On grades, length and difficulty

16 August, 2008 (10:13) | Games, Life | By: Olivier

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Cook over at Lost Garden was kind enough to write an article about game critics and Soul Bubbles. He is, as always, a lot more articulate than I could ever hope to be and I am very thankful for his kind words, thought I am not sure we deserve them.

I was tempted to react immediately after reading his article but – since I had already given a hot headed interview on this very subject to Brandon Sheffield – I figured it would be smarter to cool down a bit and take enough time to reflect and think it through.

Obviously, everything is still very fresh and I am deeply affected by Soul Bubbles’ fate – especially after witnessing how retailers are treating it (hint: badly). But I believe the dust has now settled enough in my mind that I can draw a few conclusions.

First and foremost, I would like to thank everyone who enjoyed the game, everyone who wrote in to say so and all those who praised it, on and off the internet. This includes anonymous gamers but also reviewers and professionals. Each time we read lines that made us believe someone really grokked our game, we felt relieved and grateful: our efforts have not been in vain. Your support came to us when we needed it most and it helped. A lot.

Now, I recognize Soul Bubbles is not without flaws. In fact, I don’t think I can play the game without seeing hundreds of areas for improvement and it pains me every time I have to confront something I know we could have done better. If only we’d had a little more time or a little more energy…

I also understand that reviews are very much subjective and that everyone is entitled to his own opinion. But then I’ve also always thought reviews should not end with a score. I think it doesn’t make much sense to condense the richness and complexity of the subjective experience a game can elicit down to something as short, dry and definitive as a percentage. It’s also demeaning to the people who have sometimes labored for years on a given project: we are not handing in homework to be graded. If you agree games are a form of art, then you should not agree to their ranking. Who would grade a Picasso? You either like it or you don’t but everyone can see how nonsensical it would be to give 76% to Guernica.

Unfortunately, the games industry largely disagrees with me (with a few notable exceptions). Grades are everywhere and not only do they heavily skew the reader’s opinion, their aggregated form apparently seems to be having a real effect on the industry. And if that’s true, then Soul Bubbles was hurt by the few reviewers that brought its average score just below 80%.

Of course I am flattered when Danc calls our game an “instant classic” but I’m not convinced we deserve it and I honestly think I can deal with criticisms when they are fair and valid. But I still feel I have to respectfully disagree with the two main ones that were thrown at our game and sometimes got us to be heavily marked down:

1- Soul Bubbles is too easy.

The perception of difficulty is so subjective, it is often hard to grasp. Sure, a given individual can find a given game too easy for his own taste but as Danc explained, game reviewers and expert gamers in general are heavily biased in this respect. A game or a puzzle that seems easy to them, might be incredibly difficult for an average player. In Soul Bubble’s case, we took great care in keeping the game accessible to casual gamers. Not because it’s the new buzzword of the industry but because we wanted our girlfriends and our not-so-much-into-gaming-anymore friends to enjoy themselves with it. And from the data from our internal testing as well as the general public reception, I know we at least got that curve right.

However, we did not forget the expert gamers! Difficulty is very much present in Soul Bubbles but it’s hidden away at the edges of the levels – in the form of calabashes. You have to go look for it and, unfortunately, I suspect some reviewers just made a bee line for the exit to get to the end of the game as fast as possible.

But here’s my main argument: it’s a game about bubbles, about finding serenity. It’s a peaceful and gentle experience. It’s just not meant to be too frustrating. I sincerely believe we would have missed the essence of the game if we had gone down this road. We chose to keep the player’s interest alive by focusing more on diversity than on challenge. And I very much stand by that choice. In that light, Soul Bubbles is a very rich game – an amazing feat for a tiny team like ours and something I think we can rightly be proud of.

2- Soul Bubbles is too short.

It’s true that Soul Bubbles is a short game. If you rush through it, you can get it done in 6 hours. On average, it will be completed in 12 hours. But in my opinion, this completely misses the point. First of all, Soul Bubbles is meant to be savored slowly. It’s a game about exploration and discovery: all about the journey, not the destination.  If you visit a country in three days, you won’t get the same impression you’d get if you had spent three months.

Most importantly, the real question, the only question in my view should be: were those hours worth it? Did you have a good time? I’d rather play 6 hours of unadulterated fun than 60 hours slogging through tedious gameplay. The Metacritic score for Zelda phantom hourglass is 90% but personally  I gave up the fourth time it asked me to go down the exact same dungeon… Like so many games, we could have artificially diluted the game experience to make it twice as long but instead we chose to respect gamers and their time. During production we always picked quality over quantity and I also stand firmly behind this choice.

So I’ll wrap everything up with a question: is Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight a better literary piece than The Little Prince because it is longer and less accessible? Does it even make sense to compare them this way?

Whatever the answer, I personally really look forward to the day I’ll get to play the gaming equivalent of The Little Prince. Even if it is short and simple.

Write a comment