Mike says: I’ve been playing Abyss Odyssey recently. It has a mechanic where when you have full mana you can use a special attack to capture the soul of an enemy once it dies. You can also gets monster souls by buying them from shops, but shop selection tends to be pretty limited compared to what you see in the dungeon. You can only have one soul equipped at a time, and you can press a button to transform into the monster whose soul you captured. Pressing the button again transforms you back into your actual character. You can’t gain mana while you’re in the soul-form, but it does give you another character worth of HP. Since Abyss Odyssey has permadeath-lite, having that extra health bar can significantly improve your chances of beating the game. When you lose all you HP as the monster, you lose its soul and have to somehow collect another one.
Once you’re transformed into an enemy you can use all of their moves–all of the enemies in the game have the same number of moves mapped to the same inputs as the player’s character, so it’s like having a whole new character to master. This adds a whole new dimension to gameplay and offers the player a lot of new movesets to master and experiment with.
I know another example of this kind of a mechanic will immediately pop into Richard’s head, since he’s the KirbyKid. What’s your thought on Kirby’s similar mechanics in the Smash Bros. series or in Kirby’s own games?
Richard says: I have no idea what you’re talking about, Mike. Just kidding. As you described the “what’s yours is mine” scenario has two parts: capturing the target and then transforming. If there’s one character that is all about these mechanics it’s Kirby. Each Kirby game does it a bit differently. In the earlier games, Kirby would only take a single mechanic or power from his enemies. But from Kirby Super Star, Kirby gains access to a wide range of moves to use that range from simple inputs like the press of a button to directional commands that mimic fighting games like Street Fighter (see example here). Some of these powers and transformations are so complex, that I feel that I could play the entire game with those powers only!
Smash does it a bit differently. Here Kirby only replaces his neutral B attack inhale with the neutral B attack of the player he captures. So while these Smash transformations only replace one out of roughly 30 moves that Kirby has, one move may be enough to allow Kirby to take on a new playstyle.
Mike says: Dynasty Warriors 8 also has multiple movesets that the player can choose between on the fly in battle. It’s done by weapon. You can equip two weapons at any one time, and press a button to switch between weapons. Weapons level up and are upgraded separately based on use. Enemy officers pull from the same overarching set of weapons that you do, so you can learn the movesets of various weapons and use your knowledge to your advantage against enemies by exploiting timing gaps in their attack patterns that you’ve learned from using the weapon yourself.
Richard says: I love it when enemies are designed with the same kind of rules and limitations as the player. The classic style 2D Mega Man games are pretty good at giving Mega Man the powers defeated bosses use.
Michael Lowell says that RTSes should start players with armies and bases roughly equivalent to mid-game progression in current RTSes, because the early game is boring and predictable.
Mike says: The early-game in RTSes is often rote. It’s a good area to analyze and suggest improvements, but without examining your assumptions about the genre it’s hard to make conclusions that will hold up. Michael’s article focuses on base-building “massive” RTSes like Starcraft and Planetary Annihilation without articulating the design patterns particular to these games that cause the slow start. He also doesn’t examine what value the slow start may have for the play experience: for instance, he doesn’t mention the value of having a period in which players can essentially warm up their hands for the upcoming segments of play that require high micro.
Michael’s suggestion to simply start players with early-mid-game amounts of units and buildings is probably the easiest solution to think of, but has many knock-on effects that Michael doesn’t seem to even consider. For instance, the micro burden on players at the very start of the game will become significantly higher than most other points in the game, because they have to as-quickly-as-possible give orders to potentially fifty units and several production buildings. Seconds lost here mean fewer units for climactic battles which may happen as early as a couple minutes after the match begins, since we’ve totally skipped the early-game.
The largely unopposed nature of the early game leads to several minutes of less-interesting play, but this play sets up for all the variety that Michael so values in the mid-game, and without a span of time to make these preparatory decisions, some foundational design aspects that Michael doesn’t touch on will shift, perhaps profoundly. Unit and building tuning will need to be adjusted and rebalanced now that a whole breed of rush strategies no longer exist. Michael’s suggested change is brash and potentially requires significant additional design work. It’s far from a quick fix.
And what about games that follow different design patterns than these “classic” RTSes? Michael fails to address the successful approach of “non-massive” RTSes to this problem, most notably Company of Heroes and Dawn of War 2, which are micro-focused affairs where first contact with enemy units happens within the opening two minutes of the match. Certain build orders in these games are common, but the fluidity of the ongoing battle and growing tension over sorely-needed resources ripe for the taking ensures that the early-game is far from an exercise in boring build order execution.
The commentary audio didn’t record correctly. Fortunately our notes are down below.
|Inversus||Mechanics||directional face buttons||FIRE||Tap the x button to fire left. Tap the B button to fire right. etc.If the player has a red bullet, it takes priority and is fired before white bullets.|
|Inversus||Mechanics||charge||CHARGE||Hold a fire button to charge your shot. Movement is slowed only when the carge is nearly complete. Normal movement is 1.67 faster than slow charge movement. Aprox 1 second to charge. A charge shot fire 3 bullets in 3 consecutive lanes. A charge shot only consumes 1 bullet.|
|Super Monkey Ball 2||Mechanics||charge||Hold B to charge. Charging slows down player movement and rotation speed. Players must pick a direction to charge because of the control scheme. This direction cannot be changed.|
|Inversus||Systems / Rules||screen wrap||Screen Wrap||Move to the edge of a screen and appear on the opposite side. Not univerisal feature on all levels.|
|Inversus||Feedback||CHARGE||When charging, the ammo count inside the character spins, and then locks into place hilighting the bullet that will be shot next (red or white). The highlighted piece of ammo also shows which direction the player is commited to.|
|Inversus||Power-Up / Upgrade / Economy||Red Bullet||Collect the red bullet and fire a fast shot. Fast shots have normal stamina and can be clashed with other bullets. Players can collect more than 1 red bullet. Collected red bullets override a white bullet if the player’s ammo is full. 2.25 times faster than white bullet.|
|Inversus||Level Elements||Grey block that can not be fired through, colors can not be changed|
|Asteroids||Systems / Rules||Screen Wrap|
|Inversus||Level Elements||clash||Red Bullet spawn||Respawn with a red bullet every 12 seconds. When there’s a red bullet up for grabs, shooting the square will the opposite color will clash and cancel the power-up and reset the timer.|
|Inversus||Systems / Rules||ammo, regenerating||Bullet Respawn timing||After shooting all of one’s bullets, they respawn at these second intervals. 2.65 – 1.91 – 0.63 – 0.48 – 0.31 . Also, shooting a bullet does not reset the first interval to 0 seconds. Epona style.|
|Inversus||Mechanics||clash||Bullets collide with bullets and cancel each other out.|
|Inversus||Level Elements||Gray wall||A solid object that cannot change polarity. Cancels bullets on contact.|
|Inversus||Mechanics||analog stick||Move||The movement is analog. Can “creep” very slowly or go full speed.|
Filip Wiltgren says viable games have elements of mystery and suspense. “To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock: mystery is when you don’t know if there’s a bomb under the table, suspense is when you lift the tablecloth and see it but can’t leave the table.” Mystery is about what the rules can do. Suspense is about if you can achieve a goal given the rules.
Marcus Says: Zelda’s curated semi-linear world is under fire from “fans” of the series who say that Zelda is no longer a mystery now that the game’s general structure is “known”. Yes, the general outline of the hero’s journey is mostly the same throughout the games, but whether or not the bomb is under the table is still a question that needs to be answered at the start of every game.
Mike says: Filip is right in pointing out that great gameplay generates suspense. That thrill of executing a plan is the pay-off for the uncertainty and feeling of being on edge as you play out a match in a competitive game.
Game designs need to do a good job of managing how uncertainty is generated and manipulated in and by the player. Not knowing the result of play is often what makes games worth playing. Filip distinguishes further between rules-related uncertainty caused by a lack of basic knowledge about what’s possible in a game, and execution-related uncertainty. I’m left somewhat unsatisfied by Filip establishing this dichotomy between becoming competent with a game’s rules and pulling off strategies–the two are certainly interdependent, but the dichotomy compares processes operating at different scales and this damages the comparison.
Richard says: Filip’s article is too jumbled to glean anything useful. His categories, definitions, and descriptions are all loosely defined “feelings” that he then loops back on. This is the kind of vague talk about games that occurs when concrete, identifiable game design categories aren’t used. When Filip says…
“strategy / tactics” he refers to Difficulty Design – Skill – knowledge
“viable in the long run” he refers to Design Space – Level Design
“mystery heavy games … end up … solvable” “the player’s limited ability to calculate and predict all possible variations” he refers to Systems / Rules – Level Design – Solvable Challenges
“the player’s limited ability to perceive and predict what heuristics the other players are using” refers to Feedback – metagame
“Knowing when to apply mystery and when to apply suspense makes a game viable in the long run.” All this statement says is having a balance in a game gives it more lastability. It doesn’t talk about what kind of balance or which game elements are in the balancing equation. Mystery doesn’t make a game solvable because “mystery” isn’t a game design element.
“The interesting part in a mystery heavy game is the puzzle, not the execution.” Translation: The interesting part about figuring out something is figuring it out.
“Mystery is based on a lack of knowledge, suspense is based in unpredictability” “ You still need some mystery – if everyone figures out the optimal heuristic you’ll end up with tic-tack-toe.” Wasn’t “suspense” supposed to be the element of unpredictability? And we still don’t know what game design elements actually create suspense or mystery.
I was at work listening to one of @The_Rami’s spontaneous interviews when I first heard about the indie game Vesper.5 by Michael Borough. It’s a game where players explore what looks like a pixelated alien planet by examining the local flora and fauna and squirly pixel things. Rami loved the game:
“I think one of the most powerful statements when it comes to movement has been Vesper 5 by Michael Borough. One of the most impactful games in terms of movement as action that I’ve ever seen. “ ~ Rami
There isn’t much to Vesper.5 aside from its twist on movement, which Joseph Elliott describes this way:
“VESPER.5 is a game by Michael Brough about rituals. The player is tasked with undertaking a pilgrimage through a strange, cavernous labyrinth by taking one, and only one step every day. … Each time you start the game, you’re shown a retracing of every step you’ve made; after taking your turn, your avatar defiantly sits in place until the next calendar day when you’re allowed another step.”
Here’s what the creator had to say about the game:
Make a ritual out of it. How will you incorporate it into your daily schedule? Will you tie it to an existing activity? Will you treat it as a ritual or merely a routine? Will you add to the ritual, embellishing it in your own way, making it yours? Meditate, say a prayer, think back over what has happened while you have been playing? Will you approach it alone or share it with another?
It’s a pilgrimage. It’s very simple, but it does have choice in it; even the smallest decisions have their consequences amplified when you can only move daily.
My pilgrimage through Vesper.5 started on 8/8/14 after I downloaded the game on my work computer. I figured why not take my daily, in-game step at the office. So from the outset, instead of progressing 7 steps a week, I progressed 5 steps a week. In the beginning the replay of my past steps was very short. So I made a habit of booting the game while I took off my coat and rearranged my seat. A few weeks later, the length of the unskippable replay became too long and too conspicuous to run full screen as lawyers and department heads frequently walked past my desk. So my routine moved from morning, to my lunch break, and finally to the end of the day.
When I gave my two weeks notice, I looked at how far I had made it through the labyrinth of Vesper.5 and came to the conclusion that I needed to head straight for the finish to complete my journey in time. Before this point, I had freely explored every plant and odd looking artifact I came across despite it literally taking days to satisfy every curiosity. I figured I had unlimited time to explore the world of Vesper.5, a zen-like attitude I developed after 3.5 years of relentless deskwork where the only thing consistent in my work day was an inbox full of problems.
105 steps after starting, I had completed everything I set out to do in the alien world of Vesper.5 and the corporate world of an international law firm. I started my pilgrimage on 8/8/14 and I finally reached the end on 3/27/15, mere days before I left my job entirely to launch Design Oriented.
Vesper.5 is an interesting idea, but the novelty of its gimmick quickly wore thin on me. The much-vaunted ritual theme isn’t quite in the game. Though the step by step progress reflects a pilgrimage and the time that passes between steps encourages the player to make a habit of checking in with the game daily, the lack of narrative context or background information about the monk player character left me guessing at every turn rather than wondering about the context, history, and possible connections. Repetition, and forced repetition at that, is not enough to make a task into a meaningful ritual.
In terms of gameplay, there isn’t much to engage with. There’s a lot of walking and sightseeing but no real threat and no challenge. Without some kind of challenge to it, the experience lacked a powerful way to engage me. But gameplay challenges aren’t the whole of engagement and are certainly not necessary to make a great interactive experience. Simply exploring a world and piecing together details can be effective.
I went out of my way to examine a mini colony of pink, pixelated, sea monkeys hanging out on a foreign plant on my pilgrimage. What did my choice mean? What did I gain? Well, I saw some slightly different graphics that cost me a few extra days to reach and return. That’s it. The game provides nothing else to consider. Every step of the way in Vesper.5 is like this; a quiet, reflective, almost nothingness. In reflection, this near-nothingness is near-laughable: I spent months browsing a handful of seemingly unrelated pixelated images.
If you want to take your time and explore everything, do so. The only real pressure comes from whether you’re the kind of person who will quit before seeing the end of the pilgrimage. Without a more engaging complex system to build rituals around, Vesper.5 was merely a test of my patience.
“Brough has created a game that invites existential and poetic musing, which is a daily ritual I gladly accepted into my life.” ~Joseph Elliot
Vesper.5 does no more to invite musings than any other game, or even the events you may meet with in your daily life. There are no fragments of text or bits of poems scattered across your journey to invite you into self-examination. Though every step costs a day of movement, the experience didn’t add up to anything. If being forced to make progress in small increments is what invites existential musings, then games like Animal Crossing, Giga Pets, or the Nintendo 3DS Street Pass games should receive similar praise for philosophical depth.
Mike says: Twin Souls is a game about flitting from shadow to shadow and massacring guards who stand (literally–few patrolling guards were in evidence) in your way.
Sound effects of the player’s snake-and-dragon-themed special abilities are low-pitched and loud, which confuses me because why would a stealthy guy use such noisy ways of dispatching his opponents? Seems like it would alert everyone nearby.
The abilities themselves seem visually distinct, but serve the same purpose: kill a guard and prevent him from running away in the process while the player is in the safety of the shadows.
It appears the player can make shadows at will by pointing at the ground nearby and pressing a button. This seems like it compromises the dynamic nature of the leaping-between-shadows mechanic by letting the player start their leap from just about anywhere. The shadow-paint also seems to conceal the player from enemies–that’s a pretty cheap way of bypassing having to use space and a limited but powerful movement ability intelligently to dodge around enemies and maintain stealth.
Marcus says: That was an interesting collection of mechanics. Delivered as elevator pitch Twin Souls is “Metal Gear Solid meets Splatoon where you paint shadows to sneak through,” sounds like the basis for an interesting game. Stealth, however, is a tricky genre that is defined more by entropy being constant instead of a rise and fall in action found in a typical game. Play a perfect run through a stealth game and it almost looks like that guards arent even doing their jobs. When you’re trying to sell the viewer a game about being inconspicuous, the tension from the threat of being found out must always communicated. In this video, Twin Souls failed to show any sign that the guards could catch, notice, or perceive our Ninja protagonist. What played out felt closer to a god mode playthrough than a stealth mission.
Richard says: I agree with you, Mike. It seems that being able to shoot shadows anywhere at any time works against the level design balance between enemies, environment, and the natural shadows. But, this video is very early. So I wouldn’t say that there really is any level design yet. It’s a little disappointing that the “from stealth” takedowns are cutscene animations that freeze the rest of the game world. I would like to see more dynamics involved in the core mechanics.
You’re playing FTL: Faster Than Light. You’ve got powerful lasers and ion cannons and a maxed-out crew. You can teleport a crack squad of Mantis into enemy ships and rip their crew apart at will. You’re ready to take on the final boss. Victory is near. If you mess up, FTL will take all this from you and there’ll be no way of getting it back. Next time you play you’ll have to start over from square one. This is permadeath in a game where state accumulation is critical to success.
Contrast FTL with Super Mario Bros. SMB isn’t recognized as having permadeath, but it does have a hallmark of such a system–if Mario dies with no lives left, the game resets to level 1-1 and the player must start over. No matter how you look at it, dying too much in SMB causes the player to lose progress and have to repeat earlier parts of the game just as it does in FTL.
(from Explicitly Honest’s review of FTL)
What FTL has that SMB does not: a surplus of suspended elements and long-enduring resources that the player must continually harness and replenish in order to beat the game. The only elements SMB suspends across levels are power-ups, coins, and lives. FTL has hull HP, weapons, crew members, crew member skill levels, scrap, and ship systems upgrades. The player’s ability to face the game’s challenges is mediated and varied significantly by these suspended elements: can’t shoot without weapons, and can’t fly and fight effectively without crew members and ship systems. All the details the player did to gain access to the powerful weapons and specific ship configuration they’ve been falling in love with can be taken away in the space of just one battle–it’s going to take many playthroughs and many hours of play to be in a similar situation again. In SMB, players can beat the entire game with one life, no power-ups, and no coins. The most profound suspended element in Mario is being able to throw fireballs, the ability granted by picking up the fire flower which appears at the same places in the same levels every time.
The player stands to lose a lot more from dying in FTL than from running out of lives in SMB, yet game design “wisdom” these days dictates that lives are a relic of gaming’s arcade-based past. Design trends tell us to restart the player close to where they died to avoid frustrating the player by wasting their time. Why shouldn’t we apply this design wisdom to FTL and read it the riot act for insufficiently respecting the player’s time and attention? This question brings us to the second distinction in the meaning of permadeath in FTL and SMB: procedural generation.
The player gets to see more content in FTL even if they die and restart the game. The game procedurally generates levels, shops, and encounters so even the first sector can be markedly different between playthroughs. SMB’s levels are pre-configured by the designer, down to tiny details. There aren’t suspended elements that would provide the player with a significant variety of available resources and mechanics that could differ between playthroughs, and there aren’t procedurally generated environments to present different challenges each time. It seems that the complaint addressed by permissive checkpointing and infinite lives is mostly due to players disliking the repetition of stale or easy challenges.
(The preferences of players are multifarious and defy easy categorization, as such the Souls games can pull off high difficulty with a limited checkpointing system much to the delight of a significant population of gamers. Note that the Souls games do not have permadeath: the player will always be shunted back to the most recent checkpoint after dying.)
(Screenshot from John McCreedy’s article on the game.)
Procedural generation provides FTL with a diversity of unpredictable details as the player plays through the early stages of the game. The player can pick out common milestones in their progress through the game, like completing each sector, visiting shops, or gaining new crew members, but when those milestones will happen is different each game. The game gains a lot of variety from how its procedurally generated levels change up how the player can build up and expand their ship’s capability in various dimensions, such as weapon effects, special racial abilities for crew members, and access to drone bays and other special ship modules. So even playing through notionally similar challenges over and over across multiple attempts to beat the game doesn’t lead to the kind of staleness that can result from playing the exact same challenges repeatedly as in SMB. Procedural generation significantly widens the space of possible gameplay situations the player will see throughout multiple playthroughs of the game, which allows permadeath to pull its weight as a design feature. The huge state reset upon death hurts the player psychologically nowhere near as much, because they know that next time could hold a significantly different experience in store.
In Republican Dad Mechanics, Austin C. Howe asserts that the bloodstain system in Dark Souls creates a perverse loop where the player will die to some combat encounter and then have to charge back into the same spot of danger to recover their souls, which is likely to just kill them again and cancel those souls forever. He claims this is bad design because it doesn’t reward the player from being diligent and careful, as the rest of the game’s mechanics suggest they should be.
Richard says: First of all, “bloodstain mechanic” is not a mechanic; it belongs in the system / rules category. Normally, I wouldn’t point out such a thing as other critics don’t share the DO system of game element categorization. However, in this article Austin fails to build a coherent argument about Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Bayonetta because he tries to compare a system to a mechanic.
“Thus, the game has given me something that should encourage me playing better, that is, the loss of my souls, but it’s also made those things the carrot on a stick that forces me into nonsensical loops of actions.”
The way Austin talks about the effects of dying and going back to collect the souls is vague and unhelpful. He casually argues that dying traditionally encourages players to play better. This is a rule-of-thumb game design phrase that has little substance. It’s more accurate to say that dying is the result of gameplay choices and their consequences. While it’s good to learn from one’s death, dying alone does not encourage players to play better.
Recovering lost souls by returning to the area you die is like a bonus second chance opportunity. Having this opportunity doesn’t force Austin to play a certain way. Repeatedly dying trying to recover lost souls is not nonsensical because the opportunity exists. Going after a bloodstain is only a foolish waste of time if players realize they cannot successfully retrieve what was lost and still attempt to do so. If players skip the opportunity, then their death and respawn is just like other games with traditional save point or checkpoint features. If the player attempts to recover lost souls, the player only stands to lose what he or she collects on the way back to the spot of death.
… for a game as ludically focused as the FromSoft games tend to be, I’m just gonna call it misguided design.
put in mechanics that encourages gamers to more consciously engage with the interactions at hand. But in these cases, we have system upon system built to encourage wild and often unrewarding risk-taking.
I find it odd that Austin shifts the blame of his failures from himself to the game. He described his experience with the bloodstain system as one that often ended in further death and frustration. Later he describes his game experience engaging with Bloodborne’s Rally (Regain health regenerating) system as being “wild” and “unrewarding.” The bottom line is that these games leave the door open for a wide range of applicable player skill and strategic approaches. There’s much more to playing than the simple decision of “do I return to where I died” and the result of “did I retrieve what was lost?” Because most of the outcome is determined by player skill, we cannot say that the game encourages the player to be wild and overly risky. The fact is, the bloodstain system and the Rally system are just rules; rules that should be factored into the players risk reward calculations. Though these systems may change the balance of player choices, the player is ultimately in control.
Talking about this bloodstain system is tricky because it’s a system that ties into level design, modes / features, and difficulty design. With all of that ground to cover, just talking about this one system alone caused Austin to overscope. Unfortunately, Austin seems a bit on tilt with the tone of this article, and he seems too wrapped up in making clever analogies to build an argument.
It would’ve been easy for them to look at player inputting those parries too early and say “git gud scrub” and walk away, but Platinum actually wants people to enjoy their videogames so they don’t do that. Instead, they offer a version of the parry that can be activated much earlier
Here Austin talks about the parry mechanics in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Bayonetta. These are mechanics, not systems. To make an apt comparison, Austin should have compared the parry in Dark Souls or Bloodborne with these games. Focusing on just mechanics would have probably resulted in a much tighter argument.
In the one opportunity Austin has to bring the conversation full circle after overreaching and over-scoping, he blames the fanbase in a particularly crude remark.
How would you implement those kinds of risk-mitigation mechanics in Dark Souls? Well . . . you don’t. Because the fanbase would never shut the f*** up about it.