Friday 9 November 2012


Warning: contains spoilers for O.

Giving menu options in a game feels like an admission of failure. The creator couldn't find the correct settings themselves and had to leave it to the players to fix it. You couldn't decide on the best controls, so you left some possibilities to choose between. You couldn't make good enough music, so you left an option to disable it. Some things are unavoidable though. Accessibility options are a very good thing; enabling subtitles or whatever (but it's more elegant to cater for colourblindness by distinguishing things through shape than by having a separate mode). But most of the essentials (volume control, graphics settings) are handled by the hardware or operating system; not my problem. (It's nice to support mods, but that's something different; allowing your game to be used as a frame to build other games on top of.)

You often end up needing to make some concessions for people learning to play - easier difficulty levels to learn on, harder ones to satisfy Terry's craving for rapid defeat. I love the elegance of Ziggurat's single mode, but I know the gradual start puts many players off.  In Glitch Tank, I ended up adding the 6hp mode after having played it a lot; it's better for advanced players, but way too slow for beginners. In Helix, I've ended up having to add separate difficulty modes.

In a multiplayer game, I feel it's often an error to include an option to play against AI. The way an AI opponent works is just so unlike to how a human plays that it makes for a very different experience - an AI has an advantage over humans from its essentially instant reaction speed, but a disadvantage from its lack of conscious reasoning. Plus the experience of learning alongside an opponent is something I value and (so far) AI opponents can't offer that. I suspect Glitch Tank suffered from this: while I've enjoyed playing against the AI, it's vastly inferior to playing against another human. It's pretty likely that the first time someone plays will be against the AI, because they've just downloaded it and not found someone to play with yet, so they'll get a suboptimal initial experience. And maybe they'll judge it by that, find it unworthy, and never end up playing two-player. In future, if a game is intended to be multiplayer, I'll try to leave it at that - it won't be accessible to people who "don't have friends" to play with, but I see that as a smaller loss than people who would otherwise play it with friends not doing so.

Again with Glitch Tank, I'm not sure whether I was correct to include the turn-based mode. I've said before that I'm glad I included it because some people vastly prefer it, but now I'm not sure. Has it given anyone a worse experience of the game?  It seems like a lot of players find the real-time mode alien at first, then switch to turn-based and are far more comfortable with it. It's much more common to see card mechanics and grid-based movement in a turn-based game, so this is a more familiar experience. And then if they never switch back to real-time they're missing out; it's a much more interesting game, partially because of it being a less familiar approach. It was an intentional choice not to save Glitch Tank's options, resetting to two-player real-time each time it's run, giving a constant subtle reminder of how the game is best played.

O has just one mode, and for some that counts against it. But that one mode is bloody good, and omitting options adds to the overall pure minimalist aesthetic.  I see it as a sport, and sports don't come with a menu (although they can be modded: hence the inclusion of the Secret Options Menu and implicit support for one-handed/one-fingered/left-handed/non-contact play). To be clear: I'm not complaining about that review; I'm happy they wrote about the game, he's just writing for a particular audience which I'm not part of.

The Secret Options Menu lets you change physical properties of the balls (friction, bounciness, speed), scoring (target, chain bonus), how fast balls appear, etc. When I've told people about it at the start, I've felt it's hurt their enjoyment. Rather than exploring it and discovering less-obvious tactics, they quickly set about trying to 'fix' it: like many of my games it takes some figuring out so the initial experience has an element of bafflement.  I think it's entertaining to try out variations, to mod it, but it's better to understand the game well first. I spent a lot of time tuning these variables to find good settings; random values you choose are likely to be worse. This feeds into the idea of "the paradox of choice" (via Electron Dance) - giving people options can make them less happy, even though it's something we say we want and make use of when it's there.

Mm, I don't really have a conclusion here. It's good to have options sometimes, for advanced players, for modding, for accessibility. But you should take care with them, try to get things right in the first place rather than leaving them as options, and try to prevent the availability of options diminishing players' experiences of a game.


  1. Why such a focus on a monolithic, authorial, "pure" version of a game?

    Particular to games, menu options are a valuable contribution. What other medium allows you to change the constants which define your experience in order to attain an alternate outcome? I'll never be able to tweak the force of gravity in a film, a poem, a song - that's something only simulations can do.

    Tweaks, changes, and menu options allow us visions of what could have been or what could be. They're an important reminder that our world is malleable, rather than static, and that we affect it.

    Strange to me is this idea of menu options as failure, and, in addition to that, of correct settings. What determines if a setting is correct? Is it possible the game designer is ever mistaken? As a game designer, when I present a game I am making an implicit argument that within this system I've created these certain settings work optimally. Providing menu options allows the player a chance to disagree with me, to foster their own thought, and to present an argument for how the world should be instead. I think there's value to that, and when I move away from the idea that certain settings are universally correct, the idea of menu options as a kind of failure seems stranger and stranger.

    I do think it's fair to assume that if the player is provided with these options early on, however, they may wander away from a more difficult experience which may provide more depth. But, on the other hand, they may discover another mode of play the developer overlooked which may have more depth or simply depth of a different kind.

    I guess the real difficulty lies in finding a way to ensure that the player keeps playing long enough to discover that depth no matter what, even if it lies in settings outside the developer's intentions.

    1. You're coming at this from a very idealistic point of view. I agree that it *seems* positive to allow tweaking anything about a game, but what I'm finding is that actually giving certain options is reducing people's enjoyment of my games. This is why the "paradox of choice" is paradoxical: in theory it seems like options are a good thing, but counterintuitively in practise they hurt. Like I said, I've actually tested this both ways with O, and people who've known about the options menu have enjoyed the game less.

  2. Your reason for not providing options appears to imply the statement that the best version of the game is the same for every player.

    This statement is wrong for most - maybe all - games.

    But there's an interesting problem you hit on in your analysis: What if players use options not to tailor the game to their specific needs, but instead to inadvertantly break it for themselves? Which seemingly they sometimes do.

    This seems to me to be one of those issues which is best explored with real players. Find a game which someone is playing "wrongly", return their play to the author's intentions by teaching them, then ask whether they prefer the former or the latter. If the latter, ask them for ideas concerning how to improve the in-game learning environment and/or the presentation of the options.

    1. When I use the word "feel" I'm trying to convey that this is an impression, not necessarily logical fact. But making games is more art than science, so feelings matter.

    2. The thing is, the act of choosing options ends up as part of the experience of a game. If setting A is better for one player and B is better for another, it would be better for a game to automagically to give them each their ideal setting. But giving them the option to choose isn't equivalent to that; it gives the setting that they select (not necessarily the one they'll enjoy most) along with the knowledge that they could go back and pick the other one. And when they hit a wall in learning the game, a point where they're enjoying it less immediately but will enjoy it more once they've figured something out, there's the awareness another option and the feeling that they might enjoy that more instead.

      As Ian observed; this comes down to how to keep the player around for long enough to discover depth. It's not necessarily a problem with options, but I'm finding that options can be an obstacle to that.

  3. I too think that it's an overly-simplistic way of looking at it.

    Why would the only reason you'd include an option to turn the music off be because your music isn't good enough. Can't we allow for the possibility that people have different tastes in what they'd like to hear during a game? I'd love it if everyone loved the music in the game I'm using right now. But people are different. I don't consider it an artistic failure if some people don't like it: in fact, if everyone loved it I'd be worried it was too bland. So I'm happy to provide the option to disable it so that they can still enjoy everything else I've provided for them. Perhaps I want people to hear the music at a good volume when they first run the game, but recognise that people might prefer to turn it down to put it more in the background over time, or maybe they won't. Is that because I failed with the music, or is it just that people's individual needs might change as they play the game, and I'm accommodating to that?

    People's bodies are different, and their history of playing games and what sorts of controls they are used to is different. A control scheme which works for 80% of people really well might not work for the remaining 20%. Surely that's not always because I failed to find the one that would work for 100%? And so I allow people to re-bind keys to their taste.

    Or is the suggestion that it's better to turn those 20% away than to water down my game by adding options? Because I don't see that. I can maybe see it in the examples you gave of gameplay-tweaking options - y'know, there's an argument that it's stronger to stick by the game you wanted people to play than offer a bunch of concessionary options. There's a danger people might veer to these options before discovering what was appealing about your defaults.

    But not with these basic accessibility options and volume controls and stuff. I chose the volume levels and the default controls because those seemed sensible to me. I didn't (necessarily, depending on the game) have a 'vision' for them for want of a better term, and I could see how other people might want to change them while still enjoying everything else about the game that was part of my plan for it, like co-operation, and yelling.

    1. I said it *feels* like an admission of failure. If my feelings are overly simplistic then so be it! I'll provide an option to disable music (unless it's necessary for the game), because I know a lot of players will be happier with that. I aim to make highly replayable games, and I don't expect to be able to provide music that holds up as well as the gameplay - but it can still feel like a failure to not be able to.

      But yeah, the point was more about alternate gameplay modes that are less interesting than the core mode but might seem more attractive on the surface.

    2. I certainly think that's valid. I'm still not sure it ought to feel like a failure though. I mean, often I feel like I'd like to change the mixing in a film (because the music seems too loud on my set up, or something) or the typeface in a book (now possible with e-readers) to make it easier on my eyes. In none of these cases do I think the creators have failed, indeed, it's a shortcoming of the medium that often these options aren't there. It means that some people are getting a less than optimal experience that they can't do anything about.

      So this game I'm making... it is about co-operation and shouting. But I recognise that people might want to play it when they don't have their co-operating, shouty friends with them. I guess I could say 'tough luck', but it also seems like that's a poor approach because when they first download the game, I bet they don't have any coop-shouty friends around, but they want to see what it's like. So we're adding a practice mode where AI controls one play. It's not the mode we think the game will be best in which is why we called it practice mode, but it's just a sort of nod to the practical real-life thing of not being able to carry your friends everywhere.

      But it is a tough call, because on the other hand, we're tending against network play options because we really want people to experience the game with their shouty friends right NEXT to them. I guess the difference in this case is that we worry that people will do network play INSTEAD of same-computer play, and indeed might never see why that's how we want them to play it.

      And then other game play options we have planned feel more like serving suggestions, not necessarily less or more interesting, but 'how about you play it like this?'. I had a point, but somewhere I lost it.

      Anyway, so yes: I kinda agree with your point but to me some of these examples feel a bit like beating yourself up for being helpful.

  4. Interesting post.

    Whenever I teach someone a real-time game (and I'm thinking of things like Brawl or Falling here), I usually begin by teaching them to play in "turns" first, taking one move at a time. This gives them time to understand what moves they can make and what the effect of those moves could be, before adding the pressure of time. I'm broadly forcing them to play real-time, at extremely slow speeds, with alternating moves out of politeness.

    1. I like teaching them that way and then springing the fact that you don't play turns as a surprise at the end at the end of the tutorial. I'm thinking specifically of Ice Towers here, where I say, "Here are the different kinds of moves you can make, yadda yadda yadda. Oh, by the way, there are no turns. Let's play." That idea is still so novel to most people that it's an awesome hook in an otherwise boring part of the game (learning the rules).

    2. exactly! I do the same teaching Glitch Tank; let them take turns until they realise for themselves that they don't have to.

  5. I guess I agree with other people that options can be sometimes helpful—especially in big expensive commercial games where you really want to maximize the life of the experience and give players control over what can happen—but I know what you mean about limiting experience through options. In Smash Brothers I think it's great that you can make custom battles with ridiculous specifications, but I find the common tendency to veto certain levels, items (no items is the worst) or characters to be an extremely boring trend.

    This happens to me a lot in board games (an area where it's impractical not to give players options, because they can always just do what they want without the designer's permission). In Dominion we'll avoid certain cards that we dislike, even though playing them more eventually causes us to like them more. In Forbidden Island I'll usually leave out the Navigator because it seems less fun, but maybe it's just less fun because we haven't learned to have fun with it yet. In Settlers of Catan there's always the temptation to tweak the geography so no resource is too scarce, but those games bring up such different experiences that doing so actually just limits your variety. In Mafia there's a huge tendency to constantly introduce new role options and see how they play, but then you lose the insight and second-guessing madness that comes from playing the same setup multiple times.

    The moral of the story is that game designers really do know what they're doing most of the time, and it's best to trust them unless you have a very good reason for not doing so. Perhaps the same is true of chefs; a long time ago I read an article by Jeffrey Steingarten in which he argues that you should not be averse to certain ingredients, and the best way to have a memorable meal at a good restaurant is to order the dish that sounds most repulsive to you. I've been working on this a lot, ordering okra every time I see it, and the results have been awesome. I'm not sure what my okra-of-games is, but I'll try to play it more.

    1. ughhh horrible memories of games of Mafia with ALL THE ROLES.

      I guess game designers have to earn that trust, for people to believe we do know what we're doing and not jump to try to fix it when they don't immediately see why a choice was made. And maybe I haven't earnt that yet, I'll just have to keep working on it.