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Jacqi & Mass Effect

I really enjoy watching my wife play Mass Effect and other video games. She believes what the game tells her.

If a character says “We’re running out of time, we need to get out of here,” she’ll drop everything and sprint to the door.

If a big enemy that looks tough appears, she’ll retreat and hide and hesitate to attack it.

On the other hand, I have so much experience with games, I’m always looking behind the scenes. I know that, no matter how much people shout and the screen shakes, I’m not in any rush for time unless there’s a timer on the screen. If a big enemy appears, it doesn’t matter; they’re going to be different from other enemies, but they’ll still be in the same power range. Both situations don’t get my adrenaline pumping like they should.

My advice to designers is to throw in unusual situations every now and then to shake up jaded gamers. Give us fights that we can’t win. Give us dialog that we actually need to listen to. Give us situations both where the obvious solution is the right one, and the obvious solution is inefficient. Help us rebuild that suspension of disbelief, so that we can actually fear our enemies and rejoice in our victories again.

In this sense, old games had more going for them regarding emergent behavior. If I’m playing Doom, I open a door, and a horde of demons turns toward me, it’s possible that I just don’t have enough ammunition to win. The demons aren’t being sent out in waves designed to give me enough time to reload and recharge my shields in between; if I attract too much attention or don’t kill them efficiently, I will be overrun. That isn’t to say that old games are harder; just that they respond more directly and clearly to my decisions.

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  1. Jacqi
    March 21, 2011 at 7:54 am

    Erin just told me that to a certain degree, the timers on Mass Effect 2 will affect your game. The people who are with you have a less chance of surviving.

    But back to my game play, when I enter into a world, I trust what the designers/developers are telling me. If your NPC’s are telling me we’re going to blow up in 5 minutes, then heck yeah we’re getting out of there. I expect that in 5 minutes, the game to blow me up otherwise.

    If the enemy is big and tough, and you don’t give me much ammo for my highest powered gun, I will retreat and try to think/use strategy. Many of these situations, especially with shooters, I’ve never been in. Platformers are run, jump, kill a dude, jump. And if my character has super powers that takes a 2 minute tutorial to learn how to use, then I’m most likely going to rely on my guns and ignore the powers. It’s only till I saw you using Shockwave and Charge before I realized what I could actually do with my character.

    But yes, when I enter your world, and you lay down laws and rules, I will follow them as you tell me because I take you at your word that this is how your world will work. If it doesn’t actually work that way, then you lied, broke trust and I’m more likely to hate your game. So to speak.

    • March 21, 2011 at 10:38 am

      The mission that came to mind for me was when you landed next to a ship, recovered their logs, then all the robots activated – the mission that starts the “investigate the scary rogue VI” mission. I think Grunt said “we should get back to the shuttle,” and you took off running, ignoring enemies and pickups on the way. That’s a valid response! I don’t mean to belittle it. But I also realized that there was no actual timer on that mission, and we could have hung around kicking robots as long as we wanted.

      The example with the big tough enemy, as well as using your powers, are more about a willingness to experiment. I think experienced gamers are accustomed to testing the boundaries of the game, and learning from their own experience and experiments. I never read a FAQ or anything on Charge; I just experimented with the ability until I worked out the right way to use it.

      And that’s what I mean with larger enemies…well, here’s a good way to think of it. The animator/modeler and the gameplay/combat designer are different people. The modeler can make the enemy look as scary as they want, but it’s up to the combat designer to actually make the enemy dangerous and difficult to defeat. And I’ve seen plenty of enemies – such as the final enemy of Mass Effect 2 – where their fearsomeness and their power are inversely correlated.

  2. Erin
    March 21, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Mass Effect 2 is a weird mix when it comes to timing. You can put off saving the galaxy to strip mine every planet and do every side quest with no consequences, but on the other hand, wait around too long after your crew is kidnapped and they get melted. (That’s an invisible timer, by the way.)

    Honestly I wish there was more of the latter in games. I get that side quests are pretty much required, but my suspension of disbelief has trouble with the fact that you can put off saving the world to go on fetch quests. It’d be nice if there was more of a trade-off for taking too much time – make the final mission more difficult, for instance.

    It’s also problematic that the conventions change from game to game. The “hide from the big tough enemy” thing is pretty much required for something like a Zelda game, where every boss is defeated by looking for its weak point and the pattern to its attacks and defenses. So Jacqi had the right strategy, just for the wrong kind of game.

  3. March 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

    I like that, with the crew. I wouldn’t have expected that.

    Star Control II (available free online as The Ur-Quan Masters) has a tremendous number of invisible timers. The player is welcome to sit at home base and not interact with the game. Eventually, a religious schism will break out in the Ur-Quan. One sub-race will grow and overtake the other. Once their war is finished, the victor will learn the location of Earth, and start moving in your direction. Eventually, Earth is overrun.

    Thinking about it, I find the crew timer a little weak, because an individual player won’t know the timer exists. Either they get there in time, and the crew lives, or they don’t, and the crew dies. But the only way to know that it’s their actions caused that outcome is by playing through the game twice and acting differently each time – or by reading a wiki. The problem is that players don’t become aware of the existence of a time limit until after they’ve reached the outcome. The decision would be more interesting if the player encountered other humans in captivity earlier in the game, and gained the information that the enemy eliminated their prisoners somewhere between 2-4 weeks after capture (or however long it is.) Later on, they wouldn’t necessarily need to have a timer on-screen, but they would be conditioned to understand that the situation was time-sensitive.

    It’s a principle of game design: if the player does not understand that a decision exists, it doesn’t exist.

    • Erin
      March 22, 2011 at 11:57 am

      “It’s a principle of game design: if the player does not understand that a decision exists, it doesn’t exist.”

      This is an interesting problem. We as players are so aware of the mechanics of games that we think of it in those terms. If someone we knew got kidnapped in real life, we would never consider how long we have before they got killed – we’d go save them as soon as we could. Only in a game do we have to take into consideration timers or giving information that would tell the player it’s time sensitive. Jacqi is playing the game like she’s living it, which is awesome. I wish more games would get you into the experience like this. Heavy Rain did well – I wasn’t thinking about game mechanics at all – it was OH SHIT WHAT DO I DO NOW the whole time.

      I wonder if it’s even possible to retrain our expectations of games so that we take things more at face value, or if the conventions are too set in stone?

      • Jacqi
        March 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm

        That’s my thing, is that I take a lot of stuff at face value. I feel I was raised by cartoons in a way, and with cartoons, yes you can grab an anvil from nothing, but I’ve always felt that physics and face value also play a heavy role into that. I also play video games to escape. I like being able to run around Renaissance Italy and stab people. And likewise, I like the Epic of being in Space, trying to save the human race, while having politics challenge my own personal morals. And in the realm of video games, if I want to play “Lydia Shepherd” as a Mary Sue (albeit a bad ass one), no one’s the wiser and I have lots of fun (with my frustration).

  4. March 21, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Experimentation may also be why I don’t find scary video games particularly scary. I feel encouraged to test my boundaries and learn the limits of the game. Can I fight the knife zombies? Well, I take some damage. Should I open this cabinet? Nope, I die. (Of course, horror games also enjoy mixing up the rules. Sometimes the ammo pickup is good, sometimes it triggers a wave of zombies, sometimes it just explodes. Still, you can generally get an idea of your player’s abilities, and what objects in the environment are interactive.)

    So when something horrifying happens, I react to it less as “Oh my god” and more “Hmm, well, that doesn’t work, let’s try something else.”

    Maybe horror games need permadeath, to force players to hesitate and consider the risk of experimentation…but that’s just not something the gaming community is willing to accept.

  5. March 21, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Overall, I should clarify my original point: I like Jacqi’s style when playing games. I wish I could be more like her. She has a much stronger emotional involvement with the game’s story.

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