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Five simple things for which all handheld games should strive.

Though i am handheld is primarily concerned with providing reviews of hardware and software on a variety of handheld systems, on occasion it’s useful to discuss what in general makes a quality handheld game. Some older systems were not capable of having some features discussed here and are somewhat exempt due to age. The question of age also tends to dictate the expectations of game design. What was acceptable design ten years ago may not be considered good design today. Additionally, in order to have a useful discussion of game design in general terms, a certain familiarity with the systems discussed is needed. To that end, I will attempt to limit my discussion to current generation systems and games.

This week I’ll focus on five simple elements that can make or break a game. These are very general and most of them can be applied across the board to the majority of games and systems that are on the market today.

Short Bursts of Game-play:

Short bursts of game-play are desirable for a very simple reason: handheld games are often played when a person only has a few minutes to play. Not all handheld games have to follow the rule of short bursts of game-play. However, unless there is a compelling reason not to have short play sessions, as a rule, handheld games should strive for this. Games that simply and seamlessly enforce short play sessions are fairly common, but some do it better than others. There are several ways to accomplish enforced short bursts. One of the most direct tactics is to have games that have levels with a specific duration such as the music game Elite Beat Agents on the Nintendo DS. Since all levels are put to music, the length of a single level in Elite Beat Agents is generally going to be close to 3 minutes, the length of a typical pop song. Slightly less effective are timed or stage based games that encourage fast completion such as any of the Sonic games. An interesting subset of handheld games are the micro game-play games that have short stages and encourage quick play such as Wario Ware on the DS and WTF on PSP. It is not impossible to create a short burst styled game that has great depth and a non rushed feel, such as Picross, but some game styles simply cannot fit into the quick play mode. Games such as Syphon Filter, while stage based, encourage the player to work their way slowly thru levels. Most RPGs are by their nature time-sinks and often encourage extended play sessions. For these type of games design concessions do not need to be made if the developers offer a quicksave feature.

Quicksave:

There is nothing worse then the lack of a quick-save feature on a handheld game that is not designed with short play sessions in mind. As mentioned before, handheld gaming is theoretically going to happen on the bus or in the car during the few minutes of downtime people frequently encounter. Often I find that my DS has run out of batteries after a day in sleep mode or I’ve wanted to watch a video on my PSP but realized I had left it in hold mode. Lack of some type of quick-save is nearly inexcusable on a handheld. There are several quick save options available to designers and at least one of the options should be included in every handheld game. The first and simplest, from a player perspective, is a save anywhere quick save option. Put simply the player can press “pause” at any point in time, save, and at a later point in time, power their system back on and begin at the exact point at which they saved. With some game designs this can create undesired consequences allowing players to retry tricky parts of the game with no punishment. This can effect enjoyability, challenge, and, in some cases, replayablity. The classic Super Mario Brothers 3 ran into this problem when it was ported onto the GBA. In the original the player could only save at specified points such as after finishing a castle. If they used all their lives before the next save point they would get a game over screen and could continue at the last save point. In order to preserve the old school game play Super Mario Brothers 3 used a slightly more complex type of quick save option. Super Mario Brothers 3 has a regular save at the specified points from the console original and a true quick save at any other point. The player is allowed to save and quit their game at any time, but they may load their quick save only one time, which prevents the player from being reloading their save from any point.

Considerably less acceptable is an automatic stage or checkpoint based quick save that happens automatically after completing a stage. It can be as simple as when the player finishes a stage or whenever a player completes an objective. A particularly good model for this type saving are any of Valve’s console games such as Half Life or Portal which automatically save whenever the player makes significant forward progress. This type of saving assures a player that they can turn off their handheld and not lose any significant progress. Auto saving this way can be fairly discreet and have minimal game impact but will often not save frequently enough for the very short session that can be typical on a portable system.

Design for the system:

Designing a game for a specific system may seem fairly obvious, but my experience is that this is not always the case. This is primarily an issue in the case of games that have the primary sku on a more powerful system or a system with differing control options. In many instances games get ported to handhelds without adequate concessions being made for the system. Games such as Call of Duty DS or Metal of Honor on PSP are somewhat decent despite the system they are on. The PSP does not have a second analog control stick and yet fairly straight ports of Playstation 2 first-person shooters are fairly common. The DS suffers from being one of the less powerful systems to frequently receive ports of high profile console games it cannot do justice. Racing games such as Burnout Legends that require very fast 3D processing simply do not work on the DS. Very realistic games such as Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Chaos Theory look so low poly and poorly textured as to look simply awful. The DS can do 3D quite decently as has been shown by Mario 64 DS, but this is because the models and environments are cartoony and can therefore look good with a lower poly count and very simple textures.

The second part of designing for the system is aimed squarely at the Nintendo DS. The DS has the touch screen which offers unique gaming opportunities. Fantastic first-party games such as Metroid Prime Hunters and Legend of Zelda on the DS manage to use the touch screen excellently as the primary user interface. Using the touch screen in similar ways as a mouse is used on PC games can create very intuitive gaming experiences. This model is useful however it does not take into account the tactile experience of stylus based play. The iPhone holds the potential to change the way that user interfaces in gaming are thought about in an even more dynamic way. We have not seen the effects of the iPhone yet however the fact that the only user interface is the touch screen means that the game designers will be forced to make very conscious decisions about how a game is controlled.

Portable games can be fantastic when games are designed with the limitations and possibilities of the system in mind.

Leave the gimmicks:

The flip side of the touch screen is the fact that many games include unnecessary and flow breaking touch screen sections. Switching between traditional plus pad and stylus control always breaks game flow. There is no convenient way to hold a stylus and use a traditional control scheme comfortably. The only thing I dislike more than unnecessary stylus controlled portions thrown into games is the rarer random microphone sections. Portable games are in general played in public and I in general refuse to play games with microphone support.

Design Big:

Handheld games often suffer from tepid design or are shovel-ware. Others are quite often so small and stripped down as to feel insubstantial. Games such as Grand Theft Auto Vice City Stories, God of War, and Daxter show that full, complex, big, and compelling games can be brought to handheld systems. Games such as Final Fantasy IV, and Advance War: Days of Ruin have proven that even the less powerful DS can play host to some deep and compelling game-play and storylines. Final Fantasy Tactics A1 is an excellent game with some terrible writing and a throw away plot. It feels as though, if it had been designed on a home console, the story would have been dealt with a bit more thoughtfully. This is quite the opposite with the somewhat similar Jeanne d’Arc. Jeanne d’Arc has a similar quality of game-play but has an epic plot that makes the entire experience bigger. In many cases it is little things such as writing or music that seem to be overlooked. Games need not be epic in order to be designed big. Even simple games can have big design. Space Invaders Extreme, Loco Roco, and Tetris DS are excellent examples. They are all very simple games at their core but are given a full, big presentation with thoughtful game-play and attention to detail. Just because a game is handheld it can be complex, thoughtful, beautiful, exciting, or innovative. In some ways big design can be equated with a game having a unique and clear vision.

None of these five things will alone result in a good game. However, many games that have these shared elements are highly playable and stand out as excellent games. I would venture to guess that even games that nail all five elements can still end up bad games. Ultimately what matters is whether the game is fun.

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