Designing Games for the Wage Slave
"I can afford to buy any game I like; but I rarely have the opportunity to play them."
This sentence embodies the sad reality that has hamstringed my gaming hobby since becoming an unwilling maze-dweller in the rat race of full-time employment. Four years ago, when not otherwise distracted by the mundanities of dodging college work or chores, I could (and did) devote countless hours to the challenges and pleasures of digital worlds. My funding was limited, but I took pride in completing every game, every cover disk demo that I purchased. I reveled in replayability, gloried in gameplay depth, marveled at multiplayer. Life was good.
"So why should I care, you nostalgic cretin?" I hear you ask. Why? Because my cubicle-dwelling cogs and I represent a substantial slice of potential software sales.
We balance on the knife's edge between our glorious time-squandered youth, and the commitments of inevitable middle age. However, the needs of independence (and dependents) have forced us to adapt our playing style to meet our circumstances. Most gamers in this range still game whenever they can, but lack the time to maintain their previous commitment, especially when wives, children, and other such distractions enter the mix. If games can adapt to the needs of the working gamer, they can find a lucrative niche. If not, we will have no choice but to leave our childhood behind and surrender to mundane reality. And when we do, we will take our regular monthly salaries with us.
Here's a few suggestions to better accommodate the time-deprived; many of these ideas could also create a more enjoyable gaming experience for all:
Don't Waste My Time
Make every moment count. I don't play games to punish myself. I play them to be entertained, rewarded, and challenged. I have better things to do than:
When placing a sequence in a level, ask yourself: "Am I challenging the player and giving him a compelling experience, or just trying to slow him down?" If the answer is the latter, cut it out like the cancer it is.
Let Me In!
I recently moved into a new apartment. This has literally left me with only a few minutes of gaming per day, while I spend my time hassling with utility companies and debating the merits of beige over magnolia. Some games, it seems, delight in squandering those minutes. By the time I've:
a) sat through three unskippable splash screens (and let me take this opportunity to scream "I know who you are! I bought a game from you! Now leave me alone and let me play it!");
b) navigated several tiers of shell interface to load my last save, and;
c) endured an interminably long loading screen *smoker's cough* "Command & Conquer: Generals" *smoker's cough*;
...play time is over!
Examples of games that got it right include "Max Payne" and "Grim Fandango" both of which provided a very welcome Quick-Load-from-Menu feature.
Curiousity Killed the Cat; Not This Cat, Jack
Leading on from the last rant, nothing destroys suspension of disbelief like constantly being sent back to the "Game Over" screen.
Keep the player in the game as often as possible. He didn't buy this game to regularly watch a "Loading ..." progress bar.
Constant death was a necessity in the days of video arcades; it kept the baseball-cap-wearing laboratory rodents filling the change slot for an 8-bit feeding pellet. Now, in the comfort of our lounges or offices, what reason is there to keep dumping us out of the game we bought with our hard earned cash?
Here's a few examples of games that have turned this dilemma on its head:
Minimizing player death does have its disadvantages, of course. The fear of death, backed up with the right setting and atmosphere, does create suspense. I fondly recall playing through an unpatched "Aliens versus Predator", an FPS with no saved games except between levels. Even the rapidly released patch limited the player to a finite number of saves per level (drastically reducing in number with each choice of difficulty level).
It was enormously frustrating, but also immensely terrifying. I was no superhuman, immortal demigod that could always miraculously rematerialize at the press of a button. I was a single, vulnerable marine, alone, and outgunned, trying to survive long enough to escape my vastly superior alien foes..
Damnit Jim, I'm a Gamer, Not an Accountant
The days when players were expected to map their progress out on graph paper or take copious notes are long gone. Provide an electronic map, and annotate it with *all* important locations, including the player's own position.
"System Shock 2" and "Diablo" both feature excellent real-time maps that indicate not only the surrounding architecture, but important objects and people, and the player's location in the world, at any time. In the case of "Diablo", the map can also overlay the main game screen, always centered on the player. Though rather cluttered, this approach ensures that the player always knows where he is in the world.
Both lack a means to indicate where the player needs to go next, however, presumably to give him the freedom to discover that for himself. More direction in the mini-map would have been welcome. To be fair, though, "Diablo 2" used roads to guide the player towards the key areas in a map, and plentiful signs and markers were embedded into "System Shock 2"'s item-rich world.
Don't assume that I'm going to be playing this game for four months straight, and will know from one session to the next who Arthwight of Durlac is, what he looks like, where I can find him, and what he's meant to matter to me. Put a screenshot of him in the quest log so I'll know what I'm looking for. Point out his position on the mini map. Put a dirty great arrow over his head that's so huge you can see it from space. But don't expect me to interview every inhabitant of the city trying to track him down by a process of elimination. *cough* "Anachronox" *cough*
Log the tasks the player has to accomplish, and provide all the details he's going to need when he gets there.
Assume that the player might only return to your game in a month's time. Does the game provide sufficient information for him to pick up where he left off? Does he know what he needs to do next? Does he have a record of what he's done already? Is he aware of the overarching plot? Does he have a means to refresh his memory about the intricate details of your game world?
I Need Help
Paper manuals are gradually being phased out, and while I'm always the advocate of a weighty, portable tome (something to read in rush hour traffic), online help is ultimately more accessible, as it can be tailored to the context. Plus, it can be easily maintained through patches to correspond to new changes. A paper manual is typically obsolete out of the box due to scheduling restrictions.
So, make any necessary information available from within the game (within the game session, not a separate text file), from ammo damage rates to character bios, ideally in a way that gradually introduces these details to the player at relevant points during gameplay. Depending on the style of game, it might even be used as a form of player reward, unlocking character portraits and biographical information as you encounter them, details and tips about a weapon when you pick it up, and so on.
Real-time strategy games are ideal candidates for the approach of paperless instruction. "Age of Mythology", for example, not only provided ample rollover text, but each unit in the game was also a click away from an electronic manual entry that described its attributes, purpose, history, counters and bonuses, and research upgrades.
Make it Accessible
If the player can easily pick up your game and start enjoying it within five minutes, it suits the wage slave market. In fact, it suits any market.
It's equally important to make the interface intuitive and provide the player with the information they need in as meaningful and accessible a manner as possible.
That means relying on the conventions and known principles of your genre so the player doesn't have to relearn anything. It also means improving upon those conventions *if* they are widely known to be unsatisfactory.
One of the best ways to achieve this is to get a playable prototype of your game working as soon as possible, and get as many people as possible to test it out, from your veteran gamer buddies to your grandmother. Observe their reactions, and note when they seem to be lacking feedback, when the interface isn't used as expected (due to inappropriate icons, for example), and especially when they aren't having fun.
Keep It Simple
It doesn't hurt to keep it simple if it means the gamer isn't weighed down with complexities and backstory. You might have noticed that a number of examples I've used are console games. In my youth, I wouldn't have touched them with a ten-foot polearm, preferring deep, complex worlds with lots of optional assignments, long chats with in-game characters, and backstory.
Nowadays, uncomplicated, pick-up-and-put-down, linear but fun experiences (beat-'em-ups, action adventures) or five-minute skirmish matches (RTS or FPS multiplayer or skirmish) are better suited to my time-to-enjoyment ratio.
Great Wage Slave Games
To round off this article, I'd like to close with a subjective summary of a few other games that are highly conducive to my new lifestyle. I've split them into three categories I've just made up: Linears, Customisers, and Toolboxes.
Linears: Usually combat-based, with perhaps some puzzle elements. Action adventures, real-time strategy single-player campaigns, and some First Person Shooters can fall under this category. These have the most potential to be plot-driven, leading the player, largely on rails through a series of usually tightly scripted events, while providing entertaining gameplay along the way. In all cases the player can save his progress at any time, leaving and returning to the game when he wishes. Uncomplicated gameplay, good direction, little need to explore every corner of the world, and/or few secondary objectives make it easy to pick up where the player left off. There is a definable end to the game, a story -- however weak -- to be told, and goodies to be earned during the course of it, rewarding the player's time and effort.
Customisers: Customisers are games that provide a great deal of replayability by providing a variety of game modes out of the box. Mostly a game's multiplayer component has this capability.
Real-time strategy games are great in this respect; you can gradually play through the Linear campaigns over a long period of time, toy with creating your own content, play skirmish games against AI players, or fight head-to-head against other players. Best of all, the latter two usually have a wealth of configurable settings, allowing you to tailor the session to suit your own availability. Need a quick five-minute game? Play in Lightning mode. Don't want to waste time collecting resources? Turn on the Deathmatch option. Want to be left alone to build up your base? Turn on some initial alliances, or pick a water map. Some RTSes are also able to generate random maps, providing additional variation.
Multiplayer FPSs are typically equally scaleable, and it's even easier to get knee-deep in the dead. Nothing like a little "Unreal Tournament" action to burn off the frustration of a hard day in the cubicle farm.
Practically a category all on its own, the "Worms" games can be equally tailored to suit the amount of time one can spare, and are a lot of fun, to boot. It's also one of the few games that, in my experience, even the most ardent girlfriend game-hater will play with you. The cutesy animation and helium voices will tickle her cuddly bone, while introducing her to the competitive wonders of obliterating an army of annelids with a vast arsenal.
Toyboxes: Toyboxes are games in which I can go off the beaten path (ignore the main plot thread) whenever I wish, and for as long as I wish. Moreover, they are games where any time spent "wandering in the wilderness" is to my benefit. Every monster killed in "Diablo" is making my character stronger, providing new items, more wealth, even if it's not getting me closer to the end of the game. Similar lucrative goodie-hunting can be accomplished in the "Grand Theft Auto" games.
Randomly-generated scenes or objects are most effective in this case; there aren't particular conditions that I have to hunt down, the world layout is always a surprise, and if an area is cleared of foes and items, new ones will respawn when I return. If I make a mistake, I can always come back and try again.
These "kicking back in the game world" moments are great for wage slaves, as you can effectively play around for as many minutes as you can spare, and feel rewarded for every minute spent in the game. You still make progress in small increments, there is minimal frustration as the penalties for failure are minimal, no frantic quick-saving is required (or possible), and except when you're close to finishing a mission, you can come and go at your discretion.
For those with even less time than I, here's a summary of the main points of this article. Note that these transcend target audience and genre; they could probably be applied to any game.