Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Authorial Intent (11)

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Literal and Figurative Walls in Dragon Quest Builders 2

I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that you can’t have a fully-safe base in Dragon Quest Builders 2 while you’re doing story stuff. I noted before that this led me to rush the story bits, and got a comment saying “…I just stopped trying to make things look nice and tried to get things done faster I can get to building again”. So why does the game do this?

We don’t know the designers’ intent, but my theory is that this is about forcing a playstyle. (I actually wrote that article because I wanted to explain the concept so I could use it in this very conversation.) That article explains in more depth, but the basic idea is that a game’s designers notice that the game’s incentives are motivating players to behave in ways that don’t seem fun, but rather than change the incentive structure they simply block off or discourage the behavior they don’t want.

If this is what happened here, then presumably it went something like this: Random attacks were put in the first Dragon Quest Builders so that players would have to regularly defend their bases in order to create tension/pressure and leave the player feeling like an active protector. But in practice, a lot of players just built unbreakable defensive walls around their base, removing much of the tension and making it possible to almost completely ignore the random attacks. This also created a weird design constraint that made all bases look more alike, look less like they organically fit into the landscape, and have worse views of their surroundings.

They wanted to avoid this for Dragon Quest Builders 2. But instead of digging in to understand why players were building these walls and find ways to remove the need for the walls, they just made it so enemies could break through anything the player could build. They didn’t remove the motivation for using the strategy - they just made it so the strategy no longer worked. This meant that any player who had chosen to build the walls in the first game would probably still want to in the second game to solve the same problems, but now wouldn’t be able to solve those problems at all. It’s like the designers are saying, “Come on, you’ll have more fun if you fight enemies a lot!” and some of us frustrated players are left saying, “Did it occur to you that maybe I bought your building game because I wanted to build?”

Again, I don’t know that’s why this happened, but the outcome is the same regardless. Uninterrupted building time is positioned as a reward for completing story arcs - and in fact, once you finish the whole story you get the ability to craft an item that completely prevents monsters from spawning. So those of us who want to build uninterrupted used to be encouraged to build a wall; now we’re encouraged to rush the story instead.

For me, this makes the game worse. By far the biggest reason I enjoy the Dragon Quest Builders over something like Minecraft or Terraria is the context provided by the story and characters. That gives me a reason to build that isn’t really present in those other games. And once the story is finished, that reason mostly vanishes. The characters are still around, but they’re harder to stay invested in when they just cycle through a few lines of dialog and no longer have any goals or concerns.

In the first Dragon Quest Builders, one of my favorite things to do was to take a break from the action mid-chapter to redesign or improve my town. When I tried to do that in Dragon Quest Builders 2, it was an exercise in frustration as I was continually interrupted and often had to take extra time to perform repairs as well. So I stopped doing it and rushed the story - and then once I had uninterrupted building time, I no longer felt like there was a reason to improve the town. So I didn’t bother - and one of my favorite experiences in the game was just gone.

So what would it look like if the designers had instead modified the incentive structure so that players no longer felt encouraged to build walls? I can’t speak for every player, but for me I think the real problem is repairing. Repairing is time-consuming without being creative and to someone with my completionist/perfectionist/vaguely-OCD-like tendencies, the possibility of missing a couple blocks or items somewhere along the way (which absolutely happened in the first game) drives me batty. Attacks make me anxious because they create the possibility I’ll need to repair - if that were removed, they wouldn’t really bother me. (My evidence for this is a bit in Chapter 3 where the base gets attacked by enemies that can’t be kept out - once I realized they also couldn’t break anything, I stopped panicking when they showed up.)

In Dragon Quest Builders 2, villagers have the ability to build to a blueprint and to repair your base after story battles. If they could also repair after random battles, I think that would basically solve the problem for players like me. The attacks would still create tension and pressure and an opportunity to actively defend your base and people, but you wouldn’t be punished if you choose not to immediately drop what you’re doing and rush to handle it.

I’d definitely want to do some playtesting if I were actually in charge of a decision here, but my instinct is that this would be a better experience for everyone.

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Don't Be the Fun Police: Why Games Shouldn't Force Playstyles

When we play games for fun, we often need a goal system to shepherd us along. This is what makes it a “game” instead of a “toy” - the goals direct the player toward particular experiences. In most cases, the game designer tries to make the experience of achieving those goals enjoyable (though there are deliberate subversions of this as well). But since games are an interactive medium, the designer can only give the player a set of tools and suggest how to use them in ways that will be fun. It’s up to the player to decide what to actually do.

This presents a problem - the player may choose to use those tools in a different and less-fun way if it seems to be a more effective way to reach the game’s goals. As Greg McClanahan put it in his fantastic post Achievement Design 101, “What game designers in general often seem to ignore is that when players are presented a goal, their first inclination is to devise the most efficient (not necessarily the most fun) means of reaching that goal. . . . Show the player the end point, and that player will take the quickest and easiest route, regardless of whatever path the game intended for him to take.”

Awkward Zombie comic about Sora getting Winnie the Pooh out of Rabbit's house by destroying the house instead of playing Rabbit's minigame.

http://www.awkwardzombie.com/index.php?page=0&comic=120318

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Easy Modes and Backward Reasoning

I think my ironically-favorite part of the discourse around difficulty and easy modes in Sekiro and Soulsborne games is that anti-easy folks make both of these claims:

  1. Adding an easy mode to a Soulsborne game would ruin the intended experience of overcoming challenge through persistence and learning.
  2. Soulsborne games already have an easy mode since you can summon a friend.

I don’t know if I’ve heard any individual person say both these things together - the kettle logic might be a little too obvious if you’re actually saying “Easy mode would be bad, and anyway they already have it and that’s good!” But I also don’t think I’ve seen anyone really address the contradiction here.

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As glad as I am to see big-name game designers...

As glad as I am to see big-name game designers say that accessibility doesn’t compromise their vision (God of War’s Cory Barlog and VVVVVV’s Terry Cavanagh are the ones I’ve seen so far), and as much as it makes me respect them as creators, as a player I kind of… don’t care?

Like, if a couple movie directors came out and said they didn’t mind when people watching their movies at home pause them, that’s all well and good - but if they said the opposite, I’m still gonna hit pause when I have to go to the bathroom. I don’t really care if I’m breaking with their vision.

It’s great that they have a vision and all, but I’m the one having the experience and I’m going to use my own judgment and my own self-knowledge to improve it whether they want me to or not.

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The Designer is Dead: Five Reasons to Go Beyond Intended Experiences

Games are designed to create particular mental and emotional states in their players. The Dark Souls games use difficulty to “give players a sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds”, Dead Rising’s replay-enforcing time limit and oddball weapon options encourage humorous experimentation, Far Cry 2’s unreliable weapons force players to improvise in chaotic battles, and so on. We call this the game’s “intended experience.”

Good games are those which successfully guide their players to worthwhile experiences, so the designer’s intent is key to a game’s quality. This leads some of us to conclude that designer intent should be elevated above player freedom - that players should be prevented from altering a game’s experience lest they ruin it for themselves.

“Decisions like [Dark Souls’s difficulty level, Dead Rising’s time limit, and Far Cry 2’s jamming weapons] might be controversial, but if they’re an integral part of the experience that the developer is trying to create, then the player shouldn’t feel like they’re entitled to be able to mess with this stuff through options, modes, and toggles. Because that would screw with the developer’s intentions and could end up ruining the game in the long run.”
—Mark Brown, What Makes Celeste’s Assist Mode Special | Game Maker’s Toolkit (at 22 seconds) (to be fair, the rest of the video adds a lot of nuance to this position)

I strongly disagree with this. To me, the designer’s intent is the starting point and not the finish line. If we cling to it and discourage players from exploring any further, we rob it of most of its value. Here’s why.

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That Which Is Not Forbidden: The Spectrum of Allowance

When Grand Theft Auto III came out, it introduced a new interaction to the series: players could now solicit prostitutes and then kill them to get their money back.

“To engage with prostitutes in the game, all the player had to do was pull up to certain scantily clad women, who would enter the vehicle in exchange for a sum of money. . . . Disturbingly, players found they could reclaim their cash by simply killing the prostitute with their car after she’d exited.”
—Samantha Leichtamer, The 5 Most Shocking Grand Theft Auto Moments

This capability persisted in later games in the series and gave rise to a lot of discussion. Much of the commentary was careful to point out that murdering prostitutes is not required at any point. But of course Grand Theft Auto games are exactly that: games. You don’t have to play them at all. And they’re known as games where a lot of the fun comes from messing around in the sandbox, going on murder sprees that are also thoroughly unrequired. So is there a meaningful distinction to be made here?

I think there is. Merely pointing out that you can do something in a game is incomplete. It treats it as a binary, with the action either allowed or disallowed. But game design is much more subtle than that. There’s a wide range of how allowed an action can be.