Fair warning: the dev’s guide

Sometimes a game relies on the element of surprise to keep players on their toes and generate tense or action-filled moments. Horror titles do this a lot — sometimes a monster will leap out of the closet, or your in-game avatar will be shocked to find that dinner is actually a bowl of cabbage soup instead of a candy bar fountain. Some surprises don’t go for the scare element, but nevertheless require a quick reaction to sudden events: for example, conversation threads in Fahrenheit, or the end-of-stage block changes in Lode Runner.

There is, however, a certain hard limit to how surprised a player is allowed to be. Shock them in a safe environment, sure. Maybe even throw in some danger as long as it’s not immediately lethal. But for the love of gooballs and meat men, don’t ever go down the dark path of complete unfairness. Avoid dickery: give your players reasonable warnings.

Good games, old and new, know when to “telegraph” the right messages to players in advance. In classic platformers, bosses blink or shift posture before unleashing an attack. In Shadow Complex, power armoured opponents laboriously lift their arms before unleashing a killer strike. No matter how subtle these warnings may be, players take note of them and use them to do something before they get sliced/squished/punched to death. Like important clues in a detective game, advanced warnings of any sort — even if they’re just half a second in length — make the difference between a fun, challenging experience and a purely frustrating one. Being proactive is a good trait, but in the world of gamers, skilled reaction can be just as important.

For example, consider the two different gaming experiences offered by these Super Mario Bros. screenshots:



You’ll probably notice right away that simply having access to the full screen offers players a vast array of warning information not provided by the subsection. Leaps of faith aren’t required — platforms can actually be seen before a jump attempt is made, and the presence of enemies is noted long before the player can make actual contact with them. Even “surprise” elements such as cannon balls or Bowser’s fiery projectiles still offer a critical second or two of “Hey look, I’m over here!” before they actually meet the player.

Would you be able to play through the adventures of everybody’s favourite plumber if you only ever had access to Screen B? And even if you could, would you really want to?

Giving players suitable warning space is an oft-overlooked and rather subtle feature in game development. This is hardly surprising: it’s just one of those game elements which goes completely unnoticed when done properly, but ruins everything when it’s screwed up. If you put surprise or shock elements into games — particularly action titles — always ask yourself two questions:

(1) Could the player have reasonably predicted this behaviour or event?
(2) If not, does the player at least stand a reasonable chance of survival?

Consider these questions carefully: answering them honestly may just make the difference between a crappy and frustrating game, and a totally rad one. Nobody likes leaping off-screen only to be instantly chowed by a giant walnut — don’t make the same mistake in your own work. Give your players the break they deserve.