Yes! Two Reset Button videos in the space of a month. I was going to make this a regular thing, but I’ve just taken on another project. We’ll see what happens.
Also, I think I’m sticking with this graph paper motif for now. Reset Button hasn’t had a unifying style before now, but I think the graph paper is something I can live with.
Reset Button GTA
Last month one of my columns at the Escapist was about how Grand Theft Auto 5 is a technological marvel but it fails at the most basic levels of game design when it comes to gameplay. In particular I talked about the one mission where you have to chase a boat on the highway and you need to read tutorial text, read mission updates, listen to your friend, drive at high speed, and aim your gun, all at the same time.
This is a long-standing problem with the series. And GTA 5 might be the first iteration where the problem stopped getting worse. In fact, this sort of strange, half-assed approach to introducing and using mechanics in missions has been a staple of the series since GTA 3.
Let’s look at a very similar – but far worse – mission in GTA 4.
Part 1: No Love Lost
In this mission, the crazy boss-of-the-week sends you to kill his daughter’s boyfriend. You drive to his house. He gives you the job. You drive to where the bikers hang out. There’s a little cutscene where you stand there doing nothing while the biker jumps on his bike and rides away. When the cutscene ends, your car – and all the surrounding traffic – has vanished and the only vehicle available is a motorcycle.
Assuming you’ve been sticking to the main story missions, this is very likely your first time on a bike in this game. You might expect that a game would give you a few seconds to get used to a new system before you use it under pressure – GTA 4 has certainly been kind of hand-holdy up until now – but in this case you need to learn how to drive a bike during a high speed chase through twisting streets.
And if you mess up, then you’ll likely get knocked off the bike. And by the time you recover, the guy you’re chasing will be gone and you’ll fail the mission. So you need to learn to drive in a situation where you can’t make mistakes.
People praised GTA 4 for introducing the reset mission option. But unlike the checkpoint saves in Saints Row or other games, this isn’t a proper reset to your pre-mission state. If you fired bullets they’re still gone. If you lost health or armor, those aren’t restored. All it does is teleport you to the mission start. If you just attempted the mission with full health, armor, and lots of bullets, and failed anyway, then trying again when you’re low on resources is setting yourself up for another failure. So if you want to re-supply then you have to…
…reset the mission…
…skip the cutscene…
…get a vehicle…
…drive to the gun store…
…reload your ammo…
…replenish your armor…
…drive somewhere to refill your health…
…drive to the mission area…
…skip the cutscene…
…and do it again.
Every time. That is NOT a reset mission option, and it’s borderline barbaric that a major AAA game in 2008 was still doing things this way. Now, you might notice it’s quicker to just reload the game. That’s true, and it proves how broken and useless the “retry mission” feature is. But it’s actually worse than that, for reasons I’ll get into in a minute.
So you’re flying along at high speed, trying to learn how to ride a motorcycle while at the same time trying desperately to catch this biker who seems to have a supernaturally tight turning arc. Then this scripted car jumps out in front of you.
[Do it again.]
The goal of the mission is ostensibly to kill this guy, but the game is actually breaking its own rules right now. The biker is immune to physics. If you hit him in a way that ought to knock him off the bike, it’s more than likely you’ll just bounce right off of him. And maybe crash.
[Do it again.]
But the fun doesn’t stop there. While you’re learning how to ride this bike with the turning radius of a city bus, the game starts throwing tutorial messages at you explaining how to drive and shoot at the same time. Driving and shooting is already a challenging activity. It’s even harder at high speed. Harder still when you’re doing a lot of weaving around and chasing an unpredictable target. And harder STILL on a bike. So now you’re trying to drive, watch out for gotcha cars pulling in front of you, watching where your target is going, read tutorial text, and aim your gun, all at the same time. And you have to do all of this under time pressure where almost any mistake can result in complete mission failure?
Part 2: But wait! It’s worse!
This sudden difficulty spike doesn’t even feel deliberate. Just a couple of missions earlier the game wasted several minutes on a tutorial to walk across the street, pick up a brick, and throw it. (A mechanic that doesn’t seem to get used again.) And now all of a sudden it’s throwing you into the gameplay equivalent of solving a Rubik’s cube while playing Guitar Hero. And of course the player is going to struggle when given that many things to do.
[Do it again.]
And maybe we could forgive this sudden difficulty if it was for a good reason, but this biker guy isn’t some boss fight. This isn’t a moment of narrative climax. He’s never been mentioned before and isn’t a big deal. In the story presented, this is just another simple errand for your boss. (This paragraph was accidentally omitted from the final recording. Shame. It’s an important point. But I didn’t want to re-edit everything to put it back in.)
And maybe we could even forgive the game for trying to teach you two entirely different gameplay mechanics at the same time during a high-speed chase with scripted “gotcha” cars to trip you up, except THE BIKER IS IMMUNE TO BULLETS. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
This is so shockingly unfair it boggles the mind. The game is telling you how to drive and shoot. Naturally the player is going to assume that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. The mission update at the bottom of the screen even explicitly tells you to “take the biker out”. The objective is impossible and the tutorial text is self-defeating.
This is like a Batman game giving you a tutorial on how to counter when you’re fighting someone with attacks that can’t be countered. When the player fails, they will likely assume they just need more practice and double down on the bad advice the game is giving them.
And that surprise car at the start of the chase? That’s not the only one in this sequence. This car is scripted to jump out in front of you. [Do it again.] And this car. [Do it again.] And this car. [Do it again.]
Remember earlier when I said it was faster to just reload the game than to use the retry mission feature? Here is where that comes back to bite the unwary player. According to the wiki, every time you fail the mission it removes some of the scripted gotcha moments. Which means failing over and over again makes the mission easier. But that won’t happen if you’re manually loading the game. In that case, you’ll be facing the maximum number of scripted hazards. So by trying to save time you might be setting yourself up for more failure.
But sooner or later you’re bound to give up on the shooting and just try to keep up with the guy, which is actually what you’re supposed to be doing. And then it’s time for the next round of screwing the player.
Your target leads you into an ambush. Now, if you’ve done this mission it’s obvious you’re supposed to stand back and pick these guys off from a distance. But that’s not obvious to the player the first time through the mission. Given the dynamics of the previous chase, it’s likely they will assume these bikers are just another distraction designed to slow them down so their target can get away. They don’t know ahead of time if this is a big showdown or if they’re just transitioning to a second stage of this chase. They don’t know until they run in and get cut down by gunfire.
[Do it again.]
Under normal circumstances, this fight would be pretty easy. Stand behind a tree and pop the guys until you win. But the player might have a hard time doing that if they WASTED ALL THEIR BULLETS SHOOTING AT AN INVINCIBLE BIKER.
[Do it again.]
Part 3: Do it Again, Stupid.
To be clear, I’m not complaining that the game is “too hard”. It’s not as difficult as I’m making it look in this video and it’s very unlikely you’ll run into all of the gotcha failures I’m showing here. The problem here isn’t how hard it is, but where the focus is.
Let’s look at how other games handle their mechanics. Let’s look at the Arkham series.
In Arkham, the game begins with a simple base of brawling mechanics and gradually layers depth and complexity as you master these elements. These elements combine to give you more options in a fight. New enemy types require different approaches, and the game even has different difficulty levels to accommodate players of different skill and frustration thresholds.
Dark Souls is a game that teaches through failure while Batman teaches through success, but both are games that demand or encourage mastery of their systems.
GTA doesn’t really work that way. It doesn’t have a web of deep interconnected mechanics to give you lots of options for solving problems. Because GTA isn’t really a game of skill. At least, not in the story missions. Sure, you can play it skillfully and some players can do amazing things. But attaining skill and mastering the mechanics isn’t really the focal point of the gameplay. It’s a game of trial and error, and a guessing game.
The challenge of the game comes from figuring out the one solution the game designer has in mind for the given problem. You don’t get good at driving, you get good at knowing to avoid this specific car when it pulls in front of you. You don’t get good at shooting. You get good at knowing where to stand in this one particular fight.
A while ago Campster pointed out in his Errant Signal video how the sandbox mechanics of GTA IV were in conflict with the super-serious story. And he was right. But this straightjacket approach to mission design is in conflict with both of them. The missions have one and only one proper way of beating them, which discourages experimental and creative play in favor of making you guess the one true approach the designer intended. And the story conflicts with the missions because jokes, dialog, and story beats lose their impact and become grating with repetition.
GTA isn’t trying to be a game of skill. It’s trying to be a movie where you’re a stuntman who isn’t allowed to read the script. You just have to fumble your way through the scene trying to guess what the director wants you to do. In some missions your goal is to run someone off the road, and in other missions the game makes their car immune to physics. In some missions your job is to shoot your target and in other missions your target is immortal until some scripted event. In some missions you can use any vehicle you like and in others the designers force you to use one particular vehicle.
There’s a mission where you have to use a police car to pull over some vans. This would be nice if that was ONE way of doing the mission, or if this trick worked in other parts of the game. But this is actually the ONLY way of doing this mission, and this is the only time you can use this trick. You can’t just steal the vans yourself. In a game called GRAND THEFT AUTO, stealing cars isn’t an option available to you, even though it would make sense in this context.
This game is not about skill but about guessing the designer’s expectations and then enacting the scripted events the designer intended. And if you guess wrong?
[Do it again.]
This isn’t some aberration in the series. There’s a very similar mission in San Andreas where you chase an invincible bike through twisting streets, and that one also ends in a gunfight ambush. Although I don’t think that one tricks you into wasting all your bullets first.
Part 4: It doesn’t have to be this way.
GTA doesn’t NEED to be built this way. In fact, it’s a lot more work to do it the way they’re doing it. A much more rewarding and straightforward approach is to simply present the player with problems and let them use strategy, creativity, and lateral thinking to solve the problem with the available mechanics.
It’s not like the game is short on mechanics. We’ve got sniper rifles, grenades, sticky-bombs, cars, firearms, fisticuffs, aircraft, knives, stun guns, baseball bats. And even bricks. For some reason. The game gives us all these tools and then goes to all this trouble to route around them, as if the sandbox mechanics were a shortcoming or a drawback.
I’ve never seen a player try something outlandish and then complain when the game allowed it. Players love when creative solutions pay off. They feel rewarded, not cheated. No, players feel cheated when told to shoot invincible targets or challenged to chase opponents that defy the laws of physics.
Back in 2009, Microsoft Game Studios user research expert Bruce Phillips published this chart that shows the breakdown of how many players completed various AAA titles on the Xbox 360. It shows GTA 4 ranking next to last on the list despite it being the highest rated game on that platform. Why does the supposedly “best game” have such an abysmally low completion rate? An article on Forbes suggests the discrepancy is due to the length of the game. But that doesn’t explain why something like Fable II, a game with a pretty good running time and an unusually LOW user score managed to rank so much higher than GTA 4 in terms of how many people finished the dang thing.
And I think at least part of this discrepancy is because the core of GTA just isn’t very rewarding to play. It’s no fun to lose against a system that keeps secretly changing the rules. And there’s not a lot of satisfaction to be had in winning under those conditions, either. When I fail I feel like the game cheated and when I win I feel like it LET me win, or that I happened to guess right. I never get that fist-pump moment of doing something I couldn’t do before. People seem to play these things for the fun of exploring the open world, not for the tedium of trying to outguess the mission scripting. Which is a shame, since these lavishly produced cutscenes are clearly where a lot of the development money is going, and barely 1 in 4 people see them through to the end.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that GTA V seems to be a small step in the right direction. The mission scripting is a little less tyrannical and the heist system even gives you a little bit of freedom in how to approach problems. Granted, this freedom is in the planning stage and not in the mission itself, but you know, baby steps.
Maybe they’ll get it right it next time.
[Do it again.]
My GTA V column:
Kid beats Guitar Hero and Rubik’s cube at same time:
Gamasutra story on game completion rate:
Forbes article mentioned:
List of highest scoring games on Xbox 360:
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?
In Defense of Crunch
Crunch-mode game development isn't good, but sometimes it happens for good reasons.
Two minutes of fun at the expense of a badly-run theme park.
Overused Words in Game Titles
I scoured the Steam database to figure out what words were the most commonly used in game titles.