If there’s one game design lesson I can take away from The Nameless Mod, it’s this: It’s impossible to overestimate how much help the player needs.
Among the fan community of games in the Looking Glass tradition (System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex, BioShock, etc.), there’s a widely spread belief that games should trust their player to be intelligent and independent. BioShock’s quest arrow and highlighting of important objects is often considered condescending and unintelligent – redeemed only by the fact that you can toggle it off in the game menu.
But the people who complain about that obviously haven’t observed a playtest. If you make a game and let somebody else play it, it becomes painfully apparent that your player is always more stupid than you expect. If that sounds really bitter, it’s because I desperately wanted to create an intelligent game that trusts its player to be resourceful, yet ever since we started playtesting it, all I’ve been doing is to insert more hints all over the place.
The funny thing is, when I picked up Russian turn-based cold war spy RPG Hammer & Sickle last month, I was immensely frustrated by how it refuses to tell you what to do. It just lets you loose in this hostile world and expects you to figure out how to solve your mission on your own. It’s fantastically difficult – I got stuck because I had to pick up a radio one of my enemies dropped in the forest, and I hadn’t even seen it. Here I am, grumbling about my stupid testers, and when I find a game that treats me like I’m treating my own players, I get completely and utterly stuck.
So the sad truth is, it doesn’t really seem like you can hold the player’s hand too much. It was a good call to make the quest arrow and the object highlights in BioShock optional to please the more advanced players, but if you want to make a game most people can enjoy, you have to make sure they always know what to do. The enormous Deus Ex mod Redsun 2020 provides a perfect example of this. The whole premise of the game is that you’ve been abducted to Tokyo and must escape your captors and make your way home. There‘s a game that really trusts its players, throwing you into a completely strange futuristic environment and expecting you to work it out for yourself. And what is the number one point of criticism when it comes to Redsun? Why did I never manage to complete the mod? I have no idea what to do next.