Preventing Backtracking

BACKTRACKING

Back in the early days of Adventure Games, backtracking was almost seen as a design feature.

Trekking through the forest, back through previously visited areas to get to a previously visited destination to do something you couldn’t do before because you didn’t have a specific item-well that was par for the course.

The main reason for backtracking is that it artificially lengthens the game, because time being spent going through already created areas is ‘free’. You have already created those assets, so you are extending the time the player spends in the world for no input on the side of the designer.

CHEAP DESIGN TRICKS

Now in the so called ‘golden age’ of AG’s, where things like ‘Walking Deads (where if you are missing one item, you cannot complete the game-but there is no way to obtain the item once you have passed an area), and highly obtuse ‘ I need to buy the hint book for this’ puzzles were common place, backtracking was a design choice. But no more. Personally, I think that its a cheap trick, and something that has no place in a modern adventure game. People no longer have the luxury of spending 3 months on an Adventure Game, nor do can we, as game designers, expect them to. Now I’m not saying that we need to pander to the lower common denominator, and start making McAdventure Games for the every-man, but we must keep in mind that our audience has changed. We OWE it to our customers to create the BEST EXPERIENCE POSSIBLE, and to make sure that their precious time ISN’T WASTED.

GOING BACK TO THE AAA’s

One thing that I have spoken about before is using big AAA titles as a reference for how to do things. For all of the flack that those large titles get within the indie community, we can learn a LOT from them, in terms of making a slick, polished product that has appeal.

While playing through Dead Space 1 a while back, I noticed how little back tracking I was doing. So I started to really study how they got rid of it. Now, you do have certain ‘home bases’ in Dead Space that you revisit, and that form as almost spokes of a wheel to your other destinations. Dead Space works by showing you a problem, and then sending you on your way to solve it (very much like an Adventure Game). But I don’t ever remember long times of walking through areas where that you have already cleared out. The wonder of a new area was kept, because you never went back there. It exists as a memory, which is much more visceral over time than reality.

HOW THEY DO IT

Their approach to the problem is actually remarkable simple. Doors. In Dead Space, one thing that always shows up in any level are the doors. They are similar in design, with the exception of the holographic icon showing a door being locked or open. When you enter into an area, the door closes behind you. Somewhere in that area will be another door, that has a red lock icon on it, making it impassable. Once you have completed your objective in the room, the door that you entered into becomes locked, and the other door becomes unlocked. There is no internal logic as to why (sure sometimes, they will have an NPC say something like “I managed to get the office door open”, but when you are playing through the game, generally you just don’t notice it. The doors look the same, except for the hologram. Once it changed, you automatically see that as your exit, ignoring the door that was your entrance.

It is an extremely simple and effective way of keeping your game moving forward. Now I’m not saying that you should have NO back tracking. Sometimes it can be a very effective design tool-but only when its used as a design tool, and not as a way of adding length and time to your game.

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Cross Collaboration Between Indies

In my opinion, one of the most important things in building a really strong IP is to ensure that you don’t just focus on one aspect of it.

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If STAR WARS just had the movies, it wouldn’t have been anywhere close to embedding itself in the consciousness of the world. The fact that it expanded to toys, novels, comics, animations, and games ensured that everyone, who had even a passing interest in the world, got to experience it.

If you think about the larger, more successful gaming IP’s, they have expanded into many different areas. I own toys from Bioshock, and Dead Space (2 of my absolute favorite universes), novels, comic books, and animated films. It forms a greater connection to the characters, the world, and their experiences in it.

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But, as an indie, how do we take advantage of that?

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Those companies have millions to spend on things. They can contract out novelists, artists, and entire companies to create extended media for them.

The difference is that indies have access to a WEALTH of resources that other larger companies cant touch. OTHER INDIES. There are thousands of comic book artists, film makers, game makers, and musicians out there. People that create for the sheer passion of creation. And I know from personal experience, that artists are always willing to help each other out.

One of the most terrifying things for an artist is a blank canvas. There are people out there who are staring at the blank sheet of paper, who WANT to produce content, but don’t know where to start. If you have a ready made world, it becomes A LOT easier for people to create inside of it. There is a reason there are more Star Wars fan-film projects out there than you can shake a wookie at. The world is there. The rules are there. Creative people actually ENJOY working within boundaries.

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If you have an existing fan base, or you are looking for a way to expand your world, contact other independant artists.

If you are an artist who struggles lookng for inspiration, contact someone who is working on a project that inspires you.

With an ‘indie collective’ working on a single Intellectual Property, you can create a world even richer than those of Activision, and EA.

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-Chris

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