Friday, September 14, 2007

Learning from Crackdown

I think out of all the games I've played in the past few months, the most notable is Crackdown.

That's not something you hear very often, especially since I also played Bioshock.

But Crackdown does something most other games do not do: it was fun at the very bottom. Actually pressing buttons and watching the response is a gleeful joy.

When you stop playing Crackdown and start playing another game, the first thing you notice is that the other game isn't fun. Sure, it might have great atmosphere or nifty RPG elements, but moving your character around the screen is about as much fun as eating toothpaste. I went from Crackdown to Dead Rising. While Dead Rising is a great game that I'm enjoying a lot, you move like a one-legged marmoset on tranqs. Plus, every game that's not Crackdown has a targetting system that is sheer pain.

Most games try to substitute speed for complexity. In most first person shooters, you move FAST, but your movement is not exactly deeply complex. The components never add up - you don't get the same feeling you get from simply jumping from building to building in Crackdown.

I've written on this topic before - a lot - but the fact is that most games use movement simply as a way to get from challenge A to challenge B. Even in racing games, the point of the game isn't so much racing in new and interesting ways as it is acquiring components that let you race more efficiently.

But that's giving up on the core element of the game. The very first gameplay element is how your game responds to the basic button presses. Each response should be a nice, juicy feedback loop that can be moderated into a gameplay system.

Crackdown is a really great example. Basic movement starts fluid and great, but continues to improve as you use it - and the various areas have different patterns of structures to shake things up. Aiming a gun starts easy and satisfying, but gets faster and more effective as the game progresses. Even kicking things gets more satisfying, as they fly further and further distances. I imagine that car driving gets better and better, at least with agency cars, but I didn't try, so I can't say.

Compare this to, say, Bioshock. The movement in Bioshock is pretty much limited to getting from A to B while occasionally taking cover. The gunfire in Bioshock is limited to a clumsy manual aim plus bullets flying straight forward. Every basic element of the game is flat and stale. The joy of the game comes from the parts of the game that have nothing to do with pressing buttons: graphics, story, psychic upgrades...

Comparing it to Prince of Persia is more revealing: PoP has more complex terrain, but actually has a simpler navigation: everything is "leap in the right direction, press the button when you should". It's puzzle-navigation rather than the freeform exploration of Crackdown. Which is better is a good question, but Crackdown is definitely more interactive.

If you look around, you'll see this is true in almost every game of every genre that isn't "rhythm games".

But that's just laziness. The actual pressing of buttons is the first line of game. It should have a juicy response. It is the epitome of "Simple rules, complex results."


Jim said...

Almost a decade ago I made essentially the same observation about Super Mario 64. Merely tilting the analog stick to make Mario run around is sheer joy, goals aside. A few years later I was saying the same about Prince of Persia: Sands of Time -- were you talking about it, or the original Prince of Persia? In any case, I recommend you check both of those out, if you haven't.

This is perhaps the defining feature of the platformer genre, more so than platforms themselves: moving around is the very point of the game. The good ones make the control fun whether or not the goals (usually "go here") are challenging.

Bioshock's gameplay focus is definitely elsewhere, and I would argue that the original Prince of Persia (assuming that's what you were talking about) succeeds more a puzzler than as a platformer.

A platformer is a pretty specific thing, though, so I'm glad you were able to come up with another format that focuses on the low-level control just as effectively. The fighting game is the other format I can think of where the gameplay is focused so tightly on low-level control, but I've never been able to really get into those so I can't say if any have actually succeeded.

I wasn't really writing this with a point in mind, but the emerging point seems to be that making the low-level controls fun is correlated with focusing the gameplay on low-level controls. My guess is that you could in theory make controlling an RTS be just as fun as making Mario run around, but since it just isn't necessary to provide a fun experience, developers haven't focused on it, individually or as a culture.

Craig Perko said...

I've played ALL the Prince of Persias, but I was hoping it was pretty clear I was talking about the modern ones. The originals were hard as hell and not at all like I described. The new ones are fun, but they are not open ended like Crackdown.

Anyway, I'm not arguing that you need to do this to make a game good or fun. I'm simply saying that it's a really efficient way to make a game good and fun.

Paolo said...

In an odd comparison, I felt that way about using elevators, lifts or doors in God of War. Instead of just pressing X to activate a lift or door, suddenly you were required to rotate an analog or button mash O. Seems like an awful lot of excessive work for something that worked more simply in other games but it forced participation in elements that most other games didn't even think of and, oddly, it's fun.

Craig Perko said...

Well, that kind of play isn't central to the game. Being better or worse at "grinding in a circle to open the door" won't actually cost you health or resources. It's just there as a gesture of immersion.

The need to do Street Fighter moves in order to kill enemies, on the other hand... (You want to kill the Medusa? Quick! Half-circle forward and high punch!)

I personally was not a big fan of God of War specifically because I couldn't beat the enemies fast enough. Normally I'm in no hurry, but in God of War they have several time traps that I always lost by less than a second. Because I can't roll the freaking joystick.

For full spite, usually the trap would kill me as I was going through the last long-ass kill animation.