A rant on the art of offering multiple challenges in one play style. Originally, this rant had a mini-rant about God of War, which I think is hugely over-rated, but I took it out. You're welcome.
There are three common ways of thinking about stages. One is the old way: each stage means a different layout and probably slightly harder enemies. The second is the new way: each stage means a new challenge and probably new abilities. The third is the right way.
There's a growing feeling that when you do game design, you should be careful to keep the content fresh - not let the players get too stagnant in one pattern of play.
To some extent, this is obvious. If you, like me and Raph Koster, think that games are patterns, it is especially obvious. You don't let the player get too bored.
But... it is sooooo easy to apply incorrectly. I'll call this the "jumping around flaw". The primary warning sign of this flaw is when a game starts increasing the number of play options you have. It manifests when the designers decide that you should have to use all of those play options at some point.
Let me give an example.
In an action game, halfway through the game you gain a new blubshot. "Hold A to charge and fire your blubshot".
But you don't need to use blubshot. The enemies die easily enough without it.
An hour later, you are fighting this impossible freaking enemy. The anger in you grows. Why is this enemy so friggin' hard?
You look up a walkthrough. It says, "Use the blubshot and he'll die quick..."
The blubshot? That worthless piece of crap? The situation was designed specifically to make you use that one ability? As a justification for the creeping featurism that made them implement it in the first place?
This irritates me more than most, because I optimize more than most. If I find that something is an inferior strategy, I actually forget it exists. I got stuck in Prince of Persia for eight hours because I forgot their blubshot.
I'm rather extreme about this. I don't even like the super-bombs in shmups. I think they're a cheap cop-out. Ooooh, lookie! I'm all hardcore and shit.
The idea that gameplay is a pattern is definitely true. But great games and deep play come from having a really great play pattern, not a play pattern you continually staple awkward modifications on to hide the fact that it's a shallow dynamic. Every stage is a "new game, same conflict", which is kind of a poor way to do it.
Now, back to stages.
Some of the most fantastically successful games - from Space Invaders to Grand Turismo - don't continually give you new options. They give you new iterations, allowing you to use your skills to fight a new challenge... instead of requiring you to remember some arcane piece of useless information or learn a new skill unrelated to the game's prior play. Starcraft. Street Fighter. The Sims. None of these force you to use specific approaches at specific times - they allow you to use whatever techniques you feel are worth using. These games use the first definition of stage: same game, new conflict.
Some games - mostly the real classic games like "go" - have and use the third definition of stage.
The third definition is a new way of playing the same game because a new situation has emerged. Obvious example: you play differently at the beginning of Civilization than at the end. The crowding and tech advancement creates a new situation emergently.
This isn't a situation where some designer sat down and said, "hyuk, let's make us a level where everything's all jam-packed together!"
Instead, that's how it works. It's not a new level, or a new ability, or even a new challenge. It's the play pattern seen from a different angle.
That's why I use the "nested play loops" theory of design, rather than simply the "pattern" theory of design. The latter doesn't clearly indicate how a game should progress, just that it should. The former clearly indicates such things, and lets you track and plan.
Anyway, this is still a freaking long essay, even without the page-long rant about God of War. Comments welcome.