Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Babysitting my Video Games

Pokemon is probably the happiest accident that Nintendo ever had, marrying groundbreaking game design with cute, marketable characters. And as Nintendo relies ever more heavily on the marketable character side of the game, it's important to realize that the game here works and to realize why it works.

To get into everything that Pokemon did right would require a whole separate article, and maybe I'll write it someday. What I want to focus on right now is a stroke of elegant brilliance -- the real-time clock. The Gold and Silver (and later Crystal) versions of Pokemon had a built-in clock that ran even when the player wasn't playing. It could tell the time of day and the day of the week, and events would happen within the game depending on when you played it in real life. Certain monsters would only show up at night, or only on the weekends. There were hidden things that you would miss if you didn't come at the right time, which gave the game a ridiculous degree of depth -- it seemed like there was always something new to see because it was impossible to get the entire game on one playthrough.

In short, it gave Pokemon that sense of a living, breathing world that MMORPGs have, but without going online.

So how did Pokemon get it right and so many other games get it wrong?

When the Game World Rots

Pokemon was by no means the first video game to run in real time. The Tamagotchi keychain games and other virtual pet games enjoyed a boom of popularity back when Pokemon was just cutting its teeth. You fed and cared for a little digital creature in real time as it lived in your keychain. There wasn't much "game" to it, really; the challenge was to see how long you could manage to work your real life around the maintenance of the game. If you neglected your keychain, it died and you lost the game.

This introduced something that I like to call "world rot". It's the idea that the game world has to be constantly maintained by the player -- in real time -- to keep it "alive". It's considered "cheating" to lie to the game about what day and time it is in real time in the same way that it's considered cheating to use a Game Genie to give yourself unlimited lives in Super Mario Brothers.

The thing about world rot is that it can be a very powerful force to keep a player playing a particular game on a regular basis, but it can be an even more powerful force to dissuade a player from picking up a game if he or she hasn't been playing it regularly. When I leave Animal Crossing untouched for a month, I boot it up and discover weeds in my village and cockroaches in my house. This may encourage me to play the game more regularly, but it also means that, the next time I neglect the game for a month, I may not want to play again because I know I'll be penalized. This dissuasion leads to more neglect, and the effect compounds.

It's neat to have a game world that changes with time. It's not so neat to have a game that needs a babysitter.

Seaman vs. Nintendogs

Let's take a closer look at two games in particular: Sega's Seaman and Nintendo's Nintendogs. Both games are in the "virtual pet" genre, both games run in real time, and both games have some degree of world rot to them.

The difference is Seaman is story-driven. Nintendogs is a simulation.

Nintendogs challenges you to take care of up to three puppies in your home, earn and manage money, play with your pets, teach them tricks, take them on walks, and train them for competitions. It's a surprisingly complete simulation. The only real problem is, when you get tired of it, you get penalties for neglecting your dogs. You may return to find that a dog has run away or they're no longer a champion disc-retriever. The game is basically a baby that never grows up, an electronic life form that needs regular care for an indefinate period of time.

Seaman challenges the player to take care of a peculiar breed of talking fish. The evolution of Seaman from marine parasite to frog tells a linear story. Simulation is kept to a minimum; the player's main goal is to drive this story forward by solving simple puzzles and interacting regularly with Seaman. The game has a definate end -- after about two weeks, the player helps Seaman to escape from his cage and live on his own in the wild.

So Seaman has the decency to do something that Nintendogs doesn't: end.

What is a video game but a task with a goal? What's the attraction to a task that can never be completed? Clearly, I don't mind devoting my free time to a particular game on a regular basis, but sooner or later I'll want to play something else. It is completely unreasonable to design a game that expects a player to maintain a regular devotion to it indefinately. Part of the joy of playing a game is that it's something you want to do; imposing a feeling of obligation on it detracts from the fun.

The Hook

The driving principle behind a lot of real-time games is that the player is expected to play regularly for a few minutes a day. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable expectation; after all, how inconvenient could it be to play a game for a few minutes ever day?

I was a fan of Animal Crossing on the Gamecube, and I eagerly awaited the version for the Nintendo DS. Finally, my town would be portable! I could visit new towns online!
When it was announced that there would be no NES games to find in this version, I barely paid attention. After all, the great majority of the NES games in Animal Crossing were just crap. I had to use an Action Replay to get at the real classics hidden on the disc -- Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, and Punchout! So what, I thought.

I played Animal Crossing: Wild World for a good month, and then I just... stopped. I found this peculiar. No, I wasn't jonesing for a game of Clu Clu Land, but there was something missing. It wasn't something wrong with the core gameplay -- that was better than the Gamecube version ever was. But that "it" factor just wasn't there. Then world rot started to compound, and the city of Elms fell into neglect.

The reason didn't hit me until I was visiting a forum for Brain Age, where a prospective buyer was voicing concern that Brain Age would go the way of Nintendogs, that it would get dull quickly and he wouldn't be able to keep with it. I mulled the idea over for a moment, and then it hit me. Eureka! I knew why Brain Age was more attractive than Nintendogs, and I knew why I played Animal Crossing more than Wild World.

Brain Age has a "hook".

In addition to its daily "brain exercises", Brain Age has a bonus Sudoku game that could work just fine as a stand-alone product. Although Sudoku is often praised for its mind-sharpening benefits, the game counts it separately from the rest of your training. You can only earn one score for each training exercise per day, which encourages the player to keep sessions brief. Sudoku has no such restrictions.

Sudoku, therefore, is the "hook". As a player, I think to myself, "Hey, think I'll play a Sudoku puzzle." I open up the DS, power it on, and realize I haven't done my brain exercises for the day. So all right, it only takes a few minutes, I go through my exercises and get my Brain Age for the day, then into the puzzles. I didn't necessarily come looking for the game's main attraction, but since it's there, eh, I might as well.

The problem with these "little bit a day" games is that you only get a little bit of play out of them, then you have to switch it out for something else. Once a game is out of the system and put away, it becomes that much easier to just ignore it the next time you want to play a video game -- the game you've already got in your system is always going to be the first option you think of, and if it's good enough, you'll just go with it.

So on the Gamecube, Animal Crossing had a hook. As bad as the NES games were (well, okay, I do have some love for Balloon Fight), it was a reason to put in the disc -- just take a quick peek at the old NES collection. And see how Lobo's doing. And maybe yank a few weeds. Hey, that's a big fish, think I'll catch it. Huh, forgot I had so much stuff, think I'll dump it on Nook quick. Hey, he's got a new piece of Cabin furniture in today! And so on.

What does Wild World have to draw in the player? The promise of plowing through the day's chores in twenty minutes. What does it have to keep the player from switching to Meteos or Sonic Rush when that's done? Not a heck of a lot.

Lessons Learned

So, a few things I'd like us all to take away from this ramble:
These are, of course, all things that Pokemon did right with the GS trio of games. You were never penalized for missing a day of play, and catching and training Pokemon was ferociously addictive; the real-time element was more or less an accessory to a rock-solid core of gameplay. And that's the way it should be.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?