Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Versus Series 3: Obstacles vs. Annoyances

From the day I started this blog, I've been wanting to write about the subtle distinction between obstacles and annoyances.  The main issue is that the distinction appeared to be so subtle that I had no way of expressing it.  Mark the milestone here: the first insight I've had since starting the blog that allows me to communicate something that was formerly ineffable to me. 

We'll start on the surface and work our way down.  To begin with, one can start making distinctions between obstacles and annoyances based on their quality, in particular, their quality in the context of gameplay.  This is where I first saw the difference.  Essentially, annoyances are bad obstacles.  They don't appear to add to the challenge of the game, and at best distract players from the good parts.  At worst, they drive players away from the game entirely.

Annoyances are more prevalent in video games than in other genres of game, such as card games and board games--not to mention sports like basketball and baseball.  My previous post hints at an explanation.  Because they are appealing to a niche, enthusiast audience, game developers have the luxury of a forgiving audience.  This audience tolerates annoyances, when it even detects them at all.  Games and other entertainment that require a wider audience work under much greater scrutiny, and wind up creating games that are far more polished than a typical AAA release.

Designating annoyances as "bad obstacles" is not enough, however.  For a start, it smacks of pure opinion.  But more importantly, it doesn't add anything to our game theory.  It's too vague to be of any use, like the father telling his sixteen-year-old to, "Drive to conditions." 

In an earlier post, I mentioned that games can be judged according to how interesting were their goals, obstacles, ways to achieve the goals, and ways to overcome the obstacles, and how well these components related.  An annoyance is constructed purely with the first criterion in mind--how interesting is the obstacle and how it is overcome.  The annoyance may be carefully crafted and interesting unto itself, but then we must look at it in the context of the rest of the game.  How does it relate to all the other components, including the other obstacles?  It is here where we can better distinguish annoyances from obstacles.  Annoyances are usually isolated obstacles--they have no connection to anything else in the game.

While this is a good first step in recognizing annoyances, it can only take us so far.  Again, this definition feels a little vague and can still be classified as opinion, but at least we have a smaller area of deviation.  The revelation that allowed me to write this post has to do with strategy.  A true obstacle affects the player's strategy.  Ideally, an obstacle should be able to be neutralized through one or more strategies--and when I mean neutralized, I mean the player will not have to worry about that particular obstacle when deploying the right strategy.  In addition, the strategy that neutralizes the obstacle should open the door to other obstacles that were not immediately apparent.  This is the depth we are looking for in games, and something that bad obstacles distract us from.

So now we finally have our definition: an obstacle is something in the game that can be neutralized with the right strategy--a strategy that creates new obstacles--and an annoyance is an obstacle that either cannot be neutralized with a strategy or when neutralized, creates no further obstacles.  Notice that adding more annoyances will not fix the first annoyance; it will only create more annoyances.  To fix an annoyance, the game-maker must alter the game rules to allow for a neutralizing strategy--or just cut out the annoyance, which is probably the best option, anyway.

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