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.

The Little Things: On Title Screens

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 title screen.

A game’s title screen is its greeting. Barring publisher and developer splashes, it is the first thing the player sees, and is certainly the first part of the game one sees. Back in arcade days, they had to be interesting to draw the eye of potential players and their small change. A good title screen was dynamic and showed off the game beyond it. Of course, games still intended for arcades still make use of these sales-pitch title screens, but most games on the market are intended for home play. The practical purpose of the old title screen has changed to little more than a medium meant to initiate play, and over the years they have become simpler and simpler.

Now, I do not want to imply there is anything inherently wrong with this trend. Most people do not spend a great deal of time on the title screen, and if a developer had to pick between using their time to decorate the title screen more or polish the game itself, I would hope they choose the game. Nowadays, the main practical purpose of the title screen is the title menu, which even in its most complex form is fairly simple. Whether to include a global options screen in the title menu is likely the only major decision developers have to make in terms of practicality these days. That said, a good title screen can enhance a game experience far more than one would expect for its simplicity. Intro videos reminiscent of those in arcade-based games make for an exciting way to start a game when one first starts it up. It feels like the intro sequence of a television show, preparing the player for what is about to come. Frankly, many Japanese titles, such as games in the Tales of or Persona series, even model their title intros after anime openings, complete with catchy music and custom animation. This may be due to the game and anime markets being so closely tied over there, but it certainly makes for some interesting pre-game entertainment. The title screen movies that play in Persona 3, Persona 3: FES and Persona 4 are brilliant, all made with a great deal of care and attention and accompanied by awesome music. I would sometimes simply wait on the title screen and watch them a while before starting a play session. They add a great deal of atmosphere to the games and their similarities to anime openings help to establish the modern Japanese pop-culture aesthetic that the series is so well-known for.

A personal favorite title screen of mine is that of Ocarina of Time, though I know I am hardly alone on this. Barring any bias one might have from the rest of the game, from the moment the player starts it up, Ocarina of Time has set the stage for the experience it aims to offer. The screen opens with sweeping scenes of Link riding about on Epona, fading the actual title and logo in only after the initial introduction to Hyrule field. Wait long enough and the camera will make its way to the entrance to Kokiri forest, where the game begins. The newest 3DS version does not even show the title at all until the player presses a button, which only makes the whole screen stronger, as the player is given the chance to see the whole thing without the title card blocking the view. Once the player does interact with the game, it behaves exactly as a normal title screen would, with the logo and iconic “press start” visible until the player acts again.

If you haven't taken this trip yet, you probably should, but I'm sure you've heard that before.

If you haven’t taken this trip yet, you probably should, but I’m sure you’ve heard that before.

One of the greatest things a title screen can do for a game, however, is strengthen not the beginning of a game, but the ending. When one plays a game through all the way to the end, especially a particularly powerful one, more so than a sense of accomplishment is a sense of wonder and awe. As the player sits, after all the cutscenes and credits, past the final grades and closing remarks, if the game does not simply wait for the system to turn off (or program to close), it will fade back to the title screen. In rare cases, this moment can be made to feel all the greater with the right title music. A perfect example of this is Kingdom Hearts II. Its title screen is a fairly common affair as little more than a static image with relaxing music that cuts to an opening movie with enough patience, but its music is its strength. It is noteworthy just how peaceful it is, and that calm that it washes over its audience is exactly what they need after finishing the game. After all the action of an endgame, all I want to is stew for a moment and absorb the experience–to sit and reflect–and the song, “Dearly Beloved,” that plays on Kingdom Hearts II’s title screen is perfect for this. The game Journey, on PSN, does something similar, the transition from its ending to the title screen so seamless, one hardly notices the game has gone back to the title screen at all.

A title screen is such a little thing. A minor moment in a game’s entire experience, yet a quintessential part of it. A truly great title screen, though, can be as memorable as the rest of the game itself. From fun opening movies that catch the eye to passively setting the tone to empowering an ending, a title screen can make a good game feel great, and a great game feel greater still. We would do well not to neglect them.