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Game design: mulligans

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Jan. 24th, 2011 | 01:23 pm
mood: pensivepensive

I was playing Braid recently (thanks to yeyindeyautja for pointing this one out, BTW) and getting frustrated by some of the levels, and by my own inability to either figure out what I had to do to solve them, or implement the solution. (A common problem for me in video games.)

And I've been thinking — my own lack of skills nonwithstanding, this is something that everyone will run into sooner or later while playing games, and there is a deeper problem in there, too: namely, that many games, by virtue of their design, will allow you to waltz right through sections that you can handle successfully, while requiring you to retry sections that you can't until you do — if you do at all (in quite a few games I've played, particularly ones requiring fast reflexes, I eventually gave up entirely because I couldn't perform the feats asked of me).

In other words, in many games, by design, the time you spend in a certain part will be inversely proportional to the amount of fun you're having there. A fun section will be gone by in an instant; a frustrating section will have to be retried and retried and retried, and in the end, the vast majority of the time you spent playing the game will have been spent not having fun but rather being frustrated.

But games are supposed to be fun, so this is clearly not a desirable outcome.

One idea that I had now is that of a "mulligan" functionality — a mechanism that allows you to skip over a particularly frustrating part of the game and pretend that you made it so you won't have to spend too much time on the frustrating sections and can go back to having fun.

I don't think it's such an outlandish idea, either. Many games these days already have infinite lives rather than a finite amount or even just one, for instance, and many games also include cheat codes that will, in essence, do the same thing: give you the extra boost you need to make it through a difficult spot so you can see what lies behind it, perhaps even finish the game, rather than having to fail again and again.

A mulligan button would be a more elegant solution, though, and game designers worried about people using it to blaze through the games without even trying to do it the regular way could make it appear only after a while, too. Already died twenty times in this level? Already spent ten minutes on this screen without making progress? Here's the mulligan button if you want to skip this for now, with the option of returning to it later.

Braid itself actually isn't so bad in this regard, as you don't strictly HAVE to get all the puzzle pieces you have to collect in order to advance: in essence, you already can skip over individual puzzles and return to them later. But from what I gather, I won't be able to access the last world (much less see the game's end) until I figure all of them out, and realistically, I don't see that happening: not as long as I want to have fun with the game, rather than approaching it as a chore.

(I realize that "mulligan" is probably not the best term for this, BTW, but I can't think of a better one right now.)

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Comments {23}

Kevlar

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from: kevlarhusky
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 12:34 pm (UTC)
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I did have a try of the Braid demo I think. Didn't really like the game, but maybe I haven't played enough of it. Yey was the one that made me give it a go too :P And Minecraft! Which I actually DO like!

It is a difficult subject, whether to allow for anybody to complete the game, but make it interesting still, or to have complex difficult sections requiring skill... One method would be to have different "paths" in game, (you wouldn't be told which is which). One might not be necessarily harder, than another, but perhaps a different type of puzzle, or another skill required.

Personally that would make me feel like I was missing out on parts of the game though. My alternative is to get someone else to do it for you! :D I had and still have, a brilliant game called Whiplash. I couldn't do it, kept getting lost. I lent it to a friend and he completed it within a week. "How did you do that!?!?" "Oh I used the map" .... "There's a map?" ¬_¬
Granted that was my own fault... but my point still stands! :3

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 12:40 pm (UTC)
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It is a difficult subject, whether to allow for anybody to complete the game, but make it interesting still, or to have complex difficult sections requiring skill... One method would be to have different "paths" in game, (you wouldn't be told which is which). One might not be necessarily harder, than another, but perhaps a different type of puzzle, or another skill required.

Different paths are a good idea, too, yes; Indiana Jones IV did this (the "team", "wits" and "fists" paths), and I think it worked out quite well.

That said, what is actually wrong with "allow[ing] for anybody to complete the game"? I think there is a certain attitude prevalent in gamer culture that games are obstacles, that tackling them is an accomplishment, and that you shouldn't get the benefits (e.g. the ability to view the ending etc.) if you didn't work for it, if you don't "deserve it", as it were, but I think that attitude is wrong. Games are, first and foremost, supposed to be fun: and a "mulligan" button would not be required to used by those that do not need it, or that do not want it and actually enjoy attempting the same puzzle again and again until they finally manage (which I admit *is* very satisfying if you do indeed manage to tackle it).

Personally that would make me feel like I was missing out on parts of the game though.

Again, you wouldn't have to use it, just like you – say – don't have to activate god mode in DOOM to get through a particularly difficult fight just because you can't do it without dying. :)

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Kevlar

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from: kevlarhusky
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 12:46 pm (UTC)
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I think you're probably right :3 Although! On missing out parts of the game. I would rather turn on, god mode say, and DO the level, or section. Rather than just skip it :3

If that isn't an option, like in a puzzle though, yes, a fast forward, or skip button might be a welcome addition. I'm sure I remember playing a game which did this, but I have no idea what it was...

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 12:53 pm (UTC)
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I think you're probably right :3 Although! On missing out parts of the game. I would rather turn on, god mode say, and DO the level, or section. Rather than just skip it :3

Mmmm, yeah, the exact implementation would depend on the game in question. I was mostly thinking of platformers here — both puzzle platformers like Braid and old-school jump'n'runs like Super Mario Bros.

Actually, speaking of the latter, there were echos of this sort of thing in SMB3 on the NES, at least; not just could you, at times, take alternate routes (especially on the world map), but there was also a rare item that you could use on the map to skip levels entirely (the cloud). I used it several times to skip levels that I couldn't finish, and regularly found that the following levels were quite doable again. (Alas, the cloud had its warts, though, since if you died in the first level you played after using it, you'd get sent back to where you were on the map *before* you used the cloud.)

If that isn't an option, like in a puzzle though, yes, a fast forward, or skip button might be a welcome addition. I'm sure I remember playing a game which did this, but I have no idea what it was...

If you do remember, let me know which one it was. :)

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Jaffa

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from: jaffa_tamarin
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
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I like for games to have challenging bits because part of the payoff for playing games is the "Oh yeah!" moment when you do get through a difficult section. But it's always better if the difficult bit is not a road-block, and there are other bits of the game I can go play when I get tired of beating my head against a virtual brick wall.

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
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Aye — it's a fine line to walk. Playing a game for a while and then finally managing to beat a difficult part is fun, but playing a game and encountering a difficult part, finding yourself unable to beat it and getting increasingly frustrated as time goes by is not. I'd certainly like to be able to try overcoming obstacles on my own, but if I can't, then I'd also like to be able to say "OK, allow me to skip this" once trying ceases being fun.

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(Deleted comment)

Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 04:45 pm (UTC)
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Ah, interesting. I just read about Super Meat Boy today when I checked out the Braid article on Wikipedia; I'd briefly heard of it before when it was claimed that PETA got its knickers in a twist over it[1], but I haven't played it.

Not requiring the player to complete all levels is an interesting approach, rather similar to the SMB3 approach I mentioned above in my reply to kevlarhusky.

1. I didn't look into this. Apparently, they made a parody; beyond that, whether the fuss is due to PETA being batshit crazy (which they are, as far as I can tell) or due to many nerds hating PETA (which they do, as far as I can tell) I can't say.

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(Deleted comment)

Schnee

(no subject)

from: schnee
date: Jan. 25th, 2011 12:11 am (UTC)
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Oh my... I'm really tempted to say "hey, don't feed the trolls" there (to the game's creators).

No pun intended, either. :)

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Aurifer Salavor

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from: aurifer
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 08:18 pm (UTC)
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Most puzzle games aren't meant for someone who wants flow. For me, playing around and discovering how things work in relation to other things is all the fun, so I love puzzles. I'll spend an hour or two trying to do something just perfect to get something I'm not really supposed to get.

I was playing World of Goo yesterday, and there are special "OCD" (Obsessive Criteria Definitions or something) flags you can get by being perfect. I spent about six hours on seven or eight levels.

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Aurifer Salavor

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from: aurifer
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 08:19 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I just realized something:
In World of Goo, the levels are fairly easy. It can take a bit, but you should be able to get to the end after just a couple of tries.
However, they do let you do more if you can. That allows the power gamers to challenge themselves, while allowing everyone else to complete the game.

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 08:27 pm (UTC)
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Flow?

Anyhow, heh, I'm not like that; I CAN get obsessed about something, but only if I feel that I'm making progress, if I'm having fun, or if I feel there's a point to something.

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Aurifer Salavor

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from: aurifer
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 10:57 pm (UTC)
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Flow is a timeless progression through experience. It's when you're playing without roadblocks or chapters, and you can just keep going and going. It's a very specific type of pleasure.
Something like exercise or chopping wood could be very flow-like, too.
RPGs can fall under this: I spent 140 hours in Final Fantasy X training and training and leveling up everyone's sphere grids.

Puzzles are often very un-flow-like. It's easy to get stuck at some specific part, and one has to try every combination they can think of. It lends itself well to pattern recognition, though.

Anyway, flow is very important in all games, and even the toughest ones should have some measure of it, or they're just Shadow-of-the-Beast difficult.

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Jan. 25th, 2011 12:02 am (UTC)
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Ah, I see. Interesting concept; I'll have to keep that in mind.

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Sandwalker

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from: greytail
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
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Years ago, when Windows 95 came out, there was a game called 'Chip's Challenge'; Chip had to solve increasingly difficult levels to gain admission to the elite Bit Buster club. One of its good points was that if you genuinely tried to attempt a level, and failed too many times, Melinda -- presumably the head of the Club -- would ask if you would like to skip the level and move on to the next one. I had to use that a few times. I never did finish the game.

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 09:04 pm (UTC)
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Oh, cool — that's pretty much exactly the kind of functionality I had in mind. :)

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Aurifer Salavor

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from: aurifer
date: Jan. 25th, 2011 04:50 am (UTC)
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Actually, there's a game called Flow. (Actually, flOw)

You can play it here.

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Feb. 3rd, 2011 08:27 pm (UTC)
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Interesting game. Rather meditative, for sure, but I've got to admit I lost interest after five or ten minutes; it's atmospheric and immersive, but it doesn't provide much to keep you entertained. I'm a relatively visual (or generally sensual) person, I guess, and I thrive on new experiences — new and interesting sights, sounds, the ability to explore, and so on.

The music in this one rather reminded me of Knytt, BTW, so I'm kinda comparing the two, and Knytt is a good example of a game that I really loved and that did provide a never-ending stream of, well, interestingness. At the same time, it struck a perfect balance in terms of difficulty — it was challenging (insofar as that it wasn't a game you'd just breeze right through without ever having to even try very hard), but it wasn't frustrating.

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Psaakyrn Karneth LunarDrake

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from: psaakyrn
date: Jan. 25th, 2011 12:50 am (UTC)
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It's not an old idea, there are many variations of it.

As mentioned above, there's the "not needing to complete everything to advance" method, which is probably the easiest to implement, however, there are inherently several flaws. Most notably, the flaw that there are still some levels that you have to complete, and that you're skipping content. Though it does have a few pluses, such as when designing a game with content that not everyone may have access to (such as multi-player functionality).

An older method (I think), and far more applicable to puzzle games, is any sort of hint system.

A variant as greytail mentioned is the "free pass after a few tries". And a variant of that is adaptive difficulty, for action games.

Another alternative is the brute force method, more often seen in RPGs: if you just push hard enough/gain enough levels, the challenge will eventually be surmountable regardless of your skill.

A more innovative method (though not old either) would be a variant of kevlarhusky's idea of letting someone else help, in the sense of making it actually part of the game features, ala Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Bros Wii (even if in the latter example it's more likely that chaos would ensure instead).

And lastly, there's the possibility of designing a game with no failure states (or persistent failure states, like tetris), though that brings up it's own host of issues, such as finding a way to induce challenge. (though the most obvious of this is a score attack)

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Jan. 25th, 2011 11:16 am (UTC)
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All these are interesting ideas, yes.

As for games without failure states — I think if there was no possibility of failure, that'd pretty much by necessity mean there'd be no challenge, either, and you'd likely end up with something closer to an interactive movie.

It's hard to say whether it'd still be a game (although I'm not willing to abandon the term right away: games do not HAVE to involve a challenge, generally speaking, although I'm not sure right now whether games that only have one player have to), but no matter what it'd be, it could still be fun.

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Psaakyrn Karneth LunarDrake

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from: psaakyrn
date: Jan. 25th, 2011 12:56 pm (UTC)
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Depends on how you define failure states though. Sim City technically doesn't have a failure state, but there are enough variables and outside world influence for the player to determine their own failure states. On the other end of the spectrum, Heavy Rain technically have failure states, but failure states are treated as a possible path through the narration regardless.

But the closest example I can give is still a score attack. Just take for example Golf. It's simply a "take as few hits as you can" game, so there isn't technically a failure state either. But there's stil the challenge there of taking as few hits as you can.

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Feb. 3rd, 2011 08:38 pm (UTC)
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SimCity and golf are excellent examples. (I don't know Heavy Rain).

Coincidentally, they're both games I really like, too. *s* As for SimCity, I played the original a *lot* back in the day, and also really liked the other sim games that came after it; SimEarth was a bit too weird for me (and I was still pretty young and didn't speak English all that well), although I think I'd find it more fun now, but SimAnt was a game I positively adored.

That one's gameplay was actually slightly more traditional, but it also featured an experimenting mode... and of course, even in the "regular" (quick or full) game modes, you still had a lot of knobs to turn. It may have had failure states, but those were probably closer to, say, the failure state of an electric power grid: not something you'd usually encounter if you kept it running within normal parameters.

And golf... yes, that's a good example, too. Apart from disqualification (which shouldn't happen at all in friendly, non-tournament play!), there really isn't any failure states, and the object is to spend a good time more than anything else. There's still the goal of holing out on each hole, of course, but the key difference is that if you don't manage a difficult shot, you won't have to retry: rather, you will have to try again from a different, quite possibly easier position, and eventually, pretty much any player should manage.

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Canis Rufus

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from: canisrufus_uk
date: Jan. 25th, 2011 08:16 am (UTC)
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My preference on this would probably be the hardest to implement, but I definitely agree that something would be nice.

"You need to unlock the content!"

"I unlocked the content when I paid you £50 for it, gimme!"

Personally, rather than skip a level, I'd like it made a little easier.

"You've failed 20 times but got so far/survived so long so obviously you're trying...well.... ok"

*ping* extra platform appears to make the jump easier

or

*ping* moving platform slows down /grows longer by 10% to make it a little easier

or

*ping* Power mushroom grows for you to pick, giving you a boost to your abilities, just for that one level.

Something along those lines.... that way you still get to complete the content you couldn't manage, you just get a little help if you really can't do it.

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Jan. 25th, 2011 11:18 am (UTC)
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"You need to unlock the content!"
"I unlocked the content when I paid you £50 for it, gimme!"


Hah, yeah, that's exactly how I often feel about unlockable content. ^^ It's the same principle: I don't mind a bit of a challenge, but if it's impossible for me to pull off, there needs to be another way to do it. So if there is, say, a DDR game where you can unlock a special song by getting an A on all the 10-footers or so, then I'll say, whoa, wait a minute, I'll never be able to do that — so give me another way of getting this song, because I paid for this game, too, and I want to try it despite being a non-god.

Something along those lines.... that way you still get to complete the content you couldn't manage, you just get a little help if you really can't do it.

Yeah, that'd be a good way of implementing the "mulligan" feature, too. :)

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