I’m taking the rest of the year off. See you next year!
Monthly Archives: December 2015
Playing with me, myself, and I.
I’m a bit weird about multiplayer games. Many games designed around the concept or with it in mind do not appeal to me as games for multiple players. MMOs, for example, never really strike me as multiplayer games. Sure, everyone is playing in the same universe with tons of enemies to fight, complimentary skills, and guilds, but I always feel as if I’m never really part of a team. We’re all heading towards the same goal, but making our contributions separately. MMOs, and action RPGs, never connect with me on a multiplayer basis because they fail to create that sense of a unified team. Here are some of the ways they fail:
No common target
Plenty of games let players complete the same quest, but they don’t often provide a common target. Things needed to complete a quest, such as collecting an item or defeat certain monsters, are often divided amongst multiple targets. The players may need to slay 5 squirrels to advance, so they separate to maximize their squirrel killing capacity. Rather than create a joint quest, this breaks up a large quest into a number of smaller quests that the players pursue independently. The quest transforms from “kill five squirrels” to “everyone kill a squirrel and meet back here to collect the reward.” The quest is accomplished without needing the team together making it feel like a more efficient version of a single player quest rather than a team experience. Some games make this even worse by geographically dispersing the quest targets meaning players have no chance of interacting with each other while engaging in supposedly team based activities.
Don’t build a conversation
Party with a random person on a server and you could engage in a semblance of team play, but it’s always limited by your inability to converse with your teammates. Players are doing what they think is best, but their strategy is limited to just themselves. One of the core elements of a team, having a joint strategy, is missing. Even when friends get together and can talk, the game may not provide enough complexity to necessity a conversation about it. To build a team strategy, the game needs to inspire something worth talking about. There needs to be some element of the game with enough depth to talk about during and after a play session which also keeps players committed to improving themselves and their team dynamic. These conversations help bring everyone together and keep them focused on the game. It also makes the multiplayer experience more interesting by creating conversation during the game.
Leaving out the dependence
In a single player game, the main character must have an answer to every problem the game presents. If they don’t, then the player can’t progress and the game effectively ends. In a multiplayer game, those answers can, and should, be parsed out among all the players to promote interaction. When each player is capable of winning on their own, then the value of their fellow players diminishes considerably. There’s little reason to band together or talk strategy when each player is capable of handling problems on their own. A lack of dependence may actually harm the multiplayer aspect by encouraging players to strike out on their own if they feel they’re better off without others. When players must rely on each other, they have a forced bond which promotes teamwork. They need to develop team player or they’ll have trouble progressing in the game. Furthermore, dependency allows plays to play the same instance of the same game rather than distinct instances. A lack of dependence is a common problem in multiplayer games designed with single player in mind.
Making the story exclusive
Multiplayer games, and MMOs in particular, often have trouble reconciling the story with the many player characters. Sometimes players are arbitrarily selected as the “story” player or a game will even try to run a separate narrative for each player. Neither solution satisfies. With arbitrary lead characters, every other player feels left out. They’re watching someone else play their game leaving them less committed to what’s happening on screen. On the other hand, by creating distinct stories, the game divides the players’ experiences. Beyond involving the players in different plots, distinct stories also create differing start and stop times (wait around while a player finishes), the need to travel to areas that are useless for most but necessary for one, and separate plot quests that incentivize breaking up the team. A story should create a shared experience where all team members participate. Trying to recreate the single player experience in a multiplayer setting undermines the team based nature of the game and is unsatisfying.
I enjoy multiplayer games, but only when the developer commits to the concept. When I’m truly sharing the game with my fellow team members, it feels like we’re creating a bigger experience. Developers should focus on the multiplayer nature of their game, and leave the single player content to the games that specialize in it.
This is why you pay your level designers the big bucks.
Sonic: The Lost World is a mess. From the terrible tutorial, to the idiotic lives system, to the, yes, terrible level design, it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying this game. While some of this is the inevitable result of attempting to incorporate a sense of speed into a 3D platformer, much more of it a product of unforced errors committed by the developers. This is one of those few scenarios where Sega’s every design decision seems to make things worse.
The trouble begins with Sonic: The Lost World’s total inability to communicate its controls. At no point does the game run the player through the basic controls or the more advanced maneuvers. Many of the moves (run, spin, jump, lock on, etc) are familiar, but some are not. Messing around in the early stages gives the player enough information to get by, but understanding the finer points of the game requires additional guidance. I was half way through the game before I realized that some enemies had to be kicked rather than spin-dashed and that only struck me when I had to kick enemies to progress. Despite having played most of the game, I’m still unaware of how some of the powerups work. The Lost World includes little tooltips, but, like the mechanics of the rest of the game, their purpose is initially unclear and the means to access them is never stated. In addition to the poor tutorial, the game never develops its own visual language. The player rarely understands the unique mechanics of each level until they happen and they’re rarely intuitive. In one case, platforms in a level are periodically destroyed by a dragon’s shout. Rather than demonstrate this first in a safer environment, The Lost World rolls the mechanic out while the player stands on a destructible platform suspended over a ravine. Mario, this isn’t.
Given the terrible communication, it should come as no surprise that The Lost World hosts a number of other questionable design decisions. Premier among them is the lives system. While most modern platformers either design the level to be completed in one shot or ditch lives altogether, Sonic: The Lost World does neither. Instead, it has progressively longer levels with a limited number of lives. The player can bank lives across levels, but should they lose them all, they start at the beginning of the level with just four. Levels get longer and longer culminating in one level which incorporates three platforming sections and three boss fights. Tackling that on just four lives is an exercise in frustration and is the reason why I’m writing this review without finishing the game. Another poor design decision of note is the requirement of animals to progress to the boss. When defeated, each enemy gives up an animal which Sonic automatically collects. The final level of each section requires that the player collect a certain number of animals to unlock the level. The end result is that I had to grind a Sonic game. That’s right, I had to replay levels to get enough animals to move on. There is no value in locking content away like this. The decision to do so is just mind-boggling.
All of these terrible choices pile on to already weak level design. Sega copies the mini planet idea from Super Mario Galaxy, yet never seems to understand that it makes Sonic’s traditional speed focused gameplay even harder. If you thought operating in 3D space was difficult, try doing it with gravity shifting. The Lost World’s 2D levels improve the controls, but the jumps and challenges aren’t particularly impressive. Nor is the decision to block flow. Sega regularly places enemies and obstacles along paths to prevent the player from gaining any speed. Just as the player gets into a flow, they run into an enemy and must start over. I could go on, but there’s really too much to cover. The level design stinks.
The common conclusion to a terrible Sonic game used to be to talk about how far the series has fallen from it’s heyday. Given the long stream of poor titles, even those memories are gone. The Sonic franchise is a worn out husk. Stay away from it and Sonic: The Lost World.