For whatever reason I started thinking about a game I used to play long, long ago called Pocket Tanks. As I thought about all the strange and different weapons in the game, I thought I’d make this post a Fun Gun Award and talk about some of the most creative weapons. However, with 400 different guns (30-40 in shareware versions) I realized this would be pointless.
And I as thought about the quantity of different weapons I realized that the majority of them were not balanced and despite this the game was still fun. I realized something about how the quantity and variety of weapons affects the very nature of the game.
So, here we go…
So, recently I watched Chris Franklin’s Errant Signal video essay on Dark Souls 3 and he touches on the idea of an easy mode for Dark Souls to make it more accessible to a greater number of gamers; he posits that you would lose something special about the game if you played on easy mode.
I guess there is a bit of a discussion going on about this in the game community because recently Franklin tweeted an essay by Cameron Kunzelman who responds to the Errant Signal video as well as several other sources that suggest an easy mode for Dark Souls 3 would be a bad idea. Kunzelman argues that this isn’t true, and you can read his thoughts in the post I linked to. (Right as I was about to publish I saw Chris Franklin tweet another well written essay, by Joe Köller, that’s basically saying the same things that I’m saying in this blogpost, except in fewer words and slightly different focus.)
All of this got me thinking. So, this discussion about whether there should be an easy mode for Dark Souls 3 goes beyond Dark Souls. It goes much deeper, into the very nature of how games are designed and played.
The real issue here is: How much control should the players have over their own experience? Usually the game community will argue for more player agency because choice is integral to the gameplay experience. So, it’s ironic and hypocritical that when it comes to Dark Souls 3 (or, as an older example, skipping combat sections in Mass Effect) suddenly players are saying that there shouldn’t be any player agency regarding how you progress (See Appendix A).
This kind of strict authoritarian control over the audience is something I’ve argued against for years (the link is to a post I made years ago arguing the same thing as in this post, although it is long and rambling and even I don’t have the patience to read the whole thing anymore). Players shouldn’t be forced to replay sections of a game over and over just to progress to the next area unless they want to engage in that experience. They should have the option of either playing the game as it was intended or playing the game as is most enjoyable for them. And if they choose not to play the game as intended, and they miss out on something, then that’s their loss.
Giving people more options opens up the medium to exploration, analysis, interpretation, and intelligent discourse, which only benefits the community and the individual player. (See Appendix D)
And part of what frustrates me with how restrictive the Dark Souls method of design is that other mediums don’t have these restrictions. Books, film, and even board games don’t force me to experience them in only one way (See Appendix A).
Most games change their difficulty by making the enemies more numerous or more powerful. But, I always like it when games designers do something unique and off the beaten path. Which brings me to something that happens in at least one level in Myth 2: Soulblighter, developed by Chicago Bungie. (I know System Shock 2 did some really cool things with custom difficulty settings, but I never got to play it and I certainly can’t play it on the computer I have now.)
Myth 1 & 2 are some of the best games of their kind, of all time. No exaggeration. They were real time tactical games (no base building, no resource gathering, just armies) that were ahead of their time with 3D terrain, real physics, and weather effects. In my opinion, they were far superior to their RTS counterparts Warcraft, Total Annihiliation, and Command & Conquer due to Myth’s heavy reliance on quick thinking under extreme pressure. Friendly fire was “on” for all units and you couldn’t get new units, which forced you to be very tactical and intelligent in how you played the game.
(Gaming history sidenote: All Bungie products have acronyms on them that stand for actual phrases; fans figured them out and Bungie confirmed them. On Myth the WACCSMD stands for Warcraft and Command & Conquer, Suck My Dick; and on Myth 2 the TATRTSTS stands for Total Annihilation True Real Time Strategy Totally Sucks. HA HA! Game developers had real spirit back then. Can you imagine modern Washington Bungie doing something like that? No way, it wouldn’t be PR friendly.)
ANYWAY, let’s get back to talking about game difficulty.
I think that the height of game design lies in the designers ability to give the player the freedom to choose how he approaches the game, and nevertheless the player still gets a specific and intended experience.
There’s a moment of perfect game design in Diablo (by Blizzard North), and it is has to do with the Butcher.
When you first start playing Diablo, you’re almost guaranteed to get the Butcher Quest. It’s your first quest and it’s your first boss battle.
The Butcher’s room is unique. And when the players first encounter it they can immediately tell that there’s something special and foreboding about this room. The room is on the second floor (very early in the game) and its isolation, design, and bloody, gory props are completely different than anything the players encountered so far.
They’re almost guaranteed to make the connection between this room and the Butcher Quest. They know what they will encounter behind the door to this gut strewn place.
Already this is pretty good game design. But this is where the design of this boss battle becomes ingenious:
At this point, there is no possible way that players can beat the Butcher.
I recently was thinking about the original Diablo, which is still my favorite of the Diablos next to Diablo Cody and El Diablo, the Mexican Satan. But in terms of the video game series begun by Blizzard North (and later watered down by Blizzard Blizzard), D1 was a weirder, more interesting, and grittier game. It was definitely more Rogue-like than its successors, and while it had some rough edges, those rough edges gave it more character.
One thing in particular sums up what I like about the original Diablo and how Blizzard’s design principles changed over time.
Unique items were absolutely bonkers.
I originally wrote this when the new Deus Ex came out and I replayed the original. I wrote it to point out how unbalanced the different builds paths happened to be in Dues Ex.
Some people complained that in the new game, if you focused on non-lethal skills that this would sabotage other parts of the game like certain boss battles. What I wanted to point out was that this was still true in the original game, and that the unbalance between tech paths was, in some cases, even worse in the original game.
I wanted to do more work on it before posting it, but oh well.
Sinbad is a game on the iPhone. Maybe it is on other phones as well; I don’t know.
The game is free.
The game starts with an unskippable cutscene.
In the game, you play Sinbad. Sinbad looks a lot like Disney’s Aladdin. He also sails a ship without a name, and he is always barefoot for some reason. Your goal is to sail to different places and gather pieces of ancient relics for a mysterious stranger. Presumably this will save the world and stop evil.
One of the things you do in the game is upgrade and maintain your ship. The other thing you do is run around levels fighting bad guys.