In shooter games you will often come across red barrels that will explode if shot. It has become a trope – something that is universally agreed on how it works and has been used across many games. In this article I’ll explore why red barrels are being used this way and give more examples on tropes within game design.
So first of all, what’s with the red barrels? Red barrels are not just explosive barrels, they are a symbol to the player of a gameplay mechanic; they will deal damage both to the player and enemies and can be used strategically to make the combat more tactical. The reason why they are mostly red is because it is a color which stands out in the environment and is associated with danger. Good use of symbols like this will basically be invisible to the player in the middle of the action, but the next time you see a chest-high wall that you can take cover behind, you will probably intuitively know that enemies will soon appear.
It’s all about staying true to human intuition, or at least the learned intuition from other games and designs from everyday objects, so players can easily pick up a new game, start playing and focus on the fun. If they had to learn everything from scratch it would simply be too cumbersome to start playing new games. That is also why most games stick to the same control scheme, like movement using the WASD-keys, and UI elements, like the old floppy disk that is still being used as a save icon – it is a universally recognizable and understandable symbol and all part of a shared gaming vocabulary.
When creating a game, designers often want to be original and create something never before seen, which is great, the game needs to be different from other games in the market in an interesting way. But it’s a trap to attempt to be too original and make every part of the game unique, as it can scare away players because they can’t relate to anything. If the players do not have the tools to understand what they are seeing or what to do in the game without an enormous tutorial, then many will simply quit playing.
The trick is to stick to the 90/10 rule; 90% recognisable gameplay, real world designs, tropes and content and 10% original novel content. That is why games keep using explosive red barrels, why spikes will always damage you and why you should probably not walk into the fire. Even though you rarely see a chest in real life, in a game you know there is loot in there and there is a huge chance that vases will be breakable and have a chance to drop some loot as well. This way the player will know how to play and can savour the original content even more.
Games can of course choose to break these tropes, but it must be done with intent and not go too far beyond the 10%. As an example of breaking the loot chest trope; the mimics in Dark Souls, which are monsters disguised as loot chests which will attack the player when interacted with. These enemies will surprise the player at first, but they will soon notice which chests are breathing and which are not. Mimics work great in Dark Souls, but if every campfire, door or pickup could be a mimic it would probably get frustrating for the players.
Designers shouldn’t be ashamed of designing boss fights where you have to hit a big eye, a red grenade holster or a glowing weak spot, as it conveys the information fast and flawlessly to the player. A little rest spot with an option to save and refill ammo and health just before said boss fight is also great even if it has been used a lot before, most players just hate to lose their progress. Even though it might not feel original to always see the red fire mage being reckless and aggressive or the purple crystal to be evil or corruptive, using the colors in the same ways as they have traditionally been used increases readability for the player.
Gamers can be quick to point out the above design examples as being lazy design, but in reality they probably wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s all about creating the best possible player experience and games built upon earlier generations of games, and will learn from their mistakes and successes, and keep improving the experience. Giving players known symbols, intuitive controls while leaning on tropes creates a smoother experience and lets the player focus on having fun and enjoying the novel content instead of wasting time figuring out how to play the game.
So if you are developing a new game, consider how your game will be different and stand out from the others, but also how it will be similar to help your audience enjoy all your hard work.