The Hypothetical Design Bastard
“The player is the enemy. An invading force that needs to be controlled, to be trained like a dog. Mete out the chocolate drops and the whip with equal abandon. If they make a mistake, let not pity stay your hand, kill them, punish them, send them back and erase their progress. Without punishment there is no risk; no risk, no reward. No tension, no gameplay. It’s a waste of time.”
It’s Easy Being Mean
No, no, of course I don’t believe a word of it. I hope that you don’t either. Actually, I don’t really care if you do, just make my life easier and leave your name and the names of the games you work on below, save me a few hours of frustration and maybe a few quid.
I’m not suggesting that people actually do design games from this point of view. But do any of you actively try to avoid such meanness? It’s so easy to make your game too difficult or unfair. Maybe you punish the player too harshly, or reward them too lightly. Not because you’re trying to be a Design Bastard but simply because your perception of the game may be very different to a player.
The Hypothetical Design Bastard is a way of thinking about your game. It’s a sanity check and an invaluable yardstick. Each decision you make in your design, compare the result against your own Hypothetical Design Bastard. What would he do? And is it any different to what you’ve just done? If so, do you need to rethink that design and maybe give the player a little more help?
I’m finding myself using this technique a lot on the game I’m currently designing. The game itself is still under quite heavy wraps so I can’t go into details yet, but we’ve been looking at punishment and penalties in the resource management element of the game. If the player misses a scheduled resource gather, do we delay their progress until they make the collection, or set them back to the start of the resource spawn timer if they miss the window of opportunity? Well, both would be viable alternatives, but in 2011/2012 design ethics dictate the former as being the right thing to do. The HDB would definitely reset the clock to zero, sorry pal, you’re gonna have to wait till next time! Thinking with an HDB offers you a frame of reference and the decision becomes much easier,
The Bastard in Action
Here’s some other potential examples. And in keeping with the theme, these examples are hypothetical. It’s the end of level boss fight, the boss down to 10% health and the player gets killed - what do you do? The HDB immediately drops the poor player off at the start of the whole level. Serves them right for not actually being the designer of the game and knowing that that particular attack pattern was coming. That’s a bit 80’s so you dial in the year 2012 and ask your HDB for another idea?
Okay, so this time he’s much nicer and simply makes the player start the whole boss fight again. Good old, soft hearted Bastard that he is!
But this is still pretty harsh, personally I’d tell the HDB where to go and save numerous checkpoints throughout the fight. This might mean that the player gets their progress saved in a very vulnerable position, but maybe the guy who didn’t put any player health regen in the boss fight was the HDB anyway, so fix that while you’re in there.
Platform game designers, seeing their renaissance in the indie and smart phone scene may well be tempted to go for those epic 16 jump ascents with a few lateral missiles near the top. Is it really necessary to allow the player to be knocked from the top to the bottom of the whole ascent? Yes, the player should have known that the flame jet was going to be there but is this not another case of the HDB winning over a more modern design ideal? The soft hearted HDB puts a safe platform halfway up, the truly kind designer takes away the missiles as well, allows the player to find their own physical rhythm to the play with no added pressure from spiky death.
Being extra nice
It’s not just the negatives you need to check. Keep an eye on the positives. Are you handing out enough Shiny Pebbles and Flanian Pobble Beads? Do you only ever give one type of reward for a single action? You might be worried about spoiling your player or unbalancing the game, but sometimes it’s just a case of Why Not? Why not spoil them on occasion. You very rarely hear the word Generosity in a game design, and I think that’s a shame.
I’m in no way advocating the removal of penalties or pressure or difficulty, i’m just arguing for the right proportion of pressure and penalties applied in the right way. Even if you’re making a point with deliberately high difficulty, running The Hypothetical Design Bastard test is still an exercise worth doing. Your players are still the most important thing in your game, so look after them. And if I’m one of them, look after me!
Jogosity really doesn’t like difficult games, so quite why he plays 80’s scrolling shoot ‘em ups in his lunch hour is anyone’s guess. And don’t get him started on just how amazing Gradius V is. It’s all an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a I’ll stop now.