Bulletstorm's creative director responds to our 'Mainstream games' editorial
Last week I wrote an editorial called How mainstream games butchered themselves and why it’s my fault, about the way games seem increasingly keen to dictate the exact experience every player should have.
I named Bulletstorm as one that nearly put me off with its overbearing opening, but which I later came to like. The game's creative director, Adrian Chmielarz of People Can Fly Studios, read it and was nice enough to take the time to respond. With his permission I'm publishing his response in full here, and since he asks a few questions I'll respond below.
Tom Francis (@Pentadact) editorial for PC Gamer is not just about Bulletstorm, but the very mention of my game caught my attention. It’s a great read. It’s also thought-provoking, hence this note from me.
There are games in which the designers grab you by the neck and drag you through the entire experience. CoD: Black Ops is indeed (as the editorial mentions) one of these games. I spent 30 minutes killing the same respawning group of enemies before I realized the game wants me to kick a barrel – and when it exploded and the group died, they never respawned again and I was finally able to continue. For the first 30 minutes, I felt I was merely an actor is someone else’s script, but when I play games, I want to be the writer, not the actor.
However, come minute 31, thanks to the sheer awesomeness that is Black Ops I just stopped caring. I went along with it, and had a blast. The game took me on an unforgettable journey filled with incredible set pieces and great personal moments. And that sequence with going back and forth between the spy plane and the ground troops? Mindfuck.
And I’ve just realized that I don’t want to be the driver all the time. Sometimes I just want to ride shotgun. Although probably a better metaphor would be: sometimes I want to drive to wherever I want and however I want, and sometimes I want to have a clear destination and I want my GPS to tell me how to get there.
I get what Tom is saying. Luckily, the crucial sentence of his editorial is: “Let those of us who are itching to get to the game, get to the game” and not “Stop making games like this, make only games like that”.
However, apart from occasional logical problems (e.g. “You can never break through to us with brute force – morons like me will always out-dick you” – so, if “always”, we don’t need to change anything, right?), the article is written under one assumption: that developers do what they do to FORCE players to experience what they want them to experience. That it’s our ego that dictates these solutions.
That’s simply not true. The main goal of ANY developer is not to fight “dicks” – as Tom noticed, most of the time we can’t win this fight anyway – it is TO HELP PLAYERS WHO ARE JUST NOT GREAT AT THIS. And by “NOT GREAT” I really mean: “Don’t have a hardcore gamer’s mind and experience”.
Example: enter a room. Kill enemies. The exit door now has an arrow saying “go there”.
“DICK” PLAYERS: Fuck you, you don’t tell me where to go, I want to discover it myself.
THE REST OF THE WORLD: Thanks, I lost my orientation fighting all these dudes, and you saved me some time – I don’t need to test every door now.
See what I’m saying here?
On a side note, I’m not entirely sure why Bulletstorm was used as a main example for this editorial. Except for the opening minute, you can skip EVERY cinematic, no one forces you to use Adrenaline Rush moments (just as Tim noted that itself), etc. It’s actually one of the most “free” games available, even offering a mode (ECHOES) that is 100% pure gameplay with every scripted event, dialogue line and cinematic removed. So there.
Adrian's CoD example shows he totally gets it. Some of his objections I agree with, and others are me not making myself clear enough, so I'll pick out the ones that need a reply:
sometimes I want to drive to wherever I want and however I want, and sometimes I want to have a clear destination and I want my GPS to tell me how to get there
Me too. A GPS is fine. I'm complaining about games that kick you into a cab and slip the driver a tenner not to let you out until level 3.
“You can never break through to us with brute force – morons like me will always out-dick you” – so, if “always”, we don’t need to change anything, right?
I didn't mean to imply that successfully outdicking you is a pleasurable experience. With the greatest possible respect and no small amount of unease: it's horrible. You can't stop us rebelling, but you can stop us having fun when we try - I guess it's open to interpretation who's been outdicked in that scenario.
The main goal of ANY developer... is TO HELP PLAYERS WHO ARE JUST NOT GREAT AT THIS.
Yep, I'm sure that's true. And your example of pointing out the next door to go through is entirely tolerable. I mentioned Bulletstorm's "Press F to look in the right direction" system as an example of how bad my reaction to this stuff has become - though I do think paying out in-game currency for swift obedience is crossing the line.
The stuff that drove me to write that editorial is when my head is put in a vice (as it is at the start of Bulletstorm), when my aim is forced onto something (as it is right afterwards in Bulletstorm), when time itself slows to a halt until I press the key I'm supposed to press (as it is next, in Bulletstorm). It's when my walking speed is halved and my weapon disabled, as it is regularly throughout Bulletstorm - including two occasions during combat, presumably because I wasn't where the game expected me to be. It's every time my hand is forced, and on-screen control prompt shows up to pretend it isn't.
If you made all that stuff into a cut-scene, which is what it is, you'd look at the start of Bulletstorm and think "Man, that's a 13 minute cut-scene, a 12 second fight, then an 11 minute cut-scene. We can't do that." And you'd get a call, and it would be me, and I'd say "Exactly."
As you say, Bulletstorm is by no means the worst offender. But if I'm not great at this, none of that stuff helps me play the game. And it doesn't help for precisely the same reason it annoys the hardcore gamers: it has nothing to do with the game.
It's presumably a way of burning through some backstory, character development and exposition, but it comes at a time when I'm impatient, frustrated and have no investment in it. Tell me the story once I'm invested, and get me invested by letting me play your awesome game. You can still teach me the controls with on-screen prompts, you just won't have to freeze time to do so.
I’m not entirely sure why Bulletstorm was used as a main example
Not because it was the worst game to do this stuff, but because lately it's the best. It's the first time in ages a bunch of people I respect have recommended something I hated when I tried it. It's a key example because the offputting forced stuff is masking a great game, one I would have given up on if that was all I had to judge it on.
It's no real tragedy that Call of Duty is so riddled with set pieces - that's all it's really got left. But Bulletstorm actually has exotic weapons and satisfying mechanics, ones that work because of player freedom rather than despite it.
You're absolutely right, Bulletstorm deserves extra credit for Echoes mode, I should have mentioned that. It's not quite how I want to play a game first time, but it would have been a good fallback if I had given up on the campaign.
Cheers to Adrian for the smart and informative response - if he has anything to add, I'll update this post.
Update: he did!
Let me start by spoiling the ending: I hear you, Tom, your heart is in the right place, and any next game I’ll make will certainly make a good use of this discussion.
However, hand holding is not going away entirely.
"You can still teach me the controls with on-screen prompts, you just won’t have to freeze time to do so."
Oh how I wish it were true. But it’s not. Not making it 100% guaranteed that people learn how to use a certain button or a gameplay feature is like booking a vacation in Mordor: you can do it, but it’s not necessarily a very wise decision.
Let me give you an example. In Bulletstorm, you can turn off the profane language. I’m not talking about beeping out the swear words. I’m talking about replacing entire lines with alternate ones, something we and Rick Remender worked hard on. This way you don’t even know when the characters curse and when they don’t, the experience is very fluid.
Originally, we made it so the players had to choose the language (profane/alternate) before they could play the game. But then we thought: “Fuck it, people already have to go through a couple of info windows before they get to play, let’s not make it even more painful – let’s put that option into Options menu. Everyone will find it if they want to”.
Worst. Decision. Ever.
It really cost us. My opinion is that our Metacritic score is a few points lower just because of that decision. Just as an example, check out the review from Wired, where the reviewer didn’t really like the dick jokes (calling them our “Achilles’ penis”, which hurt, but was also awesome). That’s absolutely fine, but I wish he knew about and was able to choose to play with the alternate dialogue.
But even leaving Metacritic aside, I just see some gamers having a problem with the language. One time I’ve decided to contact one of them and told her about the option. She then contacted me back and said this was a game changer for her.
Sure, here at PCF we all prefer the sailor’s mouth version of the game (as does the majority of Bulletstorm fans), but there is a reason why we provided the alternative. And all of that down the drain just because we’ve decided that the language choice should be optional, not obligatory.
"It’s when my walking speed is halved and my weapon disabled, as it is regularly throughout Bulletstorm."
Okay, I’ll let you in on a little secret: this is still better than a loading screen. 99% of the games out there use "walk and talk” to cover the streaming in of a new part of the level, and the ability to sell a little dialogue at that point is merely a bonus. Just so you know.
Now going back to the root of the problem.
Once again, I hear you loud and clear. I guess a good summary of the whole discussion is something we’ve done in Bulletstorm right after you find the Leash. In the first fight – when you can use the Leash for the first time – we freeze the screen until you press the Use Leash button. And we do this twice. In the second fight, you’re free to move and do whatever, but the only way to progress is to leash and impale two enemies.
As I said, hand holding is not going away, but there’s certainly a value in that second solution, something that the first one doesn’t have.
Since it started with futile ranting into the wind, if this discussion leads to any tweaks in the way choices are presented in a future game, that would be a great result. Obviously games shouldn't just be built for dicks, but hopefully our extreme sensitivity to this stuff helps highlight where it goes too far. Thanks again to Adrian for reading and taking time to explain the thinking behind this kind of design, it has been both educational and fun.