Lucky Shot

From Animal Crossing to Battlefield, randomness is a huge part of our medium of games. Random number generators decide which Pokémon we find in the tall grass, what items fall out of our enemies, how much damage we deal, how our bullets spread, how we grow and level up, and even how AI behaves. This randomness rules our virtual lives in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It creates uncertainty, which makes things more interesting, but sometimes that uncertainty is unwelcome. Even with all the randomness of games and the fun of uncertainty, there is a certain amount of consistency that I like to see as a player. Without it, the decisions players make become less significant, and the game weaker as a whole.

To understand why the consistency is important, it helps to know why the randomness is, too. The shortest version is: not knowing is exciting, down to a deep psychological level. Those familiar with B. F. Skinner or fans of Extra Credits may know that adding variation to reinforcement makes things more engaging. This means that, when you throw a Poke ball, for example, it succeeds every time, the Pokémon games would be a lot less interesting than if it had a chance to fail (and that chance changes based on health, status condition, catch rate…). The foreknowledge that throwing a Poke ball will not always work is what makes catching Pokémon feel rewarding. The fact that the ball can fail to catch, even against weakened Pokémon, is part of the genius of the series. Another good example by the big N is Animal Crossing, in which pretty much everything from day-to-day is random: the shop items, your neighbors’ moods, what you dig up or shoot out of the sky, whether your flowers have hybridized yet, but while those things are a big part of the game, they are not all that influential on the player’s decisions. How one decorates their house or town or which neighbors they like to pester the most, while potentially sped up or slowed down by the randomness, is not otherwise reliant on it. The whole game is about taking it slow, so it does not matter how long it takes to fill your house with blue roses placed on custom-designed tables. The fun of the game is the journey.

Of course, this comes with a tradeoff, as all good things do. For starters, Skinner-box methods are a cheap and shallow method of adding engagement. Players will probably not get bored immediately because the excitement of “what will happen this time?” is enough for a little while, but it is not interesting enough to make them genuinely care. Pokémon, to bring up a previous good example, makes it work because it makes you work for that chance at success. Even outside the context of catching ‘em all, or even just catching that one that you like, the game sets up a situation in which randomness plays a part, but does not entirely decide the player’s outcome. However, I do not want to imply Pokémon has perfect use of RNGs. Occasionally it does tip the scale too far in favor of the randomness, and catching a Pokémon becomes next to impossible without luck even with all the right conditions (I’m looking at you, Articuno). This domination of randomness is also why competitive battlers often ban evasion and accuracy-altering moves and abilities, as all they do is add a miss chance decided by an RNG. Now this sort of randomness is a method of creating difficulty using systems already in place. The trouble is, whether it aims to create difficulty or not, it is always frustrating.

Using that Skinner model again, in theory the less likely something is to work when given an input, the more one will want to try giving an input–this is the very foundation of slot machines and lotteries. However, when games put too much emphasis on the random, either in an attempt to create engagement or simulate difficulty, they tend only to succeed in being exceedingly annoying. For one, complete randomness is boring, which is never something to strive for in a medium of entertainment. After the initial thrill of uncertainty, random chance becomes uninteresting as there is nothing players can do with it other than hope. perhaps the bigger issue, though, is that randomness weakens the value of or completely removes a player’s choices.

Because you used it, Vulpix will still never miss.

Because you used it, Vulpix will hit anyway.

Games, a medium entirely built around the fact that its audience can interact with it and make their own choices when playing, cannot stand without player choice. As important as the uncertainty aspect is–it would not be much of a choice if you knew the outcome beforehand–there must also be something concrete to base the decision on. The player must have a certain amount of information they can be certain of, or at least believe they are certain on, to base his or her decisions on. If someone knows getting hit will deal them damage, they now have to make the choice whether or not to avoid getting hit, or better yet how to avoid getting hit. If a player knows a character hates chocolate, the player then has the choice available to give her something else or give her chocolate anyway to spite her. The player remains relatively uncertain of the outcome, but has something to base their decision on. If these two examples were good examples, the player would have even more to go on, such as a tell before an attack lands or a previous experience with the character.

These kinds of uncertainty are great because they give the player a chance to consider the result of their actions. If he or she dodges left, damage might be avoided, if he or she gives chocolate, he or she will probably disappoint the character: these are conclusions players can come to on their own using what information they have, which makes their choices more meaningful. The player still does not know for sure, but can stipulate. A weakness of random uncertainties is that it does not have this trait. The sheer nature of randomness means there can be no real thought process to aid in the choice made, which makes the player’s role much less significant.

A while back, the game League of Legends had dodge mechanics based on a miss chance. Riot Games did away with it, however, because the developers and players felt it added too much luck to the equation. Stacking evasion was a choice to be made, but even with a ton of it all it would take is one lucky shot, decided not by a player but by the computer, to turn the tides of a fight. It felt cheap and was not all that satisfying for either side, and the game is stronger now without it. In fact, League of Legends has done away with any randomness in its mechanics. Since the whole game is built around team player-vs-player games, the uncertainty is already there: other people are the most unpredictable source of it possible, but they are not truly random. People can be watched, read, and outplayed, which is a solid source of uncertainty. There are countless factors from which players can make their decisions, which in turn affect the decisions of everyone else playing, making a perfect feedback loop while never actually doing away with the uncertainty. League in particular does a good job of it, as while the game can be quite snowball-ey, it does have a negative feedback loop built in through player gold rewards, which means even a team that is behind can turn things around if they are clever about it. Even the team ahead is never truly certain in their victory, which makes it continue to be interesting for all parties involved.

Randomness is not an inherently bad thing. The wastes of Borderlands would not be as much fun without the randomness of its prize drops, nor would rougelikes with procedurally generated worlds, yet random number generators are not the only way to create engagement through uncertainty. What is more, without a certain amount of certainty to balance it out, too much unknown makes for a frustrating experience. Consistency and stability are as important a part of game design as uncertainty is. Without it, there are no mechanics to master or tricks to learn, and no value in our actions as players. Both sides of the equation are important, how else would I fight to weaken my opponent and still hold my breath when I throw an Ultra ball?

The Little Things: Game Menus

Persona 3 Menu Banner

It is the little things that truly separate a good game from a great one. That extra layer of polish can drastically improve an experience and make it all the more memorable and enjoyable. The little things make words more immersive, play more pleasant, and an entire game stronger. One of those things is the menu.

I say “the menu,” but I really mean all of a game’s menus. Menus may not actually seem little, but we tend not to think about them much. Pretty much every game has at least one menu, even if it is only the title menu, but those menus are as much a part of the experience as anything else. They can feel clunky or smooth, their sounds can grate or satisfy, and they can slow down or streamline an entire game. Menus are the lifeblood of JRPGs, our adventure inventories, and our character builders. Without them games would be enormously different. Their prevalence has allowed developers to get them down to a science, but it is hard to call them perfect, even now.

The Pokémon series has always been built on menus, but to this day they have been slow and too many in number. Of course, the games need a lot to function, but the PC in particular has always been in need of streamlining. Moving Pokémon around on the touch screen was a step in the right direction, but do we really still need to choose between “deposit,” “withdraw,” and “move” to get there? It can be done in the pause menu, but it always disappoints me when I cannot change the position of my Pokémon’s attacks in battle as well. When multiple Pokémon faint during a double or triple battle, you cannot simply select the next two or three, you have to pick them and switch them with their fainted partners one at a time, which is not intuitive at all. For all the reasons I love the Pokémon series, not much has changed regarding its menu layout since Red and Blue Versions six generations ago.

Pokemon PC box

It probably took as much time to organize these boxes as it did to fill them.

There is a balance that needs to be struck when creating menus. If they are complex, with several layers of sub-menus or large numbers of items, they should be fast. Players need to be able to traverse through their veritable mazes quickly, and they should be consistent enough or clear enough that a few trips through them is all it takes to memorize a path. For example, the item boxes in Monster Hunter get pretty full pretty fast, but one can get through them quickly, and since all the items have a pre-set order (assuming one uses autosort) and clear icon, it is not hard to fly through the item box to get a few things out or combine items. It is relatively complex, but the game sets it up so that players can waste no time digging for that extra potion. If menus are simple, they can be slower, especially if they hold a lot of information, but there are plenty of older games that I used to enjoy that I feel as if I now enjoy less because traversing the menus does not feel right.

Like everything else in a game, a good menu should have solid feedback, too. A silent, static menu, while functional, is a great way to make enemies. Sound feedback is cheap and easy, and some menu noises are so pleasant and satisfying that the simple act of scrolling is interesting. Of course, this goes both ways and some sadistic or tone deaf developer may decide shrill screams make for fun menus, which only makes players dread having to look at their inventory or change a setting. Animation is another great way to give menu feedback, but the tradeoff is that more animations means more time, which slows down the process of traversing the text and/or icons. Again I will turn to Monster Hunter’s item box as a good example, as not only does the game have great inventory and menu sounds, but the item box also has a subtle cursor animation when removing items. It only takes a couple of frames, it is not flashy or overly attention-grabbing, and it lets the player know their button presses did something. Perfect menu feedback.

I could go on forever about menus: cursors, layouts, colors, borders, fonts… They have as many parts as the rest of the games they are a part of, but for now I shall leave it at the largest of the little things. Menus are a big part of games as we know them, and for something so seemingly insignificant, those little menus can have a big impact on our experiences as players. Just like all the other little things.

Muscle Memory

Minish Header

On a whim, I recently picked up The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap after years of it waiting patiently in a protective case in a wooden box in my room with all my other old handheld games. Somehow I had remembered how much I enjoyed playing it the first time, but had no conscious memory of the game itself. It was a 2D Zelda game: There was simple sword combat, puzzle-filled dungeons, you could shrink real tiny to talk with the minish, and you had a hat with a beak named Ezlo. I had no recollection of the dungeon layouts, the puzzles, or many of the game’s secrets. Playing it again now, with so little memory of it, would be like playing it for the first time again.

I am sure you can see where I am going with this. While I cannot claim to have had a magical moment of clarity wherein I recalled the solution to every puzzle, the location of every piece of heart, or the trick to every secret, I have found, while playing The Minish Cap again after so many years, I hardly have to think to get through it. I am sure I played it multiple times, likely even multiple times in a row, knowing my younger self and games, but I went back into it with little-to-no conscious knowledge of the game outside of its simple story. That said, all the puzzles I have solved without a moment of thought or hesitation. All the paths and routes through the world map I have had little trouble finding and all of the enemies and bosses I have known the solution to without the need to experiment.

Green Kinstone Halves

                        Evasive little buggers

Now, admittedly, Nintendo is pretty good about making the world map, bosses, and enemies relatively easy to figure out–it is often just a matter of having the right tools–even more so for those who have played many games in the Zelda series. It is part of what makes Big-N games feel so good and polished to play, and perhaps that is all there is to what is going on in my replay of The Minish Cap. After all, it is an exceptionally well constructed game, my only major complaints being the soundtrack, which gets somewhat repetitive and is not as memorable as many other Zelda games’, and that the game does an exceptional job of making sure I never have the right shape of green kinstones on hand when I need them. However, I have always been of the mindset that the 2D Zeldas are more difficult than the 3D ones, or rather feel that way because they are a different kind of game entirely with a different kind of difficulty. Yet, playing it again today, it all feels so automatic, as if it is little more than muscle memory. The kind of muscle memory that never goes away, like riding a bicycle is supposed to be, or swimming, or typing.

I know it happens with games. I only recall having two games when I first got my Nintendo 64 as a kid: Ocarina of Time and Donkey Kong 64, and both of those I have played so many times they truly are ingrained in my body and soul. I hardly need to pay attention when playing either of them anymore, and no amount of remakes of Ocarina of Time has changed that. The difference is that I can consciously recall those two games. I know every step, every block, every button, but not so with The Minish Cap. However, I did enjoy the little Game Boy Advance game, enough to have played it a couple of times and replay it again today, and perhaps that is all that matters for it to have been so committed to my subconscious memory. I loved the game, so even when my mind forgot, my heart never did.