26 August, 2011

Guidelines 2

Some more guidelines.

Gradual Change
One of the most annoying tropes of RPGs is "you have been taken prisoner". We all know it, and we can probably all list a dozen games or so that do it at one point or another. All your stuff gets taken away, and it feels as if you are starting from the beginning again. Now why does that bother us so much? Because it invalidates all that we have done up to that point. It is oh-so easy for a game designer to just write "money := 0", and it feels exactly as unfair as it is easy to program. While this is the most obvious example, there are smaller ones too: Whenever a script ignores what you have done up to this point and just executes whatever it wants, we feel cheated. The issue is actually quite simple and has a lot to do with how we perceive our world: We never just "lose all our money", we always lose a certain amount, and if we had more, then some of it is left over.

I have given in slightly and added functionality which allows writers to set stats and items to certain values, no matter what they were before. But I highly discourage it. Let me offer an example as to why. Imagine the player is offered the choice of having his character convert (partially) to a cyborg. One version offers you these three choices

1. Only do some superficial replacements.
2. Replace about half your body.
3. Replace as much as you can with technology.

The other version only gives you the option of replacing your eyes, or not doing so. But if you chose to replace them, you are offered a few more parts, such as arms and legs. And when you do that too, you can then replace everything except your brain. 

I find the second version to be much more compelling for a couple reasons:
  • If the player chooses the first version's third option, he essentially wants all three, yet only sees the third. Which means its text will probably be either redundant or incomplete.
  • There is a lot more mystery and curiosity involved when you cannot see all choices up front and wonder how many there will be.
  • You get a taste of what is to come. Which means it is a lot easier to convince the player to do something slightly risky by offering something neat up front, and then teasing with the follow-up.
  • You cannot go too far for lack of knowing what the differences will be. Sure, you can regret making the choice (which is fine), but you don't get asked a question like "do you want a lot?" to which you inevitably would ask "how much is a lot?" 
To sum up, the second version is more mysterious, appeals more to your curiosity and at the same time, it is clearer. It is quite astonishing how much better it ends up being. And in games, what happens when we are confronted with version 1? We circumvent it by saving, testing all versions, then loading, and choosing the one we liked most. Bad game design does not get more obvious than "the player loads the game four times".

This is my primary reason for not having had any functionality to set stats to fixed values, and I still believe it is neither necessary nor a good thing.

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