Friday, July 8, 2011

Designer Notebook: Exposing the flaw

Recently I've been on a XBLA binge, beating a bunch of games like Age of Booty, A Kingdom of Keflings/World of Keflings, Dead Rising: Case West, and Zombie Apocalypse. While most of it was enjoyable, one thing really struck me was the unlockable mode in Zombie Apocalypse: 7 days of hell.

Let's first explain what Zombie Apocalypse is: basically, another twin-stick shooter in the vein on Robotron 2084 or Geometry Wars, but with a zombie themed settings. Players face insurmountable odds mowing down waves of zombies with limited weapons and powerups randomly scattered on the stage. For what it's worth, the basic gameplay is sound, with enough hooks that seems like a good fit for a smaller scaled game (going for high score, some unique ideas such as environmental kills, etc).

The issue arises halfway in the game (and especially in the 7 days of hell mode), where the game essentially runs out of new ideas or elements to present to the player, and decided to increase the game length/difficulty by increasing the number of enemies (wave length) and their health. While a typical early stage game would give players ~50+ zombies to kill, the first day in "7 days of hell" is ~2500.

Increasing the number of enemies, reducing player's weapon power and increasing the amount of hit points isn't new within games (many still rely on such tried-and-true mechanics for harder difficulties), the problem is that this doesn't necessary create a more intense and interesting experience. In some games, increasing the enemy health or adding more enemies just artificially increases the length of each section of the game; in the worst case, it creates unnecessary repetition, and hence, boredom, which is exactly what happens in Zombie Apocalypse. Worst off, since dying isn't an issue (imaging an arcade machine with unlimited plays), getting to the end of 7 days is a test of patience, not of skill.

What's worrying about including such a mode is that it exposes the flaw of the game design in the first place. Zombie Apocalypse's twin stick shooter mechanics were sound, and tolerable in small doses, but extended play quickly shows that a) the game lacks variety (only 5 main types of enemy), b) lacks strategy (weapon upgrades are temporary, so the core game is still crowd control and player movement) and c) lacks difficulty (end game boils down to spawning more enemies to the point of just overwhelming the player. Once a player realize these points, they're going start establishing play patterns, which makes the gameplay routine and a chore, hence, boring.

Sometimes, creating a mode/play based on certain characteristics of the game can increase the playtime and variety, but it can also point out frustrating issues within the underlying game. Be careful when thinking about adding a mode and think about why it's fun before adding it in.


  1. What would you have changed to make this work better? I'm sure I'd have a few ideas myself, but I haven't played the game, soooo

  2. Since the game was already broken in that way to begin with, isn't this just another mode for people who want to play the game in that way, broken and all? Sort of reminds me of the end of levels in geometry wars. It probably adds a little for some types of players, and takes a lesser amount from others. Doesn't look like this game has much replay value anyways. If they had fixed it up with more enemies, more environment use, different power-ups, character differentiation, or more environments, etc there wouldn't be a problem.

  3. poik: I'm not sure, one feature that I would have definitely played up more is the environmental kills, but that would have been highly dependent on assets for more maps. The other quick one that came into mind is more variations on play style. The main game attempted to do that late in the game by having "chainsaw only mode" or "blackout mode" for certain stages, but other variants such as "grenades only", "protect the vip", "king of the hill" variations would have made it a bit more interesting. (Notice most of them are stems from GeoWars 2? Don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to).

  4. jkmyoung: Yeah, pretty much. But I did find it concerning that having such a mode that ends up highlighting what's wrong with the game is a bad way to go. In the case of Geometry Wars, you'll never get to that repetitiveness unless you're that good, and if you're that good, there isn't much you can do to fix it without adding other modes and stuff (which they did with GeoWars 2).

    It's not necessary the right thing to do (hide your flaws instead of fixing them), but when push comes to shove, I rather shorten play-through further than showing the magic (or the lack of) behind the game.