Bespoke Gameplay

So I’m playing The Last Guy right at the moment. Yes, I realise it came out 12 months ago. No, I still haven’t completed it. Seeing as you ask, I am totally stuck on one of the levels. It’s become a chore just to pick up and play the damn game, knowing that all the game karma in the world ain’t gonna be enough to see me conquer this level. Didn’t I pay my dues to the gaming gods when I saw Star Wars: The Force Unleashed through to its mind-numbingly boring end? I think I did. A little karma wouldn’t go amiss here.

As a classic breed of game with zombies at its core, I love The Last Guy. I love its quirky premise, I love its fun execution, and I love its retro style. What I don’t love, however, is its unwavering commitment to making me want to pull my hair out. As it turns out, you need some basic level of hand-eye coordination to master the game. So it ain’t looking good for me.

I'm the one about to get eaten by the big red squid thing
I'm the one about to get eaten by the big red squid thing

But what if the game somehow had the ability to recognise my inept ability and tailor the gameplay to accommodate my utter crapness at it? I refer of course to dynamic difficulty adjustment, or DDA, which has so far been employed by only a modest number of designers. The ability of a game to adjust the difficulty of certain gameplay dimensions in real–time and in direct response to player actions has been used in third-person games such as Max Payne and racing games such as Burnout Paradise.

A game that featured DDA which I really enjoyed playing was Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Thing is, I never actually noticed the DDA. People began to complain that some of the game’s beasts would disappear from the game world as soon as they achieved a certain player-character proficiency level. Funny, I’m sure those beasts were always around for me.

In theory, DDA is a fantastic feature. The premise behind it is that it allows the player to remain in a state of ‘flow’: the point at which the player’s ability just matches the demands of the challenge. You know, that point in Gran Turismo where you find yourself flying around the racetrack, where taking each bend feels so good because you’re just about able to maintain skilful cornering. Or that beautiful moment in Call of Duty whereby you’re assiduously gunning down man after man, knowing instinctively which weapon to use at exactly which point.

But there are some who believe this kind of design ethos to be inappropriate in the world of games because it takes the control out of the designer’s hands. Of course, the counter argument to this is that DDA allows for a playcentric gaming experience.

It’s not just difficulty that’s being explored in this way, either. With the release of Climax’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories on the Wii just around the corner we could be exposed to yet more interactive design sacrilege. Shattered Memories will utlise information given by the player early in the game to determine ways in which certain aspects of narrative and the gameworld present themselves. This is said to include features such as a character’s attitude and clothing. Further, different areas of the game world may become available to players and monsters encountered will vary dependent on these initial player decisions.

Looking pleasantly familiar
Looking pleasantly familiar

But the way this tailoring actually manifests itself in the game world might prove to be somewhat trivial and ultimately inconsequential. According to those who have received hands-on play-time with the game, much of this tailoring is surface level stuff. For example, the appearance of certain locations will change, but the events that play out within these locations stays much the same. A can of cola might change to a can of beer for an alcohol-dependent protagonist. I’m not exactly feeling the drama here. Besides, if you drink enough cola you can kind of achieve that woozy, drunken, horny feeling anyway. Did Climax even consider this when developing the game. Did they?

Wait, what was I talking about again? Oh, yeah. We will see just how this gameplay experience plays out in Shattered Memories on its UK release in November. Even if it does add meaning to the player’s experience,  it raises an important question: is this still the right step for developers to take? I mean, can you even imagine a Mario game where Bowser didn’t kick your ass as soon as look at you?

I suppose your answer to that question might depend on whether you’ve been stuck on level eight of The Last Guy for an eternity.







4 responses to “Bespoke Gameplay”

  1. James avatar

    I guess this ties in with the way the L4D AI Director recognises when you suck and tones things down accordingly. It’s one of those divisive issues: do I want the game to dumb itself down to my level for the sake of completion, or should I be endeavouring to gain true satisfaction by rising to its (sometimes unreasonable) challenges?

    As for the Silent Hill tailoring, it all sounds like window-dressing to me. I’m not against the theory, but when I read the preview the elements up for manipulation seemed pretty arbitrary. It’s a lost cause anyway – they’re gona get Wii-waggle all over my precious Silent Hill! And it’s ice instead of ash and rust. Bloody Silent Hill: Arctic Adventure. 🙁

    Great post btw. 🙂

  2. Michael avatar

    Aw, the ol’ hand-eye co-ordination is a tricky thing to learn…

    I find the idea of DDA fascinating. I didn’t realise it had been used for all those games you mentioned though! I would probably prefer it adapted to my ability (or lack thereof) rather than remaining constant throughout. Now, I assume that it would raise the difficulty as you got better ever so slightly? Moreso than the standard “Casual/Normal/Are you off your head?” modes anyway. A true learning curve, no? The more you improve, the tougher it gets. The tougher it gets, the more satisfying it is. Maybe. Hmm…

    Great blog Celeste! Especially liked the use of italics… 😉

  3. Van-Fu avatar

    Man, do I wish they had DDA in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Just about 10 minutes ago, I finally got a bronze ranking on 27 comic book missions, earning me the Silver Surfer as an unlockable character. A full 3 years after I first bought it.


  4. i am gwailu avatar
    i am gwailu

    with reference to the above picture:
    is that you in your new dress?

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