Game design RAMBLEAMBLERAMBLERAMBLE
So, I'm the only person on the planet who doesn't much like Spelunky. I've actually gotten requests for a post about Spelunky. Since I don't often get requests, I guess I should probably, you know, listen.
Spelunky obviously isn't a bad game. But I'm ambivalent while a huge number of my friends and game-designer-sorts like it quite a lot. So... why don't I like it? It's not that it's too hard, or outside my area of expertise, or anything like that. It's just... not compelling to me.
There are only a few games that I don't like that everyone else does. It's not a matter of genres, either. It's something else.
For example, I don't like GTA. And I don't much like Rock Band. Obviously not bad games, and I'm not bad at them for the amount of time I've spent on them. But... just in no way compelling. Playing dress-the-rock-star was the most compelling part of Rock Band to me.
I've thought about it, and I think I know what connects every single one of the games I don't like and everyone else does.
If you've been reading me for a while, you're familiar with the idea of nested gameplay loops. The idea is that the innermost loop is your control over the character, then there's a loop for your character interacting with the level, and a loop for the level interacting with the plot and so on and so forth.
It's an easy way to look at game design, especially if you want to think in terms of giving the player the most juicy agency. It's never as clear-cut as the demo makes it sound, though, because it's less of gameplay loops and more of a gameplay whirlpool: there's no clear divisions between one loop and another, and each loop drags and urges on the others in a way more like water than like a clockwork engine.
But, anyway, what's missing in the games I'm not fond of is an outermost ring. Or, rather, there is an outermost ring, but it spins freely, uninterestingly.
In GTA, doing whatever you want on the city map is clearly the main thrust of the game. Stealing cars, shooting people... hiring hookers... stealing cars... um... shooting people... it's clearly the major point of simulation.
But that outermost ring just spins. It has no texture. Stealing cars and shooting people has no long-term effect at all, and the short-term effects are painfully predictable and shallow.
Now, obviously, there are missions and a plot. And, to be honest, I might like the game if I focused on them instead of screwing around with the city. But the city is the point of densest simulation. So obviously that's where my attention falls. If the game was structured a bit differently - for example, if the city play was less open - I would probably actually like the game better because the outer ring would be the plot events rather than the city's emergent response my crime sprees.
Rock Band is the same way. The outer loop just spins. To me there is no feeling of texture in trying to get good scores on certain songs. The feeling of mastery isn't terribly important to me. Rock Band does have a "band" mode, which is a more textured outer loop than its predecessors, but the band mode is still a very limited, very boring play loop and it holds no lasting interest for me.
That doesn't make these games bad by any stretch. But I can't think of many games I like where the outer loop is so flat!
Spelunky is the same way. Everyone else is admiring the textures of the inner rings. But I can't get over the fact that there's no real point to it. The next randomly generated level offers nothing new, no kind of interesting progression, aside from the occasional introduction of a new tile set or a nastier version of an older enemy.
The outer ring basically just spins, it has no texture, no bumpiness, no interesting pattern.
This can be contrasted with games that I like and everyone else hates, by the way.
For example, I really like the Wii game "Ghost Squad". It's a rails shooter that is maybe two hours long at longest. It has only three stages.
Every time you play through it, you not only unlock new features, you also unlock new pieces of the level for next time you play through. In this case, the inner play loops are not terribly amazing (and quite short), but there is an additional outer play loop above and beyond what other games offer.
So that's my reasoning. Do you see what I mean? What are your opinions?