Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Talkin' 'bout Flash Games (and how they can be the best thing ever AND the worst thing ever) Blues

Yes, since this is a blag about music and whatever else (and since nobody reads it), I take this place to talk about Flash games -- not as a programmer, mind. I never programmed in Flash and have no means to make a Flash game. No, sir: I talk as a PLAYER. I'm not your everyday Flash junkie, but I do have an account at Kongregate and I like to collect badges (erk). So, what's up with Flash games?

They can be the best thing ever because Flash put A LOT in the hands of extremely creative and talented people who always wanted to make and publish games in a way that wouldn't attract the attention of only hardcore gamers who're willing to download and run .EXE files. Flash games are immediately playable by pretty much anyone - many systems already have the Flash plug-in installed, and most of the others make it very easy to install. To play, you just follow a link and -- presto -- no more needed. They allow fancy graphics, the performance is halfway decent, and many websites collect hundreds of Flash games because each game is a single, (generally) small file. Flash is a moderately easy tool to handle, it makes things very easy and simple, and ActionScript allows quite a lot to be done. People with a lot of ideas and a lot of willingness to break the rules and explore new territory are finally able to do so, without too many hurdles.

They can be the worst thing ever because, well, Flash put a lot in the hands of people who seem to have NO IDEA of what makes a good game. Really: go out there and see. It can become frustrating, as many games have great concepts and premises, but the execution? ICK. Horrid. It's not a matter of "knowledge" or things you learn at school, and it's not a matter of me talking because I never actually went there and made a game to see how hard it is: it's merely a matter of COMMON SENSE. It's concepts even a child can grasp. They are easy, simple things that we many times fail to realise exactly BECAUSE they're so easy and simple. It's things we take for granted, but forget they have to be actually implemented.

One example: go out, take the games you play the most and see how much your performance depends on luck. I'm not telling you to see how many games use luck as a deciding factor: I'm telling you to see to which extent luck is necessary in those games. I'm not kidding you: many games I've played DEPEND on luck to ridiculous extremes, to the point where you're simply left with nothing to do to save your skin if you're unlucky. An actual example: the game Death Dice Overdose is a very simple action game in which your character has to move left and right and jump in order to avoid dice falling from the sky. Get hit and die, simple. But not only that: you need to pick up "pills" to keep your panic down. Your panic increases over time, and if it reaches a limit, you die. The pills appear randomly (yes, ABSOLUTELY randomly) all over the screen, and there's a lower limit, so you can't simply pick up pills at will.

Bottom line: you have a limited amount of time to eat a pill in order to keep alive. The smart readers realise that if the game does NOT give you a pill before the timer expires, you're hopelessly dead, and there's nothing you can do. The game has to ENSURE that the rate of pills are enough to keep you alive, and you should only die of panic if you fail to reach the pills in time because of his limited skills. Well, to put it bluntly, the author of the game wasn't that smart. Yep: you can DIE because the game is too randomly. It does not calculate the rate of pills, and it simply gives them away at will. If it "decides" to kill you, you die. See? When you play the game, you DO NOT have the guarantee that you'll only fail because your skills are too limited. You can die without committing any mistakes. So what's the point?

It seems like programmers think that adding a bias will make the game too "easy" and not challenging enough, and that it HAS to be random and luck-based in order to be challenging. First: challenge is worthless if there's no fun. Second: luck and luck ALONE is not fun. If it were, people wouldn't bluff in poker, and people wouldn't need to prospect of earning money to bet on horse races and slot machines. Many games do depend on randomness and chance, but PURE randomness and chance is no way to make a game. You know why?

People play games because they want to be good at it. Just ask your friends and see how many of them play games because they want to suck at it and lose. They don't. People play games because they want to beat them, they want to play them once, lose, learn with their mistakes, get better at it, slowly advance, learn new tricks and tips, and FINALLY beat the hell out of it, and then try again at a higher difficulty. For that, people need an INCENTIVE to play. People need to feel rewarded by the game. I'm not talking about promising free cookies if they beat the game, no sir: I'm talking about making the game show the players when they're doing good, and KEEPING them at it. Did the player make a mistake? Punish them and let THEM see what they did wrong by themselves. Let them learn what they shouldn't do, and let them try again. You don't need to pat the player's back and say you love him, no way! It's not about being "nice": it's about being fair and balanced. The player wants to know he's playing well and want to see the consequences of that. He doesn't want to hang by a little thread and be brutally, unexplainably killed at the slightest mistake, or worse, see all his efforts WASTED because the game was badly programmed and was unfair to him. Didn't you ever wonder why many Flash games allow you to earn money or experience and "upgrade" your player as you go? It's a simple concept, see! As simple and obvious as you can be. I'm not saying the Gospel and dictating how all games should be: there are exceptions, but mostly, the player should be compelled to play. If he loses, he should sit back, think carefully, review his strategy and try again. Instead, many games have the player tearing out his hair and running his keyboard into the monitor in anger and disgust. Why? Because THE GAME'S AUTHOR SUCKS, that's it. Plain and simple.

Yet some people fail to grasp it. There's a game called Amorphous+, which is extremely frustrating. The concept is great: with a top down view, you control a guy with a sword who has to kill blobs that kill you at the slightest touch and in annoyingly long and stupidly violent ways (I'm talking Family Guy style here -- folks, gross-out humour is OLD. GET OVER IT). Basically, one touch and you're dead. And the stages are LONG. So, all the time, you have to watch your back and be careful and follow your strategy tightly. But that's not all: the smallest deviation, one millisecond you lose, one thing you failed to see -- or worse -- a completely insane and stupid situation means you're dead, and you have to start ALL over again and play through the BORING, SLOW early stages in order to get to the hard part. What was the "incentive" to the player? Achievements. Yep, the most dishonest and lazy way to keep the players hooked. And I'm talking about illogical, time-wasting achievements, and even some that depend on "one-in-a-billion" situations that, in order to be reached, either the player was born when all planers in the Solar System were aligned, or he's sick enough to play for a billion years uninterrupted. Months later, a "clone", called Cell Warfare appeared. It has achievements, but WAY fewer and more logical ones. The gameplay is instantly recognisable, and this time, the player can take more than one hit before he dies, AND he recovers his health with power-ups. This means, FINALLY, the premise was made playable. And just to give you a hint: the toughest, hardest achievement on that game is equivalent to the LEAST Amorphous+ expects from the beginning players. Yep: beating the easiest level without being touched once is the "ultimate" achievement on Cell Warfare. Wonder why!

Amorphous+ was fun, but it was unforgiving. It didn't give you the space to grow and sharpen your skills: by having to go through the boring parts ALL the time, the player loses patience and interest, only to be mercilessly killed by the slightest, most subtle slip. It's not a rewarding game: you don't tell your skills are paying off, because the game just throws them out of the window at random times through the level. And so do many, MANY games. You know, I sometimes wonder if the game makers actually PLAY their own games. Maybe they get so attached to their "brainchild" that they somehow refuse to see its most gaping flaws, and disguise them as "challenge". But if a guy does that, he's not fit to be a game maker, an artist or anything. The guy must be able to look at his own efforts with a critical mind if he wants to go. A guy that gets stuck to his illusion of "perfection" in his works gets stuck. He doesn't evolve. And worse: he unleashes garbage into the unsuspecting world. Don't do that, people: if you make a game, play it like an actual player would. Revise your expectations. Be clear on what you want the game to demand from its players. Is it a skill-based game? Don't make it too random! DO keep the randomness, because it adds unpredictability and interest. But see, chance and luck should merely force the player to learn to adapt to new and surprising situations. The player should be compelled to explore all the possibilities and adapt quickly, change his strategy when needed, NOT to pray for his life and hope the game doesn't throw him into unavoidable death. Make the game fun.

And please, PLEASE. STOP THE TOWER DEFENCE GAMES. Really, there are billions of them already. The formula got old ages ago. Stop it.

No comments:

Post a Comment