Flaws and Games and Character

On one of my recent “class” streams, a conversation evolved about how the flaws of games can give them character. It really started out as looking streamlining between generations of genres. In our case we were playing Borderlands 2, and I was observing how a lot of tropes of that generation were present in Destiny as a more modern “rpg-shooter” hybrid, but had been hyper streamlined. Some of the older conventions of the late PS3/XBox 360 era of shooters now felt a little clunky – things like waiting on NPC positioning for events to occur, the “turn-in” experience, accomplishing different tasks via different menus which sometimes had limited access, how sometimes the relationship between systems and options made some actions obsolete and other decision making processes feel paralyzing.

And yet, it was many of those rough edges that gave games of that generation their character. Looking back further, at the problems solved and smoothed over of the late PS3/XBox 360 era compared to the early era of that generation, or the PS2/XBox, I could see a similar trend.

The whole thing brought to mind this wonderful video by Super Bunnyhop about how streamlining third person shooter controller conventions to optimize usability had the trade-off of making so many games feel the same, just by the very nature of how you interacted with those games being the same. Solving problems always involves a trade-off, and I don’t think I realized this when I was a younger designer.

It is natural to want to solve problems. That’s what we do as designers, right? But these insights have made me more reflective about the consequences of solving problems, and maybe a little more aware of what you lose in the process. The trick, then, is can you solve problems about usability and accessibility and flow and still maintain unique character to the experience? Or are those things inherently tied to flaw?

Solving Hard Interface, Losing a Ritual

If you start playing World of Warcraft nowadays as someone who has never played an MMO in her life, the onboarding experience is pretty effective. They move you through bits step by step, wrapped in story and spectacle, slowly doling out little lessons to set up all the complexities you’ll eventually be encountering. You are sequestered into a safe place to learn all these things before being thrown into the wild world. Compared to being thrown into the incomprehensible interface of vanilla WoW (or even earlier MMOs), the experience is way better for a completely new player.

And yet there is something lost.

I remember a few special nights in late vanilla/early Burning Crusade WoW. They were carefully scheduled and approached with a wiggling sort of anticipation, because they were the nights we had convinced a new friend to give the game a try, and they had finally finished the gargantuan download and install process, and were ready to play. We all signed on ahead of time, of course. The tailor among our friends couldn’t be there, but was sure to have made a set of bags ahead of time and stashed them in the guild bank, where I picked them up, mounted up and set out for the starting area of my new-player friend’s starting race. My favorite was when they decided to go with Tauren, because the whole night would then ring with nostalgia for my own starting moment, so many levels ago. You’d ride out to right where the new players spawn in and you would sit there and wait. And then they’d appear.

And then you would teach them. Because the interface was incomprehensible. You would teach them how to chat. You would have to /say things because you knew that’s what they would be able to see. “Type enter first” you would say, “that will bring up the chat box.” After a fumbling form of two way communication was established, you’d teach them about party chat, and whispers, and then guild chat. Baby steps. Good, now you could talk to one another. Then you taught them how to move about. How to use the mouse for the camera. You taught them how to pick up quests. “No no, right click.” Okay, they were getting this. Were they ready to learn how to open their inventory yet? It was like bringing a goddamned child into the world, and it felt wonderful!

And they in turn would also feel a sort of excitement, having some big ole geared-out level-capped player drive all the way out to the starting zone to help them get on their feet. Sometimes a whole group would come, and jump around them as they stumbled through their first combat experience in a welcoming sort of way. You would let them die, of course. You can’t interfere too much, they need to learn. But then you had to teach them about the graveyard, and how to find their corpse. This is a good time to talk about the map, but maybe we’ll save repairing for later.

It was a lovely ritual, but there is a caveat here. If you didn’t have friends who were already playing to help you take your first steps, learning to play WoW was agonizingly inaccessible! I don’t argue that it didn’t need solving, just that in solving it, all of this was lost. Is there a way you could have kept both? I’m not sure. The social experience of bringing a new player into the world (of Warcraft) dependedĀ on overcoming the obstacles of initial complexity, and were dependent on that link of having friends who were already playing. I think, in a way, Journey gave me a sort of distilled, streamlined version of this exact feeling in a beautiful way, but in a standalone way that doesn’t necessarily absorb into larger structures.

Solving Finding a Game, Losing a Connection

Another incident that gave me an insight into this trade-off for fixing bad things came last year when I made my 7 Day FPS game, Verticorpse. Somehow I had convinced myself to take on the challenge of making an online multiplayer game for a game jam, and managed to pull it off. But it was old school. Like, “here’s my IP address put it in this box to connect, okay is everyone in? Okay I’m starting the game” old school. I had seen it as a bare minimum needed to get by for the jam, but I noticed something about building it that way that I hadn’t thought about before. There was this whole process of saying “hey I’m putting a game together,” and trying to get everyone in the same chatroom so we could coordinate getting everyone into the game, which inevitably involved waiting through some technical hiccups for some people, the disabling of firewalls and such. “Does everyone see the crappy lobby screen image? Yes? Okay I’m starting!”

By the time we got in and got going, I felt like I had already made a little positive connection with all these people before we even started playing together. They felt like real people, because we’d worked through these inefficient technical steps together. They had little identities to me, even though our interactions were limited beforehand. It also felt like we just kept playing for ages, because afterall it had taken so much to get us all in there to begin with. It was lovely!

Modern matchmaking in competitive games solved a ton of problems in games of old, the biggest one being the situation where you couldn’t find a game, which was incredibly frustrating. Streamlining that process got people to the point where they were actually playing the game much faster and more consistently. And this of course was on top of the solutions of servers and room lists, which addressed a similar problem. But man, in my little experience with Verticorpse, it made me miss that feeling of connection. There was a trade-off to solving the problem. And don’t get me wrong, the problems solved with matchmaking systems were great big ones that needed addressing!

It made me start thinking, with the technologies we use today to connect people, could you both solve the can’t-find-a-game problem and still have a system that keeps that little human validation moment that comes when the responsibility for creating and organizing the game is put on the players? Should we revisit this method, especially for smaller competitive games without player bases big enough to effectively support matchmaking? Could I have my cake and eat it too?

Insights, insights, insights.

When I first started out as a designer, I was hungry to solve usability and teaching problems. I gobbled up the lessons learned from games that did them well, and searched for ways to apply them to my own games. But now I am more reflective. Every fix has a trade-off. What are you losing? Is there a way to keep those things? To have both? How do you build in a flaw? Lots of thinking to be done.

Learning from Flaws

All this talk of flaw and character has inspired me to pick up an old design exercise that I’ve been meaning to start doing more regularly since being involved in a workgroup session on deliberate practice in game design. The exercise is simple: pick an okay-to-bad game, as judged by the world. Maybe like 50s level metacritic. A game that many would be quick to dismiss as bad or mediocre at best. Play the game for at least an hour, and keep an eye out for something interesting. Maybe something it does in an unusual way. Maybe something it does that you’ve never seen before. Keep playing. Process.

Mike Birkhead says “the greatest experience a designer can learn from is playing ‘almost games.'” And speaking of Mike Birkhead, he’s going to be my special guest as I do this exercise as my next series of “class” streams. It should be a delight, and for sure a learning experience! You should join us. I’ll post soon about the details and the games we’ll choose, in case you want to do homework and come to the stream to discuss your insights with us.

Let us together look at games that the world has judged harshly and find something beautiful in them.