Saturday, February 2

By Force or Design?

I got a call from my brother the other day. He said he'd recently spent alot of time playing the Burnout Paradise demo. He said, "Finn, did you know you can't restart races." I replied that I was aware of the fact. For those who don't know, Burnout Paradise is a free-roaming driving game by Criterion. Players can drive anywhere in paradise city and do as they please. The racing structure is found at intersections, where players can initiate various racing events. Speaking on the phone with my brother, he explained that once you begin a race, you can only restart it by returning to the starting-line intersection. It should also be pointed out that players are not locked into any event that they begin. If players see something that interests them while racing, they are free to just drive away from the event and consequently drop-out, albeit willingly.

My brother took issue with this, what he called, "restriction." He asked me, "Is it ok for a game to force you to do something? Is it right to force players to play a certain way." He had a valid point. Burnout Paradise has a very specific and intentional design. Every aspect (or not) of the game is intended to support the overall open-world design. Criterion really wants players to play Burnout Paradise in a certain way. But I mean this is a good way; I think the notion is admirable, in fact. You see, Burnout Paradise is not a traditional racing game, its a sandbox game. What Criterion is really doing is asking players to let go of their expectations. You are not playing Need for Speed, you're not playing Project Gotham, you're not even playing Burnout, at least not in its earlier incarnations. Burnout Paradise is a beast all to its own. Criterion is asking players to accept a new type of game before even picking up the controller. They're asking you to dash your expectations for what a racing game is and play Burnout Paradise for what itself offers.Now, this sandbox type game has actually been done before, in a few ways. Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Midnight Club, and what I think most closely resembles Pardise, Rush 2. But Burnout Paradise arrives with a new generation of consoles and gamers, and more importantly, it really is different from all of the above.

The non-restart system is indicative of the entire game's design. Burnout Paradise has non-linear gameplay. The races themselves are mostly non-linear and the open-world is certainly non-linear. However, by not allowing players to restart a race, Criterion is literally forcing players to play a certain way. Now here is the real quesion: Is it ok to force players to do something just because you want them to play a certain way? Is it ok to restrict their playstyle?
I would argue, yes. This is what we do as game designers. We request players to assume specific playstyles all the time. You want to restart the race? Too fricken' bad. Adapt. Criterion is asking alot of players, and at the same time, they're really not asking much. Burnout Paradise wants you to have an open-mind. If you approach the game with certain expectations, like being able to restart, you will inevitably dislike the game. This is what my brother told me, "It is impossible to enjoy Burnout Paradise immediately, you have to play for at least three hours to finally realize the game's fun."

Ah! There it is! Criterion is saying "We want you to have fun. Trust us. Just give us a couple of hours and you will learn how to have fun within our world." So, is it right to force players to play a certain way? Heck yes. You need to have confidence in the fun in your game. You also need to ease them into your new playstyle, but thats a different matter altogether. Burnout Paradise is all about having fun in the moment. Fun is all around you, just explore a bit and you will find it. You won't be so disappointed about losing a race and not being able to restart because their is more fun to be had right in front of your eyes. In a way the game is even catering to our ADD generation.A final question: Would Burnout Paradise be more fun if it allowed you to restart races? Would the option detract from overall design? I think it would. I can gurantee that if players had the option to restart a race, 99% of the time they would. And then what? And then the game wouldn't be what it is. It would lose its open-world effect, and devolve into something more like a hub-world for a bunch of races. And thats no fun.

Burnout Paradise is innovative. In writing this rather rantesque article, I've come up with a definition of innovative game design. Innovative is asking players to let go of their expectations for what a game is. Innovative is breaking lose from the status-quo to becoming something different, something more than just convention. Innovative is saying, "We're not going to let things like genres decide what our game is going to be. We're not going to give in to give in to a predetermined definition of fun. We know what fun is. We're going to make that fun and give the players something they don't even know they want yet. That is innovative."

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