The Bread Crumb Trial: Why Fable 2 should be wary of half-baked design choices

In Ultima VII: The Black Gate, it was possible to bake your own bread. You would collect the ingredients and, tediously it must be said, combine them to cook on a fireplace. You could eat the result. For years afterwards, a PC PowerPlay colleague and I would jokingly cite “baking bread” as the must-have feature for any game proclaiming “endless player freedom” or the capacity to “do anything you want”.

Randy Smith has written a quietly defiant column over at Next-Gen – which originally appeared in a recent issue of EDGE. Quiet because the former Ion Storm designer has an easy-going, almost laidback style. Defiant because he’s railing against – albeit in a casual way – a prevailing trend in game design: hand-holding, or to put it another way, the design philosophy that states the player should always be having “fun”. What’s interesting about this last aspect is that it’s implied that there’s only one way to have fun, and the game designer knows best.

Let me summarise: in ye olde days circa Ultima V (i.e. 1988), games were objects of investigation, players had to explore and experiment to discover the rules of the virtual world. Indeed, players were allowed to make mistakes, to not achieve something, to get lost, and even die, horribly and repeatedly. Today, heavy focus testing has given us game experiences streamlined to maximise the fun output. Why should a player settle for only getting a portion of the fun when – through some subtle signposting and a choreographed sequence – the designer can ensure each player gets 100% of their fun allocation.

Personally, I can’t help but feel this push towards accessibility – or, more accurately, this stampede away from the experiences of Ultima V described above – has resulted in the diminishing of something valuable. And something valuable at which games truly excel: the idea of exploration and, with it, immersion in a virtual world.

I had read Randy’s piece a few weeks back, but my thoughts returned to it in the context of Fable 2. In particular, comments from Peter Molyneux that Fable 2 has dispensed with that RPG staple, the minimap, offering in its stead a trail of bread crumbs to guide the player. According to IGN, the bread crumbs resemble a “line of fairy dust sparkling from your feet” and lead you to quests and objectives. (Your canine companion can, apparently, sniff out side-quests that aren’t signposted by sourdough.)

Now I haven’t played Fable 2 – and neither have the forum posters currently objecting to the bread crumb feature – so I can only speculate on its effectiveness as a navigation tool. Clearly, Peter’s design goal is to make his game more accessible and inviting to the inexperienced gamer. He doesn’t want to scare off novice players who feel intimidated by an open world of exploration or – perhaps worse – become bored when they get lost on the way to some quest’s specific objective. And in a sense, the trail of bread crumbs is – at least, conceptually – more immersive than a colour-coded minimap in the corner of the screen; the player is focused on the actual environment rather than a more distanced layer of representation.

But at the same time it is a contrivance that breaks immersion and runs contrary to the game world’s internal logic. Ultimately, it’s a way for the designer to tell the player who strays from the trail: “Stop, you’re doing it wrong!”

Understandably, a chief concern of the novice gamer is the fear of doing it wrong. Indeed, even veteran gamers will have felt that nagging doubt of “What am I meant to do?” when, say, stepping off the boat into Seyda Neen in Morrowind or walking out of the bunker into Stalker’s wasteland. At times like this we need navigation tools, we need signposts, and deep down we really just want someone to hold our hand. At least for a little while, anyway.

It’s a tough problem for today’s game designers. How do you balance the needs of different types of gamers and different levels of experience? What sort of hand-holding mechanics not only serve their necessary purpose but manage to sustain the player’s suspension of disbelief? How do you design a game for those players who want to bake bread and for those who just want to follow it?

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5 Comments on “The Bread Crumb Trial: Why Fable 2 should be wary of half-baked design choices”

  1. James Says:

    I agree with you and with the author of the supplied link. Games are focusing too entirely on guiding players toward “the fun”. While on one side, this is excellent in immersing new or novice gamers into the virtual worlds usually reserved for more experienced players, it also detracts from the level of freedom and immersion offered in the end product.

    As for Fable 2, I have heard in an interview that the “bread crumb trail” is going to be an optional utility. It can be selected off in the options, and there will be no further attempts to guide the player toward any objectives in the game, lest the trail be re-activated via the options screen. So, at least it isn’t being forced upon us.

  2. Stu Andrews Says:

    David (if it was you) or Eliot,

    Kudos on the post, and the blog! Been a fan of David since early PC Powerplay days. Well, fan .. eeesshhh, probably more a fellow gamer who liked the wisdom in what you said .. heh heh.


    I wonder what Blizzard would have to say in this regard. They are still the flavour of the millennia, and would definitely have thought about this stuff in games like WoW and Diablo.

    Ultima 7. Paperdolls, Baking bread, Flying carpets. Just wandering around. What’s not to love? Except that it didn’t appeal to the larger audience.

    And the larger audience is what guys like (and you said this above) Molyneux is wanting to hit. More accessibility.

    So balance would be the key. Can’t please every itch the old-school gamer wants, can’t please every itch the console-fanboy wants .. but you can (and Blizzard prove this) please most of the people most of the time.

    Although Hellgate:London shows you can also tick off most of the people most of the time.

    Anyway, kudos again on the blog. Have fed you to my reader.

  3. […] Generation – Interactive Entertainment Today, Video Game and Industry News – Home of Edge Online The Bread Crumb Trial: Why Fable 2 should be wary of half-baked design choices Unified Ammo The first article is written by Randy Smith, a former ION Storm […]

  4. tom Says:

    super swag game right here!

  5. There’s no way in hell I am going to get good at shooters* or figure anything out when I die within less than a minute of starting the game.

    I got myself a Wii as soon as I could, hoping that it would be different enough that I wouldn’t be fifteen years behind everyone else in learning how to play the games. Boy was I disappointed when I figured out that it’s the same as every other console, except the controller is split in half and you hold each piece in each hand.

    There’s a vocabulary of game logic that I just can’t pick up with my no-skill level. The only exposure I’ve had to a game getting interesting is watching others play.

    *I am married to a big player of games, so I’m exposed to a lot of games, but I remain convinced it’s the games that are too hard for me/shooters that are the more interesting ones. I absolutely love The Sims, and can handle and even enjoy fighting games like Soul Caliber, or even racing games, which require a tiny bit of game-related coordination, but less than shooters.

    I sat down with Fable II and have been thankful for its hand-holding, but it’s just not really my kind of thing. Lame, warmed-over fantasy crap just isn’t doing it for me, even if I am capable of walking a character through it.

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