Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I've spent the past few days making the transition to Critical-Gaming's new home.

The new site is rough, but I'll get it running to tip top shape in no time. I hope everyone makes the transition smoothly.

I have a lot of cool ideas for the new site that I don't think are possible using Blogger.

Thanks Blogger. Thanks Google.

I intend to leave this site up unless there's a really good reason to take it down.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Be Careful. You Might Suck....Is That A Challenge?

In the 9/27/2008 episode of 1up yours, the crew responds to the topic of video game difficulty and whether or not games need to adhere to the convention of increasing in difficulty to the end. You can listen to the conversation starting at around 1:21:00.

Be Careful. You Might Suck

Before I get into my response to some of the comments from the podcast, I wanted to say that it is important to consider one's own gaming skills before addressing game difficulty of any particular game. When a game is properly (classically) designed with levels that are composed of game ideas that are gradually developed from simple to complex uses of the core mechanics and when the forms of the game communicate their function clearly, the difficulty of such a game is created in large part from the player's ability (or lack thereof) to learn/ utilize the instructive resources the game provides. In other words, it's not the game's fault you aren't paying attention to the clues or using/thinking about the mechanics in the way the game has carefully taught you to. Furthermore, when a game allows the players to adjust the difficulty of the challenges, understanding how difficult the game is is a matter of understanding how the adjustable game elements circumvent the require use of the core mechanics and what effects doing so has on the game experience as a whole. In this way, game difficulty starts in the design but rests on the player.

Video games are functionally just controlled learning environments or electronic teachers. In the same way the best teachers can make learning fun, exciting, and easy, the best designed games can take the frustration and difficulty out of the learning processes. In such cases, all there is left for the player to struggle with to complete a challenge is the execution. In general, the execution of core mechanics needed to complete most of the challenges in most video games is relatively simple. For example, aiming and shooting in most FPSs is pretty simple. Understanding when to shoot, where to aim, when to take cover, and other battle strategies comprise the majority of what the player must learn to be successful.

For another example, the input for the mechanics in Mega Man 9 are very simple reflecting the design of the NES era. Everyone understands that holding the JUMP button down makes Mega Man JUMP the highest. Because the JUMP mechanic is direct, letting go of the JUMP button instantly causes Mega Man to drop while quickly tapping the button makes him hop around. The SHOOT mechanic is even simpler. Hit the SHOOT button and a bullet comes out. Along with the MOVE mechanic the player has all the abilities necessary to progress through the vast majority of the game. From this simple base, the levels are designed to test the player's ability to control space by jummping (vertical) and shooting (horizontal). The best part of such a design is, to get through the majority of challenges, players simply have to use some combination of MOVE, JUMP, and SHOOT. With such a simple set of possible solutions, it's hard to imagine that some gamers have an incredibly difficult time understanding how to overcome the game's challenges.

For these reasons (and for these), I do not believe Mega Man 9 is "really too hard" or "brutal" as John Davison and Shane Bettenhausen describe in the podcast. You would think that these game enthusiasts/writers would be able to breeze through a game like Mega Man 9 considering how similar it is to several other Mega Man games that have been out for many years. If Shane can understands how the calculator class in Final Fantasy Tactics is the most powerful class because of how his abilities evolve across his/her long term development, then surely he should be able to understand and use the tools Capcom made easily available in Mega Man 9 to help players get through the game.

The more I hear games writers talk about how difficult games are, the more I believe that they're not very good at video games. I've written before about how the concept of "skill" can be broken down into 5 categories: dexterity, timing, knowledge, reflex, and adaptation. I don't expect game writers to have the dexterity and timing of a Piano virtuoso (or a Guitar Hero for that matter). I don't expect them to have encyclopedic (or gamefaqs level) knowledge of a game. I don't expect their reflexes to match the Ogre Brothers or any other FPS twitch fire master. And I don't expect them to be able to adapt to dynamically changing situations with the ease of a StarCraft master. These video game writers may not be the best at video games, but I do expect them to be good enough to where their extensive experience with analyzing and playing games allows them to reach the insights necessary to understand the intricacies of what a game really is and how it works including its difficulty.

Personally, I know the insight that I bring to my writing is greatly aided by my diverse skill set. Ignoring my experience in fields outside of gaming for the purposes of this dicussion, pushing myself to develop the skills to become a world class Super Smash Brothers player helpd me understand game difficulty for all games in a number of ways.
  1. No matter what game I play, as long as a game is designed around understanding mechanics and the skillful execution of those mechanics (as opposed to luck or stat building), I haven't found a challenge that's more difficult than fighting against the nation's best. Though my opponents pushed me beyond the limits of my dexterity, reflexs, timing, and adaptation, the game itself didn't become any more difficult. In those touranment matches, we still played by the same rules that I had a deep knowledge of. The amount of individuality each player brings to this dynamic next gen fighter makes every fight different testing and pushing all of the facets of my skills.
  2. All proper challenges becomes easy when fully understood. It's that "ah ha" moment that people reach when learning anything. Once you "get it" it becomes funny to you when you consider how much trouble a challenge gave you.
  3. I've also learned that some of the biggest challenges you'll face in a video game are re-learning something, overcoming your own mental barriers, and understanding how you learn within a learning environement. Learning is work as it is. But having to work to undo that work and still have to work at learning it the right way can be exhausting. It's amazing how people will find all the time in the world to do/learn something the wrong way yet struggle to do it the right way from the beginning.
  4. I've learned that developing a high level of adaptation skill helps keep my ability to quickly learn sharp. The better you get at learning, the easier it is to learn the next thing.
With that said, I think it's important for every games writer or aspiring writer to understand at least one video game as thoroughly as possible and to becomes as good as possible at one game (preferably a multiplayer game).

As this blog continues to grow I understand more games more completely than I ever have before. By studying a game,which often requires revisitation, and writing essays, I'm able to understand the inner workings of a game on a much higher intellectual level. Understanding how each element of a game works together to build the whole experience also develops my ability to key in on all the non verbal methods video games use to communicate and teach. In other words, the more you understand a game the wider your critical-eye becomes.

By playing a video game at a high competitive level, I was forced in a way to look at game mechanics and the range of their function in a complete way. By going to that level, you will learn more about video games, yourself as a learner, and yourself as someone who is capable of doing anything. And doing/action is the thing that outraces words by a factor of a thousand.

Is That A Challenge?

For the remainder of this article, I'll be responding to the comments made on the podcast in bullet point format.
  • The "death mechanic" is an old gameplay convention: You get it wrong, you die, you go back, and you try it again: Dying in a video game is a natural/organic conclusion when a game centers around violent actions. In order for a game to be a game, there must be a goal. For this goal, there generally has to be a way to win and lose. Functionally, the "death mechanic" is analogous to many different kinds of losing even when the player doesn't die.
  • Death in games is designed to make money in arcades: Certainly all game's aren't design to steal our quarters. Even if the "death mechanic" was popularized in this way, arcade machines still aren't even close to slot machines and their ability to steal money.
  • The difficulty of Mega Man 9 just "clicks" for certain people: Perhaps people who want a good challenge that can be significantly curbed by learning how the game works and adjusting the difficulty when necessary. In other words, MM9 is for the type of gamer that seeks a flexible learning environment where the learner is in control. I've noticed that many of the hardcore gamers on the internet and professional games enthusiasts have grown soft. Their complaints about Mega Man 9 and their inability to even beat the first set of bosses are alarming. I thought the hardcore gamer was supposed to have the skills to tackle games like Mega Man. I thought the hardcore gamer wanted their game's to be "hard." The fact that he adjustable difficulty in Mega Man 9 takes off the apparent "hard edge" makes me feel that anyone who is still having problems with the game needs to increase their skills, buckle down, and learn something about the game. That, or buy more E tanks.
  • The primary reason to play a game is not necessarily challenge anymore: This is true to an extent. Besides the challenge that inherently comes from establishing a goal within a game world, a lot of play exists where the player is free to noodle around without deliberately reaching the goal. However, just because gamers can play video games without looking for a challenge, doesn't mean that the challenge should or can be removed from the game. Go ahead, mess around in Super Mario Brothers. Don't try and beat the level. Eventually, the time will run out and if you keep that up, you'll lose all of your lives. There's nothing wrong with playing like this, of course. But I can't say that doing so brings the player closer to understanding Super Mario Brothers beyond the surface level.
Sometimes I feel that if you don't want to be challenged then you shouldn't play a video game. Goals are an inherent part of games. The mere existence of a goal that can't be reached with idleness means the player must do something to overcome the challenge. Whether the challenge is easy to you or incredibly difficult, it's still a challenge. So when the 1up crew describes not wanting to be challenge, I take it to mean that they don't want to work or learn to overcome an obstacle. In other words, they don't want to change, but they still want the game to appear/react as if they had.

Carrying the attitude of not wanting to learn/engage with a video game develops a gamer that wants fewer consequences in their experience. After all, with fewer consequences there are fewer ways to lose. When there's fewer ways to lose, the gamer grows less worried about failing. When there are less ways to fail, the challenges and goals in the game become simplified and/or the gamer will become satisfied with doing almost nothing. When gamers don't want to learn and would rather just "relax" and "zone out" when playing a game, the lack of engagement practically destroys the players ability to learn. After all, learning is active/interactive, not passive.

This notion that entertainment doesn't (or even shouldn't) engage the mind is ridiculous and probably stems from a world filled with sub par TV shows and other mediocre products of entertainment. It's easy to be "entertained" by a TV set. You turn it on and it seems to do all the rest of the work by itself. Learning is work even when it's fun. As soon as you get used to having fun or being entertained from passive experiences, it becomes easy to delude yourself into thinking that passiveness is just as good as being engaged in an activity. As soon as you prefer to turn your brain off, you've robbed yourself of the chance to develop something wonderful.

My fear with the gamer who gets used to passively playing games or is unwilling to learn is that they'll never reach higher, more complex, and richer game experiences. Garnett Lee described such an experience as a wonderful and delicious "gaming casserole." In other words, in order for the designers to empower the player with the ability understand and master the game world, the player must learn the mechanics and rules step by step. The only way to ensure the player has some level of understanding on a mechanic/concept is to test them. Games create tests by constructing challenges.Without challenge, without being engaged, and without learning the interactivity that sits at the heart of the video games medium is nothing.

We are gamers. We are learners. We seek challenges so we can better understand game worlds, ourselves, and the real world we live in. You might suck today. But with an open mind and a will to learn, you'll develop the skills and a critical-eye through which the world can be viewed.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

"wow... that's music!"

As my anticipation for Guitar Hero World Tour, what will be my single biggest gaming purchase this year, grows I can't help but also grow more excited about Wii Music. Wii Music is the game that most of the gaming industry doesn't understand or know how to talk about. Like the other phenomenons that fly under the same series (Wii Sports, Wii Play, and Wii Fit) Wii Music is designed in a way that is very different from the popular examples in related genres. Wii Music is designed as a true music game.

I've been playing music for a very long time now; piano for over 13 years and violin for over 11 years. Though I've participated in contests, orchestras, and solo performances with both of these instruments and written several compositions, I come to understand music as something that a musician can't help but make. It's something different from the theory, correctly played notes, and one's experience with an instrument. My experience with the cello, harmonica, guitar, bass, and drums aren't nearly as extensive as with my primary 2 instruments. But in my experience, I've found that I can make music with anything that makes noise or can produce note tones.

It's interesting when you think about how the source of my expression for playing video games, painting, drawing, sculpting, writing, and playing music comes from the same play. In each art form each in their different ways, every move/strategy/brush stroke/word/note is made in attempt to communicate something whether individually or as part of a bigger phrase. My piano teachers over the years never taught me to play music, but they always commented on how I had "it." Random audience members from concerts would always go out of their way to specifically compliment my playing. Playing notes is something entirely different from playing music. This is something that has come naturally to me.

In one of my English class back in High School, the teacher had a small toyish ukulele. Everyday, I would go to class early and practice on this plastic like instrument that was always out of tune. After a few attempts, I was able to play the Super Mario Brothers main theme with some cool ornamentation too. After I nailed Mario, I worked out a unique composition in the style of classic guitar music. Though the strings were in a different tuning every day, I was able to get consistent results. The more work I put into this "toy" the more musical range I discovered and the more my playing sounded like authentic music. Because of experiences like this, I never underestimate the ability for strange even toy instruments to make music. Music is something I will always strive to produce because it's in my and it must be expressed. For this reason, the 50 or so instruments that come packed into Wii Music excite me just as much or more so than Guitar Hero World Tour. How else would I be able to play 50 musical instruments to create music even if they're "toys?"

Wii Music is a game made by the same company and the same genius designer that has made the world's greatest video games. The same mind that created Mario and Zelda is now looking at looking at creating a game entirely around the function of creating music. Using the modern advances in technology and game design, Miyamoto is attempting with Wii Music to make a game about making music with simulated instruments as opposed to hitting buttons to a fixed rhythm on a plastic instrument/video game controller. Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Donkey Konga, and all the other music-rhythm games may be nice games, but as a musician I know that there really isn't any musicality in the gameplay. At some point, not being able to play my own notes to my own rhythms makes me realize I'm stuck in a game that's more linear than even the most basic 2D platformers. In other words, music rhythm games generally have one way to play and one way only which severely limits the possibility for musical expression.

As a violin teacher, I'm working with a student who has been playing the violin for 3 years having started in middle school. She told me she wants to play with more confidence and energy but is unsure how to do so. The only way to play with more energy, I explained, is to put more energy into your playing. Every time she tries, she reverts to the ways she's comfortable playing; more reserved and somewhat vapid. Even this student musician playing a real instrument holds back her own musicality because she's afraid to mimic me or the other violinists. She has created too many psychological barriers against herself.

Most musical instruments are physical machines that produce sound entirely through mechanical means. Imitating and even exaggerating the physical motions of real musicians goes a long way in developing the techniques needed to play like a professional. This is why Wii Music's motion controls are genius.

The psychological barriers many develop when playing on a real instrument wouldn't exist in Wii Music because it's perceived as a video game; a toy meant to be played. The psychological barrier that stems from the perception that a musical instrument is a very expensive object that must be taken very seriously would never developer around such a game for the Wii. Furthermore, because the player is playing "air instruments" there's a natural tendency to exaggerate one's motions. In a strange way, the inherent design of Wii Music can bring musicians and non-musicians alike closer to physically playing more like professional musicians.

Some people are upset with how Wii Music makes it impossible to play bad notes or lose like in a traditional video game. Somehow, these people have drawn the conclusion that real music is legitimized only because of the possibility that the performer could have played wrong notes or failed in some way. Even with the structure Wii Music puts players in, it is still quite possible to play some horrible sounding music. Remember E3 08? The performers on stage played a Mario tune that sounded terrible. That alone should convince anyone that there's enough room in Wii Music to fail or succeed in varying degrees. Because musical expression is at the center of Wii Music's design, the success of a performance is subjective. I doubt there will be a percentage score given to players at the end of each song.

The Bad

The Good

The Variations. Skip to 1:00

I think Wii Music has enormous potential. Because instead of accurately performing actions in time with a score, gameplay is about enjoying limitless possibilities all of which are correct.

Just listen to theme and variation between these recordings of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

When I first listened to these three videos, the first thing I said was, "wow... that's music!"

Wii Music is a game that will fill a unique space in the gaming industry. It's for people who want to know what it's like to play music, to play music in a group, and even do a little composing without the expensive price tag of buying a musical instrument/lessons or working through the steep learning curve of music theory. Wii Music is also for musicians who want to play around with instruments they can't get their hands on or can't afford. With around 50 musical instruments in Wii Music, there's bound to be something you've never seen/touched/played that you would like to. In other words, Wii Music is for everyone. Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Elite Beat Agents, Donkey Konga, DDR, PaRappa The Rapper, and Guitaroo Man players shouldn't feel threatened or challenged in any way. Wii Music seems to be in a genre of it's own.

In the meantime check out these two Wii Music links.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Nintendo Stealth Conference: Let's Hit It.

  • Many of the games shown in this video are shown too briefly to make any kind of substantive observations. Let's see how it goes.
  • DSi: Slimmer, SD card slow, internal flash memory, bigger screens, internet browser, DS online store, and 2 cameras. Over the past few years, I've faced several road blocks when designing software fore the DS because it lacked many of these key features. Once again, Nintendo supplies the hardware/features that I need to design my innovative games freely.
  • The fashion game: Looks to have very high production values considering the detailed customization and the 3D graphics.
  • Nintendo Pedometer & Wii Fit for my pocket? Sign me up. I loved my Pokemon Pikachu with its built in pedometer when I was in middle school, and I look forward to this next step. Nintendo had to find a way to put Mii's on the DS. They're the best tool Nintendo has to make games personal and accessible to the broadest audience.
  • The Kirby game looks just as colorful as other games in the same series.
  • The Valkyrie Profile, Chrono Trigger, and the Shiren The Wanderer look very traditional in their core RPG design. Let's hope at least 2 of these 3 have some tricks up their sleeve.
  • The Soccer game looks slick. It appears that many developers have figured out how to make nice looking 3D DS games. The implementation of the Mii's fits, and the game appears to support a range of detailed stats.
  • Sooo many RPGs. I guess they come with the territory.
  • Professor Layton looks as dashing as ever. In other words, it looks like more of the same.
  • The Iwata, Reggie, and Miyamoto Mii's are charming. I'm not sure what kind of game/software they're in.
  • Mario & Luigi look like they're control with the touch screen for battles. Interesting change.
  • Wario Paint/Ware: Looks like Mario Paint. Plays like Wario Ware. Perhaps everyone makes micro games and shares them for content that's always unique. Either way, this game has piqued my interests.
  • 3D picross. I liked 2D picross. Hopefully they'll find an intuitive way to manipulate the camera. The rubik cube DS game's camera controls are pretty complicated and finicky.
  • More RPGs. Such is Japan.

  • Much of the Wii game footage is too short to deduce anything. There's a lot to look forward to this fall and next year from the Wii. The games shown in the video run the full gamut of "casual" to "hardcore" games and from familiar to new IPs. There'es something for everyone.
Until we get more information...

Shawn Elliott Approves of Critical-Gaming

Well, Shawn Elliott didn't mention the Critical-Gaming blog specifically. However, the comments he made in the latest Gamsutra podcast on GDCRadio are in line with exactly what's been going on here at the blog for almost a year now.

You can listen to the podcast here.

Doesn't that look like the face of approval?

Among the things he mentions in that podcast and others are...
  • reviewing/writing about games after reflecting on the experience that was hopefully done away from pressing time constraints
  • writing about games with a thesis instead of creating buyers guides
  • finding a unique angle to write from that's as meaningful as it is personal
  • making a bridge between literary critical theory to talk about video games
  • using the structures and unique metaphors of other practices/disciplines/art forms to approach game writing and game design.
  • taking small investigative ventures probing some aspect of the gaming culture
  • writing cross game analyses
  • being responsible/held accountable for one's writing. Taking a stance and arguing points.
  • developing and applying a critical eye to video games
Sound familiar?

Good luck Shawn Elliott. It's good to know we're fighting the same fight.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Samba De Amigo Critical Hit

  • Good core music-rhythm design: SHAKE, RAPID SHAKES, POSE, DANCE. Between these mechanics, the various rhythm patterns, and the 6 shaking zones Samba De Amigo can create more significant variation than most music-rhythm games.
  • For single notes, the player can perform a "trick shot" by shaking the two "maracas" in the same position at the same time. This option gives players a way to increase the difficulty of relatively simple sections while scoring more points in the process.
  • The core design is very similar to the Elite Beat Agents/the Ouendan series for the Nintendo DS. Shakes = TAPS. POSE = DRAG. DANCE = SPIN (where players can put more energy in to this mechanic to earn more points). Furthermore, the game is designed around creating an interactive sound scape of percussion as opposed to an interactive music track like in Guitar Hero. In Samba De Amigo, players aren't making music. Rather, players shake and dance to the beat.
  • Not enough negative feedback. When a player shakes at the right time but accidentally slips into the wrong position it feels like the game simply didn't receive the SHAKE input when in fact it did. The game only Boo's when your rank drops a letter grade. Otherwise, it's very hard to tell whether the game really missed the input, you didn't SHAKE in the correct zone, or if you just didn't time it right.
  • There's no penalty for shaking in the times/spaces between notes. Because playing Samba De Amigo involves a lot of movement, it would be frustrating if the game penalized players for every SHAKE that wasn't timed to a note. Often times, I found myself shaking both hands to keep the beat even though only one was necessary. This design decision is key to keeping the game focused considering the nature of the game and the controller input in addition to allowing the player to "free style" developing their own subdivisions as they sync with the rhythm of a song.
  • The rating system is very old school Japanese with a few convoluted quirks. Unlike Guitar Hero (a Western music-rhythm game) where players receive full credit for a note as long as they hit it within the timing window, in Samba De Amigo playing exactly on the beat is privileged. Landing close to the beat will award the player with points, but only by landing perfectly on beat will the player receive full points while increasing the multiplier. In traditional Japanese music-rhythm games, the developers just don't want you to play, they want you to play perfectly.
  • On top of the percentage grade based on correct notes played, in Samba De Amigo, Ouendan, and DDR, a letter grade is given as well. On top of this, the letter grade in Samba De Amigo doesn't directly correspond to the percentage of the correct notes played. I once got a score of 96% and ended up with a C rating. While playing players not only build up their multiplier and score, but a meter that determines their letter grade as well. With a few mistakes, the later grade drops. With much correct playing, the letter grade slowly climbs. Though this system is unnecessarily complicated everyone knows how to improve their score in a music-rhythm game. Play all perfect notes without missing one. Do that, and understanding the scoring system won't matter.
  • The mini games aren't worth the time or the money Gearbox spent making them. They reminded me of some of Boom Blox's worst mini games... distractions from the core design of the game that should be avoided.
  • The option to play with Wiimote + Nunchuck or double Wiimotes is much appreciated. The calibration options seem to help as well.
  • The tri-colored zone display isn't intuitive for those of us who have gotten used to reading music on a linear "tape reel" type system. Sheet Music, Guitar Hero, Donkey Konga, and even Ouendan have a very linear structure to their notation. In Samba De Amigo, the notes spawn and branch out from the center of the display. While this design may be counter intuitive in one regard, it's great for indicating the spatial relationship the notes have to where the player must SHAKE. I found that when I lost track of all the moving dots, I could still hit all of the notes fairly easily by maintaining a soft focus on the colorful display. The effectiveness of this design is also evident when the POSE/DANCE sections come up. Without thinking, I was able to successfully mirror the position indicated on the screen.
  • Being forced to play through the Normal and then Hard campaign to unlock the Super Hard mode was slightly irritating. I didn't realize how much I've gotten used to the Western design for music-rhythm games thanks to Guitar Hero. I expected that all the difficulty modes would be unlocked. Over all, unlocking songs and modes in Samba De Amigo isn't a big deal.
  • There are many nuances and techniques to playing Samba De Amigo that differ with each song just like there is in any quality music-rhythm game. If you don't spend the time to learn it, you shouldn't fault the game. Many claim that the controls simply aren't accurate enough. In my experience, the Nunchuck works best on the normal difficulty. Clearly, playing with two Wiimotes is ideal. They're more accurate. They have a longer grip. And there isn't a cord hanging between them, which frees the arms for pulling off a double "around the world" dance maneuver. I've score 90+% sight reading Hard mode and about 85+% sight reading Super Hard. If I spend the time to work on a few techniques I'm sure I can ace any of the songs.
  • Samba De Amigo is a game that I feel would have benefited the most from implementing Wii Motion Plus technology. The current way the game figures out what positions the Wiimotes are in (high, mid, low) is jittery and finicky. If a sequel comes out with Motion Plus controls and maybe even some Balance Board support, I'll be the first in line.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

October Forecast

October is almost upon us all. In preparation of what will undoubtedly be an incredible month for gaming and gaming purchases (Guitar Hero 4 and LittleBig Planet with Vision Cam are to blame) I have decided to give everyone a glimpse into what I've been mulling over in the way of Critical-Gaming content.

I can't take a break now. 
The last time I did this was before I took my vacation earlier in the summer. I feel that posting the list gave some readers something to look forward to, which in turn kept me focused and on track. I did a lot of writing after then, but I unfortunately was unable to get to these topics.
  • Sonic 1,2,3, Rush, Rush Adventure review, repair, and re-imagining of Sonic next-gen gameplay .
  • Uncovering the design and depth in Pikmin's origami folded level design.
  • DS design series. Taking a look at the DS games that pull of various DS specific design elements most successfully.
If I write an article every day, I would still trail behind my ideas. Certainly this is not a complaint. I'm just letting you know what's going on on my side of the computer screen. So here's the update to the list.

  • Ikaruga and Everyday Shooter structural similarities: How linear levels on timers free the player and open up design possibilities. Pikmin as well.
  • The Function of Memory: A look at how memory can be used like a video game mechanic to significantly increase a range of one's abilities.
  • Gaming Schedule: A brief look at a possible balance between buying new games, buying old games, and playing one's games more completely. Also, the benefits of planning/mentally preparing for one's gaming time.
  • Designing a Better Violin Teaching Method: If designing a curriculum is like designing a game.
  • Knowing the Difference between Tactics and Strategy: A look at how many obscure the truth by hiding behind language that claims a game has strategy. Recognizing the difference and understanding how game design creates, encourages, and is benefited/deconstructed by strategy.
  • Be Careful... You Might Suck: Looking at how one's personal skill and experience with video games may affect their ability to assess/critique a game.
  • Is that a Challenge: A look at how video games entertain. How important goals and challenges are to a video game. How engagement and learning are essential.
  • The Construction of Comedy: A look at the mechanics of comedy from 3 cultural point of views.
  • Wow...That's Music: A look at Wii Music and why it may be far more unique and better than the gaming industry/world may currently give it credit for.
  • Designer's Workshop: A new series where I'll be constructing step by step guides detailing how to make the best user generated content for this year's best "content creatable" games. LBP. GH4. Bangai-o. Advance Wars Days of Ruin. It's all inside.
  • Bangai-O Review

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Genius of Slowdown

Slowdown is certainly a relic of our past when video games used to push their processors to their limit and beyond. When there were simply too many explosions and bullets streaking across the screen the frame rate dropped and the game began to play is slow motion.

Many would like to believe that we are now currently in an age that has moved beyond slow down. Though the frame rate in our modern releases may hiccup (GTA4), sputter (MGS4), or even drop to a cinematic 24 frames per second (Shadow of the Colossus), all of these performance slips are far better than back in the day when the games used to slow to a crawl. With the advent of widespread online gaming, many gamers now find it strange when latency issues are resolved by slowing down or even temporarily pausing the action for all players until the information flow can be reestablished.

My recent exploration of Bangai-O Spirits for the Nintendo DS has caused me to think about the possible design benefits of slowdown. Unlike bullet time, where the game time is slowed usually by the player to enhance reaction time and accuracy, slowdown happens as a result of an excess of onscreen elements that require graphics and collision processing. In Bangai-O's case, when the player launches a counter attack of 100 homing missiles, the game automatically slows down. The benefits for the slower gameplay are the same as with bullet time. When the game is slowed down, the player has additional time to process and analyze the game. But unlike bullet time, the amount of slowdown that occurs is directly proportional to the amount of in game "chaos" on screen. Like the smart slow-mo from Perfect Dark that activates when two players in a multiplayer match move within a certain proximity of each other, slowdown makes the game time relative to action and position.

It's like Where's Waldo, but different.

Slowdown might have addition design benefits that may not be as obvious to discern. As it turns out, Bangi-O Spirts features 4 player simultaneous gameplay. Designing a system that can communicate hundreds of packets of data between two systems can be extremely tricky even for two consoles using high speed connections. Geometry Wars is a perfect example of a game is so smooth with so many individual items on the screen each with their own behaviors and patterns that react off of the player's position and attacks as well as other elements in the level, that trying to get the game to work online would invariably slow down the game speed. In other words, because there's simply so much chaos in Geometry Wars the Geometry Wars that we know and love would be impossible to make work online with our current technology.

So what about Bangai-O Spirits for the DS? One might initially think that the the DS processors and wifi connections aren't better suited than an Xbox360 for the task for communicating the chaos of battle in a multiplayer mode. But slowdown, once again, plays a very key role in Bangai-O's case. The player should already be used to the contextually fluctuating game speed in the single player mode. So if the game slows down just a bit more to maintain communication with 3 other DSs, the player probably wouldn't notice. Because slowdown is an integrated part of the normal gameplay, using it as a sort of shield/buffer for multiplayer wireless communications is quite genius.

Just a few missiles

Bangai-O Spirits is a rare case indeed. Not only does it get away with massive slowdown that can drop as low as 1 frame per second, but in many ways the slow down works better for the gamepaly and multiplayer. In the moments when everything slows down, I have an opportunity to analyze the battle field, look at the map, check enemy health or any of the other stats before thinks kick back up in speed again. And for a game that accurately captures anime action in a video game, I'll take all the help I can get.

As modern games continue to push the technical limits of video games while maintaining relatively smooth gameplay and high frame rates, it's interesting to see that slowdown, which many consider to be a technical flaw, can be successfully embraced and incorporated into the core design of a game.

Stay tuned for my explosive review of Bangai-O Spirits.

And if you're worried about the future of slowdown and/or the potential in relative game speed and design, then look no further than Drebin #1 Asynchronous Time.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mega Man 9 Review & Repair

Mega Man 9 is my favorite Mega Man game along with Mega Man X. This is probably due to the fact that I've recently beat these two Mega Man games since developing my critical-eye. Regardless, there's a lot to be said for Mega Man 9, a game which just barely qualifies for the retro-evolved genre. The game looks old school and plays just like Mega Man did when I was a kid gathered around TV with all the neighborhood kids trying to come up with a strategy to defeat Gemini Man. Because MM9 is practically an NES, so much of the experience should already be quite familiar to us. For this reason, I only want to touch on a few points in bullet point essay style.


Many claim that Mega Man 9 is a very difficult game. I do not think it is for many reasons. Starting with a base made up of the default weapon, the M Buster, and a few lives, the difficulty in beating the game can be adjusted to a very fine degree. Players always have the option of...

  1. collecting lives before going into more difficult stages
  2. collecting energy tanks to refill one's health instantly
  3. using powers to more easily overcome enemies and tricky platforming sections
  4. using the powers that each boss is weak to
  5. spending bolts to buy additional lives, energy tanks, M tanks, and other power ups including Beat, Spike Shoes, and the 1/2 damage power up.
  6. farming enemy respawn points to refill health and weapon energy
Also, the more you play, die, and continue, the more bolts you'll accumulate. With more bolts, the player has more buying power to adjust the difficulty of their experience.


The levels in Mega Man 9 are masterfully crafted. They have the perfect balance of difficulty, enemies, length, original elements, simplicity, and organic unity.

Click to Enlarge
  • Each level is very linear and constructed like a sentence with a beginning, middle (mini boss), and end (boss). Each level/sentence represents a simple game idea. Look at Splash Woman's stage for example. The simple game idea is going down into the depths and come back out the other side. The traveling path makes a "u" shape.
  • To keep things moving forward there are few scrolling sections to each level. Also, the player is prevented from backtracking horizontally. Once you enter a section, there's nothing else to do but keep pressing forward
  • Enemies are generally fixed in specific locations within a level and have strict spawn design. Move just slightly off the screen, and a enemy you just destroyed will be waiting to take you on again. Many enemies function as a path blocker instead of chasing the player down. Having to shoot down such obstacles keeps the game focused on shooting instead of running/dodging. This design decision keeps the experience controlled, and uniform across play sessions.
  • The organic level design and organic art direction harmonize perfectly in MM9. In Splash Woman's stage (see above) everything is designed and arranged to communicate a functioning water treatment plant. The water in the beginning starts to flow downward, and water mines and octopus robots provide primary security protection (1-3). As the water descends, the spikes filter out unwanted content (5-8). The water the runs through pipe filters that generate air bubbles as waste. This air is expelled through holes in the pipe work (9-12). Next players hit a pocket of air in a pressurized zone where pipe runners run maintenance and security (12-16). Traveling up you encounter a computerized system mixing and filtering sections of water via sliding disks (14-16). And then you're practically at the boss, Splash Woman, who will battle in nothing less than the purest, most highly filtered water technology can provide. Sure it's a little imaginative, but the forms are all there.
  • By following through with this organic theme, the placements of the platforms and other level elements were guided. Like in Super Mario Brothers, bricks aren't placed willy nilly just so that Mario has things to break and platforms to jump on. The bricks in Mario are arranged to reflect functional structures; towers, bridges, stalagmites, etc. By following such organic guidelines, MM9 levels are as efficient, clean, and functionally focused as can be.
  • Aside from unique enemies, like in Super Mario Bros. 3/Super Mario Galaxy, new level elements are added to the MM9 levels as needed to further develop and define the governing game ideas for each stage. In Splash Woman's stage, the platformable water bubbles (9-12) and the disappearing water sliding sections (14-16) are specific to this stage and add unique gameplay to the level.


Fleshing out a quality game after starting with a limited core design is a skill that Capcom uses very well. By adding a balance of abstract mechanics, extra modes, and unique level/enemy elements, Capcom is able to develop rich game ideas instead of flopping in undynamic, static redundancy.

To understand how the core design of Mega Man 9 is limited, we need to first look at the core mechanics and compare them against Mario and even other versions of Mega Man.

Mega Man's Base Abilities

  • No RUN mechanic. Megaman moves at the same instant and constant speed whether he's on the ground or in the air. Because there is no accelerative motion forward, it's not jarring to the player that Mega Man doesn't skid to a stop. It's not unusual that Mega Man can instantly reverse his direction in mid air either. Where Mario uses the RUN mechanic to create momentum (physics wise and game design wise) and increase difficulty by reducing the reaction time window for the player, Mega Man marches on in a relatively simple fashion.
  • Mario must get a running start to achieve his maximum jump height and distance. Mega Man doesn't, which makes difficult jumps within a level less dependent on adequate running room. For this reason, Mega Man can create difficult platforming challenges in a very small space.
  • Mega Man can only shoot straight. To aim, he must JUMP and SHOOT. Because the JUMP mechanic is highly direct in degrees of vertical height, players have the ability to accurately SHOOT at just about anything within jumping range. Fortunately, pullets travel through walls. These properties create interesting aiming situations that mix anticipation, aiming through levels, and platforming in unique ways.
  • The core mechanics (MOVE, SHOOT, JUMP) aren't very dynamic. You can't jump on enemies. Enemies generally aren't stunned after being shot. Also, the momentum from leading one's shots is diminished somewhat when it relies on memorization or luck.
  • Unlike other 8-bit and 16-bit Mega Man iterations, MM9 Mega Man can't CHARGE, DASH, WALL KICK, SLIDE, or WALL SLIDE. The acceleration when SLIDING gives players the ability to dodge low flying attacks at the risk of falling off of platforms or running into enemies. As we know, the CHARGE mechanic does all kinds of wonders for gameplay. The WALL SLIDE/KICK mechanics give a lot of vertical definition to Mega Man's movement possibilities. Combining the DASH with the WALL KICK, gives players the ability to leap far off from walls. With these mechanics, enemies, bosses, and platforming sections have more versatility to mix things up. The DASH mechanic when combined with the JUMP mechanic, gives Mega Man the ability to quickly move about any environement. Like Mario's RUN mechanic, moving more quickly also comes with risks. Without these things, MM9 is clearly more limited in the enemy and platforming challenges it can put players through.
Ultimately, Mega Man must be able to defeat the vast majority of challenges with MOVE, JUMP, and SHOOT. After all, these mechanics make up the core/base of the game and are inexhaustible. When a game isn't very dynamic (mechanic dynamics, interplay, counterpoint), instead of emerging as a vehicle of expression, such games usually move in the opposite direction toward optimization. While this is true for MM9, the design of Mega Man's (mostly) optional acquired powers give the player a vehicle of expression while dynamically changing the paths and strategies available to the player. It is these powers that give MM9 design layers, dynamics, variation, and depth.

The Powers

Click to Enlarge

The limitations of Mega Man's moving and shooting abilities are apparent. But with every boss Mega Man defeats, he gains the use of one of their abilities. Each ability enhances some combination of Mega Man's moving, shooting, and defensive abilities filling up a unique design space. Starting at the top middle (12 o'clock) and going clockwise...
  • Plug Ball: Travels quickly along the ground, walls, and ceilings. In the air, this attack shoots straight down, which is unlike any other Mega Man attack.
  • Magma Bazooka: Shoots a triple spread attack. The fastest of two projectile attacks that can travel diagonally up or down. This attack can also be charged.
  • Hornet Chaser: Up to three can be fired at a time. They will slowly chase down any enemy on screen flying through walls to get to them. These hornets also have the ability to retrieve items from the field and bring them back to Mega Man.
  • Concrete Shot: A fast projectile that quickly arcs downward making it difficult to aim. This projectile also stops against walls, ceilings, and enemies. Once it hits something, it solidifies into a brick of concrete that players can use as a temporary platform.
  • Black Hole Bomb: A two stage attack that sends out a slow moving target and then activates forming a black hole that draws in enemy fire and enemies. Setting up this attack requires a little patience, knowledge of the level, and timing.
  • Laser Trident: This attack fires and travels very quickly in a straight line, and has the ability to cut through enemy defenses because nothing stops it. There are also special obstacles that can only be destroyed with the Laser Trident.
  • Jewel Satellite: Activating this power creates a shield of jewels that circle the player that reflect basic enemy attacks. These jewels can also completely eliminate weak enemies upon contact infinitely without any additional energy consumption. A collision with a stronger enemy will cancel the jewels. The ring of jewels can be launched as a projectile.
  • Tornado Blow: This handy attack sweeps all enemies and their attacks up and off the screen forever. The wind that sweeps away the enemies also floats Mega Man upward extending the height of his jump.
  • Rush Coil & Rush Jet (not depicted): These two abilities give Mega Man a super jump and the ability to fly a jet around for a limited time. Rush, the dog, can safely stand on spikes allowing players to access some areas safely. When Rush Jet collides with a platform or wall, he disappears leaving Mega Man behind to deal with situation.
On top of the platforming, offensive, and defensive changes these powers bring to Mega Man's basic abilities, they also have decay. Let's face it. The player is quite over powered with access to all of these abilities, but with every use the powers consume energy. Without energy for a specific power, Mega Man can't use it. Use powers haphazardly and excessively, and soon you won't have anything more than the basic abilities.

The decay goes a bit further. When players die and respawn, the energy/ammo they consumed on the previous life doesn't reset. In this way, dying and poor playing isn't completely remedied by having lots of lives. If you use all of a power trying to defeat a boss and fail to finish him/her off, then when you go back to fight that boss, you'll have to battle without that power. This is most apparent in the final assault on Dr. Willy's fortress. Players have to fight through 4 large levels and 11 bosses before getting a chance to fight against Willy's 3 stages. If you mismanage your power at any point in this gauntlet, you'll have a hard time replenishing your supplies.

The way these powers are designed, it's no wonder that enemies drop refilling power pellets less often than energy pellets or screws. It's also no wonder that the shop only lets you by one M Tank which refills all of Mega Man's power supply and health.

The design in Mega Man 9 is so clean and apparent that we all can learn something about game design from it. The game is simple. The controls are tight. And the player can make it as hard as he/she wants. The first play through is long and filled with learning and the kind of refinement that requires a determined will and self discipline. Then each subsequent play through gets easier and easier. With convenient speed running options Mega Man 9 is more concentrated on its best qualities than the other 8-bit brethren.

"With these powers....I have the power... to do it do it faster." ~me


Approaching a repair of Mega Man 9 is tricky. After all, the game was intentionally design to reflect the design of the Mega Man games from the NES era. Most of the suggestions I could make for the game would invariably counter its original aim and goals. As with any repair, upholding the spirit of the game is key. It is not the job of the repair man to make a new game, but make the game that already exists better, cleaner, and communicate its ideas more clearly.

With that said, these are just a few ideas that I have for Mega Man 9. Some are repairs. And though some are changes, I think they're interesting enough to post.

  • The ammo bars for Mega Man's powers should be quantified for the powers that consume lots of "pixels"/ pellets with a single use. Tornado Blow and Jewel Satellite are two examples of powers that take a chunk out of their ammo/power bar. Because of the way the power bar is divided into pellets, it's difficult to gauge how many more uses of a power are left. This is a simple fix to help player count their bullets so to speak.
  • Like Bionic Commando Rearmed, Mega Man 9 should contain a puzzle mode or challenges that are short levels focusing on the unique properties, nuances, and intricacies of Mega Man's powers.
  • Though the random drops from destroyed enemies has been in the Mega Man series since the beginning, considering the possibilities of taking this design element out of the game can lead to some refreshing design alternatives.
  • To balance not getting health drops from enemies, it would be interesting if Mega Man could get small health bonuses by destroying enemies with the M Buster at close range. When gunplay is at the core of a game, I always like design elements that define the space between a gun and the target in interesting ways.
  • To refill the ammo for powers, it would be interesting if Mega Man could interact with specific enemies and/or the environment. How about standing under a rushing waterfall to refill Splash Woman's power? Switch to Magma Man's power and draw in energy from lava pools or flame attacks. Having more unique interaction with the level would give players more reasons to travel back to old levels while preserving the conservation design of the powers that already exists in Mega Man 9.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

LittleBig Fears

LittleBig Planet is going to upgrade my creative abilities significantly. I plan on using the game as a teaching tool for level design, building a portfolio of levels, and communicating/releasing/showcasing unique content to the world. For these purposes, there is a slim chance that LBP will let me down. Check out these videos to see what I mean.


  • The loose and floaty physics: Everything in LBP seems to be physics based. Games like Boom Blox and mods on the Half Life 2 engine have demonstrated that a heavy use of physics interactions can add a lot of uncertainly within a game. Trying to finely adjust elements in Halo 3's Forge can quickly become very frustrating because everything acts according to physics even when you're trying to move things about. Instead of everything being quantified like in Mario or MegaMan, successfully landing on a platform in LBP is a matter of the physics calculations. This makes what would be successful jumps in Mario/MegaMan annoying slips in LBP. (at least, this is what I can gather from videos)
  • vision cam: It seems that this underutilized tool is required for snapping stickers and/or making custom textures in LBP. Since this is the biggest game I want for PS3 I don't really mind shelling out the extra cash for a cam. It still might be beneficial to have other ways of importing images. The PS3 is a media super hub after all.
  • Camera: A properly positioned camera is essentially for almost all games. After all, even 2D Mario needs to see where he's going before he jumps. Hopefully LBP will come with a variety of camera manipulation tools. So far the camera works looks automatic often cutting off vital elements off screen. I wonder if there will be tools for organizing a split screen camera or a camera that takes advantage of internet co-op.
  • The multplayer looks a bit goofy and strained: Everything from the respawn system, to the camera that either zooms out to try and keep all the players on the screen or only focuses on one player, to the faux cooperation looks a bit worrisome. Everything is more fun with friends in a way, but that doesn't mean the design doesn't suffer in the process. Of course, because you can do practically whatever you want in LBP, designing some true cooperative gameplay elements shouldn't be too hard.
  • Music: In order to dodge copyright issues, LBP is offering creative custom music solutions. I don't know how versatile these tools are. If we can record our voice in to the game what stops someone from recording MP3s as their voice?
  • The core mechanics seem to be JUMP, GRAB, PUNCH, SHIFT LANES, and MOVE. I'm not impressed with the JUMP mechanic or any of the other physics based interations in the game quit eyet. If the core mechanics aren't tight, then all the platforming gameplay suffers no matter how we build levels to compensate. I hope the gameplay side of LBP doesn't end up where players play around with the idea of playing a platformer. I can't stand pretending to play a good video game when playing a bad one.

Be afraid.

Good thing all PS3s have a hard drive. If anything goes wrong out the gate, there's always patches, updates, and DLC.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

GH:WT Music Studio Fears & Ideas

I can't help it. Every song I listen to gets me thinking in Guitar Hero. I ponder if a particular song was a level in Guitar Hero, would the individual parts be interesting enough for guitar, bass, keyboard/vocals, and drums? But the ruminating doesn't stop there. I already have a list of over 17 songs that I intend on creating using the Guitar Hero Music Studio. And as the list grows larger so do my crazy ideas. I'm investing a lot of energy into Guitar Hero. The more I invest the more I worry about the limitations of the song creator features.

  • Is there a song length limit? Hopefully I can make a song that's at least 5-6 minutes long. I've already spotted a limit to the number of drum beats available for a song. This worries me greatly.
  • Can the composer choose to double up the drums, keyboard, or vocals? Can we make a song featuring 4 guitars? This kind of flexibility is essential for some of my song ideas.
  • Though everyone has a limit to the amount of songs they can upload to GHTunes, will we still be able to trade songs with our friends? Can we even host the files on our own websites so we don't have to worry about hosting limitations? Also, is the maximum number of uploads determined by PS3 log in names/Xbox Live accounts? If so, what about the Wii? Could we just make new accounts to get more space? Will it be tied to each unique Wii?
  • The developers have said that the tools they are giving the players almost directly compare to the variety, versatility, and quality of the tools that they use to create the real Guitar Hero tracks. Hopefully this includes the new touch pad and slide notes. I also need the ability to create 3 note "power chords," and I would love the ability to create double handed arpeggios where one hand plays on the buttons while the other plays on the touch pad at the same time!
  • Can we balance the audio levels for individual tracks at different points in a song?
  • Can we alter the tempo levels midway though a song?
  • The album cover creator isn't open like LBP or even Mario Kart DS, which is very disapointing. It's more like Halo where players can pick and choose from a set of stickers/templates/stencils and mix up the colors. I hope I can create a specific logo or otherwise refer people to this blog for further information about each song.
  • Because all the skews of Guitar Hero across the 3 platforms have the same features, I though the songs when uploaded to GHTunes would all be compatible with each other. In other words I hope I will be able to download user created songs regardless of the platform they were created on.
  • Apparently, if you have a MIDI compatible PC you can hook up your PS3 to it and extend your song creating abilities. This is an interesting option that I hope the developers can extend in some fashion to the other platforms. Perhaps the Wii can get some DS connectivity for some touch screen editing. This leads me to...


  • What if Guitar Hero: World Tour pulled a Spore and released the Music Studio for purchase for the PC. This would allow players to create and edit their music using a mouse and keyboard instead of having to fiddle with the in game interface. If the developers could figure out a way to make the PC Music Studio free and run in browser, the amount of content on GHTunes would skyrocket just like the creatures in the Spore universe. Doing this would also even out the advantage the PS3 has over the other systems by giving PC functionality to all.
Little Big Planet is having a very similar effect on me as well. More on that later.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What It Means To Be A Gamer

I do not speak for all gamers. And I certainly can't speak for most of us because the impressions playing video games leaves on us is as multitudinous and as variegated as the games we play. I can only speak for myself in hopes that you can relate as a gamer so we all can grow to understand what it means to be a gamer and how the potential thereof.

Growing up I didn't know how different I was from non-gamers; people who don't play video games or games of other sorts. Video gaming started with me at the early age of 3 when I first received NES with Super Mario Bros. 3. Thus began one of the most important pillars of education in my life. Before I entered the public education system, before I learned to play the piano or violin, before I learned how to play soccer, before I learned to love English, before I learned to write, read, before it all I played video games and learned how to learn.

As a child, my mental process while playing a video game went like this: Take in data through the senses (mostly sight). Recognize and organize concepts applying knowledge and categorizing data as necessary. Formulate a plan of action. Send the appropriate signals to the hands to manipulate the controller. Observe results. Repeat process. This method is how we learned as children, and by continuing to play games, I never lost this natural ability to learn.

Video games are interactive. The screen tells me information about the game, and the game in turn communicates and reflects me. Just like how my mental and emotional state is evident in the music I play, video games reflect the internal dialog that exists between the game world and my mind. So by playing video games over the years, I've been an audience to my own mental development, which has shaped my perspective on life.

So we're looking at how playing video games can shape one's perspective. The best way to understand what a video game "does" or how it functions is to not think of it as a game in the first place. While the older generation will look at us gamers and think we're rotting our brains away, we, gamers, know that video games have great potential not only as sources of entertainment but as an art form and teachers as well. Think of a video game as a self contained interactive learning environment where an individual can learn the intricacies of a functioning system through hands on interactions and experimentation in a world if infinite attempts and resources.

Playing a video game is essentially a personally powered, self motivated experience involving exposure, experimentation, practice, and testing. When I was a kid, I was never taught to separate all things video games from any thing else in the world. Video games weren't some new thing unlike the other mediums that have come before it, a dangerous evil destined to be regulated and restricted, or "just an entertainment device." To me, video games were just like everything else. And everything else was just like a game. School was a "game" to me where I learned how to filter and organize information that was useful to me while meeting challenges set by the teacher. The rules of the household weren't oppressive or restrictive boundaries, but challenges/obstacles to be worked around. Comparatively, school and household chores were much easier than defeating Bowser.

And when I took my first piano lesson at around the age of 7, I saw the piano as the largest controller I had ever seen. Each key played only a single note (individual). All the keys were arranged in half steps with the low notes at the bottom and the high notes at the top (intuitive). The sound only played as long as I held a key down (direct). I could hit a key with varying degrees of force to play louder or softer notes (dynamic). From the start I breezed through learning the names of the keys, reading sheet music, and playing through the first few levels of the beginners repertoire. After all, playing beginner piano was simple compared to internalizing the algorithms of Tetris of memorizing the world of Metroid 2.

By gaining more experience in different gaming genres, I picked up the skills of a master organizer. Being able to categorize the world around you exercises a critical skill in pattern recognition. We start by recognizing patterns within a single game. We figure out that we must use the same set of mechanics over and over in a variety of situations and combinations. We group the game elements that can hurt us as enemies. And we learn to recognize levels and stages and repeating challenges.

Then we recognize patterns within and between genres. Mario, Sonic, Kirby, and Samus all jump. Samus and Link explore. Link solves block puzzles like in Tetris. Tetris has a gradually increasing game speed like Space invaders. As we gain more experience in life and with video games, we begin to recognize patters that are much more subtle and complex than repeated mechanics, genres, matching colors, shapes, rhythms, or even note values.

I can recognize patterns in everything from body language, facial expressions, speech mannerisms, diction, emotional states, function, action, and other abstractions. Breaking down one element into its very essence (what it does and how it functions) to find similarities between it and seemingly unrelated elements is a skill that playing video games helps develop.

But it's not the repetitions, nor the hours of practice that the gamer puts into video games that generates this ability to organize. This unique ability stems from the most unique qualities of video games; interactivity and function. These are the elements that sit at the very core of the medium.

Video games teach us to see and think in functions. Enemies are designed to challenge one's path to a goal. Enemies function as obstacles that must be overcome to achieve success. Goomba aren't living creatures in Super Mario Bros. They're just elements that force me to jump on, jump over, or be hurt. In Mario's world, that's all a Goomba is. It's contrary motion. The intent of one function set against another. In a similar fashion, pit falls are not decorative. They're dangerous. Throw a 1up mushroom into the equation and perhaps it's worth risking one's life for. In a given situation, gamers can calculate any number of relevant factors to make an informed decision on approaching the goal. Collecting coins earns extra lives. If they only awarded the player with points, then the function of the coins wouldn't have much of a point and wouldn't impact gameplay the way the currently do. Who plays Super Mario Bros. for points? Points have no function in helping the player rescue the princess.

In the same way that Zelda highlights key words indicating specific objects or locations the player must seek, words pop out at me in lectures, when receiving instruction, or reading for school. I would have found it much more difficult to read Strachey's Narrative or Paradise Lost without setting a filter/goal for the information I needed. The methodology I have just described is surprisingly similar to the work of Paul Scheele at the Learning Strategies Corporation.

One of Scheele's programs teaches people who to read with their whole mind to maximize their time and retention of material. Some of the steps in the program involves recognizing how a text is organized, surveying the material lightly, forming questions, setting goals, and then going over the text. The functional similarities between playing video games and reading with one's whole mind is not coincidental. Honing in on specific words that contain the most purpose for achieving one's goal is a way of looking at the world through function. This view is focused, purposeful, and goal oriented and is something that gamers naturally use.

Gamers see winning and losing differently than non-gamers. We've walked a million miles, thrown a thousand punches, and conquered hundreds of Koopa. Yet on the road to victory we've lost so many more lives, ammunition rounds, vehicles, and friends (Yoshi). By playing video games gamers know that to understand the world (even a virtual gaming world), one must experiment and practice. Losing is a natural process of learning, but for the gamer failing is never a permanent part of the equation.

Gamers have access to infinite lives, which means unlimited tries especially now that gaming has moved away from the arcades. We will lose, die, and try again until we are victorious. The game never gets tired or takes a break, and it's always there when you're ready. In this way, all efforts eventually converge on victory. Losing is just a funny way to win. At least, this is a probable attitude that video games instill in gamers.

So gamers see the world through function and goals, which makes us always up for a challenge. We won't just make a game out of things, we'll make a war out it. We'll fight against each other in our favorite multiplayer games. We'll fight on forums over our favorite games. And we'll even fight in the market over our favorite consoles. If you're reading this, then chances are you are no stranger to the raging console wars that exist where the NPDs proclamations detail the skirmishes of this global war. Our vehemence shrouded in animosity prowling the alleyways of the internet in a world where the illuminating rays of reciprocity have set long ago, has some people (gamers and non-gamers alike) worried.

Some wonder why the people of gaming forums are so brash and pugnacious with their comments and the way they deal with each other. Some wonder why we care so much about our games, the consoles they're published on, and upcoming titles. By now it should be clear why gamers exhibit such behavior. In some part, we've all been raised by our video games. It's not difficult by any stretch of the imagination to see that gamers draw a functional connection between their lives, and the games they play.

Being a gamer means a lot of different things to a lot of people. Only by understanding how a game functions and how a player responds or fits into that function, will we understand that being a gamer is like being a kid where learning, playing, and self expression are an inseparable full time job.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Why Gamers Should Embrace Critical-Material

I have noticed the reactions from gamers and non-gamers alike when I utter the words "critique," "essay," "analysis," or any such term. Among the range of disinterested, repulsed, and condescending reactions, few becomes excited at the idea of reading an essay about any form of entertainment or art.

We've all written essays and book reports throughout our time in school, and perhaps we have grown to hate them over time. Some falsely associate reading a critical essay, which is very different from a review, with work, time consumption, and even flowery, filigree without any real substance. We are people who value our time and invest in our entertainment. So reading a thousand words of meretricious persiflage shouldn't excite us.

But a proper critical essay is not any of these things. A proper essay is clear, concise, and cogent in delivering its message and/or ideas. The reader who takes up such an essay has nothing to lose. With every turn of the page comes a deeper understanding. The writers of such material aren't masked magicians seeking to pull the curtains and reveal the secret inner workings of the world's favorite magic tricks. Such writers don't intend to break the illusion of a trick, but rather uncover a deeper truth in a work.

I've come across many people who squirm, fidget, and practically throw tantrums at the idea of thinking deeply about their favorite TV shows, movies, and video games; especially video games. It's as if all of a sudden, these individuals are transported from the comfort of their living rooms to the ridged, plastic, unyielding prisons of a desk in a dimly lit high school class room. But thinking deeply and obtaining a better understanding is not what they fear. Many times, it's explanation that such individuals seek.

To prove it, just look at any one of these examples: Death Note, Ocean's 11, or The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Each of these works feature an excellent blend of up front information, charismatic characters, and mystery that entices the viewers/readers to try and piece the solution together for themselves. Toward the end of each of these works, what actually happened behind the scenes is revealed and explained thoroughly. Some say "I knew it." Other might say, "I didn't see that coming." But all would rather know than be left in the dark having only a piece of their potential enjoyment.

To draw the analogy, everything preceding the explanation these works is analogous to any form of entertainment or art. The detail explanation that walks through all the steps and piecing together exactly how the elements come together is analogous to a critical essay. Knowing more about a work and how it works doesn't ruin the story/show/film/video game. Not only does it increase one's enjoyment of the work, but afterward it's hard to imagine being without it. Ask anyone who has read/seen Death Note, Ocean's 11, or The Murders in the Rue Morgue if they would rather have had the explanation removed from their experience.

The Sixth Sense is not popular because of the twist at the end. It's popular because when the twist is revealed it creates an "ah ha!" moment giving the viewer a unique opportunity to revisit the film in their mind with a new lens of understanding. Even when watching the film again, the viewer remembers their impressions from when they didn't know the twist in addition to developing a new set of impressions from the informed perspective. In this way, it's like watching two films!

Knowledge is power, and the more lenses one has to view a work of art the more interesting and entertaining it becomes. This is how it is for me at least.

So if you're the type of person who is warming up to the idea of reading critical-essays on your favorite video games, then the Critical-Gaming blog is the right place for you. I pour hours of work and research into each essay so that you don't have to. I know personally, I wouldn't like The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass as much as I do if I didn't write a few essays on it. It's no coincidence that it's my second favorite Zelda next to Majora's Mask.

If video games are the newest and most engaging/interactive art form, a gamer might never understand why unless they start asking questions, thinking more deeply, and tapping into the discourse of their favorite video games. Why wouldn't we want to get extra value from our games?

Platformers DS: Doubleganger Siblings

When the DS first launched, Nintendo decided to port Super Mario 64 over to the handheld. This game is mostly the same except for a few mini games, a multiplayer mode, and some new playable characters. Over all, the port was a good one with the biggest downside being the adapted controls. It's difficult to configure analog controls with digital buttons.

In the next few years Nintendo released 3 "doubleganger siblings" or 3 platformers that have strong roots in the design of previous Nintendo Masterpieces. For these games the DS touch screen is mostly used for navigating menus and displaying large buttons. New Super Mario Brothers, Yoshi's Island DS, and Super Princess Peach are the doubleganger siblings that all fall short of their predecessor.

New Super Mario Brothers (NSMB) takes after Super Mario Brothers for the NES. Yoshi's Island DS (YIDS) is analogous to Super Mario World: Yoshi's Island for the SNES. And Super Princess Peach (SPP) is modeled after both of theses games. Understanding exactly how these games work compared to the console counterparts is more compliated than it seems. Handhelds are different devices than consoles and requires different design techniques and approaches. The reducsed screen size and aspect ratio is always an issue. Many were quick to judge some of these games as not having innovated, but there are sublte ways to innovate on a theme. Uncovering the structures for these games requires that we look at their structures starting with the core and moving outward.

NSMB starts off with the core of Super Mario Brothers: JUMP, DUCK, MOVE, RUN. Then additional abilities were added: WALL KICK, TRIPLE JUMP, GROUND POUND giving Mario then ability to platform/climb vertically in all new ways as well as destruct the level beneath him. From these expanded core abilities, the levels in NSMB were free to be designed in any direction. Consequently the developers felt free to take bits and pieces of level design from SMB, SMB3, and SMW. The flat level layouts belong to SMB. Some of the bosses and left & right scrolling levels hearken back to SMB3. The world map, chain fences, bosses, and ghost houses can be traced back to SMW.

After drawing from these 3 excellent games, you would think that NSMB would be the most "Mario" Mario game. When I first played it, I enjoyed the game but wasn't very impressed. Now, after studying SMB, SMB3, and SMW more closely, I can appreciate the blend that is NSMB more.

  • Blue Shell, tiny mushroom, big mushroom are the new powerups. The blue shell is genius taking the form of the turtle shell that we all know and understand by now and putting a Mario inside. All the interplay desinged into the shell is now under the player's control.
  • Levels can be designed to flow up, down, left, and right. The respawning enemies sort of created folded level movements when Mario travels backwards.
  • The camera zooms in an out appropriately. When the player needs to see more of what's ahead, the camera pulls back perfectly and smoothly. If Mario can't look before he leaps, then the game just wouldn't quite be Mario.
  • The camera also scrolls positioning Mario further left/back on the small DS screen than when on a TV screen like in SMB. Because in NSMB mario is 1/12th the size of the screen instead of 1/16, in order to see enough of the level coming, the screen had to pull back to compensate.
  • Some levels are truly inspired (7-3 & 7-5). They not quite like SMB, SMB3, or SMW making them distinctly NSMB.
  • Excellent multiplayer modes. Aside from the 4 player Mario Party type mini games, the 2 player side scrolling "battle mode" takes all of the gameplay from the single player in NSMB and pits two players against each other in a looping stage. Who knew all the interplay, mechanics, and folded design would come together so nicely in a multiplayer mode. It's examples like these that show that strong core design goes a long way for any type of game.
  • Pits and other level hazards are undermined with WALL KICKs. All pits are almost harmless because Mario can simply wall kick out of them. I found my self taunting the pits by intentionally jumping into them and seeing how low I could go while still being able to safely WALL KICK out. Fortunately, many levels have lava, poison water, and large pits so this strategies . On the plus side, being able to WALL KICK like this helps to minimize the reduced viability problem that all handheld platformers face.
  • Too many power ups/power ups in the bank. Because small pits are less of a problem, dying doesn't really happen. To make things worse, there are too many powerups in every level. Unlike in SMB, Mario can take 3 hits before dying from the fire flower powerup state. This extra cushion makes things easier for the player. But then, the player can to store a power up on the bottom screen and use it at any time. Powerups in previous Mario platformers used to be just rare enough so that players would charrish them. Now they're practically given away at every street corner.
  • Confused Difficulty Structure: In SMB, players had one clear shot from start to finish to try and beat the game. There were no save options. In SMB3, players had a bit of a cushion. If they lost all of their lives, they would simply start back at the beginng of the world not the game. This design gave the developers the leeway to make the levels trickier and harder. In both of htese games, the player couldn't go back and replay conquered levels. In SMW, players could save after ghost houses, bosses, and big switches dividing the save zones into even smaller sections. NSMB tries to have a linear overward like SMB, tricks to progression like SMB3, and save options similar to SMW. Compounded with the excess of powerups, NSMB difficulty doesn't come from progressing through the levels/game. Instead NSMB positions 3 coins per stage for the player to find and collect to increase the challenge.
  • Awkward saving. The limited number of saves in NSMB is awkard like Resident Evil. At some point, I found myself traveling to other world just so I could use a save station because I had run out of saves on the world I was previously in. The save system design has been opened up from the designs of Mario's previous games. There's no need to limit saves like this.
  • Some of the new enemies look terribly uninspired and un-Mario. ie. the hanging spiders, running punching ghost thing, the crows, and the pumpkins.

Yoshi's Island DS began with the Yoshi's Island core. MOVE, DUCK, JUMP, FLUTTER, MAKE EGGS, THROW EGGS, GROUND POUND, TONGUE, SPIT, rolling rocks, Piranha flowers, shy guys, flowers, and red coins. For the DS sequel, the developers looked at the character abilities, and decided to add character abilities via the babies riding on Yoshi's back. With the help of these infantile friends the player can now RUN, PARASOL GLIDE, SPIT FIRE BALL, CLIMB ON VINES, and MAGNET objects not to mention collect special character coins. More is better right? With such a solid core how can this game go wrong? It's all in the execution. You can't have a best core design with the worst level design. These two elements of a game depend on each other.

  • Reducing the running speed of Yoshi (except with Mario's special ability) was smart because Yoshi takes up 1/35th of the space on a single DS screen instead of 1/48th like on the SNES. Moving more slowly gives the player more time to react to the upcoming level.
  • Compensating for the DS screen gap creates a searching/adventure mechanic to the game. Yoshi can adjust the screen up or down by a distance equal to the gap between the DS screens by holding up or down. By hitting X and up/down, the player can shift the main screen of play to the top or bottom screen. This can reveal secrets and parts of the layout to the player.
  • Flutter is a genius way to make a downward "JUMP" mechanic, and to show how the different babies have different weights.
  • The level design can be quite terrible. The green falling blob level comes to mind. It seems like the developers just threw enemies and platforms together without play testing or tuning the elements to create a solid game idea.
  • Creating secret/specific paths that require a specific baby adds unnecessary back tracking the way the baby switching is set up. The unique baby abilities are fine, but the elements that require a specific baby ultimately results in having to memorize areas of the stage for the next pass through or backtrack to get the right baby.
  • The levels don't have large governing game ideas. They seem to be in service of the secrets and even those seem forced and artificially placed in the level.
  • The new enemies/character look like they were designed/drawn by a child.

Super Princess Peach starts with core mechanics from NSMB and YIDS (MOVE/RUN, JUMP, DUCK, WALK, POUNDBRELLA) with some of the more unique mechanics being functionally analogous (TONGUE = PICK UP, MAKE EGGS = EAT, FLUTTER = FLOATBRELLA). The enemies and level elements are also very similar: Goomba, Paratroopers, Pirahna Flowers, warp pipes, springs, and informative-talking help blocks. SPP even encourages players to collect toads scattered throughout each level like the flowers from Yoshi's Island.

  • Primary Function: Understanding and using one's emotions. Each emotional state (Joy, Gloom, Rage, and Calm) have various effects on Peach and/or the environment. Understanding theses effects and using them to progress is the core gimmick of SPP. What's also interesting is that the image of Peach on the bottom screen displays Peaches emotional states and Peach's "woman's intuition." By paying attention to Peach's expression, the player can tune into Peaches more subtle emotions.
  • Emotions is the lens through which the whole game is filtered. Not only must the player understand Peach's emotional states, but the emotions of the enemies as well. Like Peach's 5 emotional states (including neutral state) the enemies can also exhibit emotional states. With each state, the enemy's behavior changes. Mad enemies are more aggressive. Calm enemies sleep giving Peach the chance to sneak up on them. Glad enemies walk around with their eyes closed and a song in their hearts and will occasionally jump for joy to throw off the player's timing.
  • Nice adjustable difficulty by purchasing upgrades with coins. Just like in Mario Galaxy, there's a balance in how one kills an enemy and the rewards one gains. Jumping on an enemy versus using the homing stomp is harder and rewards the player with life restoring coins. In SPP, killing the enemies with umbrella attacks is riskier and rewards the player with coins. To balance this, player forfeits the opportunity to PICK UP and EAT the enemies to restore their vibe (emotion) meter.
  • Due to the similarities with the core Mario design, SPP features the same basic counterpoint that Mario does.
  • The broken, piecemeal level design is often very circular and very confusing. By taking too many warp pipes from one section to another the organic, cohesive design of the level is demolished.
  • The touch screen mini game levels that precede each boss are neat enough the first time, but become annoying when they're repeated.
  • The emotion states are simply not dynamic enough. There are several obstacles throughout each level that obviously require the use of a specific emotion to overcome, but other than these areas SPP doesn't use or layer the emotion mechanics at all. The water from the Gloom state and the fire from the Rage state should have much more dynamic effects on the environment/enemies.
  • The level design didn't focus on the Mario mechanics, and couldn't focus on the emotion mechanics because of their lack of dynamics. SPP sits in a state in between familiar greatness and great potential, and falls short of both.
  • SPP should have been designed as more of a puzzle/platformer focusing on the emotion mechanics instead of an action/platformer.