Sunday, March 30, 2008

Decoupling the Player Input

Believe it or not, but designing a True-Music game is incredibly difficult and complex. I have the full B.E.S. team working on developing small musical mechanics that can be layered into a game engine.

One aspect of design that we've recently focused on is how playing music, particularly from memory, can be reverse engineered to expose and examine the associative elements of the learning process. In other words, by returning to what I sometimes refer to as the ultimate (videogame) "controller," the piano, and treating the action of playing music as a game mechanic, I can imagine how I learned to play piano like a game tutorial and apply the results accordingly.

So what have I uncovered? I found out that I've memorized piano music as a series of muscle movements that are coupled with one another. The right hand is generally dominant in music because it usually caries the melody of a song. Because of this, my left hand takes cues from my right hand in order to figure out what muscles to move to play the right notes and how to move my hand/arm to be prepared for what's next. Despite my piano teachers advising me to learn my pieces so well that I could play a whole song without the other hand, I could never do it.

In order to decouple my hands, I invented an exercise that starts with both hands playing together, but the gradually works out one of the hands. By pretending to play with one of the hands, the playing hand can take just enough cues to keep playing. Eventually, I can work both hands independently because I've essentially created a new set of cues for my hands that don't depend on each other. With a little practice, I've reached a new level of control and freedom with my piano playing.

For GuitaRPG, I will design a system where the player associates playing certain colored keys with images/cues on the game screen. And by using the same system of decoupling, I can gradually work the player into comfortably playing music form cues they generate themselves.

Keeping the B.E.S. engine cranking.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Function Creates Form: A Look at the Zelda Series Unifiying Design Philosophies

Form fits function: The cornerstone design philosophy of all of Nintendo’s greatest games. However, for two of my favorite Zelda games, a new phrase must be coined about the relationship of form and function found within their core design. For the purposes of this essay, I will examine how “function creates form” in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and in its spiritual sister game The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

True to what has now become classic Zelda form, both Majora’s Mask and Phantom Hourglass share many of the same functions between them and all other Zelda games. The main character is a youthful, mute, sword wielding, adventurous tike who risks life and limb to overcome the challenges set against him and/or the world he currently occupies. When I say “function creates form” I am looking past these obvious similarities and zooming straight to the core gimmick of each game. The first thing that pops into any gamers head when Majora’s Mask is mentioned is probably Clock Town and how the game repeats itself in a three day cycle. Likewise, for Phantom Hourglass, controlling the game via the Nintendo DS touch screen, drawing on the maps, and the Temple of the Ocean King are the unique identifiers. I should mention I use gimmick in a strictly positive sense. When I do, I don’t refer a mechanic intended to deceive or trick, but rather a sometimes hidden innovation intended to attract attention and increase the unique value of a product or work. To the conscious gamer, many gimmicks are identified after they have failed in their deception. I assure you, Majora’s Mask and Phantom Hourglass are on the highest level of design for the use of their gimmicks of repeated time and drawing on maps respectively.

Both Majora’s Mask and Phantom Hourglass use repeated time to continually expose the player to the same information and scenarios that transform over time. Majora’s Mask features the bustling city known as Clock Town. For three days, everyone in the city, and for that matter, then entire game world is busy doing something specific at every moment. Some are building structures in the town, others are working in the local inn, and others still are simply living out their days. Over time, the player is exposed to more and more characters that simply cannot be experienced in one 3 day period. This design in itself, is quite remarkable. Essentially, after 3 days the world is reset, and the player is brought back to the beginning of the cycle. Every 3 days the world repeats, yet time and progress for the player continues to grow. This is because, though time may repeat, the player carries the experiences, knowledge, and items he/she has gained previously. And, in true Zelda fashion that unifies the gimmick and the core gameplay, with every upgrade, piece of knowledge, or new ability that is gained, Clock Town transforms. With every repeated cycle, the player knows where more characters are, what their doing, and how to help them. With every race transformation, new dialog options between characters are opened, and with each transformation comes a new way to traverse the diverse world. With each of the game’s 20 masks comes a new perspective on the world that literally transforms the player’s physical appearance and the way they look at the world. All of Majora’s Mask’s themes, character, locations, and mechanics mostly revolve around Clock Town. It’s the center target for life and the target for the central conflict.

Likewise, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass shares a mechanically analogous design to Majora’s Mask. During the first few years of the DS’s life, many raised complaints that the second screen in the dual screened device was only used to display maps while the game screen was displayed on the other screen in a very ordinary and uncreative fashion. Though these top screen maps were convenient in games like Casltlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Kirby Canvas Curse, when the designers wove the design into the core gameplay experience like in Mario Kart DS and Phantom Hourglass, all disappointed retrospection disappeared. Some even made exclamations like “how could I have played a racing/Zelda game without this feature.” The heart of Phantom Hourglass is still the heart of any great Zelda game. But the primary gimmick isn’t touch screen controls, rather it is drawing on maps.

At its finest use, drawing notes on the maps in Phantom Hourglass function as a message left for yourself from the past that transforms the way you view the world around you presently. But before I speak on that level of design, I’ll start with the lowest most “gimmicky” use of Phantom Hourglass’ gimmick. The lowest used of map scribing is drawing picture or jokes that have nothing to do with the solving puzzles. I only mention this because of how the form of a pen and paper coupled with the function of infinite ink and infinite erasure appeals to the average player. Being neat, efficient, and only scribing relevant material on one’s maps comes second to freely expressing oneself. Pictochat can attest to that fact. Such a form creates a freedom that instantly personalizes one’s maps and one’s gaming experience.

Moving upward in map drawing design is writing notes as a substitute for using one’s short term memory. In other words, just because you can. When a towns’ person told me I could find something interesting in a particular tree on Mercay island that was really only a few steps away, I went ahead and jotted it down on my map. Puzzles that require levers to be pulled in a specific order fall into this category as well. Such elements ease the player into using the touch screen to write notes without forcing them to do so. There are some cases where the game takes out the maps for you or when characters remind you several times to jot the information down. But even in these cases, the player is hardly forced. In this way, drawing on maps becomes a easy and natural extension of the players thoughts and memory.

On the next level are the spatial and image puzzles. In order to find the right location to dig a hole in order to enter a secret base on Molida Island, players are told to draw lines from specific land marks that they must search out on for themselves on foot. After locating each landmark and marking it on the map, the player must draw lines between them to find the “x” that marks the spot. Such a puzzle is difficult to solve without the bird’s eye view of the area as well as the ability to “connect the dots.” Additionally, some puzzles require players to remember specific shapes. To quickly travel around the ocean, the player can summon cyclones to transport them. In order to determine one’s landing site, players have to draw specific shapes on their Cyclone Slate that correspond to locations on the ocean. These shapes are abstract to the English and Japanese alphabet making memorizing all 6 symbols difficult. For these puzzles, the touch screen functions as the paper you would have had to find and write on in order to solve them without stress. Though the game never tells the player specifically to write each symbol on the map at the location where they would be transported, at this point in the game, identifying one’s location and marking the relevant information accordingly is second nature. Unlike many of the puzzles described in the previous level of the drawing on map design, these puzzles emphasis writing notes relative to specifics locations or areas found on the map. This design feature alone takes the player from note taker to cartographer.

All three of the previous design levels work together to give the player the abilities needed to be their own instrument that independently powers their transformation of the game world. By going through the previous levels, the player is now used to jotting down information whether or not it seems pertinent to any future puzzle, using the touch screen as a supplement to their own memory, and being aware that the map helps them visualize a given area as a unified space that exists beyond what can be seen at any one time in the frame of the game’s view. If something looks suspicious, the player takes a note of it. If the player wonders of future possibilities, they jot that down as well. By writing on the maps, the player catalogues his/her thoughts which reflect their current understanding of the game world. And by revisiting these areas, the past is met with the present bringing together the two different states of the player. What looked like a strange hole before, becomes an opportunity to discover a secrete now that the player has a new item that can squeeze through such holes. True to Zelda fashion, with each item comes a new way to move and explore the game world that was virtually invisible and unreachable to them before. So when the player finds out that bombchus (little explosive robotic mice) can fit through these strange looking holes, if they marked other places they saw holes, then it’ll be easy for them to go back to previously visited areas. These areas will be new for the player because they have a new way to interact with the environment. This is the essence of the way the worlds in Zelda games transform but enhanced using Phantom Hourglass’ gimmick.

Unlike in Clock Town, where players reset to the same place and time every 3 day cycle and where the majority of the characters interact in a single location, Phantom Hourglass is much more open. The sea is yours to conquer and it’s pretty big especially considering it’s all on the Nintendo DS. In Phantom Hourglass, players can visit some islands once and never return. This makes all the notes left on that island’s map forgotten things of the past. Though the game does a good job of giving the player compelling reasons to revisit some areas, it’s still not enough to ensure that the most player would reach the highest level of design found in the map drawing gimmick. In other words, having the player revisit Mercay and Molida island throughout the game isn’t enough to develop a meaningful and satisfying transformation for the player. Also, these islands don’t have much going on (except the Temple of the Ocean King, which I’ll get to shortly). I can imagine the designers needed to find a way for players to continually revisit a single area without being able to exhaust it in a few passes. Furthermore, this area can’t bog down players who have a desire to linger in order to explore on their own. This is where the Temple of the Ocean King comes into play and why its design is reflective of the highest level of genius known to the Zelda series and subsequently to all videogames.

Instead of having time repeat to force the player to go through something again (hopefully with a new perspective), The Temple of the Ocean King was design with a time limit. According to the fiction, the Phantom Hourglass keeps Link protected from the evil forces that seek to drain away his life upon setting his first step into the temple. True to the form of an hourglass, time drains away steadily in the temple. When it gets to zero, the player’s health starts to drain away. If the player dies, it’s game over. This feature in itself is a way for the designer to control the players time in the Temple keeping the player‘s exploration time as short as need be. Throughout the game, players can get more time for their hourglass so that they can delve deeper into the temple. The more the player plays, the more the items and weapons they acquire on their adventure dynamically transform the temple. When before, players had to run completely around a Basement level 2 avoiding obstacles and hazards, now they can simply bomb a hole in the wall making a convenient shortcut. By the time the player enters the temple for the 4th time, it’s a completely different experience. Finding the short cuts and understanding how the temple changes dynamically over time can only be done once parts of it are played straight. This in itself creates momentum and a deeply satisfying sense of progression that makes returning to the temple an exciting opportunity for players to show the game, and themselves, how much they’ve learn and grown in such a short time.

Clock Town and the Temple of the Ocean King would not have been created if the designers weren’t looking for a unified way to bring together their unique gimmick and the core game play the Zelda series is well known for. These perfectly designed game areas cannot be duplicated even in other Zelda games. They’re a product of each game’s unique vision, gimmick, and refined gameplay. It never ceases to amaze me how important function is for the developers of the Zelda series. In an interview with Miyamoto, he described how Midna was created so that players have something to focus on when playing wolf Link. To him, staring at the tail end of a running animal wasn’t too appealing. Knowing how well integrated and pivotal Minda, the Twilight Princess, is to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is evidence that form is secondary to function.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Bit of Research: Stale-Move Negation

It was in Melee, and we ignored. Now in Brawl, Sakurai has made it to where we can't ignore it any longer. Stale-Move Negation is when moves weaken in both damage and knock back when used in succession. How does it work exactly? Sakurai didn't want to get to technical on the Dojo, so it looks like we'll have to pick up the slack.

I'll start with a few quick facts and then move into the real scientific/research/data portion.

  • Moves weaken even after one use
  • By using other moves the strength of moves can return
  • Damage is calculated by fractions even though the damage is displayed as a whole number percentage
  • As a general rule, an attack must hit an opponent and do damage to both weaken and sharpen
  • Each input of an attack command counts as 1 hit towards sharpening
  • Each throw, punching after grabbing, and successfully landed projectiles can both weaken and sharpen
  • Multi hitting attacks only count as 1 hit, but the 1-2-3 neutral punch combo counts as 3 (because of the 3 separate A button inputs).
  • To sharpen one move from any amount of decay, at least 9 hits from other attacks must be successfully landed
  • A move recovers strength (sharpens) by a percentage amount. This means it'll take 9 hits from other attacks to fully restore an attack whether or not it was fully weakened or barely weakened.
  • Dying resets all depreciated values on all moves. If you're at high damage and you don't want to die, I suggest avoiding the opponents kill moves. However, their moves will only weaken individually and only when they successfully hit you. So, you'll be fighting a pretty dangerous battle from then onward.
I ran a couple of tests using Kirby's moves on Dedede. Here's some of the results.

Kirby hammer ground (side + B)
damage % [blue data]
24 100%
20 83%
18 75%
16 67%
15 63%
13 54%
12 50%
12 50%
11 46%
10 42%
11 46%
10 42%

The more damage a move does, the smoother the curve of course. But, as you can see, the cure is consistent between four of Kirby's moves: hammer (blue) rock (red), forward smash (yellow), forward tilt (green).

Next, I used Kirby's jab attack to sharpen my hammer attack that I had reduced to 10 damage (the absolute lowest damage for the move). This chart compares the decay rate with the sharpening rate.

As you can see, the two curves meet at 70%, which is about 17 % of damage. This is the value that all moves will hover at if the move is used every other move.

In the next chart, I test the values of two moves simultaneous.

The hammer (blue) and the forward smash (red) reach approximately 70% at the same time. In this test, the hammer was at it's absolute weakest, and the forward smash was at it's strongest.

This means, the weakest you can make two moves is 70% of their original strength. If you try to weaken 3 moves, the percentage only climbs.

Ultimately, in Brawl, players can only significantly weaken one move in their arsenal. Because knock back is also reduce, new combos can emerge. Try weakening Marth's forward air by using it 9 times in a row. Then try pulling off a forward air into a forward smash combo. Because the dynamics of weight and knockback and damage are in flux, becoming a master of one's character is deeper than ever.

Remember though, it is possible to significantly reduce the damage/knock back potential of several moves. Though all the decay curves are almost the same, some moves lose their edge more quickly and apparently than others.

Really, all you need to remember at this early stage in Brawl's life is... if you want to deliver more than one of your most powerful blows with a single attack, make sure you find 9 hits in between uses.

For the future: I have not tested how Pokemon Trainer, Zelda/Shiek, or Samus/Zamus's transformations affect stale-move negation.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Seventh Impressions: ...and the ugly

As my Brawl week of impressions draws to a close, I wanted to talk about some of the things that I don't like about Brawl. Because the game is so good, and because most of the time when Sakurai puts his time into something it turns out amazing, what I displeases me about Brawl like skips right past the bad and lands somewhere among "the ugly."

Items... oh no.
Many say that items, including smash balls, were designed to be a "casual" gamers lucky dice roll that may turn the tides of a battle in their favor. I object to such a statement because I don't believe there is such a thing as casual game design. This topic is difficult to approach because of the many different ways casual and hardcore can be defined. I choose to clarify things by looking at the evolution of a gamer. We're all "casuals" to some game or genre at some point before becoming "hardcore." Though most gamers and "journalists" in the industry privilege the hardcore gamer as as someone to be respected, catered to, and held in esteem, to me, being a hardcore gamer means becoming a gamer that ignores all the shortcomings that a game may have because of their unquestioning devotion. Hardcore gamers even go as far as preferring elements and features in a game when they do nothing else but detract from the primary function of the game and, from a design standpoint, its ultimate quality. When the "hardcore" elements of a game are broken down and analyzed by what true function they have and how they shape gameplay, many commonly thought of "hardcore" game design elements are actually casual. RPG stats, leveling up, difficulty settings, voice acting, voice chat, combos, measuring games by how many hours it takes to beat it, open world games, more likely than not make games more casual by allowing the player to ignore a games rules and the mechanics of a game or becoming distracted from the game.

In Melee, holding an item took away the players ability to grab. Grabbing is one of the cornerstones of Smash Brother's balance. Without it, you have a gapping hole in your options. Because of this design feature, obtaining items can change up the strategies of the battle on the fly. Further more, items had the least amount of priority in the game. So even when someone threw a home run bat at you, you could block it by using any attack in your arsenal (even Kirby's neutral air attack). Beyond these measures, some of the more powerful items had draw backs built right in. Hammers could lose their heads leaving the wielder a sitting duck. All of these features made item use in Melee quite balanced.

Items have been designed and implemented so poorly in Brawl that, when looking at the entire scope of the game, the limitations of having a single mind guiding the vision of a project such as Masahiro Sakurai become apparent. He admits to being a prankster at heart, and it really shows. Random explosions and from randomly spawning creates, containers, and items were bad enough in Melee. Honestly, it's not hard to design a feature that gives the player a little warning before something so dangerous randomly enters the match. Now in Brawl, not only has this problem persisted, but items have in a way gotten worse. Pokeballs and Assist trophies are only interesting to a point. When these items are unleashed the majority of the creatures and characters are invulnerable to damage. In my mind, this was a big mistake. It would only be cooler to go toe to toe with an assist trophy in order to stop it or even slow it from causing so much chaos on the field. Instead, these erratic additions reek havok leaving the defending player with limited options.

Bad items
In Brawl, more items don't have counters. These items include most of the Pokemon that come out of Pokeballs, and most of the assist trophy characters. Activating an item that is essentially an invincible character, greatly favors the first player to get to and use that item. This unfortunately makes the randomly dropped items a wild card favoring fate and the player with the the greatest charge of kismet. This feature could be thought of as giving the casual or less skilled players a chance at winning a match, however, from what I can gather about Sakurai's personality, dreams, and intent with Brawl, he has a soft spot for four player free for alls that are filled with as much pomp and romp as can fit on a single TV screen. Seriously, the online free for all battles are so hectic and confusing, that they, at times, provide little entertainment beyond the colors and sound that the TV projects. Sakurai was set on this vision of smash play that he limited the online play mode "With Anyone" to four player battles even to the extent of adding in CPU characters to fill in the missing spaces to the sacrifice the battle's latency.

I can understand switching a person's place with a CPU if they drop out of a match so droppers don't discourage anyone from playing the game who might be overly sensitive or new to online play. But dropping in a CPU when nobody asked for one in a human v. human match is going too far. Would it have hurt to ask the players if they wanted a CPU character as well? Sakurai did many things to stream like Brawls options and presentation so that as many different types of people could use it with ease. But honestly, if someone is playing a videogame, they're probably smart enough to answer a yes or no question every now and then. Instead of giving the player a choice, Sakurai shoe horned us into all playing a mode that isn't as varied or flexible as the game he created.

Having no option for 1v1 "With Anyone" Brawls is another mistake. Decisions like this lend me to think that Sakurai really doesn't like it when people take his prank filled game too seriously. It could have been as simple as clicking off the last two player slots when selecting your character so that the game only filters for people looking for one more opponent to fight. Even if four players was the ideal way to play, adding more people into an online match means adding more connections. This inevitably means, the more people you add, the greater the chances of a bad or unplayable connection to occur. This is why I think the decision to only include four player "With Anyone" matches is a mistake. With very few changes, we could have had options that would still fit within the casual friendly model that was adopted for the game.

Too many nestled functions
Items are now easier to pick up than ever before. Doing an attack near an item automatically grabs it. But it's not just attacking, air dodging through an item, hitting the grab button in the air, and the A button on the ground also picks up items. This is where I draw the line for the acceptable amount of contextual functions in a control scheme. Do I really need all these buttons to grab an item? What options do I have if I want to attack without grabbing an item? It seems that I'm suck with this annoyance. I'm not sure why an option in the detailed controller customization wasn't included to remedy such an issue. Furthermore, I don't need the grab button to perform an air dodge when I'm in the air. I have a perfectly good shield button for that. It seems that such functions are so closely layered together that they have started to get in each others way.

Too many unlockables
After reading the 1up interview with Nintendo about Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, I'm convinced that it is the best and my favorite Advance Wars game not only because of how they refined the gameplay and the style of the game, but how they reduced the clutter. By taking out the hard mode, unlockable content, an RPG like leveling up feature, and a myriad of other side modes and options that players have come to expect from each installment of the Advance Wars series, Days of Ruin has been completely cleaned up. Not only is the game focused with deeper gameplay, it is easier to pick up and play for veterans and new comers. This makes the game flexible to the type of player and their life style by providing different amounts of the core experience no matter how much time one has to devote to the game. I have 117 hours clocked in on my Brawl file alone, and I still haven't unlocked all the characters. What kind of monster has Sakurai created? There have been jokes that someone could play this game forever, but do we really want to be unlocking content forever as well. After playing 100 hours of any game, I almost feel like the developers should just give me all the hidden content. Though I don't want to take away the freedom to prolong, conceal, and reward the player with content over time, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin is making me think there's a better way.

Too much time on the fringe elements
I'm not going to pretend like I know how the resources were distributed throughout the development of Brawl, but I will say that the gameplay and options for the online and offline Brawl versus modes could have used some more attention. I'm still in the middle of the Subspace Emissary adventure mode. Though I'm enjoying the adventure, the majority of my time and focus is on learning the complexities of the fighting system and training myself for future tournaments. I know there are some players who aren't interested in going to tournaments or training themselves. Some people bought the game just because of the "fan service" or for the single player modes. Though I appreciate these, what I call, fringe elements, at the end of the day, Brawl is a fighter, and versus mode is where fighters live. The coin launcher is neat but, there are some things that have slipped through that greatly affect the most important part of the game, and I can only think of what minor element could have been sacrificed to have fixed the major problems. So unless Sakurai has secretly tucked away a way of patching the game via online downloads, then I can only be slightly disappointed. Why design a game where the save file of over 100 blocks that can't be transfered, unless some of that space was reserved for game patches? They can start by taking out Dedede's chain throw and adding double elimination to the tournament mode.

Knowing that Sakurai is not fond of making sequels to his games in the least bit, it's a miracle he came back to make Brawl. However, it is for this same reason that I think Brawl was held back. Having the same guy work on his sequels is a great way for him to give it a second try and fix whatever went wrong with the previous installments. However, this usually means that they won't bring fresh ideas to the project. Sakurai was sadden with Melee's release that he couldn't put more work into the single player adventure mode. So what does he do with Brawl? He goes all out making the Subspace Emissary. While this mode is fun at times, game design wise, it's not very good. Actually it borders on bad. If the Subspace Emissary was all there was to Brawl, I'd give the game a "D". So much of the development energy was put into this mode, and in the end, the gameplay in this mode is mostly forgettable. The cinematic scenes are priceless, but the remind me of a different game that I would love to play that someone like Miyamoto would have to design. Remember that cutscenes provide a wonderful view into a world and of action that you'll never get to play. It's true for other games, and it's true for the Subspace Emissary mode.

Are you Trippin'?
I tried to defend tripping. I fought the battle no one else wanted to fight. It saddens me to say that I think tripping just randomly happens after dashing with your character. I can't believe anyone would actually implement such an egregious mechanic into their game. Sakurai's pranks have gone too far. How can he encourage playing the game which includes dashing around, using dash attacks, and pivot grabs from dashes if dashing becomes increasingly risky and frustrating the more a player does it and the more times they trip? He put so many random prankster elements into the game already, did he really have to add tripping. Moving, attacking, and controlling our characters were the last sure thing we had in the game, and now that's been tampered with. If tripping is truly random, then I have lost respect for Sakurai.

Sakurai came onto the Brawl project with a vision. That vision didn't include improving item play. Looking back on things now, I would give up so many features to have a better versus mode. I appreciate all that Sakurai has done for Smash. But I believe that he has accomplished his vision for the game. Hopefully next time, if there is a next time, someone with a more critical perspective will be on board.

One can only hope.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sixth Impressions: Preserving the Fighting Spirit

The more I play Brawl the more I'm convinced that not only did Sakurai and team not attempt to balance Melee, but they didn't think we would take and use many of the implemented features and mechanics religiously. In my mind, I don't think they thought we would use L-canceling, short hopping, (and while we're at it) fast falling so aggressively. By relentlessly using these techniques characters like Fox, Falco, and even Gannondorf could pour pressure on their opponents with an unnatural amount of speed, power, versatility, and precision. I don't say unnatural because I think this style of play shouldn't have happened. I say unnatural because I just don't think any of the developers and play testers saw it coming, which means they didn't account for it.

This time around, such things were accounted for. So much so, that I believe Brawl was balanced "to the short hop." In order to understand what I mean by this, I'd like to describe the check list I go through when playing a character for the first time in Brawl.

1) Find the Kill moves
  • "Kill 'em with a kill move!" Seems simple enough, but knowing and using a character's strong moves is essential for knocking them off the stage or knocking them out completely. The killing part of a move can be at the beginning of a move, in the middle, or at the end. Try a move out a few times a few different ways and then move on.
2) Figure out which Air moves recover the fastest
  • L-canceling all air A moves was a staple for competitive Melee play. Now that moves auto cancel, I always take a little time to figure out which moves still recover quickly. As a general rule, neutral airs almost always recovery quickly in Brawl.
3) Determine the neutral jab style
  • By simply hitting A over and over (or just holding it) most characters will go into combo of punches, kicks, and or whips (Ivysaur/Diddy). This standard attack is essential for breaking up jumpers, rollers, and shield grabbers. The jab combo is quick and very effective at doing one of two things: racking up damage (Shiek, Kirby, Falco, Fox) , or sending the opponent flying (Snake, Ike).
4) Determine the range and effectiveness of up tilt/up air/ up smash
  • Knowing the effectiveness of their up moves is important for keeping the opponents juggled in the air where they have less strategic options. If you don't understand what I mean, check out my fifth impressions of brawl for the map of the dynamics of a Brawl battle.

5) Determine the style of dash attack
  • Because wave sliding is out, players have to commit to their movements more than ever. Using your dash attack well may be the difference between winning an losing. Some dash attacks can crack away at shields. Others can kill. Others still can start combos.

6) Determine the recovery style and options
  • Can you use other B moves to help you recover? Can you walk kick? Cling to walls? Do you have a tether recovery? Do you have extra jumps? Can you glide? Can you teleport? All these questions are important. Nothing can be more deadly than a predictable recovery plan.

I really want to focus on the first 2 steps in the list. Some characters in Brawl have really strong versatile moves in the air. In Melee, when such moves were combined with the short hop and pressure drop, characters could continually and quickly use their strong moves. In Brawl, the stronger and more versatile moves a character has relative to their other abilities, the more recovery lag they have when landing on the ground. But to be even more precise, the timing of the moves has been fine tuned so that the stronger moves are more effective when used in a full jump or even a double jump.

For example, Falco's forward A air attack has multiple hits and is his only air move that can send enemy forward. This move comes out quick, but has a bit of recovery lag when it lands on the ground. This is not be best move to use from a short hop. But because Falco doesn't have a lot of options to push or knock the opponent forward, he has to set things up for himself by using other moves from his repertoire in order to round out his deficiencies.

In Melee, Falco could use his incredible speed, over powered down air, and nearly broken reflector to pierce defenses and launch opponents. Though highly unbalanced, Falco's Melee style was very entertaining and what's more impressive, Falco played like a bird. He took opponents into the sky, only to drop them back to the ground, only to land on them with his talons (feet), only to repeat the process before disposing with his prey. I think Falco says it best in Brawl, "Personally, I prefer the air."

What I find most impressive with Brawl's new balance is, unique styles of play like Falco's have been preserved. Falco's down air in Brawl spikes at the beginning instead of throughout the entire animation of the attack. Though this aspect was toned down from Melee, the move still lasts a little while and recovers quickly with little recovery lag. From this attack, players can use Falco's new up tilt that spins with multiple hits. This move is highly effective at penetrating defenses and launching opponents up into the air where, as we recall, Falco does his best work.

Falco's up tilt isn't very strong and it doesn't send opponents very far, so Falco has to follow it up. Fortunately, Falco's up air also has very little landing lag. That's an option. Furthermore, now that the enemy is in the air, Falco has a great opportunity to full hop and use his forward air so the animation runs out before hitting the ground and the enemy is pushed to one side.

To make up for one or two of Falco's over powered moves from Melee, Brawl Falco has a whole line up of moves that work well together. Before we discovered how wavesliding could expand Falco's horizontal ground speed to new levels, Falco was considered a fairly slow character (horizontally). Now that wavesliding is gone, this is still true for Falco. However, Falco can use his Falco Phantasm to quickly move horizontally. This move is not only quick, but it recovers quickly, and it has a hit box that can help launch opponents as well. To provide cover for this move, Falco has his reflector and lasers that can stun, knock over, and bewilder opponents.

I've found Fox and Shiek to also be well persevered in their translation to Brawl. The obvious differences from their Melee versions are changes to reduce their unbalanced and over powered abilities. With the new hole in their play style, the rest of their moves were tailored to round them out and support their fighting spirits. Most of the moves in Brawl seem to have been carefully balanced by either adding lag animation, adding animation time to the move, reducing the knock back, the damage given, or a combination of these. Compared to Melee, it is obvious that Brawl was balanced to the short hop to make characters play more in character instead of monsters than can squash a game's mechanics on the way to victory.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fifth Impressions: Balance & Dynamics

This is how Brawl works so far in my mind. Without getting into what happens when moves directly interact, this map should show how the dynamics of position affect the flow of a Brawl battle.


Just click your way around. And if you need to adjust the view, click and drag the white space.

I provided a link to the Balance Board under the "[Insert Game Discourse] Here" section on the side bar.

Playing games is all about understanding the rules and how those rules limit play. Because when there's limitation there can be moves, tactics, strategies, and gambits.

Think about it!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fourth Impressions: Controllers

As a critical gamer, the idea of customization in a game both excites me while also evoking a level of caution and concern. Being a stickler for gameplay, a high level of customization often degrades into distracting the player which is similar to "open-world" games. Both of these game features create an illusion of vast possibilities and individual expression. In the end, what's the point of customizing a army of RPG characters by changing their classes, swapping their armor, changing their accessories and weapons, when the battle strategy is essentially attack-attack-heal. Or worse, when you have to grind to get your level high enough regardless of all of your custom modifications. Did you really do anything? Or, what's the point of being a character plopped in the middle of a realistically scaled city when you spend more time traveling around in vehicles, goofing off by aggravating policemen and pedestrians, or simply getting lost in a world that doesn't provide an adequate level of interaction in the majority of areas outside the ones designed for your missions. Then is it really an open world, or a big degradative distraction.

As far as fighters go, customizable characters are risky business. Developers have a hard enough time balancing their games out as it is without giving the player the option of changing things up. And with the high quality of 3D models, sound, and animation work for each character, a competent character creator is unrealistic. Wii Boxing, the most favorite next-gen fighter, has a seamless well integrated character create system, but we'll ignore it for the time being. Brawl is the only fighter that is dynamic enough with their stages to offer a stage creator. Adding to the high level of customization and personalization, Brawl lets players use four different types of controllers and lets player swap around the buttons for all four types. Certainly there's a scheme for everyone at this point.

Last year, I wrote an essay about how virtually impeccable Melee's control scheme was. By duplicating key functions across multiple buttons on the Gamecube controller, a versatile scheme was created that allowed the player to quickly access the right actions in at various hand grips and thumb positions. Having multiple jump options (3), attack options (3), shield options (3), grab options (3), and smash options (2) kept every button in context to the next. The result in skillful hands was a virtual dance across and around the controller. And with a fast split-frame game like Melee, pressing the buttons was furious and loud. Melee was one of the games that showed off why the Gamecube controller was designed so strangely.

It should be obvious what controller I use when playing Brawl: The Wiimote + Nunchuck configuration. Yes, I'm more familiar with the Gamecube controller with over 6 years of experience. Yes, it used to be my favorite gaming controller (until the DS and the Wii came along). Yes, I have more than ten Gamecube controllers in various conditions lying around. And though it was nearly perfect for Melee, that doesn't mean it's the best choice for Brawl. When players had to dance across the Gamecube controller to play Melee, we only did so because we didn't have a choice. We all know that Brawl allows for at least four different types of controllers. And with the Wiimote + Nunchuck, most of the buttons needed at a moments notice are all resting peacefully under your fingers. There's no need to fly around at high speeds to hit a c-stick or move your hands at all. It's very clean and efficient to say the least. Of course the timing of actions Brawl are much more forgiving considering it has a frame buffer for moves, which is something that helps anyone on any controller type.

But before we talk about the pros and cons of these two controller types, I must address the issue of customizing the Wiimote+nunchuck controls because the default scheme is quite terrible. I don't know who's idea it was to put grab, shield, and jump functions all on the Wiimote d-pad, but that was a horrible decision. The Wiimote d-pad, like the Gamecube pad, isn't the most accurate when trying to execute the four distinct directions. I found myself trying to jump and ended up air dodging into the air. I'm sure my skill and familiarity with the default configuration played a large factor in my evaluation of the scheme, however, from a practical standpoint, it is far to easy to mess up when the functions are nestled so closely. Also, putting jump on the C button located on the nunchuck is another bad idea. I seems like they wanted to keep all the moving in the left hand which includes the analog stick, jumping, and rolling using the z button for shielding, and all the attacking in the right by primarily using the A and B buttons. However, as I have detailed in other articles, jumping is an action that is more associated with the right hand thanks to Mario. All of Mario's platformers feature jumping as the primary function. For this reason, jumping was put on a button. Whether it's jump and shoot, jump and kick, or jump and use a special move, it's all about the right hand.

So I rearranged the buttons on my configuration. I made the entire D-pad a jump button, and changed the c-button to grab so that it is practically the new little purple Z button but on the left side. Finally, I took out stick jumping to help with fast falling up airs. It works, try it for yourself.

Now, I'll describe the battle for you. Many Smash veterans are staunch supporter of using the gamecube controller for Brawl. Here are a few cons they'll have to deal with.
  • Wear and Tear: Such veterans have had to replaced their Gamecube controllers several times over the course of their Melee competitive career. When it comes time to do it again, will Nintendo still sell Gamecube controllers in stores. What's going to happen four years down the line? Should they stock up now? Is Brawl play nicer to controllers? It's hard to say.
  • Cords: I left cords behind last gen. I don't want to see another person trip on on controller cords and knock down another console from off the table. Believe me, it has happened too many times to ignore. Cords also force players to sit closer to the TV.
  • No names. No Voice:Players can't save their names or hear the awesome voices of their favorite characters chime through the Wiimote speaker. Seems like such a small thing, right? Wrong! "Prepare yourself!"
  • Old Habits: With the old controller comes old habits. Naturally these old habits should work their way out of players systems, but it's still worth noting. Techniques like wave sliding are jump-grab canceling aren't in Brawl and can make for some hilarious slip ups.

And for Wiimote users...
  • Batteries: Now you have to keep up with Batteries. Sure, it's easy to carry a spare set. But it's just one more thing you'll have to worry about. By the way, get some rechargeables. The earth will thank you for it.
  • Wireless interference: Though no one has specifics on such matters, we do know that multiple wifi and bluetooth connections together in close proximity can cause interference. Will it be too much for tournaments? We can't say at this point. Perhaps the frame buffer will eliminate this issue from becoming a concern. But future tournament hosts are cautious. Some are even thinking about banning wireless controllers. This rash idea is quite short sighted. If tournament hosts want well attended events, then they need to include everyone into the fold and not just Gamecube controller wielding veterans. This means, all the kids who are playing with wireless controllers, and all the players who never owned a Gamecube need to be included.
And that's it for the war on control. Some people want more control. Some people want freedom. Only the critical thinkers and the critical gamers have the real power. And that's the only controller you'll ever need.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Third Impressions: Lots of Lists

Some are still unconvinced. For whatever reason, when they look at Brawl they can't help but count up all the things that have been removed to support the argument that Brawl is less deep or even dumbed down than its predecessor. As game designers, or people who think like designers, we know that it is not the number of features or options that can change a game significantly, but what function these features have in shaping how the game is played.

A friend of mine submitted a list of commonly viewed elements that have supposedly been removed for the worse in Brawl. I would like to take this time to clarify how these options functioned in Melee, perhaps why they were removed from Brawl, and what Brawl has instead. That's right, I'm making a list too.

No L-Canceling
  • As I have said before, in Brawl air A attacks have the "l-cancel" built right into the moves. Not only is this better for online play, but for casuals and pros alike. The game inputs are less manic now, which reduces the stress of high speed play. If you're upset that you don't have to hit a button to achieve such levels of play, then I suggest letting this one go. If you wanted online play, then this is the first thing that had to get the boot. In the end, the game still plays like we can L-cancel, so what is there to complain about?
No Wavedashing
  • There is wave dashing in Brawl, or maybe it's more aptly described as wave sliding. It works the same way too: simply air dodge diagonally into the ground and you'll slide a little. Of course, this isn't what most would consider a wavedash. So in effect, the ability to scoot around a playing field in short bursts while facing the same direction is apparently gone. But this is a good thing. Not only did wave dashing look unnatural, but it significantly increased the level of non commitment between players. At any moment when walking or dashing, the play could quickly slide back and away from their opponent. This often ended up dragging matches out as both players are tried to get close but not too close. Wave sliding had other uses as well. Falco worked wonders with it, his dash, and down air.
  • This is not to mention that wave dashing also increased the speed of moving onto and off of platforms. But once again, this unnatural movement and characters speed stretched the game in strange directions. Have you ever seen a Gannondorf perfectly wave dash on and off of the platforms on Yoshi's Story. It is so fast, it's silly. Brawl has plenty of new defensive and offensive options that help with speed and spacing that don't compromise the visual form of the game. If you're looking for the function of wave dashing, then keep reading.
No Crouch Cancel
  • Not only do I generally dislike cancels in game design (especially fighters), I really dislike crouch canceling. Because of this extremely easy to execute counter, many moves at many percentages when successfully landed can put the attacker at high levels of risk. Peach, Samus, and Marth could do very effective counters just by holding down and then smashing. I've even crouch-canceled-countered a few good hits as Kirby when at 130%. That's not right. If anyone is upset about losing this, then they need to wake up and smell the function (sorry guys, had to say it). By taking out crouch canceling, we now have access to more moves at more percentages than in Melee. And if you're the kind of player that is still upset that the L-canceling is automatic and thus "dumbing down" the game, consider this: crouch canceling and down smashing was one of the easiest and most effective counters in Melee. Many jokes were made about it in fact. Just hold down and repeatedly hit the c-stick down for the win.
No Light Shielding
  • I, KrazyKirbyKid, am the biggest proponent for light shielding in Melee. After all, I invented the Marth trick and several other advanced techniques involving light shields. However, light shielding wasn't balanced correctly in Melee. The drawback for having a bigger shield was supposed to be a more brittle shield. Using a light shield should result in a greater opportunity for the opponent to break your shield. However, light shields weren't very weak compared to the heavy shields. What this does functionally is it gives the player more shield for free. If you're feet or head are poking out of your shield, just light shield and everything will work out. Sure, you'll slide around a little more, and you won't be able to shield grab, but who needs those things when you can jump out of shield and wave slide, jump and attack, or do a side dodge. The new shields in Brawl not only fade much more quickly, but they make poking feet and heads more viable because these areas can't be covered up so easily. Brawl has more defensive options that Melee, so a less effective shield is a good thing to prevent an overly defensive turtling game.
No Dash Dancing
  • Dash dancing is just like wave sliding: rapid repeated inputs for spacing that add to the non commitment style of play that ultimately drags out matches and stretches the games ability. In Brawl we still have up smash out of dash, pivot grabs, and pivot smashes. If you're the kind of player who wants to quickly stay just out of range of your opponent, then use the new features Brawl has. And if you missed dance dancing that much, you can still do little ones in place. Go ahead, increase the chances of tripping.
No Directional Air Dodging
  • Air dodging as been significantly altered. You can do it multiple times, there's no lag for landing on the ground, and it goes with the player's momentum. Because of the former two attributes the last one had to follow. Not only is it better for online play because the computer can track the players position using havok and physics calculations, but it also allows the non air-dodging players to counter this new and highly versatile approach. If you could dodge in any direction in addition to having no lag when landing, then the player would have too many ways to trick up their approach making this move highly unbalanced. Now, even when you airdodge, everyone knows where you're going to be/land because you're still affected by the same gravity that you were subject to before. It's new. It's genius. And it's balanced. No complaining.
No Ledge Games
  • This one is the most rash. I believe this statement was created in response to how most characters will "zip" or "snap" to the ledge making the end of their recovery extremely safe. Well, all characters don't zip to the edge. Kirby and Dedede are just two examples of characters that don't zip to the edge coming up with their recovery moves. Though most characters do have this zip ability, it is more complex than that. The characters that can zip only do so when facing the edge and moving towards it. This means if they're recovering while moving away from the ledge (as in from underneath the stage), or trying to take advantage of how characters can now grab the edge while falling backwards, you can hit them away or spike them like we always have. What this new zip has prevented is characters dominating the ledge because they've found one attack that wins in the majority of situations while never leaving the ledge. I'm looking at your Marth, Peach, Falco, and Fox. I'm not sure where the complains are coming from on this one anyway. Fox, Falco, Mario, Peach, and other characters had magical zips when sweet spotting in Melee. We dealt with it then and moved on. If you're upset that because most characters can do it instead of the few, the overpowered, the high tiers, then get over it.
  • Furthermore, you can still grab the ledge and hold on to it to make the opponent fall to their doom when recovering. Also, you can roll up from the ledge preventing the opponent from grabbing it if you're good enough. It just take more skill this time. Isn't that what everyone wanted, more skillful tactics? Many of the options from Melee are still in Brawl. The only difference is, one tactic doesn't rule all forcing players to be aware of more things and mix it up. Additionally, the game has been out a week. Chill and and give it some time.
Freedom to Tether Walls
  • This freedom from Melee was too good especially for Samus. She could bomb jump to recover, up B with high priority and a sweet spot, walk kick for invincibility and height, and to top it top it all off, she could tether the walls for even more versatility. Playing against Huggs was a nightmare. I locked out option after option trying to knock that guy out, and when I did out play him, Kirby's attacks were so weak, I would have to do it all over again many times. In other words, this freedom was an unbalanced special ability that only 3 characters had in Melee. Now, in Brawl, tether recovering characters are in a class of their own. To help balance this recovery method, they auto aim for the ledge. If there's someone there, they fall. If not, they can latch on the the ledge from amazing distances away. Taking out the freedom to tether any wall anywhere balances the game.

As I have mentioned several times, Brawl is built for balance. Perhaps the people who are most upset about Brawl at this point played a little to many high tier characters for a bit too long. Fox. Shiek. Marth. Falco. Peach. Captain Falcon. High tier lists like that is one list I can live without.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Second Impressions: Big Differences

Brawl is already deeper than Melee, and there's nothing Melee can do about it. It seems hard to believe that in about a week I can come to this decision. But remember, because I've been following Brawls design paths for so long, it's as if I've been playing Brawl for months.

For the most part the game plays and feels as lot like Melee, that is to say it's still smash. Right off the bat, Brawl is a lot cleaner. The clutter in Melee stemmed from from a high game speed, invincible frames, and other invisible aspects of the gameplay (like L-cancels). All of those areas have been addressed. Upon first seeing Brawl in motion, I thought the game speed was dramatically reduced. Now, though the air fall speed has been decreased making all the characters appear to be "floaty," the game speed is actually just as fast or (could it be) faster. Sakurai commented long before that Brawl has a new air game. And true to his word, the aerial battles and ballets are nothing short that exhilarating. Because how much a player can DI away from attacks and the stun time from attacks has been reduced, more attacks and dodges can fit in a single aerial encounter than ever before. Also, footstool jumping allows both players to extend their air time/options by jumping off of each other. This new, non-aggressive way to interact in the air essentially extends part of the "ground" game into the skies. And with each option flows a triangle of balance that are tied seamlessly into the greater flow of the battle. And that's just removing the clutter.

I personally believe that Melee wasn't balanced at all. It's not that it was unbalanced, I believe the developers didn't concern themselves with balancing the characters at all. This time around, Sakurai has crafted each character with his own hands (literally [kind of]) putting a significant amount of time and focus on balance. If a character has a really good kill move, there are drawbacks. They might not have many kill moves, it might not have a lot of range, they might only have kill moves that kill horizontally or vertically which in turn shapes how they approach their enemies. If a character is really fast, they're generally weak forcing them to chase down their opponents repeatedly for kills. I've already noted a variety of ways really strong moves and characters have drawbacks designed right in. Beyond this level of balance, Stale-move negation keeps players using a variety of moves because the effectiveness (damage and knock back) of each move will weaken dramatically if used in succession.

What's even more exciting about having to use a variety of moves to round out one's game is, every move is effective in Brawl. From the neutral a punches to the smallest low tilts, every move can be used. In Melee, crouch canceling and L-canceling put a lot of emphasis on the air game while greatly reducing the effectiveness of the ground game. Tilts couldn't typically be used against a crouch canceling ready to down smash opponent. Melee's design essentially took away one's ground moves and turn them into a shffling air attacking junkie. But with Brawl, there's no L-canceling or crouch canceling, plus the range of DI from attacks have been tailored for each attack. This means you can't DI all my attacks 45 degress up all the time. Now, when I forward tilt you, you go forward. Now when I low tilt you, you slide out and maybe even trip up. Furthermore, there were many moves in Melee that became increasingly ineffective when used on opponents of higher and higher damage percentages. After all, when the move doesn't do a lot of damage, it doesn't kill, and the opponent keeps DIing it up and away, then it only serves to stall the game out. In other words, in Brawl attacks just work.

Many have cried about the loss of their beloved technique L-canceling. I'm not sure why they're so upset. The air A moves in Brawl auto-cancel, which basically means they cancel themselves. In reality, this is no cancel at all, but the speed at which some moves can finish with their animation is just like L-canceling. Back in Smash64, L-canceling canceled all the lag. In Melee, it cuts the lag in half. I believe this was an attempt for Melee to keep some of the moves relatively slow even when l-canceling, like Link's down air. Brawl does the same thing while reducing the need to slap a button upon landing. Most very strong moves take time to recover, while most quick weak moves take no time at all. Brawl is built this way to keep gameplay smooth, focused, and uncluttered without manic button presses. Also, there's no way to successfully have Melee's L-canceling with online play. The packets of information that would have to be sent as your character hits the ground and l-cancels could easily get lost in the web, not to mention the timing for doing so would be inconsistent depending on the connection.

The new auto canceling air moves makes the air a wonderful place to be. However, shield grabbing is still in effect. What's new with Brawl though is that attacks can not only stun shields but make the opponent slide back consistently. When this happens the opponent is usually too far away to grab you. The best way to send your opponent sliding back is with smash attacks. In Melee, smash attacks could be shield grabbed fairly easily. But now, a greater emphasis is placed on smashing.

Perfect Shielding is the new way to defend yourself and turn the tables on your opponents. After successfully power shielding in Melee, dropping the shield and retaliating took too long to be viable. Furthermore, because the speed of the game was so high because of L-canceling, the opponent could pour on the pressure without fear. Additionally, because the timing window for a power shield was just frames before an attack hits you (a great enough risk as it is), the critical moment to strike would be gone in a flash. In Brawl, the timing is easier not only because shielding is on a button instead of a gamecube trigger, but also because the timing has a bigger window, player can better prepare for the counter attack. To counter a perfect shield, multi hitting attacks or rapidly hitting attacks fit neatly into the small gap of time the opponents have to retaliate. This gives more importance to the use of the neutral A attacks.

To mix up opponents who perfect shield a lot, the new momentum based air dodge has virtually no lag when the character hits the ground. This makes it possible to fly through or behind an opponent and find an opening instantly with an attack. However, to counter this approach, up tilts and up smashes now cover a little area in front and behind all characters, so falling opponents can't easily drop right through them and score free hits.

Wrap it all together and you have an amazing new game that exceeds Melee by many times. But wait, there's more. Brawl has a 10 frame buffer window between attacks. What this means is, if you want to go from one move/attack directly into another move/attack as soon as possible, at the last 10 frames of first move/attack, if you input the next command, the character will start it as soon as the first move is over. This means, to play a character cleanly, quickly, and tightly you don't have to sit down and memorize a book of frame data. Now you can feel out your character's lag and focus more on having fun. Anything that takes the chore out of a game and keeps players playing is a better design choice.

If anyone is upset that Brawl has this wonderful feature, then they can go play another game. In a world of well designed games and Smash, Brawl is king. And that's the biggest difference you need to know.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

First Impressions: Brawl

So what do I think of Brawl? After years of speculation, after writing hundreds of pages about the improvements that needed to be made from Melee, after making a list of my predictions, after studying hours of footage on youtube, what do I really think of this game now that I've finally gotten my hands on it. Well, I haven't played it for too long. I'm only fifty-three hours into Brawl and it's been five days since its release. Jokes aside, I've barely scratched the surface of this game. Though this phrase gets tossed around often, I assure you that I'm gauging my judgments based on how deep Melee is. After all, I haven't even played all the characters, levels, or modes yet.

Needless to say the game is massive, and I am more than immensely pleased with Brawl. Playing Brawl puts me in a strange state. It feels like I've played the game before. After picking apart melee by writing hundreds of pages worth in articles delineating Sakurai's personal style, his design choices, and using this information to project what Brawl would be like, now it feels like I've been playing Brawl for years. As it turns out, 34/50 of my predictions about various aspects of the game were actually implemented into Brawl.

When I play, all I see is the result of a true 3rd generation game that has refined and innovated every step of the way. Every characters, every move, and every animation clicks into place. Compared to Brawl, Melee isn't a very well designed game. There were so many poorly designed elements that we simply put up with and have gotten used to with Melee. As a game designer myself, I know the design principles behind the changes in Brawl are essential for a good game. By taking out invisible elements of the game, and cancels like crouch canceling and l-canceling, more about how the game is played is communicated through its visuals. Furthermore, by adding new types of hits like tripping and footstool jumping, and by carefully balancing each character, Brawl is deeper than any other smash.

Though it may be too early to make such a bold statement, what we do know about Brawl at this point certainly leads one in that positive direction. Some have said that options have been taken away in Brawl, while other complain about the design choices that have made Brawl more casual friendly. These stances are short sighted. And if you really think about it, crouch canceling and L-canceling took away far more options than Brawl ever could. Without a significant amount of stale move negation, Shffling a few moves per character became the norm in Melee. In Brawl, each move is more important in the overall options and flow of a players strategy. Additionally, each move in Brawl works. The damage curves, knock back, and lag times have been adjusted for every move making them viable in multitudinous situations in a dynamically shifting way.

Brawl is so good it's hard to believe. I'll have more impressions later going over many things in detail and even providing some commentary that isn't too positive. It's Brawl week now, and after secretly playing Brawl for months, it was well worth the wait.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

It's a Secret to Everybody

Nobody wants to know who dies in their favorite story or what the twist is at the end of the summer blockbuster if they haven't gotten around to reading/watching it yet. Along the same lines, I've found that there are people who don't like to be told what to do in a game because they believe "figuring it out" is half the fun. This pet peeve for gamers goes as far as some players skipping tutorials, and snapping at those who offer advise (or at least ignoring them). Certainly in the majority of puzzle games "figuring it out" is all of the fun, and giving the player puzzle solutions destroys the gameplay experience for them. However, for all of the genres based on action, mechanics, and skill, being told how to do something still leaves the player with the challenging task of executing the action.

Unlike other mediums, games sustain an interactive relationship with the player(s). Even the most simple games are quite complex when you think about it. Some games are quite deep and complex that there is no way for the developers to include a tutorial for everything. There are some techniques and moves in games that the developers didn't even know about when they made the game. This evolutionary quality of gameplay is known as emergence. Like a biological mutation that stems from a single offspring in a given generation, when a game is released, the hundreds of thousands or millions of players are all working the game over in countless ways. And when one person finds out you can hop over the walls in Wario's Stadium twice to get an overall race time of 21 seconds, or when you can slide gracefully along the floor in Super Smash Brothers Melee by air dodging diagonally downward, the internet does a remarkable job of getting this information to the world. Like a virus or beneficial mutation, these "secrets to everybody" spread.

Ignoring everything the developers is unaware of, what about the things they deliberately programmed in? Masahiro Sakurai has maintained his personal blog for Super Smash Brothers BRAWL since last summer. He has covered everything from items, characters, techniques, and stages for his game. Yet, even though he has revealed specific ways to use specific moves with specific characters, he admits himself that he doesn't want to get too technical. It is obvious that this particular game reaches a wide audience some of which wouldn't be interested in the technical side of games. However, the game is rated T for teen. I feel that thirteen-year-olds are old enough to handle technical information. And furthermore, what's the harm for sneaking in a few lines of it anyway.

"I’ll try not to get too technical with things, but just know that there are lots of small tricks like these for you to play around with." ~Sakurai

At the end of the day, games are complex computerized machines that have a wonderful coating of graphics filled with familiar forms to bridge the gap of communication between the bit world of computers and the human world of the real. In other words, games are high tech and we shouldn't be afraid to be more explicit when talking about them and teaching the player how to play.

The best example I have of a game that teaches how it works is Team Fortress 2. This game features a commentary mode where players can run around the multiplayer maps activating commentary audio files from the developers. These audio blurbs talk about everything from lighting and shadows, character classes, the forms that fit their functions, level lay out, and more invisible things like how the respawning system works and why they took out elements from the previous game in the series. Not only was this information highly informative, but it was entertaining, it helped to reduced the high amount of information that is needed to begin playing the game, and I was still in complete control over what I wanted to listen to. If I were a gamer that didn't like technical talk, I could simply avoid listening to those commentary files. As a game designer, this kind of commentary is gold. Just hearing the developers talk about the tactics and strategies they designed into the game helped me organize the concepts in my own mind. My sister, after hearing the commentary, began playing better and smarter in Call of Duty 4. Though the games are both FPSs, they are very different. Regardless, from listening to the commentary she now has a much clearer concept of high-ground and low-ground and their advantages, which keeps her alive longer in COD4.

Just coming out straight and telling the player how to play can't be a bad thing when you don't force the player through the information. Even the "Try This" videos in Donkey Kong Jungle Beat do wonders for giving the player just enough inspiration and curiosity to expand the way they play the game.

If you're developing a game out there, don't be like that mean kid who, when he finally gives you a turn to play the game, doesn't tell you any of the controls and proceeds to immediately beat you down. And at the same time, don't be like the hard cover strategy guide that turns a game into a reading comprehension exercise.

Find the balance. Find the way to make your game a secret to everybody.

GuitaRPG: Fitting Form to Function

These final few days before Brawl hits, I've been deep in thought devising the visual style for GuitaRPG. Unlike Neo*RPG where I ripped the majority of the sprites from a Geometry Wars clone on the PC, I plan on hand illustrating all the art (or at least getting some help doing the artwork). The process has been a slow one because I have to pick a style that I can easily produce a lot of images in, while also keeping in mind that the form of the objects in the game must serve their function. Even from what little conceptually I have thought through of GuitaRPG's core gameplay, I know I want to put a strong emphasis on color. Because the buttons on the Guitar Hero Guitar controller are color coded, I'll be adapting this color scheme to develope a universal color code that the game will follow. In order to accentuate this color code, I plan on illustrating GuitaRPG with solid shapes that create contrast with simple areas of black and white (and to a lesser extent grey and even brown).

As I work on some preliminary images, feel free to visit my Deviant art page.

To conclude, I'll provide examples of other art styles that I'm drawing inspiration from. Notice the differences in how detail is created. Textures. Layered flat colors/shapes. Fine pen work.

~stay tuned

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Layton and the Clean Bill of Success

Professor Layton and the Curious Village is a perfect example of a hyper clean game that is completely devoted and focused on two things. The first is the game's primary function.

1) Puzzles puzzles and more puzzles
  • Everything is a puzzle; challenges, the town, your hotel room, paintings, inventions, scenarios, and the story. There is something curious about everything and it's your job to get to the bottom of it.
  • Every character knows about, is concerned with, and gives away puzzles as a means of social exchange.
  • Solving puzzles is the primary function of Professor Layton, but it goes beyond that. Solving puzzles is a vague mechanic at best, which, in the game, can involve everything from talking to specific characters, going to specific locations, arranging items in your hotel room, reassembling a painting from scraps, drawing lines, pointing out the culprit, to writing in words on the touch screen. The game oscillates between all these mechanics to keep things fresh. At the same time, because the game changes so frequently to the context of the scenario the player finds him/herself in, the function of solving puzzles fits the player into the role analogous to Layton and Luke, his apprentice. Like in any role playing game or situation, a significant emphasis is put on.....
2) The story
  • As a pseudo detective, the player will be piecing together mysteries, and cracking puzzles that, in this zany world, all come together and fit nicely within the conceit of the game.
  • At first the towns people's staunch devotion to puzzles may seem comically forced even within the context of a game. But, rest assured, everything serves a simple and focused purposed that is nestled deep within the games story. I won't spoil the game for anyone.

Everything else about the game is ultra streamlined.
  • menus navigation
    • touch screen based
    • large images
  • maps
    • conveniently displayed on the top screen
  • HUD
    • Displayed cleanly on the top screen including....
    • A short phrase that tells you where your next objective is
    • A score display of how many puzzles you've solved
    • What area of the top you're currently at
  • traveling around town
    • Just tap the shoe icon and an arrow will appear indicating the possible directions you can venture to.
    • You can't get lost when you can't explore outside of limited areas.
  • talking and interacting with people
    • If you see a person, tap them on the touch screen to start a conversation. It's as simple as that
  • solving puzzles
    • Each puzzle has a number and a difficultly level
    • Each puzzle has 3 hints that can be purchased with hint coins if you need help

Keep Layton in mind when you're trying to design clean games (or parts of games). Layton has certainly given me the needed boost in creative possibilities as I design GuitaRPG. I hope to be able to share some of the details shortly.