Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dear Game, Teach Me How to Play You

Ugh. I should've known better than to write an article criticizing Cave games, because even when I'm not deliberately picking fights, their fanbase is more than a little bit touchy. To be fair, they've had it rough - for a long time their console ports were either slow to come, nonexistent or buggy, most gamers have marginalized them, and even the better entries tend to get hand waves from the reviewers. (Ikaruga is about the only exception I've seen in recent shooter-dom and that's not even a Cave game. There are reasons for this, but I'm not in the mood to spread more filth and lies and get into more pointless arguments wherein people stick their fingers in their ears and yell really loudly. There's only so many times where you can reiterate and reclarify the same points before it's just time to give up.)

What the Cave Dilemma does bring up, though, is how games should teach you how to play. I will fully admit I am bad at Cave shooters, although not necessarily shooters in general. They're pretty difficult, and I'd venture that anyone who says otherwise is...well, for the lack of any better word, wrong. They're certainly not impossible, but they do present what is, at first, an overwhelming challenge. When I complain that the barrier of entry is too high to attempt a 1cc, what I mean is, there needs to be a way to create minor, meaningful goals - smaller hurdles, if you will - that will hopefully lead you to become better at it.

I've brought up Gradius and R-Type before, but let's veer away from shooters for a bit and talk about something different - classic Castlevania. There are six levels in the game, each divided into three sections, and each section is filled with a variety of enemies. Your character can only take between four and eight hits, and has four lives total - these are your margins of error. If you screw up, you lose some health. Screw up enough and you're back at the beginning of the section, losing one life. Run out of lives, and you have to start the stage over. As you get farther in the game, the levels get harder and your margin of error goes down, because enemies inflict more damage.

It's very simple the way it's set up - each enemy is an obstacle, a goal to be overcome. If you fail too many times, you have to repeat it until you do it right. Do it enough times, and hopefully you've picked up some skills to be used in the broad sense - not only for killing that one awkwardly placed bat, but every awkwardly placed bat. It's forgiving in that you get as many chances as it takes to get it right, but tough enough that you still get some enjoyment for increasing your skills. Your reward for your skill and persistence is the next level, and then the next, until you've beaten the game.

Now, ideally the amount of time you spend replaying a section shouldn't be too long. Everyone has their own specific tolerance, but I say if you make someone replay any more than five minutes, then that's probably too much. If kept under control, then you keep the player from becoming too frustrated. You need to have an acceptable margin of error too - gamers aren't robots, and to expect to make precise movements without making some mistakes is too least until they've become an expert, anyway.

Modern game design has pretty much followed this template. They've taken out the lives and continues, because memory cards and save games made them meaningless. But they still work in the same framework - nice and bite size chunks.

The problem with the insta-respawn mechanic that I'm criticizing is that there's no immediate feedback, no way to learn from your mistakes until you've started the whole game over. You die, and the game just keeps going. The primary goal - a 1cc - is set way up in the sky, to essentially play a perfect game. The only other goals are the ones you set yourself, but for those of us that are used to having our goals set for us, it's too abstract, too spongy. It's a very fundamental aspect of psychology, these small rewards, and they're gone.

Furthermore, by opening the gates to unlimited continues, you've essentially opened up the entire game. With that incentive gone, what's the value of getting better beyond self improvement? People with a spirit of competition, surely, but not everyone has that, nor cares. (PAY ATTENTION HATERS: THIS IS THE PRIMARY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN YOU AND I.)

Furthermore, let's look at some numbers. A single Cave game lasts about 20 minutes, during which you have a total of three lives, on default. That's an EXTREMELY low margin of error - to demand that kind of perfection is ridiculously stressful to a newcomer. It's particularly nasty in Cave games, considering it expects you to dodge bullets within mere pixels of your character. It's heavy, and it's easy to dismiss the game as being way outside your skill range - especially when, again, the rewards aren't nearly as meaningful as other games.

I'm not saying implementing checkpoints in Cave games is necessarily a good idea - it probably isn't. You really need to design your levels specifically for that type of mechanic, otherwise it doesn't really work, especially for arcade games. The worst example was the Xbox port of Metal Slug 3. Aware that many gamers complain of infinite continues and being able to blaze right through it, they restarted you back at the beginning of the stage when you ran out of lives. But the final stage was ridiculously long, and quite tough - repeating that long from scratch every time you ran out of lives was remarkably tedious. That's why I think it would be better to leave the core game alone and design a stronger framework to add some stronger incentives, set some more tangible goals, and make getting better at the game more rewarding than getting better for the sake of it.

Shooter fans, this will not hurt your beloved genre! Please stop acting like it's a heresy to criticize its design! You guys spend so much time screaming at reviewers and people who "just don't get it" without realizing what a strawman it is. As much as you may want to think otherwise, people are not idiots. They approach - and dismiss - things for very specific, very real reasons, and they're not ignorant to do so. The truly fantastic video games are the ones that are playable in newcomers and provide longtime play value for the hardcore. If it's done right, you might even find some novices making the transition. That's the sort of thing that can really only be beneficial for everyone, as much certain folks hate their ivory towers being so crowded.


  1. I think Touhou games have it right,(post Mountain of Faith)

    - If you run out of lives, you go back to the start of the stage.
    - Clearing a stage, even continuing, unlocks its practice mode.
    - You can only unlock the extra stage and real endings by 1cc.

    You start with very few lives, but if you score high enough (or some equivalent) you can get more easily. Continuing resets your score and lives, so it makes finishing the game credit feeding pretty hard, but it allows you to unlock practices so you can get better. So with this system you get rid of breezing through the game in 20 minutes by credit feeding, but make it so you don't have to start from the very beginning each time, and you get rewards even if you didn't finish the whole game, while at the same time you make it so 1cc is actually the easiest way to clear it if you know what you're doing. I think this approach is very clever and absolutely suits home play while keeping the spirit and difficulty of arcade. It's basically engineering the game so 1cc is actually attractive and not some random goal you have to set, while giving other options that don't break the game. Cave should make something similar.

  2. I've never played a Touhou game for any length of time, but that actually does sound pretty reasonable. Thanks for the heads up!

  3. I hope those hardcore STG forum guys don't see this, they will shit a break.

  4. Too late :( (at least on the other post)

  5. Yeah those fanboys went fucking MENTAL on the other post man, Jesus Christ I've never seen such a weeaboo fest, man! I guess whoring yourself out on the street so you can afford overpriced Japanese arcade boards does a number on your sanity.

    So I come here to tell you Cavedwellers: Chill out guys, it's just a game, and everybody is entitled to their own opinion.

  6. OH, btw, Raiden III for PS2 does EVERYTHING Carlos talks about. That's why it's my favorite SHMUP ever. It's hard, but well-designed for everyone to play, not just robots.

  7. I hate to ask, but morbid curiosity has the better of me... Did the STG forum guys start a topic on the previous post, and can you link there? I checked the Cave forums but found nothing. Or did you mean

  8. @Kurt: The Touhou games have their flaws, namely the flawed art and nonsensical plot(like that should bother a Shikigami fan!), but they do reward and encourage multiple playthroughs.

    They also have some great music and beautiful bullet patterns, even though some are downright sadistic.

  9. i've never 1cced a bullet hell shooter before, but geting past another level for the first time still feels amazing.
    as for reviewers, when you can see from the screenshots that someone is credit-feeding through on the easiest difficulty (as is usually the case when a shooter is reviewed in mainstream videogame magazines, at least), it's pretty obvious that they don't understand the genre.
    it's not too intimidating for newcomers, either. the first bullet hell type games i played were gunbird 2 and giga wing on the dreamcast, nd they were incredibly hard, but that made it feel so much better whenever i got a little further.

  10. I agree that a 1cc clear on a Cave shmup is far beyond the skill level of the average gamer. But looking at the latest Cave release, they've included a Novice mode. It seems like Cave too is recognizing the difficulty as an issue to address.

    I'll quote what I found on the shmup forum:
    "novice mode is ridiculously easy and obviously only included for absolute beginners of the genre (it is impossible not to 1CC the game in this mode even on the highest difficulty setting)."

  11. What turns me off about Cave is that they are the poster child when you want an example of a modern shmup. And they've been refining their formula for YEARS already. Good for those that still want more, but I've been burnt out ever since Dodonpatchi, and that was over a decade ago!

    For that same reason, Touhou bores me too.

  12. Play the Futari port, and you'll see that Cave and M2 have created a very friendly package for beginners. The ore game is ridiculously difficult, but any gamer should be able to have fun with the Novice and Arrange modes. A training mode has also been included for those who want to improve on certain parts of the game without playing a full run. Overall, I find it a lot easier to get into for the casual player than Ikaruga, which many players have already discovered. Yes, it will kick your ass on default settings, but this package includes something I really think any gamer could enjoy. I suck at these games, and I'm having more fun with this than I've had with any mass-market release in recent memory. In a way, I guess I miss games that will allow you to fail( a phrase I stole from a 1up blog ) and i am glad to play one that wants you to succeed, but won't hold your hand to ensure that you do.

  13. Also, if you actually use the word "weeaboo", you have absolutely no right to even attempt to belittle someone else. Calling that word retarded is an insult to retarded people.

  14. Hmm... You understand that Cave shooters work best in an arcade setting, yet all your criticisms are aimed at it being an arcade game at heart. Every "problem" you address simply doesn't exist until it appears on a console.

    Only thing you can do is follow the same rules as at an arcade. So, here's a few tips:

    1. Never continue. You'll get better more quickly by mastering earlier sections; can't expect to do later sections if a continue is needed in the first place, anyway. In fact, that's your goal and the only way to play it at an arcade.

    2. Pay attention to scoring. They are not seperate and must be understood even if you're "playing for survival." Mushihimesama Futari offers better score if you kill enemies at close range. So, guess what the trick is to dodging a lot of bullet patterns in the game? Staying close. Scooting left and right at the bottom screen is only asking for a quick death. A lot of bullet patterns in the game accelerate and tend to spread toward the bottom of the screen.

    Basically, these games already teach you how to play, just a different mindset is required. In Super Mario brothers if you don't jump, you die on the first goomba. So you jump next time. If you scoot to the edge, that's still not enough to clear some pits. So next time, the player runs and acelerates.

    Shooters are just more complex about it, and need to be understood differently.

  15. Aaaaaaand it beings again!