Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Why Mini-Games Don't Work

There has been a rising trend to include mini-games in commercial games, and to a certain extent, student projects have been trying to emulate the model of gameplay. In commercial games, mini-games work to various degrees of success, depending on execution and diversion from the main game. What does this mean exactly?

What works?

For a mini-game to "work", it should not detract from the enjoyment of the main game you are playing. An positive example of a mini-game is the chariot racing segment in the Suburban Babylon chapter of Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones.

In the chariot racing segment, the player steers the Prince's chariot through the streets of Babylon. During the race, the Sands of Time abilities are still available to the Prince. This means it's a racing game where you get to reverse time to do minor corrections to your gameplay.

The Sands of Time is a major feature for the POP series in that it introduces a more forgiving gameplay that allows players to tweak and make corrections as they play, without the need for instant death scenarios which lead to frustrations and needless replay.

The chariot mini-game works for POPTTT in the following ways:
  1. Similar gameplay: Rules and skills players learned in main game still applies.
  2. No new rules: The player does not have to learn any new skills.
  3. Enjoyment: The transition of the gameplay is logical and fits well into the story of the game, driving the player forward and giving him motivation to play the level.

What doesn't?

A counter-example on the other hand would be the mini-games included in Spider-Man 3. The gameplay and handling of the player avatar (Spider-Man in this case), is quite well done and much improved from its hugely successful predecessor (Spider-Man 2), but the mini-games put a dampener on it all and really spoiled the game for most fans and new players.

While the entire game is littered with mini-games, let's take a look at one of them for argument's sake.

Throughout the game, you are tasked to defuse bombs that have been set as part of terrorist attacks (cue 1st cliche in modern game themes). These typically start off with you swinging/racing against time (tried-and-tested concept from SM2) to find the location of the bomb. Once there, you hit a context button to activate the mini-game.

The mini-game requires a series of accurate button hits and thumbstick twists on the controller. This is reminiscent of successful rhythm games/minigames such as DDR or Guitar Hero, but doesn't really work well here. To it's credit, the gameplay for the mini-game is tight but quite pointless. Why would Spider-Man have the neccessary skills in defusing bombs, and what do button presses and twists have to relate to something as sophisticated in real life such as explosives disarmament?

The mini-games in Spider-Man 3 do not work in the following aspects:

  1. New skills needed: All the swinging and acrobatic moves you've learned as Spidey previously are meaningless in the mini-games. All you need here are fast twitchy button mashes and twists. Our grade school cousin would do better in this than us.
  2. Detraction from gameplay: You're no longer the Amazing Spider-Man; you're the one-man-bomb-squad. Even Spider-Man admits this as a smart aside during the game.

Looking at the above, the success of mini-games in longer form games depend on their execution and design. On their own, a string of mini-games could be compiled into a game itself very nicely, but for a mini-game to succeed as a task in a game, it should not detract from the main gameplay, nor should it require the user to learn and apply a radically different set of skills.

In my next post, we'll take a look at how mini-games can be implemented correctly for Final Year Projects (if at all?).

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