Sunday, June 3, 2007

GAMES: The Importance of Play

Rainbow Six Vegas (RSV) is a pretty good piece of software; controls are tight, the cover system works well, there’s plenty of innovative and fun ways to clear a room of a terrorists. That being said, RSV is not a good game. A good game is a toy. A good game is something to be played with. A good game allows players to find enjoyment in whatever way they want. Unfortunately, RSV isn’t so much a toy to be played with as a challenge to be played against. The reason for this is the lack of any game-saving function outside of checkpoints. This makes the game artificially more difficult and frustrating and almost completely eliminates the ability to use RSV as a toy.

The most enjoyable part of RSV is that any situation can be handled a number of different ways. One level gives the player a choice of crashing into a room full of tangos through a skylight, rappelling down a building to breach through a window, hanging upside down and sniping with a silenced handgun, blowing open the door with an explosive charge or dropping white phosphorus grenades from the roof. The incredible variety of different ways to clear the room makes the checkpoint save system that much worse. If I want to replay that section to try a different strategy, I have to hope that there was a checkpoint right before it. Sometimes there is, but sometimes I have to shoot my way through three or four hallways to get back to the part that is actually enjoyable.

The heart of playfulness is giving players choices and options to enjoy a game the way they want to. This can be anything from branching storylines to adjustable options to various difficulty levels to customizable characters to alternate paths to success. RSV’s checkpoint system eliminates the feeling of play by arbitrarily forcing players to repeat portions of the game. Each encounter, rather than feeling like a fun scenario to play with, feels like an obstacle that must be eliminated.

The most successful games, both critically and commercially, embrace the principle of play. They try to accommodate a variety of playstyles. The Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls franchises became runaway successes because they presented the player with a wide open world that they could simply play with. The Sims almost completely favours play over work. Deus Ex and Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines let the player character and storyline develop in many different ways. World of Warcraft beat out other MMORPGs by accommodating solo, small group, raid, and PvP playstyles. Neverwinter Nights shipped with a distinctly un-playful campaign, but wisely allowed the modding community to create a wide variety of high quality adventures. Even genres with more rigid rules have embraced their role as toys to be played with. The most recent Soul Calibur incarnation featured the ability to create custom characters, compete in matches with non-standards rules, and carefully pick their battles in a strategy mini-game.

While there are some exceptions, such as the Devil May Cry series and highly competitive multiplayer games like Starcraft and DotA, the future of gaming seems to be playful. Spore and Portal are heavily hyped games that embrace playfulness and the fun-focused Wii is poised to win the current round of console wars. So developers, when you’re planning out a game, ask yourself: “is this a toy?”

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