The upcoming Resident Evil 4 remake, like the original classic, contains a lot of destructible crates. However, the crates are a bit different now. As the game’s recent demo suggests, the developers have now marked these boxes with a painted yellow “X” to indicate that you need to smash them for the possible goodies they may contain. This angered a stubborn fan. “This must end,” they say tweeted.
It’s happened to all of us before. You walk through a fairly linear corridor. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you see a giant sign pointing you in the direction you were walking in the first place. Or maybe a floodlight is literally shining towards an exit. You probably have one of two reactions: 1) “Wow, that was so helpful!” or 2) “Does the developer think I’m an idiot or something?” The Twitter OP’s response was the latter, but there were plenty of developers who felt there was a reason for the former.
“Elder ring literally opens with an NPC telling you where to go and that wasn’t enough,” wrote an indie game designer, referring to a popular debate last year on whether or not FromSoft was required to make the tutorial entrance clearer. “So a lot of people skipped the tutorial and complained there was no tutorial.” Some developers had personal stories of game testers screwing up so badly that the designers had to give heavy signage. Chet Faliszek, a writer who works on series like Half-life, PortalAnd Left 4 deadquoted the original tweet with the comment“No one has ever taken part in an observed playtest…” He went on to say, “It’s funny to see the progress of L4D mod maps on the trail. In the end they break down and just put a sign, a safe room and an arrow.
There are players who feel that a slightly different wood structure is sufficient to communicate destructibility, especially those who played the original Resident Evil 4. But it’s possible that not marking these destructible items in a more overt way made it more difficult for earlier generations of REGARDING players to get into the full experience. “It’s this or ‘the glow’ and I promise you when we game developers see the game tests people skip ecologically realistic props,” tweeted Dai D., a level designer for Watch Dogs: Legion. Unless you guys want a button prompt to “look at lootables” every time you enter a room, learn to live with the yellow markers!
While designing levels for Legion, Dai quickly figured out why giving players leeway and zero direction was a mistake. In the mission “Digging up the past”, players were given the chance to freely explore with a drone before heading to their target. Unfortunately, players kept forgetting about the actual quest. “We found that with the new camera angle of the [drone], players were too fascinated with where they were, what they were initially doing, and what their character looked like when they peered through the glass. Dai described a frustrating process that was a lot like guiding a small child.
“In the end, we had an audio cue and a visual cue to keep players on track. We reminded them that there was a vent [they had] to climb to and of course we marked the vent (and subsequent vents) in red outline,” they told Kotaku through DMs. “We even had a digital line pointing to the vent to keep players focused. We found that players will rarely look up or even use the full features (even given the “view controls” prompt in the bottom right of the screen) of whatever they’re using.”
The solution: stabbing the objective in the faces of the players. Legion has an AI navigator that guides players through audio. The designers used it to incessantly nag players to go to the vent and remind them of the drone’s jump function. Ubisoft gets flak for its maximalist interface designto the point where it has become a game meme. You can technically turn off any UI that annoys you, but it’s not something new players might remember after a few hours of play. And you never know when you’ll really need the game to point you in the right direction.
Bill Gardner faced another problem when he was chief designer BioShock, 2K’s groundbreaking first-person shooter with stealth and immersive sim elements. Playtesters approached the game thinking it was similar to Half-lifeand so they went on fire.
“If you’re putting yourself out there and doing something different, you have to do everything you can to make sure what you’re doing is 100 percent clear,” Gardner told me. Kotaku through Twitter DMs. He described a particularly frustrating incident where a game tester failed to understand that a machine was actually a resurrection device. “In that test, we had a user walk up to Vita-Chamber and stare at it for about two minutes. Fortunately, they continued … and then picked up the key. Progress! Unfortunately, they then did a 180, went back to that same Vita-Chamber and smashed it with the key for probably another four minutes. Personally, I’m surprised they didn’t give up on smashing the room after 10 seconds. But in those playtests, genre logic seemed to nullify the players’ reasoning abilities. Gardner believes that designing in a way that takes into account those preformed genre expectations is one of the biggest challenges in innovating with gameplay.
“Shooters were mostly about running down a hallway and firing at the first thing that came up,” he wrote. “Of course there were exceptions. But most of the masses were not used to having a weapon and not smashing everything that moved and [things] that didn’t move.” There were other non-combat sequences where the developers tried to stop players from attacking, such as the Big Daddy intro sequence. They tried to use subtle audio cues. Players started attacking anyway.”
Storytelling is also not immune to designing around the lowest common denominator. Gardner said Kotaku that, when working on their horror game Perception with a blind protagonistthe team faced a major problem with players not understanding the concept of the game. They received positive feedback from the playtests three to four months before launch, but one playtester question left the developers in doubt: “I really like how you told the story and the atmosphere, there was just one thing I didn’t completely understood. ..was she blind?”
That question caused the “mortified” designers to make a major change. They asked the lead actress to include the all-new line, “When you’re blind, you learn a thing or two about trust.” While the dialogue sounds a bit exaggerated when taken out of context, it was intended to correct a player’s actual negative experience with the game.
The person whose tweet sparked this discourse, and whose Twitter account focuses on first-person shooters and their aesthetic, started a poll about paint signage, and it seems most players agree with the developers. People would rather have overly obvious guides than miss something important. But even people who dislike this less subtle interface design have reason to rejoice. Elder ringwhich certainly doesn’t mean much signage for the player, sold exceptionally well last year, and many gamers have shown that they can enjoy a game without knowing exactly what to do. Additionally, Horizon Forbidden West has a switchable climbing guide, and as accessibility and customization settings improve, we may see this sort of environment cue more often become an option that players can toggle on or off as they see fit. In 2023 it is not difficult to find something that suits your personal taste.