There’s been a comment on my last post about Battle Eagle from another 8-bit developer which I felt needs a more expansive response than just the “no” I basically gave. Here’s what he said…
I think [Battle Eagle's] basic game design is too hard, with the one crash, you lose a ship. Hopefully you’ll use shields so that your ship can take 5 crashes before you lose a ship. That the ship will flash when it has no shielding left.. This makes it less frustrating to play, and makes it more accessible/easier for all ages and all abilities. Hard difficulty can be playing it with no shields. I think Thrust should have adopted this kind of system too – although it makes the levels easier – this can be made up for – with longer more difficult levels in later levels.
With game development these days – you should make them less frustrating and more interesting – if you can…
…and I’m in disagreement with pretty much all of it. But for the purposes of this post we’ll put aside personal opinion as to why modern game design holding the player’s hand is a Bad Thing (although that might become a post in it’s own right) and lightly skip over the obvious point about it not being possible to judge the difficulty level of a game without first playing it.
Adding shields to shoot ‘em ups has been tried quite a few times over the years and the results have almost always been less than stellar; in the majority of cases the shields appear to have been added to paper over cracks in other parts of the design, so games like Xenon 2 had massive collision areas on the craft and enemies with exceptional aim that presumably lead to the test players being turned to mush but, rather than tuning that back or taking proper notes about how the Japanese coin-ops they were trying to copy dealt with things (in Xenon 2‘s case I’ve assumed for a long time that the muse was the coin-op Armed Formation), the designers instead took it upon themselves to water down some of the essence of the genre. It didn’t help of course that liberties were usually taken elsewhere whilst they were at it, so we “gained” game-stopping shops or inertial control schemes, with the latter making the process of dodging accurately-aimed bullets even harder.
Even the games that don’t go too far along that “we can make things better” route of grafting in elements from other genres aren’t any less frustrating in the long run. Warhawk has shields and still works reasonably well as a shoot ‘em up because some proper thought has obviously gone into the implementation; that said, it takes a almost conscious effort to die on the early stages but there’s a tipping point after the first loop (on the C64 version, it comes earlier on Atari 8-bit and Amstrad CPC versions since they’re harder) where it just smashes even the most skilled player into the ground and this shift in balance is more frustrating than a three-lives-you’re-dead scheme; it hands the player a false sense of security, then yanks it away through no fault of their own.
As I see it, the games that I write are aimed at a specific audience; they’re for people who already have at least a passing interest in the genre and, as a by-product of that interest, previously developed the required hand to eye co-ordination. Difficulty levels are, as far as possible, geared to match that assumed market through a mixture of experience, sheer bloody luck and trusted test pilots. So don’t I want to encourage new players? Well yes, but there aren’t exactly going to be thousands or even hundreds of people lining up to play new 8-bit computer games anyway, so if the concession for that handful of new players is to potentially lose existing fans of the genre by messing with a long-serving and successful formula, then I’m going to pass.