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No "skip" button please


I keep seeing John Walker talk about a “skip” button on Rock Paper Shotgun. It seems the only counter-argument he’s been exposed to is something about cheapening the game for others, which is a bit flimsy (though not entirely invalid, I think). I think implementing an unconditional “skip boss fight” / “skip gameplay” button isn’t really a great idea, here’s why. Most of this doesn’t apply to STGs / arcade games, expectations wrt clearing, teaching etc are far different there.

I have no qualms with the notion of accessibility. I made lots of decisions in Blue Revolver to try to make the game as accessible as possible for everyone without cutting anything from what I see as the essence of its genre (though I suppose I must have failed at some level!) But the notion of a skip button for boss fights / gameplay is counterproductive in my opinion, since so many games rely on previously attained knowledge (knowledge that is, ideally, taught through gameplay). Indeed, it’s the only way many games can function.

People hate boss fights

I see a lot of people come out against the very idea of a boss fight, and it used to really confuse me. But it’s pretty obvious in two respects, a boss fight represents two things:

  • The pace of the game now belongs to the game, not the player. “Standard” gameplay allows the player to move around at their own pace. Boss fights demand the player move from action to reaction - to dance to that boss’ particular tune, to understand that boss, or die trying.
  • A boss fight, by its nature, places emphasis on different types of tools. A boss that can be thoughtlessly out-DPSed to death is almost always a bad boss fight. This is why boss fights in FPS games are so often irritating - a boss fight places more emphasis on defensive tools and safe damage instead of big damage, and most FPS games don’t give the player interesting defensive options or tools (even basic movement, the most fundamental defensive tool, is often a damn chore!)

However, these two things makes them extremely good for either teaching something or verifying that the player is comfortable with it before letting them proceed. The Bladewolf fight in Metal Gear Rising exists to perform a very simple task - to check if the player is comfortable with parrying. If you can’t parry consistently, you can probably klutz your way through most standard fights up until that point. Maybe you use special weapons or stealth, maybe you just do a whole lot of jumping, running and relying on stunlocking enemies. But if you can’t parry consistently, you will probably never beat the damn robot dog. Now consider that many of the later encounters, bosses and enemies alike, rely on the player being comfortable with parrying, on top of doing/managing other things. They need to be so comfortable that it’s second nature. If a player was able to skip Bladewolf, they would be storing up a long term problem for theirselves, possibly to the point where they may get in way too deep to clear.

And I’m not confident in the ability of players to tell when they shouldn’t skip something. Truth be told, we’ve had a certain piece of usually-skippable gameplay in games for a long time, and its purpose is always to teach you something. It’s called a tutorial. The act of crafting a tutorial is a hard one - needs to let even the slowest kids in the class get up to speed, yet you need to pace it such that players don’t get bored and either skip, zone out or outright close the game and refund. How do you give players all the information they need, while ensuring they have some sort of context for it? Is a tutorial the right way to find something out midway through a game? And there are many failed tutorials out there - players either skipping or sitting slack-jawed at the screen, and in neither case absorbing crucial information.

Over the years, much of game design has been about the simple act of teaching people how to play without having to rely on tutorials for all but the absolute basics or most distant esoterica. Designers came up with a lot of little tricks, but things like boss fights make up a crucial part of that teaching toolkit - probably the most crucial part, ensuring the player is comfortable with a certain mechanic before you start building on that.

A general hatred of boss fights is surprisingly common, I’m finding - I find it illogical, but understandable in the context of what many people play. There was a period when triple-As abused the hell out of boss fights, a little distant now but I certainly remember it. But they are on the whole too valuable a tool to thoughtlessly skip, and I don’t really trust people sadly trained to hate them to tell the good kind from the bad kind.

Skip gameplay?

I’ve just been talking about boss fights here, but this logic can work in many other places too, so a “skip gameplay” button is equally out of the question. Puzzle games are a particularly good example - Most of us should probably be familiar with the structure of many a traditional puzzle game, where elements / design tropes are slowly introduced and then built upon. The Witness gates at least a few areas behind a very simple puzzle that asks if the player understands a particular element - then, the area it guards builds on that element more.

In these examples, there would be negative value in offering up a skip button - players that skip these initial things because they don’t understand them are immediately out of their depth, and may well just keep hammering that skip button until they’ve done the whole area without actually understanding anything. “But why do you care if other people apparently ruin a game for theirselves?” I’d hope I’ve put the words “Game Designer” on this page somewhere.

Games in all sorts of genres regularly introduce new elements to the mix to keep things fresh, and at a base level ; “you can’t progress until you understand this” isn’t some archaic elitist element of videogames to be forgotten about, it is in fact one of their biggest strengths. It is one of the most crucial ways to teach players things - indeed, to make the game accessible.

Solution?

I’m not ignorant of times where a particular boss can represent a nasty spike in difficulty without even teaching the player anything. That’s inevitable, no designer is perfect. A couple of the most well-known ways games have approached the idea of letting a player progress anyway do come to mind:

  • Summons in Souls games more or less allow players to skip a boss (or in rarer cases, an area) at this point, or at least bypass a lot of the learning curve. This is tokenized by Humanity items, and the player is discouraged from relying on it by the threat of invasion (I always thought this was the entire point of invasion, but the series seemed to lose its way on that from DkS2 forward, perhaps intentionally?) Watching a summoned player go to town on a boss/area also has the potential to teach players about certain things or tactics which a simple “skip” feature cannot.
  • Many newer Mario games offer an invincibility item for failing consecutively or a “Super Guide” that takes control of the Mario and walks him through a level. The second approach is undoubtedly better - many players probably find the first one condescending, and again, the Super Guide is showing the player what to do, offering still a way for players to learn what they should do in certain situations. (I don’t believe one can just skip the Super Guide’s demonstration, I might be wrong though)

These types of approaches are nice because the designer can still make exceptions - no summons for the Asylum Demon, for example, ensuring you have at least the very basics of boss combat down - and they still try to use the opportunity to teach the player how to not have to do it again in the future. I could do some really tortured take on the “give a man a fish” routine here, but I’ll spare you. I’m sure that if you’re really hopelessly stuck on something, you won’t mind the perhaps mild condescension of the game going “alright, here’s how you could have done it” - and indeed, you might be pretty interested to see! The complete best case scenario, you go back and try to do it with your newfound knowledge, but if that doesn’t happen, eh.

On the other hand, an unconditional “skip this crap” button is something that I think suits only terrible games that never have anything worth teaching the player, and I see no reason to demand palliative care for a terminally bad video game.

If you have any followups/questions/etc, curiouscat is this way, twitter’s this way. For questions, I prefer the former. Thanks for reading.

BONUS: Blue Revolver Fact of the Day

The first three bosses were designed to individually focus on a specific type of shot - the three elements that make up the mirepoix of bullet patterns (in my opinion, at least). Obviously they don’t purely just do “X” thing, but if you take a good look at the bosses, you should be able to see at least a trend.

  • Boss 1, DELPHI, focuses on aimed shots that directly implore the player to move or die.
  • Boss 2, HASKEL, focuses on unaimed “spam” shots that complicate the task of moving around the playfield.
  • Boss 3, YASUMI, focuses on entrapment - patterns that enclose the player into a given space or try to wholly lock down their movement in another way.

Keep your ear to the ground for some very exciting news on that game in particular, coming very soon.