Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Optional Things Exist

I had a bit of a conversation about Nintendo today. One of the things we talked a bit about were the gold suits in the new Mario games. These are the suits you get when you die a lot in a level. They basically make you an immortal godling.

We came at this topic from very different angles. Obviously, the gold suits are a boon to unskilled or young players. But they are the reason I stopped playing.

I know they were optional. Sure, they're optional. A lot of devs seem to think optional things don't exist as long as you decide not to use them.

The opposite is true.

Let's talk about in-app purchases, which is how the whole thing got started.

The most common kind of in-app purchase is a gameplay helper. Whether it's a stat bonus, a rare item, free gold, more moves, whatever. It's always "optional". You can keep playing without them.

But they wage war on you just by existing. Every time you make a move and that glowing icon tells you that you could be doing it better, it's psychological war. It wears on you. You aren't playing the REAL game. You're playing a shadow of it.

Now, the golden suit is not asking for your money. It's free.

That doesn't mean it's any different.

The intent of the developer is almost unimportant. The thing that matters is what the player sees. And, to me, the glowing golden suit is exactly the same as a glowing shop button. More powerful, if anything, because I know it is provided out of kindness.

Sure, I can struggle to ignore it, but just by existing it cuts the foundation away. Why am I struggling through these levels? Even the developer doesn't give a shit how I beat them. It's especially bad because the developer gives up far before I do. They actively cut off my struggles before I'm done - "yeah, I can see you're trying, but your efforts are doomed and worthless."

It's not simply that the opportunity to bypass the levels exists. It's that it is pushed upon me so aggressively. The developer isn't saying "oh, here's an out if you need it", they're saying "you're playing wrong." If the suit could be turned off in an options menu, I wouldn't feel cut off at all. I would enjoy myself, knowing that there is a safety net cached away in an options menu I never have to look at.

What I'm getting at is that "optional" things exist. They have a weight and a presence. Even if a player chooses not to use them, the player still chooses in regards to them. And every time you offer the optional thing, you force the player to choose again, to take that optional thing into consideration, to consider the intent of the developer and weigh their own plans.

This isn't always bad. Many RPGs offer you optional things you can choose to do or not do. To be good or evil. To steal or not. To kill or not. To use magic or sword.

We choose what to do and what not to do, and that's the heart of our experience. Done badly, it can be repetitive, sure. But it never feels like the game is short-circuiting itself for the sake of offering those options.

Maybe it's because those options exist within the game world, rather than being inexplicably imposed onto it like the golden suit or the IAP shop. Maybe it's because the options are gameplay-centric rather than gameplay-avoidant. Maybe the lines vary from player to player.

There's lots to discuss. Quicksaves and quickloads become a part of this discussion. Permadeath. Multiplayer. They all exert pressures, put options in front of the player. And even if the player chooses never to use an option, that's still an active choice that the player must make every time the option is presented.

And I chose to stop playing, because the gold suit made the game feel pointless.

The developer kept telling me that trying to beat the levels was pointless, so I finally agreed with him.

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