Imagine this. We are sitting around a table discussing the mechanics and game features we would like to implement in our upcoming game. Now, this is just an informal meeting, but all our imaginary co-workers are here and they are taking turns sharing their ideas. Aveline suggests that the game could include a lookout tower feature; Syzmon proposes that we could start planning for high quality yet affordable DLC. There are smiles, comments and imaginary nods to each suggestion. Then I take a turn. I suggest a “Timeout Box” feature. My suggestion is greeted with tilted heads and puzzled expressions that prompt me to explain further. It is a feature that would sporadically remove the player from normal gameplay and ask them to wait around for anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes before normal gameplay resumes. You probably agree with our imaginary friends when they explain to me that this is not a feature players would enjoy. I would agree as well, no one wants to feel like they are wasting their time. What is interesting is that through a combination of player behaviour and game design a feature similar to the “timeout box” feature has emerged in many of our games. It exists because of our player's dungeoneering algorithm.
What is the dungeoneering algorithm?
The dungeoneering algorithm is the algorithm a player uses to make a decision when they come to a fork in the road. The algorithm varies slightly depending on the goals of the player, but its ability to disrupt gameplay exists for most players. When a player comes to a fork in the road they will usually have one of two main goals. Either they are looking for the progression path, or they are looking for the dead end path. Some players want to rush through without fully exploring side paths while others want to check the dead ends for hidden goodies. Players deploy the algorithm by using the information the game has presented to them and try to make the decision that will best lead them to their goal.
Multiple paths in Bioware's Neverwinter Nights
Backtracking and wasted time.
A player can become frustrated when they have come to realise that their algorithm has led them down the wrong path. For example, for the player that wanted to check for goodies and hidden treasure in dead ends, there is a moment of dread when they see that door with the gold glow representing the area transition. First, they realise this isn’t the dead end. Then they realise how long it’s going to take them to get back to that other path. Finally, they realise how much time they wasted by coming this way first. Depending on how the level is constructed and the player’s confidence in their decision they could be looking at spending minutes mindlessly holding their forward key. These few minutes will be far from the most compelling gameplay for the player.
Designing around player behaviour.
Should we try to create a design solution to something that is causing players frustration? Even if it’s a player initiated behaviour? If we agree that the Timeout Box feature from our imaginary developer meeting was a bad game feature, then we should probably try to reduce player frustration caused by their dungeoneering algorithm.
Linear path in Bioware's Neverwinter Nights
The frustration being player initiated is what causes this to be an interesting design puzzle. How can we ensure we retain the feeling of exploration while mitigating the potential frustration that exploration could introduce? One sure fire way to eliminate this frustration would be to condense forked paths into a single linear pathway, however, this approach is essentially curing the disease by killing the patient. The exploration elements would be greatly harmed.
Another solution that is quite popular in modern games is the implementation of a quest marker system. This system is able to reduce the chance that the player makes the wrong decision when they come to a fork in the road by always giving them a good idea which direction they should be heading to complete their overall objective. With more information, the player is able to make a more informed decision with a higher likelihood of being correct. The only problem is that quest makers cause almost as much harm to the feeling of exploration as a linear path does. Too much reliance on quest markers makes the game feel like it’s on rails. Quest markers may not be the ideal solution, but they do point us in the right direction. This is a problem that can be solved by better transmission of information to the player.
Possible Level design solutions.
It’s possible to adapt the same concepts as quest markers, but in a way that is providing the player with key information in a more subtle way. If a player is made aware of the direction of their overall objective and the level is constructed with some amount of logical cohesion, then this information can be factored into the player’s dungeoneering algorithm. As an example of a level: The player is chasing a wizard to the top of his magical tower to confront him. When the player comes to a forked path, they can intuit that if one path is descending while the other path is flat, the descending pathway is more likely to be a dead end. Likewise, between an ascending path and a flat path, the flat path is more likely to be a dead end. This is not a perfect solution as it has some drawbacks. The player may entirely miss the transmission of information if they are made too subtle and if they are too blatant they run the risk of emulating quest markers.
Possible visual and audio solutions.
Audio and visual solutions are the way we can use the artistic design of the environment itself to express information to the player. In our Wizard’s tower solution, there are countless ways to use art and sound to convey the information about which path the wizard they are chasing used. Maybe in this tower, torches on the wall light up when someone approaches them. If so, it would be reasonable to assume that of the choice between a lit path and an unlit path, the unlit path is not likely to be the one used by the wizard to ascend the tower. Subtler still, maybe the pathway used by the wizard up and down the tower each day has scuff marks here and there on the ground while other paths remain more pristine. Can the player hear the Wizard periodically muttering to himself when they are on the correct path to ascend? There is almost no limit to the amount of information that can be conveyed this way, it’s just about finding the right balance between subtle and obvious.
An NPC companion letting the player know which path leads towards progression in Obsidian Entertainment’s Dungeon Siege III
What I find interesting about this as an idea is that it’s a behaviour that has become ingrained in so many players over the years they have played games, despite the frustration it can frequently cause them. No one game has taught the player that they should explore every side path in the hope for goodies. Even if the game they are currently playing has never rewarded them with a goodie at the end of the dead end path, they will likely still continue to check other dead end paths. Think about the dungeoneering algorithm over the next few days. Are you looking for the path forward or the dead end? How many times in the games you play to you find yourself running back and forth mindlessly either because you are looking for the way forward or because you are looking for the dead end with goodies. How often do you feel like the time you spent running around wasn’t worth your time? What ways have you seen this problem mitigated or what would you suggest to solve the problem?