Archive for category design

10 Ways in Which Sonic the Hedgehog Wasn’t About Speed

When Sonic the Hedgehog was first released, the game was marketed as a speedy anti-Mario. Instead of slowly plodding through small, geometric levels, Sonic blazed up and down rolling hills in large, open areas.

Even the title screen stuck around for only a few seconds — perfectly timed to fade out as the music ended — as if telling the player to get on with it.

Speed wasn’t just a shallow thrill either as the game did a great job of encouraging players to move forward:

The horizontal spring provides an instant speed boost to rocket up the ramp and onto a floating platform with some rings and powerup monitors.

Building up velocity and pressing down allows Sonic to roll up into a destructive ball and bust through a wall with various rewards on the other side.

Jumping onto certain islands floating in lava causes them to dip and catch on fire on the left side, forcing the player to keep moving forward.

The upcoming Sonic Mania seems to be embracing this speed element, even adding a new move to Sonic’s repertoire: the drop-dash. It might prove fairly useful too — the old Sonic always had a bit of a slow acceleration curve — but I hope the back-to-roots approach also pays homage to the original’s precision traversal, improvisational maneuvering, and optional exploration.

In other words, the slower-paced elements of Sonic.

I’m not sure if pinball was a big influence on the inaugural title (beyond the bumper-themed Spring Yard Zone), but it’s an apt comparison. Sonic’s gameplay mimicked both the thrilling momentum of rocketing around a board’s playfield, and the precise, nail-biting navigation through its clustered obstacles.

In an interview with Game Developer magazine, Hirokazu Yasuhara, the chief level designer for Sonic the Hedgehog, elucidated on his design philosophy. What struck me in particular was his description of creating smaller-scale challenges:

…A more short-distance goal, meanwhile, would be if you’re in a baseball game; your goal is to get on base, and there are any number of simple, linear ways to achieve that goal. An example of a middle-distance goal would be if you run into a bridge in the forest that you can’t gain access to — something I do a lot in games. Maybe you have to do a sequence of jumps to reach it, but it’s visible, at least…

These sorts of short and medium distance goals are a constant source of interruptions to the player, but they also create gameplay variety and change up the overall pace. The original Sonic the Hedgehog is largely remembered for its speed and attitude, but it also contained numerous elements designed to slow down the player and create these mini-challenges.

1). Teases & Secrets

As the quote above alludes to, one of the best ways to make the player stop and consider their surroundings is to tease them with things just outside of their reach. Sonic’s levels are quite big and their intertwining paths linked by speed-ramps, automatically moving platforms, vertical springs, and all sorts of other gadgets that facilitate traversal. Changing “lanes” in Sonic is fairly common, whether on purpose or just by going with the flow, and this teaches players that there are extras to collect if they don’t just run directly to the end of the level.

Simply dashing through the maps showcases plenty of alternative routes and difficult-to-reach locations.

Some of these extras are also fairly tricky to reach, especially the ones that require exploratory platforming or moving through hidden paths.

When I originally discovered hidden paths in the game, I obsessively checked all the walls to see if they were collidable or if they’d lead me to secret goodies.

The incentive for extra collectibles is fairly consistent throughout the game. The more rings the player possesses, the easier it is to absorb a hit, and extra shields and temporary invincibility powerups provide further protection. Collecting enough rings also grants extra lives, and a chance to enter the special stage.

2). Special Stages

In these minigames, Sonic is always in his ball mode and the stage slowly rotates around him. It’s a constant fight against the tide as Sonic’s mobility is severely diminished, and getting to the Chaos Emerald involves patiently navigating to its cage.

A full map of the special stage courtesy of soniczone0.com.

Once discovered, Sonic must press against the individual diamonds that surround the Emerald in order to gradually change their colours. In Breakout fashion, once the all the colours are cycled down, the diamonds disappear and open a path to the prize inside. Obtaining all the Chaos Emeralds actually alters the game’s ending, so there’s a concrete incentive for collecting them throughout the game.

Special stages also allow the player to collect extra rings and points in order to gain additional lives and continues.

3). Unique Enemies

Most of the enemies in the game die after a single jump/spin attack, and the collision never slows Sonic down. However, a few of them contain unique properties seemingly designed to make the player pause, or even backtrack to a safer spot.

The Orbinaut, often found in tight corridors, is surrounded by four spiked balls that make it difficult to hit without also harming Sonic. However, the enemy’s main attack is to slowly lob its protective spheres straight ahead, gradually leaving it more and more exposed.

Bombs can’t be hit themselves, but they initiate a self-destruct sequence whenever Sonic gets close. If clustered together, Sonic’s safest bet is to trigger them and retreat until the bombs clear themselves out.

4). Timed Hazards

Unlike enemies, hazards can never be defeated and their timing isn’t always synced up with a straightforward run-through of a level.

While it’s possible to hastily maneuver past various hazards, some will inevitably require careful navigation in order to overcome them.

Much to the chagrin of speedrunners, parkouring through these obstacles is not always an option. Sonic has a limited moveset, lacking wall-jumps, dashes, gliding, etc., so often the only way to get through unscathed is to simply wait for the right opening.

5). Momentum Modifiers

In addition to obstacles that are dangerous to touch, the game also contains various elements that slow down, stop, or even invert Sonic’s momentum.

Bumpers send Sonic careening away, water slows down all movement, automated fans can completely cancel out Sonic’s velocity, and conveyors make navigation that much trickier.

6). Traversal Objects

The most common traversal objects are automatically moving platforms that allow Sonic to get to an area he otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach. These are essentially “always on,” but their scripted nature means that when the player gets to them, the object might be somewhere else, or in an inactive state, requiring a short wait for it to become available. In addition, the actual process of using these objects is usually slower than Sonic’s regular running and jumping speed.

Certain doors and bridges also follow an automated schedule.

Player-activated objects exist as well, requiring various types of actions to manually initiate.

Rickety bridges lower when hit from underneath, while seesaws can catapult Sonic high up if he properly uses the weightof the spiked balls.

7). Switches

Not all traversal objects are automatic or activated directly, which is where switches come in. Located on the floors of various zones, these allow Sonic to lower bridges, open doorways, and generally create new traversal paths. Switches rarely affect anything off-screen so they don’t cause much confusion or backtracking, but they do require the player to slow down and execute an extra step before moving on.

Hitting this switch reverses the direction of the rotating cylinder, allowing Sonic to enter it and be deposited on the right path instead of being dropped down into the gauntlet below.

8). Movable Blocks

Exclusive to Marble Zone, blocks are unique in that they’re the only objects that can be slowly maneuvered around the map by Sonic. This results in a variety block-based gameplay that’s mandatory to completing the zone.

While individual blocks exist in other zones, only in this area is the player required to move them to keep switches pressed down, use them as platforms to ride lave drifts, or push them aside to open up a new path.

9). Destructibles

The majority of destructible elements in Sonic the Hedgehog come in the form of crumbling platforms that encourage forward movement rather than slowing it. However, there are a few specific exceptions to this.

Unlike the occasional destructible walls that hide secrets, these blocks must be destroyed one at a time in order to proceed.

Once again these objects are only found in Marble Zone, and while they slow Sonic down by providing extra individual barriers, busting through them is also a fun mechanic that’s a bit different from the rest of the game.

10). Boss Arenas

Perhaps the most blunt-force way of preventing Sonic from building up speed is limiting his available real estate. All boss encounters — aside from the one in Labyrinth Zone, which is just a race against the tide — do this by forcing the encounter to take place on a single, non-scrolling screen.

Each boss has a unique attack pattern that needs to be studied and exploited in order to defeat the vile Dr. Robotnik.


While it’s easy to assume that the series evolved past these speed-bumps, the original’s sequels — largely the most beloved Sonic titles — contained them as well. The games were streamlined, providing shorter pauses and more opportunities for building up speed, but they were still filled with crazy gadgets that facilitated movement and exploration, interesting enemies with unique abilities and properties, and lots of secrets that helped the player progress and unlock the ultimate ending(s).

Short and medium distance goals were clearly a guiding element in the design of Sonic the Hedgehog as exemplified by its early concept art.

An excessive focus on speed was probably a major reason for the decline of the Sonic-platformer (at least in terms of gameplay), but the issue was also a bit more nuanced. The problem wasn’t just how much of a backseat other gameplay took to speed, but also how the speed elements themselves were implemented.

Not a Sonic map, but rather a level from Uniracers courtesy of vgmaps.com. It’s what always pops into my head when I try to recall my experience playing Sonic Rush.

In recent Sonic games building velocity was no longer an organic part of a level, but rather its main feature. Maps turned into one-way obstacle courses, lacking in interesting challenges while forcibly rocketing Sonic ahead. The thrill of the speed became routine, and it turned the experience into a somewhat passive and boring rollercoaster ride. While that sort of design methodology can work in some genres — it certainly did with the the lane-runner Sonic Dash — it just doesn’t make for very good platformers, 2D or 3D.

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A Night With the Devil

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Introduction

Diablo is one of the most critically and commercially acclaimed videogame franchises of all time. It has spawned numerous “clones,” and its gameplay conventions have been adapted across multiple genres. The latest entry in the series, Diablo III, boasts the honour of being the fastest selling PC game of all time and the best selling PC game of all time.

So what makes the series so special? Almost to a fault, Diablo games are described as being incredibly addictive. That’s a fairly vague assertion, though, so I figured it’d be interesting to take a closer look at the original game and get a little closer to nailing down its je ne sais quois.

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The one that started it all.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Mistranslated Worlds

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Loose threads and general vagueness are often poor crutches in storytelling. These aspects tend to be weird for the sake of being weird, or serve as token springboards for potential sequels, or — worse yet — are indicative of the creator(s)’s lack of a narrative plan, e.g., Lost.

Mystery is inherently alluring, though, and it can also have a fulfilling payoff. The Souls games are a good example of that.

Each title begins with a seemingly disconnected CG intro, and proceeds to thrust the player into a crumbling world with barely an explanation. There are no lengthy expositions, conquests retold over animated world maps, extensive flashback sequences, etc. Instead, whatever pieces of narrative the player puts together are entirely optional and widely scattered about.

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Who is this Artorias? Probably just some throwaway text to go along with that big wolf boss…

A tib-bit mentioned in passing by an NPC foreshadows a gruesome battlefield encountered later in the game. Flavour text accompanying an item hints at a long-standing dynasty and its wealth. Parts of defaced statues allude to an outcast regal heir.

 

There’s not much of a plot to the player-controlled protagonist, but there’s an incredible sense of depth and history to the setting itself. It’s all very cohesive and consistent, and delivered with understated elegance.

 

That’s something incredibly rare for a brand new series, but the Souls games actually have something of a 20+ year development history.

From Software’s other games such as Eternal Ring, Shadow Tower, Evergrace, Otogi, and King’s Field contain bits of gameplay and ambiance present in the Souls titles: stamina-draining melee attacks, stat-boosting equipment, sporadically dispersed NPCs, non-linear exploration, item durability and crafting, fog-of-war/dynamic lighting, loading screen and item flavour text, highly destructible environments, “soul”-harvesting progression, etc.

All of these previous games experimented with and revised what’s so confidently delivered in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, but the series itself also follows in the footsteps of another older title: Wizardry.

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Somewhat famously, the Souls games also seem to borrow a few aesthetics from the Berserk manga.

Wizardry’s arrival and subsequent popularity in Japan is fairly well documented, and King’s Field, From Software’s inaugural release, is said to have been closely inspired by the Western CRPG. The interesting part is that Wizardry’s success seems to have come in part due to a shoddy localization. The only clear example of this I can find is a Wikipedia entry that mentions Blade Cusinart — a silly nod to Cuisinart food processors — evoking an aura of alien mythology.

I assume the results were similar with subsequent Wizardry titles, which contained even more pop culture references, but it’s hard to find any concrete evidence of how these were interpreted in Japan. Perhaps someone else could shine a light on the subject?

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It’s feeding time for Ostrava!

Regardless, it’s still fascinating to think about how a simple misconception could be taken to an extreme. Many of From Software’s titles found a niche audience and followed their own paths instead of borrowing the homogeneous conventions of their peers; what else could we have seen if a misunderstood production memo or marketing bullet-point was left to evolve in a bubble?

In the end the significance of Wizardy’s Japanese localization might be a bit overstated, but its heritage is certainly evident in the Souls games. They’re positively brimming with relics steeped in a strange, foreign history, and greatly contribute to the series’ unique style.

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Prompts

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It’s not difficult to find an article these days detailing the troubles facing the Japanese games industry. Things just aren’t as rosy as they used to be, and there’s plenty of finger-pointing as a result: budgets aren’t big enough, the cultural differences are too vast, software design methodologies aren’t properly utilized, the corporate world tends to stifle innovation, there’s a lack of outsourcing, the desire just isn’t there, etc.

While all these claims might be accurate to some extent, they’re high-level issues that no one can fix single-handedly. Instead of moping about them, I thought it might be a bit more constructive to offer some small, pragmatic advise. In a previous post I tried to do this with a certain localization issue, and now I’ll take a look an interface quirk common in many Japanese games: too many confirmation prompts.

As an example, continuing from a saved game in a typical modern title is fairly painless. Quite often a “Continue” option is the default selection on the title screen menu, and clicking it automatically loads the latest save file.

On the other hand, these are the steps required to resume my game of Resident Evil 5, one of the marquee current-gen titles developed in Japan:

  1. Entering the title screen menu immediately brings up a pop-up asking me to “Wait a moment…” followed by a message stating that there’s no storage device selected. This is accompanied by a “Yes/No” prompt asking me if I’d like to select one.
  2. Clicking “Yes” brings up the OS browser with the available options: hard-drive/memory card/the cloud. This requires me to scroll to my desired option and click it.
  3. Once the storage device is selected, a “Storage Device Configured” message appears along with an “OK” prompt that needs to manually dismissed.
  4. Following the previous prompt, a “Loading content…” message shows up and then a “Load successful.” message replaces it. This is accompanied by yet another “OK” prompt.
  5. When the title screen menu finally appears, the “PLAY GAME” option is selected by default. Clicking it takes me to the play game menu.
  6. On the play game menu, the “CONTINUE” option is selected by default. Clicking it takes me to an overview of the last save game.
  7. The save game overview displays a date stamp, the selected character, and some other miscellaneous info. It is accompanied by an “OK/Back” prompt.
  8. Clicking “OK” takes me to a network overview screen with various game options such as co-op settings and hit reactions. The default option is “START GAME”, and the screen is accompanied by an “OK/Back” prompt.
  9. Clicking “OK” takes me to a loading screen that’s quickly replaced by the inventory screen. Here the default option is “Organize” and I need to scroll down and click “Ready” to proceed.
  10. Clicking “Ready” brings up a confusingly labeled “Exit” confirmation with a “Yes/No” prompt. “Yes” is the default option, and clicking it finally loads my save game.
To put it mildly, this is overkill.

If it were only that easy.

A large part of Apple’s success is elegantly accommodating for the most common use case. This basically means that an interface caters to the functionality that’s used most often, while the elegance comes from avoiding extraneous options, prompts, and technically-minded messages (and presenting an aesthetically appealing UI, of course).

Looking at Resident Evil 5 through this lens, the above steps could be truncated and/or altered to provide a more streamlined way of loading the latest save game.

  1. The “Select a storage device?” screen shouldn’t be there. Instead, the game should automatically select a default storage device, or better yet, select all the available storage devices. If none are available, a warning message could be displayed on the title screen without requiring a separate modal popup.
  2. The OS device-selection pop-up should only appear if the user chooses to manually change the current storage device.
  3. The “Storage device configured.” message shouldn’t appear. There’s no point in flooding the user with text if everything went OK. These messages should only pop up if there are errors.
  4. Same as above; there’s no need to display a “Load successful.” message. The transition into the save state should make it obvious that the data was correctly retrieved.
  5. If a saved game was found, the default options should be “Continue.” This option should immediately load the latest save game from the selected storage device. Optionally, the game could check all the available storage device and automatically load the latest save file in order to avoid any extra management on the player’s part.
  6. The secondary play game menu isn’t necessary if the “Continue.” option loads the latest save game.
  7. The save game overview should be removed as it provides non-vital information when trying to load the latest save game. Instead, this data should be presented in the load-game interface where the player browses through multiple save files. Optionally, it could also be shown on the loading screen itself.
  8. The network settings screen should be removed as well since it provides non-vital options that are configured at the beginning of the campaign. There’s no pressing need to change these every time the game is loaded, and this functionality could still be provided via an in-game menu.
  9. The inventory screen is also superfluous to loading a save game — the save data should already contain the proper equipment information. Presumably the screen is there so that the player can change their loadout following a game-over, but in that case the inventory-customization screen should only appear following the actual death. Alternatively it could also be accessible in-game from the save-checkpoint.
  10. The “Ready” confirmation is horribly labeled as it’s an ambiguous descriptor. Is the player exiting the inventory screen, or the actual save game loading process (it’s the first one, but it always makes me stop and think)? The prompt itself is also unnecessary, especially after the nine preceding ones.

Two incessant prompts most Windows users should recognize.

Confirmations prompts in particular tend to be quite prevalent in Japanese titles. Of course these can be useful when it’s easy to hit the wrong button and the consequences of doing so are quite drastic, e.g., clicking the “close” button instead of the “maximize” button in a word processor after writing a lengthy, unsaved document. However, it’s rarely difficult to select the proper save-file in a game, and loading the incorrect one tends to waste only a short amount of time.

Despite this, Japanese developers seem paralysed with fear of the user accidentally selecting the wrong option. This only applies to UI-related interfaces, though; there’s no prompts for avoiding an accidental weapon-reload or putting a car into the wrong gear.

The convention also seems to be that “No” should be the default selection. I have no idea why this is the case, except to prevent the user from accidentally skipping through an important choice while blazing through a bunch pop-ups.

If that’s the assumption, then it speaks very poorly of the application flow as a whole. Perhaps the user wouldn’t be so quick to skip through these confirmations if there weren’t so many of them? And perhaps removing non-vital popups and prompts would provide a faster and sleeker way to get to the fun part of the game: the actual gameplay.

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Making it Better: Tokyo Jungle

Have you ever played a game that you really liked, but certain parts of it disappointed you (for the record, I totally dig Tom Francis’ proposed ending to BioShock)?

Did the lack of knowledge pertaining to the developer’s budget/timeline/goals/etc., stop you from thinking “Why didn’t they do it *this* way?”

If you’re passionate about a particular title, then probably not. And why should it? As the end-user, you ultimately care about your own experience, and a game’s faults might seem all the more painful if seemingly obvious and feasible changes could have eliminated them.

For me, that game is Tokyo Jungle, and here’s what I think would have made it better:

Interface

Let’s start with the easy, somewhat less subjective field of UI. I don’t think anyone reading this enjoys manually scrolling through the thousands of words that make up a typical EULA (and sometimes studios don’t even want to write their own). The fact that Tokyo Jungle pops up a EULA every time you start the damn game is infuriating. It shouldn’t be there at all, really, especially since its only online component is a global leaderboard.

The leaderboard is not all that great either. It takes a very long time to load, and it’s retrieved whenever you finish playing Survival mode. Why not do it in a separate thread and let the user move on? Or at least only force this path if the player has gotten a new high score? What makes the delay even more frustrating is that it needs to be endured in order to register all the unlockables of the playthrough. Simply quitting a game does not record any of the collected items, story mode pieces, etc., which should be saved instantly.

Finally, the world map is quite useful, but also somewhat confusing. Its most zoomed-in level is quite small and doesn’t clearly indicate accessible areas. The location-labels are a bit misleading as well since they contain a bar that fills up and an icon inside the right edge of the bar. At first I thought the fill indicated my dominance of the area (how many spots I marked with my animal), while the number of icons represented the amount of food within its borders.

Turns out it’s actually the fill that reflects the quantity of available food, and the icon is just a label for the fill. To make this indicator more intuitive, the icon should be outside the bar on its left side, or alternatively a “food” caption should be displayed within the fill.

Overall Gameplay

Aside from the herbivores’ double-jump and inability to consume other animals, there’s not a lot of mechanical variety between the various types of fauna. Sure, there are statistical differences, but the gameplay is exactly the same. Expect to see crocodiles scaling buildings by jumping from one extruding air conditioner to another. Creating custom gameplay for each animal would’ve been a sizeable undertaking, though, so I’ll give Tokyo Jungle a grudging pass here.

What’s less excusable is the stealth mechanic. For something that’s presented as a large part of the game — especially for those peaceful herbivores — there’s no clear way of telling what is an animal’s zone of awareness. This is exasperated by the fact that many animals spot you while they’re off-screen, especially in lower-left and lower-right corners of the view window due to the perspective of the camera.

The minimap helps to spot these potential threats, but not while it rains, and it’s more of a band-aid solution anyway. A circular outline for each animal’s field of vision would’ve helped, or at least some arrows on the edges of the screen indicating potential dangers. A further aid would be displaying the exact threat-level of each animal, and possibly a countdown timer showing how much longer before it reverts to a neutral state.

Toxicity can also be problematic to detect. Hiding inside of buildings or underneath bridges doesn’t seem to help when it’s raining, and contaminated food is hard to detect due to the very subtle purple visual that can blend in with the background. Simple icon indicators similar to the alert exclamations could have easily removed this ambiguity.

Surival vs. Story

Despite the annoyances mentioned above, Tokyo Jungle’s biggest failing is in how it handles its Survival and Story modes.

Tokyo Jungle was originally a retail game, and it’s painfully obvious that it was modified to fit a price tag. Story mode — the main campaign — consists of 14 short missions, and each one needs to be individually unlocked by grinding it out in Survival mode.

I suppose this approach greatly extends the overall playtime, but it’s quite frustrating to progress through the narrative one small step at a time after jumping through some hoops in a completely separate game mode. This is doubly perplexing as unlocking the story missions often involves a certain knowledge of the game’s mechanics, but those same mechanics are then explained in the unlocked missions. The whole arrangement reeks of a production change that was implemented late into the game’s development.

The story missions could use a few more checkpoints as well, but they’re quite fun as they contain lots of silly and amusing sequences that slowly unravel the game’s mystery: what happened to all the humans? It’s a neat premise, and it shouldn’t be so heavily gated (especially if it was a questionable way to justify the price since the game was released as an inexpensive downloadable title outside of Japan).

Instead, Story mode should be featured first and foremost, and the animals played/fought during its missions should then get unlocked in Survival mode.

Survival mode itself is an even bigger mess.

Its main goal is to live for 100 years and complete various side missions to get as high a score as possible. In order to provide variety and ensure that players get different scores, Survival mode employs randomization and high-threat events/encounters common to roguelikes. The problem is, all these gameplay systems conflict with each other.

Hunger is greatly boosted in comparison to Story mode (it takes 90-120 seconds to die of starvation) and the missions are on a strict time limit. This means you are constantly on the run if you hope to get a high score, which also doubles as the currency for unlocking new animals. Completing the side missions awards statistical bonuses and unlocks new costumes as well, providing further incentives to rush through the game.

This approach completely invalidates the stealth mechanic, makes exploration of the cool urban environment impractical, and prevents the player from messing around with fun, emergent events such as battle royales of bears fighting chickens fighting giraffes. The random toxic rains and food shortages add further frustration as they can make some of the side missions virtually impossible to complete.

A better approach would’ve been to tone down the unreasonable hunger meter and remove any other time pressures. Next, the randomization could be more prevalent, starting off each playthrough in a different area with a different mission set. New objectives could come in as old ones are completed, and the resulting pace would let players get comfortable with the game and experiment with its most fun components.

If this led to seemingly infinite playtimes, the randomization could be skewed to provide a gradually increasing challenge. Better yet, the statistically-boosted animals of other players could enter the gameworld as AI-controlled bosses to help crown the real king of the hill. Finally, new animals and costumes not present in Story mode could still be used as prizes for playing through Survival mode.


Agree? Disagree? Have any other examples of a game where certain design choices seemed downright baffling? If so, feel free to leave a comment!

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Minimap Rotation

Not too long ago I praised The Witcher for a plethora of things it did really well. The sequel’s not bad either, but its minimap is absolutely horrible. The main problem is that it rotates with the camera, and the lack of compass directions also exasperates the issue.

Rotating minimaps are great for following a linear path, which is why GPS devices use this design. The user hardly ever needs to worry about whether they’re driving South or South-East, but they need to accurately follow the generated route. Consequently, it’s a lot easier if the path is always facing the same direction as the car, i.e., if the arrow on the screen is pointing right, they need to make a right hand turn.

However, if the map doesn’t rotate, then driving South with an arrow pointing right actually means making a left-hand turn. To avoid this confusion and unnecessary work with mentally rotating the map, the view of GPS devices is synched to match that of the car.

FPS titles also tend to benefit from rotating minimaps. Their levels are often small or just linear, and it’s very helpful for the player to be synced with the minimap view. The reason for this is that split-second decisions often need to be made based on the immediate surroundings.

For example, if the player is following a team-mate turning right but there’s an enemy hiding just around the left corner, it’s beneficial to instantly know which direction to face in order to counter the ambush. Since FPS games also inherently don’t possess a floating camera, it’s that much more advantageous to be aware of what’s lurking beyond the player’s view as there’s no other way to peek around the scenery.

Static minimaps, on the other hand, are much more suitable for games with large areas that need to be traversed multiple times.

In these titles, it’s important to familiarize oneself with the layout of the land in order to travel through it efficiently. Goals are often described with compass directions in mind, and landmarks are used to aid in the building of a mental map for the overall area.

If the minimap constantly swings around, not only does it keep changing the direction north is pointing, but it also forces the player to digest a radically different topography each time they glance at the minimap. A static view is superior to this as it facilitates the parsing and memorization of an area’s layout. This in turn allows the player plot their own paths and comfortably maneauver through the game’s environments.

Of course some players are only used to one approach or the other, in which case why not simply include both options?

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Ultima IV Gameplay Narrative

The videogame equivalent of show, don’t tell is often said to be do, don’t show.” It’s good advice, and when applied it can make for some very powerful experiences, e.g., Braid’s ending.

Unfortunately, it’s also a difficult guideline.

Gameplay elements are rarely designed with narrative in mind. They’re limited in quantity and tend to be blunt instruments; the mechanics of walking and jumping can only go so far in conveying complex stories. Given this limited scope, it’s not surprising that gameplay is rarely used as the main vehicle for narrative.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar had a pretty good go at it, though.

UIV is the story of the Stranger’s rise to embody eight virtues principal to the game’s setting: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. On the surface, it’s a typical CRPG of the era: there’s exploration, statistical progression, item management, NPC conversations, and combat. The twist is how these elements are cleverly subverted for storytelling purposes.

Fairly common RPG activities such as opening random treasure chests, running away from battle, and being a smart alack to NPC’s can lower various virtue-scores.

Conversely, overpaying for goods (instead of haggling down their prices), letting monsters escape from battle (and losing potential experience points), and destroying the most powerful artifact in the game (which makes combat a breeze), increase virtue. A full list of these virtue-altering actions can be found here.

UIV’s main quest involves traversing the world in order to recover 8 virtue stones and runes, learn the mantras corresponding to each virtue, max-out all 8 virtue-scores, meditate at 8 virtue shrines, obtain the 3-part key, and finally discover the the word of passage.

Once these tasks are complete, the Avatar can descend into the abyss and place the virtue stones at their respective altars. A short quiz follows where the player is questioned about the virtues, and each correct answer displays a part of the codex-symbol. When the codex is fully unveiled, the player (presumably) gets to bask in its glory and return to the real world with newly gained knowledge and experience.

It’s not an overly complex story, and its scant plot-points are almost entirely non-linear, but the narrative is closely coupled with the gameplay. UIV achieves this through various design choices.

First, the game gives a concrete role for the player to embody. It’s all fine and good to “roll” a teetotaler, pyromaniac dwarf, but it’s not nearly as much fun if this persona is restricted to the player’s imagination. Becoming the Avatar is UIV’s sole objective, so the entire gameworld naturally revolves around the player’s ability to fill the Avatar’s shoes. In addition, this is a perpetual task that encourages the player to stay in-character throughout the experience.

Secondly, UIV grafts virtue-fulfillment entirely onto existing systems. This makes the learning curve less harsh and presents interesting handicaps for familiar gameplay, e.g., avoiding hostile wildlife might not yield immediate rewards, but it aids in gradually achieving the larger goal of Avatar-hood. Since these systems are also granular, they encompass numerous ways in which the virtue scores can be affected.

Furthermore, the approach greatly reduces implementation costs. Every virtue-altering instance is not a custom, one-time cutscene, but rather an action that’s optional and repeatable. In turn, the player can actively participate in the story by partially steering where, when, and how the virtues are tested. Since many events in the game also impact more than one virtue, the overall progression is quite open-ended.

Finally, the virtue system allows the player to fail. Hints are still dispensed throughout the game — and can be actively sought out — but it’s not necessary to be aware of all the rules right from the start. There’s no game over screen if virtue is lost; no invisible wall, or awkward text prompt, or an automatic checkpoint reload. The event is simply recorded, and retributions can be made later down the road.

This makes the path to Avatar-hood a potentially bumpy (and a more interesting) tale, and prevents the game from clumsily asserting itself and its limitations.

Lots more could have been done to polish the virtue system and to make it a larger part of the gameworld, but UIV remains notable for the way it allows the player to collaborate with a pre-existing script. This is also done largely through gameplay, and, at least in part, is the reason why so many people keep playing it to this day.

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The Witcher and Fisstech

The Witcher treads a lot of common ground when it comes to RPGs, but it does so with a distinct swagger. To illustrate this, here’s a quick story.

Early on in the game, the protagonist Gerlat can accept a quest to deliver a package into a quarantined city. When he finally makes his way in, he’s arrested and his possessions confiscated.

He eventually recovers them all, except for one: the mysterious bundle he was asked to smuggle.

Jethro, the city jailer, non-chalantly informs Geralt that he’s lucky not to be in more trouble. The package contained fisstech, an illegal drug similar in properties to cocaine. It quickly becomes obvious that Jethro himself is an addict and the confiscation wasn’t exactly legal.

Geralt can get his hands on more fisstech by dispatching Salamander troops, henchmen of main antagonist who tend to carry the illegal substance. The drug can then be used to bribe more information out of Jethro, shedding some light on the local crime syndicates.

Eventually it’s revealed that the Salamanders were trying to squeeze out their competition by framing Ramsmeat, a local crime boss, in hopes of Geralt going after him and the two sides weakening or eliminating each other.

Following a clash between the religious Order of the Flaming Rose and the Scoia’tael, a terrorist group (or a freedom-fighter one, depending on how you look at it), the Salamanders expand their operation into the swamps.

Various factions Geralt had dealt with in the past are affected by this: the woodcutters are slaughtered, numerous brickmakers are kidnapped and put into slave labour, and a large Salamander band move into the former Scoia’tael encampment.

When Geralt rescues the brickmakers, he discovers they were made to gather plants for fisstech production. The Salamander’s treasures even contain a book on swamp plants, the very same book Geralt had to have read in order to loot local flora.

Back in Vizima, Jethro requests that Geralt follow a lead on a fisstech pusher under the guise of cleaning up the streets. In reality, the jailer simply wants to secure the source of his addiction by cracking down on its suppliers.

The trail eventually leads Geralt to the sewers and an abandoned crypt where the Salamanders produce fisstech. Among their servants he finds a frightened alchemist who rewards Geralt with a potion-recipe if he promises not to report his slacking.

When the hideout is cleaned out, the crooked jailer and the city guard storm the area in order to secure the contraband. It’s at this time that Geralt bluntly tells Jethro that all the drugs better stay confiscated or he’ll come after the jailer next.

Finally, the documents Geralt retrieves from both the Salamander cells point him to the ultimate stronghold. As Geralt storms the base, a cutscene plays out showing a Salamander leader requesting more money following the group’s recent failures.

All these events make perfect sense from gameplay, plot, and setting perspectives. The slaves need proper skills and instructions, the bad guys require funding for their operations, and powerful factions constantly vie for supremacy.

Every element serves as a gear snugly connected to another, and when the switch is pulled, the machine doesn’t grind to a halt.

What’s more, the game itself is not homogenized. Fisstech doesn’t come across as a bullet point on a worldbuilding checklist that needs to be adhered to at every turn. It’s just part of the tapestry, and there’s a lot more of it to experience.

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