The Incredibles, and Lazy Game Design

theincrediblesWhile reading a web forum a few years ago, I came across a posting which was allegedly by a professional screenwriter.  I don’t remember the forum or the particular thread or I’d provide a link, but the gist of the comment was a criticism of a particular plot point in the storytelling of The Incredibles.

Just as a reminder, the basic premise of The Incredibles is that super-heroes have had to go into hiding;  conceal their super powers and act as though they were normal citizens.  According to the self-proclaimed screenwriter writing the criticism, his issue with the storyline was that after going underground, Mr. Incredible’s day job was to be an insurance salesman.  He called it a “screenwriter’s shorthand”;  that it was basically laziness on the part of the screenwriter, because the ‘insurance sales’ job by itself automatically implied a lot of things (sleazy boss, being unhappy with the job, etc) without the screenwriter ever having to actually construct any scenes or write any dialogue to show that or to explicitly elicit sympathy from the audience.  There was just a smash cut from life before to Mr. Incredible in his cubicle, and the whole story was automatic in the eyes of the viewers.

At the time, I thought the complaint was silly.  Of course it was a shorthand, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with shorthands.  If it gets the idea across to the audience in less screen time, it means that you can keep moving along with the plot, without having to spend so much time explaining character motivations to the audience.  It served its function perfectly adequately.  I mean, at the end of the day, The Incredibles really was not about Mr. Incredible’s mundane job;  that was merely a necessary plot point needed to thrust him into the main storyline.

I still hold that opinion, and I still think that that the screenwriter’s complaint against The Incredibles was a bit silly.  But I’m taking it a little more seriously today, because I realise that I’m making essentially the same argument against video game design shorthands today.

More of me being a hypocrite beneath the fold.

I was playing the (relatively) new Prince of Persia game again today.  I bought it last year and played it a bit, then it gathered dust on the shelf for a while, and then in a moment of avoiding work on Lord, I pulled it out again and played for a half hour or so.  And I noticed something which hadn’t really clicked in my head before.

This new Prince of Persia is a lot like most of the previous Prince of Persia games.. though a little more cartoony and a little more cinematic and a lot less hardcore, and with many other minor tweaks to the same old Prince of Persia formula.  But there’s one big change that stands out;  they added hundreds of identical glowing spheres scattered through the levels, which you need to collect in order to open up new levels to explore.

If you think about it, that little bit of game design has been used and reused a lot.  Probably the first use was in Super Mario 64 in 1996, where each level had five stars hidden inside, and finding enough stars would unlock access to further worlds.  But this was really kicked into overdrive by Spyro the Dragon in 1998, where levels had thousands of gems scattered throughout each level, and these gems were secondary objectives within the levels;  whereas in Mario 64, the level wasn’t complete until you found the star, in Spyro you could quite easily complete a level without collecting the gems, and it was expected that you’d have to return to levels to find gems you’d missed, previously.  If you want, you can trace the “glowing objects” trend back much further than these two games, but before this the glowing objects typically gave extra lives (such as the coins in earlier Mario games or the rings in Sonic games) rather than being linked to level progression.

One of the things you need to understand about modern games (and by modern games I mean everything from the PS2 onwards) is that there’s a tremendous pressure on the developers to make the games take a long time to complete, to justify their price.  These days, games try to have a minimum playtime of at least six hours.  However, as game content is very expensive to create, game designers often have to be clever to stretch their game’s gameplay out to that six hour mark or beyond.

And one common way, it seems, is to break the “when you finish level one, you will immediately advance to level 2” model that has been used since the days of Space Invaders and Pong.  The “You must collect 240 glowing bafmodads to open the next door” game mechanic neatly forces players to traverse through the same level a second (or more!) time searching for hidden secrets, for a minimal extra cost to the game development team;  placing a few dozen glowing objects in the level editor takes far less time than building an extra level, after all!

Here’s another one.  Way back in 2004, an MMO called City of Heroes was released.  It had a rather novel concept, “badges”, which were little rewards for doing special things in the game.  Take a million points of damage over your career, that’s worth a badge.  Finish a major string of missions?  Badge.  Climb to the top of the highest building in the city?  Badge.  There was no in-game benefit to having earned these badges, but they gave a kind of bragging right, as your list of badges was visible to any other player who was interested.  Again, they gave a reason to go back and re-play through areas you’d been to before, to try to find and earn all these tiny badges.  It was novel, when it was an original idea.  Then the XBox 360 came out, and it was made a requirement for every XBox 360 game to award “Achievements”, which are precisely the same thing as City of Heroes badges.  And then the PS3 got optional “Trophies”, which are precisely the same thing again.  Now even World of Warcraft has “Achievements”, and these systems are all designed to do exactly the same thing;  get people to play through the same content multiple times, in order to collect these little labels, because making a list of little labels is faster and easier and cheaper for the development staff than actually building enough new content to keep the player’s interest for an extra hour.

Now, I’m not saying that this practice is bad, necessarily.  But I’m starting to find myself sympathising with how that screenwriter felt when he saw highly-regarded films taking these overused “no work required” shortcuts, rather than crafting something custom and new.  Which distresses me, because there’s still a sizeable chunk of my brain saying, “What’s the harm?  If the game mechanic works and fulfills its function, then what’s the problem?  It’s not like the game is actually about collecting those glowy objects; that’s just a minor sideline thing you to to help give pacing to the real game.”

So I don’t know.  I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts about these and other game-lengthening design tricks.  Or if you can trace either of the techniques I mentioned above farther back than I have, I’d be really interested in that, too!

(This post bears no relation to any of my games here; VectorStorm games typically are very experimental, and adding these sorts of gameplay-lengthening techniques would just make it more difficult to tell which experimental games were more or less fun.  Lord development is continuing, albeit a bit slowly.  Was slowed again by another record-breakingly hot weekend)