ModMatic: SP HL2 Map and Mod News

Day 15, and Frustrating or Fun? -

Semi-regular updates on ModMatic? Heresy! Well, don't get too used to them. In the meantime: Chris Fox continues his "Day" series with the venerable Day 15 for Half-Life 2. While in some ways it seems like a step backwards from his previous Day 14, it's interesting enough to warrant your time.

  • The good bits: Custom NPC speech is always a welcome addition; some intriguingly weird architecture that seems to be Chris Fox's forte; an interesting set-piece or two.
  • The not-so good bits: It's easy to get stuck by solving a particular puzzle with an obvious (but unintended) solution; the intended solution to said puzzle is unintuitive and unclear; levels are shrouded in darkness, but it seems more out of laziness rather than purposes of atmosphere; lazily designed street war segment at the end with bunched together Combine soldiers lining up to get shot.
  • The confusing design bits: The plot seems like it could've been interesting if it were developed more; why cram a street war segment at the end?
  • Download! Originally released on April 18, 2007

And now, a possible discussion topic to debate, if people would care to indulge me: In Day 15, an in-game NPC tells you NOT to expect the level design to make any sense, which is a strange request - especially coming from the designer himself! Indeed, some of the design isn't logical, and Day 15 can be frustrating at times... Which is an interesting approach to compare to Valve redefining the goal of successful level design with all their focus on playtesting and re-iteration: essentially, to not frustrate the player, but to lead the player and get him/her to finish the game.

The Episode 2 game completion stats suggest that Valve wasn't as successful as they hoped with under 50% of players reaching the last map. Though there are many reasons why players don't reach the end, we can assume a large proportion simply aren't motivated to finish - maybe they are frustrated, maybe they are bored. Either way, it leads us back to several design questions:

  • Should we strive for frustration-free level design? Is frustration a valid emotion to draw from the player? In other forms of media, works are often purposely obfuscated to force the reader/viewer to become more involved with their interpretation: for example, it can be difficult to extract meaning from various modern art pieces. Oh, and I dare you to try reading Finnegans Wake sometime.
  • What should successful level design entail? As designers, is "fun" the chief response we should target from players? Indie game developer Jonathan Blow suggests that there are unethical forms of "fun" that infantilize players, and that such gameplay mechanics should be avoided by designers. Must level design serve some sort of "higher purpose" - to educate, to train critical thinking, to promote discussion?

Article Comments (now closed)

Theory's gravatar

1. Are they really frustrated?

Posted by Theory at 11:08PM, Friday January 4 2008

What's more revealing than Episode Two's completion rate is the falloff on the Highest Map Played graph (tangent: can we include URLs in comments yet?). 11% of people haven't even played the <em>second map</em>! They can't possibly be frustrated already, and they will hardly be bored with the prospect of the entire game ahead of them - I can only think that they're instead the ones who were never going to enjoy the game anyway, perhaps ending up with it only because they bought the Orange Box, progressing through only as far as their faith in Valve (or desire to get their money's worth) allows.

The falloff continues quite smoothly until the penultimate map, which says to me that only the final Strider battle is a cause of any notable frustration.

Campaignjunkie's gravatar

2. Okay, maybe "frustration" isn't the word I should have chosen...

Posted by Campaignjunkie at 2:47AM, Saturday January 5 2008

... It's more like "facilitation" I think. The fact that a falloff exists suggests that lots of people are naturally inclined to just stop playing, regardless of Valve's intent with the design. What I'm wondering is if it's worth it, as a designer, to focus on "facilitating" players when lots of them won't care and will stop playing anyway - should we write them off as "casualties of war" perhaps, and just cater to the "hardcore gamers" who actually get to the end and will enjoy it the most?

Klapaucjusz's gravatar

3. Challenge without discouraging

Posted by Klapaucjusz at 8:11PM, Saturday January 5 2008

When I observe my one-year-old headcrab, it seems that frustration plays a major part in his development. He sees fun things (final goal) just out of his reach (challenge) and he devotes amazing amounts of energy (interactivity) to get to them. He seems to be enjoying himself (intermediate goal) during his attempts, but gets bored (falloff) after a few minutes when he doesn't manage to grab the shiny.

The question may not be whether to frustrate or not. The absence of frustration means that there is no challenge, therefore no "game" happening. Playing in god mode or against pushover enemies and insultingly evident puzzles removes the frustration, but also removes most of the fun.

The question may be how much frustration is too much. I agree that some people won't get into the game no matter what you as the level designer may do to facilitate their experience. On the other side of the curve, the "hardcore gamers" will soldier on despite the lack of blindingly obvious or just mildly visible clues. If I may mention a certain unreleased map which included sliding gates, levers and big baddies roaming in the courtyards below, I will confess having one of the best times in my playing years when I tried to get across the area. The huge architectural and acrobatic puzzle was very complex and frustrating, but when I was working on the solution, I was having more fun than blasting away the marines. Now, other testers suggested making the path and the solution more obvious. I know that I didn't need it to be simpler, but I realize that a large number of players may have less patience than I do and I'd rather have them join in the fun with me and spread the good word about the designer's talent than have them give up or noclip through the area. I suspect that this third group of players makes up the bulk of the gaming audience. They like to be challenged to some extent, but not so much as to spend hours looking for the way across the winding paths of fantastical palaces and the slippery walkways in caves of steel.

I suspect that the answer to the reformulated question lies with the designer. Whom are you releasing the game for? The very casual player with a short attention span , the hardcore gamer or the vast audience of moderately patient FPS afficionados, who like to play a somewhat believable story, to explore realistic architecture and to be challenged but not repeatedly trounced by armies of striders.

For rants and reckless driving advice see http://www.hylobatidae.org/minerva/forum/viewtopic.php?t=123&start=30

Kelvin's gravatar

4. Some thoughts..

Posted by Kelvin at 1:12AM, Sunday January 6 2008

I agree with Campaignjunkie that a lot of people aren't necessarily 'naturally inclined' to finish games. I mean, that isn't the goal, the goal is simply to have fun, and even good games aren't going to hold everybody. I'm thinking of classic games like Super Mario Bros or Doom 2 that lots of people played, far fewer finished, but that wasn't really an issue. Clearly story driven games offer that incentive, but not everybody gets hugely into the story. (or think arcade games..)

The other 'discussion' questions seem to get into the whole 'games as art' bit. I suspect as in, say, movies, there's room for all sorts of design philosophies, but the ones that make the most dosh are low on thought required and frustration. Also relates to the constant playtesting approach, which certainly has its advantages (and I'd think is designed to reduce frustration) though I think it may also take something away from the experience (I think Theory agreed with me on that at some point.)

One of the reasons I like mods is that you get one persons, or a few people's, vision, undiluted by trying to make it widely acceptable. Sure mods are more likely to suck, and to be filled with bad decisions or extremely irritating features, BUT, you also get some interesting and/or creative things that wouldn't necessarily survive in a commercial release. Rather than a bunch of somewhat bland evenness, you get the highs and lows, but to me the highs can make it interesting. More, shall I say, artistic.

Sortie's gravatar

5. My Points

Posted by Sortie at 4:33PM, Sunday January 6 2008

In my world games must be fun. Then comes the question: What is fun? Thruth is, nobody really knows.
That's why the ideas comes in, some designer thinks 'Hey, this could be cool' and then creates it. He then seeks some response from other people and hears if it is fun or not and what they enjoyed.

Games have done that for years now, and game designers now have a pretty good idea what is fun. As for the more risky ideas there's always the modding community, us. ;-)

Now here's the problem, if a player gets too frustrated he'll stop thinking the game is fun and logically stop playing the unfun game. But as Campaignjunkie said, frustration can be good too!
I once read a very good point on this subject. What are the player frustrated at? If the player is frustrated at the game he'll stop enjoying it, as it is the games fault. However if he's frustrated at himself, he'll probably see it as a challage and keep playing.

Being angry at the game is often a last resort, as 'IT IS NOT MY FAULT. :(' is a pretty good feeling to have when giving up.

A good example would be if the designer summoned 4 striders and the player only has a damn crowbar available. The designer made an imposible game and asked the player to complete it, however if it IS possible and the player realizes this even if it is hard, the blame will never blame the game for being poorly designed.

So. Make the player blame himself, and not the game.

Crispy's gravatar

6. Infantilization

Posted by Crispy at 2:15PM, Saturday January 12 2008

I'm a big critic of this in games. Sadly, this makes games sell better. I have both praise and criticism for the way Valve approach this. I'd say that their SP stuff is often far too linear, and I also hate the decision taken to have more frequent, shorter loads that repeatedly force the player to revisit his box (redecorated with a new paint job) every time the game is to load. It feels a lot like the game is a tasty malt shake I just want to down in large, satisfying swigs, but as I'm imbibing it Valve keeps forcing me to swallow every 2 seconds before its true, saporous splendour has a chance to settle on my tastebuds. Every time I get shoved into that little box room or that tunnel I feel like I'm being gagged, not because it doesn't exist in other FPSes, but because in Valve titles it occurs far more frequently so is much more noticeable.

I agree that guidance is important, and it's a poorly conceived game that lets its player get lost or confused. But I do think that Valve are catering to the lowest denomination a lot of the time, and I'd prefer it if they focused on the more subtle approach. For instance, how in TF2 they use artificial highlights to draw the player's attention to the chest area where the most important visual indicators are (e.g. the weapon type, health stream, steadiest point at which to aim, etc.). This isn't overt enough to frustrate a player like me who positively detests being pandered to and having my hand held through the game, but it's effective enough to make a difference.

I don't think, if success in sales is your goal, you can afford to ignore the fact that in the Western world we are statistically becoming less and less attentive and communication is containing less and less substance (the 'dumbing down' phenomenon of our generation). A traditional videogame competes with more forms of media these days (in particular, free games and streamed video via the internet) so it cannot afford to risk the player getting stuck or losing attention. So I think, in a way, games do have to be designed with this in mind, but I think there are subtler ways to achieve this that don't piss off the players who want to take things in and who want to be challenged and who want to be made to think their way out of problems.

Crispy's gravatar

7. Clarification

Posted by Crispy at 2:36PM, Saturday January 12 2008

That's as far as commercial releases go (or releases that aim to be widely popular). For modding I agree with Klapaucjusz, you can afford to be more selective, more artsy. As a modder with no commercial agenda, I have the option (which I should take) to make a game that targets a specific audience, and I should stay focused on that goal without compromising it.

For example, 'horror' and 'action' do not easily go hand-in-hand. True horror needs to be believable and it needs to establish a sense of reality before subverting it. Which film is better, Alien or Aliens? Alien is the better horror film because the alien is very rarely seen and instead the focus is on the characters, how they interact, the tension building between them as this unknown quantity looms over them menacingly. Alien has make-shift weapons, fairly low-tech equipment that isn't too much of a leap from what is available to us today, no heavy explosives or eccentric showmanship (incidentally The Thing shares a lot of these themes).

The second film, Aliens, is more of an action-thriller film so can afford to show you more Aliens and more of the Sci-Fi universe. The guns are bigger, the characters shallower, the set pieces more dramatic. There is no real underlying horror, only jumpy moments that take you by surprise.

Both are good films, but to make a good horror film I believe you have to take risks, focus on a narrower, purer objective and shy away from what the public enjoy being fed. Same works for mods. If we want to create something new and different, we have to focus wholeheartedly on that niche and not be afraid to put some players off. Thankfully, unlike commercial studios, we don't have any overheads to worry about. :)

Nesretep's gravatar

8. Re: Infantilization & Clarification

Posted by Nesretep at 5:09PM, Saturday January 12 2008

I agree that commercial games are often forced to go the popular route on order to be successful enough to make money. It is a sad fact, yet still true. This is the reason why the modding community exists in the first place. Modding gives us a chance to remake a game the way we think that it should be or to design something entirely different -- it is up to the one modding the game. Like I have heard Trurl say before, he makes games the *he* would enjoy playing. The fact that we all like what he makes is great too, but he's not going to make something that he would never play just to suit someone else.

Trurl's gravatar

9. Masochism vs. Self-Congratulation

Posted by Trurl at 10:09PM, Monday January 14 2008

Compare SHODAN, Durandal, GLaDOS et. al. with the endless 'YUO AR FNTASTIC!!1' massaging of a player's ego present in many games.

Is offending the player a bad thing, or are some players just too thin-skinned to brush off such artificial insults?

Games with prickly, awkward edges are much more fun than sterilised, homogenised, truly designed-to-appeal-to-all efforts - which is why I do like playing mods. They can be awful, but they can also have sudden, unexpected veins of gold running through them...

Kelvin's gravatar

10. Re:Masochism vs. Self-Congratulation

Posted by Kelvin at 10:54PM, Monday January 14 2008

Sometimes I wonder if anybody reads my posts around here. Or, gets to the third paragraph at least..

Trurl's gravatar

11. I did read 'em!

Posted by Trurl at 11:02PM, Monday January 14 2008

... just a while ago. Presumably you've managed to hijack my brain with your own memetic material or something. ;-)

Kelvin's gravatar

12. miserable weather

Posted by Kelvin at 11:25PM, Monday January 14 2008

Sorry, I guess it's just that when you see a post you were proud of ignored, then have the ideas hijacked without reference, then have them mis-attributed to someone else, then finally plagiarized, I guess I'd finally had enough..

(sorry I seem to be in a bad mood today, the sun never came out and those f*ckng New York Giants insist on not losing. Damned irritating.)

Campaignjunkie's gravatar

13. Mondo Agency

Posted by Campaignjunkie at 12:08AM, Tuesday January 15 2008

Hmm, now you're reminding me of a recent indie FPS called "Mondo Agency" ( http://www.indiegames.com/blog/articles/index.php?c=ca&y=2007&gid=6 ) - it's really weird, sometimes frightening, but still engrossing (well, to some people). I'm not sure if I'd want to play a Source equivalent though... I wasn't a big fan of the Half-Quake stuff. Anyway, I think the only reason such weird stuff works is because there's already a genre convention in shooters that an experienced player expects. We're merely on the shoulders of giants.

Crispy's gravatar

14. Hijacking? Plagiarising? Seriously?

Posted by Crispy at 1:29PM, Wednesday January 16 2008

Do you really think you're the only person, even the first, to come up with the opinion that 'non-commercial, independant releases have less constraints than commercial products so, while they might be rough around the edges, they can be more daring and more original (and even brilliant in places)'?

You're merely paraphrasing the mood of a generation. This applies across the board to videogames, music, film and probably even theatre. Hell, they were probably saying the same thing about Hollywood versus independant film in the 1950s.

I find it particularly ironic that your complaint about 'the posts you're proud of being ignored' comes just a few lines after Trurl's "Compare SHODAN, Durandal, GLaDOS et. al. with the endless 'YUO AR FNTASTIC!!1' massaging of a player's ego present in many games." quote. Don't give an opinion and expect praise. Chances are someone's already come up with it and put it more succinctly than you. You share opinions to help create a general awareness, not be the first man on the metaphorical moon.

Kelvin's gravatar

15. Re: Hijacking? Plagiarising? Seriously?

Posted by Kelvin at 9:49PM, Wednesday January 16 2008

Yeah I got a bit grumpy there, for which I apologize. I'll admit for my part I tend to be a bit oversensitive sometimes. I realize that probably nothing I said is original, but it was at least original to me, and at least within this thread. (We are bothering to have the discussion.) Surely you could admit that what you were 'agreeing' with Klapaucjusz about better fit what I said? (He didn't say anything about 'arty' or distinguish mods from commercial releases.) Not a big deal, I didn't say anything at the time, but when Trurl did something similar I got a bit snippety. Sorry. I think you're being rather harsh though.

Most of the people posting here so far, myself included, have been regulars on the Minerva forums or blog for awhile, and I guess in my misguided thinking familiarity gives a slight margin for occasional grumpiness. (Or maybe the fancy new moniker 'Kelvin' makes me feel all bold and naughty.) I'm sure at some point I've expressed my undying love for Trurl and all his efforts, under all his pseudonyms. Lacking any spelling mistakes to complain about, I'm forced to grumble about other, more superficial things! (though he did also take my bit about the Korean license agreement from the RPS thread on Residual Error!) (Sorry again..)

Well, then, enough of this irritability, I'm done with it if you are. Ahem, mods then?

Nesretep's gravatar

16. Re: Masochism vs. Self-Congratulation

Posted by Nesretep at 3:04PM, Thursday January 17 2008

In my own playing experience, I never found the "insults" from SHODAN, et al. insulting. It was just part of the game. As far as truly offending the player, what will offend one will not even make another flinch. A prime example of the is in the game F.E.A.R. or Prey. In both, they use what some would consider inappropriate language (dropping the F-bomb, primarily). What I think Prey did right, that F.E.A.R. didn't was give the player the option of at least bleeping out the offending language. There are some of us gamers that have little ears around that we'd rather not have hear that kind of stuff, even if it doesn't really bother us personally. Anyway, that is my 2 cents...

Crispy's gravatar

17. Re: Re: Hijacking? Plagiarising? Seriously?

Posted by Crispy at 12:55PM, Saturday January 19 2008

I was harsh, but that's because I don't take kindly to being accused of plagiarism (or others being wrongly accused of plagiarism). I do try to ackonowledge other people's ideas as much as possible, and in addition to saying I agreed with Klapau I should have also said I agreed with your input, but that's no reason to overreact and cry "Plagiarist!".

--

Re: Masochism vs. Self-Congratulation

I think the big difference between SHODAN teasing the player and a bit of bad design frustrating a player is that one was clearly designed to be that way and the other is an oversight. Players are aware enough while playing that if they are forced through a fairly monotonous, boring, tedious section or left to wander aimlessly, it is the (level) designer's fault. They are conscious of the fact that this experience has been designed to produce enjoyment in them, not to waste their time.

Embodying a character and having another character taunt and flat out insult you is enhancing to the game experience, a player (of a certain age - the age of reason) can make the distinction between what is meant for them and what is meant for a character. Being led down a dead-end for 3 minutes or having to make un unreasonable amount of button presses to open a door is clearly not something someone in the game world has created in order to frustrate the main character. It is a product of lazy design.

Kast's gravatar

18. Re: Re: Masochism vs. Self-Congratulation

Posted by Kast at 8:48PM, Sunday January 20 2008

I'm sorry, you're playing FEAR - a game featuring copious quantities of blood and core, extreme violence, themes of captivity, child rape, enforced pregnancy etc etc etc - and you're worried about a little thing like swearing? It's not like it's the only sound you need to worry about either; there's some harrowing screams at times, particularly in the flashbacks.

Am I missing something?

Nesretep's gravatar

19. Re: Re: Re: Masochism vs. Self-Congratulation

Posted by Nesretep at 10:41PM, Sunday January 20 2008

I was merely using the swearing as an example and two games as examples of where one is given options vs being forced to either play it or not. Nevermind the fact that a young child isn't likely to pick up on "themes" as much as something concrete that they heard.

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