The other day I sat down for about an hour and a half and listened to my idol and god Jonathon Blow (developer of Braid and currently working on The Witness) speak about games and the way they are designed. More specifically, the kinds of tools designers use and how they can be taken to unethical extremes. You can watch the lecture here, and I recommend that you do, because it’s really interesting and he talks about how FarmVille is evil.
But for those of you without the time to spare, I’ll give you the gist. Designers will often spice up a boring game with pretty graphics, nice sound effects, and story elements to keep players compelled. His biggest example was, of course, FarmVille, and how the game was pretty much just clicking on things but with nice pictures of cows added to it.
The things designers will use the following to essentially manipulate you into playing and playing:
- Story: A story will keep players asking, “What happens next?”
- Eye Candy: A small visual or audio cue that lets you know you’ve done something right, e.g. A chainsaw kill in Gears of War.
- Progression: By dividing the game up into levels, or giving players clear goals that make them say, “Just one more level.”
- Skinner Box: Giving the player small, in-game rewards every once in a while, the most prevalent example being the level up systems in RPG’s.
It was a really interesting talk, and it made me think about games that didn’t use these tools, and simply were compelling on their own.
But here’s the thing, I couldn’t think of anything. Every single game I thought of not only used these mechanics, but used them TONS. Below I picked five games that are generally considered to be great. Let’s take a look at how these games use the aforementioned tools.
Team Fortress 2
For some bizarre reason, this was the first game that popped into my head when I tried to think about games that worked based on their mechanics alone. “After all,” I thought, “Team Fortress has no story, and it’s multiplayer based, so there aren’t really any levels to progress.” After thinking about it for another two seconds I felt like an idiot, and was actually embarrassed, because Team Fortress 2 LOVES “the developer’s toolbox”.
Let’s say you’re playing as the Sniper. You’re sitting on the other side of the map, hiding far behind your teammates who are courageously charging towards BLU team’s control point. You watch the battle through your scope, waiting for the perfect time to introduce the BLU team’s face to Mr. Sniper Bullet. Suddenly a RED Pyro uncloaks in your view. Knowing that Pyros don’t have cloaking abilities, you recognize this impostor as a BLU Spy. You immediately pull the trigger and shoot the Spy in the head. The green words “critical hit” float above the Spy’s brain-liberated head and he falls to the ground screaming. A triumphant melody plays through your speakers, and the words “You are dominating HaplessNoob” appear. You turn your attention back to the control point, you see that the area is cleared of all BLUs, so you join your comrades in capturing the opposition’s control point. A nice sound effect plays, green numbers float at the bottom of the screen, and the scary announcer lady informs you that more time has been added. But then, as if out of nowhere, you find yourself falling to the ground screaming as another sound effect plays. HaplessNoob had come back, and he got his revenge kill! You now fully intend to hunt down “HaplessNoob” and murder his family and friends, but first a screen pops up and lets you know that you’ve found The Huntsman bow. How nice. You equip the bow and charge towards BLU’s final control point, but a victory melody let’s you know that your comrades have captured the final point! Success! Onto the next round!
Now, in that scenario alone, let’s count how many times Valve dug into the developer’s toolbox.
- The critical hit you got for the headshot (Eye Candy)
- Dominating HaplessNoob (Eye Candy)
- Capturing the control point (Eye Candy)
- HaplessNoob’s revenge kill (Eye Candy… well for him anyway)
- Finding The Huntsman (Skinner Box)
- Victory melody (Eye Candy)
- Round 2 (Progression)
That’s seven uses in the span of maybe a minute. Like I said, Valve LOVES the toolbox.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “No Jackson! It can’t be true! Valve’s too good to manipulate me! They offered all those nice Team Fortress updates for free!” you scream as you wear your headcrab hat and cry into your Companion Cube plushie. Well fear not, there’s still hope Valve fanboy. Let’s take a look at arguably their biggest and best work, Half-Life 2.
Now Half-Life 2 is most certainly a game with solid mechanics, rubbish vehicle sections aside. After all, you’ve got these grand, meticulously designed levels, a large variety of cool weapons to use, clever physics puzzles, the freakin’ gravity gun. Surely a game as wonderful as Half-Life does not need silly little trifles like unlockable hats to be compelling.
Just stop for a second and think about what happens when you kill an enemy. Any enemy. From the tiniest headcrab to the mightiest strider. What happens when you kill them? They let out a death wail, don’t they? It makes you feel pretty good, doesn’t it? Also, what happens when grab a health pack? It makes a pleasant beeping sound (Eye Candy). How do you unlock the weapons in the game? They’re presented as a steady stream of rewards (Skinner Box).
Considering we’ve established that you are a massive Valve fanboy, I bet you’re eagerly awaiting Half-Life 2: Episode Three in your Gordon Freeman pajamas that have little feets on ‘em. What makes you want this game so bad? Could it be that huge cliffhanger at the end of Episode Two? Or, in other words, the story?
So yeah, Valve uses these tools too. Sorry fanboy. If it makes you feel any better, any game playable on an Xbox 360 uses the toolbox, because the fact that it’s on the Xbox means it’s required to use the biggest, most devious Skinner Box of them all.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
So every Xbox game uses the Skinner Box. No problem, right? All we have to do is step into the past for a little bit. Besides, everyone knows that older games are better less stupid simpler. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at what many consider to be the greatest game ever made, Ocarina of Time.
Come on, surely the greatest game of all time doesn’t need any of those tools. OK, it has a story, but who plays a Zelda game for the plot? Idiots and babies, that’s who! Just think about the magnificent design of the temples, or the huge, sprawling, secret filled overworld, or the intense boss battles, or any of that. Zelda thinks you should take that toolbox and shove it up your filthy sphincter.
At this point I could mention a large number of things, like the smaller, more subtle sound effects and rewards, or how you’re really selling the story short. But really, the notion that Zelda doesn’t use the toolbox can be dispelled with one, simple sound effect.
I bet you this sound STILL makes you squeal like a little girl.
Super Mario Bros.
Now you’re rather angry with me, “Well,” you say, “You just didn’t go back far enough! What about something REALLY old, like Super Mario Bros?
Fine theoretical Valve/Nintendo fanboy, we’ll play your game. It’s true that by today’s standards, Super Mario Bros is a very simple game. But that doesn’t mean it’s free form the clutches of the developer’s toolbox. The coin collecting and power up sound effects both count as Eye Candy, collecting a hundred coins for a 1-Up is a Skinner Box, and the game is not only split into levels, but they’re further split into worlds. A double whammy of Progression.
Plus, just think about the story. OK, so it’s not exactly on par with Half-Life 2, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t used to drive the player along. Think back to when you were a little kid, playing this game on your NES Christmas morning. You really wanted to rescue the princess, didn’t you? It pissed you off when Toad told you that your princess is in another castle, didn’t it? One of the reasons Mario was such a pioneer is that it had a plot. It wasn’t little dot guy shooting at other dots, it was an epic journey across a strange land to rescue a princess from an evil monster. Before Mario, very few games had a story, or even a setting. Mario essentially put the story tool in the toolbox.
“No,” now you’re saying, “No, no, no, no, no. Pac-man? Really? Pac-Man?!?” Yes, Pac-Man. Pac-Man employs these tools as well. Notice that there’s a distinct difference in the sound effects for whenever you’re eating pellets. Eating pellets gives you points, and enough points means an extra life. Eating a power pellet gives you the ability to eat ghosts, and plays a satisfying little beep that gives you extra points whenever you do so. Let us not also forget that Pac-Man was one of the earliest examples of a game with cutscenes. Every once in a while it would show the crazy antics between the ghosts and everyone’s favorite yellow pie. Why don’t you sing along on this one? Eye Candy, Skinner Box, Eye Candy, Skinner Box.
We could go even further, but I think you get the point, and I think I’ve rambled on for long enough. I think the main thing to take out of this is that although yes, the developer’s toolbox can be used in games like FarmVille and World of Warcraft to keep players addicted, they aren’t bad on their own and, in fact, are some of the most memorable parts of our favorite games.
That said, I’ve finally got my first project nailed down and have started work on it. It began as a little thought exercise to see if I could come up with a game that didn’t employ those tools. I didn’t succeed, obviously, but I think what I did come up with is interesting enough. I’ll let you be the judge when I finally release it.