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Hello there, long time no see. We have been pretty busy at work for a while, and that kept us from writing something. But as all developers would agree with me, there is no better way to learn, than working, and one of the reasons we created this blog in the first place, is to share and discuss what we learn about games, from playing and crafting them.

What about Challenge

What do we play games for? Challenge? Alright, that was a pretty easy answer considering that’s the topic of this article. But we must remind that’s not the only answer, not even the main answer. We play games to have fun, and challenge CAN (and not MUST) be part of the fun. I can steal a car in Grand Theft Auto and cruise around the city and have plenty of fun, and not being challenged a single bit, can’t i?.

To be challenged, a player must first WANT to be so. If a challenge is not interesting, he won’t bother. Second, the player MUST be rewarded when he overcomes a challenge, and the reward must be proportional to the challenge. How would you feel, after an epic battle against the fierce Great Dragon of the Silver Mountain of the North who can melt mountains with his breath and crush entire cities with the flap of his wings, you are awarded with a pair of leather boots with the “amazing” property of letting you absorb 1 point of acid damage. Well, I would definitely curse the designers!

The player must feel capable of overcoming the challenge. Even when he fails, he must feel that he is capable if he tries a bit harder. Incredibly hard games come from the mistake of measuring the difficulty of the game by the skills of developers or even veteran players of a game genre. On the other hand, if the game is too easy, the fun factor will be extinguished by the moment the player is not enjoying the “cruise” anymore.

What about Punishment

This one is simple. Punishment is used on animals (including human beings.) to tell “Don’t you ever do that again!”. If the player is punished, he feels that he did something wrong and probably won’t do that again. If you take something from the player that he is not expecting to lose if he tries something, you are punishing him. Why would I ever “play” a game to be punished? What do we play games again? Oh, right, fun… challenge…

The balance is somewhere out… there?

Some would argue that punishment is sometimes necessary to create challenge. Although i would be glad to discuss that, i cannot agree right away. If you are punishing the player just for the sake of it, that’s bad. “You did not equip your Mega Ultra Blaster Godlike Cannon of Doom, so you will die over and over because there is no other way to beat the game’s Boss.” Does that sound like fun? Not to me it doesn’t. The challenge there was not the Boss, but the decision of equipping the mighty cannon. You can’t punish the player for a decision like that. Well, you can, but he probably won’t play your game anymore (i wouldn’t).

And there comes the reward. If we are talking about multi-player, it would be nice for one player to get what other player lost, right? You could say that, but even that has its limits. Sometimes, the pleasure of teasing your friend over and over for that fourth beating in a row is a pretty good reward, and being teased for the rest of the week is a pretty tough punishment by itself. When that is not enough, statistics and rankings can prove who is better and be a challenge to achieve on its own right.

I have a pretty straightforward thinking about reward and punishment in multi-player games. Here are some situations of rewards used in conflicts between two players. These can be interpreted to fit in single-player games too.

  • Both players win: This one would be perfect if it could be used more often. If the winning player wins something as a reward and the losing player gets something to encourage him to keep trying harder, that’s great. An example of this would be the negative feedback loop that is used in some racing games, the player that is behind is boosted so he can keep up with those in front of him.

Pro: Both players are kept interested in the conflict, one is rewarded for the achievement and the other is stimulated to keep trying.

Con: This approach could make up for unfair situations.

  • One player wins, the other does not: This one is the perfect fit for most multi-player games, in my opinion. One player is rewarded for his skills and efforts, and the other is not. Most common in multi-player shooters, when the winning team (or player) is rewarded with points or money when his team wins.

Pro: Reward the winning party for overcoming a challenge. The fact that the other party did not win anything, increases the prize value.

Con: Players who lose too many times are not encouraged to keep trying if they see they are not much of a match.

  • One player wins, the other loses: Should be used with caution. The fact that the player lost the conflict, is a morale punishment by itself. And more, if the winner gets what was his, and that was not suppose to be at stake (“I would not fight if i knew i could lose that”) the player can feel like he was robbed.

Pro: Winning feels more satisfying if you win something that was useful to someone else, and not just some random prize.

Con: Players who lose feel robbed, and can generate positive feedback loop, players who lose will be weaker for other conflicts and will be less likely to win.

  • No one wins anything: Hold on, why would you bother to design a conflict like that? Why would players engage in the conflict in the first place?
  • One player loses, the other gains nothing: If a player loses something and the other player does not gain anything, it’s pure punishment just for the sake of it. And the winning side is not rewarded for his efforts. Bad, bad design! No donut for you!

Pro: In some games, specially MMOs, this can be used (wisely) to take money from players and avoid economy inflation. Over-design here can ruin the game experience and frustrate players, be advised.

Con: The player will feel cheated if he lost something to the game and was not beaten by the game itself. The winning player will not be rewarded for his efforts, and will probably seek reward by the pleasure of beating weaker players (since he will not be rewarded even if he beats experienced ones).

  • Both players lose: See “No one wins anything”.

Conclusion

Well, that’s about it. I didn’t write half of what i was intending to and wrote twice as much as i have time to, but that’s life. My personal opinion is that players should NEVER be punished by the game. Designers should be wise enough to challenge players without punishing them to be able to do so.
I hope this can be useful for anyone interested in games, challenges, and NOT punishment!

See you next time!

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Now and often we hear people talking about immersion in games. Some say that one feature breaks immersion, others say that one game is very immersive while another is not. I´m not writing this to say which games are immersive and which are not, or how to make a game more immersive. I´m writing to expose what I think about the subject. Again, this is a post with VERY personal thoughts, so feel free to throw tomatoes and eggs or call me names if you don´t like it.

 

Let us start with the basics. We are talking about games, right? Why do we play games again? For fun, you say. Right, I say. Some games are meant to be immersive, some are not. In some games, fun is intimately related to the immersion the game can provide to the player. However, even the most immersive game ever made will not be so if the player does not want it to be. Even if the designers did set up a complex scenario, with complex lighting and shadows, a creepy music and some neat sound effects to scare the hell out of the player, he is still holding a mouse and pressing keys on a keyboard.

 

Ok, I broke all your fantasies as gamers; now, in every game you play, you will remember that you are holding a mouse or controller, and immersion will be broken, right? Wrong. You always knew that, but you abstracted those things and did let yourself into the game for the sake of your own fun.

 

Then you say “So, what you are saying is that the game will be as immersive as I want it to be?”.

 

Exactly.

 

“How can that be? Are you insane? If you were desiging for my company, I would have you fired right away!” – you say.

 

See, you could fire me, but that woud not change the fact that if you are not willing to accept what the game gives you, your experience will be seriously compromised.

 

 

Playing as children

 

What games can do best to give the player a proper immersion is to keep mechanics from getting in the way. Let the content of the game do the work. Let the player use what is given to create his own experience. It´s not that games are not allowed to create their own mood or theme. They can, but no matter how perfectly it is done, one player will see it differently from another, and immersion will be achieved by each player through what he sees and hears, associating it with what he expects, fears, likes, etc…

 

I tend to play videogames as toys. The Sims is often considered a toy by most people, because you play with your Sim with no defined goal to achieve; instead, you just live his life, taking care of the dollhouse. Do you remember when we used to play with toys, cars or action figures, pretending we were them, doing stunts and stuff? Real fun, right? That is exactly why, in my opinion, Will Wright is a genius. And that is probably the reason behind the (insert superlative here) commercial success of the Sims franchise. It´s something like that. Let me explain.

 

 

With great content comes great immersion

 

A couple days ago I was playing Spider-Man 3 for the XBox 360 when, during a mission, I had to rescue two people inside a building on fire; after I rescued both, my mission was complete, but I, as Spider-Man (and not as a player with the controller in hand) had to double-check. So I went into de building one more time, jumping into the fire and explosions everywhere, just to be sure I was not leaving anyone behind. After that I went near the ambulance to check that the victims were ok before swinging away. And I did all this without realising that, obviously, there was nobody else inside the building after the mission was accomplished, and that I could not actually see if the victims inside the ambulance were safe.

 

You see? A mission that was about getting random people out of a random place, turned into a more complex, entertaining and ultimately immersive experience. And I did not even go through all the little details such as the Spidey-like jokes that I make to myself while I dodge debris with a civilian in my arms. Being your friendly neighborhood super-hero is not a job for the faint-hearted…

 

Most of the time, this kind of behavior is emergent; the designer did not even plan anything special about the scene but the player makes it up with his own imagination. There is always a smile in my face when I experience this kind of thing. This is accomplished by the game providing content so good and so polished that the player can use it to increase his emotional and empathic link with the game.

 

 

Conclusion

 

My point with all this is that we should not worry about how the gameplay provides us immersion; that is not what it is there for. Instead, we should worry about how WE, as players, can immerge ourselves with what is given. The whole purpose of playing games is to have fun. Gameplay should entertain us through mechanics that are sound and fun, and game content should entertain us through a game world that is deep and full of life. Immersion, my true believers, is consequence.

Games have never been so popular. Electronic entertainment has been finding its way into the mainstream media channels, stirring up the interest of the general public. Hollywood has already been riding the wave for several years now: games based on movie licenses are a natural, expected development; however, movies based on original intellectual property from games are also commonplace these days. Some games rise to fame (and often to the American Senate) through the polemic of their subject matter; but TV and news channels are also beginning to explore the other multiple facets of gaming in special features, documentaries, and 24/7 dedicated channels.

 

Such a phenomenon brings up a question: is the world witnessing the art form of the millennium leaving its teens into adulthood? Do games fit among other expression forms that have reached the mainstream audience, such as movies, books and TV? Or is the industry only broadening and deepening its reach into the selected niches that will define games as cult, pretty much like what happened to comics during the last century? These questions have already been bothering us for a while, and a deeper analysis of the subject is mandatory if we intend to provide prospective answers of any kind.

 

 

A Niche Culture

 

Games started as a cool and cult sprout of the first adventures of computer hacking in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The word ‘hack’ did not have the negative, disturbed connotation it has today: it simply meant using the available resources of computers in original and smart ways, to achieve amazing, unpredicted results. And that is exactly how old-time hackers ‘discovered’ electronic gaming: by twisting and turning the old machines’ digital nuts and bolts in curious fashions. w00t!

 

It was just a natural development, then, that games became very popular among the earliest computer-aware individuals (a pompous way of referring to the old-school nerds). Several game-friendly computer systems followed, such as the Amiga and the MSX. By the time PCs arrived with their all-including nature, games already had a major cult following among computer users.

 

The games industry of our age can also be regarded as a mostly niche culture: we have hardcore games for hardcore players; casual, serious and child games have their own restricted markets as well. PC gaming is considered a mostly hardcore-driven market, and such argument is usually associated with the slower growing rate of this market compared to home consoles. The latter, however, are plagued by their own sub-culture definition as well, in such a way that it is now common to see discussions among console manufacturers and software developers about the utmost need of broadening the scope and extending the reach of consoles into more and more homes. Just take a look at the issues being discussed in the last two or three Game Developer Conferences.

 

 

Joysticks for the Masses

 

On the other hand, there have been several moments in the history of gaming in which games have appealed to a larger audience. Consoles of the first generations were released during the early ’80s to great mainstream success, until the industry became the victim of its own achievements: an absurd amount of games being offered without an appropriate process of quality assurance led the video-games industry into crisis. Had it not been that way, maybe the mainstream interest in consoles would live up into the ’90s and until today. Who can tell?

 

Still, there are other incarnations of mainstream interest in gaming today, exemplified mostly by the mobile and hand-held markets. Mobiles are everywhere, and the increasing availability of on-line services has enabled games to be introduced to the major public through cellular phones. This platform faces problems of its own, such as a multitude of mobile internal configurations, leading to the lack of solid development standards, relatively low hardware capability, and the lack of proper input devices for games. Hand-held devices, on the other hand (no pun intended), feature game-specific hardware and input/output capabilities that are usually one or two generations behind home consoles in terms of processing power. Software developed for such platforms, however, are generally aimed towards a broader audience than home consoles. Low prices, high availability, and the practical concerns of portability are other factors that contribute to the wider audience appeal enjoyed by hand-held games.

 

 

Nintendo’s Call for Gamers

 

If we wanted to ask a game development company about the past, present and future status of the games industry from a higher, broader standpoint, that company would HAVE to be Nintendo. The Big N has always been an absolute reference in terms of gaming innovation, and continues to play that part wonderfully with its latest hardware releases. Nintendo has been a major driving force in shaping the video-games culture and market as we know it, although such a position does not always mean commercial success (PlayStation, anyone?).

 

Such awareness of the big picture has allowed Nintendo to design a strategy that would lead to the next leap (as opposed to the next step) in gaming, which started with Nintendo’s newest hand-held console, the Nintendo DS. Not only is the DS a revolution in human-game interface, featuring a touch sensitive screen that enables game interaction in a multitude of new ways, but also the software developed for the system is truly original and amazing. Unconventional games such as Nintendogs and the Brain Training series are both a critical and technical achievement gameplay-wise, and an outstanding commercial success.

 

The Big N expanded its strategy further with the Nintendo Wii, a home console designed to bring together current gamers, former gamers that left video-games behind for being too complex and overwhelming, and non-gamers alike. Such high stakes are met with the Wii’s original input system, which combines old-school button-pressing with detailed and accurate motion-sensing. The console also features an on-line distribution system called the Wii Virtual Console, designed to enable gamers to download games from several Nintendo and third-party consoles from the past directly into the Wii’s hard-drive. Combined with a simplified game controller reminding that of the Super Nintendo, the package is a cheerful welcoming to former gamers from the 80’s and 90’s.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Are games cult or mainstream? As of now, the answer has to be “both”. Nintendo is helping us experiment deeper with broader audiences, and its challenges are far from simple. A careful balance between appealing to new customers and retaining the interest of hardcore gamers must be achieved for Nintendo’s strategy to succeed. We are definitely eager to see more and more DS and Wii software coming, aimed at both mainstream and cult followers, and perhaps it will be during the current generation of consoles that we will be able to decide whether the games industry is bound to remain as cult, embrace the masses, or branch into both of them.

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