Today is Throwback Thursday and, like every Throwback Thursday from now on, it's Retrogaming Lesson day, because we must understand our past to better understand our future. Now I'm not saying that Retrogames are perfect, in fact, there are also tons of lessons that we can learn from past mistakes.
This is the first of a series of posts in which I'll be analyzing the lessons learned about First Time User Experience through level desgin in Megaman's levels. I have played almost every Megaman there is to play. They have a something, it's like a hook, a magnet. I love how difficult they are, I love how they make me feel, and I love it when I succeed in any task the game throws in my path.
It was only logical to start the Retrogaming lessons with good old Megaman and guess what: Megaman doesn't think you're stupid. Megaman challenges you every step of the way.
I believe that one of the problems of today's games are how they underestimate the player's brains and abilities. Think about it, any of those games feels the incoherent but very real need to tell you everything, and I mean everything. If they want you to press A to jump, they'll tell you at least the first 5 times, with pop ups, voice overs, images, diagrams, or, even worse, all of them.
It is also true that the gaming community has drastically grown to involve less experienced players, and that not all game are arcade platformers now a days, and each category has its own standards. So this should be taken with a grain of salt, but still, I believe that there is much to learn in the way the level teaches the user through the complete Megamanic experience.
What Cut-Man has to teach
This is an image of the Cut-Man level in Megaman. I will be analyzing this level exclusively through First Time User Experience, let's see how the steps, ladders, bumps and even enemies are teaching the player how to play.
When Megaman spawns the player can't advance any further if he doesn't, at least, climb the ladder on his left. This means that the player needs to:
- Move Left
- Fall off the platform that he's standing on
- Move Up
These 3 simple actions are not casual, Megaman is trapped in there for a reason, Cut-Man is teaching the player how to move without actually saying it, it is instinct that tells the player that he should use the D-Pad for simple movement (this includes climbing ladders) and he learns it in the first second of gameplay or so, and it's internally rewarding and gratifying because there is a small sense of discovery and self accomplishment attached to all this.
In his book Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences, Sylvester Tynan depicts games as sparks of sensations in players, he says that each game will cause emotion if it changes a human value in the player. A human value is a condition that can change between states, and for it to be significant it has to mean something to the player. There is a brief talk about human values in my article: Distilling Game Design, you can check it for further enlightment, although I really recommend reading Sylvester Tynan's book. The human values that constantly shift through this stage are the ones related to learning instructions and abilities. The player goes from ignorance to knowledge to ignorance again, and from unskilled to skilled to unskilled again. Taking a closer look:
The player is both unskilled and ignorant when Megaman spawns in the level, as soon as he moves left, Megaman falls of the patform, here both values have shifted to knowledge and skilled again, only to go back to ignorance and unskilled when Megaman faces the ladder again. This process happens with every game we play, the thing is, that some games just ruin the discovery and surprise factor attached to it, it is not the same discovering a combo for a fighting game and doing it, than doing it because you've read it somewhere. The first one is much more challenging, thus much more rewarding.
There is one additional thing that these few seconds of gameplay have to teach Mr. Player: Megaman won't be hurt when he falls (at least from such a short distance, and the player can deduct that it applies to all heights), this is obvious right? Wrong!
The players are not only players, they are humans who live in this world, and are ruled by the laws of physics, every game has to teach the player that it has its own very own, special rules of physics, and this may seem intuitive now, but back when Megaman was published in 1987, many of the players who played it were new to gaming.
Once the player climbs the ladder he is faced with a step, this is not a coincidence, the 3 basic mechanics in megaman are: moving, jumping and shooting, and in the first 2 seconds of gameplay the level is taking care of teaching the player all of these.
When the player finds out how to jump, it will not be enough, because in order to overcome such a tedious obstacle, he needs to jump and move to the right mid-jump, this is easy enough for almost every human brain and the player should have no trouble overcoming it.
After the player has jumped and if he waits long enough, some Blader will come along ready to kill and the player will have to shoot them, thus learning to shoot, if he doesn't wait long enough, they will appear in the next second of gameplay so he will have to learn this anyways.
Look at everything that Cut-Man has taught us so far, and we're under 5 seconds of gameplay for sure. All of the above is learnt by the player without him even knowing that he is learning it. By Megaman dying once and once again the player is learning how to overcome one specific obstacle or enemy, without the need of an interrumptive tutorial.
The player feels that sense of self accomplishment when he beats this level not only because it is hard, but because deep down he understands that he had to learn all of this to overcome it.
The player also learns about enemies behaviours by observing, for instance a flying shell, which will hide for an instant, and get out of hiding to shoot at the next moment. The first flying shell will appear above a platform, which means that the player will be at a lower level, unharmed, watching the enmy behaviour, inmediately understanding a pattern and getting ready to solve it.
Pattern is also a very important word in this kind of games, every enemy must behave in the same way so that whatever the player learns when encoutering the first enemy can be applied when encountering the second, third, forth and so on enemies of the same type. Imaging how difficult math class would have been in 2+2 always had a different result!
The game is also forgiving when introducing hazards, when the player is facing the first pitch it is very easy to guess that what may happen to Megaman if he falls is no good, this is because the pitch has no floor and this physic law is very similar to our real world's law: if you see no floor, that's no good!
Even more, Megaman doesn't even need to jump to get over this first pitch, all he has to do is keep walking, the level is designed so that the platform on the left side of the pitch is tall enough to make the player fall to safety if he just keeps walking to the right. What a brilliant and simple way to introduce hazards!
Next #TBT we will continue taking a look at Megaman's First Time User Experience through level design. We have a few more examples to look at with some new mechanics. In our next Megaman's #TBT editions we will also analyze enemy designs and boss design.