Implicit Challenge Modes

As I slurped my coffee and flipped through my 3DS catalog I came to a realization. I have virtually no 3DS games! That sounds like a simple enough issue, pop over to Gamestop and buy some games. Problem is, seeing as I don’t know how to record 3DS footage it becomes a matter of efficiency. Should I spend my money on games for which I can record and write reviews? Given the fact that most of my money comes from welfare I have to really be careful on what I spend. Really, after I’ve bought everything I need for this job and pay for the gym membership I don’t really have any money to spend frivolously (seriously, haven’t been out on a date in 2 months). So what does that leave me with. I have another job that involves short bursts of rigorous activity followed by 30-40 minutes of downtime. What am I supposed to do? I only have 2 games and I’ve beaten them both (Pokemon Y and LoZ : LbtW). Challenge modes are the topic of this week’s essay.
So, first things first. What is a challenge mode? A challenge mode is a “variation” on a given game type that involves a gameplay style that wasn’t the direct intention of the game designer. There are two basic types of challenge modes. I will talk briefly this week on the first type, explicit challenge modes, and we will do the second type, implicit challenges, next week.
Explicit challenge modes are the type that are baked right into the game design. The obvious example would be the “collect 100% of the hidden trinkets” challenge that games use to artificially inflate their play time. Think of Jak and Daxter. Seriously, that game was only like 8 hours long but it got stretched into like 40 hours because I was trying to find every arbitrary nook and cranny. I spent like 10 of those hours trying to find one single stupid egg thing.
I listed this one first because I felt it was very important to make a particular point on the matter. If your intent is to get people to keep returning to your world, that’s all well and good but these challenge modes are -not- fun. If you’re going to do it this way then make sure your player gets something cool out of it. Seriously. I beat Dust Elysian with 105% completion and wanted to throw my controller when I found out there wasn’t a silly cutscene or superpower for mastering the game. I mean, I suppose the fact that you get nothing for mastering the game is resonant with the plot of the story. A developer should always be given kudos for tying all of the elements of a game together holistically, but it just left me with a bad taste when I got that last chest open, rushed the final boss, and found out that the game ended on the same stupid cliffhanger. (sequelitis, long time since I’ve had an essay seed).
Think of that survival challenge in New Vegas that made it so that all heals became HoTs and you actually had an exhaustion gague. This is a good explicit challenge mode, this is how you do it right, people. So, I have no idea what the story is behind this survival mode, but I’m willing to bet it went something like this: people played through Fallout 3 and the biggest complaint became “yeah, there’s a radiation meter and lots of food, but if you’re half decent at the game then you only use it rarely”. Seriously, I got through the entire game (main story line and a few dozen of the bigger story arcs) on purified water, like 6 or 7 Rad-Aways and whatever comic books I found.
The survival mode on New Vegas actually made it such that I had to keep space for food stuff (because you actually get hungry and thirsty) and have a decent idea as to where I can find a free bed (on account of the fact that sleep deprivation was a risk). Instead of the game being an Oblivion-esque romp through the wasteland featuring dungeons that you pillage for every single point of gear you can carry, suddenly each trip back to town meant wasted food and water. You could still do it like Elder Scrolls and just schlep back and forth between town and the dungeon you are blasting through, but if wandering monsters happen to be outside then a significant chunk of your profits wound up decorating a Super Mutant’s skull (ammo isn’t cheap). Ultimately you would wind up in a situation where the only difference between a gather-only-valuables run and a grab-it-all-and-go run was 3 hours and a fistful of bottle caps (for the 3 of you who haven’t played Fallout, bottle caps are the default currency of the American Wasteland).
Typically, explicit challenge modes are there to provide a twist to a game that the developers found interesting but didn’t want to make the focus of the game. Typically these things are small tweaks that someone in the coding department thought was really cool. Take for example Ranger Mode in Metro : 2033 (haven’t played it yet but it’s on my list). This thing was made a toggle-able option because someone at 4A figured “hey, our game is all about the stress of conserving resources, what if we made it such that there was no way to know how much resource you had left?”. Followed immediately by someone in marketing reflexively stating, “wait a second, the upper-middle class white boys we are aiming this thing at have no idea what ‘resource management’ means and they wont ask their mommies for money to play a game about not knowing if you’re 10 seconds from broke, kids want to be super heroes and super heroes never get math involved in calculating their grenade arcs”. To which the coder said “Actually, the average gamer is like 34 years old and grew up in a gaming environment that revolved around having to gain an instinctive knowledge of each item’s behavior”. This exchange probably went on for some weeks until the coder threw up his hands and waited for the boss to turn her head away before putting that ‘no UI’ mode into the game and hiding it in the options menu.
Face it, games today aren’t cheap and nobody in the AA or AAA industry can afford to make a niche appeal game (unless you’re From Software, in fact, from now on, whenever a AAA game does something that AAA games typically aren’t able to do, I’m going to call it “pulling a From Software”). That is what’s so great about challenge modes. When you make a game with challenges like this in mind then you can do all sorts of interesting things with your work that normally wouldn’t fly given your target demographic and budget range.
So far this essay has been largely AAA oriented. This means nothing to 99% of you so lets crank this back a bit. I’ve been playing Symphony of the Night recently. Imagine a version of SotN that doesn’t force level ups. People complain all the time that Castlvania is too easy now. The game is no longer about strategy and mastery, hell, you can beat Dracula in most of these games by standing still and spamming your main weapon if you leveled high enough. So let us make a challenge mode that allows you to only level up when and how you choose. This completely optional system would allow you to maintain your character’s power at a point where current enemies can beat you in 2 or 3 hits. Sure, the game would be less stressful because of the inverse Sword of Damocles but it would go a long way towards making the game more pallatable to hardcore Castlevania 1, 3 and 4 fans. The only difference in coding this game would be a more modular approach to the mechanics, allowing for individual mechanics to be toggled at will (or at least at character creation). In case you havent noticed by now, I’m a huge fan of modular design schemes and feel that every game would benefit from a more modular design philosophy. I would rather have a million programs juggling a million tasks in tandem than one titanic monstrosity trying to juggle the same thing.
Back to my point. This type of challenge mode would exist solely to extend the life of a game. It appears nowadays we have completely forgotten that exp bars and gear checks aren’t the only way to extend the life of your game. Also, an oft overlooked bonus to this kind of challenge mode is that your seasoned veterans (like those rapidly aging Castlevania fans) feel like you respect them. Let me tell you, I beat Super Mario Sunshine and, while I thought it was a refreshing take on an old game, I couldn’t help but feel cheated over the fact that I couldn’t really fall to my death anywhere. A challenge mode that put a huge invincible blooper in all of the open bodies of water would have gone a lot further towards making me feel like I wasn’t playing a dumbed down game. I think that the major backlash against that game stemmed not from the FLOOD pack. I think the fact that the game lacked the lethality Mario fans are accustomed to was the major slip in that game. Maybe a 2-health-mode or a get-eaten-after-20-seconds-in-the-water mode would have saved that game in the public eye.
Back in my day (damn I’m getting old) games were extended by making them ludicrously difficult and while I realize that those days are long past gone that doesn’t mean they should be gone and forgotten. Seriously, we have games trillions the size of the 8-bit ballbusters of my youth. Games are far bigger nowadays, so why do we punish ourselves by making them so monochromatic? I dont expect every game to be a Final Fantasy-esque labyrinth of play styles and completion levels, but it would be nice to have more than one way to skin Big the Cat.
So, now that my bit is out of the way I have some house cleaning to do. Something Wicked Games has been acquired by KlawDigital which means that we now have a corporate sponsored website in the making. Since the next week or so of my life is going to be dominated by designing the new website I say we celebrate with an essay about programming. Don’t worry, the second half of this essay (which will be about implicit challenge modes) is still coming, but I promised to do something special and fun for our new corporate overlord. This is the last essay to be hosted on SomethingWickedGamesblog.wordpress.com. Next week I will post the link to the new website, which will contain all of my future essays. See you next week.

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