Trial and Error in Games

Just a quick blog post about something I’ve noticed in the games I enjoy. Nothing new or revolutionary or anything, but just thought I’d write it down: I like trial & error in games as long as the “down time” between each trial is minimized.

I think trial and error is a very valuable type of experience for games to give. It’s fun to over come challenges, it’s fun to learn and discover and experiment, and I don’t really know how to allow for those experiences without a lot of trial and error. It can be frustrating, and as a result, I think many games have decided to just make games less challenging, less interesting, and less open to experimentation to avoid the frustration. But I think it’s pretty clear we can minimize frustration without gutting out the good stuff.

I think it has gotten a bad rap in recent years for some very non-inherent reasons. For one thing, load times. If you have to go through a long load-screen every time you fail, then yes, I can see how that becomes very frustrating very quickly. More generally, “time filler” that you must go through with each trial is very frustrating. This includes load times, but it also includes cut-scenes, mindless game play, long traveling times, and just any activity that takes any time at all but requires no interesting action on your part. This is generally what I mean by “down time.” This also includes game-over screens that over stay their welcome. “Snake? Snake..SNAAAAKKEEE!!” I loved MGS3 in Euro-Extreme Mode, but yeah, totally could have done without that each time.

Recent platformers like Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, and LIMBO excelled at eliminating down time, and I hope more games follow suit. I would like to consider how to eliminate down time in some game-types that are heavy on trial and error, such as stealth games and turn-based strategy games. I think it’s pretty straight-forward in stealth – just eliminate load times and keep “rooms” small. Stealth Bastard, Beat Sneak Bandit, etc. all accomplish this pretty well. Adding rewind would also be cool, maybe?

But what about turn-based strategy? In a game like X-Com, battles can get pretty damn long. I feel like it would be a shame to shorten these battles, as many TBS games do these days. The more you shorten it, the more you remove the possibility of emergent experiences. Would unlimited undos help? That’s pretty much how I played X-Com anyway, just saving a lot of checkpoints (and copy/pasting save games in the file system to get around the game’s save limit). But maybe some sort of “check point tree” would be cool? Instead of a rewind feature, we actually maintain a tree of each turn, and we allow you to go back to a previous turn and explore other branches. But, you can go back to parallel branches as well. This is just facilitating the exploration of a large possibility space. The technology is there – just save games – but maybe presenting it as a huge tree and allowing easy navigation with fast save/load would be cool? You could try different branching strategies… :: end brain dump ::

Now, what about Demon’s Souls? It’s definitely less accessible than SMB, VVVVVV, since the time between trials can be pretty long (lose against a boss? Start all over from the beginning of the level). But I still enjoyed it, and I think it was because that time was not mindless. It wasn’t “down time”. It was filled with combat and traversal that required your attention. It wasn’t mindless, but rather very mindful. Again, I can understand if most people find DS’s structure frustrating, but I found it more tolerable than most games with bad check points. I’m not sure if the DS-style experience is something I’d want to make, but there’s something valuable to it…

UPDATE: Many “casual” games are actually very good at trial and error game play. Cut the Rope, Angry Birds, and Beat Sneak Bandit all come to mind. They’re easy to beat, but to get 3 stars in them is very difficult. This is also similar to racing games – it’s easy to finish the track, but getting first place requires much skill and practice. One game I will probably work on in the future – perhaps after Moments of Reflection –