When a developer is trying to sell their new game the most important thing they stress is what makes the game different. Bulletstorm, Metro 2033, Singularity, what makes them worth a look that Call of Duty doesn’t already have? These games are each developed around a specific and unique concept, and they certainly have no trouble marketing that idea to the consumer. We run into a problem though if they fail to follow through with what they sold us on. Certain modes or even the entire game’s design can directly contradict the supposed focus of the title.
gim·mick (noun) an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, especially one designed to attract attention or increase appeal.
Portal is a perfect example of how to handle this properly. Nuclear Monkey Software had a novel idea involving portals when they made Narbacular Drop, and Valve clearly knew what they were doing when they hired the team to make Portal. The enemies and every piece of the environment are set up around that portal gun. Your entire experience is centered around knowing what surfaces are potential portals and how you can use that limited real estate to circumvent or disable an array of deadly traps. Everything feels tight and focused, leading to one of the most memorable, albeit short, games of all time. When Portal 2 was released a few years later it felt refined in the same way.
The guys at People Can Fly have spent a lot of time with their run-and-gun Painkiller series. In those games you fight waves of enemies with an arsenal of brutally creative weapons, such as the famous shuriken and lightning gun. When I first heard about Bulletstorm’s leash and creative kills system it sounded like they were taking the Painkiller formula and greatly improving it, but I was wrong. Instead I was met with a patchwork game where Gears of War had been taken to the first person realm with some additional features awkwardly stuffed in.
In Painkiller each level plays out as a battle of attrition. You have a set amount of health and resources to work with and need to figure out how to best deal with the hordes of monsters that are chasing you around the room. In Bulletstorm you have severely limited health that regenerates over time. Rather than charge you your opponents hide behind walls and debris and take pot shots at the player whenever they stick their head out. This simple change in vitality system lead to a massive difference in how the game was played because it actively encouraged the player to hide in order to survive. The game being sold to customers in the “Hey Man Nice Shot” trailer simply was not the game that hit shelves. It was as if the monster-filled adrenaline rush filled with zany murder was used as bait to get us to play a title filled with chest-high walls and screen jelly.
Xbox Live Summer of Arcade title From Dust recently ran into a similar issue on a smaller scale. In Ubisoft Montpellier’s game you’re sent to a both literal and figurative sandbox where you must guide villagers from place to place by manipulating water, earth, and magma to protect them. The villagers behave like mindless lemmings, and the entire story is centered around finding creative ways to deal with complicated, wide open problems that plague these people. That’s what worked for this game and the main campaign was fantastic, but players were incredibly frustrated when they reached the time trial challenge mode. Challenge mode became a problem because it removed all freedom from the game and forced you to do a specific series of actions very quickly in order to win. This led to the unfortunate situation where players were replaying the same 5-10 minute scenario over and over again even after they already knew the solution. The villagers were uncooperative and could only be controlled indirectly, and the controls simply were not designed for this degree of precision.
I’m sure we’ve all heard about the backlash over Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s boss fights. Love them or hate them I’m sure we can all agree that they were not in sync with the rest of the experience. Gamers everywhere were frustrated that a game that let you carve out your own path would force you into a situation that had so few solutions and so little room for creativity. Weeks after the game’s release it would become clear that Eidos Montreal had actually outsourced the boss fights to another studio, which created a clear disconnect in the development process. “Full confession, I’m a shooter guy. I was coming into this not knowing a lot about the Deus Ex world.” That would be a decent line to hear from a reviewer, but not from the president and founder of the company designing a piece of a game.
None of these games are necessarily bad, but it’s hard to deny that they could have been better with a more focused approach. Bulletstorm contradicted its premise on a fundamental level while From Dust and Deus Ex: Human Revolution merely featured content that did not fit with the rest of the game. Every level, feature, and design choice in a game needs to be held up to the light and asked, “are you really a part of the experience that we’re trying to make here, or should we keep you in our back pocket until we have a project that you make sense for?”