The Thin Red Line

There is only a thin red line between the sane and the mad.

                                                                                                     —James Jones 

Entertainment is an activity that lasts thousands of years. It also exists in human history as a necessity of basic human need. Mankind always seeks all forms of entertainment, from mural in the cave thousands of years ago, to sports, books, and until today, evolves to a huge industry. Even when economy goes down, the expense of entertaining keeps climbing.

Game seems a simple, however actually a very deep topic. Why human are so obsessed with games? Are you playing, learning or working when you play?

Today’s topic certainly will not cover such a vast concept. One thing we are certain that we know games are fun. The most essential part of the game is gameplay. But is it the more the better? There’s a thin red line between over-complicated and not-enough-fun.

Battlefield 3 is a great innovation in the history of First Person Shooter. It incorporated many fun elements altogether and actually meaningful in its way. It has several new game modes and gorgeous graphics that indispensably facilitated the immersion. The importance of teamwork was never well-regarded to this level. Players from all around the world spontaneously work with each other. I have played Battlefield for more than 3 years. I’m pretty sure it’s still the highest quality online shooter today.

But before the age of battlefield 3, the most famous FPS game with no doubt is Counter-Strike. Despite the different appearance and scale, the core mechanics is fundamentally the same. CS only focus on two teams made of 5 persons, fighting towards the goal in a small map, either kill the other team, plant bomb, or secure hostages. Each side uses tactics and teamwork in order to win. The game is simple, small, fast and the core gameplay is extremely fun.

So what have they done right?

I think the core gameplay is to execute an excellent teamwork. In order to achieve that, CS uses map design to deliberately create obstacles for lone wolf, which means only fluent teamwork can take down the target. Any other detail supports that core philosophy, instead of distracting that.

So even though there are optimal weapons in CS, map size is limited, graphics is only Okish, it still became a phenomenon for more than a decade. Because in this game, the teamwork is the core gameplay and the ultimate source of fun. Everything else just highlights it.

But after CS1.6, they introduced CS:Source, and years later, CS:Global Offense. Now it has better graphics and details in the map, however it didn’t improve the experience but the opposite. The obvious reason is that the extra detail didn’t support the core gameplay. In a game, if detail doesn’t serve a purpose, it only becomes distraction. Realistic environment is never the aim of CS. CS is simple and fast. It originated from a simplified arena model, which allows player focus on pure team tactics. More fidelity could have brought some new gameplays, but in later version of Counter-Strike, that’s not the case. Unfortunately It only undermines the main gameplay, and furthermore complicates the visual and confuses the player.

Now, on the other hand, Battlefield series moved towards an opposite direction. Battlefield has a very complicated model however won a huge success. Why did that happen? The secret is that DICE made sure everything added in Battlefield adds onto the core experience.

Fidelity and large scale of teamwork is the aim of this game in the first place. In general, everything in game is meaningful and facilitates core gameplay. It has very complex map design, as the pacing is not as fast as CS. It requires more of tactical thinking, and feels like a real campaign. You have to overtake the battleground point by point and also maintain defense in order to hold your line. Like CS, it still heavily requires decision making and coordination, but in a much large scale.

Size does make a difference. Since the game has 64 players in a battle, the map design is intended not so straight forward like CS. In other words, it creates even more difficulties for lone wolf, and forces players to work together. It requires a higher level of coordination among dozens of players. It sounds a very cool concept, however technically is almost impossible for random internet players to execute a well coordinated operation. So Battlefield cleverly divided large number of players into small groups, introduced the concept of squad that consists of only five players, which is a proven teamwork model, thanks to CS. Also in additional to that, every squad has a leader that can issue simple attack/defense command to its members.

And that’s not all. DICE also put an optional Commander player in the game, who can coordinate all squads. Naturally, the gameplay of Commander is very much like a simplified RTS game, which allows player to command and support squad. It’s optional for squad to accept command, but they will benefit if they follow the order. So in this command hierarchy, even a large number of players can have smooth communications.

Now only with a peek of Battlefield, you can see it’s a much complicated model than CS, although the core gameplay is the same which is still tactics and teamwork. In this example, scale and amount of detail do change experience. But ultimately, adding more gameplays in the game is a double-edged sword. Because one thing for sure, obviously it makes game more complex. If the new gameplay can’t add onto the core gameplay, it can only be confusing and distracting.

However if you did it right, more gameplay means more play time, which is especially crucial to an online game. Battlefield 3 lasts 3 years and is still going forward. Although DICE released Battlefield 4, it’s merely an “improved” version of its predecessor. So I guess instead of designing a simple game, we do need more gameplay in order to keep player around, but the challenge brought to us is we have to present gameplay in a simple and elegant way.

Luckily, we have many ways to do it.

Showing progression is always a good way. For example, world of warcraft absolutely has intimidating systems, however players don’t feel it that way. That’s because the game has a very smooth learning curve. Keeping player learning new things is a good way to keep their interest level and keep them to come back. Smooth learning curve made sure the huge system won’t scare them away.

Dividing your system into subsystems is another approach. Typically, class system is a good example. Even for a particular class, you often have different skill sets which give you diversified gameplay.

Emergent gameplay(like puzzles) is a fascinating way. This approach largely exists in FPS/Action games. Mostly, we can use level design to let player use what they already know in a surprisingly different way. For example, player needs to get through a locked door guarded by a huge beast without the key. What should player do? (lure beast crush open the door.)

So how to execute the presentation really depends on many factors, like genre and emphasis of the game, however the key point here is that small portion of gameplay is always easier to digest. So in conclusion, in nowadays, players evolve along the game industry, and they are not so easy to satisfy(or fool). We do need more gameplay to extend the length of the play, but as designer, we need to know where to draw the thin red line, to make sure all gamplays should add onto the core experience, and are presented in a clever, elegant and not-overwhelming way.

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