Changing the wallpaper

Posted by Peter Rootham-Smith.
First posted on 15 March 2003. Last updated on 25 September 2008.
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Commercial websites and internet portals put a lot of effort into letting users customize their view of the website. This benefits the users by letting them see what they are interested in. It also benefits the websites by increasing traffic to their portals. Given the user interface for a computer adventure game is much more important than the user interface for a website, just how much are players allowed to customize a game to suit themselves?

A mouse against QWERTY UIOP

Some people like using the mouse (I do as it happens). Others prefer using the keyboard. Escape from Monkey Island from LucasArts uses the same engine as its other game Grim Fandango, so both games are keyboard controlled. Leaving aside issues such as "mouse cursors clutter up the screen" or arguments such as "3D games must be keyboard controlled" let us ask a couple of simple questions. What may it cost LucasArts to allow movement control by the mouse? What may LucasArts lose in sales by only having keyboard control?

Let us answer the first question. Assuming some kind of scripting engine is being used to implement the game, the cost of enabling movement control by mouse is likely something like 1% or less of the total cost of implementation. A mouse cursor itself is no big deal. The hard part here is converting the mouse cursor position into a movement direction. You must have sufficient information to be able to do the 3D rendering properly. Let us then turn to the second question. Lost sales are going to be hard to guess. I have traded in my copy of Grim Fandango after I have played it once, whereas if it has been mouse controlled I may have kept the game. For me, this is a lost sale.


The color and design of the wallpaper do not affect what a house is like to live in. They do affect what we feel about a house we do live in. Similarly, the number of available game save slots may not affect what the game is like to play with, but they may affect what we feel about the game we do play with. How about an option to toggle between manual saves and automatic saves? Most of the time manual saving is a chore. As such, the scheme used in games such as The Last Express is attractive.

Options for subtitles are good. They are not just for those of us with hearing impairment. I enable them in Discworld Noir so I can get through the dialogs quicker. Other options are movements around a game. It may not be realistic but I like the option of being able to double-click on exits and not having to watch some tedious animation. How about being able to bookmark locations in a game for rapid movement?

Set difficulty level to 'Go easy on me'

Action adventure games may appeal more to pure adventure fans if they have been provided a choice to limit the action. The cost to the developer must be decimal dust (that is, does not even show in the balance sheet). For example, LucasArts let you play Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis with or without fighting. Southpeak Interactive does a similar way with Wild Wild West: The Steel Assassin. I manage to play the latter game at the easiest action setting, but the setting can be made even easier without adding a lot of cost to the game.

LucasArts takes on an interesting design in Curse of Monkey Island with its multiple difficulty levels. There are games I often find too difficult due to the kind of puzzles. Tonal and slider puzzles repeatedly have me reaching for cheats. They never seem to be too related to the story (such as the Tower of Hanoi puzzle in Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned For Danger). I manage to solve that puzzle without cheating, but it is just tedious! Timed puzzles are also not for me. I get enough stress in everyday life. It seems nice to have a choice to disable this type of puzzles.

Style guides

I like The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time a lot. Among the game elements I like is Arthur. Arthur is your sidekick who comments from time to time on your situation. Arthur's sense of humor has worked well for me, though I gather that it has not worked for everyone. So why not have an option to customize Arthur's personality? From plain to informative to gallows humor?

I do not like all the game elements in The Longest Journey. Among the minuses for me is how long-winded and serious the dialog is. For me, Monty Python style dialog suits better. Overall, style is hard to be made an option, but it seems nice to have a choice to choose your character to be hard-bitten, optimistic, or Machiavellian.

Today we choose faces

In Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror, you alternate playing as George and Nico. In The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, you alternate playing as Gabriel and Grace. For me this adds variety to the gameplay experience. In The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time you can choose as who to appear using your Chameleon JumpSuit. I find this twist interesting, not just for the puzzle solving.

Final thoughts

It is not too expensive for a game developer to allow you to play an adventure as a variety of characters. Maybe not for all games but for some at least the gender of your character does not matter in the gameplay. Like wallpaper in a house these choices can affect how you feel about a game in the end—whether you may play it again or trade it up for another.

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