What got me started on this article was a conversation with Ben Garney last week about how he was going through all of the old Nintendo games with an emulator. He noticed that playing with the tools to not have to go back to the start of the level after dieing actually made the games much more fun.
Last night my kids were at the house for dinner, and I asked Jon to bring Rock Band 2 so we could have a little social gaming interaction. After setting up the game, the first thing we had to do was go to the Internet to find and enter a cheat code to unlock all of the songs. It didn’t work at first, and for a while we thought we would have to play the game’s entry level songs. That kind of pissed us all off, and was the tipping point to make me write this article.
Why, after all of these years of game design evolution do we, as an industry, still rely on cheap design tricks like “unlocking” songs, starting over levels, only allowing saves at certain points in the game, etc.? Especially in a social game like Rock Band, what is the point of not allowing the owner to play all of the songs? Jon just paid $170 for the game. Isn’t that enough “earning”?
When a player gets killed in a platformer or FPS, why does he have to go back three levels or to the beginning of the level/chapter? Why can’t players save anywhere in a game? I know the answer that will be given, i.e. to give the player a feeling of anxiety and tension. I call bullshit on that answer. That kind of tension is not the kind of tension that a designer should want to create. External tension that the player simply does not want to waste more time traversing a part of the game already explored has nothing to do with the real design/game tension that should come from the game’s internals.
Playing LucasArts adventure games was more fun to me than Sierra adventure games because I knew I could not die. Even in the adventure games I designed and directed, I succumbed to the “player character must die” design mechanic. I remember distinctly caving in to pressure from Sierra, but mostly I remember it being easier from a design standpoint.
It seems to me that this pseudo role play, leveling up mechanic is industry design dogma, i.e. it has been done for so long that people in the industry don’t even question it. I know most people in the industry will be against my opinion here, but I have to speak up (again). The first time I raised this point was in 1989 when we were finally releasing our first Affiliated Label games, A-10 Tankkiller and David Wolf: Secret Agent. We put in a feature called the VCR Interface, that allowed players to move to the next level or fast forward past the part they could not conquer.
This post could be incredibly long, and I will continue to address this point as I start writing posts for my Games for the Non-Hardcore series. I look forward to seeing how all of you feel about this subject.
-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
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