[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.]

The (new) New Super Mario Bros. game’s proposed new self solving features is already raising a lot of eyebrows. At the time of writing, its not even clear how it will be implemented, but the very idea of a feature that would essentially take the controller out of the player’s hands is more than enough to raise questions about how good of an idea this really is.

To a lot of people, there’s just something that feels wrong about a game that plays itself. After all, a game can only do so much to aid the player before it stops being a game at all.

But does letting the game take over when they player has had enough really go too far? Fortunately, we don’t have to wait to see the implications of a feature like this. In fact, Nintendo's patent of this feature is somewhat amusing considering T&T Software’s humble Spacestation Pheta, a late eighties platformer reminiscent of Lode Runner, beat Nintendo to it by nearly two decades.

Thanks to them, there exists an excellent case study for how a feature like this could potentially affect gameplay:

Learning Through Failure

The image just below explains practically everything you need to know about the game. It’s very puzzle oriented, without any enemies or moving elements of any kind other than the player (one of the reasons why a show solution feature was possible). There are lots of different objects to interact with, and while they behave in predictable ways, it isn’t always clear what the ultimate fate of your poor spaceman will be once subjected to them (especially when considering the interactions of multiple elements in a sequence).

Not to mention that between the fatal falls and electrified floors there is also a time limit in the form of a bar of oxygen that depletes when you move, ensuring that there is a consequence for doing the right thing but taking too long to do it.

docs.gifSo you might already see the complications between the trial and error gameplay and the fact that the player can stop the level at any time and let the computer finish the job. Failure is not only common, but necessary to the experience of the game. Every failure of the player contributes to learning and eventually solving the level. This learning process is what makes the whole thing interesting.

Think of Spacestation Pheta like a series of problem sets from a high school math textbook, complete with the answer in the back of the book. But unlike your calculus class, Spacestation Pheta will not flunk you if you get the answers wrong or turn it in late. In fact, it's because the game lets players progress at their own pace that this potentially game ruining feature facilitates the learning process of the game rather than hinders it.

Learning Through Experience

One of the biggest reasons for this is due to another important feature of Spacestation Pheta. Although the show solution feature is the most striking, the game also allows you start at any level you choose, skip levels, or go to random ones. This one feature has two distinct applications: the ability to skip levels that are too challenging, and the ability to pick up where you left off after a game over.

What this means is that means that players are presented with plenty of alternatives to repeating difficult levels or looking up the answer. Additionally, the answer to being stuck in one level might be found through completing a different one. It's better for the learning process, and also ensures that getting stuck does not effectively bar players from actually playing the game.

The show solution feature is never invoked frivolously because there is no reward for doing so. Players are not unaware of the fact that they'll pretty much ruin any enjoyment they would get out of a level by watching its solution. This is quite a bit different from puzzles in other genres which, while entertaining, will completely block any kind of progress until completed. While many games depend on a succession of challenges to make a greater whole, spending hours on a single puzzle with can really kill the atmosphere of anything (survival horror, anyone?).

Of course, players still have the option of seeing the solution before they have truly exhausted all other options. But this effectively doesn't matter because there are so many other alternatives and the most entertaining option will always be to play rather than watch.

Players usually only sacrifice their experience of fun in pursuit of external rewards, and using this feature disables the only aspect of the game that could qualify as this (the high scores). It's hard to accuse T&T Software for ruining a game experience when they've so clearly encouraged players to take the alternatives.

So why even have this feature in the first place? Looking at it this way, it might seem like no one would ever even use it. But there is a point where frustration ends and curiosity wins out, when players want to see the solution for no other reason than to learn something new. There are techniques that players can miss without first seeing in action, and even the most perceptive can learn new things from experts (or in this case, the game's own designers).

srn43.gifLearning Through Example

Showing the solution, therefore, is not as problematic for the game experience as one might think, because there’s no incentive to use it other than for self education. Most importantly, the solution is never forced on the player, as some games do when the player takes too long to solve the problem. The feature is self selecting and non-patronizing.

Will players benefit from beating their head against a level they can’t beat? If players reach a point at which they’ve no longer experimenting or learning and are just plain stuck, all they can really do is play it over again and hope for luck or revelation to strike. When players can no longer apply their skill and have to rely on chance, they've stopped learning and started guessing. This circumstance is one that truly detracts from the experience of the game.

This is part of the reason why skipping levels is so helpful. Players might be able to learn how to solve a difficult level by learning something from a level they can beat. Not only is there little incentive in the first place to watch the game play itself, but there are far more entertaining options to go to before players finally give up or let curiosity get the better of them.

Obviously this feature isn’t ideal (or practical) for every game. There’s obviously something to be said for sustained challenges, and Spacestation Pheta even acknowledges this with its high score system, which gives players the opportunity to run a marathon rather than a sprint. But for a pure puzzle platformer, Spacestation Pheta does a very good job.

Spacestation Pheta’s success are not due to the individual features themselves, but the larger whole. It would be quite easy to ruin this game with a feature that solves every level. But because of the way it’s structured, the feature helps the learning process central to the game experience rather than hinders it. Challenges should have their frustrations, but a challenge that cannot be met is no challenge at all.