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Training Day Blues

With an increasing amount of games using tutorials and training levels to condition complex control schemes onto players, are developers losing sight of why most people started playing games in the first place - simple, satisfying core gameplay mechanics.

One of my main bugbears with modern videogames is the prevalence of in-game tutorials, training levels and Simon-says sessions. All too often I’m asked to spend a good chunk of time and energy (sometimes hours) to get to the point where I’m actually able to experience the game as the developers intended.

With graphical fidelity seemingly reaching a plateau on the current generation of consoles, developers should be paying more attention to interface and intuition; helping players get into the core mechanic(s) as soon as possible by building user environments that allow players to more quickly realise the intended gameplay goals.

Interface and intuition are intrinsically linked. Having intuitive menu and control systems specific to your game (i.e. giving more consideration to things like menu navigation, in-game menus, context sensitivity and other user interfaces) rather than relying on player memory from previous games and/or extended tutorials potentially removes a barrier of entry for new gamers and helps gamers of all abilities experience the core aspects of a title sooner.

Of course, it’s a fine balancing act. By going straight for the core game experience and dispensing with the hand holding, do you create more problems than you solve? Happen upon any old coin-op or take MAME for a spin and, compared to modern video games, you’ll not only realise how quickly the core gameplay mechanics reveal themselves to the player but also how difficult (in general) the experience is. That these mechanics are often now perceived as unfair and too hard could be as potentially off-putting to players as time-consuming tutorials.

Despite the ability to go back and learn from past games, most developers still aren’t getting it right. Of all the recent games I’ve played, Demon’s Souls really is a shining beacon in terms of atmosphere, combat and difficulty, but the resource management aspects and menu systems could still use a lot of work. Obtuse symbols that represent the type of weapon you have selected and no way of comparing properties of equipment/weapons are just two of my grievances. These things don’t enhance any aspect of the game – or increase its difficulty, they merely artificially slow down player understanding of weapon selection and upgrading paths – two of the most enjoyable components of the game. I suppose that’s the problem with leaving players to find out too much for themselves – ambiguity can end up handicapping your game and the player’s experience of it.

From Software’s decision to seemingly overlook these usability issues baffles me, especially seeing as the rest of the game manages to achieve a ‘natural equilibrium’ between tutorial (giving you a basic control summary at the start) and intuition (a great collision-based combat system that you’re required to use and understand in gameplay situations from the very beginning ).

Is it a question of scope? Should developers be scaling back productions to one or two core gaming experiences, rather than assuming that gamers want more of everything? You'd certainly reduce the need to add soul-sapping training levels that explain minor gameplay elements and quickly forgotten quirks. I'd certainly be happier with a less-is-more approach, especially if I knew that development time had been spent perfecting the aspects of the game I’ll be concentrating on for 90% of the time.

Think back to the first time you played Super Mario Bros. on the NES. Either Miyamoto got incredibly lucky, or he playtested the core concepts (running, jumping and stomping) extensively and tuned them until they were perfect. Even now, Mario’s jumps in that game ‘feel’ right, with a distinct weight and sense of gravity. Similarly his running momentum seems brilliantly realised – an overweight Italian American plumber would struggle to stop if he was running at full pelt wouldn’t he?

Many will see this mechanic-led process as a double-edged sword, and with some justification. Some of the best gaming moments in recent memory have been incidental to core gameplay concepts – seeing an AI character do something amusing in Grand Theft Auto 3, catching a stunning Vista in Red Dead Redemption or noticing some witty propaganda in Half Life 2/Bioshock.

After being reminded of the PS2/Xbox FPS Black recently, it’s also safe to assume that spending vast amounts of development time on one or two gameplay elements doesn’t always guarantee a great gaming experience. Before release, Criterion took pride in telling the gaming press that one of the first working demos of Black simply placed the player in a room to let them experience the sensation of firing a machine gun, so convinced were they that this core mechanic was fun. Even with this focus, the game itself (in my opinion) failed to live up to early promise, with bland levels and enemy AI. Indeed, it was something of a chore to finish. But the process of ensuring your gameplay elements are fun, even in isolation from the game world, was a bold step that sadly most other developers seem to ignore.

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