Morphopolis: Design vs. Design

Morphopolis Menu Logo

Morphopolis, a combination hidden object and point-and-click adventure game made by Dan Walters and Ceri Williams and published by Hidden Gems Games, is beautiful. The images in it are beautiful. The music is also beautiful. The things that happen in the game? Beautiful. Even the puzzles are beautiful. I mean, just look at this scene:

Morphopolis Flower
Beautiful.

The game was clearly made by some very talented artists. The visual design is just stunning. The flow and balance of the images and sound is just masterfully done.

So why am I going on at such length about how pretty Morphopolis is? Because once I’m finished praising its aesthetics, I have to tear it apart in terms of game design.

The troubles begin immediately on the main menu.

Morphopolis Menu
There’s nothing quite like a main menu where the buttons you need to click are being constantly obscured by the background objects flying by.

The text of the name of the game and the “buttons” for the various levels holds still in the center of the screen while the plants and insects are moving past at a moderate speed. There is no time when you can even see all the text. Again, it makes for an impressive visual effect – but I just want to click the start button.

You’ll also notice the absence of any kind of options button. There are no options. No sound options, no graphics options, nothing. Just the numbers of the levels, and a big X (cropped out of the above image) to close the game.

When you finally manage to get the first level open, there is a short “tutorial” that takes the form of a ghost pointer moving around the screen. What it’s trying to tell you, as I eventually figured out, is that you need to click and drag and hold the mouse down to get your little bug to move. It took me ages to figure this out, because when you put your mouse pointer exactly where it tells you to and hold down the button, your little caterpillar doesn’t quite go where you want it to. You have to keep trying different pixels until it finally works.

Morphopolis Bugs
Where is my character again?

The frustration only increases the more you play. Movement is slow (a common issue in point-and-click adventure games), and loads of backtracking is required (more on this in a minute). If you don’t get your mouse in precisely the right spot, your little bug will start to spazz out, spinning in circles instead of moving. And if you’re too close to the edge of the screen and make one of these slight mis-clicks, you’ll find yourself transported to the next screen – a slow, uninterruptable experience which you have to endure a second time as you try to get back where you were trying to go in the first place.

To make matters worse, there is no clear path through the game. As lovely as the visuals are, they do nothing to guide you in the right direction. At one point I was ready to punch my monitor when I couldn’t find the last item I needed to gather. It turns out it was on another screen. A screen I had to reach by taking a completely different path which was in no way indicated to even exist.

Perhaps the biggest frustration was the backtracking. When you start a new level, you can see various objects sprinkled around that you will clearly need to gather. You’ve had to pick up those little orange orbs before. You will clearly need them again. Yet you’re not allowed to get them until you unlock the “quest” for them. Slowly crawling from screen to screen again and back and forth and back again, the beautiful visuals lose their appeal very quickly as you get tired of holding down the mouse button and watching your bug inch its way across a leaf, spinning in circles now and then when you don’t manage to guess the right pixel to click on.

Then there are the puzzles.

Morphopolis Seed Puzzle
Just, uh…. Just what am I looking at here?

When you finish a find-the-object collection quest, sometimes you will be taken to a mini-puzzle screen. No instructions are ever given for what you’re expected to do, no hints, and there isn’t even a way to exit the puzzle and come back later.

Some of the puzzles seem almost purposefully obtuse. Take the above image of the “seed puzzle” for example: When you click and drag around the screen, absolutely nothing happens. There’s an entire forum thread on the Morphopolis Community Hub on Steam devoted to trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with the game. Most people assume there is a bug preventing you from interacting with it. Then, at long last, one person figured it out: this is a peg-solitaire puzzle. You have to “jump” the blue-purple clusters of seeds into empty sections, removing the jumped piece, until there is only one piece left.

This seems like one of those situations where the game devs knew what they expected players to do, and never considered for a moment the fact that a new player wouldn’t be able to read their minds. This is especially surprising given how many names are listed under the “alpha testers” section of their credits (which scroll along the bottom of the main menu while you wait). You’d have thought at least one of them would have pointed out some of these massive, glaring problems during testing.

Morphopolis Testers
There are 23 names in total. Did they not do their job, or did the devs just ignore them?

So what’s the problem? There are loads of poorly-designed games these days. Steam is flooded with them. On the other hand, they don’t all have this on their Steam Store pages:

Morphopolis Design Award

Now, that award is for visual design, but the distinction isn’t made there on the page. And it’s an important distinction to make. There are many different types of design, and someone who is good at one, no matter how brilliantly good they are at it, does not necessarily have any talent or ability whatsoever in another type.

In a summary on the award site, the game creator, Ceri Williams, who won this award, said he was trying to draw in an audience to games who might not otherwise be interested in them. And this is were the danger lies: an artist who can create beautiful visual artwork still needs to get an actual game designer in order to make a good game. He didn’t. The result? If he succeeds in drawing in an audience that doesn’t normally play games, their first experience with games will be bad. Their first impression will be that games are obtuse, difficult, confusing, and not worth the effort. And then we’ve lost another potential player.

Morphopolis Gameplay
“Is this supposed to be fun? Let’s just go play outside instead.”

Morphopolis is available on Steam for 4.99€ at full price (see the Store Page for the price in your local currency), but it regularly goes on sale for as low as 0.19€. This is the price at which I bought it, and honestly, I think that’s all its worth. The images in the game would have been much more valuable as a short film or a printed book than as a game.

Designing a game isn’t something as simple as having an idea and writing some code. You have to think about how your players will experience it. How do you want them to spend most of their time playing? Here’s a hint: the answer should never be “holding down the mouse button and impatiently waiting for their character to crawl across the screen” or “desperately hunting for the correct way to progress”. If you want them to spend more time looking at your beautiful visuals, make them worth stopping play in order to enjoy, or else make so much of it that the player can enjoy it for hours without forcing them to slow their gameplay to a crawl. And that goes for every game designer out there.

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