amazing little game.
Many years later I met my boyfriend and though we’re both gamers I realized we were on two different sides of a plexiglass window: he was a hardcore PC gamer and I was a hardcore console gamer. With the lines between the console and PC markets getting blurred we both figured we’d give each platform a fair shot. My first foray into modern PC gaming was – wait for it – World of Warcraft. My boyfriend is a huge World of Warcraft fan; he reads the “water cooler” and reads talent calculators and all sorts of other things that escape me. Even though WoW was different than Graal in a lot of ways (less flexible; in WoW you’re either raiding or PvP’ing and not much else), I still managed to love the game. But there are a few things I lamented.
One of the main things that really surprised me about World of Warcraft was the lack of world events that were “not planned”. I’m not really sure what WoW was like before the third expansion (I started playing at Wrath of the Lich King), but nothing exciting ever happened in the overworld. Sure, there were scheduled festivals like Brewfest, etc. but for the most part, the overworld was and remains pretty dead. Bosses seems to be centralized to dungeons and raids and nothing ever attacks at random. I know this sounds like a strange request, but one thing I wish MMO developers did more was add random boss encounters throughout the game. Imagine you log into your WoW account one day and find one of the main cities of Azeroth in absolute chaos: an unscheduled boss has invaded and you have to drive him back. The thrill of this monster ravaging a beloved city, the enjoyment of getting together with random players to fight it off, the fun of seeing groups getting together, etc. The closest I know World of Warcraft ever got to having an exciting event was actually the infamous “corrupted blood incident,” which was actually a glitch. But for what it was worth, the corrupted blood incident appears to have caused an entertaining amount of chaos. Things of that nature make MMOs less repetitive, less monotonous, and more enjoyable as a whole. I never understood how WoW could get so many things right and yet let this one thing slip by so easily.
So please, please developers of MMOs, add plenty of “unscheduled” events into your games. This point is especially directed at Blizzard with the upcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion. Break the “ Raiding -> PvP’ing -> Making bags -> Hearing complaints about your DPS” cycle and add something exciting and random. Just for the fun of it.
Don’t: Make character creation an option if you’re not going to do it right.
Do: Give us character creators that are in-depth and have a wealth of options.
Meaning: Character creation is the next big trend. Technically, it isn’t new, but it has been taking over gaming a lot lately. Originally centralized to mostly RPGs and a few fighters, you can now find character creation options even in game series like Saints Row. While I appreciate this idea and I very much use it at every possible chance given (Because, why not? It’s my own adventure and I want a character that reflects my idea of what that means), I also appreciate it when the character creators developers give us are actually worth investing time in. Take a look at Saints Row the Third if you haven’t yet: there are so many options on how to physically alter your protagonist that it can become overwhelming at times. That is not necessarily a bad thing; it simply means that you can edit pretty much everything on your character, from the height of his or her forehead to the size of the irises of his or her eyes. It’s really awesome to find so many options when certain other games that shall remain nameless give you two noses, three hair styles, and then call it a day. Character creation is not a necessity of gaming, but if you’re going to include it, then please make it worth checking out.
On another note, don’t let the physical portion of the character creator eclipse other important parts of character creation, especially in an RPG: things like initial abilities, personality traits, advantages, etc. should all be treated with as much love and care. Yes, the physical alterations you can do for your character are great and they can add to a role playing experience, but it’s meaningless if you play an RPG and your options for level, class, and skill development are shallow.
Lastly, and I’m going back to physical character creation here, do us a favor developers: for the love of all that is good and decent let us have a “test screen” where we can see how our characters will look in action. At the very least let us alter our characters after the game begins in the same vein as plastic surgery works in Saints Row the Third and The Mirror of Transformation works in Dragon Age II. A perfect example of how this is done improperly is the Mass Effect series; nothing sucks more than spending an hour making a “perfect” Shepard only to start each game and realize that he has the cheekbones of the Saw puppet. Then you have to either start from scratch or deal with the fact that Shepard is dangerously close to taking someone’s eye out with his protrusions. It may not seem like much, but remember that Mass Effect is a series heavily reliant on up close and personal conversations that occur between the protagonist and other NPCs. So if you’re reading this developers, don’t make the same mistake as the Mass Effect team.
Don’t: Shoehorn multiplayer into everything.
Do: Make compelling single player experiences.
Meaning: I get it. I really do. Online multiplayer is where the real money is at in gaming. Call of Duty is a gaming juggernaut because it lets you spend countless hours online with other people, much the same way World of Warcraft has been doing since 2004. I get the appeal and the need to make money, but remember that sometimes we need good single player experiences as well. The problem with single player vs. multiplayer is that developers forget that games don’t always have to include both. An example of this is Team Fortress 2: the game doesn’t include a single player mode. Why? Because it doesn’t really need one. You sign on, you pick a class, and then spend your time trying to accomplish goals. It’s simple and works wonderfully. Much the same, single player experiences don’t need multiplayer. Can they be fun? Sure, if done properly (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood). Do we need them? No, not really. A game like Bioshock is just fine without having to have a multiplayer and a game like Skyrim is definitely meant to be a solo experience.
I’m not entirely against multiplayer in single player experiences, mind you, I just think developers are overestimating their need and impact. Sure, the Bioshock 2 multiplayer was fun, but go play it online now and see how long it takes you to find enough people to play one match. The truth is that multiplayer games that sell well are, more often than not, sold purely for their multiplayer. Nobody buys Call of Duty for the single player experience; it’s there, but the millions of sales come from its online component. World of Warcraft is the same: the game sells to millions of online gamers because it is, primarily, a multiplayer experience. You won’t ever see that kind of success from a single player experience with a multiplayer tacked on (with very few exceptions). Want to conquer the multiplayer online world? Don’t shoehorn a multiplayer mode into your single player experiences: simply make a new franchise dedicated solely to that market. That’s where the online success comes from and comes without the need to compromise your single player franchises.
Don’t: Focus so much on realism.
Do: Focus on fun.
Meaning: When the release of the new Grand Theft Auto trailer came around, I read a pretty good discussion about the series in a gaming forum I frequent. One of the comments that really got me was how the game look so realistic it looked almost as boring as real life. I understand why developers strive for realism: it’s something that goes with the mentality attached to graphical prowess. As graphics in gaming improve each generation we have developers striving to create the most life-like, realistic graphical engines possible. This eventually seeps into the gameplay mechanics themselves and eventually we have a problem where games are trying desperately to replicate real life. This is understandable in certain genres: games like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport have a place in gaming as a whole. But in certain other games it simply doesn’t. I’ve mentioned it several times already in this article, but Saints Row the Third is my new love: it’s hard not to simply adore the game when it does so much right. The main thing it nails, above all however, is the sense of fun. Saints Row the Third is the antithesis to the boredom in a disc that was Grand Theft Auto IV (which GTA V seems to be striving really hard to outdo in the “let’s see how quickly I can put gamers to sleep” department). Saints Row is a game where you can beat people up in the streets with giant purple dildos, where you can drive hover bikes across a vast city, where you have a character that talks only in auto-tune, and the story makes no sense and never tries at all to be cohesive, even going as far as having the protagonist constantly break the fourth wall for comedic effect. All these over-the-top funny and fun situations combine as a whole to make one of the most entertaining games I’ve had the pleasure of playing in years. Realism and depth are great in a sense, but fun is equally as important. Developers need to strive for more fun.
Another recent example: I started playing The Sims 3 a few days ago and I don’t understand the appeal of the game. No, not the cruel appeal; I get that. If you’re a sadistic, cruel gamer who likes to play god with peasant NPCs (which I certainly am!) then The Sims 3 is a great game for you. It’s a lot of fun to leave your Sims in a pool and remove the ladder, then sit back and watch as they starve to death because they’re not smart enough to climb out. But the appeal of the actual game, of the game that is meant to be played normally, is beyond me. You have to feed your Sims, watch them sleep, bathe them, find them jobs, take them to gyms, have them talk to other Sims, make money, have a family, etc., etc., etc. I have never in my life played anything even remotely this boring: it’s like trying to live my already dull life in 3D. Why? Why in the world would I ever do this? Why would I bother to take a Sim to a gym when I can just go myself? Why bother getting them an education? I have my own to take care of. I play games to escape real life most of the time, to explore worlds that are not possible in real life, and The Sims 3 expects me instead to play as a suburban, middle class number that has to do exciting things like pay bills and make Mac ‘n Cheese? For the love of all the is good and decent! This is NOT fun. This is extreme realism to a point that it becomes unbearable.
Please, please developers, don’t ignore the concept of fun in your games.
If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, please check out the first volume of my “Video Game Do’s and Don’t's for Developers” articles.