Thursday, April 28, 2011

Creatures of Contradictory Impulses

I'm writing about Swarm today, so that means prelude. I wouldn't want anyone to get the wrong impression, and the usual caveats of these views are mine and mine alone, etc. apply.

Swarm is Hothead Games most recent XBLA/PSN title, and honestly, it's an interesting game. Now, I didn't work on Swarm at all and left Hothead before it was released. I played the in-development version a couple of times and gave that team my feedback, but that was about it (I was all 'Spank, all the time). Anyway, point is this isn't to be taken as a review or some judgement. It's an observation of one specific mechanic and the implication it has. Already, enough preface.

Swarm is about controlling a horde of 50 little blue guys at once. You lead them through hazard-strewn levels of roaring saws and crackling Tesla coils. Periodically, clusters of azure nodules allow you to restore any lost swarmites. And that's basically it, pleasantly simple and understandable. The only caveat is that your performance is scored. And that score is really important.

The basic scoring structure in Swarm is you earn points for collecting small objects in the levels. At the same time, as soon as one of these is picked up, a multiplier appears and begins counting down. Its countdown resets when another object is picked up. However, the countdown also resets whenever one of your swarmites is killed. When the timer finally runs down, your currently score is cashed out, multiplied and added to your cumulative score for the level.

Aside from the truly old school glory of having your name next to the highest score on the leaderboard, score in Swarm has another very important function: it's the sole way you progress through the game. Each level has a score target and if you fail to meet it, you cannot continue to the next level until you do. Full stop.

In design parlance, I'd call this a "hard gate." A hard gate is an element that prevents progression without a specific condition being met. Hard progress gates like this are dangerous, simply because progression in the game now hangs entirely on getting that balancing and tuning of those gates absolutely, completely perfect. I don't know if it's possible for that perfect balance to exist. You can't reliably know the skill level of players approaching your game. Do you balance it for a player of moderate skill? Then you're frustrating anyone below that threshold. If you're tuning it for players with very low skill, what's the point of having such gates at all?

Hard gates are especially dangerous for a linear game like Swarm where there's literally nothing else to do in the game should you be unable to achieve the gate's unlocking condition except throw yourself against it again. Even Super Meat Boy and its brutal difficulty had a simple progression goal of completing a level by any means necessary. A+ times were available for players that chose to seek them out, and these A+ times gated the extra difficult "Dark World" levels that were even more insanely difficult (and those also had A+ times). But to progress, only completing the levels was necessary. And even then, within any world, the levels could be played in any order. Plus, if you die in Super Meat Boy you respawn in about 2 seconds.

And that is what's most particularly frustrating about Swarm. Swarm has a checkpoint system where if all 50 of your swarmites die, you'll respawn all 50 at the last checkpoint you passed. Any "cashed out" points are saved and restored when you respawn. However, your running points and score multiplier will not. What this really means is that if you die, you'll almost certainly be in a much worse position score-wise when you respawn.

Especially in some of the later levels, it's the case that if you lost your entire swarm more than 1/3 of the way into the level, your chances of unlocking the next level are basically zero. At that point, it's better to simply restart the entire level rather than press on only to discover you're a couple hundred thousand points short of your goal when you finally reach the end.

Compounding this is the success conditions are difficult to discern. E.g. you have 300,000 points banked and an active tally of 36,400 points with a x14 multiplier. You need 1.2 million to pass the level. Quick, tell me how close you are to unlocking the next level! Now imagine doing that calculus when your multiplier is counting down and you're trying to lead your swarmites through a field of beartraps. The worst surprise one can get from finally chewing through an entire level is to get to end, see they're 100,000 points short and effectively being told, "Whelp, do it again. And better this time."

Now to reiterate the prelude, the point of this isn't to say Swarm is good or bad. I bought it and finished it and I'm genuine in saying there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in the game. Plus, everyone I know that worked on it is a god damn awesome person. I highly encourage you to check the game out for yourself (you can download the 360 demo right here and there's a PSN demo too, once Sony burns out the infection anyway).

But obviously I don't think the effect Swarm's progression had was intentional. I think it's informative to take a look at why that is and see the serious risks in having hard gates that are strictly tied to performance, especially when that performance isn't clear to the player until they're basically done with the task.

Of course, there's a wide gulf between this and L.A. Noire saying you can skip straight to the cutscenes if the game is too hard. But we'll save that for another day.



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