Various videogame developers and critics talk about the “core gameplay loop”. What that refers to is fairly simple – the core part of the gameplay. The bit that everything else revolves around. Wendy Despain’s 100 Principals of Game Design gives the example of Super Mario Bros. (1985) in which jumping is the key. The core gameplay loop is to encounter something and then deal with it by jumping.
Not a difficult design concept, really.
The thing being though that if that isn’t fun then the game probably won’t be fun. Tweak this, polish that, whatever – it won’t fix the fact that the core is rotten.
Sometimes game designers figure out this problem in advance and go ahead. Other times, erm, not so much.
If you recall Introversion’s City Generator I mentioned about ten days ago then you might have wondered what it was for. Well it was developed as part of their work on a game they cancelled in favour of Prison Architect. That game was Subversion and you can find the story of its cancellation here:
In short it comes down to the fact that as cool as the game looked the core gameplay simply wasn’t fun.
My criticism of the combat in Bioshock Infinite springs to mind. Much like in Spec Ops: The Line for me the combat was a roadblock to the next bit of story.
That screenshot is one of the 31 I took while playing the game. Not a single one is of combat. The combat in that game is dull.
Assorted things argue that it’s intentional but really I don’t buy that. I think that the developers simply tried to turn a weakness into a strength. In realising that they couldn’t make it fun they worked it into a vaguely credible design choice. A poor one, admittedly, but still better than “Yeah, well…”.
Thomas from Frictional Games posted this about Bioshock Infinite and it seems to reflect similar themes. If the combat isn’t fun why is it there? Is it even necessary?
Various commenters argue that without the combat there’d be nothing to do. I’m sure that if the combat was removed it wouldn’t be replaced with anything at all.
I know my favourite points in Bioshock Infinite were the bits where I was exploring the atmospheric setting. Not collecting stuff, hunting weapons, etc. – that stuff was no fun whatsoever. If anything just give me unlimited ammo and mana – Elizabeth basically makes that true anyway. Instead there’s the hassle of finding it in between combat encounters.
Making choices was fun.
Discovering the story was fun.
Exploring how Columbia came to be was fun.
Shooting dudes was not.
What would happen if more games were built according to the principal of making something fun?
The modern Call of Duty franchise is built on that to some extent. The thing being that their core gameplay loop is in multiplayer. They do that bit very well (as one would expect by now) the single player, eh, not so much.
So arguably in creating Bioshock Infinite the developers aimed for the wrong genre. Its core competencies aren’t shooting. It shouldn’t be an FPS. Using the first person perspective is fine but what’s the point in developing an impressive setting when the primary way one interacts with it is “use gun on man”?
Even Dishonored did this better – the heart the player carries can be used all over the place to hear things about the setting. It goes some way towards replacing the classic RPG text box.
I’m wondering what would have happened if Fallout 3 had incorporated a similar mechanic to the heart?
I do often find myself asking (in an immersed context) “What happened here..?” in games. Usually the answer is sadly “We thought it’d look cool” rather than any hidden narrative.
Actually that’s fairly true of reality too. So little thought goes into most things and the result we see is simply what became of various attempts to achieve something rather than indicative of an underlying deep narrative.
By that I mean that if I look at a building and see a bricked up doorway there’s rarely an interesting story behind it. Normally the answer was “We don’t need a door here any more”. Holes where iron work used to sit are there just because no one could be bothered to maintain it. Things just sort of trail off.
On that note I’m going to peter out myself.