Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Raptr and Mirror’s Edge

So, I had a friend heckle me yesterday about my Raptr updates. Specifically, Raptr was updating my Facebook status with information about the game I was currently playing. It’s what I thought I wanted out of the service.

But, as it turns out, what I actually want is for Raptr to send updates via the Raptr application so that friends can “hide this application” if they don’t want to be spammed with what I’m gaming.

Until Raptr plays nicely with my Facebook status feed I’m going to have to disable the real time updates. Well, sort of. I’m sending real time updates to my Twitter account and will try nightly one-time status summary updates to my Facebook account.

This actually ties directly into Mirror’s Edge because the specific friend who heckled me was wondering what kind of masochist I was to have put so much time into the game.

I was profoundly affected by the question because normally I stop playing games that I don’t consider engaging and fun (unless I’m doing research on a competitor – which I’m not in this case). And I really was not enjoying Mirror’s Edge despite being 75% of the way through the single player campaign.

Several key issues emerge. I feel kind of weird talking about this game so long after its release. And I feel kind of weird making some of the exact same comments that I’m sure others have made.

The main issue is that I never once, not even for a brief minute, actually felt like I was engaging in cool and flowing parkour. Even after hours of playing I felt like:

  • Every hop, jump, and roll was activated by an uncomfortable controller input motion.
  • Every free run sequence felt like it had to be replayed dozens of times because of blind leaps to my death.
  • Every combat encounter (even after ratcheting down the difficulty to “easy”) made me feel incompetent.

The two experiments that I (and I’m sure lots of other folks) would like to do are:

  • Compare two sets of controls. The current set (where Triggers and Shoulder Buttons performed key actions) and an alternate set where Face Buttons performed key actions.
  • Compare two cameras. The current camera (first person) and an alternate third person camera.

That said, I do not think that the core of the problem is either controls or camera.

I think it is one of progression. The level of mastery required to make the game “fun” to play was unsupported by level design and progression goals. I’m absolutely convinced that this is the kind of game that shows extremely well when experienced players demonstrate cool ways to navigate the world and complete objectives.

Unfortunately for the new player, the game did not have a default path that encouraged the player to progress, grow, and master core skills in order to complete new challenges.

  • There were no real opportunities to just “free explore” levels in order to get a sense of the lay of the land and what kinds of ingress and egress routes were available.
  • There were “skill challenges” that encouraged players to try to solve a range of basic and advanced problems like a skateboarding game would.
  • Combat opportunities were too spaced out at the beginning of the game for players to understand and master it. Yes, you mostly could avoid combat – but combat was required at certain points in the game and the experience was frustrating (even on easy difficulty).

Ideally, default mission flow would have encouraged players to familiarize themselves with the world, learn new tricks and techniques, and advance their martial ability using a progression of: Problem introduction, practice with feedback (and non-penalizing failure conditions), technique mastery, and then task discrimination (learning when to use this versus other techniques).

Less ideally, there would have been additional game modes included that provided players with fun and increasingly challenging ways to practice and master techniques and learn about the environment. The Time Trial mode did not fit this bill.

In the end, I really wanted to like both Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed precisely because I love the fantasy of performing parkour moves in a video game. Yet neither of these games provided me with the same level of enjoyment of other action-adventure/platform games as Tomb Raider, Drake’s Fortune, or Ratchet & Clank.

The common denominator in my mind seems to be suboptimal controls (I found both Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge control schemes to be overly complex and unintuitive), frustrating combat (unforgiving one vs. one dueling in AC and ME), and in-game progression schemes that allow me to go off the rails and try to advance before I had mastered the core components.

In some ways, I’m just not good at dealing with crushing failure. I don’t like to try the same thing over and over again and I don’t get the hint that the game is sometimes just trying to tell me “go do something else for a while – you’re not supposed to be here yet”. I’m sure this is why I tend to prefer scripted, story based games in general over sandbox endeavors.

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