Friday, May 30, 2008

Just Call It A Game

I've noticed that people are having a hard time calling WiiFit a game. This problem seems to be affecting game enthusiasts, bloggers, message board posters, and TV personalities alike. Perhaps these confused individuals only need to be reminded of the definition of a game to realize that WiiFit is as much of a game as any other.

Does WiiFit have goals? Yes. Players are encouraged to set their own personal weight/BMI goals over time. Does WiiFit have a way of measuring whether or not the player achieves their goals? Yes. By measuring the player's weight and determining their BMI progress can be tracked. Does WiiFit have a scoring system? Yes. The majority of exercises have a 100 point scoring system, while the majority of the balance games support a high score system. Does WiiFit have a primary mechanic? Utilizing the WiiBalanceBoard and the Wiimote, the primary mechanic of WiiFit is "move your body."

The fact that WiiFit is about exercise and maintaining good health is irrelevant. Games like DDR get the whole body moving and have special modes for calculating calories burned. The fact that WiiFit is a collection of "mini-games" is also irrelavant. Games like Wario Ware and Rayman: Raving Rabbids are games that are built out of mini/micro games.

What's most surprising to me is that everyone is quick to admit that there are games within WiiFit. After all, it would seem all too foolish to try and convince someone that the included balance games aren't really games. When you look at the differences between the balance games and the rest of the WiiFit activities, they really aren't too different. Both have rules, penalties, and goals. Just because one feels like exercise while the other is snowboarding down a mountain doesn't automatically discount the former from being a game.

For those who still think that WiiFit is the death of gaming, consider that WiiFit is more of a game than most current gen videogames. Taking the primary mechanic "move your body" WiiFit offers more than 40 different challenges with varying degrees of difficulty. Players get to experience some winter sports, zen meditation, jogging, music-rhythm dancing/boxing, and table tilting action not to mention all of the yoga, strength training, and aerobic exercises. Like Mario Galaxy, featuring highly diverse levels, planets, and challenges, WiiFit runs a wide range of physical interactivity. With each activity, the player uses one of the most complex machines on earth: the human body. In this way, WiiFit's mechanics become the mechanics of life reaching beyond the limits most videogames are trapped by.

Action RPGs like The World Ends With You can't boast over 40 unique variations in its battle system attacks. The game simply isn't designed well enough to make each attack unique and significant. The action game Devil May Cry 4 had to reuse bosses, enemies, and locations, and the single player experience is still relatively short. WiiFit keeps things streamlined so that the player experiences the core, concentrated gameplay. The user interface in WiiFit is simple, effective, and intuitive so that all types of gamers can play the game without trouble.

The only thing that WiiFit doesn't have is story and fancy graphics, and here at Critical-Gaming, we know that story and graphics aren't needed to make a great game. But, if you're really looking for a bit of story from the game, then try making your own. Slimming down with WiiFit stories are popping up all over the internet. It doesn't get better than real life.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Finding the Essence

Wario Ware had the right idea. This game, in its own quirky way, took a look at games and stripped the established formulas and conventions down to their bare essence: simple forms, simple functions, and simple goals. To keep things fresh throughout the franchise history, Wario Ware games have embraced the power of a governing gimmick. After the first Wario Ware game was released on the GBA, the following Wario Ware used gimmicks of twisting (tilt-pack), touching (DS), motion controls (Wiimote), and,if you include Rhythm Tengoku, music.

Not only are the Wario Ware games a smorgasbord of quick fire micro games, but they are also jam packed with creative additions that range from arcade games to what can only be described as "doodads," "toys," and "other." To give an example of what can be found in the "other" section, there is a "game" where players squeeze water out of an old wash towel that has been conveniently dipped in water. It doesn't have a goal, and it's not quite a game. But it's kinda fun and intriguing. It is a little "game" like this, when included in the whole package, that helps make Wario Ware Twisted a game where all ideas are welcome.

Such whimsical "games" would never see the light of day if they were packaged on their own. Games like Wario Ware and Wii Fit are perfect for housing these small bits of gaming. One of my favorite games in WiiFit is Lotus Focus. In this game players assume a cross legged sitting position on top of the Wii Balance Board. The idea of the game is to sit as still as possible as you filter out outside distractions from the space around you. If you happen to live by yourself and you don't have a pet to distract you either, the game does a pretty good job providing a few environmental noises.

On my first tries I lost very quickly. Unlike other games, in order to master this one, I had to master my physical self. Understanding the path I had to take, I calmed myself down, entered a meditative state, and sat completely still for three minutes thus beating the mini game. Lotus Focus is unlike anything else I've experience in gaming. If it wasn't for WiiFit, I don't think I would have ever come across the game. It would be hard to imagine finding a short, simple mini game like Lotus Focus for sale on WiiWare (I'm ignoring the existence of Pop).

Now with the Wii Balance Board in my arsenal, I've started designing small nuggets of gaming that are simple tech demos of the kind of innovative design that can only come from the Wii. In the spirit of Wario Ware, Wii Sports, and WiiFit I intend of making something small that can stand out on its own. This week I'll be breaking down traditional gaming design elements and formulas to better illustrate the design paths I'm taking with my current projects. Stay Tuned.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Just a Few Things on My Mind....

Following in the footsteps of Gears of War and becoming an honorary member of the "If One Is Good" club, Resident Evil 5 will feature a co-op "campaign" so that two people can get in on the action at any time.

The screens and video of RE5 so far look very similar to RE4. I have always felt that the team had possibly run out of ideas, and they were just making a prettier version of RE4 on the 360 and PS3. Now, the new features of RE5 are simply what every other shooter is doing or has done. Along with co-op, players can snap to cover and shoot around walls. Sound familiar?

To be fair, the RE5 team is also adding a dodging system from a game they had previously released on the PS2 called God Hand. We'll have to wait and see how much these new mechanics changes the gameplay. In the long run, if RE5 comes out and it's basically RE4 times two, don't look so surprised. Do the math. (Even if it is RE4 x2, it'll still be amazing).

On a completely unrelated note, while playing WiiFit recently, I was reminded of a design element that I really appreciate. When navigating the menu's of WiiFit or WiiSports, you can either use the pointer or the D-pad to get around. Most of the Wii game's I've played strictly allow one or the other. Once again Nintendo has created an excellent example for other to follow, and nobody does.

Failing to incorporate a feature like this is the most egregious in Super Smash Brothers Brawl. Sakurai did all the work designing big colorful distinctive buttons on all of his menus that are perfect for pointing, yet he failed to add pointing based menu controls. I can understand that he didn't want to use any of the Wiimote's unique controlling feature in Brawl fighting gameplay because of how untested and risky that would have been. But designing pointer controls for a menus isn't very hard or risky. And with a team of over 300 people working on the game, it's a shame no one bothered to.

I find it amazing that game developers can blatantly copy other games and fail to copy features like the WiiSports/WiiFit menu navigation system. Though such a system is small and not as important as gameplay elements, including such a system shows a level of dedication and attention to detail that is reflective of the dedication throughout the rest of the game. In other words, it's not that Nintendo makes a great menu to make a great game. Rather, Nintendo designs and seeks to create the smoothest and most enjoyable experience for the player no matter which part of the game they're currently involved in.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Where Wii Fits

Everyone seems to be sharing their WiiFit stories. So, I figured I'd contribute one of my own.

It all began last summer, when I was trying to design a fighting engine that would allow for the player to use their whole body to simulate actual martial art moves like the ones found in Avatar: The Last Air Bender. I figured that the motion controls in the Wiimotes could handle the arms and upper body movements, but I could never find an adequate way to translate the motions of the feet, lower body, and balance through Wiimotes. I didn't want to resort to tying Wiimotes to my feet. Little did I know that my design thoughts were on the same train of thought that lead to the creation of the now famous Wii Balance Board.

The moment my eyes saw WiiFit being unveiled by Miyamoto during the E3 of last summer, everything fell into place. WiiFit, more specifically the Wii Balance Board, fills in the design gap concerning full body motion controls. Once again, Nintendo had created a device that filled a unique design space helping them continue to pioneer and innovate. If you thought the Wiimote was radical with less buttons than ever and a one handed design, then the no-buttons, no handed Wii Balance Board is radical to the next level.

Over the course of the next year, I continued to design my Avatar game and much more. Designing with the whole body as a controller opens up more possibilities for unique and intuitive game design than shoulder buttons, and analog sticks ever did. And in December when WiiFit launched in Japan, and I found myself tracking the launch in detail, I realized that WiiFit was one of my most anticipated games. Good thing Brawl was there to distract me until summer.

To make a long story even shorter, I brought WiiFit home yesterday. Between everyone in my family, we put in 5+ hours on it. All of Nintendo's goofy promises hold up in my case. With Wii Sports my dad played more than I did, and he even beat all of my scores in Bowling and Golf (his best game was a -5 on 9 holes). Just like Miyamoto said, WiiFit makes you more aware of your body and the physical condition of others giving people a way to share, compete, and encourage each other to get and stay healthy.

The whole game, if you can call it that, is fun and delightful. When booting it up for the first time, I got the sense that I was in movie placed in the future where families have interactive and highly portable exercise machines complete with digital training companions. It's a a bit surreal every time the game tells me I'm a bit wobbly. I find myself saying "how do YOU know!?" even though I know the exact technology behind the Wii Balance Board.

There are some games that we just play and then put away or sell back to gamestop. But games like WiiFit can't be tossed around so casually. Such a game transforms the player in a significant and real way. There's something about actually doing it; actually putting your mind and body to a task that has been almost entirely removed from videogames. Doing a real push up to push up. Jogging in place to jog in the game. I want to capture both of these ideas in my next mini project.

Using the bluetooth adapter I purchased earlier in the year, I have successfully connected the Wii Balance Board to my PC, and have started programming a little something that will hopefully transform the player, giving him/her a new level of awareness about their bodies and themselves, while delivering a narrative/story element in a new way.

I should have a download for the project by Monday. Stay tuned for details. In the meantime, go get your feet on WiiFit. It fits perfectly into my life.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Wii Sad

I thought I would be able to purchase WiiFit today, but I can't because the 19th is the release date and not the street date. So for the next two days, I will be slightly more irritable, forlorn, and energetic as I count down the hours. As you may know, WiiFit is my most anticipated gaming purchase of the year next to Super Smash Brothers Brawl. I am just glad that WiiFit isn't going through a tripple-delay like Brawl did.

I've started working on a series of small gaming projects that focuses small gameplay innovations using the Wiimote and the Wii Balance Board. I'll have more details soon.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Mechanics and Abstractions part.4

When I first started playing The World Ends With You (TWEWY), I couldn't believe Square Enix made such a convoluted game for the Nintendo DS. It is as if they went out of their way to ignore the progress that games like Kirby: Canvas Curse, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, and even Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword have made. But then I thought about the kinds of games Square Enix makes, and everything became clear. Square Enix has always had a very difficult time incorporating action elements into their games. They've been trying for years, but, like with so many of their games, the few concrete mechanics they get right are drowned in a deluge of abstract RPG mechanics. TWEWY is no exception.

The World Ends With You is an action RPG. Action RPGs are typically designed with fourth tier mechanics in their base level, concrete combat mechanics before abstract mechanics are added on top. TWEWY is no different. Playing TWEWY makes me realize how shallow and laborious abstract mechanics really are. Once again, Square Enix has thrown a ton of presentation and slick style onto a few decent concrete mechanics and the world eats it up. But before I get into the mechanics, if you haven't played TWEWY or seen it, check it out here. Keep in mind, the battles take place with both screens at the same time like in the beginning of the video.

To keep things simple, I'll break the battle system down into it's component mechanics and describe them using bullet points.

The Battle System

Touch Screen gameplay:
  • Touch screen attacks are fairly individual (each attack has a relatively unique motion) and intuitive (bullets = taps, icebergs = down to up slash etc.) However, they lack in dynamics. The hit stun and knockback from attacks are fairly uniform throughout the range different attacks.
  • Like most action RPGs, the hitboxes for the characters and attacks are very loosely defined. And in TWEWY the battle space is draw in awkward quasi 3d space. The objects on the screen appear to float on top of and around each other. The bottom screen easily becomes cluttered in a mess of flashy attacks, street side objects, enemies, and the main character sprites.
  • When the screen isn't cluttered, moving is as simple as touching the character and dragging him around the field. Because of the poor representation of objects and characters, in the heat of battle, moving around can become quite difficult. Sometimes I could swear I cleanly moved my character out of the way, but the game registered it as an attack instead. Otherwise, moving in this way is fairly direct and intuitive.
  • Players can dodge by dragging the character quickly in any direction. This input motion overlaps with several attack inputs, and the basic moving inputs as well. Though the dodge motion is intuitive (a fast stroke triggers a fast dodge) the mechanic lacks individuality. Also, the dodge distance is fixed taking away from the mechanic's directness as well. In other words, a short, fast stroke doesn't result in a short quick dodge.

Top Screen Gamplay:

  • Top screen attack combos are a string of canned attacks that are not individual. The d-pad buttons represent different stages of the current combos that the player simply navigates between limited options. The form of the attack combos are disconnected from the inputs. The d-pad directions are related to the attack directions (left or right) however because of the nature of the hitboxes, a stress is put on this mechanic. The attacks aren't dynamic and offer very little variation. A significant amount of cluttered exists because the top screen attacks are essentially a substitution standard, base level attack. This design choice adds more inputs into the game without adding any more action, dynamics, or interplay.
  • Special tag team Fusion attacks can be activated after the player successfully matches the order of cards on the top screen. Guessing wrong gives players a hint at the correct order. This mechanic is just another abstract system tossed on top of the cluttered battle system design. Also, noticing the hints, and playing to this mechanic forces players to read the HUD display at the top of the top screen. Relying on abstract displays for an abstract system puts this mechanic at a high level of abstraction.

Combined Battle Mechanics:
  • Enemies exist on both screens at once making paying attention to the battles on both screens at the same time very difficult. Instead of unifying the enemies and subsequently the two separate battles together through the enemies, the developers have decided to decouple the parallel enemies in two detrimental ways. The parallel enemies don't experience the same stun or knockback from attacks, and their movements aren't synchronized. Only by defeating an enemy on one screen is the parallel enemy effected. Essentially, the only thing the enemies share are hit points which keep the interplay between the two screens at a high level of abstraction.
  • While fighting battles on both screens, the player can time their attacks between the two characters back and forth to build up attack combo multipliers. Because TWEWY doesn't have a wide enough range of dynamic interactions in its battle system, and the gameplay on both screens are so disconnected, this tag team mechanic is designed to unify the gameplay. Unfortunately, this abstract mechanic puts a great amount of stress on the rest of the battle mechanics. The clutter that already exists in the battle system worsens when playing to this additional mechanic.
Pre-battle Mechanics:
  • Before battle players can decide if they want to manually control the character on the top screen or let the computer AI take over. A feature like this suggests that the battle system is so complex, unintuitive, and has such a high learning curve that players may need such a substantial handicap. Being able set the top screen on "autopilot" is an abstract mechanic. Forfeiting control of the game forfeits interaction and gameplay.
  • At any time outside of battle, players can also adjust their character's level. By lowering the character's stats through their level, players earn a higher chance that enemies will drop good items after each battle. This mechanic gives the player the power to challenge themselves and spend less time grinding in battle to earn more items. TWEWY also lets players adjust the difficultly mode for the whole game on top of being able to adjust the character's levels. These mechanics may be effective, but they are completely removed from the form of the game let alone its few concrete mechanics. Being able to power up or down one's level isn't even compatible with the fiction of the game.

In the end, the battle system in TWEWY features one decent concrete mechanic (touch screen attacks and movement) buried under a mess of cluttered and abstract mechanics. Though getting the hang of the battle system can feel very rewarding at times, mastering any system concrete or abstract is rewarding. Being in control of chaos or a multitude of elements is a wonderful feeling. But for TWEWY, getting the hang of the battle system comes at a high learning curve mostly because of how unintuitive battling on both screens at once is and the shear volume of cluttered and abstract mechanics the player has to learn from scratch. The worst part is, the abstractions don't add depth to the gameplay. They only add complexities. Each abstract element from the card guessing mini game, passing the light puck combo system, to the top screen battling is either being executed successfully or it's not. There is no interplay between these systems, dynamic interactions/consequences from mistakes, or enough variation to each system and the basic battle mechanics to create emergent gameplay, the corner stone of action games.

Though I've only talked about the battle system of The World Ends With You, the rest of the game is equally unnecessarily complex. The game is overwrought with stats and abstract systems for just about everything you can think of. For example, characters can buy food and eat it to gain stat upgrades. But at the same time the food must be digested. When the character is eating food, they digest a little bit of food as they fight every battle. But wait there's more. Each character can only eat so much in each day of real time. So if you want to eat as much as possible, wake up early and start stuffing your face. Hold on, I'm not done yet. Each character's stomach size shrinks as they eat more and more, but then resets with each new day. But if you thought it was over, there's one more bit to it. ach character has likes and dislikes for different types of food. And this is just one abstract system out of many in the game.

Such a complex system for eating food is egregious because mastering the abstract system only gives the player higher stats in the end, which are abstractions in themselves. Mastering any of the game's abstract mechanics and systems only rewards the player with more points. More abstractions. Because the battle system has so few dynamics and interactions, all the work you put into learning and mastering the abstractions outside of battle won't show up as anything more than a higher number here and there. Also, because the dynamics are so low, understanding how to maximize one's attack power is obvious: Attack-attack-attack. In other words, use the attacks that have multiple hits so that you can effortless combo the enemies. Knockback, object positioning, and hit stun aren't factors to consider when you can optimize the game so easily.

Games like The World Ends With You prove that even some of the biggest developers have lost touch with what makes games so great. Though TWEWY has its charm, even the game's innovations aren't that significant, and it was supposed to be the fresh take on action RPGs. When you break it down, you're not really doing much throughout the entire game. The world ends with me? Too bad it didn't begin with concrete mechanics.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mechanics and Abstractions part.3

Now that we have talked about mechanics and abstractions and ranked the various levels of mechanics by their design, I want to discuss specific games.

Many are willing to admit that concrete mechanics are superior to abstract mechanics for a variety of reasons the most important of which being that concrete mechanics tend to evolve into emergent gameplay and encourage self expression while abstract mechanics tend to reduce gameplay to trail-and-error and simple optimization. But, at the same time these gamers might not be aware of just how much they dislike abstract mechanics.

When given a choice of playing with a soccer ball or memorizing a computer data/coding system, my preference is the soccer ball. With a little gravity and other physics interactions, I can experience an infinite number of outcomes. To help shed some light on this situation, I'll use an example. Though we may be gamers of different ages and backgrounds, I personally believe that we should all play and beat Super Mario Bros. for the NES. This game provides such an exemplary example of game design and was so influential and important in the history of gaming, I find that it is only appropriate to continue to give it credit. Also, I reference it often in my blog posts. It's only 5 dollars if you buy it on your Wii.

In Super Mario Bros. players are awarded with points. You get points for grabbing coins, smashing enemies, beating the level with extra time, and nabbing powerups. But, when playing this game, are you ever concerned with your score? Does anyone care? Would anyone have missed it if it wasn't included? And if you're thinking that the points were just a convention of the games of that era, even Mario's latest 2D platformer New Super Mario Bros. has a point system. For the most part, all the factors that affect the gameplay in these Mario games are contained within the game's form. If I'm terribly ignorant to the gamers that go for score in Super Mario Bros. please let me know. Otherwise, it's fairly safe to say that Super Mario points aren't worth much.

But that's just one example. Every game is different. So I did a little thinking, and I've found a few pairs of games that have a lot in common. Each pair of games features similar gameplay elements, but one game focuses on concrete mechanics at high levels of play, while the other relies on an abstract system. If you have experience with any of these pairs, consider what level you played the games at, and ask yourself which game's gameplay you prefer.

Super Mario Galaxy vs Donkey Kong Jungle Beat
  • Both games are stylized, highly polished, unique platformers. Both Mario and Donkey Kong wall kick, back flip, ground pound, collect golden objects (coins & bananas), and punch enemies through diverse locations. And both of these games were made by same same team of developers.
  • While both games challenge the player to get to the end of each level, Mario creates an environment filled with elements where the player is free to play around or challenge themselves. Nailing tricky jumps, going for all the coins, or triple jumping everywhere keeps things exciting.
  • In Jungle Beat, players are encouraged to play to the abstract combo system. By chaining jumps, wall kicks, and rebounding off of enemies players can travel around without touching the ground. The more special moves the player does without touching the ground, the higher the combo multiplier grows. The higher the multiplier, the more points are earned from each banana collected. At the end of every level, the player is evaluated on how many points they've earned and are awarded a medal based on their performance.

Ninja Gaiden (Sigma) vs Devil May Cry 4
  • Both games feature male characters who fight through hoard after hoard of demons. The combat system for each is complex featuring an impressive amount of well animated moves consisting of projectiles, sword slashes, and grabs. Both games also feature a variety of weapons that can be used to combat evil.
  • Ninja Gaiden keeps the combat concrete. Each enemy is a contained deadly force that intends on taking your life. When the odds are stacked against the player, efficient kills and tactics are essential for claiming victory. Also, there is a strong sense of environment from the interactions and dynamics between the characters and the rooms/areas. Players can run along walls, wall kick, and do a variety of other ninja jumps and attacks that move the player around through the 3D space. And at the end of the battle, survival is the reward.
  • In Devil May Cry, players don't fight the seemingly lethargic enemies as much as they fight against the abstract combo system. By mixing up the combat moves between punches, gun shots, and sword attacks players can build the style meter. Sure, using the powerful moves repeatedly gets the job done efficiently, but that just isn't cool... or so that's what the game's abstract system wants me to believe.
Mario Kart Wii vs Excite Truck
  • Both of these racing games feature hills where the player can perform tricks off of to earn speed boosts. Both games encourage crashing into other racers to gain and advantage, using drifts, and playing on the edge by driving through trees or drafting other karts. And both games use the Wiimote motion controls for steering.
  • Mario Kart uses the concrete mechanics built into the vehicles, bananas, turtle shells, tracks, and off road terrain to add a high level of variation for players to adapt to on the fly. Everything that is dangerous to the player is out there on the track. At the end of the day, Mario Kart is still all about who makes it across the finish line first.
  • Excite Truck relies on on their abstract point system to challenge players and keep things exciting. In a race, players are rewarded with stars for holding onto long drifts, doing tricks in the air, taking crazy jumps, narrowly avoiding trees, and crashing into other trucks. According to the system, earning anywhere from 1 to 4 stars for a single activity will help your final score. But earning 5 stars in a single activity gives players an extra bonus on top. In Excite Truck, racing is still important but points are more important. Lagging behind into 2nd place to get more points could result in a higher rank. It's because of this that the abstract, arcade mechanics in Excite Truck are pushed to the forefront.
Halo 3 vs Call of Duty 4
  • Crouching, Spawning, shooting, sniping, melee attacks, grenades, team play, and first person perspective. These are just a few elements that Halo and COD have in common.
  • Halo pits players in an arena of concrete combat mechanics. Cars and other vehicles have momentum and can ram other players to deliver crushing blows. Grenades have blast radius that can push around items on the ground, send players flying, over turn vehicles, and even veer a rocket off its trajectory. Bullets act like bullets. Walls act like walls. Everything acts and reacts according to their form. For the most part, the elements of the combat are contained within the arena. Powerups, guns, grenades, vehicles, and equipment are all located somewhere in the playing field. When a player finds that their favorite vehicle or gun is missing, they know that someone must have picked it up. The combat features a high level of emergent gameplay that is similar to a sport.
  • The multiplayer in COD4 is more abstract and cluttered than in Halo. In the majority of online game types, there is no friendly fire making it to where players can't hurt their own teammates. Though this design choice keeps the saboteurs at bay, it also adds an abstract property to the players attacks. Somehow, bullets and grenade explosions don't hurt your teammates, but then magically hurt the enemy seconds later. Instead of putting an array of weapons and powerups in the field for players to pick up and use, players can customize and equip themselves with guns, explosives, and perks (power ups) that they'll spawn with. This design choice keeps the action at a constant high pace because every player is deadly "right out of the box." With the ability to change custom confirmations every time a player spawns, it's virtually impossible to use the form of the game to gather information to make informed decisions. Without having the power rooted to the arena, the flow of the match is high and arcade like.

In all of these examples, I prefer the gameplay of the game on the left compared to their counterparts. It bugs me when actions betrays form, and it can be exhausting memorizing special case after special case for a game filled with abstract gameplay mechanics. Tomorrow, I'll talk about a new DS game that has been gaining a lot of popularity that is the most abstract game I've played in recent memory. Keep it real (as opposed to abstract).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mechanics and Abstractions part.2

Yesterday, I made a post about the different kinds of mechanics a game can feature and what kinds of effects these mechanics could have on the gameplay. Now it is time to analyze mechanics through a set of criteria consisting of the player input, the form of the mechanic, and the range of effects the mechanic has on the game world. I've simplified things into a few factors.
  • Individual: Does the input yield the same action every time? Or can the input result in a variety of different actions.
  • Intuitive: A measure of the degree to which input method matches the form of the game. If there's a green button on the screen, and a green button on your game controller, the form of the game is liked to the input of pressing the green button on the controller.
  • Direct: A measure of how the changes in the method of input are paralleled with the action in the game according to the form of the mechanic. If you quickly press the green button on your controller, does the game quickly press the button on the screen? If you hold the button on your controller, is the button on the screen held down as well?
  • Dynamic: An measure of how the game world responds to the action. According to the form of the game world and the mechanic, does the world react realistically? What is the extent of the properties of the mechanic? Are the reactions to the mechanic special cases or can the resulting actions continue to effect the game world?

Super Mario Abstraction
coming to Wii and DS Fall 08

Here is the ranked list of different gameplay mechanic types from the most concrete to the most abstract.

1) Real Motion: Wii Sports: This game is quite revolutionary. By designing the wiimote and motion controls to reflect real life sports actions, the input for this game achieves the highest level of design. Each mechanic in Wii Sports is highly intuitive and individual. Boxing, batting, and bowling all have separate and distinct motions in the game as they do in real life. Players only have to hold the controller like they would a real tennis racket or a golf club. Swing the controller half way through a swing, and the on screen character does the same. Hesitate in real life, and the character hesitates as well. It doesn't get much more intuitive or direct.

By taking data from the motion sensors in the wiimote, Wii Sports adds a high degree of variance to each action which allows for the game to make the resulting actions realistic and dynamic. In an interview with the developers of Wii Sports, it was said that players wouldn't be able to do the same Tennis Swing twice because the system was so sensitive.

Because each sport is modeled after the real life activity, realistic actions support the goal and form of the game while making it highly dynamic. Other games that have reached this level of mechanics are Wario Ware Smooth Moves/Touched/Twisted.

2) 1 Button = 1 Action: Mario's jump: By simply hitting a button Mario springs up into the air. By letting go of the button, Mario beings to fall back down to the ground. The longer the button is held, the higher Mario rises up to his maximum height. The quicker the button is tapped, the shorter the jump. Such a design makes the jumping in Super Mario Brothers direct and dynamic. By pressing the button longer/harder players feel like they can push Mario onto platforms with shear will power.

I have a friend who thought the NES controller knew when you pressed the buttons harder to get higher jumps. He didn't quite understand that pressing the button harder and holding it longer were interconnected inputs. This only speaks to the excellent design for Mario's jump. Players don't have to know how the game works technically. All they have to think is, to jump higher, put some more "umph" into it just as they would in real life. Though it's not as intuitive as Wii Sports, such design is still very intuitive.

Because jump is the primary function of the Mario platforming games, the entire game world responds to Mario's jump both going up and coming down. Bricks, question blocks, enemies and higher platforms are affected by and react differently by an upward jump versus downward one. Jumping on enemies, Mario's most dangerous and dynamic obstacles, usually results with Mario squashing the enemies and rebounding back into the air with another jump. They dynamics of gravity, momentum, and the spacing of Mario and his enemies are constantly recycled within the dynamics of their interplay. Also, the jump button for a Mario game is always jump making the mechanic individual to the input. Other games on this level are Wario Ware inc.

3) Contextual Commands: Link's "action" button: In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Link can do many actions. Push. Pull. Climb. Put away. Attack. Talk. All of these actions are housed in a single mechanic; the context sensitive action button. Though all the actions are still direct, intuitive, and dynamic (like a Mario game), the individuality of the mechanic has been sacrificed. Because the game is so well designed, the accuracy of the contextual action button is very high. In other words, the game and the player rarely disagree on which context sensitive action should be active at any particular time. This allows the player to fight, explore, and puzzle solve as needed without any hassle from complicated input configurations. Though the contextual nature of the action button is a level of abstraction, its ability to adapt to the specific game state is highly intuitive.

4) Actionless Actions:
Action RPGs like Tales of Symphonia, Secret of Mana, and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicals have attempted to add deeper and more engaging gameplay elements to their games by adding action based mechanics to their RPG formats. Existing somewhere between true actions games and more traditional RPGs, these games usually support functions that are intuitive, direct, and individualistic as other action game. However, the range of resulting actions from each mechanic, or dynamics, is where action RPGs usually fall far short. These games typically take short cuts by failing to draw accurate hit boxes for attacks or the characters. Also, the hit stun and knock back from attacks are stunted. Instead of using the form of being pushed down, chopped down to side, or being knocked back to communicate the differences of attack strength between different attacks, action RPGs tend to repeat the same stun animations while letting the damage display show how powerful the attack was. Players quickly learn to look at the numerical damage and a primary indicator of how well they're doing in battle. Such elements tends to make the game feel floaty and disconnected.

When a sword attack doesn't look or feel like a sword attack, then what makes it different from a punching attack when they do the same points of damage? This in itself can bring a game down because of how the forms and mechanics don't align with their functions. Unfortunately, from what few mechanics and limited dynamics action RPGs have, developers tend to add several layers of abstractions in attempt to make their games more appealing.

5) Issuing Commands: Final Fantasy series, Dragon Quest series, Pokemon series. Traditional PRGs: Everything from character stats, inventories, leveling up, and battling are all abstractions of equations and numbers. The concept of fighting a battle has been completely stripped of all features that are intuitive, direct, dynamic, or individual. For these games, there are no concrete mechanics. Players take turns giving commands that are essentially just data inputs on a spreadsheet. Even the active time battle systems typically don't add any elements of concrete design.

Attacking is all about turns and damage points. Surviving is all about holding on to at least 1 hit point. Because players can't avoid being attacked, the gameplay quickly boils down to attack-attack-heal. What else is there to do in such a system? You can't win if you don't attack. And you can't keep attacking without healing yourself. And playing well in a RPG means optimizing the equations and data.

The battle gameplay consists of manipulating menu after menu, and any attempt for a game to add dynamic interactions into the battle commands is crushed under the shear volume of attacks, items, and options. Take Pokemon for example. There are a handful of moves in the games vast array of attacks that have special prosperities. Normally when a Pokemon is frozen solid in a block of ice, it can't attack until it naturally thaws out, or the opponent uses a fire attack on it. The exception is, if the Pokemon has an attack called Fire Wheel, it can use it while frozen to thaw itself out. Though the idea of a Pokemon using a fire attack to free itself is great, why can't other fire attacks do it as well? Because Pokemon is an RPG that isn't rooted in concrete mechanics, even cool properties like freeing oneself from ice with fire wheel just becomes a special case, or just another piece of abstract data that doesn't match the form of the game, can't be understood intuitively, and must be memorized. Instead of making a few dynamic actions that generate countless of outcomes, RPGs feature hundreds of options that are largely the same and are reduced to a simple formula: attack-attack-heal. What may be worse of all is, the form in these RPGs are typically completely removed from their functions.

6) The Invisible Trigger: Assassin's Creed's spy mechanics & open world games: It may seem inconceivable that there are mechanics that exist at a higher level of abstraction than RPGs, but it is possible to design a mechanic that goes against or even punishes players for following the intuitive paths of form fits function. Open world games communicate to the player that there is a whole world for players to engage in. Unfortunately, creating a realistic virtual world is nearly impossible for game designers. At the end of the day, even an open world will have about as many limitations as other kinds of games.

Elements in an open world can't all react uniquely and accurately to the player especially when there are human characters involved. In Assassin's Creed, bystanders are either oblivious, pugnacious, or flat out unrealistic. And the same is true for the GTA series. For many players, such glaring limitations break the illusion of an open world and expose the game for what it really is; a limited set of rules that encapsulate a limited set of outcomes.

To cover up a game's deficiencies, developers like to take short cuts when designing player mechanics. In Assassin's Creed, players are supposed to use their stealth skills to eaves drop on conversations, beat information out of targets, and make assassinations. These actions seem to allow the player to accomplish the task in a variety of ways. Because the game world looks like the real world, the form tells players they can go about solving problems like they would in real life. Not only can players not do simple actions like eaves drop however they want, but they're extremely limited in how they can do it. In fact, in Assassin's Creed players have to go to predetermined areas to essentially activate the eaves dropping cut scene. Going from point A to B and activating a cut scene is a level of dynamic interaction that can be found in any DVD menu or on Youtube. It is hardly satisfactory for a videogame especially one that holds the form of an open world. Mechanics like these are farces with no dynamics that turn the player against him/herself.

7) Strict Progression: Zack and Wiki, Crimson Room: The forms, functions, inputs, mechanics, and progressions are highly disjointed. The player must continually learn new rules and parameters through sometimes frustrating trial-and-error and then discard the parameters because the game rules and strategies are inconsistent from one part to another. There's only one or a few ways to solve each puzzle/challenge. "Figure it out!" is the cynical gameplay mechanic.

The more forms are decoupled from expectations based on those forms, the higher the level of abstraction is within the scope of a game's mechanics. Today's post is very dense, so take a day to mull it over. If you feel like a challenge take your favorite game, or the game you're currently playing, and talk about some its mechanics. Describe it using the criteria and then rank it from 1-7. Tomorrow, I'll take a look at pairs of games that have similar designs but polarize between concrete mechanics and abstractions, and I'll share my thoughts on a new game that has gone out of control with abstractions. Until then.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Mechanics and Abstractions part.1

Here at Critical-Gaming gameplay mechanics are very important. Because videogames are an interactive medium, what we do and how the games responds is key. Even with the same mechanic or action, each game finds a different way to generate their results. A kick in Super Mario Strikers (a soccer game) is very different from a kick in Super Mario World, which is very different from a kick in Super Smash Brothers. Whether a game is defined by an action or a group of actions, a small set of mechanics rests at the core of every game. This mechanic is the primary function.

Identifying the mechanics in games is relatively simple. Just about anything the player can do is a mechanic. The resulting effects from using a mechanic are its properties. For example, in Super Mario Brothers, jump is the primary function, and squashing enemies is a property of that function.

Being able to clearly identify a mechanic and its effect in a game takes a critical-eye. Mario games have always presented clear gameplay mechanics because Mario games are designed with an unrelenting devotion to form fits function.

Form fits function is a powerful game design principle that has powered many of Nintendo's greatest games. Using familiar visuals, games can use their form to communicate to the player. If there is a ball resting on a tee and the player avatar has a golf club in their hands, they better be able to swing the club and hit the ball. Otherwise, why put such things in front of the player in the first place? Keeping the form true to the functions and limits of a game creates the cleanest most easily enjoyable experiences.

where the concrete mechanics end

In the same way form fits function seeks organic, concrete, realistic forms even when the game world may be fictional (like the Mushroom Kingdom), game mechanics also tend to be organic. Shooting a gun. Swinging a sword. Jumping. Even rotating and dropping blocks like in Tetris are organic actions. By using organic forms and organic mechanics, the form of the game can be even more unified with the game's actions making the game feel less artificial.

Some gameplay mechanics are completely artificial, meaning they do not make logical sense based on the form of the game. When such mechanics are privileged within a game's design, we tend to label these games as being "arcade" like. I describe these gameplay mechanics as being abstract. Take Resident Evil 4 for example. In the bonus Mercenaries mode, players are challenged to rack up as many kills as they can in a limited amount of time. While playing, the player can acquire power ups to extend their play time. Also, killing "zombies" quickly enough rewards players with more points than each kill would afford individually creating a combo or chaining system. Getting extra points for killing in rapid succession is an abstract mechanic that is placed over the more concrete mechanics and forms in Resident Evil 4. In order to do one's best, the player must play to this time and combo system. And when playing to this system, the game becomes less about surviving zombie attacks and more about linking one kill after another.

The more abstract a mechanic and its properties are, the less concrete it becomes and vice versa. Often times, abstract mechanics are layered over game systems to make them more engaging. However, the rewards for abstract mechanics only result in more abstractions. Combo systems usually use points as rewards, and points are usually an abstract way to measure progress and success. Take Guitar Hero, a music rhythm game that uses the form of a guitar to fit the function of playing music. Like any respectable musician, playing as many correct notes as possible is the goal. After finishing a song, a simple tally of right/wrong notes played would fall within the realm of concrete mechanics. However, in Guitar Hero, players are rewarded for playing right notes in a row with a multiplier that adds even more points to the players score. Furthermore, by playing designated sections perfectly, players can accumulate star power which allows them to double their current multiplier for a short period of time. Now, instead of the concrete, direct correlation between playing the music and the results, players wishing to do well must adhere to the abstract combo system. This combo system in itself puts a strain on the gameplay because at such levels of play, the player must optimize their use of star power. And optimization eventually narrows and restricts possibilities to one efficient path.

In the real world, progress and time are the result of simple addition and substraction. Each moment of each day stacks on top of each other, and each accomplishment adds to the success in our lives. This is why combos and multipliers are abstract mechanics. To think, if college students could do well enough in a class to have their accumulated college credit multiplied so that good students can chain their education and graduate in less than half the time. Such a possibility is preposterous simply because combos don't exist naturally.

Points can represent abstract rewards or concrete progress. For a good concrete example, just look at sports like Soccer or Hockey. Each goal gives a point for a specific team, and the winner is determine by which team has the highest score. In this example, each goal is represented by 1 point thus avoid any kinds of abstractions between the game and the point system. However, moving a little closer to the abstraction side, sports like Football, Golf, and Basketball have point systems that aren't directly correlated with scoring. In football, running a touchdown earns the team 6 points with a chance to kick for and additional point. Each team can also earn 3 points by kicking a field goal if they haven't just scored a touch down. In Basketball, each point doesn't equate to a basket. And in Golf, a player can lose more than one stroke for landing a ball out of bounds. The point values for these games vary for balance. Though the assignment of points in this way works, it still can seem arbitrary. Fortunately, such sports are still simple in how the points add up.

Without organic forms and actions to limit an abstract mechanic, the gameplay in such games tends to boil down into simple experiences of trial-and-error or optimization instead of blossoming into emergence and expression. This is the ultimate danger of abstract mechanics. Tomorrow I will continue with mechanics and abstractions by outlining a criteria for judging mechanics and creating the hierarchy of gameplay mechanics by siting specific games and genres. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Nintendo & Items

"Mario Kart has always teetered on the line of feeling somewhat orchestrated, as the racers in the lead receive items of little to no value while those in the back get items that will quickly jet them to the front. It adds to the chaotic "any race could be my race" feel..."
IGN- Mario Kart Wii

".... and "everyone's a winner" feeling you get when random items show up and completely turn the game upside down in an instant. Granted that's [Mario] Kart, but it's also a way to water down competition, which is exactly how Super Mario Kart got its start."
IGN - Mario Kart Wii

"Normal shots and even one-timers are highly unlikely against the spot-on goalie A.I., so players have to clear some space and sneak in a charged shot. Toss in a few shells, bomb drops and giant plumbers, and Charged becomes an incomprehensible riot. A hilarious riot, but an incomprehensible riot nonetheless."
Game Revolution - Mario Strikers Charged

"The game requires skill, but it also requires some patience and tolerance of its more random elements. Admittedly, this is not an entirely new thing in the Mario family of arcade sports games." 1up - Mario Strikers Charged

Nintendo arguably makes the best multiplayer games around. Simple rules. Family safe. Clean Visuals that reflect the design philosophy Form Fits Function. Great controls. And because of these factors, Nintendo games generally have a high level of emergent gameplay, which makes for an exciting metagames that evolves over time. Somehow, with over 15 years of experience with Nintendo games, people/reviews/and game enthusiasts have retained a poor understanding of how Nintendo games work.

It can be hard trying to wrap your mind around how Nintendo creates their multiplayer experiences if you come from a background of PC games or FPSs. With Nintendo games, stat upgrades, leveling up, and customizable equipment are no where to be found. Apart from these things, many Nintendo multiplayer games have one thing in common: items/power-ups. Mario is no stranger to power-ups. Even when he was scaling the tower to thwart the dastardly Kong, Mario had access to an all powerful Hammer power-up. From there Super Mario Brothers was designed with a variety of power-ups including the Mushroom, Star, and Fire Flower. Then on the Super Nintendo Mario Kart introduced the item box roulette that rewards the player with a random yet contextual power-up.

Now, many Nintendo games feature random items including the Super Smash Brothers series, Pikmin 2 (battle mode), the Mario Kart series, the Mario Strikers series, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords (battle mode), The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, New Super Mario Brothers (battle mode), Planet Puzzle League, Tetris DS, and Elite Beat Agents. Considering all these games yields some insight to how Nintendo multiplayer modes are designed.

First, the game rules and mechanics are created and refined. For a Mario Kart game this includes power sliding, racing, turning, hopping, bumping, terrain, and all the kart/character stats. For Smash Brothers this includes walking, running, jumping, attacking, and taunting. For a game like Elite Beat Agents, Tetris, or Planet Puzzle League, all the familiar single player controls, mechanics, and rules apply.

After the game system has been established and polished, developers love to add in a small random element into the game. At best, when a random element is thrown into the mix, it enhances the multiplayer experience in a number of ways. The random item transforms the game by shifting the parameters of the goal slightly, creating a new obstacle/hazard, or adjusting the strategic options available for the players. A banana waiting on a short cut ramp in a Mario Kart race can disable the short cut.

Grabbing a Star power-up in Smash Brothers puts one player on the offensive and all the other characters on the defensive. In this way, not only does the power-up transform the game, but it challenge's both players ability to understand the mechanics of the power-up, the rules of the game, and to adapt and react on the fly.

When an item/power-up is properly designed, they increase the skill needed to successfully compete. Even when an item is randomly dropped into a match, it can test a players reaction times, adaptability, and knowledge of the game. When a game is built off of a few simple rules, having to adapt to new conditions is a highly effective way to keep things fresh and simple while challenging both players.

Some games create systems where player have to earn their items. Mario Kart racers have to drive through item boxes. Tetris players have to eliminate lines that contain a small item box square. In Elite Beat Agents players have to score a series of perfect runs. In Mario Strikers, if a player is flagrantly tackled, they are compensated with an item. This keeps the game fast and fluid without stopping for penalty kicks and the like. Otherwise, a player can earn their own items by charging a shot on the goal without using their special shot. Because the special shots are generally more effective at scoring goals, there's a trade off between a potential goal and obtaining an item.

Unfortunately, Masahiro Sakurai didn't feel like it was necessary for players to be able to earn items on their own. Out of all the games on the list, the Smash Brothers games are the only games that have randomly spawning items that instantly effect the game without being used by any player. It's true, a bomb can randomly explode on a player without warning. This is a poor design choice that has continued with the Smash Brothers series. Because items are so dangerous existing at times outside of player control, they have been banned from the vast majority of Smash Brothers tournaments for many years now.

Mario Strikers Charged for the Nintendo Wii is the best example of a modern Nintendo game that has an item system that is designed correctly and is well balanced. By rewarding victims from dirty plays, and giving the player the chance to earn their own items, items are a direct result of the all the players actions. Also, to earn your own item, you have to have the ball. This puts a limit on the amount of "item farming" the player can do at any one time. Lastly, even when the field gets completely overrun with items, after each goal, everything is cleared.

Nintendo has certainly has been successful doing things their own way. Though I would much rather have more organic ways of incorporating "random items" into the multiplayer design, the progress Nintendo has made thus far still gives them an edge on the competition.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Mario Kart Wii and Beyond...

It has been a good week since Mario Kart Wii was released, and the game has won me over. Though some of the design choices do disappoint me, especially considering that they have taken a few steps back in the area of form fits function, the game is still Mario Kart in the same way that Brawl is still Smash Brothers. And that is a very good thing.

The graphics either grew on me, or I've learned to ignore how bad they are. Some levels look great while others feature geometry that is pathetically jagged. I know the Wii can handle more. My theory is, they were planning on releasing Mario Kart for WiiWare before they invented the Wii Wheel and decided to package it in all together. On the positive side, I've almost completely gotten used to the Wii Wheel controls. The degree of analog control is very high. For those of us who find the D-pad insufficient, and have problems playing on a tiny analog stick, then the Wii Wheel should be the perfect solution. Turning by a hair in the game only takes a hair turn on the wheel making kart control very intuitive.

It seems that the Wii Wheel has another interesting ability. Until now, the difference in controls on the wheel versus a standard controller were a matter of input accuracy and speed. Beyond inputs, the Wii Wheel can be shaken to prevent one's kart from spinning out of control from a POW block. Standard controllers simply can't. This design choice sets up a precedent that I think is very bold. As Nintendo continues to release games like Mario Kart that are on the fence between using the control schemes of this and last gen, it is interesting that they gave the new Wii next gen motion controls an advantage over the standard controller. Masahiro Sakurai tried to make all the control schemes equal in Super Smash Brothers Brawl by giving players the options of swapping button functions for each of the four controller types. Early in Brawl's development, Sakurai decided not to try and implement any motion controls or Wii specific gameplay elements into the game. I hope he is the last developers that opts out of accepting the challenge that Wii developing offers. And I hope more developers will support the Wii's unique controlling options like Mario Kart has.

Fortunately Mario Kart Wii has an option for adjusting the power of items in versus play juts like in Mario Kart Double Dash. Playing in this mode does offer a calmer more focused racing experience that more skillful players thrive in. I believe in a level of design that doesn't have to cut elements out to appeal to casual and competitive players. It's completely possible for Mario Kart to feature a single setting for items that's balanced for all types of play. Maybe next time.

In general, more players is more chaos, not fun. Reggie was wrong. The max player count is just one of the elements I would adjust for the next Mario Kart game. If I were developing the next Mario Kart I'd...

  • Bring back coins. Coins encourage multiple paths of racing, and can also be used to balance other elements in the game.
  • Reduce the HUD and make the game focus on clean visuals. Being able to see opponents items in their hands like in Double Dash was a great idea that can be taken farther. I want players to be able to look down the track or at other racers, and have all the information they need to play well.
  • Make item boxes consumable, so that they're used up as a race progresses.
  • Add enemies in the environment that can be interacted with to obtain items. Goombas will give the player a mushroom. Koopas will yield shells. ETC.
  • Balance the items, karts, and racers.
  • Balance the levels for competitive play. Mario Kart can be as fun and accessible for a casual player while still supporting a design that is tunned for the competitive player. I don't believe that there is such a thing as "casual game design."
  • Like Mario Galaxy, Mario Bros. 3, or Super Mario World, I would design the tracks as part of a theme and group them together. Like the platforming games, racers will learn the special mechanics of each theme. Each level will be designed around a unique gimmick or idea that supports the game's primary function: racing.
  • The tracks will also be designed as tracks in the Mario universe, as opposed to crazy roller coaster amusement park rides through Mario themed areas that are clearly artificial and have no function. Some of the stages in the latest Mario Kart games have strayed away from race track designs.
  • The tracks will also be designed in full 3D. This means that areas that appear to overlap do, and the game won't put up invisible walls to stop the player from inventing their own short cuts. Mario Kart 64, the first 3D Mario Kart, features many shortcuts that are the result of the emergent gameplay and utilizing 3D space.
  • Fix battle mode.
And with that, Mario Kart week draws to a close. I've played every game in the series, and I'm still a fan. Even with it's flaws, Mario Kart Wii makes me scream, laugh, and dance around like no other game series can. Though I'm done writing about Mario Kart, I'll still be playing it. It's about time to write about a few other games. I've been neglecting GTA4, Echochrome, and others that must be addressed. I better get to them soon, because once Wii Fit drops, the Critical-Gaming blog will receive an overhaul.

An Interview: Carl

Memory Speedometers

I don't remember exactly how I met Carl Pinard (a.k.a.NJzFinest) a Karter from New Jersey age 19. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I've never met him in person. It was on the tracks that I met this racer via Mario Kart DS online play. Back then I considered him to be my rival. Needless to say, we were both pretty good at the game. And for us, in the world of Mario Kart, 1st place was expected. They say for members of a band, it all comes out on the road. This is a phrase that takes on new meaning in a Mario Kart race. So when we both sat there at the starting line with out engines humming, waiting for the Lakitu to start us off, I knew it would soon be all behind us.

I kept Carl in my contacts long after I stopped playing Mario Kart DS competitively and after Carl's copy of Mario Kart DS was stolen. In my interview I found out that he has a lot of experience with the Mario Kart series. Here's what he had to say.


KirbyKid: How many mario kart games do you have experience with?
Carl: All of them but Mario Kart Wii

KirbyKid: Which is your favorite? And why?
Carl: My favorite one is Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the GBA. It took some of the new elements presented in Mario Kart 64 with Super Mario Kart. Unlike MK64, it had many more courses, given the fact it had every course from Super Mario Kart. It was basically 2 games in one.

KirbyKid: What about the racing mechanics in Super Circuit?
Carl: Well, it brought back the oldschool controls from the SNES one, such as the different method of drifting were you simply hold ’R’ until the mini boost comes, instead of turning left and right as in mk64. It just felt a little tighter. Also, every kart had more of a completely different feel. Sure, in MK64, there were different weight classes and such, but in MK for the GBA, there was more of a difference between each character; completely different turning for example. Some were extremely hard to turn into sharp angles. Some were much easier. This element started what was later presented into MKDS, MKDD, and I’m assuming also MK for the Wii.

KirbyKid: How do you feel about snaking?
Carl: Snaking, I both love and hate it. I did it a lot in Mario Kart Double Dash and Mario Kart DS. In Mario Kart 64, it wasn't too bad since it barely existed (given the fact it was nearly impossible to continually drift on a straightaway). I recently won a Mario Kart DD tournament where I basically snaked my entire way through. Many people gave me negative remarks about it, but I didn't mind too much. I like how it defines more experienced players compared to lesser, but I hate how it's simply too easy to abuse. Like, in MK64 (where it wasn’t as bad), people wouldn't call you a cheater since it wasn't something you could simply do all match. In MKDD and MKDS, I just felt like it was a contest of who can mash left/right and R better, rather then an actual race. Advanced techniques in videogames should be situational, not something you should always do no matter what. Such as l-canceling in Melee. There was no reason to not ever do it. That was "fixed" in brawl where most characters "automatically" cancel their lag.

KirbyKid: How would you rank the Mario Kart games?
Carl: Super Circuit, MK64, MKDD, MKDS, SMK

KirbyKid: So, I take it you really like MKDD?
Carl: Yeah, it's a lot of fun. It was the first one to introduce different karts and all.

KirbyKid: Do you think the level design of MKDD started to depart from racing tracks?
Carl: What do you mean by that?

KirbyKid: Like... in MKDD you're racing on a cruise ship. That's not really a racing track. That level has parts where tables are sliding around, and there's the hole that drops to the lower level. How do you feel about such elements?

Carl: I didn’t really mind them actually. I loved that course, almost got a world record. It's actually my favorite. If it wanted a more serious type of racing, there was always F-zero GX for me. But courses like Daisy's cruise was something I’d expect playing a Mario game.

KirbyKid: Do you miss not having coins in MKDS or MKDD?
Carl: I didn't really mind actually. The coins seemed pretty weird to have in the game. Then again, snaking in DS/DD kinda replaced the aspect of collecting coins to speed up to for me.

KirbyKid: How do you feel about items in Mario kart? Do you think MKDD pushed things a bit too far?
Carl: Definitely. However, the option of changing it, was very nice. In the tournament I won not to long ago they put the items on "basic." So the best item you can get was a 3x mushroom and simple items were very popular. It was based way more on actual skill. It relates to no items in smash. In the MK64 and MKDS tourneys I’ve been to however... items ruined them mainly because of the fact that you couldn’t control them.

KirbyKid: So that little bit of control in MKDD made a big difference?
Carl: Definitely. Getting hit by a green shell or banana was nothing compared to getting hit by a barely avoidable blue shell of doom. Even red shells spawned rarely.

KirbyKid: Which Mario Kart would you say is best suited for a variety of competitive play?
Carl: I would have to say Mario Kart Double Dash. It seems to involve the most amount of skill in it.

KirbyKid: Do you play MKDD with 2 people in a single kart ever?
Carl: Nope. I tried it on the first day I bought the game. Then I saw how lame it was. My partner didn’t even let me switch in.

KirbyKid: [laughs] That's my favorite part of MKDD.
Carl: [laughs] Well, attacking people is cool, definitely, but it didn’t feel "Mario Kart-ish" Still, the thing about MKDD is that better players win consistently. Those who should win will win. MK64 did have a lot of skill in it, but…those items. 3 red shells...come on now! That's why I only did time trials for that game. I had the most fun doing time trials for that game actually.

KirbyKid: Did you get a chance to play battle mode on GBA?
Carl: Yes, it was pretty great. It was just as fun as the N64 one, but handheld. Battle mode in MKDD was terrible. The courses were extremely small. I only enjoyed Luigi's mansion. MKDS had it right, but there was no online battlemode if I recall.

KirbyKid: Do you think the item boxes on the floor like in SMK should come back?
Carl: Nah, they looked pretty weird looking to me. [laughs]

KirbyKid: What about being able to use up an item box to where it won't respawn?
Carl: That's pretty good. Since that box wont respawn, you'll have to focus more on actually racing rather then relying on a handicap.

KirbyKid: Other than mkdd with items on basic, do you think items in Mario Kart need to be tweaked more.... so that a player in 2nd won't get a blue shell?
Carl: Yes, I really dislike how they have the 2nd player treated as a 4th player in a 1v1. The 2nd place player can be inches away then bam, star power, or blue shell. He keeps it, and then just keeps racing along, barely in back.

I had a match online in MKDS were it started and neither of us moved. Since we both wanted to be in 2nd, we stood still for about 10 seconds. Then my opponent drove backwards, and I tried to catch up. Racing games shouldn’t be about camping items at all.

KirbyKid: True that. How do you feel about the spinning roulette in Mario Kart and random items in general?
Carl: It seems very unnecessary to have gameplay wise but it's pretty cool looking and makes the game more "Nintendo like." It's like, character entrances in Smash64 and Brawl. It’s just a little thing to make players a little more entertained with flashing colors and funny sounds.

KirbyKid: I was trying to come up with ways around the roulette part. And I was considering if players could pick up items from the level naturally like in a Mario game. If they see a Koopa crossing the road, they can hop on it and then get a shell item, or something like that.
Carl: ooohh. That would be amazing. Kind of like how you kill a Goomba or you run into a mushroom kart to get mushrooms to spawn in MKDD?

KirbyKid: Yeah!
Carl: Or how in rainbow road sometimes a star comes out of nowhere onto the stage?

KirbyKid: Exactly! I'm thinking, Mario Kart could use a new vision, and things like that would be cool.
Carl: yeah, nintendo should do more with that. It would make people work for items.

KirbyKid: [laughs] It was good talking to you. Thanks.
Carl: Yup, no problem.


I don't know if Carl remembered that the legendary match he described where both players didn't race at the beginning and one started driving backwards, was between me and him. I can't blame him. It has been a while, and I didn't have KirbyKid as my racing name. For that match, it was a race for second, an odd side effect of the way item boxes were treated in Mario Kart DS. Perhaps it's comforting to some that the Mario Kart games change with every iteration. If you don't like the way something works in one Mario Kart, you can expect the next one to change it at least slightly. This makes every race different, and every encounter something unique. Even waiting at the starting line, I knew from that point forward, nothing would be the same. After the light turns green, racers like us are gone forever with only our memories to remind us how fast we were going.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

An Interview with Dr. Mario Kart

First read this.

I must have been somewhere close to 15 or 16 when I first met Shane. I was told about his 1000$ Mario Kart challenge and instantly knew what kind of person he was. Through a series of unfortunate events, a game called Super Mario Kart was released in a time when internet play didn't exist for console games. In times like these, some players will continue to get better at a game until they have exhausted all the local competition. When this happens, some of these players are driven to put their skills to the test by taking on the world, enticing challengers with a risk free chance to win big.

I told Shane's story whenever I heard the words Mario Kart and "I was pretty good" in the same sentence. Everyone thinks they were "pretty good" at one game or another. If not, everyone has a friend or a friend of a friend who "can't be beat." Well, Shane Kukiattikoon now 25 years old, is the guy I know. He couldn't be beat. And unlike so many others who could talk big, he backed up his claim with a grand prize.

The last time I saw Shane in person was at a Super Smash Brothers Brawl tournament. In an epic struggle, he knocked me into the losers bracket only for me to come back and eliminate him near the finals. I talked to him about Mario Kart briefly, and we recalled good times.

A few months later, Mario Kart Wii came out, and I was inspired to write a few essays on Mario Kart. But it only just occurred to me that I knew the legendary Dr. Mario Kart, and that I could get an interview with him and share his story again.


KirbyKid: So you're a wiz a Mario Kart SNES, right?

Dr Mario Kart: At one time. Looks like the old site I had someone taking care of back when I was running around offering money to anyone that could beat me has been taken down. That wouldve been instructive for you to snoop around. It had my match record as well as a listing of events I had been to and some articles/pictures.

KirbyKid: wow

Dr Mario Kart: It was called the $1000 Super Mario Kart Challenge. I'd go to LAN parties and gaming events and set up a booth and give people free shots to try to take me down, with prizes varying from $5 for getting half my score, or $1K for a 7-0 sweep.

KirbyKid: How was the competition you found?

Dr Mario Kart: It was almost all blowouts. I won something like slightly over 98% of all the rounds I ever played, which was over 10 thousand I think. I had one person get half my score once, but he declined the prize.

KirbyKid: Have you kept up with the Mario Kart series?

Dr Mario Kart: only casually. I feel like physics and the game engine haven't really allowed for that kind of high level competition since

KirbyKid: what did you like best about Super Mario Kart ?

Dr Mario Kart: Its easy to like something that you are good at. I clicked with the game. It always came naturally to me. The battle mode was really a high level show of art and skill. Racing is more static, in that the conditions never change. When you are battling someone and have to respond to your opponent, it's a different situation. I always found that there was an inverse relationship between how good you were at racing and how good you were at battle. I played against some of the world record time trialers and I couldnt scratch them in a race, but they couldn't battle at all.

KirbyKid: Getting attacked wasn't common in the versus racing mode at a high level?

Dr Mario Kart: The shells didn't follow the road back then, they could only be used in a very local proximity for the most part. The top racers would get SO FAR AHEAD of me from the very start that I could never hit them.The battle arenas were more confined, so even if they were good at running, I can catch them with tricks or traps.

KirbyKid: Where did these top racers come from that could beat you, and why didn't they win the 1000$ prize?

Dr Mario Kart: All over the place. My challenge was for battle. I never got into racing. Racing was more popular because you could do time trials by yourself especially later on when the community was small and spread out.

KirbyKid: Is the community still alive today, and how many do you think are in it?

Dr Mario Kart: I imagine it has continued to decline, but even without checking I am sure there are still some people who never gave it up. There numbers are too small to estimate. Definitely an endangered species.

KirbyKid: Were there a lot of glitches or exploits for the racing and/or battle mode?

Dr Mario Kart: Not really. But there were some mechanics of the game that were not really understood well. I did hear later on that someone had developed quite a few game breaking glitches using an emulator, but I don't know if it ever made the transition to being usable on the actual console. Emulators can be goofy sometimes. For instance, how it decided what items it would give you from those seemingly random boxes. I would often get accused of getting things in long streaks. I think my record was 12 green shells in a row

KirbyKid: So even the feather jumping tricks were all legit?

Dr Mario Kart: Yes, I cant think of anything that was game breaking enough for anyone to talk of banning

KirbyKid: Where there differences in the characters in Super Mario Kart?

Dr Mario Kart: There were 8 characters arranged in a 4 column, 2 row grid. The 2 characters in each column are re-skinned clones. Across the columns, they differ in things like max speed, acceleration, and turn handling.

KirbyKid: Even though the stats weren't displayed right?

Dr Mario Kart: Right. I think the manual might have had some generic number of stars to represent their ability in things though

KirbyKid: Was the range significant in actual play, or were the characters largely the same?

Dr Mario Kart: It was significant. Some characters were better suited to either battling or racing. There were definite "tiers". Counterpicking was never an issue. The way turtle shell physics worked, the shells moved quicker when fired based on how fast you were moving, so the differences in how fast you could move at max or how fast you could get there matters.

KirbyKid: Who was the best and worst?

Dr Mario Kart: Everyone played Koopa Trooper or Toad (They are the same). I think they had the lowest max speed and probably the lowest acceleration as well. They were all about handling turns, which allowed for some trickier shots that just wasnt possible with other characters. The battle arenas were a bit cramped, so the quicker characters were harder to not hit a wall (and slow down) or handle in general.
KirbyKid: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.

Dr Mario Kart: I havent played in a good couple of years now.

KirbyKid: No problem.

Dr Mario Kart: I'm actually opening the new Mario Kart for Wii as we speak.

KirbyKid: Be careful. Did you play double dash?

Dr Mario Kart: A little bit.

KirbyKid: Did you like it?

Dr Mario Kart: The games are all generally fun, but without a competitive battle mode, I lose interest quickly. And maybe [they were] competitive, but everything falls so short when compared to the original.


Shane has put Super Mario Kart up on the shelves of his past. Now, he's taken up Smash Brothers, and becoming competitive at Brawl is a new goal that we both share. In the grand scheme of things, people come and go, and stories blow by in the wind unnoticed. Sometimes, someone will pick one up and post it on their website or blog. But unlike everyone else, here at Critical-Gaming, we fight for and against each other because we actually play games. We don't just talk about them.

Mario Klutter

Over the years the Mario Kart formula has been tweaked ever so slightly with every iteration. Five games after Super Mario Kart comes Mario Kart Wii. Though the latest version is played with wheel instead of a controller, features 3D graphics instead of 2D mode 7 graphics, and supports up to 12 players online play instead of 2 players offline play, these differences aren’t want makes Mario Kart Wii so different from the original. In my previous essay, I described how Super Mario Kart is structurally similar in design to Super Mario Bros. The elements in both of these games are so tightly woven together, changing one thing by a minute degree can throw everything off. So now we have Mario Kart Wii. And it appears that, compared to the original, everything was changed by a significant degree. The result, a game that is cluttered with design choices that detract from the whole by stretching the game abnormally in a particular direction. The purpose of this essay is to highlight the current design trends as seen in Mario Kart: Double Dash, Mario Kart DS, and Mario Kart Wii and consider how these trends have cluttered Mario Kart.

Every Mario Kart game includes a similar set of HUD items while racing including time, player rank, a map of the course with racer positions, and what item the player is holding (give or take current lap, who the top four racers are, and speedometer). Depending on the game, a different combination of HUD items are displayed. Mario Kart DS presented the cleanest most flexible HUD display with the most information out of all the Mario Karts. The top screen on the DS is for displaying the game as well as the lap, item box, and player rank. The bottom screen displays either a birds eye view of the player or a mini map. On either view the positions of the other karts are clearly marked. However, on the birds eye view, items on the track, item boxes, and incoming attacks are also displayed allowing the bottom screen to function as a rear view mirror.

A list of the current ranks of all the karts is also displayed on the bottom screen. This list not only displays rank but which item each character is currently holding. This level of detail is great for spotting if another player has a powerful item giving players a chance to prepare ahead of time. Mario Kart: Double Dash and Mario Kart Wii only have one screen to squeeze their HUD onto. The wide screen support in the Wii version helps reduced the cramped feel. Perhaps there’s a better way to reduce the HUD clutter than playing on a bigger TV. Double Dash was heading in the right direction by designing a form for holding items that is clearly visible to the player and other racers in the game. In this game characters hold and even juggle items in their hands. If another Kart has a star, you’ll clearly be able to see that they do. This feature supports the stealing items mechanic. By boosting into, ramming in star mode, or slide attacking another kart, players can steal their opponents items. Any time the form of a game can intuitively and naturally do away with HUD is a good design decision.

Form fits function is a powerful game design philosophy that a Classical game designer would swear by. The Mario Kart games operate on two main sets of forms. One form is the kart racing form which includes actions like bumping other karts, tight turns, and even some power sliding. The other major form is the Mario form. Though a game normally employs forms that are rooted to the natural world or some other established convention, over time, similarities within game series can create their own forms that have associated functions all of their own. Now, whether a banana is in Mario Kart, Mario Strikers Charged, or Super Smash Brothers Brawl we expect it to function the same; causing people to slip up without giving them damage.

In Mario Kart it is important that the areas that look like grass act like grass as well. Driving through gravel or grass must slow down the player significantly so that the form of the gravel or grass matches up with how it functions. This is the same for walls. A wall can’t simply slow you down when you run into it. It must stop you. The goal in a Mario Kart race has always been to get to the finish line first. The penalty for driving through the grass must significantly detract from achieving this goal. In Mario Kart DS, certain combinations of karts and characters allowed players to drive through grass and gravel at high speeds. Instead of penalizing players for driving off the track, they are rewarded with new short cuts. In the same game, heavy karts and characters are reduced to a slow crawl when off-roading. The bonuses created from the “right” combinations of characters and karts weren’t balanced against the normal or “bad” combinations.

The problem with designing Mario Kart with different stats or attributes for each character and kart, is that it reduces the complexity of the game. From Super Mario Kart to Mario Kart: Super Circuit, choosing a character meant choosing a play style. Though stats weren’t displayed in all of these games, there were differences in how each character played. Fortunately, the differences were easily interpreted from the form of each character. Big characters like Bowser were heavy and could knock other karts out of the way with ease. However, the added weight made for slower turning and acceleration. On the other hand, a small guy like Toad was a light weight with top level acceleration and sharp turns. Extracting weight, speed, acceleration, and turning from the form of each character was only natural and intuitive.

Unfortunately, from Mario Kart: Double Dash to Mario Kart Wii, the developers decided to demolish this connection between form and function by adding the ability for each character to race in more than one type of kart. With each kart came a set of stats that varied from kart to kart and character to character. Now the correlation between form and function is stretched. Not only do players have to recognize the character driving the kart, but they have to understand what kind of stats the kart has. Having two factors to consider isn’t necessarily bad. But as the design of the karts became more creative, fanciful, and imaginative, the function the karts have was decoupled from their form. Now a small military tank has more acceleration than a race car, and an egg on four wheels has more handling than almost every other vehicle in the game. Memorizing these differences is a chore that ignores the power of form fits function to communicate the rules and parameters of a game world.

What’s worse is, whenever the player is given the ability to alter the attributes of their characters, the changed stats will inevitably do one of two things: augment their inherent abilities, or nullify their deficiencies. One way or another, changing the stats of a character is essentially changing the character. If I took a small light weight character who has high acceleration and low speed, and I pick a kart that reverses these stats, I essentially changed my character into a heavy style character. Because the stat changes have to be significant so that the changes are reflected in the gameplay, the different possibilities only muddle the results by transforming a character into an hyperbole of itself, or making the character more like everyone else. At the same time, the range of variation between the form and the function increases deluding the design of the game.

Excessive stats can easily clutter a game like Mario Kart, and Mario Kart Wii features 7 different stats: speed, weight, acceleration, handling, drift, off-road, and mini-turbo. Fortunately, the range of karts available are separated into 3 classes based on character size unlike in Mario Kart DS where every character could ride in every kart. However, stats are an abstract way of communicating game rules and parameters. It would be best if the designers could design Mario Kart so that the 7 stats could be intuitively discerned from how the kart and racer appear.

Finally, the Mario Kart Series has began to show clutter in the number of players that can participate in a single game. Mario Kart Wii supports up to 12 players, and, following the trend, the developers have added more item boxes. Mario Kart has always been a game where the players in the back can effect the players in the front. Lightnings, Ghosts, and Bananas are just a few ways everyone in the race can stay connected. Mario Kart Wii added more items that effect a range of players. Though the ghost was removed, a decision I don’t completely agree with, the POW block, and Blooper were added. And with more karts in the match, there are more chances for these items to come into play. Since Double Dash, items can fall out of players possessions and onto the track. This in itself can clutter up the available racing lanes with bombs, turtle shells, and other hazards. In Mario Kart Wii, both the lightening bolt and the POW Block knock items onto the track. With space more precious and limited than ever, I’m surprised the developers made the game so chaotic and cramped.

The punishment for getting hit by an item isn’t significant enough because there’s naturally such a high volume of items and other hazards in the game. Specifically in Double Dash, even the Mario Bros. special item fireballs only made other karts spin out briefly as if they hit a banana. When each element and item in a game isn’t distinct and significant, the overlap in effects only dilutes the overall design. When many items fall to the tracks as hazards, this reduces the unique quality of bananas. When a Bullet Bill moves beyond a kart’s top speed, is invincible, and steers automatically, this reduces the impact of a Star. When Yoshi’s and Birdo’s eggs home in on other karts and explode with even more items, this reduces the uniqueness of red shells.

More isn’t necessarily better. The latest 3 Mario Karts have added more tracks, more items, more characters, and more kart options, yet the gameplay in all three has become cluttered compared to their predecessors. Over all, the differences between the Mario Kart games can be very slight. Even so, small design choices can give any game focus or cause it to spiral off into a sea of muddled obscurity and clutter. Every Mario Kart is designed to focus on a different aspect of its gameplay. Mario Kart Wii seems to be all about playing with more people at a single time. Though I would have preferred focusing on racing, or battling mechanics, Mario Kart Wii is still Mario Kart, no matter how cluttered it is.