Gamebreaker is a new blog series in which I take a look at some often ignored concepts in gaming. These concepts are really important in my video game experience. I created this blog series in celebration of reaching 10 subscribers.
Why do we play video games? This is the question we’ve been trying to answer for years. In fact, it’s the first question that comes up in pretty much everything you do. The answer is simple: gaming gives us a feeling of accomplishment, a gratification, a satisfaction of some sorts. Some people get the same feeling out of reading a book, listening to music or working. Even the most selfless people get satisfaction out of helping others. Game developers know this and although every game tries to give a gamer that feeling, some succeed more than others. I’ll discuss this subject along with some example to prove my point.
In most games, an accomplishment feeling will show itself in the form of completion. Whether it’s completing a level or getting to a checkpoint, the manifest will be comparable to punctuation in a text. It allows the gamer to breathe and reflect on what was just attained.
The most popular way to punctuate a game is by including bosses. Classic platformers like Megaman and Sonic come to mind right away, but also RPGs. By having a boss every stage or dungeon, there is a break in events, a culmination of efforts on the player’s part. In short, you need to tell the gamer in some way that he made progress, with a checkpoint, save point, boss, cinematic, etc.
However, if there is no end in sight, gamers will be discouraged. Take Arkanoid for the NES as an example. Sure the game is hard and getting through it is not as important as personal achievement from getting a high score, but I still wanted to try to see if there was an end to it, and there was. With tool assistance, I found a couple of bosses and the end after 33 stages, and then it looped indefinitely like any other NES games. So in the end, there were checkpoints, but by having them so far apart, the gamer was not enticed to reach them at all cost.
Still, in this game, as with almost every other game, at one point you end something, which makes this the most basic method of keeping the player interested. He constantly has to reach for the end. A good showcase of this is the original Super Mario Bros.That flagpole has been there from the beginning and is still there in all 2D Mario games to date. You could just go into the castle for the next stage as many retro games did, but it just feels so much more rewarding to slide down and see some fireworks.
So you told your audience that they made progress. Great. Now, how good was their progress? Did they plow through your pathetic challenges or did they make it out with a leg missing? Gamers have a tendency towards competitiveness. If you give them something to compare against, you play with their ego, which is a great thing to do.
The most traditional way of measuring skills is the good old basic “score system”. Since the arcade days, these corner screen numbers have never really left. Sure, we don’t consider them as much as we used to, but, back then, we went to great lengths to see our 3 letters in that top scores table. Fortunately, like many other aspects in games, they evolved becoming grades, currency, kill count, meters and online leaderboards. There is a great satisfaction obtained by seeing your name on top of the list after a COD game and there is no better objective than aiming for a B in DDR.
Another way to measure a player’s skills is challenges. It’s basically the concept of letting anyone finish your game, but putting an extra difficulty in there to test his abilities. The simplest examples I can give you are collectables like red coins, lums, stars, etc. Sure you little cousin can get through a stage, but when you play it, you go for 100% completion getting every hidden coin in the way. Of course, getting everything is not always the best way since you don’t want to discourage the player.
Here I want to look at two games: Crash Bandicoot and Rayman Origins. The first one, in my opinion, fails to optimize the use of collectables. At the beginning of the game, nothing tells you that you should break all the boxes in a stage. When you reach the end losing no lives, they make the boxes you miss fall on your head punishing the gamer in some way. But in the end, the player did get through the stage untouched. Why punish him for not having "perfect skills". However, in Rayman Origins, it’s obvious you have to collect lums, but you don’t have to get all of them. It’s a perfect way to let a player show his skills while still allowing one or two mistakes. By still having stages with higher difficulty, Rayman therefore induces two levels of challenge.
So you told the gamer he progressed and how well he did. Now give him a treat for his effort. Like a dog trainer, you have to be careful with treat distribution. You cannot reward every small accomplishment, you should space them out, make the gamer deserve them.
There are two kinds of rewards: Passive and Active. Passive rewards are the equivalent of diplomas and badges. As you play, you achieve a goal set by the game itself and it gives you the proof of that accomplishment. It can give you a great feeling like the achievements on Xbox or be kind of disappointing for the work you put in there like giving you a diploma for collecting all the Pokémons. A great example of passive rewards is the RPG Lunar: Silver Story who gave youa bromide depending on some conditions. These were actually images of the female characters which felt pretty rewarding to a teenage boy.
Then there are rewards you can actually use. I call these active rewards. I won’t dig too much into these; you can find plenty of examples yourselves such as most hidden skills, extra lives, weapons, items, etc. A good example is in Megaman, when you obtain the ability of the boss you just defeated.
Like every other part of gaming, presentation is key. When you give out your reward, make it shiny and make it sound nice! Like flies towards a lantern, we’ll come running asking for more. The sound/music and presentation are there for two reasons:
1. Informing the player that he grabbed/obtained/accomplished something. Whether it’s a sound effect for an extra life or a cinematic of Megaman’s latest weapon, it’s basic positive reinforcements at its best. A good example of this is the infamous Zelda franchise. From the first game, whenever you found a secret, there would be a special sound effect. This, at the time, was a totally new concept. If you look at the Metroid series, which is also famous for its secrets, there is no sound effect. Is it obligatory? No, but it’s always fun to have an instant reward for your cleverness.
2. Enticing the player to follow or search for the reward/collectable. It can be a special sound effect when you approach a bonus, a change in music or just something shiny! If the gamer does not read the whole manual, you have to tell him what he wants, without telling them why. The best example of this is probably the giant DK coins in Donkey Kong Country 2. The first one is so easy to get, but it shows you how important it is, letting you know you should collect them.
Presentation is especially important for passive rewards since the image and sound will be the only accessible stimuli for the player to feel accomplishment. When the presentation is creative enough, the effect is flawless as in this example from Super Mario World.
I always go back to this game for many reasons, but as I wrote this, I realized: Mario 3 is the most rewarding game ever made. Let’s look at it following the points we enumerated earlier.
First off is completion. You probably know that every stage has that little slot machine at the end. Then you have a miniboss once or twice through the worlds and 8 different worlds to explore. At the end of each world, you have a special flying ship stage with a boss fight. However, the true punctuation feeling comes from the grabbing the magic wand at the end of each world. That’s exactly why everybody was trying to catch it as high up as they could!
Then we go to measuring the player’s abilities. This is the weakest point from the game since the major use of that concept is the score. In the end, nobody really looks at it. However, this is a game with a great learning curve and many difficult levels that are set in optional spots. It also includes a lot of secrets. These two last techniques may be a bit more subtle than true collectables or scores, but, for that era, they did the job!
I talked about how this game rewards you every 4 seconds and it’s true. This is the first Mario game to have tons of extra lives hidden everywhere. Every few stages you gain access to a toad house or a puzzle. Every other stage, you have the memory minigame or, if you’re really lucky, the ghost ship. If you fight some hammer bros, you also get an item. Every three stages, you also get extra lives. Then after each world, Princess sends you an item. It’s an item galore and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Lastly, we have presentation. I’ll get the obvious ones out of the way like the extra lives and power-up sound effects to jump to the major ones. I talked about the magic wand earlier, but I can’t stress how important the animation behind it is. Same thing can be said for the first fortress destruction animation in a Mario game. When you think about it, Super Mario World's animation are based on this little concept. I also need to talk about rare hidden power-ups. Above, I mentioned that presentation must let a gamer know if something is important. Think about this: How did you know the tanooki suit was so cool? Most of you didn’t even know you could turn into a statue with it making it no more relevant than the raccoon tail. Now, take a look at where you find the tanooki suit.
It’s an enormous block and the only way that you know you’ll be getting something extra special. Finally, I just want to show you my personal drug. This is what I remember the most from Mario 3 and I’m sure a lot of you feel the same. THIS is an epic reward.
I know this is longer and bulkier than what my readers are used to, but it’s something very important to me. This is how we explain our love for games whatever the genre. Of course, since I'm a big platforming fan, most of the games discussed are of that genre. But, while reading this, I’m sure you thought of many examples of other genres. These are your examples, your memories, and they are as valid as mine. There are countless actions that could feel utterly rewarding. From headshots to successful stealth kills, from leveling up to finishing him, you have your own rewards, don’t hesitate to present them in the comments below.
Until next time, see ya g1s! Thanks for reading! Here, have a cookie! You like cookies, don’t you? Who’s the good g1? It’s you! Yes you are! Yes you are! (Okay... I’m done.)
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