By John Walker on December 29th, 2011 at 12:13 pm.
I love rules. Not following them, of course – that’s for other people. I love writing them. And since I’m the best qualified to decide how everyone else is allowed to behave, it’s only appropriate that I be in charge of everything. So it is that I have been making clear the Rules For Games, both for developers and for players, in an ongoing series that shall be added to forever. You can find the first four parts below.
Rather concerningly, some readers have had the temerity to claim they disagree with the given rules, and sometimes that they will willfully break them. Well let me make it clear that this will no longer be treated with the soft touch of the past. In 2012, as I am crowned President Of Earth, I will be ensuring that any who fail to obey my every rule to the letter will be punished with eternity playing hastily put together Farmville copies on your gran’s computer. Do not cross me. Obey.
DO let me flush the toilets and turn on the taps. Scenery, in any game of any genre, shouldn’t be painted on the walls. And so many games before have put in a nice toilet flushing noise. Since all games do insist in including a toilet, as well they should, then all games should include the splishy sploshy noise of flushing it.
DON’T tell me that you’re a game any more. You want to capture something of Brechtian estrangement, break down that fourth wall with mallets and wrecking balls, because you think it’s a fresh and original approach. It’s not. It’s been done a lot, and it’s probably a sign that you’re not confident enough in your own creation. If you feel the urge to winkingly acknowledge to the player that they’re playing a game, then you need to go back to work to create a more convincing world.
DO feel free to let me quick save. I know, I know, you’re very proud of your checkpointing, but as it happens I don’t really want to repeat any fight in the game seventeen times because of your difficulty spike. And sure, you could consider it cheating, letting me blag my way through sections. But I sort of bought your game, and arrogantly feel like I should now be able to enjoy it as I wish. Perhaps that might be to opt out of quick save spamming. But perhaps it will improve the experience if only you’ll let me.
DON’T show me an unskippable animation when I die. It doesn’t matter how elaborate you make this, the maximum number of times I’ll ever want to watch it is none. And if your load times are horrible, this becomes infinitely more awful. If you’re only ever playing your game with God Mode on to test it, switch it off occasionally to see how the rest of us will suffer when we play. YES! I KNOW! I DIED! SHUT UP AND RELOAD! JUST BLOODY RELOAD! That is how the rest of us suffer when we play.
DO let me carry more than two guns. Just when did we all decide that we weren’t okay with that element of unrealism in gaming? Sure, it can be set in the retro-future on a spaceship made of time, but god forbid we holster an improbable number of weapons. Especially if you’ll then let me carry hundreds of bits of ammo for all the weapons anywhere. Where am I storing those? In my magic trousers? And if so, why can’t I stick a pistol and a rocket launcher in there too? I want to stick a rocket launcher in my magic trousers!
DON’T leave diary entries by one person scattered over miles of corridors, buildings and countries. That’s not how a diary works. A diary tends to be all in one place. Most people, when journaling their lives, don’t tend to scribble it out on the nearest scrap of paper and then leave it wherever they wrote it. Because that would be utterly insane.
DO feel free to hire a writer to work for your team from the start of development. Many really are amazingly talented, and their skill with coding is extraordinary, but this doesn’t always naturally lend itself toward crafting fine narrative. It does, however, mean that we end up with characters called Dirk Bluntly, who say things like, “This is the last time I’m going to take any more of this!” Which we don’t want as much as people apparently believe.
DON’T do anything to us in a cutscene that we could easily prevent during the game proper. It’s extremely unlikely that the enemy is going to capture Tanker McTankerton by pointing a gun at him menacingly. Because that’s what everyone else did on the way there, and he blew them all up with his grenade launcher. Which he likely would do here as well, if only you’d flipping give us the controls back.
DO however, let me do anything amazingly cool my character can do in a cutscene. If the best I can do is jump the height of a brick, then that’s what he’s limited to in the scenes too. If he can cartwheel up a wall, fire lasers out of his eyes, and turn into a spider, then I have to be able to do those things too. In the game. In real life would be good too.
DON’T have flying baddies in your game. Sure, there may be examples of the odd few that have worked. The rest haven’t. It’s so, so unpleasant. Like a lovely walk in the woods ruined by the constant assault of gnats in your face. Fun, people. We want to have fun. Not be constantly irritated. Fun.
DON’T give me a mounted gun that points back at the path along which I just ran, killing everyone by hand. This seems to be the absolute default now. They only serve one purpose: finding out that they didn’t bother to make the scenery destructible. Let me play with a mounted gun! Unless it’s a sequence in which you force me to use a mounted gun, probably on the back of a truck. Stop that.
DO agree to an industry wide standard on the location of save games. Save games are not a secret. They are not a treasure. They’re something most right-thinking people want to be able to preserve after a game’s uninstalled. They’re something many people need to get at when building a new machine, or simply continuing the game on another machine. They aren’t a DRM risk. We just want to know where our save games are, and we don’t want to have to trawl through seventeen different possible locations in the very bowels of Windows, trying to discern which lunatic name you’ve filed them under. When I install a game you let me choose the install location. Can you guess where I want the save games to go to? Here’s a hint. It’s not in C:\Users\John\AppData\Local\Roaming\Documents\Programs\Features\Gardening\Knitwear\Publisher\Developer\GameName\Sausages\X34265\
DON’T stop me from sprinting after three seconds. Look, look at me. I’m a fat man. I can sprint for more than three seconds. I can keep going for a good… four seconds. Before collapsing on the ground, red, sweating, pleading for the ambulance to offer me oxygen. But the character in the game? Lean McBuffington? He’s made entirely out of muscles. He’s a man who can sprint. Since it’s apparently possible for us to jog absolutely everywhere, maybe we can run further than from the living room to the downstairs loo. After all, games are supposed to allow us to live our dreams.
DO let me move during cutscenes. I know, you want to make film, and life gave you videogames. But videogames are amazing! You don’t have to sit passively in front of the screen, having the prescribed script play out at you as you sit nailed into a chair. Let me wander around! Let me jump on the tables, or spin on the spot. Let me see what objects can be picked up, and try to pile them on a key character’s head. Let me run around them in maniac circles. And you know what? Letting me look around but not move – that’s actually worse than taking away my controls entirely.
DON’T splash on my screen. I AM NOT A SCREEN! I’M A HUMAN! When it rains, this does not leave droplets running down the front of my vision. This is because I have a face, including a nose, chin and forehead. Concealed between these features are my eyes – two orbs that sit within the protective bonage of my skull, accompanied by the cleaning and dust-deflecting skinflaps of my eyelids. Were raindrops, or worse, splatters of blood, to become visible droplets in my vision, they would have to be on my eyes. I would respond to this by running around, screaming in pain and fear, clutching at my face and begging for help. You appear to be under the impression that I am a sentient monitor. Perhaps a screen mounted on top of human shoulders. I’m not one of these. I’m reasonably sure the character in the game isn’t one of these. So just perhaps can we please stop having splashes appear in front of our view? (Oh, and I’m also not a bloody camera lens, so can we also get rid of lens flare too? Kthnx.)
DO let me kill my friends. Sure, it’s a game over. But let me! I’ve got a gun. They’ve got a head. When the gun refuses to fire at them, well, perhaps you can argue some astonishing technology that recognises non-enemies and forces the safety. (If you could work on inventing this for the US army, that would be awfully helpful.) But when bullets and chairs bounce off them without comment, you’ve somewhat spoilt any notion of fiction you may have tried to establish. Also, if they get to be invincible, how come I don’t? I’m on the same side! So yes, it’s a game over, but let it happen.
DO let me choose my game settings from outside the game. I want to play games in a window, at the resolution of my desktop. The reason I want to do this is because anything else would be mad like a crazy person. So defaulting to showing it to me at 640×400 in EGA at fullscreen is perhaps not the way I want to kick things off with your game. First impressions count. When those first impressions are of seeing the name of your game overlapping the edges of the screen, looking as though it’s made out of LEGO, while IM windows are flashing demanding to know information from me immediately that I can no longer click on, it makes me think you’re a bit of a dick. And you know how you then insist that I restart the game to apply those settings? DO YOU SEE?
DON’T launch your game with an unskippable cutscene. It seems so crazy that I even have to type those words, let alone that so very many games might do it. Since you’re bound to be breaking the rule above, I’m inevitably watching this video at some embarrassingly low resolution, when all I want to do is get the bloody thing into a window. What I don’t want to do is be required to sit, transfixed at my machine, when I’ve clicked to load. I may well be making coffee. Did you even think about that? About my coffee? You can even give me one of those pointless screens saying, “Press any button to start” as if I’m on a PS2, before getting to the title screen proper, if it means not putting your opening narrative before an options screen. What are those screens for, by the way? Stop it.
DO let me pause cutscenes. It blows my little mind how few games offer this option. Doorbells and telephones wait for no man, and if I’m trying to follow your half-arsed attempt at a story, it’s not going to help if my takeaway arrives midway through Anthony Gunnington explaining to Ladyface Helpme that he has to punch fourteen aliens or the evil Gorgal will blow up the universe. This is especially bad on the few occasions when the scenes are worth watching, as I’ll then stumble into the next sequence clueless and annoyed. While some games do make them accessible from the menus, obviously many don’t, and it’s hardly the same. A pause button. Do it. Or I’ll blow up the universe.
DON’T install DirectX without checking which version I currently have. Nor a .NET framework, whatever that is. And yes Steam, I’m mostly talking to you. Just what are you doing? You know how you could know I already have the latest version of DirectX installed? BECAUSE YOU INSTALLED IT YESTERDAY. That’s how you could know. Or you could, I don’t know, check for the version number and notice it’s exactly the same as the one you’re now insisting on installing without even asking first. Especially if I’m playing the demo for a 2D puzzle game from 1989. Oh my goodness.
DO have your in-game volume sliders work. It’s beyond all my understanding – and I have over sixty-three understanding – why I can drag the slider down to a fraction of a millimetre from the bottom and still not be able to hear the TV show I’m watching on the other screen. I shouldn’t have to use Windows’ in-built volume controls to SHUT YOU UP. Especially YOU, Popcap. It’s like your volume sliders go, 10, 9, 8, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 0. Your games do not demand my full attention, as brightly coloured as they may be. I might want to enjoy an evening of Peggle and light-hearted crime procedural dramas, and I need to hear the quips.
DON’T make it difficult for me to quit. In fact, since I’m telling you how to do your jobs, you should add this new requirement. A quit button. I know, it sounds cuckoo-crazy, but bear with me. From anywhere in the game, I want to call up the menu (by pressing “Escape” – not by looking at a device strapped to my wrist, tabbing through three pages, and finding the four pixel button for the options) and then choose “Quit to desktop”. I do not want to quit to the main menu. I do not want to quit to the level selection screen. I do not want to quit to that insane screen that asks me to press a button to start. I want to quit the game. Completely. In one go. I don’t, because I’m some sort of insanely fussy old pickypants, want to go through each of those previous pages one by one, until I’ve eventually climbed back up enough ladders to see the crack of daylight that is escape. Yes, you can ask me if I’m sure, in case I select the wrong thing because you probably haven’t bothered to add mouse controls to your 360 port. And then, PING!, I’m back at my desktop ready to continue with my day. Leaving a game shouldn’t be more of a challenge than a boss fight.
DO let me have as many save slots as I want. Because you’re on PC! You’re free! The most a save is likely to take up is about 10MB. My hard drive is, like, lots more megabytes than that! Millions of them! There is no reason in the whole wide universe why you need to restrict me to eight. I might want to keep my earlier saves without having to hand copy them from which ever stupid folder you’ve secreted them into that you won’t tell me anyway. Is it because you hate gamers? You work so hard, for so many months, and by the time your game is done you just feel nothing but contempt for your potential customers? “How many saves shall we allow in the PC version? We’ve got room for infinity of them.” “THREE. And store them in the Recycle Bin.”
DON’T give me a fight I can’t win. I’ve faced the boss for fifteen minutes, I’ve painstakingly shot out its legs, arms, wings and eight of its eyes, and now I’m going for the final blast! His stupid, stupid face. BLAMMO! Cutscene! The monster is alive and disappearing down a hole… waitwhat? No! Absolutely and emphatically no. All of the no in a big pile all at once. If you’re going to make me go through some tedious extended fight, let me bloody well win it. If your story relies on this baddy mysteriously surviving having his energy bar completely emptied, his body hideously destroyed, then perhaps your story is a big stinking piece of old underwear.
DO bring back maps on TAB. Especially shooters. “Oh, but we don’t need them now, because…” Indeed, I have an ulterior motive here. There was a time, kids, when you needed a map for a shooter. It would slowly fill in as you explored the level, so as not to give anything away before you got there, but to let you find your way back. I know, the very idea seems so pointless. Why would you need a map to walk down a perfectly parallel corridor? Well, it used to be that shooters let you explore! I know, it sounds weird and scary to hear it now, but it’s true. So, with my new rule that all shooters must have a map, I think the humiliation incurred by having to lay out your one way straight line should bring about some necessary shame.
DON’T make me deselect Start Menu and select Desktop Icon. Who still uses the Start menu? The Victorians? Obviously all I want is a one-double-click route to the game, launched from my desktop, so why the prejudice? Why does Mr Start Menu get a tick in his box, while poor orphan Desktop Icon only rarely even get offered as an unticked option at all? I demand an end to this apartheid.
DO make your “RESUME” button be in the same place as you “BACK” button on all menus. And not, for instance, “DELETE ALL SAVES AND KILL MY MOTHER”. It’s just basic courtesy, really. And common sense. And all sorts of other things that suggest if you don’t, you probably haven’t actually spent much time playing your own game. If I’m clicking my way back from advanced graphics settings, to graphics settings, to options, to the main menu, there’s a fairly good chance the next thing I want to do isn’t going to be to quit the game, donchathink?
DON’T show hints on loading screens that I absolutely couldn’t have been playing this far without knowing. “Press SPACE to jump” might be useful information if I’d, say, never played a game before. It’s possibly not the most invaluable of morsels given that it would have been utterly impossible to have gotten past the opening level of your game without bloody jumping. Let alone telling me over four hundred and seventy times. Context sensitive tips, please! Or how about just some random facts I might not know? Which is the largest nut? It really does cheapen the game experience to be loading the final level and be told, “Holding down SHIFT will make you sprint.” Oh, and write a minimum of 10,000 of them.
DO feel free to notice that mice changed in the last decade. Sometimes they have more than three buttons now! Well done for acknowledging the wheel – we’re all very appreciative. But it’s awfully hard to find a mouse these days that doesn’t have at least a couple of thumb buttons. It’d be splendid if you could have your PC game recognise them, just like the way you make sure your PC game can recognise all sixteen buttons on the 360 controller I have. It’s a thought, eh?
DON’T host your game’s “website” on Facebook. Look, this isn’t an anti-Facebook thing. Personally, I can’t stand it, but lots of people love it. And sure, if you must, give your game a Facebook page. But it can’t be the main page. Because that’s the modern day equivalent of having your game information on GeoCities. It’s cheap, it’s tacky, and most of all, it’s extremely unhelpful to navigate. Web hosting costs money, yes, but it’s money worth spending if you want to be taken seriously. Which you do. Also, I don’t want to be “friends” with your game. Sorry.
DO speed up your credits. Oh my goodness, the vanity! It’s worse than cinema. I’m sure that the marketing department for your Austrian office look forward to pointing out their names to their mums, but you could probably put a lot more of them on screen at once. I don’t think the deputy VP of Translocation for the publisher really needs to scroll past as big and slowly as the project lead. Because if you’re not hiding a bonus nugget at the end, and I’m sitting through the agonisingly slowly scrolling list of Spanish accountants, your credits have essentially become a convenient hit list.
DO save my checkpoints – it’s not actually against the law for me to stop playing a game and then play it again later on. It’s not cheating. It’s not weird. It’s what people do. Why on EARTH should I have to start an entire mission from the beginning just because I wasn’t able to play your game non-stop from beginning to end? You lunatics.
DON’T tell me I’m leaving the mission area. If you’ve designed a level, let me walk around that level. Don’t give me the ability to walk around that level, but then announce that you’re going to kill me if I don’t turn around and go back to the invisibly marked section you’ve deemed acceptable for this moment. I’m not a prisoner released on an ankle bracelet, I’m a maverick with a lot of guns and a need to see that tree over there. If you didn’t want me to do that, why did you put that tree over there?
DO let me have the ability to turn off vibration on my 360 controller when I’m using mouse/keyboard controls, without having to pull its USB cable from the PC. There is little more terrifying in gaming than when the controller starts violently shaking my desk, making that horrible FLRRRRFLLFRLRLLRRLLL sound, because I opened a door or picked up a weapon. Although I’ll tell you what, horror games – you have my full permission to use this to the maximum effect.
DON’T use super-fancy CGI characters in your cutscenes, and then cut to the dodgy old triangle version of the same people that actually make up the game. It makes everything seem so much worse! And on that matter, don’t ever, EVER put actual real-life photographs in frames on people’s desks. It’s like having a big flashing prompt appear on screen that reads: “Look how unrealistic this game world is!” That seems somewhat counter-intuitive.
DO feel free to let your plot be comprehensible. Yes, you’ve seen a film where everything was really ambiguous, and you thought, “Gosh, I didn’t understand any of that, it must have been really clever! I’ll be clever too!” But you aren’t being clever. You’re being obtuse. If you’ve got a damned clever story that will bemuse until climactic moments reveal incredible links, or even an esoteric narrative that is open to the interpretation of the viewer, then great. But you don’t. You’ve got a story about four soldiers who shoot people until it ends. One of them dies.
DON’T Give me an ability that you’ll then take away when it’s inconvenient for you. If you let me jump, and then later on take away my ability to jump, then you are the same as a person who gives a child a big lollipop, and then snatches it away and jumps up and down on it shouting at the child, “HOW DARE YOU CONTINUE ENJOYING THIS LOLLIPOP! YOU MAKE ME SICK, YOU PUSTULE!” If I’m able to run (for the obligatory three seconds), then I’m able to run. Don’t snatch that ability away from me because… because for some reason you’ve decided it’s important to walk at half the usual pace across this patch of barren land where nothing’s happening because you hate people because perhaps you didn’t get the bike you wanted when you were nine. Good.
DO feel free to include a kitchen in your game. Bathrooms – oh, we’ve got bathrooms. There’s not a gaming character in the land who could possibly be crossing their legs and begging for help – he or she need only open two doors to have a near 100% chance of stumbling into a loo. But if they fancy some toast? They’re screwed. Buildings have kitchens, developers. Oh, and if you do, and you put a fridge in it, there’d better be something in that fridge other than one milk carton when I open it. Ideally a monster, but some ham and cheese would work.
DON’T inform me in an unskippable screen every time I load your game that this game autosaves. Because, and this is obviously going to come as a shock to every developer and porter on Earth so brace yourselves: very, very rarely do I ever end a gaming session by waiting for the game to start saving and then marching to the wall and yanking all the plugs out. Yes, this is a hangover from console versions, where apparently console users must habitually start wildly ripping cables out of things at random moments, such that they need to be so strongly warned. But people don’t tend to switch PCs off by throwing the mains switch in their house and tearing all the fuses out of the wall. They tend to shut them down like daddy Microsoft tells them to, long after we’ve quit out of the game. So what with NO ONE EVER DOING IT, do you think we could not have to sit through a screen showing us what a spinning icon looks like EVERY TIME WE START PLAYING? Please maybe thank you.
DO remember that if you let me carry on playing your game after it’s over, after I’ve saved the world and rescued all of humanity from the brink of death, that it would be nice if the game noticed. Of course when an ending necessitates that the world can no longer be played in, this doesn’t apply. But when it does, come on, at least have the NPCs stop pleading with me to sever the seven heads from the Great Beast Of Ab, when I just so spectacularly did that. Look at me – I’m wearing two the heads as a hat.
DON’T put a big pile of rocks in your game if you don’t want me to climb up a big pile of rocks. You know what I can’t climb up without specialist equipment? Sheer cliff faces, or vast, towering boulders. You know what I can climb up? Piles of rocks. They’re not barriers, they’re obstacles. And obstacles in games are challenges. And challenges are to be taken on. So when I either discover that there’s some invisible wall near the top, or tumble into the mad void outside of the game’s edges, it confirms for me that you’ve never been outside of a city. Nor indeed seen a rock.
DO let enemies weaken. In gaming, a baddy who has 95% health is identical to a baddy who has 3% health. And that’s crazy! I’ve been doing some experiments on humans I don’t like, and it turns out if you reduce them down to three percent of their total health, they can barely even pick up a gun, let alone successfully aim it. It’s as much as they can do to gurgle pathetic pleas for me to remove the final scraps of life. So how about there’s some level of deterioration when we attack? I’m not talking about wretched Soldier Of Fortune II style dismemberment. But maybe they move more slowly, aim less reliably, beg for mercy less convincingly? That sort of thing.
DON’T put music and cutscene volumes on the same slider. It’s weird how often this one’s done, where switching off a game’s horrible muzak results in silent cutscenes or missing dialogue. Oh, but also, when I switch the music off in your game, DO flipping well switch it off in the cutscenes too! And everywhere else you think I really actually do want to listen to your crappy music even though I muted it. I’m listening to my not-crappy music, and it just sounds awful when they dirge together. Worse even than yours on its own! Or, alternative, have good music in your game.
DO keep doing that completely daft thing where interactive objects are rendered differently from background items. Because if it was good enough for Daffy Duck, it’s good enough for me.