Bill of Adventure Gamers' Rights
Along the turbulent course of adventure gaming history, there have been many "features" of adventure games that have proven to be irritating, useless, or downright unfair. Such cliches are essentially undesirable and should be avoided at all costs, or at least the pain of such occurrences should be eased a little.
Nevertheless, game companies and independent developers alike continue to make the same mistakes again and again. One would think that such errors should be easily avoidable. Perhaps there is not set of guidelines of things to avoid or, on the contrary, ensure they exist.
This is such a list. We call this (for now), the Bill of Adventure Gamers' Rights.
The Right to Skip Dialog and Cutscenes
Players have the right to be able to skip dialog, especially lines which are heard repeatedly. For example, hotspot interactions that are fruitless and produce random "I can't do that" errors are fine, but make sure the player is able to skip such lines. It is extremely frustrating to sit through a long line of text, however cleverly written, that describes why the player can't perform such an action at this point in time.
You can force the player to listen, but you cannot force him or her to pay attention. If there are plot points that are absolutely essential for the player to heed, try doing it in a subtle manner, or provide a way for the player to revisit earlier cutscenes and conversations. (Perhaps a menu listing all past scenes, any of which the player can view.)
The Right to Freedom from Pixel Hunting
Pixel hunting is the deliberate act of placing an inventory item in a location that is either dark and nearly impossible to see, a few pixels (sometimes one) in size and nearly impossible to see, or (heaven forbid) both.
Players have the right to be able to see inventory items on the screen clearly and easily. Seldom is a pixel hunt justified. Nearly every single instance is downright insulting and unfair. There really is no reason for an adventure game to test the player's eyesight, unless that is the intention of the designer (say, at an optometrist's office in the game).
Most designers consider it a valid and excusable method of extended the length of game play; however, without any visible clues, most players either solve pixel-hunts with a walkthrough (being forced to resort to cheating) or by sheer dumb luck. Finding out that the solution to a puzzle was an item barely visible on some obscure screen is not a rewarding experience at all. It quite frustrating and will surely drive away many players. Indicate that there's a hotspot under the mouse. A verb bar is great, but a cursor that lights up is enough.
The Right to Freedom from Monotonous Responses
Players have the right to a valid reason why using the glass jar to store water will not work; "because the designer didn't plan it that way" is seldom a valid excuse. Responses such as "I can't do that," "That won't work," or simply "No," whenever the player experiments with interactions can be mind-numbing.
It is not very motivating when 9 times out of 10 you receive a generic, bland response simply because the developers were too lazy to explore non-linearity. Beta-testing is usually a good way for the developers to figure out what the player might try and, if it wasn't an expected interaction, either account for it or give a good reason why it won't work.
Perhaps the glass jar is to be used for the glass itself rather than its containing capabilities. Make it so that the glass is cracked, thus becoming useless for water storage. The developers should account for nearly everything.
The Right to Exit a Scene Quickly
Players have the right to exit a room instantly, for example, via double-clicking the room exit. Many third-person adventure games nowadays are adding in this little gem of a feature. It is convenient, and saves the player from having to watch the main character walk across the entire room just to leave it. Unless it is crucial to the game that everything play out in real-time, this is usually an important feature to include.
If this is not something you want to include in your game, consider giving your players the ability to run. Or simply make the player character walk reasonably fast. There's still the occasional game where the main character walks annoyingly slow; add scrolling rooms and some impatient players will mash Alt-X to abort the game, regardless of the game doing a great job everywhere else.
The Right to Know Where Exits Are
Players have the right to (1) exit a scene easily by walking near (not right at) the edge of a screen, and (2) know where such exits are, if they are not to be made obvious.
Most independent developers end up forcing the player to walk to the absolute edge of the screen, which is very inconvenient for those who player in windowed mode. The mouse cursor ends up going off the screen, and players may click on their desktops, or (even worse) lose the focus of the game's window and have to work to find it again.
It is wise to implement clear exit hotspots, where the mouse cursor changes to indicate that you are on the correct exit spot.
The Right to Freedom from Walking Deads
A walking dead is when a game cannot be finished because you missed an item earlier in the game that you can no longer return to retrieve. This is simply lazy design.
Players have the right to either (1) be able to retrieve the needed item that was available earlier on, or (2) have alternate solutions available to them. One idea of preventing walking deads is to place the needed item is a spot where the player will essentially be forced to pick it up.
Alternately, you could place it in such an obvious spot, that not taking it would be the player's own fault and the walking dead would be a justifiable punishment. Even still, a clear end of the game ("dying" in a sense) would let the player know that there is no possible way to continue, and alternate solutions should still be considered, but are not required in these cases.
The Right to Freedom from Unconventional Solutions
Players have the right to not be forced to solve a puzzle by doing something that "breaks" the rules of adventure gaming. One example is in Runaway 2, in which you must use an inventory item on an exit — the only exit in the game that you can interact with. This is, in essence, another form of pixel-hunting, in the sense that the player could not possible know that the exit could be interacted with, if it wasn't done regularly throughout the game already.
The Right to Satisfying Rewards for Puzzles
Players have the right to a satisfying and appropriate reward upon completion of a difficult puzzle. Players want to move forward in the game; the main attractions are the story and characters. Perhaps a little animation, new dialog, new characters, or even a new location. Rewards such as these could be integrated well into the advancement of the plot.
The Right to Freedom from Convoluted Puzzles
Players have the right to be free from puzzles that don't make sense and do not fit the story. Developers must ask themselves, "What fantasy would people want to play out as adventure game characters?" Players do not want to collect endless supplies of keys and try them out on doors in order to proceed through a story. They want to make story-impacted decisions like hijacking a plane, navigating a tomb for treasure, or investigating a murder by interrogating suspects.
This falls hand-in-hand with integrating the puzzles into the story. If you're in an abandoned warehouse, finding keys strewn about in locations throughout a maze of locked doors and corridors is not the way to advance the storyline. It's a lazy way to make the player work in order to escape a location for the sake of escaping.
The Right to Know the Goal
Players have the right to know what their goal or goals are. There are some exceptions to this, but for the most part players don't want to be dropped in a game and left wandering about aimlessly for an hour, trying to figure out what to do now. The objective must be clear; there must be a reasoning behind solving these puzzles and what the player should be trying to achieve. Progress should be related to the ultimate goal. If the game has no goal, then make that clear to the player. You don't have to tell the player exactly what to do, but at least point them in the right direction.
Always have a clue to help players onto the next step; never leave them thinking, "Well, I've done that, now what? Nothing is happening!" Subtly lead the player on to the next puzzle.
The Right to a Streamlined Interface
Players have the right to an interface that serves the needs of the game play primarily. The best interface is usually the one that allows players to complete any simple action with only one or two clicks. While a lot of people prefer multi-verb systems, it is usually best to keep it as simple as possible. An excellent example would be an interface that lets you left-click for one action, and right-click for another, with the actions changing depending on which item, hotspot, or object you're on.
Players tend to not read manuals. If they can't figure out what your GUI does, chances are they'll just quit and delete your game. If your GUI is different from the standard Sierra/Lucas layout, add an in-game tutorial so people can figure it out.
For the more complicated interfaces, there is no excuse for leaving out keyboard support. Press L for look, P for pickup, etc. ESC could be for the control panel, and TAB (which is the same as Ctrl+I) for the inventory. Even better, include multiple keyboard shortcuts — maybe ones that start with the letters, in addition to the numbers 1 through 5> for the different actions.
The Right to Logical Cause and Effect
Players have the right to understand that there was a reason why solving Puzzle X in Room Y changed something in Room Z. Events should make sense. In many adventure games, two events are completely unrelated: the bridge won't get fixed until you give the cheesecake to the horse. Try to avoid this at all costs. Players looking for a way to fix the bridge will have no clue that it'll happen magically if you do something entirely unrelated in a faraway room.
If you have no choice but to have one action trigger another, unrelated event, make sure you explain it away logically. Perhaps the deli is closed, but opens once you give the police officer a donut. The player cannot open the deli forcefully, so he or she is forced to try other things, and then at a seemingly random point, the deli is now open for business. Perhaps it just wasn't opening time as of yet, but by the time you had the lengthy conversation with the police officer after giving him the donut, the deli opened.
The Right to Fairness in Puzzle Occurrences
Players have the right to not be forced into one-time-only puzzles. Avoid making puzzles where you can obtain Item X only the first time you enter Room Y — or where you have only ten seconds to open Door Z before it locks forever. King's Quest V is guilty of this at several points. This is completely unfair; if the player misses some detail he or she should be able to go back to it. If you insist on keeping a timed puzzle, make it occur every time you enter the room, or at the very least, every Nth time you enter it (or you can even randomize it).
The Right to Get Hooked Into the Game
Players have the right to experience something interesting or exciting during the first 5 to 10 minutes of a game that will make them want to continue playing. This can be an exciting plot, great comedy, flashy graphics, or a different type of game play, for example. Whatever makes a game cool — makes it stand out — a player should get to see it in the first 5 to 10 minutes. The Longest Journey has a slow opening, but makes sure that you start off with a playable dream with a dragon and stuff. Otherwise, the first hour of the game would just be April doing her laundry and handing in her homework or other mundane day-to-day events.
The Right to Experience the Back Story Gradually
Players have the right to learn more about the game's back story as they are playing. When they are just starting to play, they are still trying to decide whether they're going to stick with it for more than five minutes. They are not yet committed to the world that has been created for them. Don't bog players down with background information and exposition if it can be done at various points throughout the initial stages of the game, and in small doses.
Players don't care yet. Can you imagine if, when you started Monkey Island, you had a ten-minute conversation with the blind lookout, where he explained the entire history of Governor Marley, LeChuck, and the search for Monkey Island? It would put most players to sleep. Instead, it's Guybrush saying he wants to be a pirate, and being told to visit the Scumm bar. That's your first goal, and also sets the stage for learning gradually about the world around you. You learn about all that other stuff once you're into the game and actually care.
The Right to Know Where the Cursor Should Go
Players have the right to know what point on the cursor will trigger interactions. In several games, even professional ones, I will constantly click on the wrong area with a cursor simply because it wasn't clearly marked where the cursor hotspot was. Several games use custom cursors with clear hotspots, with a tiny crosshair or an arrow. This indicates to the player that pointing the crosshair/arrow over an item or hotspot will trigger the interaction; they won't accidentally click the background (or object) behind their intended target.
The Right to Freedom from Useless Mazes
Players have the right to not be forced into one (or more!) mazes that are there for the sake of challenging the player. There are two kind of mazes:
- Those that have a game play application outside of being a maze. The forest in Quest For Glory I is a good example (the player can be attacked in between locations) as is the castle in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (where the complex castle layout makes it possible to find alternate paths to avoid guard patrols).
- Those that are only there to be explored, kill the player, and add game length.
Examples of the latter include the cave in Legend of Kyrandia and the various mazes of Zak Mckracken. King's Quest V had the enormous desert where you could die of thirst and encounter infinitely looping rooms off the "edges". These don't have their place in adventure games. Find an alternate way to challenge the player without being unfair and ridiculously complicated.
The Right to Fair (or Skippable) Arcade Sequences
Players have the right to encounter arcade sequences that require intelligence, or can be skipped. Arcade sequences are okay, but a lot of people just don't like them. In a good adventure game, they should reward those who use their brain rather than their reflexes. A puzzle or two could be added, which — once solved — allow the players to bypass a sequence, or give them an edge or a bonus during the sequence that isn't given to players who simply headed straight to the arcade sequence.
Arcade sequences can also be puzzles in disguise, like the bike fighting sequence of Full Throttle, which featured a subtle rock/paper/scissors mechanic. If none of this is done, then the option to skip the arcade sequences should be included. Alternatively, losing in an arcade sequence could also result with a different outcome other than death; for example losing a fight might result in the player being thrown into a prison cell rather than dying. One last note: Never put an arcade sequence in the final chapter of a game — never.
The Right to Freedom from Reading Enormous Amounts of Text
Players have the right to not be forced into reading long and large amounts of entries in old diaries, journals, and letters to help tell the story. If they are necessary, be sure to keep them short and sweet. Players often find themselves skipping the text if it is more than about two pages long. Beyond that most players get bored, even if the story is good. The days of text adventures are pretty much over; they are called "graphic adventures" for a reason. If players want to read they'll turn off the computer and find a good novel.
If you insist on having such text, at least make it relevant to the game play, as well as to the story. It could contain important clues, instructions, or a riddle to help you solve the current puzzle.
The Right to Freedom from Convoluted and Cumbersome Interfaces
Players have the right to interfaces that, while innovative, aren't clumsy and confusing as a result. If you're making a unique interface, make sure it doesn't take an entire minute to animate before it is available for interaction. If you're adding in a unique feature, make sure it has a purpose and is useful.
Say you have a nice little Ouija board interface for the control panel. Make sure only the important letters are highlighted, larger, or stand out in some way. Make sure that if you animate it, it doesn't take forever to do so.
The Right to Be Treated Like an Intelligent Human Being
Players have the right to not be treated like an idiot. There are games where you pick up an item and the character says something like, "Oh, there's a key here. Maybe I can use it on that locked door in the engine room!"
Players are usually intelligent; otherwise they would be playing other games that don't require as much thought and deduction as adventure games. Surely, if the player has already come across a locked door previously, he or she can deduce that the key will probably work on that door. The first thing they will do is test it. Players don't need to be told outright what an item is for; that's the point of playing adventure games — figuring out what is used where and how.
The Right to Solve Puzzles Using In-Game or Common Knowledge
Players have the right to puzzles that can be solved using common knowledge that isn't specialized to a particular area of study. Otherwise, such information should be provided by the game. At no point should a player be forced to look up some obscure piece of information on the Internet. It's okay to rely on common sense or everyday knowledge (mixing colors, for example).
The Right to Undo Death
Players have the right to go back to the exact moment before the event that caused their death. Back in the old days of adventure gaming, the player could die at any moment if he or she weren't careful. Some games even punished the player for not saving frequently with random events.
Death is rare in today's adventure games but can still be fun (think all the 'Quest games). If you allow it, include an undo or restart feature that brings the player to the point before death. Players are spoiled by modern day adventure games that don't even allow death, and do not save for hours.
Feel free to add to this article, and edit things as you see fit.