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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Game Design: How Much Help Do You Need?

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is one of the best games for the Game Boy and one of the best of the Zelda series.  It has tricky puzzles, smart dungeons and cool enemies.  We're going to focus on one dungeon in particular.  In this dungeon, there are four pillars on one of the levels and a steel ball that you can pick up.  The game doesn't really tell you what to do, but it expects you to do the math.  You throw the steel ball at the pillars (which are rather difficult to get to), which collapses the top level of the dungeon down to your level and enables you to fight the boss.  There aren't a whole lot of hints, so you have to sort it out yourself.

Compare that to Twilight Princess, Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks.  Most of the time you'll have your assistant telling you what to do, whether it's Midna, Ciela, or Zelda.  If you walk into a level, Zelda might tell you, "Oh no!  Look at those guards!  You better avoid them!"  Midna might say something like "Take a look at the jewel on that guy's head!"  They'll pretty much walk you up to the solution or tell you where to go next.  So, the question is, was it better before?  Were games better when they didn't tell you what to do, or is the extra help a good idea?

First, it's important to ask why we got so little help on older games.  Was it because the designers expected us to figure things out?  They trusted us more?  Not really.  It's because they couldn't give us any more help due to system limitations.  The cartridge memory for Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda was prohibitively small.  For instance, the clouds and the bushes in Super Mario Bros. are the exact same sprite, just palette-swapped.  Those were the kind of things they had to do by necessity in order to get the full game onto the cartridge.  So, the reason why they only said "Dodongo dislikes smoke" is because they couldn't say anything more.  They had no space for it.

Game designers always wanted to provide more pointers, and they tried to do so in instruction manuals and the like, but there weren't a whole lot of choices.  Was the game better off for it?  That's open to debate, but a lot of the games of those days were solved with hint books and heated debate on the playground ("I was able to do an infinite hair-pull kick!"  "Nuh-uh!").  Most gamers didn't go it alone, as much as they'd like you to believe they did.  Those playground conferences are gone for most of us, but in its place we have our group of friends that we game with, as well as the big playground:  The internet.  When we get stuck in a game or find an insurmountable obstacle, we're able to go to that bastion of groupthink and get the help we need.  For the most part, we're still not going it alone.

So, if you're a game designer, you know people are going to seek help and space is no longer an issue, what do you do?  You provide the help in-game so that frustration is reduced to a minimum.  If you're a designer, you don't want the gamer to step away from your game for a moment, especially in a moment of frustration.  Therefore, you provide those in-game tips to gently nudge (or shove) the gamer along so they can see the next location.  Another option is one provided by Demon's Souls, where the community provides tips and help and recreates that "playground" environment, where multiple gamers provide help on a solution.

However, where do you draw the line?  How much help is too much help?  It's an especially difficult problem now that more gamers are entering the fold.  For instance, you show me a small key in a Zelda dungeon and I know exactly what to do with it.  If you show my wife a small key, she'll need the full explanation.  She'll need you to tell her what the key is used for, what the doors look like, and how to open them up.  If you don't tell her these things, she'll get frustrated and throw controllers.  (Yes, she throws controllers.)  That makes giving tooltips and explanations a bit of a moving target:  Too many and you alienate more experienced gamers, too few and you alienate inexperienced gamers.  How do you accommodate all these different players?

The best solution that I've found is in one of the most sneakily revolutionary games of the last couple of years:  Professor Layton.  In Professor Layton, you're presented with a puzzle and given all the time you want to solve it.  You have the option of getting hints, and in order to use them you spend coins which are scattered throughout the world.  If you use the hints, great.  If you don't, no biggie.  You can do whatever you want with them.  It's a sliding scale of hints, and it works.

PC Games have had this sort of sliding scale for years, allowing tooltips and tutorials to be either used or skipped.  Granted, they won't help you outright with the game, but who's to say that's not a bad idea?  I mean, think of this:  You're playing Zelda.  When it starts up, it asks you how experienced of a player you are.  If you're a Beginner, tooltips will be all over.  They'll show you which doors have just been opened by your actions.  They'll point you in the direction of the solution.  If you're Intermediate, they may just show which doors have been opened by your actions and tell you what you've just picked up the first time you get it (i.e. "You got 20 rupees!").  If you're an Expert, you get no help whatsoever.  You picked up a small key?  Congrats.  You know what it does, so we're not going to tell you.  You have a boomerang?  Great.  You figure it out.  If you get a brand new, never-before-seen item, they'll explain what it is, but they won't belabor the point.  This sort of sliding scale works excellent in a game with a long reach like Zelda, but what about games like Modern Warfare 2 or God of War?  Honestly, those are OK the way they are.  They have varying difficulty levels, and most experienced gamers don't need to have their hand held throughout the game.  Most enjoy the thrill of the hunt and like figuring out where things go.

The underlying issue is that we're used to thinking of solutions in a 3-D space, or using video game logic to solve puzzles.  If we see a torch and a spiderweb, we know we can use the torch on the spiderweb.  If we see a block with strange markings on it and tracks by it, we know we can push that block.  Most new gamers, however, need a little push in the right direction.  They need to have someone basically point at the solution, and that's OK.  It's up to developers to sort out how much help is too much for everyone involved.