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Design Lessons: Paper Mario Color Splash

As a huge fan of the Paper Mario franchise (mostly, discounting the out-of-theme Wii game), I was very excited to play Paper Mario Color Splash for the Wii U.  I remember it having solid game play and good continuation of theme and style.  Then I decided to replay it recently and ran into a couple of issues that seem like good talking points of bad design.


What do I mean when I say "bad design"?  For the purpose of this article, it is any decision that is not only frustrating for the player, but is fairly obvious too.  These issues don't take a lot of in-depth study to surface and should have been caught at a fairly early stage in the development process.  Even a paper prototype should have caught most of these issues.

Recap

For those of you who have not played PMCS, let me recap the basics.  You (Mario) move through a 3D world searching for Paint Stars, to recolor the world that has been drained of paint via Bowser.  You have a paint hammer that you can use to paint blank spots/patches of the world and are rewarded with coins and cards (resources).

Issue #1

The first issue surfaced almost as soon as started up the game.  There was no way to start a brand new game, as far as I could tell, from inside the game itself.  No 'start new game' option in any menu.  Finally giving up after 5 minutes of struggle, I discovered that I was quite correct.  There was no way to start a new game within the game itself.  Nintendo directs you to remove the existing game data from the game card directly, via a system menu.  Which sounds pretty back door hacky, and it is.  It is almost like they didn't think anyone would replay this game... ominous.

The Fix

The fix for this is pretty obvious and luckily Nintendo figured it out by the time Breath of the Wild was released.

Issue #2

Getting into the grove of the game and re-familiarizing myself with the game play, I was starting to have a pretty good time... except for an annoyance that has always seemed to trouble Nintendo games off and on.  The unskippable spew of dialogue and, related of course, the inability to go back and read something after accidentally going forward in the dialogue.

The Fix

The weird thing about this issue is that it was not present in the original Paper Mario for the N64.  The game had a way to speed through dialogue (but not skip whole scenes unfortunately) and back track through dialogue when needed.  I found both these features very valuable when replaying the game as it allowed me control to get to the interesting bits.

Issue #3

Going onto Bloo Bay Beach I continued a trend I had started with this replay, which was to get 100% Colorization of each area as I encountered it.  I had already had to goto online tutorials to find all the spots on some of the previous levels but BBB was a whole other kettle of Cheep Cheeps.

With other levels I played, the trap I was falling into was that it was easier to hunt for blank spots to paint, once I had cleared out all the enemies.  Restarting the level meant fighting all these little guys gain, when I just wanted to find the sometimes almost invisible missing spots.

The biggest frustration with Bloo Bay Beach is that the middle area was filled with infinite Cheep Cheep spawns.  Meaning that while you try to play the most evil version of Where's Waldo, you are beset with battle after battle.  Forget about the wasted cards and paint, just the incessant interruption made this activity all the more frustrating.

The Fix

There are two big frustration issues here.  The first being the hunt for missing paint spots.  While I get that it isn't supposed to be easy, some of the paint spots are very hard to find (some I just totally missed, with them out in the open).  This issue is pretty easy to address by having a hint system, where the player can see if a given 'area' has any missing spots, vs the whole level.  That is if the designers are committed to having some almost impossible to find paint spots (not cleverly hidden, but just very difficult to find because they are very, very small or hard to see because of the fixed perspective).

The other issue is having a hunt for X mechanic, that is interrupted by an enemy fight.  Overall, this is balanced by only having to do it once and you get some XP.  However, by having each fight require expending cards and paint (two basic resources), it is a bit of hit on the player.  Now when those fights are never ending (as with the Cheep Cheep spawns in the middle area), there is no satisfaction of a finished fight and a potentially endless drain on resources.  

Issue #4

This last issue is the one that prompted me to write this article, if only to analyze my own frustration.  In the Marmalade Valley chapter, there are two very frustrating points, both of which are basically the same.  The player is suddenly given agency during what appears to be a cut scene.  If the player does not move in the correct path, they are killed and the game is ended.

This by itself isn't the end of the world (pun intended?), but the other factors make it frustrating beyond what it should be.  When the player dies in this manner, they are kicked out to the Start Menu.  If they failed to save before this point, all progress is lost.

Even if they have saved, at one point, there is a few paragraphs of text that must be acknowledged before the player is given control of Mario.  The fact that you cannot speed up or skip this text that you have already just freaking read is very tedious and frustrating.

Also adding to the frustration is that during the second encounter, it is not clear what to do to stay alive.  So you are given about 3-5 seconds to figure out how to live, then you are killed and get to go through the whole Start Game, Enter Level, Go through unskippable dialogue, before trying again.

I personally died 5 times on the last encounter, before giving up and looking up a walk through, which helped, but it still took 2 more tries to get it right.  Basically, the player is being punished for things they do not know how to do (escape the chomp).  Standard things that they think might work (attacking the chain chomp) end up penalizing them with the death rigmarole.

The Fix

This fixes for these issues are fairly well established and have been seen on many other games.  First, make it immediately clear to the player that they are no longer in a cutscene!  Games such as Resident Evil 4 make this clear by showing the players what buttons they are expected to push to avoid death.

Second, do not make saving optional at this point.  If a player may lose an entire levels worth of work because they decided to see what was down the hall quick first, do not penalize them.  Particularly in a game about exploring the level and finding every hidden missing paint patch.  Continuous rewarding of a behavior only to penalize it much later is very frustrating and bad design.

Lastly, do not kick the player to the load screen.  Simply reload to the beginning of the cut scene.  This is an issue for many games, but the solution seems very obvious.  However, I suspect the culprit is technological laziness.  This would be a special handing of the usual death/reload routines.  But some games do handle this and make for a much better user experience.

Why Does This Matter?  Or Player Impact Considerations

It is easy to overlook flaws in something beloved and it is easy to shrug off things that annoy other people but do not particularly bother you.  However, designers taking this path risk alienating portions of their intended audience as frustration is a big fun-killer (assuming you want to create an enjoyable player experience).  

Frustration can vary from individual to individual, but I think these are highly applicable areas.  From my experience, people do like to reread the same dialogue over and over.  I have also observed frustration in being made to wait to attempt a difficult task, particularly after many repeated attempts.  

Frustration is an experience poison.  It will color the player's opinion of the game, the developer, and the publisher of a game.  Nintendo acknowledges this in several of their games, where they will offer to run your character for you, if you die too many times (Super Mario 3D World).

Challenge vs frustration is not an easy line to define, as so much of it is agential (thank you, Characteristics of Games).  However, easily identifiable and addressable situations of frustration should be avoided, particularly after the solution has been demonstrated in a previous iteration of the game.  To create an area of frustration that an earlier game avoided, makes it look like the designers/developers didn't even play any of the other games or even think about basic player experience.

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