Friday, August 29, 2008

Difficulty Design: A Difficult Endeavour

Designing and tuning game difficulty is trickier than it may seem. I'll try to make this one as concise as possible.

For some background material, consider looking into Flow in Games: A Jenova Chen MFA Thesis, and Gamasutra's Game Design Essentials: 20 Difficult Games.

Today I going to highlight a few methods of creating game difficulty/challenges.


Optional routes/objectives: Super Mario Brothers Coins. As the player moves through each level, there are coins that are never placed in the player's "laziest" path to the goal. To nab these coins, players must jump for them which often requires the player to deviate from the efficient linear path to the end of the level. Some coins are much harder to obtain than others. Because every coin the player sees can be grabbed in a single pass through a level, the boundaries of the challenge are set. In this way, the coins that are placed in tricky areas over dangerous hazards or endless pits communicate a level of difficulty to the player. At any time, the player can accept the challenge and go for the coins, or skip them all together. After all, they're optional.

Adjustable Pacing: Super Mario Brothers RUN mechanic. There are few jumps in this game that require the player to get a running start to overcome. This design choice makes the RUN mechanic largely uneeded for beating the game. Aside from how the RUN mechanic increases Mario's maximum JUMP range vertically and horizontally, by running players can increase the pace of the game which in turn increases the difficulty. This is the primary function of the RUN mechanic. When running, the screen scrolls faster to keep up with Mario. Because the screen scrolls faster, the upcoming platforms, obstacles, enemies, and other hazards move toward Mario more quickly giving the player less time to react. Having less time to react creates a more difficult game experience.

Adjustable/Optional upgrades: The Legend of Zelda heart containers. In this game series, players are rewarded for defeating bosses with full heart containers that extend Link's maximum health by one heart. The more hearts Link has, the more hits he can take before falling. On the other hand, if the player wants to make the game more difficult, they can leave the heart continers behind and continue on with their adventure. Playing Phantom Hourglass from start to finish with only 3 hearts was more difficult than I expected. I found that I had to buckle down and focus to stay alive instead of goofing off half of my health like I normally do in Zelda games. The best part about skipping these heart container upgrades is, true to their organic design, the containers remain where they are left giving the player the ability to go back and collect the containers to make things easier for themselves.


Leveling Up: All RPGs where enemies don't level up with you. This one is pretty obvious. If your enemies are at level 5 and you can't beat them at level 3, leveling up until victory is possible is the common course of action. But, if at any point the player doesn't feel like leveling up (or leveling up too much), they can always take on the challenge and attempt to squeeze out a win by any means possible. It's all about numbers and managing that spread sheet style, optimization, attack-attack-heal gameplay. I remember playing FF12, Pokemon Diamond, Valkyrie Profile, and Fire Emblem severely under leveled. To come out on top, I had to pull out all the stops and exploit the "spread sheet" and healing abilities to the max. Needless to say, it was difficult.

Optional use of items (especially heal items): Boktai, Ninja Gaiden, BioShock, Resident Evil Series, Zelda series, MGS series, etc. In these games, when you're low and health and you don't feel like dying, healing items are just a few clicks away. Whether the healing items are reached through menus or via a specific button, as long as the player has healing items/abilities he/she can heal to extend their health. Purchase a "lives of a thousands gods," a take 2, or capture a fairy in a bottle and upon losing all of your health, your character will spring back to life for a second shot at victory. The more of these specialty recovery items the player has, the easier the game becomes. It's all up to the player to adjust as he/she sees fit. And it's not just healing items. Other items/abilites adjust the game difficulty by boosting strength, speed, defense, and other attributes.


Most games address the difficulty issue by giving the player the option of selecting a mode of play with varrying levels of difficulty. The common term for such a mode is "hard mode." Viewtiful Joe takes these modes to an extreme even for Capcom: Kids (easy) Adults (normal) V-rated (hard) and Ultra V-rated (super hard). Super Smash Brothers Brawl also features a variety of difficulty modes.

In a hard mode the difficulty is increased by manipulating any number of the following factors.
  • Player health/enemy strength
  • Enemy types
  • Number of enemies/hazards
  • Upgrade requirements (more money, experience points, kills, etc.)
  • Item prices
  • Time limits
  • New/expanded objectives & challenges

The game that I feel does the best job with the modal method of game difficulty is Perfect Dark. From Agent, Secret Agent, to Perfect Agent, a number of factors are tweaked to tune the game difficulty so that the core design is maintained. This in itself is hard to do, but in addition the 3 modes are designed so that each mode is unique while building up the player's knowledge so that everything comes together when playing on Perfect Agent, the hardest mode.

Compared to the Agent and Secret Agent, Perfect Agent changes the following factors:
  1. Enemies are more accurate and have stronger body armor. The defensive upgrade makes limb shots less damaging, yet shots to the head and chest are still just as effective. At the same time, enemies still flinch and recover from shots in the same way they do in the other difficulty modes.
  2. Shields (defense upgrades) are removed from the maps.
  3. Additional mission objectives are designed into Perfect agent compared to Secrete Agent. With each additional objective, the strategies, abilities, and routes of play change significantly. For example. in the fourth mission, instead of saving a hostage from afar with sniper support, in Perfect Agent the player takes up the role as the hostage only to break out from capture. Though the majority of the mission objectives are the same as from Secret Agent, tackling the objectives from the inside of the compound is like playing a completely new level.

Another game that did a good job making each difficulty level unique so that even players who are skilled enough to take on the hardest mode have a reason to play the easier modes is Ikaruga.


Designing game difficulty organically has a lot of design pros.
  • The added challenges are created out of concrete mechanics. Adhering to form fits function is always a plus.
  • The forms and functions remain stable. All the moves, characters, objects, and enemies always consistently reflect the same values and mechanics. Enemies won't be stronger or weaker depending on the mode.
  • Because everyone will gather their knowledge from the same experience, everyone will be on the same page. This allows players of different skill levels to relate to each other and compare.
  • The player has the power and the flexibility to organically adjust their difficulty level up or down in real time. This ability becomes a vehicle of the player's self expression.

Unfortunately, the inorganic methods increase the level of abstraction in a game's core design. The biggest benefit of the modal method is that players don't have the ability to wimp out and adjust the difficulty level back down to easily get around tricky challenges. For the most part, once you select "hard mode" you're stuck and there's no going back. It's like jumping off the high dive or strapping yourself into a roller coaster ride. Many gamers don't want to option to chicken out because they know they'd either take it or dwell on the choice. Also, though the organic method is a mode of expression, the modal method is a clear way to communicate a minimum level of accomplishment.

Personally, I like a nice mix of organic and modal difficulty options. And on that note, I despise the option to change the difficulty setting at any time in a game. BioShock. Tales of Symphonia. The World Ends With You. I'm looking at you!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Customizable Stats Increase Abstraction and Deconstructs Gameplay

Another day, another podcast. This time I was compelled to write this article by the conversation on Battle Field Heroes in the 8/27/08 episode of GFW Radio. If you haven't listened to this podcast, you should probably do so now. The conversation on Battle Field Heroes is fairly short but very interesting.

In the dialog, the brodeo commented on some balancing issues in the closed beta of Battle Field Heroes. In this game, each player can customize the look of their character as well as their charcters battle attributes. Instead of making a well rounded character, by maxing out a particular attribute the GFW crew was able to push the dynamics and balance of the game into deconstrutive routes. The coterie went on to comment on how MMOs often have similar balancing issues.

If you're no stranger to this blog, you know that there are two genres of video games that I frequently put under heavy criticism: FPSs (or shooters of any kind) and RPGs. From a strict game design point of view, there isn't anything wrong with either genre. However, the conventions that have been established for each genre yield games that are filled with abstractions, which work to deconstruct a game from its core. One such convention is customizable stats.

This article is focused on uncovering the damaging effects of customizable statistics/attributes to core gameplay systems by examining 3 genres: RPGs, Shooters, and Strategy games. Let's start with RPGs.


RPGs commonly have a hard time creating concrete mechanics, interplay, and reducing the exorbitant amounts of static space. When the basic mechanics of ATTACK, ITEM, MAGIC, MOVE, EXAMINE fail to create dynamic resulting actions (a reduction of hit points is not dynamic) then adjusting the statistics behind these mechanics can do little to create dynamic gameplay. In other words, when the difference between a sword attack, fire spell, and an upgraded fire spell is mainly a difference in damage points, customizing the stats behind these attacks only changes the gameplay by allowing the player to optimize their offense linearly according to damage dealt. The more damage dealt, the better. For most RPGs, this statement is a universal truth.

In the end, whether an attack is buffed or stats fall, the lack of dynamics within a game's core design greatly diminishes the effectiveness of stat customization. The less dynamic a game is, the less customization matters. In contrast to RPGs, the next genre to be discussed contains more concrete, dynamic mechanics.


Many shooters like Call of Duty 4 and the upcoming Battle Field Heroes feature customizable attributes and stats. I have already written on how FPSs are inherently strained to create interplay due to the nature of guns. When customizable stats are added to a game system, the relationship between the game's forms and functions can easily be stressed or broken.

When fighting in Call of Duty 4's online multiplayer, nearly all player's appearances fall into one of two categories: Allies or enemies. Due to the fast pace of the combat, encounters are started and finished in a few blinks of an eye. Even if players get a good look at an opponent with enough time to make an informed decision, there are few visual cues (forms) to indicate the custom abilities of the opponent. Most of the custom stats or "perks" in COD4 cannot be discerned from how the opponent's character model. In other words, trying to anticipate and react to a player with specific custom abilities is essentially a guessing game. Furthermore, all players have the option to switch between a number of alternate custom characters making every possible encounter, even between the same players, very unpredictable. Unfortunately, the way the game system is set up, the greater effect these perks have in battle, the more abstract the gameplay becomes. To communicate many of the opponent's hidden or invisible custom attributes, specific icons contextually appear on the players HUD. In the absence of informative forms, COD4, like most FPSs, relies on abstract HUD.

The lack of interplay or gunplay in FPSs only becomes more apparent when a customizable stat system like the one in Call of Duty 4 is present. Extra grenades, stopping power, juggernaut, martyrdom, and last stand are just a few perks of many that give players advantages without any drawbacks. For example, starting off with extra grenades has no designed drawbacks. In the typical COD4 match, grenades don't hurt allies so players can throw their extra explosives about recklessly. Because players can die and respawn so quickly, the repeated use of these grenades can further expose the lack of friendly fire, an abstract element of the game that goes against the function of a grenade. Unlike in Halo, in Call of Duty 4 fallen players don't drop their grenades so that others may pick them up. To sum up, a perk like extra grenades boosts the player's abilities, more easily exposes the game's abstractions, and leaves little to no room for interplay.

If the core design of COD4 was balanced before adding perks, the lack of disadvantages in each upgrade inevitably works to unbalance the game. Even if the all the perks balanced each other out, the developers would have sacrificed the game's visual design (form fits function) just to bring things back to a balanced game or back to where they started. In a game where there are no drawbacks for having special abilities, on the road to becoming a perfect soldier, the only downside to accepting more power is that you can't have it all. Not at once at least.

In the end, augmenting stats in any genre puts pressure on the core design. Adding customizable stats in an FPS can easily add more abstractions to the gameplay. Considering that the conventional FPS features a stressed cored design, perhaps this genre should keep things as simple and concrete as possible. Halo 3 does a good job of that.

Strategy Games

In the strategy game Advance Wars, the various military units are balanced against each other featuring advantages and disadvantages based on several factors including cost, movement speed, movement type, offensive power, and defensive power. To further color or influence the strategies at play, players can select a Commanding Officer (CO) to give additional advantages and disadvantages to their units.

Grit, a laid back, lanky, long range specialist, automatically has stronger than normal long range units and weaker than normal direct attacking units. What's important here is that Grit's advantages and disadvantages are created out of the basic core mechanics, which are a part of the game's dynamics, decay, and depth.

When advantages and disadvantages are designed out of the basic core mechanics of a game, accepting the advantages becomes a much more difficult choice than if there were no disadvantages. In Grit's case, having stronger long range units is something that every player wants. But when it comes at a price of weaker direct attacking units, players must consider their new weaknesses, what they're willing to lose, and new strategies. In this way, the core balance is maintained. To get more one must give more.

But what about that first Advance Wars game for the DS? Advance Wars: Dual Strike's core gameplay incorporated many new stats for customizing one's COs, which in turn makes it the worst Advance Wars game that has come to the American market. Take Grit in Dual Strike for example. The disadvantage of weaker direct attacking units can be nullified and even reversed by equipping specific "perks." The balance and beauty of the variation within a game when done correctly comes from how every enemy/character/move/attack takes up a unique design space. Giving players the option to customize any CO to be more like any other CO makes every unique element of design less unique. I can make a Grit that plays like Max, or a Colin that plays like Sami. If I can do all of this, then what's the point of having unique CO's in the first place? It's kind of ironic that giving the player the ability to customize stats reduces the variation in a game. Because these CO perks don't have any disadvantages, like the perks in Call of Duty 4, an unnecessarily amount of complexity is added to the game that works to diminish the unique attributes of the COs while greatly disrupting the balance of the game.

Compared to the relatively simple design of a FPS, the delicate, carefully balanced intricacies of Advance Wars: Dual Strike take a serious hit due to the customizable stats. For any game that is designed and balanced around mechanics, dynamics, and interplay, any augmentation should accompany some kind of disadvantage keeping in mind the forms and functions of the core design. Separate these elements, and the game inevitably separates.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Greater than the (Riemann) Sum of Its Parts?

Listening to episode 47 of the Retronauts podcast I was reminded of common communication crutch that many use when trying to expound extemporaneously or otherwise about video games. "[insert game here] is greater than the sum of its parts."

How is it possible for a video game to be greater than the sum of its parts? All video games can be broken down into parts. Basically, a game is made up of various elements (audio, mechanical, visual, level, enemy, player, etc). So, if we start with a whole game, break it down into parts, then put it back together how is it possible to end up with more game than we started with?

More often than not, when "greater than the sum of its parts" (GTTSOIP) is used the speaker is unable to explain what the parts are or the composition of this greater "sum." Like reading a tricky poem or watching a convuluted film, the type of person who has yet to understand the work will opt to respond saying something along the lines of "that poem/movie was too deep for me." Unfortuantely, such a statement does nothing toward brining a works depth or other substantive content to light. And in the case of video games, instead of admitting that one doens't understand a game fully, many opt for the GTTSOIP phrase.

Perhaps I'm not giving these GTTOSIP users enough credit. What if "greater than the sum of its parts" was a way for someone to attempt to explain counterpoint a high level concept in and of itself? Take a look at this excerpt from wikipedia on counterpoint and development.
A melodic fragment, heard alone, makes a particular impression; but when the fragment is heard simultaneously with other melodic ideas, or combined in unexpected ways with itself (as in a canon or fugue), greater depths of affective meaning are revealed. Through development of a musical idea, the fragments undergo a working out into something musically greater than sum of the parts, something conceptually more profound than a single pleasing melody.
So if counterpoint in video game theory is similar to counterpoint in music theory, then shouldn't this phrase be apt for describing games such as Super Mario Brothers, a game featuring counterpoint that I've already detailed here on this blog?

My response is still no. To assume quite a bit of credit onto whoever uses the "GTTSOIP" phrase, the multitudinous and unexpected ways a game can acheive depth through counterpoint is still a part of a game's elements. Emergence and counterpoint don't exist in a state removed from the game. They ARE a part of the game. Therefore, to pretend that they're distinct and separate for the purpose of making a statement about the overall "sum" of a game is counter intuitive, counter productive, and simply counter (to the) point.

Funtionally, "GTTSOIP" is analogous to "niggles aside" a phrase used when a reviewer attempts to reduce, trivialize, and skirt a game's shortcomings only to highlight a game's pros, which in turn bloats the credibility and valitdity of the statement/article in the end. The Mass Effect Game Informer review is just one example of many with "niggles aside" writing. If you listened to the eppisode of Retronauts, GTTSOIP was used in close proximity to honest statements that uncovered the bad gameplay elements of a game called ActRaiser. These gamers, having backed themselves into a corner, tried in one last attempt explaine their appreciation for a game they had just previously cut down by using the GTTSOIP phrase.

After reaching the above conclusions about the use of GTTSOIP, I began to wonder how so many people could so obviously overlook a game's faults to create a disporportionate play experience of a game in their own minds. That's when it hit me. More often than not, it's not that people are actively ignoring a game's faults when trying to piece together the experiential or emotional impact of a video game. Rather, they don't remember the shortcomings because of how the static space created from the game's shortcomings allowed the player to switch to "auto pilot" or as I like to say "turn their brains off."

It's not difficult to find a gamer who loves RPGs. In fact, most of the gamers I know reflect fondly on at least one RPG from their childhood. Final Fantasy 6 and Pokemon Pick-a-color are two of my favorites. Even as I think back on them now, a wide grin spreads accross my face. But the inescapable truth is, because these games are RPGs that feature random battles, I know that there was a lot of static space of attack-attack-healing random monsters that server neither to advance the story or as a distinct unqiue challenge. RPG's like this are designed to consume time. Of course I don't remember using Crono's Luminare attack or Mewtwo's Physic attack hundreds of times in every battle just so I could get from one area to the next. Of course I don't remember grinding on monster to level up my characters. Of course I don't remember getting lost and spending hours wondering what to do next. My brain was turned off. But I do remember when Frog split the mountain in half and when I fought my rival at the end of the elite 4. Such events placed special markers in my gaming childhood.

See what I mean? If I includ all that "mindless" static gameplay into my assesment of either game, my "sum of the parts" assessment wouldn't be as immaculate and as glowing compared to a cursory look through my memories.

Like in the recent Arby's commercial, when people say "you do the math" there usually isn't any math to be done. Likewise, the utterers of GTTSOIP, I assume, haven't done anything close to breaking down a game into it's parts and adding them together according to some kind of clear, stable value system. But what if they did?

Here's the point in the article when things get just a little bit graphic.

Figuring out what a video game is or what it's made of is like finding the area of a shape. But games are far from simple, and figuring out what constitutes a game is like finding the area under a curve.

The red arrows point out gaps. The blue chart is like the Gamer Informer Mass effect review I mentioned prevoiusly. Such a review obvious has some pretty big gaps. The Yellow graph is (hopefully) like a review here at Critical-Gaming.

See how the blue area has large gaps? These gaps represent inaccuracies in video game assessments. As the dividing bars get smaller and smaller, the gaps are reduced. In other words, as one's understanding and language of video games is broken down into smaller parts (like from functions to mechanics to qualities such as direct/dynamic/intuitive/individual) the accuracy and effectiveness of one's statements increases.

Problem solved.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Luigi's Mansion vs. Drill Dozer in the Mechanical Mechanics Match-up

If you've read my articles on Drill Dozer (article 1, article 2) , you should be well aware that the biggest set back for the game is that the primary mechanic DRILL frequently creates static space. Because the DRILL mechanic is designed after a mechanical power drill, using the mechanic is about as engaging as holding down a button and waiting for the object to fall apart.

Luigi's Mansion features a similar mechanical primary mechanic: VACUUM. This mechanic includes operating the Poltergeist 3000 forwards and in reverse. Unlike Drill Dozer, Luigi's Mansion successfully designed its mechanical mechanic to be engaging for the player and feature a considerable amount of interplay in the process.

Before I can fully explain the superior design of the VACUUM mechanic, I have to first explain the core gameplay design of Luigi's Mansion. If you haven't played/seen the game before, then check out this video. Skip ahead about 4 minutes.

The game is set in a series of dark environments. To properly navigate, players use the LIGHT mechanic to illuminate the surroundings. Meanwhile, semi transparent ghosts close in on Luigi's position in order to deliver a close quarters punch. Though the VACUUM range is fairly long, players must surprise these ghosts making their bodies and hearts vulnerable for VACUUMing. To surprise ghosts, players have to LIGHT them up. The closer Luigi is to a ghost target when the light first shines on it, the greater the amount of time the ghost will be stunned in surprise. Once stunned, players must quickly switch to the VACUUM mechanic to begin sucking up the ghosts.

Here's where things get interesting. To successfully stun ghosts, players must use the LIGHT mechanic at a close proximity. To do this, players must obfuscate the target in darkness until the prime moment. Essentially, this interplay is like having to catch the boogie monster in the closet by turning on the closet light and not the bedroom light. In other words, one must bring themselves closer to the terror/danger to properly deal with it. Likewise, in Luigi's Mansion, there is interplay between playing in the light and darkness to effectively deal with the ghosts.

While sucking up a ghost, players must tilt the control stick in the opposite direction that the ghost is struggling in. The interaction between the ghost frantically fleeing in ever changing directions and the Luigi being dragged around the room creates a sort of tug-of-war interplay. In this struggle, players must keep track of Luigi's position watching out for hazards like other ghosts, banana peels, bombs, etc.

Functionally speaking, the VACUUM mechanic as well as the flash LIGHT mechanic in Luigi's Mansion are projectiles, which means they potentially suffer from the drawbacks of projectile based gameplay. Fortunately, Luigi's Mansion cleverly avoids such drawbacks. By having to move close to ghosts to effectively stun them, and being tethered by the suction power of the VACUUM mechanic all of the common drawbacks from projectile based design have been organically avoided.

The Comparison

The interplay is what makes Luigi's Mansion's mechanical primary mechanic create less static space than DRILLing in Drill Dozer. This accomplishment is due to the creativity in how the game defined the uses of the VACUUM mechanic. The sucking action functions as an extended arm for grabbing items, a pull, an investigative search of objects, and a rope for tethering Luigi to his unlucky enemies. Throw the whole thing in reverse, and the VACUUM mechanic turns into a sort of gun able to emit and even launch elemental based projectiles. The shear creativity and variety of this singular mechanic allows players to dust, investigate out of reach objects, light candles, extinguish flames, catch ghosts, pull keys down from out of reach shelves, rotate fans, steal food, play pool, and a multitude of other intuitive activities.

In Drill Dozer, the DRILL mechanic does little more than drill and eventually destroy things. Despite the lack of interplay with the DRILL mechanic, the lack of creativity and variety of the mechanic keeps the majority of the gameplay relatively flat and predictable. Players drill into walls, lockers, toilets, enemies, and obstacles, and after a few seconds they're all destroyed crumbling away into nothing.

Sure, the DRILL mechanic is also used as a grab, block, door opener, and shield, but even these creative uses are limited by the undynamic design implementation and the nature of the input for the mechanic.

When the player only has one or two gears, the amount of DRILLing time has an exact limit. In this way, any part of a level that's designed for prolonged use of the DRILL mechanic is also designed so that the limited DRILL time is still enough for the player to progress. Furthermore, the DRILL mechanic can be used infinitely taking away any possibility to implement a penalty for failing to account for the DRILL mechanic's time limitation. When the drill runs out of juice, a quick repressing of the button will start it back up again. No need to worry about anything like overheating or burning out the motor. And when the players find the 3rd gear, running out of juice is no longer an issue. Because of these limitations (or lack thereof), the gameplay never layers together with the DRILL primary mechanic. Most of the game's challenges are simply a matter of completing the task the one possible way the developers have desigend without much variation or room for player expression.

Furthermore, players activate the DRILL mechanic by holding down one of the shoulder buttons. Once held down, the player has do little else to continue DRILLing at maximum effectiveness. Though the shoulder buttons must be quickly repressed to shift the gear from 1st to 2nd gear and then again when shifting into 3rd gear, the timing window for this action is very large and therefore very forgiving. Additionally, the timing for these shifts are always the same. Players quickly memorize the unchanging rhythm of these shifts thus somewhat reducing the engagingness of the mechanic. Perhaps different densities of materials should alter the gear shift timing. Or perhaps enemies should have a way to throw off the shift timing windows to create some interesting interplay. Unfortunately, the way the DRILL mechanic is currently designed, the majority of actions in the game are fairly static and repetitive.

How Luigi Won the War

Once again, Luigi's Mansion has the design upper hand. I've already discussed the dynamics and interplay of the VACUUM mechanic. Now I'll discuss the nature of the input for this mechanic and how the basic set up of Luigi's Mansion alone puts it in a design position to create more dynamic and engaging gameplay than Drill Dozer.

As a launch title for the Nintendo Gamecube, Luigi's Mansion ushered in the new age of 3D games from Nintendo. 3D is much more complicated than 2D. When designing games in 3D, the easiest element to overlook is the camera. To Luigi's Mansion's benefit, the camera design is simple. Though the game is in 3D, the game is set looking into a each room from a fixed "doll house" like perspective. Luigi is free to move around in a 3D environement, but the camera is stable like a 2D game.

Continuing what the N64 started with 3D controls, the Gamecube controller features 2 analog control sticks and 2 analog shoulder buttons. Taking advantage of the new analog control possibilities for 3D games, Luigi's Mansions features triple analog controls.
  1. Luigi's movement is controlled with the left stick. (forward, back, left, right)
  2. The direction Luigi is facing is controlled by the right stick. (left, right, up, down)
  3. The strength of the VACUUM mechanic is controlled by how hard the right trigger is pressed. When expelling elemental matter, the click at the end of the shoulder trigger sends out a projectile.
Not only is VACUUMing a more dynamic mechanic than DRILLing, but it's more interesting because of how engaing VACUUMing is when combined with Luigi's supporting secondary function MOVE. If DRILLing in Drill Dozer is like throwing up a ball into the air and catching it over and over, controlling Luigi and VACUUMing is like a deft juggling act managing three different size balls in a variety of pleasing ways. Where Drill Dozer is "trapped" in a 2D space, Luigi's Mansion's 3D world adds a new dimesion to aiming and using the primary mechanic.

Comparing Luigi's Mansion to Drill Dozer makes clear the effectiveness of mechanics, the inputs for the mechanics, and how 3D design can upgrade the core design of a game. Perhaps now it's clear why I critique controllers and mechanics in "next-gen" games so unrelentingly, and why the Wii and the DS are my platforms of choice for my gaming future.

The Force Unleased Demo Impressions

As expected, The Force Unleashed demo underwhelmed, fortunately, with great timing for the topics recently discussed on this blog: the flow of combat.

Here's a list in somewhat chronological order of my thoughts from my short time with the demo.

  • Whoa! What's with the character movement speed? Touch the left stick and the character jets around the screen at speeds too fast for the...
  • Geeze! The camera can't even keep me on the screen. Why is it pointed at the ground if my enemies are right in front of my character. I'm getting shot from somewhere off screen. Not cool. At least I have a...
  • Umm. Why isn't the lock on holding the camera in place. I'm holding the button and I'm still having a hard time keeping things focused on the screen. Zelda OOT could do it, what's the deal Force Unleashed? Perhaps part of the problem stems from...
  • Yeah. You can lock on to objects and enemies which turns the whole battle arena into a hot bed of lockable things. Now when you want to focus on one thing, the lock on may get confused and lock onto another. Well, at least I have a light saber that I can swing around...
  • and miss apparently. Maybe it's an issue with the bad 3D created from the wild camera, or maybe it's because of the poor hit boxes that don't line up with the animations. Either way, for a warrior armed with a light saber, it's unusually difficult to land a hit. With just a few taps of the attack button and...
  • Yup. A flurry of crazy attacks leap out of my character. Instead of doing the attacks/combos myself, the character sees fit to just wail around in a fashion very similar to heavenly sword. But if this game is like heavily sword then that can only mean...
  • As I expected. Quick time events. Poorly implemented, God of War like quick time events. There goes the gameplay for beating that boss.
  • Also, the 3D controls for the force grip powers are more complicated than they need to be. This mechanic could have used a real 3D controller so that manipulating an object in 3D space would be easier and more intuitive.
Congratulations Force Unleashed. You made just about every wrong design decision to squash the flow of combat and make another senseless, button masher like action game. Good thing you spent all that time on the graphics, which, for the record, underwhelmed almost as much as the gameplay.

And now for the pun that comes free with every Force Unleased write up....

Nah, I won't unleash that bomb. My criticism should suffice.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Decay-Cycles and Natural Forms

Decay is a natural part of life. All things that live on Earth must also die at some point. And on one's journey through life a person experiences much decay. From one's mental/physical health to the accuracy of one's memories every tangible, quantifiable part of our being decays with time. And it's not just living creatures. Houses even grow old and crumble. The unrelenting wear and tear of nature can weaken and topple buildings never mind the storms that can rock entire cities at a time. Even the very atoms and particles in radioactive materials are known to just up and leave predictably.

We're all trapped on this planet in our respective biomes, and so is the decay. Fortunately everything we don't jettison out into space eventually gets recycled back into the realm of the living. Material is consumed, broken down, entered back into the cycle and consumed again. It may sound less than appetizing but this is a reality we've all gotten quite used to by now.

So if you think about it, in the quest to follow what is perhaps the most important tenet of Classical Game Design "form fits function," when using natural, organic forms designing some kind of decay system appropriate for the forms is only natural. If you're going to give the main character the ability to throw stones, then it only makes sense that the stones come from a limited supply as well as remain on the field for collecting. Such was the case for Neo*RPG.

As I have said before, my understanding of Classical Game Design wasn't nearly as clear in my head or articulated on paper when I developed Neo*RPG. Guided by instinct, I simply tweaked every facet of Neo*RPG's design one step at a time until I was satisfied. In this case, reducing the clutter and abstractions from the game was satisfying.

So, I started with a simple rock throwing mechanic. I had intially given the player infinite rock ammunition. Furthermore, after throwing a rock the projectile disappeared. After play testing the game and thinking about this particular mechanic, I developed the same kinds of thoughts that I imagine anyone would formulate. Where does the character get all of his rocks from, and when do they go after he throws them?

To fix this issue, I gave the player a limited number of rocks to throw in addition to programming the rocks so that they remain on the ground after colliding with an object or coming to a stop. After this adjustment, it naturally followed to give the player the ability to pick up rocks from the ground to add to their ammo supply.

From this point, it was easy to design the archer enemy that obeys the same rules of decay as the main character. Both have limited ammunition, and both must move through the environement to collect rocks to resupply themselves. In this way, the rock throwing mechanic is organically designed to decay and renew itself in a closed cycle.

Organic decay-cycles are difficult to come by. Most developers rely on some kind of spawning system to resupply the player whether its randomly dropped powerups from defeated enemies (Megaman, Metroid), supplies hidden in regenrating pots (Zelda), or merchant/shop transactions (RE4, RPGs). In all of these cases, the supplies are generated by the game in a cycle that is disconnected from the organic forms of the game.

Fortunately, some first-person shooters have ditched randomly scattered ammo crates forcing players to take enemy rounds to maintain supplies. After all, if the enemy is using the same gun you are, it only makes sense to be able to use their unused ammo. Halo does this very well. In Halo, players can only carry 2 weapons at a time. When the ammo runs out in one, players commonly swap the empy weapon out for another gun they find lying around in the field. The number of rounds in the new weapon is exactly the same amount that was left from previous use. This design may create some frustrating moments when you fight for a power weapon that in the end only has one more shot left, but the transfer of weapons and ammo orgnically from one player to the other not only creates an organic decay-cycle, but the design creates interplay as well.

Designing decay into a game system must be carefully balanced. Every form and mechanic doens't need to decay in a game. Finding the balance between which elements to add decay is a matter of how the designer wants to shape the depth, expression, and definition of the game's primary function. If the function of a game is to battle, then it makes sense to design decaying ammo and attacks. If the function is to live a life and communicate with others, then it probably isn't a good idea to have my furniture in Animal Crossing fall apart over time. Calling a repair man, and negotiating insurance polocies on my possessions would probably be a diversion from what Animal Crossing is all about. In other words, all games aren't trying to be simulations.

And this isn't even considering the fiction or conceit of a game. In Ikaruga, the main character flies a special air craft in an aerial war of some sort. This air craft has the ability to ABSORB (the primary mechanic) and SHOOT an infinite supply of polarized bullets. Everything in this game (minus the white birds at the end) reflect some kind of futuristic technology. It fits well within the fiction world that an air craft can shoot and absorb an endless assault of bullets. Adding decay to either of these mechanics is simply a matter of preference.

At the end of the day, a game must work. Every element of a game can't be completely organic following form fits function and incorporating a complete decay system. If that were the case, we'd be flooded in simulation games. Even the stale-move negation in Super Smash Brothers Brawl, for the most part, only weakens moves that do damage to an enemy. So, all those attacks that don't connect are still at an undecayed level of strength. The general concept of moves weakening with repeated use is still intact, but it's carefully balanced to encourage play where players are free to attack as they please and hope for hits instead of worrying about weakening their characters.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

B.E.S Vacation

Team B.E.S is hitting the road tomorrow. I tried to get a few more posts in before the trip, but it looks like I need the break more than I thought I did. I'll see if I can complete some of the posts from the road (I consider writing a very relaxing activity), but I'm not promising anything.

To give you a glimpse at what my brain is filled with, I'm currently sitting on articles like...
  • Decay of Neo*RPG and how decay is a natural conclusion/extension of natural forms.
  • Design/decay of Boktai and taking a gimmick seriously through combined gameplay design (ie. the thing Kojima couldn't do).
  • Sonic 1,2,3, Rush, Rush Adventure review, repair, and re-imagining of Sonic next-gen gameplay .
  • What it means to be a gamer/how games teaches and conditions a gamer's perspective when away from their virtual worlds.
  • Luigi's Mansion - Drill Dozer mechanical match up.
  • Pikmin uncovering the design and depth in Pikmin's origami folded level design.
  • Everyday Shooter repair.
  • DS design series.
  • Burgeoning genres from under our radar.
  • 2 new Drebin points.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Next-gen Fighters and the Flow of Combat pt. 4

Just a few points to wrap things up.

Simultaneous multiplayer. The core Smash design has the flexibility to support up to four players simultaneously. All of the mechanics, dynamics, and interplay possibilities are increased with each additional player. Some of the possible combinations for matches are team play (2v2), 3 for all (1v1v1), 4 for all (1v1v1v1), and even lopsided combinations like (2v1v1) and (3v1). By turning on team attack (friendly fire) in a 2v2 teams match, teammates must carefully coordinate their attacks as to avoid hitting each other. Because teammates can hit each other, players can also save each other from situations with attacks. If a Jigglypuff teammate is sleeping after using a rest attack, a teammate can step in and wake her with with a light, nonlethal "love tap." The highest levels of team play in Smash are the best the core design has to offer.

I had to 2v1 pretty hard at the end.

Stock. Another feature that is fairly unique to Smash is stock; the number of lives a player has in a single match. This feature seemds to be directly inspirited from Super Mario Brothers. Unlike the standard rounds in traditional fighting games, after a player loses a stock, the match carries on. This means the level state, the other player's damage, and any other elements on the stage continues to influence the match. By carrying over, these elements create momentum and flow for the match that gives Smash battles an expanded design compared to the start-stop-reset flow of traditional fighters.

The Spirit of the Game

Over the past week, I've been following the Olympic games closely. In preparation for watching the Taekwondo events, I looked up some Olympic qualifying matches. What I saw shocked and disappointed me. My perception of many games and sports often changes upon witnessing tournament level play or world class competition. For these players, winning is the absolute goal and their strategies and attitudes have been refined to help them reach that goal. In other words, they're playing to win. Operating under this banner can create "boring" matches where the same efficient strategy is used throughout a match. Excessively fouling at the end of a basketball game is playing to win. And what I saw in the Taekwondo matches is hardly what I consider an interesting fight.

Perhaps I simply don't understand the sport of Taekwondo well enough. But my dissappointement in the tournament level matches makes me think about the limitations of physical, real world sports and conversely the liberating power of game design. Video games can be designed so that "playing to win," "playing for fun," and even "playing most entertainingly" are one. Preserving and upholding the spirit of a game in high level competitive play is all about the details in the design.

Super Smash Brothers Melee and Brawl are far from perfect. Each have their problems, and each have advancements in the core Smash design that the other could really benefit from. Super Smash Brothers is my favorite game of all time not just becaues of it's next-gen design and Nintendo spirit, but also because of the people I've met through the game and the journey it took me on. Much of the designer that I am today I owe to this game, and this is why I've decided to fix it.

The ultimate repair project that B.E.S is currently working on is a revision of Brawl entitled Super Smash Brothers Tournament Perfect. As the name implies, we have a lot of work ahead of us. Though a perfectly balanced fighter is an unreachable dream for most designers, getting as close as possible is always the goal. I'll have more details on this project in the near future.

The Next Level

All of this effort, for a game that was next-gen a generation ago. This article series is slightly misleading. Every time I described Smash as having "next-gen" design elements, I was actually referring to last-gen design or the design trends from the GameCube era. The trends, breakthroughs, and technologies that make up the generation of design for the Wii-Xbox360-PS3 generation go beyond the elements detailed in this series.

If you want a glimpse into the future of fighting game design, then you might as well play it for yourself. The design of Wii Sports Boxing is the future.

And I'll close with a quote from a Critical-Correspondence I conducted a few months ago.

"Wii Boxing is a surprisingly deep fighter. And on top of that fact, it's perfectly balanced. Just like other fighting games, the negotiation of space and attacks between (at least) two players is key. In Wii Boxing, players have 3D analog control over their avatar's bodies. In other words, you can lean all the way to the left, all the way to the right, and every degree in between. You can also lean forward and backwards with analog controls. Positioning ones gloves to line up attacks is also analog on the vertical and horizontal axises. Players have at least 2 different speeds for executing jabs and special hook attacks. The game is fast paced, and it has a clean design by sticking strictly to the design principle "form fits function." It's balanced, it has a high degree of intuitive variability, and it does it all without using a single button.

This in itself is quite notable. The Wii Sports games are not only very deep, but they stay true to solid design principles. If you can find a fighter that's as balanced, as analog (variable inputs), has a character creator, as intuitive, and as clean as Wii Sports Boxing, I'd love to hear it. Otherwise, you must admit that, when you compare the mechanics and the design, Wii Sports Boxing is quite deep.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Next-gen Fighters and the Flow of Combat pt.3

In any game, it is important that each of the player's mechanics has a specific function that is unique to that mechanic. When mechanics aren't unique, or when they overlap with other mechanics, the core design begins to clutter itself. After all, why design a move that is only slightly different from another move?

When answering these questions, of course, the minimum degree of difference is taken into consideration. But pinning down the minimum degree of difference for a fighting game requires an unconventional perspective. Typically, in a fighting game, the only thing that matters is defeating one's opponent. Because the opponent is human (lets ignore computer AI for the purposes of this article) repeating the same move can yield different results because of the opponent's reactions. In other words, overcoming one's opponent mentally or via game rules is the only objective. Beyond this player dependent goal, fighters generally don't challenge the player or force them to use their mechanics in any specific way.

Establishing a set of mechanics that comprises the primary function(s) of a game as well as a set of supporting secondary and even tertiary mechanics is the first step to designing a well-rounded game. Well-rounded design is creating a set of mechanics that don't overlap or clutter each other in function. These mechanics must complement each other to create a method of expressing the spirit of the game.

It can be tricky to get a player to play using all of their mechanics (ie. in a well-rounded fashion). One way is to heavy handedly add abstract mechanics so that players are rewarded for mixing things up regardless of how unnatural it may be. Devil May Cry's style meter is a perject example of such an attenpt. Because the player character is over powered, the enemies/environments don't provide much of a threat to the player, and there's an excess of moves that overlap in function, the creators of DMC found it necessary to create an abstract system that informs the player of how styln/cool they're playing. The more variety players throw in, the cooler they are (or so the meter tells me).

The other method is by incorporating a decay system into a well-rounded core design. As players tighten up their game strategies, often times, they cut moves completely out of their repertoire. If a move isn't strong enough, fast enough, or special enough then it really isn't effective in a fight. Even in a well-rounded game, players might stick to only using a few of their best moves. While I highly value player freedom, there are ways to design a game so that the player is natrually/organically encouraged to branch out and use a variety of moves. Stale-move negation in Smash is such a design feature.

Stale-move negation in Smash is simply a decay system where moves are weakened when used repeatedly in succession. When a move is weakened, it not only does less damage, but it sends the opponent flying at a fraction of the distance/speed. In high level play, players carefully save their strongest attacks (kill moves) until their opponent is at a high enough damage or in the right position. By saving one's kill moves, the rest of one's move set becomes that much more important. This strategy naturally creates momentum from linking weak moves to strong moves to kill moves that highlight each move type's unique function. Such results from a decay system is only possible in games that are dynamic and well-rounded to begin with.

Designing an effective decay system is very tricky because the decay must be designed as dynamically as the core game itself. In Brawl, just having a move weaken in damage and knockback isn't enough. Because all the moves decay at the same rate, a super strong move is still quite strong when weakend to 80% of its full power. Furthermore, weaker moves only get weaker.

The damage and knockback of a move only can only decay to about 40% of their original strength. So, for the moves that are difficult to defend against and/or counter, stale-move negation isn't an effective deterrent. Damage and knockback may be the two main factors of attacks in Smash, but the game is far more dynamic than that. Positioning, animation lag, multi-hitting attacks, and stun are just a few factors that stale-move negation doens't affect. What's worse is that stale-move negation doesn't create interplay. In other words, I can't weaken my opponents moves without taking the hits. Take it from a tournament Smash player, willingly taking a series of hits isn't a good strategy. These two deficiencies hold back the decay design in Smash.

Some games have excellently design decay systems that are dynamic according to the game's core design and create interplay that uncovers the depth of the gameplay. Take Advance Wars: Days of Ruin as an example.

The red arrows point to the 3 decayable stats.

In Advance Wars every square counts. As players take turns engaing in warfare their units begin to decay. Every time a unit fires it loses a unit of ammunition. Every space a unit moves drains a point of gas. Every percentage of damage a unit sustains takes away HP. Ammo (attack), gas (movement), and HP (defense) make up the core mechanics of Advance Wars. And each of these stats decay in a unique way that dynamically changes the functions of a particular unit.

Without gas ground units can't move while air and sea units crash and burn. Without ammunition a unit cannot attack enemies or fire back when attacked. Additionally, every unit of HP determines a unit's attack power, defensive power, and for infantry units how quickly property can be captured. Because moving, defending, and attacking make up the bulk of the core gameplay of Advance wars, the decay system effectively influences the core gameplay according to the primary mechanics. In this case, the decay mechanics agree with the form of the game and are directly manipulated by both player's primary mechanics.

I've successfully run strategies where I force my opponent's strong units to waste their ammo by attacking them with several weak units (defend). Even a powerful tank like the one in the image above is useless without ammo. I've forced enemy sea and air units to explode after running them around the map until they ran out of gas (movement). And I've sacrificed small groups of units to push through enemy formations to damage their infantry unit so it couldn't capture my property as quickly (attack).

When the decay system is properly integrated with a game's core mechanics, playing around the dynamically changing situation uncovers a game's depth by making the properties, intricacies, and interconnections of their mechanics more apparent.

By property designing a decay system into a game players can be influenced into playing a dynamic well-rounded game in a more dynamic well-rounded fashion. When the core design of a game is constructed in the spirit of the game, "playing to win" can be synonymous with "playing for fun" or "playing in the spirit of the game." It is unfortunate that these seemingly contrary play attitudes weren't fused in Brawl's core design.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Next-gen Fighters and the Flow of Combat pt.2

In the struggle to incorporate new, and even next-gen features into a fighter, the developers are at great risk of creating a product that is neither here nor there. In other words, the final product can be something that doesn't work as well as last-gen conventions and falls short of the aims and goals of the next-gen design elements. What's even more dangerous is last-gen design elements often have a caustic, poisoning effect on the next-gen design elements when mixed together in the same game.

It is unfortunate that the creator of the Super Smash Brothers series failed to embrace the community of players that gathered around his games. Because Masahiro Sakurai created Super Smash Brothers Brawl completely on his own, often making decision out of negative reactions to the smash community, Brawl greatly suffers from mixed-generational design: when a game contains design elements from at least two different generations of design conventions/approaches that naturally conflict with each other.

The core next-gen design of Super Smash Brothers is essentially "everything is dynamic." Because the core of Smash centers around attack moves, we'll look at attacks and their effects to deliniate the mixed-generational design in Brawl.

Keeping the core of the game depedent on factors that both players control keeps the attack results varried enough to prevent universal combos or confining strategies from developing. The effectiveness of attacks is initially the result of two sets of factors.
1) How much damage the target has.
2) How much the attacker has weakened the attacking move.

Then there are a few more factors that come into play.
3) The targets can influence the trajectory of their flight by using DI.
4) The environment can create opportunities for the target to stop itself, rebound, for the attacker to pursue, and/or a variety of other outcomes.

Beyond these dynamic factors, the core of Smash is designed so that moves naturally decay with repeated use. For example, Mario's cape (side + B) floats him in the air upon initial use. But with each additional use of the cape, Mario floats less and less falling closer and closer to his normal fall speed. This decay property is designed so that players can't stall in the air with Mario while adding a dynamic property to the move. Marth's dancing blade in Melee behaves the same way.

Last-gen fighter design, which is the opposite of Smash's core design, typically doesn't have any dynamics in their hit stun system. No damage based variability. No stale-move negation. No DI. And certainly no level dynamics unless you count the invisible walls that characters sort of float against so that they can be comboed more easily. Such design at its most extreme can result in infinite combos that start from quick simple hits that, once started, are virtually impossible to stop. Not only does this design constrict competitive strategies to preventing these devastating, and at times game ending combos, but it doesn't leave room for any interplay. In fact, once these combos start, the only thing left for the second player to do is hope that their attacker messes up. In Smash, the dynamics of the level and the ability for the stunned player to DI in order to throw off their attacker's approach keeps things interesting and interactive.

In Smash, any element of the game that isn't as dynamic as the core design or that stems from the last-gen design, works to completely obliterate the next-gen core design of Smash. It's not a matter of preference where some players can prefer to use the last-gen elements and the two types of people simply have to fight out their differences. True leaps in design reflect leaps in perspective.

The way the core of Smash is designed teaches the player to think through problems to find a logical, visual solution. The core of Smash teaches players that when things look bad, there is always a way to influence the situation to your favor. But the glaring last-gen design elements in Smash flies in the face of these teachings. Infinite combos that ignore dynamics and variation. Invisible attacks that betray form fits function.

There are many last-gen element that corrupt the core design of Smash. Here's a list of a few.
It's a shame that these poorly designed characters and elements are dominant in the competitive tournament scene. It doesn't surprise me at all. Essentially, a character like Metaknight ignores the dynamics of the core of Smash in favor of unquestionable priority and unwavering ability. Give players a choice, and they'll probably pick the over powered characters even if they destroy most of the game in the process. These glaring mixed-generational design make Brawl play more like other fighters like the following....

Street Fighter

Guilty Gear XX

Marvel vs. Capcom 2

What a shame.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Next-gen Fighters and the Flow of Combat pt.1

Soul Calibur 4. Street Fighter 4. Virtual Fighter 5. Mortal Kombat 8. GuiltyGearXX Accent Core. All of these games have a few things in common. They're all fighters that have iterated on core gameplay of their series that was established in the last few generations of video gaming. The fighting game genre supports some of the most devoted, skilled, and competitive players around. "Playing to win" is a popular mindset for such players. Unlike traditional single player games where players are given advantages and superior abilities over computer controlled enemies that could never substitute for intelligent opponents, in a fighting game players are pitted against players each

I believe this same "do anything to win" attitude has created vocal groups of supporters that have essentially held back many fighting games from truly evolving. I understand where this resistant to change attitude comes from. For most fighters, becoming competent requires digesting an encyclopedia worth of data. If a sequel to a beloved fighting game completely changed things up, players would have to absorb another encyclopedia worth of data. Unfortunately, by making small changes to to the sequels of these fighting games, old design choices and philosophies are carried over and cemented into newer and newer generations.

While many think it's cool to finally be able to play Soul Calibur 4 online via their next-gen console (Xbox360/PS3), I couldn't help but feel like I was playing an updated Dreamcast game. Some would argue that it's the little changes that have a big impact on the way the game is actually played on a detailed level. But I'm not arguing about changes in the metagame across sequels. My point is the design decisions and mechanics at the core of such fighters could be designed better to create a cleaner playing experience for all types of players. Adhering to the tenet of form fits function, tightening mechanics, increasing depth while reducing unnecessary complexities, and reducing clutter are always ways to improve upon any game series.

A true next-gen fighting game wouldn't simply add more features to a previous game or like so many games, try and copy street fighter. A true next-gen fighting game would look at fighting in a new way inspired by the breakthroughs, trends, and new technologies of the times. Last generation (GameCube, PS2, Dreamcast, Xbox) we gained the experience, and technology to to render detailed 3D graphics in real time. Along with these graphics, combined physics interactions so that models can interact accurately and realistically. It's a shame that Street Fighter 4 changed their hit detection system from using the 3D models to using invisible 2D hit boxes.

I didn't have to look far for the game that I consider the most next-gen fighter. Super Smash Brothers. The first entrant into this series on the N64 simply set the foundation. For an N64 era fighter, Super Smash Brothers was still unlike any other. But, the two sequels together make up the core of what I consider to be the Super Smash Brothers fighting engine. And it is this engine that I will refer two for the remainder of this article.

The following is a collection of the next-gen design features that make up up the core of the Super Smash Brothers engine. While some games have implemented some of these features, none come close to the number that Smash Brothers holds.

  • Simplified controls/inputs. Unlike other fighting games that feature pages and pages of moves for each character that are often composed complex inputs, the moves in smash are composed of at most one direction and one button at at time. The simple controls reduce the core complexity of the game.
  • Rumble Support. Unlike every arcade fighting cabinet and most fighters on consoles, Smash Brothers utilizes force feedback. In a well designed game like Smash Brothers, force feedback has a more useful function than simply providing a more immersive gaming experience. Because the controller rumbles when being pressured from enemy attacks, the player receives an additional source of information to help them time and calculate their next moves. Essentially, the rummble feature is like having an extra set of eyes locked to your character that allows the player's eyes to focus on other parts of the screen.
  • Analog Controls. Most serious fighting game players prefer to use the D-pad or an arcade stick. Unfortunately, the D-pad and the arcade stick are like keyboard arrow eyes. They can only be on or off. And what's more unfortunate is that fighters continue to be designed around these digital controllers. Since the N64, the degree of control over character movement achieved the next-gen leap with the analog stick. Smash Brothers utilizes a wide range of analog controls.
    • For moving, players can tip toe, walk, power walk, and dash all by moving the analog stick different degrees at different speeds.
    • While shielding, players can shift and adjust the position of their shield using the soft and slight movements of the analog stick.
    • In the air, players can move forward and backwards with the same high degree of analog control.
      • The analog movement combined with attacks from the air and on the ground make the attacks analog. Unlike games like Soul Calibur where moves are designed to be jumping, stepping, tracking, or side stepping as well as high, med, or low, in Smash movement is independent from the attack animations. This allows players to adjust the timing and spacing of their attacks using the secondary analogy movement mechanics.
  • Move-input categorization. In Smash, the simple inputs allow moves to be put into clear intuitive categories based on function. There are attacks with the A button, and attacks with the B combined with the four cardinal directions. What's useful about the simple controls is that all the A attacks input directions reflect their function. In other words, if you want to do an up attack, hit up and A. If you want to do a forward attack, hit forward and A. Even the special or B attacks are organized in general categories. This categorization couple with simple inputs allows players to quickly learn the moves of different characters as well as react to dynamically changing situations. If an opponent is approchcing from directly above you, chances are holding up and hitting either attack button will result in some kind of attack in the upward direction.

What it Means to Fight
  • Platformer/Fighter. Smash Brothers is a fighting game that is set in the world of a platforming game, a unique design decision mostly likely inspired by the 2D Mario platforming games. Smashing through the limitations created from 2D stages with invisible walls, the stages in Smash are set floating in the middle of large rings. On these stages are platforms that players can fight on, over, or underneath. Now players can fight on the ground, up on top of platforms, on the edges of the stage, in the air, and even underneath the stage. Smash defines a fight as something that can happen in all directions at any time.
  • The only way to win is with a ring out. Unlike every other fighter, in Smash the player can never be killed by sustaining damage alone. The only way to take out the opponent is by knocking them out through the extremities of the stage.
    • This design gives moves a dual design purpose.
    • Because players must knock opponents off the stage to kill, it's important to properly use strong attacks when the opponent is at a high damage %. Smash attacks generally do the trick. Some characters have killing throws and/or air attacks. These moves are known as "kill moves."
    • In other fighters, whittling down the opponent's health is the only way to win. Because racking up damage is a means to an end, pokes, projectiles, and other low commitment attacks develop into effective and shallow strategies. In Street Fighter 2 Turbo, players can effectively trap opponents against the sides of a stage wtih a succession of projectiles.
    • Having to always knock your opponents off the stage to win opens up the effective strategies for a variety of attacks and set ups. I developed as a part of my Kirby style in Melee. the most number of killing strategies without doing a single point of damage. By using strong stage positioning, and aggressive-defensive techniques, I was able to fight without fighting so to speak.
  • Everything is variable and dynamic. In Smash, the attack strengths and player positions are determined by many factors.
    • stage (edges, platforms, hazards, stage transformations)
    • characters (attacks, damage %, stale-move negation, size, weight, air control)
    • positioning: the exact pose or position of the players down to small details like character footing.
  • Visually based fighter. Most of the information needed to play effectively can be deduced from the games visuals. This includes hit boxes, tech jumps, lag animations, general knock back trajectories, and move strength. If you want to know how strong a move is, just look at how far/quickly the target flies away after landing the attack. Smash plays like how it looks. Unlike games like Soul Calibur where there's a disconnect between a move's animation and its strength (damage dealt)/properties (high mid low), if a move looks like it hits low, it hits low. In other words, form fits function.
  • Commitment. The animation system creates natural pauses in the player's offense and defense. When players land on the ground while doing attacks, they go through specific recovery animations that prevent the player doing doing anything else. Moves don't instantly cancel back into the neutral player state like in Street Fighter. Adding commitment animations and durations to the attacks helps create the flow of combat.
  • The flow of combat is created in part by mechanics that generate push-pull gameplay. In general, stronger attacks require more of the player whether it's charge time, meter consumption, revving up animation, or cool down/recovery animation. The strategies that are available to the player take into account the vulnerability that comes with these moves.
    • Interplay. Interplay is composed of back and forth counters between two game elements. In the case of Smash, just about every move/attack has some level of interplay.
      • Directional Influence (DI). In Smash players can influence the direction their character travels after being hit to try and push themselves into less dangerous positions.
      • Priority of attacks. Unlike most other fighters, the Smash engine allows for most attacks to interact with each other. If two players punch, swing, or kick at each other and their attack animations meet (match blows), both attacks are stopped and the players return to their neutral state at equal frame advantage. This property exists for most ground attacks as well as most projectiles.
        • Ground attacks can match blows with other ground attacks.
        • Air attack with either win or lose the priority battle against other air/ground based attacks.
        • All attacks can match blows with thrown items (except explosive items).
        • The duration of attack animations also determine the priority of attacks. Stopping a smash attack with a jab is possible, but very risky because the jab animation after matching blows will pull straight back while some smash attacks may continue to move after matching blows.
  • Little to no auto moves or auto combos. In Smash, there are no simple strategies/move strings that are guaranteed combos because there are too many factors that determine the stun, knock back, and position of the attacked player let alone the condition and position of the attacker. Even the standard combo that Sakurai mentioned on his blog isn't a true combo. There are several factors and variables involve in the possible interactions to create holes in this "combo."
  • Stale-move negation. In Smash, moves weaken when used in succession. The moves not only do less damage, but the knock back on the opponent is reduced to a fraction of it's original strength. Think of it as if the character's limbs get tired from repeatedly using their muscles in the same way without resting. To give the "muscles" a break, players have to land other moves on their opponent. This design element is significant to keep players from only using their strongest or most effective attacks only.

MISC. Design Elements
  • CHARGE mechanic. I've already written about the genius of the CHARGE mechanic. Smash is designed with a variety of CHARGE like moves.
    • Some special attacks can be charged and then released.
    • All Smash attacks can be charged.
    • Many air attacks have start up animation before the actual attack comes out. If the character lands on any platform/surface before the start up time is complete, the attack doesn't come out. In this way, some air attacks have to have adequate falling time (charge time) before they activate.
  • Fighting Stances. Because Smash is an analog fighter where attacks and hazards can approached from any direction and hit any part of the character's body, every move the player makes changes their fighting stance. It's important to note that all of these stances are natural extensions of the normal gameplay created from the simple controls and precise attack calculations.
    • Many fighters automatically face both players at each other. But in Smash, players are free to use a forward facing stance or a backward facing stance at any time. Because the attack animation accurately represent their hit boxes, the uses of attacks changes depending on which way the character is facing. Ducking is another stance that reduces the character's vertical space and limits them to low tiling attacks. Personally, I used a variety of stances in Melee, I used Kirby's backward stance for my offense, ducking stance for defense, and neutral stance to mix up my other two stances. Brawl added crawling, gliding, and wall clinging stances to Smash.
    • Players can also use specific attacks to change their stances. Kirby's inhale attack is a stance that players can hold. Holding the charge on smash attacks are also stances because of how they change the character's pose while limiting their defensive and offensive options. Yoshi and Captain Falcon's forward smash rear backward before crashing forward. By charging these smash attacks, players can dodge incoming attacks and take advantage of small openings in their opponents defenses.
    • Holding an item is another stance. While holding an item, players can't grab. Depending on the item, the players attacks may be swapped out for a new set of attacks. Grab the beam saber, and many of the player's A attacks are swapped with saber attacks. Dropping the stance is a simple as dropping the item.
  • Nintendo Forms. Smash is a game that is filled to the brim with Nintendo characters, history, and nostalgia. More often than not, animations and attack functions can be traced back to older Nintendo games. Keeping true to the cannon/lore/fiction of Nintendo helps define the form of Smash. In this way, form fits function relies on the history of Nintendo's game to connect to the game's multitudinous functions .
  • Limited clutter.
    • Limited use of invincible frames. Fighters generally give players invincible frames in situations so they don't get completely run over by their opponent. From Street Fighter, to Marvel vs. Capcom, to Soul Calibur, fighters usually give invincible frames to players that are getting up off the ground. Unfortunately, many fighters artificially hamper attacks to prevent players from easily juggling their opponents. In Smash, invincible frames are use sparingly, and because attacks are so dynamic, the core design didn't need to artifically hamper player attacks.
    • Limited use of flashy attacks and excessive graphics. The core of Smash follows "form fits function" very closely. Because the function of moves/attacks can be inferred from the game's visuals, there is no room for excessive graphics and flashy animations. Fighers like GuiltyGearXX, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and Soul Calibur feature character animtations and attack forms that are often muddled and even swallowed up by visual effects. Though the colored tracers on the Soul Calibur weapons helps players understand how the attacks move through 3D space, it would make a cleaner game if the tracers weren't needed.
    • Limited use of cancels. Move commitment helps create a natural give-take, push-pull style gameplay that makes up the flow of combat. In general, attempting a more powerful move is a greater risk than attempting a weaker move. Usually, the risk involved with stronger attacks consists of leaving yourself open to attack. When fighers employ CANCEL mechanics, this is essentially a destructive move that works against the form and commitment of moves which, in turn, disrupts the flow of combat. After all, why wouldn't a player choose to remove the shortcomings and weakness of their moves if they had a choice. When moves function according to their forms, then adding a CANCEL mechanic would be an abstract addition.
  • Limited abstract mechanics: Smash only features a damage meter which is basically player heath. Stock, time, points, and coins are score keeping devices rather than mechanics that influence gameplay. Many other fighters incorporate abstract mechanis like super meters, tension meters, and guard meters. Depending on the game, these meters can be filled up in a variety of ways that aren't necessarily connected to the mechanics and forms of their gameplay.
  • 3D Hit boxes. Even though Smash is a 2D fighter, the stage and character models are rendered in 3D. In order to keep a tight relationship between the 3D forms and their 2D functions, Smash calculates its hit boxes in 3D. This allows for the player to understand the nature of moves in 3D but then apply them to a simpler scenario by playing in a 2D space.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008

    It's Official.....

    I helped design Guitar Hero 4: World Tour!

    Skip ahead in the video below to 6:00 minutes and listen carefully.

    Sound familiar? I type out the quote in case you need to see it in print.

    "We've really been inspired by a lot of like kinda unique controllers for making and creating music and like part of the youtube underground like guitar hero phenomenon is people using guitar for creating music using a variety of different software... So that was like a big inspiration for us..... and apply that to our new technology."

    If you're unsure of how this quote connects to me, take a look at this.

    I expect a free copy of Guitar Hero 4 for the Wii on my doorstep later this year.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008

    Drill Dozer and the Dangers of Static Space

    • Before I get into today's post, I have a quick update to announce. I'm changing the term negative space to static space. Recently, I had a conversation with the B.E.S crew involving abstract direction, calculus, and semantics. To make a long story short, I lost the battle. So, it's time for a change. The critical-glossary will reflect the update soon.
    A little over half a year ago, I wrote an essay on Drill Dozer using New Classical and Structuralist video game theory. While the essay covered the mechanics and structures of Drill Dozer, at the time there was still an offputting quality about the game that I couldn't quite put into words. Back then, I explained to B.E.S that the game's primary function "DRILL" wasn't very fun. Because I knew that using the word "fun" to describe the game was neither clear, nor critical, I put the issue out of my mind.

    Now I understand exactly why the DRILL mechanic is the biggest factor holding back Drill Dozer. The way the game is designed, DRILLing creates a lot of static space. The mechanic itself is mechanized and almost digital. Just like a power drill, when you click the button, the drill spins one way. And if you click the other button, the drill spins the other way. This parallel makes clicking the L or R buttons on the GBA direct, intuitive, and dynamic (as far as electric drills go). The problem is, the action of holding a button to activate a power drill isn't very engaging. After a drill is activated, it practically does the work for you. While this quality makes working with power tools easier in real life, in a game world where DRILLing is the most profound and meaningful action (ie. the primary mechanic) the ease and sort of automated gameplay is why Drill Dozer ultimately falls short of greatness.

    Most of the interactive/destructible elements in Drill Dozer have a health bar whether it's visible or not. When DRILLing, the drill locks into place as if it were magnetized. Functionally, these design choices creates "set it and forget it" gameplay. In other words, once player connects with a target, which isn't hard due to the ability to aim the drill in all 4 directions, players simply hold down one of the shoulder buttons and wait for the target to be destroyed or the drill to run out of spin power. During this time, static space is created where the player is neither advancing toward the goal nor experiencing an escalating through increased threats or incentives to stop drilling.

    Check out the video and see for yourself.

    Thinking back on it, it's no wonder a rumble pack was included inside every copy of Drill Dozer. The force feedback makes the static space a little more interesting for the player.

    Games with health bars and/or projectiles tend to have static space issues as well. Everyday Shooter has this problem to a lesser degree compared to Drill Dozer. Enemies in this game generally take multiple shots, so shooting to kill involves aiming at the target and waiting for it to be destroyed. Of course, the often chaotic levels encourage the player to move around and mix things up.

    If you're going to do health bars, then there are ways to incorporated mechanics that add momentum and dynamically changing strategies to counteract the static space. Some bosses/enemies have last resort attacks or techniques that they only bust out when they're below 30% health or so. In Pikmin, some enemies becomes more susceptible to stun attacks when their health bar dips into the yellow and red zones. Of course, because interplay is made up of counters, even the first level of interplay would shift any situation out of its static space.

    Geometry Wars has a similar problem with its primary mechanic of SHOOT. Because the player can SHOOT in any direction independently of moving, players can back away safely from most approaching enemies while firing in their wake. The strategies involved in the core gameplay amounts to little more than 1) move away from enemy cluster and 2) shoot at the cluster. In this case, the cluster of enemies functions like one large enemy with a health bar.

    Repeating any strategy too many times in a row without the situation escalating (increase of momentum/flow) creates static space. In these situations, players may often say things like "I have the winning strategy, but I still have to keep it up for 20-30 more rounds. What's the point?" My old orchestra director Kevin Lacefield stressed to us repeatedly that whenever a song repeats anything from a single note to a whole passage, we must play the two differently. Whether in dynamics, articulation, speed, energy, or a combination, creating such a difference between two similar musical moments creates motion, and it is this motion that makes music. If you don't believe me, click here, and scroll down to the entry entitled "Piano Concerto 21," and listen to all the subtle and not so subtle changes in the main theme. Trust me, you'll know the main theme when you hear it.

    As I have mentioned previously on this blog, attack-attack-heal is a prevalent and often dominant strategy in RPG combat. Such a dominant strategy can easily create static space when fighting formidable enemies. But some RPGs have gotten quite carried away with another feature that undoubtedly increases the amount of static space in the gameplay. Lengthly, excessive, and/or over the top battle animations. This is a particularly infuriating feature in RPGs with random battles, long load times, and cinematic animations for just about everything including watching the combatants phase into the battle zone. After the first 20 times of watching the characters ruuuuuun up, draw their weapon, strike, and do a little pose, we get the picture.

    To punctuate the common RPG static space some RPG's like Lost Odyssey, Shadow Hearts, FF8, the Paper Mario RPGs, and the Mario & Luigi RPGs have features where players must carefully time button presses or other inputs methods to increase their attack power or move effectiveness. Simple additions like this go a long way toward keeping the player engaged and focused on the game.

    Sometimes it's as easy as pondering, "How can we play this game instead of letting it play itself?"