I’ve mentioned previously that I’m a fairly recent game design graduate. While in retrospect I can say that my particular educational experience wasn’t suited to prepare its students for getting work in the ever-changing games industry, it still taught me a lot about game design and game production. One particular lesson that has stuck with me from that degree is the concept of conveyance in design, which I learned first-hand during game testing sessions.
This concept essentially boils down to the idea that the game should be designed in such a way that the player is given enough information to do certain things in the game without being told exactly what to do. This information can then be used to do certain things in the game like make a decision during a combat scenario or even just learn how to play the game. To put it in more of a relatable way, I’ve found that a good sign that you’re playing a game with bad conveyance in its design is when you find yourself thinking “no shit” to information the game presents to you. For example, a 2D platformer that tells you to move by pressing left or right on the controller.
So when it comes to teaching a player how to play the game and how its mechanics work, I feel like a good game should be designed to give the player the right amount of information to help the player figure things out on their own. Portal did a fantastic job of this in almost every aspect, but I think the most interesting example is how it taught the player where they were allowed to create their portals. I’m sure most of you who have played Portal remember that you could only create portals on white surfaces, but what you may not remember is that the game never directly told you this. Instead, you learned about this mechanic through a combination of experimentation and a very subtle hint found in the game’s reticle, which would only fill when you were aiming at a surface you were allowed to shoot a portal at.
The funny thing is, despite my vocal advocacy for games that successfully walk the fine line of giving the player too little or too much information to play the game, I’ve been asked a surprising amount of times why it is so important when a game does this. It seems like common sense that a game shouldn’t tell you too much like I mentioned previously, and definitely shouldn’t tell you too little. And yet, there are quite a few games that do exactly the latter when it comes to certain mechanics, hiding them from them from player knowledge despite the fact they can have a drastic effect on that experience without the player’s knowledge.
Take the dream-like opening tutorial from Kingdom Hearts, which serves as a tutorial and a way to customise the main character’s stats. The customisation parts are done via on-screen choices, starting off with a fairly straight-forward choice which determines the player’s starting stats. The player is presented with a wand, a sword and a shield and asked which of these they want to use and want to sacrifice. The purpose of this is made fairly obvious to the player, knowing that if they choose the sword and sacrifice the wand, they’ll get a point boost in attack, but have points cut from their magic as a result.
But then the second choice appears.
This choice is much more obscure than the first one, appearing like some kind of weird personality quiz asked by characters from Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy VIII. After being asked what you’re afraid of, what’s most important to you, and what you want most out of life, the game then gives you an obscure description of how your journey will go, taking place between dawn and night.
As it turns out, this obscure personality test actually determines how slowly or quickly the player will be levelling up to and after level 50. Not only is this mechanic never explained to you in any shape or form, but when you consider just how difficult the game is, a player could very easily give themselves a severe handicap that would require an astronomical amount of level grinding to fix. I can tell you from personal experience that I got sick of being under-leveled for almost every boss I went up against just because I answered those questions as honestly as I could.
But at least Kingdom Hearts gave you some kind of choice when it came it its hidden mechanic. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate and its “Charm Table” mechanic secretly affected the experiences of its players as soon as they created their character. To put a long explanation short, a certain “Charm Table” would be permanently assigned to a character depending on the time of day the character was created. This would basically effect what items the player was able to pick up over the course of the game, allowing them to find some, but restricting them from finding others. To make a bad mechanic worse, “cursed” Charm Tables also existed in the game, which not only placed even heavier restrictions on what items the player could obtain, but would actually prevent the player from being able to craft high-level equipment.
And once again, I remind you that not only did players not get to decide which Charm Table they could be assigned, unless they actually researched the mechanic, they wouldn’t have any idea they were even given one to begin with. So basically, a player could be potentially screwed over in the late-game simply because they created their character at 6pm instead of 6:45pm and they wouldn’t even know it.
Despite my bitching, however, I do think there are rare cases in which a hidden mechanic can be a part of good game design. That is if it adheres to one condition: It needs to be used with the purpose of positively influencing a player’s experience with a game, not potentially souring it outside of their knowledge. I only say this because I know that quite a few games have been able to do this already. Perhaps the most surprising of these being Resident Evil 4, all thanks to its “dynamic difficulty” mechanic.
Essentially, Resident Evil 4 constantly changes its difficulty level in the background depending on your performance in the game. If a player is shooting accurately and avoiding damage, the game will start getting more challenging by adding additional enemies and making them more aggressive. Alternatively, if a player keeps dying or getting hurt, the game will ease off its challenge by having enemies stand still for longer before attacking and take fewer hits to kill. Sometimes the game will even outright remove a number of enemies from certain areas if the player is performing poorly.
This dynamic difficulty allows the player to stay in what is known as “Flow”: The middle-ground between boringly-easy and frustratingly-hard. The game constantly tailors itself to make sure that it’s challenging enough for a player’s individual skill level without overwhelming them. And because the mechanic is hidden from the player’s knowledge and doesn’t show any kind of on-screen indication that the difficulty is being changed, the player is able to enjoy the best possible experience that is suited to their play-style and ability.
The player doesn’t have to feel the shame of lowering the difficulty or the annoyance of having to raise it just so they can get the most optimal experience out of the game. And to be honest, I prefer this more dynamic approach to difficulty over the slap-in-the-face insult that is the “would you like to lower the difficulty?” death screen seen in games like Devil May Cry 3 and Rayman Origins .
Overall, however, I think that unless a game’s hidden mechanics completely work in the favour of the its experience, it seems like an incredibly poor design choice to hide a mechanic from the player’s knowledge. This is especially so when that mechanic could negatively affect one’s playing experience. In my mind, it seems like the less someone has to look outside of a game for answers on how to play it, the better the game’s design is. Perhaps that’s a slightly broad statement to make, but I’ll leave you with this to consider: Did you know that Fallout 4 had a cover system because the game told you about it or because you found out about it while watching a “7 Useful Tips” video on YouTube?
Are you ready, players?