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February 5, 2023

Variety and player preferences

Variety and player preferences
Variety and player preferences

In this post I want to examine why some players dislike atypical sections in games – for example no-build missions in RTS, or stealth sections in various genres – explore this fairly common issue and suggest a few solutions that could help with reducing those negative feelings.

Why is it happening?

I see it as a conflict between player preferences for certain gameplay, and a game trying to provide a variety of experiences. Let's go step by step.

  1. A game usually has a playerbase that enjoys the core gameplay. Most players like it because otherwise they would go play something else. They bought into the game and expect a certain experience that its gameplay provides.
  2. To keep the game interesting and non-monotonous, game designers increase variety in the game through various means.
  3. If these changes significantly alter the core gameplay, it will alienate a certain part of the playerbase.
    • Since some players enjoy the game primarily because of its core gameplay, they will dislike if the gameplay is changed, and they have to play something they didn't ask for.
    • This will not alienate all players. Some players might enjoy the new gameplay well enough or even more. The increased variety is well worth it for those players.
    • My focus here is primarily on gameplay. If a player is mostly interested in the story, they might not mind changes to the gameplay at all. However, a significant change in the direction of the story can alienate players just as well. You could see the discussion surrounding The Last of Us Part II through this lens. This topic could be generalized to any type of experience players seek but I will focus solely on gameplay here.
★ ★ ★

Let's look at some examples of game sections that have altered the core gameplay and might be disliked because of that.

Stealth and puzzle sections

Especially in action games, the difference between the core gameplay and the gameplay of stealth and puzzle sections is stark. This change is very noticeable as the core game might be about creating mayhem and killing enemies, and suddenly the player could be forced into a section that plays completely differently.

On the one hand, a change of pace and exploring new gameplay inside the setting of the game is nice. The game can also use this to focus on exploring and teaching new mechanics which could be hard during normal gameplay. On the other hand, as pointed before, a certain portion of players will dislike a change in the core gameplay, especially if they are forced to play these sections.

The difficulty is another issue. If there is no difficulty to puzzles, they might feel hollow and as a padding. If they are difficult, they can very quickly become frustrating players and any benefit to pacing will be lost. The difficulty of these sections is subjective and mostly unrelated to the perceived difficulty of the core gameplay, which leads to more unpredictable player experience with them. Games are starting to add separate difficulty sliders for puzzle segments but there is still a good chance that the first time you encounter these sections, they will either feel too easy or too hard.

Few easy and shallow segments can be usually ignored, but too difficult segments are more problematic. Challenging obstacles can be a great for creating memorable experiences. However, challenging a player with something they didn't want to engage with in the first place is one of the best ways to make them quit. This looks terrible during playtesting, and so puzzle sections are often tuned to be very simple, or games holding your hand too much.

Why do God of War's Characters Keep Spoiling Puzzles? (Game Maker's Toolkit)

I will go over things that can help later but as Mark Brown mentioned in the video above, having options can help greatly. Developers at Gearbox Software acknowledged this issue and added this unorthodox way to solve a puzzle in what's a typical looter-shooter action FPS game (short clip below).

Ancient Dwarven Puzzle (Borderlands: Tiny Tina Wonderlands)

No-build missions

These missions in RTS games typically lack resource management, base-building and unit production. These are core features of the RTS genre, and so micro missions could be considered RTT (real-time tactics) genre instead – but that's just semantics. The important point is these missions change the core gameplay significantly. If you are missing genre-defining features, some players will not be happy.

There are many similarities between no-build missions and stealth and puzzle sections in action games. The main gameplay is more action-oriented while the altered gameplay is more puzzle-like. Plus many no-build and stealth sections are essentially puzzles except with more reloading.

No-build mission in Red Alert Remastered

There are of course upsides to having these missions in RTS campaigns. They add variety and change the pace. You can tell a different story and fantasy through them. You can teach and explore different mechanics without the time pressure and other distractions. It's just not something that all RTS players will enjoy.

I'm currently playing the challenge mode in Red Alert 3 Uprising, and surprisingly I'm enjoying it more than its more polished campaigns. It manages to show off different mechanics and scenarios while still playing like an RTS and giving the player a lot of freedom. That's in contrast to no-build sections in Red Alert 3's campaigns which often feel to me tedious and restrictive. Similarly, Forged Battalions is a very flawed game but its campaign feels like an RTS from the start, and I enjoyed it because of this. Contrast it with a game like Iron Harvest that has a much better campaign, but it might take you several hours before you build the first unit or structure.

Sidenote: Quality

While there is a tension between player preferences and increasing gameplay variety, in practice quality of those added sections often plays a significant role as well. I don't want to dwell on this too much since the solution is clear – make those sections better. However, a player might still ask themselves: "If there are plenty of awesome puzzle games I could be playing, why am I stuck on this badly designed puzzle when all I want to do is to kill demons?"

On the one side, a puzzle or two could leverage the game's unique mechanics and fantasy, and thus make them more interesting and unique than what you would find in other puzzle games. On the other side, often these sections are added because they are "supposed" to be there – without a great idea for them, supporting mechanics, and developers specializing in this type of gameplay.

More often than not, the quality is not there when compared to games focusing on that type of gameplay exclusively. You will get complaints like this or this about Mary-Jane's stealth sections in Spider-Man, and they are in stark contrast to Spider-Man's otherwise acclaimed gameplay.

It's interesting that in Far Cry games I remember hating forced stealth sections while enjoying playing stealthily when I didn't need to. It may be that with self-imposed rules or in a game like Hitman, there is more room for improvisation, while often in stealth segments being spotted is an instant game over – they are more restrictive.

In RTS games, I've enjoyed no-build missions in both StarCraft II and Warcraft III, while their C&C and Age of Empire counterparts always felt to me somewhere around meh, boring and frustrating. For Age of Empires, this is understandable, it's primarily a macro-focused game, which means removing the whole macro part hurts it the most. But C&C games are action-oriented and no-build missions have often good ideas to them. It could be a quality issue as well as their higher frequency. In the section with solutions, I'll list a few more reasons that put StarCraft II and Warcraft III no-build missions ahead.

Fighting alongside Raynor units with Tosh is great (StarCraft II)

4x layer

The meta-layer in RTS campaigns is typically not problematic as it's often neither challenging nor takes a lot of your time. It provides time to slow down and think about previous and future missions – no issues there.

However, it's an altered gameplay and there is a potential for it to be problematic. The developers of Company of Heroes 3 mentioned they needed to tweak this layer because it was becoming too tedious after adding too many additional units and mechanics to it.

Main map in Company of Heroes 3 (pre-alpha)

Games like X-COM also combine two layers (strategic and tactical). However, in this case both layers are essentially turned-based strategies and so the core gameplay is similar.

Cheese, all-ins, and Super-lategame

I touched on cheese and all-ins in my post about gameplay variety, however, it's interesting to look at it from this angle as well. At first glance, the gameplay and playerbase of competitive StarCraft II 1v1 might seem monolithic but that's not true. Different players enjoy different parts of the game, and they coexist on ladder. Certain players prefer cheese and all-in games, some like "standard" games, and others enjoy very long games. Players can of course enjoy more of these styles too. Having this kind of gameplay variety is awesome, but tension and frustration will arise when players are too often forced into gameplay they do not enjoy (e.g., cannon rushes, turtly Skytoss games, Swarm Host and mass Raven games in Heart of the Swarm).

Massing Ravens in StarCraft II

Issues with prolonged games arise when a faction can force these games and also gain an advantage from doing so (by having a stronger lategame). Early cheeses and all-ins are disliked by even more players as their gameplay is arguably even more different from the standard play, and it's easier to force opponents into such games.

It doesn't matter whether the existence of strategies is good for the overall metagame, some players will always dislike being forced into gameplay they do not enjoy. And it's not a skill issue either, even if a player is good at defending cheese and all-ins, they still might think all those games are a waste of their time.

I think for developers it mostly comes to this: "We want to have a diverse set of strategies viable, the question is then how different gameplay can be forced on players and how often? How do these players coexist?".

What can help

The tension between gameplay variety and player preferences is inevitable but there are things that can reduce it. Some might be more or less applicable depending on the genre and the game.

  1. Add variety without affecting the core gameplay.
  2. Decide on the range of gameplay styles that the game will support. More is not always better. There are very few games that combine very different gameplay styles – it's not surprising that chess boxing is less popular than both chess and boxing.
Chess boxing combines two very different types of gameplay
  1. Know your audience. Even a competitive 1v1 playerbase is not homogeneous and has different preferences. Be aware of what each type of players wants and the tensions between these wants.
  2. Manage player expectations – for example show all types of gameplay in promotion materials or when teaching the game. Also, ideally there wouldn't be a huge gap between the actual gameplay and what players see on streams. If a player sees a tournament with mostly "standard" games, decides to try ladder, and encounters only cheeses and all-ins, they probably won't be happy.
  3. Make sure there is a good ratio between different gameplay styles. You don't want most missions to lack base-building if the game is marketed as an RTS. Similarly, the prevalence of all-ins or too much focus on macro mechanics in lower leagues is problematic.
  4. In atypical segments in campaigns, add rewards that are useful in the standard parts of the game. For example, in WC3 you gain items and XP for your hero and those carry over to future missions. This way no-build missions wouldn't feel like a waste of time even if you didn't enjoy them.
  5. Watch out for how challenging and long these sections are – it should be just enough to change the pace and show something different. Too much difficulty can quickly become frustrating.
  6. Add options. Maybe you can disable hand-holding for puzzles, perhaps you can simply smash the puzzle. You could have only short and easy stealth segments that are required, and longer and more challenging ones for side quests or achievements.
  7. Combine different segments in one RTS campaign mission – for example start with no-build section that leads into standard gameplay. This ensures the no-build segment is short and is meaningful for the standard gameplay even without rewards affecting future missions.
  8. Try not to force players and encourage them instead. This also affects the design of daily quests or battle passes – you could require players to play a certain mode, and this would make sure players try it and have varied experiences. However, if players already tried those modes and know they do not enjoy them, they will get frustrated if they have to play them. It might be better to give a bonus for engaging with a wider variety of things the game provides.

Sum up

There is tension between players preferring a certain type of gameplay and games increasing gameplay variety.  These variety segments are a pain point for some players and can lead to frustration. Developers can reduce the negative impact if they understand these issues and their playerbase.

Difficulty and quality are two other secondary issues when it comes to adding these non-standard segments. However, while they are common, they are more on the technical side and less fundamental.

It's interesting to look at games from this angle. Thank you for reading this. I haven't been writing a lot last year, I'm now working as a game designer, and that for mostly satisfies my itch to write about game design. I'm happy to at least finish this post.

Appendix: Honers vs Innovators

I have sorted players in competitive SC2 1v1 playerbase based on whether they enjoy all-ins, standard or late-game. But we could also divide them between honers and innovators. As before, these are not mutually exclusive, you can enjoy both parts of the game. However, a player is typically one of these types more than the other. And there is a tension between preferences of these two player types.

An innovator is a player that primarily enjoys coming up with new strategies. They like the chaos of a new game or big game-changing updates. When the metagame stabilizes, these players will start to lose interest. Honers enjoy gradual improvements and polishing their gameplay. This player is comfortable playing on the same build for a long time and perfecting it.

Innovators typically perform better in the competitive setting after the game is released or after big updates. Later they are outperformed by honers who have more patience with perfecting "standard" strategies. Professional games are typically honers. But even professional players enjoy coming up with new strategies, and they see that big game updates make streams and tournaments more popular.

 The Two Types of Gamers (Honers vs. Innovators) (Core-A Gaming)

For game developers, it's good to understand this divide in playerbase, decide for whom the game is, how they will support them, and communicate that to players. You could aggressively change the metagame with frequent and impactful updates. Or make periodic less frequent updates that shake up the metagame, let innovators know they should come back for those, and let honers do their thing between updates. Different game modes could also have a different update strategy, for example 1v1 being more stable for honers while 3v3 receiving more frequent meta-changing updates.

Appendix: Gwent

Gwent is a card game that was originally introduced in Witcher 3 and then became its own separate game. It's a nice example of how variety can be added to the game. It's not forced on players, and instead players are encouraged to engage with it by receiving cards in loot, in-game characters offering to play with them, and players gaining rewards from these matches.


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