Monday, 22 September 2014

Walkthroughs versus Let's Play versus What I Really Want

A long time ago I purchased a copy of Settlers 6 by Ubisoft to run under my old XP system. It's a real-time strategy game, with city-building and only a little combat (in most scenarios), so it easily fits into the category of game I usually enjoy (which I wrote about back in April last year). I ran through the first nine scenarios OK, but ran into a lot of trouble on the tenth, Juahar.  I stopped playing the game out of frustration and shifted back to others like Pharaoh/Cleopatra that I liked better.

When I recently updated to a new machine with Windows 8, I installed it again but decided I'd consult a walkthrough to avoid the kinds of frustrations I ran into the first time around. This led me to think about what kind of advice I really wanted. Basically, the walkthrough, though excellent, often gave me too much information for optimal enjoyment. Don't get me wrong -- the walkthrough was well written, and I'm delighted to have had it to look at. It turned the scenario from something frustrating to something enjoyable. But I'd have enjoyed the game more if I knew a little less.

The key trick in Juhar was that you needed to promote your knight to a high enough title that s/he can create catapults, which are the only way to destroy the trebuchets. Just attacking them with your troops doesn't work. You get told you need a catapult if you get far enough in the quests, but you find the first one before you do that, and in my case I didn't see why I couldn't attack it directly. That one piece of advice (and two others) would have been enough to get me past the frustrating bit. The rest of the detailed description of every move to make told me things I'd have had fun finding out on my own -- things like what resources were available in which locations, where to find Ruins, and the details of all the quests. Of course that sort of thing belongs in a full walkthrough, but I'd have had more fun just knowing about the "gotchas."

(The other two pieces of advice I needed were that you need a city wall earlier rather than later lest the Bad Guy attack you, and you might want to think about avoiding the marketplace of Juahar city lest you be given a bunch of side quests not relevant to just winning the game)

I just finished Kagunda, one of the "custom games" (those not part of the main campaign), which aren't covered in the walkthrough I linked. There were two points at which I had to back up to previous savegames in frustration, both of which I could have avoided with one piece of advice: as you claim new territory in the clockwise direction from your settlement, watch out for when you get close to the red-bordered region because they'll attack your outposts eventually. From that one sentence I could have figured out that my options were stationing an army nearby or building walls, and since the army would be needed in several places, walls were the best choice.

I did go looking for a walkthrough for Kagunda, after I finished, but what I found instead was a set of 7 Let's Play videos on YouTube. I don't know how good they are, because I wasn't going to watch an hour's worth of stuff for a minute's worth of advice. As you might imagine, my issues with detailed walkthroughs apply even more so to Let's Plays. I'd only watch one if friends or comments told me it was especially entertaining over and above the information content, or if I'd already discovered that I liked other videos by the same person.

So, for what it's worth, for me the ideal advice on a specific game scenario would consist of
  • A paragraph describing what the scenario was about, comparable to (or shorter than) what you might get via an in-game "mission description."
  • A "break" of some sort that hid the rest of the advice, followed by the few sentences describing the "gotchas."
  • If the adviser cared to write that much detail, a link to a longer walkthrough like the one I mentioned earlier (or a second break in a longer post, but I don't think most blog technologies allow more than one).
  • Maybe a link to a Let's Play; I might watch it if the "Likes" were a nontrivial percentage of the "Views."
I  suspect that these days, when TL;DR is a common reaction to walls of text, this way of organizing game advice might be good for a lot of people.

Of course, deciding what's a "gotcha" requires a lot of judgement. One person's "gotcha" might be another person's "obvious." But judging the audience' needs is a standard problem with any writing task. I do believe the long, comprehensive walkthrough still has a valuable role to play. But a "gotcha-only" would be a valuable resource, too.