Letting the players (w)in
How encounter design is like operating a roller coaster
“You must prove yourself to me by completing these sixteen devilish challenges,” Impossibos bellows, generating a tiny line of text in the chat log and charging headfirst toward the group of players waiting to fight him.
Only it isn't Impossibos shouting that, not really. It's the eight-year-old kid turned junior designer who finally has an audience for his Hero Quest campaign. The fifteen intervening years have given him plenty of time to come up with the most complicated, overwrought challenge ever. He knows it's perfect because it's passed the point where even he can beat it.
Our designer loves video games, loves to play, loves to create. This is his dream. He's an expert player, probably ranked 4th on some low-population shooter or arcade title, and he's finally made the most challenging boss fight of all time. Unconsciously, he believes earlier designers haven't made a boss this tough because they don't know how. They probably weren't as skilled as he is.
Hopefully the players about to be mauled by our designer's boss are testers, people paid to play unpolished and untuned encounters to look for bugs and provide feedback. If we're lucky, someone stepped in before Impossibos went live and the people about to be crushed beneath his titanium spiked boots aren't logging on after a long day to check out the new content patch with their friends.
It's easy to blame our junior designer. After all, he has no idea what he's doing. He hasn't yet learned one of the core tenets of game design: the point of a boss is to be defeated. The players are the heroes of the story, and they get to win in the end. Yes, there can be heroic sacrifices. Yes, there can be struggle and challenge. But a theme park where you're not tall enough to go on any of the rides is no fun at all.
Players do want to earn their victories, but each player has their own definition of what 'earn' means, and it varies from “three tries while watching TV” to “months beating heads against brick walls.”
And it isn't enough for the encounter to be technically possible; the best encounters are the ones where every player believes they can win. This turns out to be quite a challenge, because every single player in the game has a different skill level and learns at a different rate. And most games have only three difficulties.
Maybe some players can contribute in different ways, or opt into specific roles that they enjoy. Maybe it's okay if not every player is challenged equally. Maybe the sign that reads “you must be this tall to enter” doesn't have to be the same height for everyone. But how could a single encounter work on so many levels? It can't be too complex for the player watching TV, but it needs enough depth to appeal to the brick wall crowd.
Sounds like a perfect challenge for our junior designer.
Tell him the boss can only have two abilities.
Oh, and don't be too hard on him when one of the abilities has sixteen parts. He's going to need some help with that one.
You can see more of Joe's work over here (http://joeshely.com/project-