Better Red Than Dead

  • Looping back to the previous post on feedback loops, I am playing EA/Playfish’s FIFA Superstars Facebook game. It’s got some neat stuff in it, but I am at a point where I am absolutely suffering from the positive feedback loop I’ve seen in most every EA Sports game.I’ve lost my free coach (you only get him for a limited time), so my team’s power/rank/whatever has dropped twenty points. Yet I am forced into a league where I have to play people who still have the coach and are thus at my same level yet at the same time completely outclassing me.

    Now here’s the exacerbating problem: when you lose, you lose training power and you get significantly less money and significantly less experience – thus you are put in a position to do worse in future games and have no mechanism to escape (sans paying real money). Not only is this reinforcing, but it is through no fault of your own.

    It is easy to fall into this design when working on sports games because sports are very much based on power law distributions. There are a bunch of shlubs and a few superstars. The superstars get all the money and fame and endorsements. The problem with modeling that in games is that nobody wants to be the bench player. They all want to be LeBron James or Tom Brady or Sidney Crosby. This works fine if you have early successes (flip “heads” the first few times and gain the advantage), but for most players (the schlubs), it just won’t be very fun through no fault of their own. So my advice is to stay away from the positive loops that model real world success onto players and instead let the players themselves be the embodiment of the powers law while implementing negative reinforcement that allows the schlubs to catch up to those superstars. Does it model reality? No, but it shouldn’t have to.

    Meier commented on the fact during the last GDC that when units have stats that if it is the player’s units that they should always win when they have the higher number and that the game should roll the dice when they are the underdog. But in multiplayer games (like this one), you are more or less guaranteed to have an underdog and a champion that share this bias. If you use the stat-based method, it is very easy to fall into the power-law situation where there are a bunch of schlubs and a few superstars and the player has little control over which they will be.

  • I completed Alan Wake over the weekend and I am surprised that everyone isn’t finding it as wholly compelling as I did. It has a clever battle mechanic, fantastic presentation and gripping story, not to mention fantastic score and soundtrack.I then dug into Red Dead Redemption. Now, it is my own damn fault because I generally avoid previews but I didn’t realize that when people said it was “Grand Theft Auto” in the west that they were being literal. These are the same mechanics that you played in Grand Theft Auto 3, Bully, Grand Theft Auto 4, and so on and so on. Literally, there was a mission that had me steal a horse and then watch my minimap as deputies raced after me. I had to be outside their zone of awareness while a meter ticked down and then they forgot about me. Sigh. I was looking for my horse’s radio controls but couldn’t find them.

    Now, I am being biased because I hate the controls, hate the reticule, hate the World’s Slowest Poker Game, hate the bugs, hate that you can’t often tell who is firing at you or where they are, hate the stupid same missions I was playing five years ago, hate the “hold A to experience mission” gameplay and so on. But since the frustrations are raw and in my face, it is hard to acknowledge that there are a lot of great things in the game. There are!

    Hold on. A comment on that last item. I have a great deal of skepticism towards open world games for one reason: much of the gameplay time by percentage tends to be taken up by traveling from gameplay event to gameplay event. In Wind Waker, you spent a lot of time sailing from point to point. In GTA, driving. In Far Cry 2, more driving. In most open world RPGs, walking. In Red Dead, you spend a lot of time simply holding down the A button to follow an NPC that will talk to you on the way to some mission. These mechanics are not substitutes for compelling gameplay.

    These are tasks that we do in order to fulfill a larger purpose. Some games get this right: Sly Cooper 2 (condensed world full of interesting decisions), Oblivion (density of discoverable points in travel along with very easy quick-travel), Silent Hill 1 (Very directed open world for the most part), Burnout Paradise (they made great pains to make the actual travel to events fun).  Red Dead puts band-aids on the wound: coach taxis, campsites, etc, but they do not really fix the problem. Had Alan Wake been “open world” (it could have been very easily!) it would have suffered from the same remarkable sameness of gameplay, paced poorly and frustratingly extended.

    Back to what works. The formula for Grand Theft Auto is to make a world and then fill it with stuff rather than to first design stuff and put it in a world that fits said stuff. To this degree, they do a great job. You can do everything from pistols at dawn to liar’s dice to cattle ropin’ and hell, you can even pick flowers. They sure get quantity right. The fact is that there are many types of players (Bartle provides one definition, but it is far more branching). It is hard to create experiences that satisfy everyone. So if you cast a wide net, you can hope that everyone can find something that they enjoy. I, for instance, find the Treasure Hunting quest line very interesting and fun. It comes at the expense of making sure that all these mechanics are usable. Some mechanics give you no chance to learn them (poker cheating) and others simply feel like they were checked off a list as “done” and forgotten (horseshoes).

    So maybe that is where the 95 Metacrtic comes from in a game full of nervous-twitch inducing issues. The production was clearly difficult, as evidenced by the EA-spouse-esque leaks. So that a game that could come out to such rapturous reviews is emblematic of a team that put their hearts, souls and bodies into creating something that people enjoy. Kudos to that. The San Diego team has my utmost respect.

One thought on “Better Red Than Dead

  1. This sounds like the old PS2/Xbox game GUN, a somewhat disappointing GTA-clone. If you haven’t tried it, you should check out Red dead revolver, Rockstars previous western-game. Much less open, much more linear. In my view one of the most underrated PS2-games ever. Not because it doesn’t have flaws (it does!), but because it’s a cool consept that works very well. Great controls, fun concept and very “old fashioned” game (that is: little feedback and rewards, alot of punishment, great satisfaction for every level you master).

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