Mr. Worf is not amused

Recently I had in-depth discussions with several students on the subject of good game design, and in particular on the question why it seems that games were much better designed ten years ago than they are now. The general impression was that nowadays games are designed to be way too easy. Or rather, using game designer terminology, too user-friendly.

To be clear, I think that games need to be user-friendly in terms of their controls (I made an extensive blog about games that made user-unfriendliness of controls a gameplay-element, and I had some choice words to say on the subject). However, many of the big commercial games have become “user-friendly” in their challenges, i.e., they reduce the challenge level to a point that even novice users have an easy time getting through a game. They compensate for that by offering flashy effects, driving the player along by promises of even more flashy effects if he continues playing.

A recent example of a game that fails miserably in the challenge department is the recently released Dishonored. I had been looking forward to this game, as I thought that it captured the spirit of one of my favorite games of all time: Thief 2: The Metal Age. It promised the same setting, the same style, the same kind of gameplay elements as its classic predecessor, but vastly upgraded graphics. I discovered that, indeed, it was the spiritual successor of Thief 2 — except that it wasn’t nearly as much fun. My question is: is that because of bad game design?

The Thief games are stealth games: you play a character who has to sneak through a sprawling city, performing deeds of theft, espionage, and sabotage. But the player character is very weak; he cannot hold his own against even one guard. He has to rely on staying undetected, accomplishing his goals by subterfuge and clever use of the environment. The games can be played on several levels of difficulty, mainly distinguished by the health that the player character has, and the toughness of his objectives, which may range from “being allowed to kill” to “nobody should die”, and “stealing a handful of baubles” to “clearing out the mansion”. The higher difficulty levels are a great but fun challenge, forcing the player to make frugal use of his meager resources.

Dishonored starts out as Thief: the player character must sneak through an area, peeping through keyholes, incapacitating an unaware guard here and there, and picking up a few coins along the way. However, the player realizes quickly that he is actually a formidable opponent for the guards: even if they attack him in large groups, armed with muskets, the player has no problem dispatching them with his sword without getting more than a scratch — and even those scratches are easily healed. The player might feel a bit disappointed in that, but may then realize that at least the game recognizes the fact that he hasn’t killed anybody in a level, so he might as well set his own challenge not to become too violent.

But by the second level, the player has acquired some cool powers. He can teleport over short and longer distances. He can look through walls, seeing guards and treasure on the other side. He can possess animals. He can even slow down time. Okay, he has to pay for those powers by using runes, but the most powerful powers (teleporting and X-ray vision) are incredibly cheap — both to acquire and to use — and make the game even on the very hard difficulty level a doddle.

But there is still the choice aspect, isn’t there? The player has the freedom to go wherever he wants, accomplishing his goals in the manner he chooses. Well, yes, but decision making is not really involved. It might seem like choice has a role to play on the surface, but after a short while the player will realize that the game has been designed to make his decisions inconsequential in achieving his goals. If he finds a door, he can go through it or not. If he goes through it, he will find himself in the place where he needs to be. If he does not, again he will find himself in the place where he needs to be. Planning is unnecessary, if the player just acts in whatever fashion, the game will make sure that he ends up near his goal. Of course, if the player approaches the game without a plan he may not complete some of the side-quests, which give him an extra power, or a bit more treasure. But the player has no needs for those powers or the cash. The game is showering him with powers and treasure anyway.

Dishonored, even on the very hard difficulty level, is designed for casual players. Players who want to complete the game in 5 to 10 hours, in which they experience everything the game has to offer: a story, a boatload of cool weapons and powers, and lots of visual effects. They should not get stuck, they should not need to read a manual, they should not even need to think.

When in the second level I acquired X-ray vision, I wondered why the programmers went through the trouble of implementing the ability to look through keyholes, because I had only used it two or three times on the first level and from then on had no reason at all to do so anymore. Later I realized that that first level, taking about one hour to finish, was actually about 10% of the game. So, in game terms, the power to be a Peeping Tom was actually useful in a substantial part of the game. The fact that it got replaced by X-ray vision was just to give the player a new power, which made the game even easier than it was before, allowing the player to experience a new cool effect, and to speed up the game even more. Because casual players get bored if the game lasts too long or does not offer something new every 15 minutes or so.

Do I think that Dishonored is a badly designed game? No, in fact I think the opposite. I admire the designers for the way that they manage to give the player the impression that he is playing a game, while in fact it is the game that plays the player. I do not mean this sarcastically, I truly think that they have been able to create a game that accomplishes the rather challenging goals that they set for themselves. The result is a game that even the most casual player can pick up, have an entertaining few hours with, and finish. After which he will pick up another game and forget about Dishonored. Because you may remember an Indonesian Rijsttafel that you enjoyed, but you will forget about a Happy Meal.

I believe that the ability to create games that can stand the test of time is now outside the reach of triple-A game developers. Their games need huge investments, which cannot be recovered if these games mainly appeal to experienced players. They have to reach an audience as wide as possible, which includes everybody and his grandmother. My conclusion therefore is that Dishonored has excellent game design, which, unfortunately, means that it accomplishes its indirect goal of not being a memorable game.

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