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Design Lessons: Paper Mario Color Splash 2

As I have read more rumors about a Paper Mario for the Nintendo Switch, I have continued to play Paper Mario Color Splash.  Not my favorite Paper Mario, but the last one released.  However, as I play, I am again reminded why this is only my second play through in last three years.  This game is often an exercise in repeated frustration.  Yes, I am talking about the Tangerino Grill stage.

I want to state up front, that frustration can be highly personalized.  What one person finds frustrating can be engaging or soothing to another person.  However, I believe these examples are fairly common frustrations, something most people will agree on.

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 Tangerino Grill stage, at first seems to offer something new, something besides the ol' "work your way through the level fighting everything that moves".  You start off in the kitchen, where you can fight, but quick reflexes will save you from most battles (by preemptive strikes of the hammer, but not jumping oddly enough).

The premise, after clearing the kitchen of enemies, is that Mario will get to cook a pizza, by engaging in a series of mini-games.  However, this is just the same battle mechanics that you have used all game, just not in a fight context.  Which is fine, until you get to the final step, which is to cook the ingredients.  This should be a game about being watchful so stuff doesn't burn, but it is really about how difficult it is to hit the handle of the frying pan with the hammer.

The biggest frustration here is that if you fail, by missing a very small target, you have to backtrack and repeat some of the cooking steps, again and again and again.  The repetition doesn't add tension, it actually manages to steal it away.

The Fix

The game itself eventually offers a shortcut for coins, which rewards grinding or good game skills (and if you have the skills you don't need a shortcut).  This one is a little harder to 'fix', but my initial reaction is don't send the player back to repeat steps.  I rarely find repetition to be engaging or tension building.  Just let the player try again.

Or the game could require a different mini-game to get the ingredients again.  Basically, give the player a second chance to save the day, instead of just sending them back to grind away.  Maybe it is because prepping the ingredients requires timing and I find it a little difficult.

Issue #2

To get to the meat of the matter, the most frustrating part of this level is a battle against a large steak.  Firstly, there is no save point between the first part in the kitchen and this phase of the stage.  So, if you mess up and want to restart (and you will want to restart), you now have to redo the entire first half of the stage.

The Fix

Have a mother freaking save point after each major section of a stage.  Losing progress shouldn't be the only incentive to not restart a stage when there is failure.  Of course, this lack of save frustration is symptomatic of a later issue.  If there wasn't the desire to restart, then a save point wouldn't be missed.

Issue #3

Another frustration is that the battle against the giant steak (which would otherwise be interesting), is not intuitive at all.  To begin with, cards that create fire (to cook the steak) are not at all effective.  The solution is a very specific set of cards, in a very specific order, that are are not obvious.  Once you fail the first time, only then are you given clues to victory.

The Fix

Do not withhold clues until after failure.  The idea of a long process with a very specific solution is generally a path to frustration and failure, even with clues present up front.  This kind of game play simply encourages players to go to the internet and look up the solution before even attempting.

Issue #4

Loss of cards is a pretty big part of the game.  You spend cards in order to progress, which is fairly standard.  However, if you make no progress at all, then the loss of cards is particularly stinging.  The twist to this frustration is that part of the solution to the puzzle is a set of special cards, in a specific order.  These special cards aren't available in the stage, you have to leave the stage and spend over 1000 in coins to regain them, or run around the board to three different locations and fight you way through parts of stages again.  The loss of coins can be significant or the loss of time can be frustrating.

The Fix

Return any special cards spent or at least make them available in stage for a reduced price.  The game is really encouraging the player to restart so that you do not have run around gathering parts to the puzzle.  Taking such a large percentage of money (possibly more than 50%) is also only going to incentivize players to restart.  The other option is to grind for the money and then travel around to buy all the cards again. 

Issue #5

Yet another frustration is that the fight is timed, but this information is not shared with the player until they fail.  This is important info for the player, but withholding just sets them up for unexpected failure.  A timer would actually add some tension, so it is unfortunate to see it left out.

The Fix

The solution is very simple and adds dramatic tension.  Tell the player about the time limit.  It seems obvious that information that increases tension should be shared, not withheld.  There is no tension when you suddenly fail after thinking you are doing well.

Why Does This Matter?  Or Player Impact Considerations

I think if the players best option is to restart the game, then a design failure has been uncovered.  Not all players will restart for the same reason, some will restart simply because they failed, while others will restart in order to be more efficient with their cards.

However, if the best option for a player is to restart the game (and I would argue that losing maybe 50% of your coins and having to run around collecting the cards again counts as a worse option) then the cost of failure is too high.  Particularly if the game has stacked the odds of failing to be very likely.

So the design decision is really Cost of Failure versus the Cost of Restarting.  During my latest play through, I had the internet guide open and I still had to restart 5 times.  A particularly frustrating experience.

While there is a fine line between frustration and challenge and not everyone will find the same things frustrating, I think this demonstrates bad design.  Minimize frustrations to try and maximize engagement.

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