Sequelitis – Mega Man X
Hey, remember Egoraptor? The guy who made Metal Gear Awesome? Well, it turns out he has a lot of valuable insight about game design.
In this case he’s talking about Mega Man X, and why it evidently makes him scream in ecstasy.
It probably seems odd that I approve so much of a video where he complains about tutorial prompts, since I’ve railed against the idea that teaching the player is a bad thing. But he makes a very strong point: if a game is good enough, and straightforward enough, it doesn’t need to tell you anything for you to learn.
Here’s my ranking system for conveyance of a game’s mechanics, from worst to best.
Worst: Don’t convey your mechanics at all, so that the player is forced to read a manual or look up a guide. This used to happen a lot. Ultima IV is probably the worst offender I’ve ever seen. A close second might be Minecraft, since that game doesn’t even ship with a manual.
Let me make my stance clear on this one, in case I haven’t already: This should never, ever, ever, ever, ever be done, ever. It was understandable back in the archaic days of the 80s and 90s, but in this day and age, there is absolutely no excuse for making the player read a manual.
Better, but still not good: Frontload your game with flow-breaking text prompts and/or tutorial sections. We’ve seen controlled tutorials in a lot of action games, like Assassin’s Creed or Magicka. We’ve also been hit with a lot of text walls in recent RPGs and strategy games, like Fallout: New Vegas and Frozen Synapse.
This is definitely better than relying on a manual, but getting hit in the head with bricks of text or having to spend several minutes proving your competence before you can get to the fun can get tedious. I suppose I’m willing to accept it if it’s in a very complex game; I can’t imagine how one would ever figure out how to play Civilization 4 without the game explaining itself thoroughly.
Even better: Point the player in the right direction with indicators and prompts that don’t break game flow. This is probably the most common method used these days. Whether it’s a tiny little window in the corner that says “Press X to crouch!” or a glowing arrow on the top of the screen that shows you where to go for your objective, little touches like that can prevent the player from getting lost without getting in his way.
This method works well, but it’s still not the best answer.
Ideal: Use the level design to convey the game mechanics without telling the player one word. If you’re clever and careful enough, you can insure that the player will learn how to play your game all on his own. And if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, scroll up and watch that video.
This is extremely hard to pull off properly. The only games I can think of that have succeeded are Mega Man X, Portal and LIMBO. Hell, even Portal told you that you press E to pick up objects.
The reason this probably can’t work in most games is because games often have complex control schemes. Mega Man X wasn’t hard to learn on your own because it only had five buttons of input (left, right, jump, attack, dash). And as Egoraptor pointed out, most of the game is spent simply jumping, shooting and dashing.
For the sake of contrast, let’s look at Assassin’s Creed. You have two control sticks; one for moving and one for rotating the camera. You have four buttons of input, and when you hold the right trigger all four of them change. You also press separate D-pad buttons to switch weapons.
On top of that, the game is absolutely loaded with subtle game mechanics that will completely screw you over if you’re not aware of them beforehand. The beggars, the guards, the ladies that carry pots and who will drop their pots if you push them, the muggers, the haystacks, the benches, the climbing, the blending, etc. I can’t imagine how the game could teach you about all of this without at least resorting to little side text prompts. The player would likely spend hours failing, desynchronizing and re-attempting sequences over and over because he can’t quite get to grips with all the different elements at play.
Egoraptor says that games are more tutorialized because developers think we’re all morons, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think it has a lot more to do with games evolving and becoming more complicated and intricate.
Still though, he made a lot of really great points, and I can’t help but look at Mega Man X in a very different light now that I notice the subtleties of it. This is apparently the second episode of a new show of his, and if you’re reading this, Egoraptor, then you’ve got my attention.