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  1. Game Development
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Gamedevelopment

Let Them Play: Don’t Lock Your Players Out of Playing

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Interactivity is a fundamental element of games design. Without it, a game isn't a game: it's a TV show, or a book, or an instance of some other static medium. Interactivity is what really defines games, and is (arguably) the single most important aspect for keeping players interested.

Sadly, interactivity is also an element that often falls to the wayside. We might get an idea for a cool game element, and become focused on getting that to work without looking at the implications. Or, worse, we ignore interactivity because "that's the way these games are done".

There are other ways to keep players entertained: the incredibly divisive Dear Esther had very poor interactivity, but managed to find a fan base nevertheless. So, if you're planning on making an art game, then the lessons here may not apply directly to you, but these aspects are important to be aware of anyway.

Dear Esther screenshot
Dear Esther is beautiful, but there's debate about whether it qualifies as a game.

The fact is, most players want to play—so locking them out is an incredibly effective way to frustrate them and make them lose interest. There are some obvious ways of doing this, such as including unskippable cutscenes or lengthy loading times, but we'll focus on game mechanics that lock players out, and how to avoid them.

Lockout as Punishment

In Monopoly, when a player loses all their money, they are removed from the game. In Counter-Strike, when a player dies, they are removed from the game until the next round. In both cases, the player has “lost”, and, as a punishment, they are no longer allowed to play. 

In cases like these, you will find these players very quickly losing interest in the game. In Monopoly, the losing player may have to sit around for an hour or more waiting for the game to finish, trying to keep themselves entertained by a game in which they are no longer invested. Counter-Strike players may tab out and browse the internet while waiting for the next round.

Removing a player from a game is extremely punishing, especially if they have to wait around to play again. Board game designers have realised this, and Euro games have rocketed in popularity, partly due to their "no player elimination" design strategy: rather than giving players resources to lose (such as money or hit points), they award victory to whoever has amassed the most points at the end of the game.

Similarly, in most first-person shooters, players respawn independently of round timers. For many Valve games, such as Team Fortress 2, instant-respawn mods are extremely popular. Dying is already punishment enough, and forcing a “time out” for performing badly just compounds that unnecessarily.

Even some single player games punish the player with a “game over” screen, forcing them to reload the game, and possibly even making them replay content. Super Meat Boy solved this issue by making respawning instantaneous—although this was arguably a necessity for SMBs deadly gameplay (where a player can easily die dozens of times trying a new level), it meant that death never really felt like a punishment.

Awesomenauts also tries to mitigate death. Although the player still has a "time out" period for dying, part of this time out is used playing a mini-game in which the player can collect Solar (the in-game currency). Players can even earn an achievement for playing this mini-game perfectly.

That's not to say that every single player game should have instant respawns, but simply having faster respawns, or the ability to get straight back into the action after death can really help a game maintain its flow, rather than breaking momentum with death screens and “Replay/Quit” menus.

Lockout While Gameplay Unfolds

This form of lockout is often (but not always) found in turn-based games. In most JRPG combat systems, players will find themselves able to perform certain moves and use abilities. Using these abilities will often enforce a short lockout while the move is executed, after which the player can continue playing.

While this sort of turn-based combat makes sense, it doesn't have to be done this way. The Paper Mario series have an excellent system where choosing attacks in combat opens up a quick time event mini-game. Striking an enemy might deal 10 damage, but if you press the attack button at the correct time during the animation (at the point where your weapon collides), then you might deal 20 damage instead. 

While mastering these “stylish moves” wasn't absolutely necessary to get through the game, it certainly made fights a lot easier, and players were expected to be able to hit some (if not all) of these moves.

Although this sort of added interaction is small, it can add up to a large effect over the course of the game, and it can be applied to a variety of situations.

Lockout While Waiting for Something to Happen

A lesser form of lockout occurs in some games when waiting for gameplay to progress. Here, although the player is not directly locked out, any action the user takes is normally detrimental to winning, so the player is forced to sit until a favourable position emerges.

Once again, Counter-Strike is guilty of this, although it is by no means the only offender. Due to the lethality of the guns, and the one-life-per-round system, “camping”—that is, hiding for long periods of time in difficult-to-see areas—is an incredibly effective tactic. This  “sit still, don't move” approach, while valid, also discourages active gameplay from participants. Although many Counter-Strike fans will no doubt protest that camping is part of the tactical gameplay, for new players it can be frustrating to be killed repeatedly by players that simply sit near the objective and shoot anyone that moves. 

There is no quick fix for this, but it is possible to mitigate it by changing certain basic gameplay elements. The first person shooter Dystopia gives players a "wallhack" ability, where once every 20 seconds they can send a "pulse" that briefly shows them the location of all enemies. Some Counter-Strike mods damage players who stay in one spot for too long, forcing them to keep moving or die. These help to a degree, but they are mostly just small fixes to the larger problem of one-life gameplay.

Even outside of games like Counter-Strike, players can find themselves in situations where they simply have to wait. If a player is waiting for health to regenerate, or for more resources to be gathered by workers, then they're effectively locked out. This doesn't mean that you should give the player everything instantly, but if they find themselves unable to do anything until the peasants gather enough gold for a castle, then they're not able to spend their time constructively.

But Waiting Can Be Good

There are times, of course, when it is good to make a player wait. Take the famous ladder scene from Metal Gear Solid 3, where the protagonist literally climbs a ladder for two minutes:

This, on the surface, seems like terrible game design. What would possess the designers to insert a mandatory two minute wait? The purpose is one of storytelling and pacing: the ladder comes after a hectic boss fight, and forcing the player to climb the ladder allows them to transition into a place of calm. Two minutes of not being attacked by enemies, two minutes of reflecting on the battle that took place, two minutes of being allowed a break from the chaos. 

As with almost all aspects of games design, you're allowed to break the rules, but its important to understand why you're breaking them.

Lockout During the Opponent's Turn

Locking players out of a game during their opponents' turns is, not surprisingly, a staple of turn-based games. In chess, a player is essentially locked out the game until his opponent moves. Players may be able to consider further options, but waiting for opponents to take their turn may leave them bored.

There are ways to mitigate this: chess has a popular variant known as speed chess, where each player is given a certain total amount of time (say, five minutes each), and must finish the game within that period. If a player runs out of time, they lose. And while speed chess is not popular with all chess players—partly because it does not allow for the same sort of long-term tactical planning as normal chess games—it does have its fans.

The problem with chess is that the game is complex. It takes time for a player to consider all the options available, especially when they start planning ahead. If you look at a game like noughts and crosses, you'll find that the gameplay is much faster. This is partly because noughts and crosses is a simpler game, but more due to the fact that there are limited options. In chess, the first move a player makes can be one of 18 possible options. In noughts and crosses, half that. In chess, as the game progresses, the player will likely find themselves with more and more options; in noughts and crosses, their options rapidly diminish.

Of course, it'd be strange to say that limiting a player's options automatically makes for a better game, as it's the choices we make within games that make things interesting. But if we ensure that the players aren't overwhelmed by choices, we can try to ensure that gameplay is kept relatively fast. Draughts (or checkers) finds itself in a middle-ground between chess and noughts and crosses; it's complex enough to provide an intellectual challenge, but limited enough that players will rarely have to spend ten minutes considering a single move. The player generally has fewer pieces available, and all the pieces do the same thing anyway (except kings).

Taking Turns Without Waiting

It's possible to partially solve the "waiting for my turn" issue by having simultaneous turns. The board game Diplomacy does this: during each turn, every player writes down their unit moves, then all those moves are enacted during the final phase. Civilisation also attempted this, though arguably less successfully: players were able to take their turns at the same time, but due to the more complex nature of the game this created some situations where the winner of a battle would be whoever moved their units first. While there are players who prefer the faster gameplay, it seems to somewhat destroy the turn-based nature of the game.

Civ4 Screenshot
Cities in Civilisation 4 provide a wealth of information to ponder over.

Rather than having a “fastest first” approach to simultaneous turns, it's possible to allow players to still play without having a direct effect on gameplay. Civilisation-style games generally require some heavy micro-management, especially at later levels, and there's no reason player can't deal with this during opponents' turns. 

You may want to build military units for an upcoming battle, so you could inspect each of your cities and change their build chain to something more suitable. Similarly, you may want to perform diplomatic actions, or change your government type. These actions do not have to be resolved instantly, but allowing players to chain up these actions for the start of their turn allows them to do something during other players' turns, and also (hopefully) makes their own turns faster.

Allowing players to take actions, or respond to certain events, during other players' turns is a good way to keep their involvement high. If a player is invested in opponents' actions, then they are more likely to remain interested in the game. However, if a player doesn't care what their opponent does, then they lose interest

Let Them Play

Keep the player playing. Try to keep wait times to a minimum, and if the player isn't in direct control, then at least try and give them actions they can perform to keep themselves entertained. 

When we break these rules, understand why you're breaking them. The most important thing in any game is fun, and sometimes a break from the action—a "ladder scene"—can be a welcome rest, or can help change the atmosphere. But even when trying changing things around, keeping the player involved in a simple way, such as by pressing X at the right time, will give them a feeling of involvement. Remember, we're making games.

References

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