It’s My Game – I Wanna Play By My Rules!

“Player Tailoring,” says former Tomb Raider: Underworld creative director, Eric Lindstrom, “lets players emphasize or tone down action and puzzle elements according to their personal tastes.”

He’s proudly welcoming his new buzzword into the gaming lexis: an inconspicuous menu option that allows Tomb Raider players to tweak the difficulty of its multiple genres independently. Those distracted by the (frankly, awful) combat can lower enemy health, but retain the difficulty in Lara’s laborious acrobatics. It’s the difference between turning a volume knob or futzing with ten different equaliser sliders to boost a singer’s vocals and drown out the drums.

Ultimately, it can be seen as current Tomb Raider developer, Crystal Dynamics, explicitly acknowledging that their combat is weak or frustrating. But, cynicism aside, this so called Player Tailoring may have a future in gaming.

Videogames, still in their adolescent youth, are a medium of conventions and paradigms, and it only takes one successful application for it to become prevalent. Taking cover behind objects in shooters was a foreign concept and infrequently used in obscure titles like Operation: Winback. Epic’s mega success Gears of War reintroduced the concept, and it’s now widely used across the genre.

“People are not in the business of designing games. They’re in the business of playing games,” expands Lindstrom, and his point rings true in games like Skate 2. Not hidden in a menu, kept out of reach to everyone except skating savants, the game tasks you with tightening your wheels and trucks before you even start skating – more overwhelmingly terrifying than liberating. For me, however, my Skate 2 customisation wishes are far more pedestrian.

I want to take out the cars, I want to remove the bystanders and I want to get rid of the other skaters in the game. They’re a nuisance and they frustrate me; every time a perfect line is ruined by a businessman yakking on his phone, or a downhill charge is intersected by traffic, I call out for the option to turn these annoyances off. I paid £40 for the game, so why should I be so constricted?

I’m simply talking about just skating around New San Vanelona; I earn no achievements, I don’t progress in the game and I seek no accomplishment. When it comes to the tightly constructed missions, however, player tailoring offers many design challenges.

While Lindstrom champions his new device, I can imagine other developers quaking in their boots. Suddenly they’re no longer the draconian ruler and, like giving multiple camera angles on a DVD release, they can’t hold the reins on the player so tight. How do you treat players who drop difficulties to low and use hints at every turn, and those who stick it out with the hardest challenge, the same?

Game designer, Reid Bryant Kimball, who worked most recently on The Force Unleashed, questions the system. Should players be punished for using the system, offering fewer rewards (unlockables, achievements, etc) or charging in-game costs for lowering the challenge? Nintendo DS puzzler Professor Layton requires “hint coins” to unlock clues, while Underworld gives unlimited puzzle hints for free.

Other systems for providing hints, changing difficulty and tailoring the experience to the player are offered continually; SiN Episodes toyed with dynamically altering difficulty based on experience and Nintendo recently registered a patent for in-game hints. It’s an ongoing subject, but Underworld’s unorthodox new initiative is certainly a step in the right direction.







13 responses to “It’s My Game – I Wanna Play By My Rules!”

  1. Duncan Aird avatar
    Duncan Aird

    Couldn’t agree with your more Mark, especially on the Skate 2 comments! Why must I be punished for some idiot taxi who can’t indicate properly?!

    Though it’s a shame I don’t like TRUnderworld, because it’d be a fun experiment to try this new difficulty setting.

    Great job my friend, you definately earned your ReadyUp position. 🙂

  2. MrCuddleswick avatar

    Take two wolves across first. Then come back with one wolf and pick up another chick. Drop the chick off on the other side, head back with the wolf again and pick up another chick. Take that chick across and leave it on the other side. Take the wolf back across again and pick up the last chick, dropping it off on the other side. Then go back for the last wolf. That’s 8 moves, not 11. I win the world. Surely.

    Sorry, got distracted by the (well-mannered to a point) wolves and chicks.

    I’ve never really liked the idea of too much customisation……if the games were properly balanced in the first place then you wouldn’t need to turn bits off and on here and there, and you could experience the game as it was intended. Things like the bystanders in Skate 2 are part of the gamer world, taking them out would surely be like taking out the police from GTA, just because they hamper you. Also, making many aspects of the game customisable would take up development time that could be spent getting the balance and controls right in the first place.

  3. Andy Turner avatar
    Andy Turner

    It’s certainly an interesting concept…personally I agree that fewer rewards should be obtained when tweaking aspects of the game serves to reduce overall difficulty (to use your Tomb Raider example ramping down the enemies health but still getting the badge of achievement for finishing the game on hard setting would kind of be a bit of a cop out.)

    But I by no means think being able to tweak aspects of a game is a bad thing.

    Right off the bat I’d imagine I’d be more willing to pick up a serious driving game if I could maybe have it help me out a little on the cornering for a while….and dare I even dream of a world where I can be bothered to go back and try and finish GTA 4 free from molestation because I’ve been able to turn off the feature of one of my needy friends calling me to demand I go bowling with them (picking them up and dropping them off at their door of course.) every fifteen minutes…you know little things like that we could switch off at the point it stopped being a nice novelty feature and started to become a royal pain in the ass.

    Oh what a world the future promises to be.

  4. Lorna avatar

    Great food for thought. I’m inclined to think that achievements/trophies should reflect the player’s choices in circumstances such as the ones you describe – so if the player has cranked down the difficulty and used hints every step of the way, then the achievements should be minimal, otherwise the game is less rewarding for (arguably) the majority of players who play ‘normally’ (not a word I like to use) and it devalues achievements across the board.

    When it comes to Skate, taxis and ignorant businessmen are realistic nuisances, which begs the question ‘how real’ do you want your games to be…though I’d say that a sandbox should have the option to switch them off.

    Welcome, by the way… 🙂

  5. GamerGeekGirl avatar

    Hmmm… I’m not sure how I feel about this…

    I’d certainly like some elements to be fine-tunable – but to be honest; my main issue with some games is difficulty – I’m happy to accept a generic difficulty level; but sometimes Easy isn’t easy enough.

    I game a hell of a lot (I’m just not great at FPSes on Consoles) so I think it must be incredibly offputting for new gamers… If I can’t do easy, how can someone beginning for the first time?

  6. Rob avatar

    i agree with you there. Would be a good idea for more games to mess about with difficulty setting on multiple elements of the game. I would love to see fallout do the same thing

  7. John.B avatar

    Agree totally, Madden did something similar this year with football IQ. It threw tests at you and if you did well it upped the difficulty, poorly lowered it. In theory it was great but in practice the difficulty of the tests got called into question!

    Instead of a simple menu system I’d like to see more of a push into adaptive gaming which morphs based on how you play.

  8. Mark avatar

    Thats another interesting one John. B.

    As more and more people come to play games, we can’t expect everyone to be headshotting, bullet-timing, insane-difficulty players.

    So I think we are in a transitional, experimental phase, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

  9. Michael avatar

    A difficulty slider was present in Morrowind as it happens; what you describe for Underworld sounds like a refinement of that. And I played Operation Winback!

    To be honest, I’m not sure being able to change it so you can succeed straight off the bat is such a good thing – yes, I can see the merit of it when you’re tearing your hair out in frustration but it could be abused so easily. Challenge is gone completely. Skill becomes an irrelevance. Now a hidden adaptive difficulty gauge that affects the game based on how good, or bad, you are without you choosing the level(s) is a totally different matter.

  10. Gilo avatar

    Crikey Mark — really great article! And I’m in complete agreement with the Right Honourable DunK, it’s abundantly clear why you are one of the chosen!

    (I wonder if ‘The Chosen’ will stick…)

    Anyhoo, I’ve gotta say I prefer being able to choose player tailoring over having a game take pity on my lesser skills and asking if I want it made easier (I’m glaring at you Devil May Cry…..and yes, I’ll take the easy route thanyavermuch)

    MGS2’s lil’ questionnaire at the beginning was quite a cool way of setting you up too, even skipping the prologue (best bit of the game methinks) if you claimed you’d never played MGS before.

  11. Jake avatar

    The skaters in Skate 2 are annoying sometimes. I was trying to do one of the challenges and had it been real life would have told the other guy to do one. Mind you, if Skate 2 was real life I would also have a massively broken groin so maybe it’s better that it isn’t.

    By the way, Mr Cuddleswick – if I remember rightly if you played the wolf-chick thing as you laid it out, the wolf ate the chick as soon as it was unloaded from the raft. They seriously have no table manners.

  12. Darach avatar

    It’s definately interesting stuff.


    I’ve seen players go out of their way to ruin game experiences for themselves. Difficulty settings so easy the player’s in danger of falling asleep during heated battles. Reading a walkthrough of a new game, before playing it for the first time, leaving the game completely without surprises. Cheat codes for invulnerablity, weapons and vehicles turning any attempt at seriousness or challenge into the equivalent of slapstick or a cartoon.

    I guess I believe that the gamer doesn’t always know what they’ll enjoy best. That what they think they want (often zero challenge, and to see all the game’s secrets and rewards immediately), is often at odds with what the designer intended (to get the player involved with the role they’re playing, and the motives behind that, and the chance of a real feeling of accomplishment at overcoming the harder challenges). Can you imagine watching The Godfather, only someone who’d never seen the movie before had set the film to speed up any slow bits and tone down all the violence?

    But being able to adapt difficulty to smooth unnecessary spikes is all good. Adaptive difficulty, and simply being able to adjust the settings after the game is well underway, are both good steps in that direction.

    Also, let me add my (late) congrats. It’s great having you here, and welcome to the show. Can’t wait to see what you’ll write next. 😀

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