Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Posts Tagged ‘gta4’

Why Can’t I Jump? The Perils of Player Autonomy

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 8, 2010

A few years ago, I bought Guild Wars and mostly enjoyed it. It had a well crafted world and an interesting combat system, and should have been right up my alley. But every few minutes I would instinctively hit the space bar and deflate when my avatar failed to jump. Having come right off City of Heroes and a series of FPSs, the game’s rejection of my will instantly pulled me out of the experience. I know I’m not the only one, as most reviews of Guild Wars mentioned the inability to jump Guild Wars 2 previews inevitably emphasize the ability to leave the ground on command.

Research I’ve been exposed to recently has made it abundantly clear why this disturbed me so: Guild Wars was not meeting my need for Autonomy. Basically Autonomy or Volition (well named game company!) in this context refers to the need of players to feel like they can make real choices. Individual choice and open ended game design is associated with increased autonomy but is not required, because research (working to cite a source, this is based on my notes from a presentation) has shown that the important bit is that a player feel like they made a choice, and not that they actually did.  It is incredibly vital to do as much as you can to align the game’s available choices and the player’s expectations. When they get out of sync, the long-term engagement of players with your game will plummet, which basically means no word of mouth or sustainability.

Despite being a supposedly open-ended game with lots of player choice, Grand Theft Auto 4 violated my Autonomy repeatedly. They introduced a compelling character interested in changing his life, and I bought into the premise. But then the game forced me to murder hundreds of people for threadbare reasons. Sure I could run around and shoot pigeons if I felt like it, but when it came to anything important I was strait jacketed into highly scripted and linear missions. This is a very real problem recently as this has popped up in other games (Uncharted 2 left me cold for the same reason) that are attempting to mix real character motivations with slaughterhouse gameplay contexts.

Games that focus on satisfying player Autonomy can create drastically variable responses in different players. Let’s take a game like Alpha Protocol, which by all accounts is quite bad at satisfying the Competence need (the action is pretty bad) but like every Obsidian game tries to really embrace player Autonomy. For a reviewer like Scott Sharkey of 1UP, the game obviously satisfied his Autonomy in compelling ways, while for a reviewer like Jim Sterling of Destructoid it completely missed the mark. Recent games like Deadly Premonition and Nier share identical review score profiles for arguable similar reasons. If you want a universally well reviewed game, you’re going to have to work overtime to craft the expectations of players (and reviewers) to match with the choices the game provides.

Back to Jumping, I think there’s one thing every game designer needs to learn about Autonomy: If some reasonably large percentage of your audience keeps trying to do something and is frustrated when they can’t, you either need to let them do it or change your presentation so they stop trying. For instance Gears of War does a great job of setting the expectations properly (the physicality of the characters and terrain flatness make it so you never want to jump), but if your game looks and controls like a PC MMO your audience is going to need to jump. Yes, this will mean a reduction in the autonomy of the designer, but hopefully we can learn to deal with that.

Posted in Game Design, Game Development | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The “Problem” With Game Reviews

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 19, 2008

There’s been a lot of discussion over the last month or so about the game reviewing system. Stephen Totilo at MTV did a whole week of coverage on the subject, which I suggest you go browse. The spark for this discussion was the overwhelmingly glowing reviews of GTA 4, and has continued with arguments over Metal Gear Solid 4. Reviews are on the industry’s mind, and everyone thinks they know what’s wrong with them. So being egotistical and analytical, I thought I’d conclusively answer this.

The basic problem with game reviews is that no one agrees on what they’re supposed to be. Some people think they should be an objective analysis of the value of a game, in the vein of a Consumer Reports review. Other people think they should be commentary on a game’s artistic and cultural value in the vein of a book review. Should they have a score? Should the score be objective or subjective? Should they be exhaustive, or only focus on the particularly important (good or bad) parts of a game. Should they be written for a general or specific audience? Should they have a byline or be from “The Magazine”?  Should they include vague, poorly described categories like “Fun Factor”?

I think some of these extremes are clearly wrong. Consumer-report style value-only reviews are not what most reviewers or readers want. Games are not toasters, and players read reviews as much after the fact as before. Everyone wants at least some commentary and analysis. However, you can go too far, as I think book reviews (traditional newspaper ones) do. Every time I read a book review in a newspaper I come out with a clear picture of the reviewer’s innermost feelings and desires, but not a damn clue about if the book is any good. At some point professional book reviewers went down the path of full subjectivity, and I find amazon book reviews to be way more useful (and fun to read) than professional ones. Whenever a magazine tries to take out scores, everyone hates it, so we need some sort of score. I love the build up of context that comes from a well written review, but at the end of the day I want to get what I (indirectly) pay experts for in the first place: an opinion. Oh, and you know what sucks about institutional reviews? You can’t tell if you actually have anything in common with the reviewer. In fact, smaller genres often get underrated because they’re not correctly identifying the audience of the game (sometimes the publisher is at fault here).

So, we want a review that has a good mix of objective analysis, subjective opinion, and commentary. There should be some sort of clearly defined rating system, and enough information to help us decide if the review is relevant to our interests. Does this remind you of any other type of review? Yup, this is exactly what a well written movie review is. When Roger Ebert writes a review for the Sun Times, it is completely obvious that his star rating is his completely subjective opinion and not some sort of “composite” number that is derived from Sound and Fun Factor. No one calls up the Sun Times to complain that their movie got a bad review, they either complain to Roger (ineffectually) or chalk it up to difference of opinion. But, fanboys and developers across the world ask, why does one reviewer’s subjective opinion matter? Can’t game reviewers somehow come up with a provably “correct” rating for a game? And if they can’t why should we care about the aggregate at all?

The answer is that experts tend to be really good at rating things. Half of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell discusses how the gut instincts (ie, subjective score) of experts tend to be very good predictors of enjoyment by non experts. However, what experts (and humans in general) almost universally suck at is justifying that gut instinct. When we try to figure out where our rating comes from, we attempt to craft an explanation of the specific way we cleverly came up with that score. This is the process that generates the text of most game reviews (“The game is great, but the sound effects could use more punch”). Once you write a bunch of explanatory text, it then makes sense to adjust the score to be more “correct”, which generally pushes it away from accuracy. My feeling on this is that the more emotional a game experience is (there’s no way those 10 scores for GTA 4 were objective, the game has many obvious flaws), the more subjective and useful a game score is. However, any text justifying that score is going to basically be a waste of time, and should be better spent on commentary.

So if movie review scores (and theoretically game review scores) are just subjective opinion that may not apply to you, why is an aggregate score useful? Well, if a consumer shares sufficient traits with the “average” game reviewer, the aggregate score is a very useful approximation of their own estimated rating for a game.  In general, the hardcore gamers who are the initial adopters, the free advertisers, and the fanboys share a lot in common with the average game reviewer. If a game is well reviewed, it is very likely that it will generate positive gamer goodwill towards the developer and publisher and build a reputation of quality. Given that review scores have a direct effect on the future sales of related games, I think it absolutely makes sense to use metacritic scores for things like royalty payments. If you, as a game developer, can’t make a well reviewed game (thusly hurting the future sales of related games targeted at hardcore gamers), you either need to stop trying to sell games to hardcore gamers, adopt a publisher-free funding model, or stop making shitty games. As for magazine publishers? You should just make your reviews as much like good movie reviews as possible, and ignore all of us whiny developers.

Posted in Game Development | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »