Hidden Features

Here’s a question that recently came to my mind: is it necessarily good game design to leave your best features hidden, or hard to discover until you do a lot of undirected exploration?

I thought of it because after I played Mory’s latest game (which I recommend!) I was told there’s a lot more in it than I might think. It reads to me like not-so-subtle encouragement to play it again and discover these hidden features, which I’ll make an effort to do, but can’t always guarantee these days. But then, it made me think of how I designed Chivalry is Not Dead and how, while some people were able to figure out what I was getting at because they replayed the game several times, others played it once or twice, didn’t see anything of interest that would compel them to keep trying for new endings, and wound up missing out on what I saw as the essence of the game. In a way, I’ve been trying to combat this tendency with Life Flashes By; it’s a game where it’s relatively easy to find what you’re looking for, and where you can see all the content in one playthrough if you want to.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m a fan of games that hold your hand and tell you exactly where you need to go and what you need to collect. I’m not sure I even like tutorials, for that matter. I think being able to explore things is essential to my ideal playing experiences, and I’m far from against hidden features in principle. I just want to make sure that as many people as possible understand what I was getting at when I designed the game in the first place, even though they might not agree with everything I’m trying to express. But maybe it’s just me; maybe some game designers are more than happy to close their best stuff off to only those who are “worthy”. [1]

  1. Interestingly enough, that sounds suspiciously like the design philosophies of most games of the arcade and NES eras. Not saying that’s a bad thing, of course — there’s something to be said about doing what works, and there’s nothing out there that’s as proven to work as the classics. It can also be argued that I’ve absorbed more design philosophies from casual games than I’m willing to admit.
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4 Responses to Hidden Features

  1. Mory Buckman says:

    I know you’re a busy person, and I perfectly understand if you don’t return to this game. Intellectually I don’t expect people to see everything there is to see, and it was designed specifically with the intent that they wouldn’t. A player comes in, finds a way to amuse him/herself, and goes out – my work is done. But it’s one thing to understand something in principle, and it’s quite another to really internalize it. The natural inclination of any creator is to try to get people to see as much of their work as possible, and I do think that’s a harmful attitude to take. Some people (as I was making the game) suggested I include a list of possible achievements, so that players could keep going through until they’ve found them all. And emotionally that’s very enticing, because it means some players actually would see everything, and they’d spend a ridiculously long time getting there. But I also have to recognize that that’s not a good experience. Making that sort of demand on a player takes an idle excuse for momentary amusement, and turns it into something unrecognizable.

    Which is a long way of saying that I really shouldn’t have said anything about what may or may not be in the game. I was exaggerating, really- there’s nothing there at all.

  2. I should probably mention that I don’t like “achievements”, either. Basically, it seems to me that I’m not terribly fond of having things outside the game that tell you how you’re supposed to play the game.

    Also, I do agree that it’s harmful to want people to see as much of one’s work as possible (brings to mind the whole “why don’t you just make a movie/write a book?” argument) and I think that’s different from my goal, which is for as many people as possible to see what’s essential.

  3. Lee says:

    I think I’m a DVD extras kinda guy. I say, tell your story whichever way you’re telling it (linear, branching, modular, whatever), and if you have ideas that aren’t important tot he main story but that you really want to put in there somewhere, make it an easter egg sort of thing, that they can uncover if they explore the environments a little more carefully. It’s more in line with maintaining the spirit of the game without making it into an endurance test, because the extras are non-essentials you can come back to if and when you’ve got time.

    I’m not talking about hidden object stuff (though I guess that’s possible too, and would appeal to casual gamers). I simply mean putting someone or something in a spare room or something and having them divulge some interesting little tidbits that you wouldn’t otherwise have learned. They don’t break the game, but add a certain richness to it, like, in the case of Charlotte, having the player discover excerpts of some of her novels, or in the case of Trevin, perhaps finding some historical account of Trevin that had been ommitted from, say Midsummer Night’s Dream or some such. Just little things that make the characters a little more ‘real’.

    Of course, these are just ideas I’m spitballing. I don’t expect to see you implement them, hon. you know me and how I’m always piling on more work than is needed. Just using LFB as an example to explain my thoughts on this whole replay/easter egg mentality of game development.

    I suppose if i were tasked with making a game I knew was going to be played by serious gamers, I’d make an effort to add challenges that would make said added content feel like a reward for further play. However, I’d be perfectly happy never to have to add arbitrary gameplay to appease people who can’t get over the need to be challenged at every turn. My reasons for playing these games are quite different from those of the vocal majority over on the AG forums, and that informs my reasons for wanting to make ‘games’, as well.

    Babbling. Enough. I think you’ve got a valid point, hon. I think the whole idea of designing a game that demands replay isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think the only game feature I’d want to use that could be construed as a replayable feature would be the story itself. But that’s just me, and I don’t have a completed game under my belt to make my argument with. But you know all about that. ;)

  4. Kejero says:

    To answer the opnening question: I’d say it simply, entirely depends on the kind of game. “Best features” may also be a very subjective term.

    The way I see it, it’s definitely good game design to find a balance to please both players that just want get on with it, and make sure they get to see all the essential content, and then make sure you also please the explorers who want to turn every room and rock upside down. Not just please, but reward them as well. Rewarding with “best features” wouldn’t be my idea of good game design though (unless, maybe — heck make that obviously — in those “hidden object” games).

    Achievements rarely bother me, but that too depends on the kind of game. In a game like Uncharted about treasure hunters, it makes sense to give the player the opportunity to hunt for treasure, and to reward them with a “title”. I agree those are things that remind you that you’re playing a game, but I have yet to play a game that didn’t remind me in ten similtaneous different ways that it is what it is.

    On a final note, as a player I definitely like the idea of linearity, and of seeing everything that the game has to offer. I like to explore (if the designers made the world interesting enough to be explored), and I expect to be rewarded. I’m not a fan of branching storylines and different endings, and I personally don’t see the attraction in giving the player the opportunity to shape their own story. It’s definitely no incentive for me to replay a game. People don’t rewatch their favorite movies because it’ll be different the next time they watch it. And then, yet again, it usually is: you spot things you simply didn’t catch before. Maybe you just didn’t GET something before. You always “discover” something new, even though the movie is exactly the same as it was the last time. When I replay an entirly linear game like Grim Fandango, the same thing is guaranteed to happen, and when the end credits roll I’ll be just as satisfied as I was the first time. The idea of possibly having missed some major parts has quite the opposite effect on me. But then again, the story has always been the number one aspect for me in most kind of games, even in games where it’s probably not supposed to be.