During lunch two weeks ago with a couple of local developers from GraphSim, we started talking about the greatness of older games -- inevitable with 30-something gamers! -- and the mid-1980's game Rogue came up as an example as one of the greatest PC games from a pure gameplay standpoint. Anyone who's played this game will have a tough time arguing against the pure addictiveness of this colorful little ASCII-graphics game, originally released by long gone Epyx (best know for another of my all-time favorites, Jumpman, plus several Olympic sports games). I have a special fondness for this game as it inspired my first real success, Kingdom of Kroz, the game that officially launched Apogee from a profitable hobby into a full-time business in 1990.
While Kingdom of Kroz and its six follow-up episodes owe a lot to Rogue's design, there's one thing important thing I didn't copy: You can finish Kroz based entirely on skill.
With Rogue, you couldn't do this. You might be the best Rogue player on the planet, and yet getting through all 26 of the game's dungeon levels was still a matter of luck, with a fail-to-success ratio something around 20-to-1. Rogue created a random set of levels each time you played that simply had too many booby traps and out-of-whack difficult situations. The designer must have thought that failure was part of the fun, and retrying over and over again made that rare success so much more sweet.
So, while I loved the Rogue's gameplay, I hated the luck-based nature of it. Finishing a game was a fluke, even for exceptional skilled players. Thus, it was this game in the mid-80's that taught me a valuable principle in game design, one that I call The God Concept.
In short, the God Concept means that a god-like player should be able to play through and finish any game, on the first try, without dying.
With Rogue, a god-like player, with unmatched ability in all the skills required to play the game, could not guarantee victory when he or she played. The game simply had too many random and unfair elements outside the player's control. All games should give the player a fair chance to win, based on the player's ability.
In my Kroz games I used the God Concept as a design principle, and made sure that a skilled player always had the means and knowledge to finish the game even though much of Kroz was randomized. The key is that Kroz was never so random as to be unfair and unfinishable.
Another important aspect of the God Concept is that, in theory, a careful player, well skilled within the genre, should be able to finish a game on the first time without dying. This may be hard, but it shouldn't be impossible. The idea is that the player should never be forced to die in order to learn something important about the game, such a how to solve a puzzle or avoid the trap that just killed him. A cautious, careful, skilled player should always be able to avoid death. Death should never be a requirement in learning how to get past a hazard, or learning how to solve a puzzle.
Though this seems like a rather obvious design principle, not all designers believe in the God Concept. In Noah Falstein's "Better by Design" column in the June 2003 issue of Game Developer magazine, a case is made by designer long-time designer Mark Cerny (Marble Madness, Spyro the Dragon, many more) that the player should be killed randomly every once in a while, let's say by breaking open a rare, unmarked crate full of explosives. The idea is that the player should be kept on their toes and not automatically thinks that breaking open crates is always a safe, robotic, and kinda monotonous thing to do. While I agree with the goal of this idea, I cannot agree that randomly killing the player is a fair solution. Ever.
I don't see the God Concept being violated too much nowadays, but the story used to be different. Especially with adventure games, where surprise deaths were common, and only after dying would the player know that a particular path or action was instant death.
I'm sure there must be current games that violate this concept, perhaps others can point them out...