Monday, December 20, 2010

Dashed Upon The Rocks

I haven't written much about Super Meat Boy, but it's not because my fingers and hands are too ruined to type (although that's nearly the cause). It's a fantastic experience, basically the Platonic platformer, I just didn't have anything to add that was more substantive than "Yeah, it's really good."

Earlier this week though, I was listening to Jorge and Scott's conversation about grinding and it reminded me of something Kirk wrote about "skill grinding." Jason linked that piece and referred to it in his review of SMB for Paste (and thus the circle is complete). What Kirk calls "skill grinding" is basically referring to progress in a game that emerges not from a character earning experience points and gaining levels, but from the player themselves actually getting better at the game's challenges. Character improvement vs. player improvement. Kirk was writing about this in the context of Demon's Souls, but it applies even more so to SMB.

What I think SMB illustrates is games about player improvement operate best when the loop of the player attempting a challenge, failing and being able to try again is as tight as possible. In SMB, you barely have time to angrily sputter a new concoction of profanity before you're back in the fray. This allows the player to dash themselves again the rocks as much as possible, and while that sounds frustrating to some, it's actually the best way to improve. The frustrating part isn't failing, it's waiting to try again. Or worse, it's being forced to overcome a previously surpassed challenge just to reach the one in question simply due to arbitrary checkpointing. The satisfaction and improvement comes from analyzing the situation, attempting a solution, seeing what didn't work, refining it and trying again. Anything that sits in the way of that will make player improvement slower and less satisfying.

Of course, putting up barriers to player improvement with intent and purpose can actually be used to good effect. As the game that inspired Kirk's discussion of this topic in the first place, Demon's Souls certainly doesn't have the tight loop that SMB does. And failure in Demon's Souls is far harsher than SMB, where death is swift but relatively without consequence. As such, Demon's Souls feels far tenser than SMB, with much higher stakes. The only time I've found SMB to be particularly tense was a few of the longer levels near the end and when I finally neared unlocking The Kid. Demon's Souls plays the player, asking them to constantly weigh banking the souls they've got versus pressing on for more. Demon's Souls isn't superior to SMB or vice versa, but I'd wager more people could pick up and improve at SMB. Demon's Souls demands a certain ... dedication.

In the opposite direction, games that communicate progression of a character do so through lengthening the loop between moments of progress. Character progression is all about contrast. Progress that comes too quickly muddies the waters, making it so the moments of progress seem less impactful and distinct. Again, this style of progress isn't inferior to player improvement, merely different. Mass Effect 2 uses it quite well, going so far as to decrease the number of skill points you gain at each level. It certainly feels like fewer than Mass Effect 1, and the parade of "SpaceCorp Gun I-VII" is largely toned down as well. Whenever your Shepard progresses in Mass Effect 2 it feels substantive.

The trick bit with character-based progression is that it's easier to abuse than player progression. Turning the reward progression into an ever-increasing time commitment that offers little in return otherwise is dangerously nearing Skinner Box territory. And many free-to-play games make showing up really the only condition for success, but if that success still isn't coming fast enough, you can pay to increase the rate of reward.

I'm not going to say one is better (some of my favourite games are RPGs that are primarily about character progression), but there's something that feels very "tactile" about player progression in games. It's a manufactured skill you're improving, but honestly, you have learned to do something better. It's a made up something, but is it any more arbitrary than, say, juggling? I'd like to see more player progression games with a feedback loop as tight as Super Meat Boy. We've seen plenty of strong character progression games, but the trick bit with them is they almost always need something else to lean on to stay engaging (Mass Effect 2 as a pure shooter would be ... lackluster). Creating a great story or expert pacing is hardly a given for many studios, even very competent ones. I'd love to see more folks experimenting with player progression games instead. As SMB demonstrates, this kind of satisfaction is hardly played out.

And of course, the player-character progression dichotomy is only one axis a game can be satisfying on and it doesn't need to be particularly prominent in all games. And it's certainly a spectrum (multiplayer games with level advancement blend these things interestingly, and I might have more to say about that in the context of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood). But I'll drop a stake to say player progression works best with a tight loop and character progression works best with a lengthy. Deviating from this can be useful, but it should be intentional. And it should certainly never be a punishment. I don't think many favourably remember Too Human for exactly that reason.



Blogger Unknown said...

I couldn't put my finger on it until I read this article. I've never liked grinding for experience in RPGs or MMOs but I couldn't stop playing SMB. And I thought, "Why can I do this level, over and over, and love it?" When you said "skill grinding" I got it immediately. When playing SMB repetitively, I'm actually getting better! Timing exactly when to jump, how far, how high, memorizing all the traps; this is all very fun to me! When killing gnolls over and over, sure I may be getting a little better with how to handle my battles, but there's a point where you're just hitting the same button, over and over, for the exp. Now that I understand why SMB doesn't bore me like traditional grinding does, it makes the experience that much more fulfilling to me. Thank you!

December 20, 2010 at 2:15 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alli893 Excellent! I felt that way when I first read Kirk's piece. The player/character improvement thing is something you can feel, but putting the right words to it was very satisfying. Happy to pass that along =)

December 21, 2010 at 9:28 AM  
Blogger Jacob Clark said...

I left the MMO world because of the fact that it felt more like a game of time then a game of skill. City of Heros/Villains was my game of choice and after 2 years of progression I never thought I would ever catch up to the hardcore players.

Super Meat Boy reminds me a lot of Bit Trip Runner in the sense that death is a very common thing. I like the fact that death is not the game ender but more of a little lesson.

December 22, 2010 at 5:12 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Gaming in Public While I don't have the time to play it, I find reading about Eve fascinating. What's interesting is skill progression is solely a factor of time (and not even in-game time), so with skill progression taken out of the equation, all the interesting game bits are the interactions between the players and their organizations. Tales of corporate espionage, boardroom backstabbing and deceptive assaults are so much more interesting than "My guild killed Xaxparcsis, Dragon Praetor again this week."

December 23, 2010 at 9:06 AM  
Blogger Jacob Clark said...

I have played Eve online and the game is more laid back then your normal MMO. The game was not for me but the shear size of space (actually flying in a space ship) was pretty cool. The one thing I will give it credit for which you are right about is the fact that the game is a lot more social. To get most things done you need a posie and I did run into hierarchy situations where groups were based on time joined.

December 25, 2010 at 4:44 AM  

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