“LET 'ME' FIGURE IT OUT!”

Explaining the importance of games working on internal logic, and allowing players to solve dilemmas organically.

You're checking out promotional material for the latest AAA RPG from your favorite studio. You love the designs, the new art, the characters seem cool-looking, you're interested in checking out the newest gameplay mechanics.

But then you read the synopsis and the game starts throwing terms and mechanics at you, and it's a bunch of nonsense words you don't understand! What is this? What is this game about? Can you even tell? Did the writers even care if you could figure it out? Who is this game aimed towards?

I don't think it's a mystery why RPGs started to take off in the mid-nineties. This era was filled with games that tended to revolve around a specific, formulaic approach. Most of these games had a fairly similar narrative. You commanded some sort of group of rebels or freedom fighters to take down some type of evil empire. Later in this era, evil churches and religion tended to replace the evil empire, but the general rationale remained the same. It was a conflict that a player could easily look at, identify, and understand. Rebels were good, empire was bad. Players can assume these things without needing it explained to them.

Now, I don't think endlessly repeating the same plot over and over again is a particularly virtuous or effective game design choice. But it highlights something that I feel like many modern game developers, and, indeed, many RPG Maker-users, often fail to understand. The core of a good game is something that the player can understand with minimal explanation.

This brings up a point that game developers often overlook. Not that endlessly repeating or copying from the past is a good thing, but that your players appreciate ideas that they can easily understand better than ideas that they don't. The best ideas are ones that require little to no explanation.

Elemental Theory

An easy way to add flavor to your world and make it unique among common fantasy RPGs is to tweak your magical elemental system to not so closely conform with other RPGs. I mean, psh, fire, ice, and lightning? Boooorrrrring! Who needs 'em?!

Well, actually, it might turn out that your players do. Take one of the most common spells you're likely to see in any RPG, the lowly fireball. “But how can you be so lame and uncreative to use a fireball, you creatively bankrupt hack?!” you might say. And that's a legitimate complaint! But think about what the idea of a fireball conveys. The player doesn't need much context to know what it's likely to do. It probably does fire damage, it probably blows up an enemy or maybe group of enemies. If you use fireball on a monster made of ice, your player can reasonably expect to do additional damage, because he knows, logically, that fire melts ice.

And there is the key to understanding how your players think about elemental strength and weaknesses. And think about the conclusions your players are likely to draw about how these elements work! This is going to be the key to them enjoying and understanding the elemental chain of strengths and weaknesses. Think of the traditional Fire/Ice/Earth/Wind/Lightning/Water elements that show up commonly in most RPGs. Your player can, on their own, imagine any number of possible interrelations of how those elements might react to each other based only on what he already knows, without you, the game designer, having to explain it to him. He knows, already, that water probably works on fire, and lightning probably works on water! This is why games like Poke'mon tend to be so successful. That game has an ever-increasing number of 'types', or elements, but those types interact with each other, usually, in logical and understandable ways, such as fire burning grass. And your player will enjoy being rewarded for their intuitiveness! Figuring out an enemy's weakness on their own makes them feel clever and it can be an enjoyable, rewarding experience in its own right to defeat a powerful bad guy because they logically deduced what kinds of attacks might work on them.

Doing it right since 1996.



But imagine you decided to do away with all that. “I don't need stupid dumb fire and ice!” you say, and you create your own elemental system. Okay, neat, but does it pass the player's internal logic test? Can they look at your spell list and determine, on their own, how these spells will interact with each other, and what spell is likely to be effective against certain types of enemies? If your new elements are Mind, Lunar, Abyss, and Oregano, I'm not going to have a clue how these elements work, what they do, or what types of enemies I should be using each element on!

I can't tell you how off-putting it is when a game designer invents their own elements and then feels the need to explain to me in the very first battle exactly how all the elements interact. First, if I need to know all of that upfront, chances are your intro isn't designed very well in the first place. Second, you've taken all the fun and guess work out of trying to solve the elemental weakness chain by giving it all away. Third, if your elemental chain is weird and arbitrary and doesn't follow any kind of internal logic, you've taken the inherent fun of figuring out the elemental weakness chain yourself, and turned it into a rote, arbitrary memorization task. Is it any wonder players won't find this fun?

I'm not saying every game needs to use the exact same classical elemental scheme so common in RPGs. But it's pretty easy to see why it's popular. It's timeless, and doesn't need a lot of explanation. So you see, the best game mechanics are the ones that don't need to be explained to your player. Or rather, the best game mechanics are ones the player can logically figure out on their own!

Only psychics need apply.

So we've talked a bit about the internal logic of battle mechanics, but what about puzzle mechanics? Puzzles should follow these same general guidelines. The best puzzles are ones that the player can intuitively solve just by observing the environment and making logical judgments. Again, this comes back to some of the most common, oft-repeated puzzle types, such as rock-pushing to forge a path, ice-sliding, etc. These puzzles follow intuitive logic that the player can solve just by looking at what they've been given.

If your puzzle operates on completely arbitrary logic, and the player can't solve it through observation, then you have only two choices. One; explain exactly how the puzzle works, thus robbing the player of any of the satisfaction of actually solving it, or two; hoping that the player is psychic.

This happens more often than you might think. I have seen developers litter hallways with completely invisible trap tiles. Walking over them damages you, but there is no logic as to how these tiles are laid out. Sometimes, you just take damage, and they have the nerve to call this a puzzle.


So, there are two guidelines you should usually keep in mind when creating a puzzle for your players to solve.

1. If you have to explain the entire puzzle to them, it's probably a bad puzzle.
2. If your player has to know something they don't have appropriate context to know in order to solve the puzzle, it's probably a bad puzzle.

Certain other “puzzles” disguise rote, mundane tasks as gameplay as well. A puzzle that simply requires you to memorize something isn't much of a puzzle. A puzzle that consists of running to the other end of the room to push a button to open a door, and then coming back isn't much of a puzzle (although, depending on what else is in the room, it might pose a different type of challenge.) These types of challenges don't appeal to the player's creativity, problem-solving ability, or logic. It's just in the name of making them jump through hoops. Think about what you're really asking the player to do, and if you're just wasting their time, consider doing something else instead.

Remember, solving things is fun, and is part of what makes games feel enjoyable. The best puzzles and gameplay challenges are ones the player can solve without a lot of help from you.

Posts

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Oh gosh I didn't realize that cliches contribute to games so much. That what people have seen before in so many RPGs, they expect these things to work certain ways, and that is why they do work, is because players expect them. Sometimes I get into the trap of trying to be original, which is good, but in the process I forget that sometimes being too far-out with your originality can make things unintuitive, and being out of the norm means intuition decreases.

Great article!
So, there are two guidelines you should usually keep in mind when creating a puzzle for your players to solve.

1. If you have to explain the entire puzzle to them, it's probably a bad puzzle.
2. If your player has to know something they don't have appropriate context to know in order to solve the puzzle, it's probably a bad puzzle.


Sometimes developers (especially beginners) can't play their game from someone else's perspective and therefore can't see the above issues.
That is why you should request testers and believe what they will tell you.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18722
author=thatbennyguy
Oh gosh I didn't realize that cliches contribute to games so much.


I don't know if 'cliche' is the right word. It's more about making sure your world operates on sound internal logic that the player can relate to.
author=Solitayre
author=thatbennyguy
Oh gosh I didn't realize that cliches contribute to games so much.
I don't know if 'cliche' is the right word. It's more about making sure your world operates on sound internal logic that the player can relate to.


Oh. Is there a word for that? Or does the part "the player can relate to" indicate there is a cliche of media that they can relate to?
halibabica
RMN's Official Reviewmonger
13408
I'd agree more with the Pokémon example if their element system didn't only make sense about 50% of the time.

Still, you raise some good points in this article. If developers can keep these aspects in mind, all we'll need are players with a capacity for internal logic. ;P
Great article.

You only touches on the story part of this approach briefly though. It's when you use this approach on the story that you have to be careful. A common problem is that the players not only figures out what they are supposed to, but they also figure out a lot of things that aren't intended to be figured out. You have this awesome plot twist, however 90% of the players called the plot twist way before it happened.

The gameplay doesn't have plot twists though, so sticking to easily recognizable ideas should be safe here.
BurningTyger
Hm i Wonder if i can pul somethi goff here/
1289
actually a really good example of a fairly intuitive gameplay that doesn't follow the normal rules is Guardian of Paradise. I recommend it to everyone. as it's an older game you'll need d3drm.dll to play it, which isn't part of & or Vista. grab it and stick into the game folder and you should be fine. (The resolution is lower, however, so the window can seem small on large desktops -there's also a fullscreen option..)
SERIOUSLY- PLAY IT!
Oregano is an element. I lol'ed so freaking hard in the middle of Chemistry just now.
LockeZ
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
5236
Yessss feed me game design articles I require nourishment

The idea that the player enjoys being rewarded for figuring things out is really important, I think. It makes them feel like they beat the battle/stage/puzzle instead of it just... ending on its own. I have seen a lot of games toss info in my face with walls of text, and a lot of other games walk me through stuff kindergarten style so there's no chance of discovery.

If your new elements are Mind, Lunar, Abyss, and Oregano, I'm not going to have a clue how these elements work, what they do, or what types of enemies I should be using each element on!
I really think I played this game.
Sounds like Star Ocean 2 to me! God knows what most of the elemental icons represent in the equipment menu. I think one is the Illuminati eye? (and all you need to do to win is spam PEARS INTO PEACHES so w/e)
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