I've been told that Ninja Gaiden is hard.I haven't played that XBox game myself, but I've been told some funny stories by Patrick Coyne, fellow gaming enthusiast. He wove me a tale of his futile attempts to defeat a certain boss in the game, only to die over and over and over again. After meeting his demise for something crazy like the 50th time, his friend who was watching laughed and noted that in all 50 lives he had died, the cause of death was different every life -- the boss found a unique way to dispatch him each and every time.
I have never played the game, and after hearing such stories, I'm not sure I want to. Of course, you can't really wonder why they would make the game so hard: Tomonobu Itagaki
, the creator of Ninja Gaiden
, has said he wants the game to be hard. And in fact, upon release of Ninja Gaiden Black
, a re-release of the original Ninja Gaiden with all of the extra downloadable content already built into it, he addressed the difficulty of his game. When asked about the original game's difficulty, Itagaki made a comment that games should be hard and that he didn't feel you were worthy if you could not pass his game. But in order to address the complaints about how hard his game was, he included a new, easier mode in Ninja Gaiden Black: Dog Mode. He believed if you needed to play on the easier difficulty level, you were at the level of a dog, not worthy at all of being taken seriously.The funny thing is that I think Itagaki was on to something. While he meant it as an insult -- calling people dogs -- I actually think he's hit upon a universal truth: most gamers are like dogs. They have good intentions, they want to have fun, and they want to enjoy themselves. But at the same time, they need to be taught how to play through repetition. They need to be coddled and rewarded when they do something right. And they need to always feel like they have a chance, even if they lose, because they believe the next time, they will win.And this is how I have started to view the difference between the metagamer and the non-metagamer. I believe non-metagamers to be like dogs, young pups if you will, who have not yet been trained. Metagamers are the hunting dogs or the police dogs who already know, in advance, what is required of them.Wikipedia states that "within actual entertainment games, the term metagame is used to describe either a game system layered over the game system, to increase enjoyable complexity, or a game system by which game rules are created." In my previous posts, Omar Kendall and I had a discussion about metagaming, after pointing out that my needs for a game (in particular quick and efficient information dissemination) are unique to myself and other metagamers. I can honestly say that with calling me a metagamer, he's hit the nail right on the head: I'm a metagamer through and through. I think the area that we differ on opinions, however, is that I believe that the majority of people are also metagamers... they just don't know it yet.A bunch of my friends have recently started to own dogs. And all of these dogs start out the same: blank slates. They can all be taught, though, and can all be trained to achieve excellent levels of obedience. One friend of mine has her dog extremely well trained already, and the dog is still not even one year old. But the opposite can also be true. I also saw one owner at a random EB Games just recently forcing his little puppy to stay on a slanted XBox display stand while he played his XBox game. The dog kept threatening to slide off and fall to its imminent injury, and the owner repeatedly half-heartedly shoved the dog back onto the slanted surface while trying to maintain his attention on the game he was playing. The poor dog had the saddest expression on its face, looking frightened and confused and it continued to slip every so often. I'll bet that dog grows up to be very poorly trained. It takes a great amount of responsibility to properly train a dog (ask Nintendo).In the same vein, I think it is a great responsibility for game designers to teach their players to metagame. The players may not know what is the pertinent information they need right away, but if you can make your game intelligently enough, you can train them. It's like putting that pill into the dog food: they are getting something good for them without them even knowing it. If you can keep them enthralled in the game, they will learn slowly by slowly what to look for, what keys to notice, and how to play the game well. Otherwise, they will never pass the later levels. But making a game properly will compel them to increase their skills because that's how badly they want to beat the game.The perfect example of this -- and I'm not just doing this just to be obsequious to my friends -- is God of War. I honestly believe that this game has the greatest example that I've seen recently of how to teach metagaming to players. There is such a potential for very high level of play on top of what the game presents to you. The basics are there -- kill your enemies before they kill you. But the beauty of it is this: you can not only kill them, but you can kill them with style.That's where the metagaming comes into play. And the beauty of it is that experts will pick up on the metagaming almost instantaneously in the very first battle. They will take their time beating up on the undead soldiers on the very first part of the boat, learning how to cancel their attacks with rolls and blocks, learning how to parry, learning what chain sequences there are, learning what the different throw follow-ups are, etc. In fact, most metagamers will believe that there simply isn't enough undead soldiers on that boat to continue experimenting. After they are done, they've already gained a huge supply of knowledge to use later on, learning how to attack and defend at the same time and how to wreck shop with a good mix of throws, parries, air combos, and anything they want. It's an art to the killing, not just mashing buttons.But the reason the game works so well is that the non-metagamers don't have to pick up on this yet. In fact, they will pass the first boat section simply by mashing buttons. And that will teach them purely how to aim their attacks, something a metagamer doesn't even need to learn. But they are having so much fun beating up on the undead soldiers that they don't even notice they are learning how to aim their attacks. And every soldier you kill keeps giving you more life. So no matter how badly you get beat up, you earn life back: being rewarded for doing something right, just like how you would train a dog.
Then, the game progresses and you run into flying creatures. And then you learn that if you hit the Circle button, you grab them and rip off their wings. Not only is it amazingly awesome to do that to them (great rewarding animation for first-time players), but it kills them instantly! So now the players are learning to try the Circle button more. Different enemies spawn different reactions to throws, but because they were trained to use Circle early, they now use it later on and discover more. And then, enemies like the Minotaur and Centaurs have the special "mini-games" to finish them off (when the big Circle buttons appears over their head). You can finish them off without using the Circle button mini-games, but if you do use it you are rewarded, again, with health or magic. So defeating them doesn't become the goal anymore: defeating them correctly does. Again, rewarding players for proper metagaming, metagaming that they still aren't even aware they were taught!And then certain enemies they run into will counter attack after attacking. Through frustration of getting hit repeatedly, they will learn to start blocking. And when they attack and get hit, they will try to block... and discovery gleefully that they can! And then they are taught how to cancel attacks into blocking. And then they run in Medusas who cannot have their stony gazes blocked. So instead of blocking, they try jumping... and get turned to stone, fall, and shatter. Bad idea. So they try something else... rolling! Once they figure out how well that works, it adds another level to their game. And pretty soon, they will start learning to attack and roll all over the place not only because it is effective, but because it is more fun that way. And since they keep running into Medusas from time to time, they will learn to use the roll eventually (except for one person I know...). Again, like a dog, taught through repetition.Also, dogs learn to pick up on things that owners don't even know they do. They begin to put two and two together and can figure out what they are supposed to do before the owner even thinks he is telling the dog to do it. So when, in God of War, a player starts to power up their attacks, they get new abilities, such as the follow-up to parrying. So they try it once, to see what it does, and it turns out to be very useful. Now they've been introduced to Parrying and maybe, just maybe¸ they'll put two and two together and learn to parry in the middle of their attack instead of blocking, just so they can get access to that powerful follow-up attack.And on and on and on and on. By the time you get to the point where (spoilers for the 3 people who have not yet played the game) Kratos needs to save his family (end spoilers), you need all these skills in order to win. That part of the game is nearly impossible to beat if you haven't learned these tactics. And then, after the player passes the game and starts over again and replays the first boat scene... wow. Just wow. Imagine their glee when they discover just how badly they can beat up the undead soldiers now! And now, now they are truly metagaming.This is why God of War has been such a critical and commercial success. I've had way too many people I know come and gush about God of War to me after I recommend it to them. These are people ranging from coworkers who don't normally play games to expert gamers who have been playing for years. It's probably the most beautiful example of a recent game that appeals to the metagamer and the non-metagamer.And that's what I'm trying to get at. Games can be designed not only to appeal to metagamers and non-metagamers, but the good ones will teach the non-metagamers to be metagamers as well. This goes very much hand in hand with Derek Daniels' 80:20 article, which states that everything a player must do in the game should be shown on the first level. Metagamers will pick up on what they can do with that stuff and use it for the whole game. Non-metagamers can be taught along the way. Now mind you, I know perfectly well how hard it is to accomplish this feat, but the great games out there all do this in some form or another: Super Mario 64, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and The Sims, for example, all behave this way in some form or another. Thus, I don't think that by designing games for metagamers you are alienating non-metagamers, nor do I believe that a game made for the masses (the non-metagamers) can't be also appealing to metagamers as well. Being able to appeal to both audiences is what makes a good game a great game.I think it's incredibly appropriate that Itagaki called it Dog Mode. Players can start there and learn, little by little, through repetition and reward how to play the game. Once they complete that, they will have enough skills to go on and beat the harder difficulties. And if they really want to, they will beat it eventually. Every dog has his day.