What Made Those Old, 2D Platformers So Great?

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A little while ago I dug into Scary Girl for not being a very fun game. This brought up some discussion about what actually makes a good 2D platformer, so I decided to expand on the topic. Below is a list of what I see as three common aspects of many classic platforming titles. These point are not the only things that made those games great, but they’re a shared base that appears again and again.

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The Cattle Prod

I’ve previously talked about the Alamo standoff, a technique in which the player’s physical progress is halted, so I figured I’d take a quick look at the opposite end of the spectrum: forcing the player to move forward.

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The iconic escape sequence from the intro of Super Metroid.

Now there are plenty of ways to encourage the player to physically make progress in a game (collectibles, for instance), but forcing him to do so is a bit different. One approach is to simply take the player on an automated ride where his input bears little to no effect on the actual traversal, e.g., autoscrolling stages in shmups, or wholly scripted camera movement in light-gun games. Another possibility, and the one I’ll be focusing on, is what I like to call the “cattle prod.” But first, a quick definition:

game death, n.

  1. An event in which the player fails to adequately advance through a challenge, often resulting in a restart at the last checkpoint/save spot or a “gave over” scenario.

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Super Adventure Island's cattle prod is the very intuitive hunger mechanic that requires the player to constantly pick up fruits. Not only is this concept very easy to grasp, but it also fits in with the game's setting and is supported by the extremely horizontal level design.

Game death is a pretty nebulous concept, e.g., losing a race and having to repeat it doesn’t have to actually involve anyone or anything being killed. However, it is also the ultimate consequence of not properly following the directions dictated by the cattle prod(s).

With that in mind, we can now talk about what makes a cattle prod work. Namely, diminishing resources that can bring on game death.

Cattle prods are manifested in various ways, e.g., time limits, combo meters, autoscrolling walls, currencies, decaying health, unstoppable enemies, etc. The overall feeling they tend to bring on is that of tension (and the possible satisfaction of overcoming a challenge) although that intensity varies greatly from case to case.

From what I’ve noticed, there’s three main factors that play into the stress level of a cattle prod:

1). Player Knowledge.

The more information the player possesses, the better he will be equipped to judge the situation at hand. Traversing a familiar level while being accompanied by a minimap that displays various points of interest is a lot less intimidating than being given a time limit and thrown into a hostile and unknown area.

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Although Crackdown's races were actually pretty easy, the rapid checkpoint approach definitely increased their intensity.

2). Player Power.

The stronger the player is, the lesser the impact of any possible cattle prods. For example, if an RTS match begins with the player at a fully outfitted base with a lot of units and resources to mine, he won’t be too worried (at least not immediately) about succeeding. However, remove the base, provide only a handful of starting units, severely diminish possible resources and create a massive opposing army, and the stress levels quickly increase.

3). Resource Availability/Lifespan.

The more sparse the resource and the quicker it runs out, the more intense the overall experience. If a checkpoint is fifteen minutes away in a rally-style racing game, the player tends to trust the designer to give him plenty of time to reach that goal. However, if a checkpoint can be seen just a block down the street but the player only has 10 seconds to reach it, the experience becomes much more rushed and hectic.


The dials on these 3 factors can be turned independently — something that’s particularly important when using multiple impetus mechanics at one time. In the end, though, they all represent a single concept:

cattle prod, n.

  1. A mechanic based on diminishing resources that forces the player to advance in order to avoid game death.

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A Layman’s Guide To Projection in Videogames

Oftentimes when a videogame has a skewed, overhead point of view, we call it isometric. That’s rarely the accurate term, though, and it’s not just pointless semantics.

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Although Echochrome uses a single projection type, its gameplay is based on constantly rotating and morphing its 3D structures. With each new view, the physical architecture of the level changes to reflect what the player sees on the screen.

Projection basically means taking a three dimensional object and displaying it on a 2D plane (i.e., a screen). There are various ways of accomplishing this, and each technique has a deep impact on a game’s look and mechanics. The advent of 3D games and free-floating cameras somewhat lessened this role, but being aware of the pros and cons of each projection type is still applicable to both 2D and 3D titles.

So what exactly are these projection types? Well, let’s take a look:

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The Alamo Standoff

Alec Meer’s retrospective on The Thing mentioned an interesting phenomenon: the emotional cycle of the “Alamo standoff.”

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The rooftop standoff at the end of Left 4 Dead's first episode.

What Alec was referring to is a specific gameplay concept that revolves around trapping the player in an arena and sending in countless waves of enemies. Describing this, he made a very perceptive comparison: the concept is similar to a running joke that’s funny at first, eventually grows old, but, through the sheer ridiculousness of repeating it over and over, becomes funny yet again. Except in our case, the player first enjoys the challenge of the combat, then slowly grows weary of it, and eventually gets a second boost of adrenaline as he realizes that the set piece is not about to end.

It’s a curious phenomenon as its prerequisite is — in a way — boring the player. However, as part of an immediate arc, this weariness magnifies an eventual sense of dread. The standoff is a grueling, uphill climb with no visible peak, and it can be a very effective tool for evoking certain emotions.

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One of Resident Evil 4's more memorable segments was the Ganado's assault on the cabin.

Now sending in enemies in waves isn’t exactly a new concept, but the Alamo standoff is a bit different. First of all, it begins with a drastic change of pace. It’s an abrupt halt to the player’s forward progress (at least in a physical sense) that puts him on the defensive. What follows is, naturally, a battle of attrition.

Up until that point, the player might have been hoarding equipment for an emergency situation. Well, the standoff is that emergency. It might take a while, but the player will eventually realize that his priority is no longer managing resources but simply surviving. At this point, the feeling of terror begins to build, and it culminates in the sensation that the game’s done screwing around. The kiddy gloves are off, and it will now proceed to throw everything (not true, there could be lots more) at the player to pummel him into submission.

It’s powerful stuff, but there’s a certain finesse to making it work.

First of all, the standoff is best introduced “organically” without the use of non-interactive cutscenes. This makes it harder to think of it as a set piece, which in turn creates a situation where the player is initially ignorant of its scale. The lack of clear indicators as to the duration of the onslaught also help to instill a feeling of panic and hopelessness. Aesthetic changes in the environment are fine (after all, the player should never assume that the event is an enemy-spawning bug), but distinct gameplay modifiers such as new enemies and entry routes tend to add a game-ish progress to the experience.

Now this setup is great for evoking feelings of uncertainty and panic, but, in an effort to reduce its repetitiveness, various games have been putting a different spin on the experience. Gears of War 2’s horde mode takes a step back from the survival horror approach and makes the event more goal-oriented. This results in shifting the focus from “Oh my god, will this ever end?!” to “If I can only hold out until [goal x is achieved], I’ll be fine.”

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The antlion standoff in Half-Life 2: Episode 2.

The “gamey” standoff is clearly introduced, and it’s split into distinct mini-challenges. Timers and rounds are prevalent, as are “breathers” between individual waves. The player is provided with continuous feedback via metrics on health, ammo, checkpoint targets, etc., which aid him in making decisions. Other element like new enemy and weapons types are also gradually introduced to provide variety.

Of course the defining factors of these two approaches can be mixed together. Left 4 Dead contains plenty of organic and highly randomized standoffs (which don’t even take place in typical arenas — the only thing that boxes the player in is the sheer volume of enemies), but each episode also ends with a timed event where the player must simply survive until the arrival of a rescue party.

In either case, it’s important to be aware of the effects of all these design decisions. Also, it’s always vital to give the player a chance to survive — even if ammo/health drops are frequent, little suspense is lost if the player must still worry about picking ’em up. In addition, guarding segments are tricky as it’s easy for the player to get frustrated with inept AI companions (or, conversely, invincible ones that suck out all the tension) and end up worrying about the safety of others instead of his own. And finally, when the dust settles and the player is on his last legs, you might want to think about doing it all over again. Just more intensely.

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The 1-Pixel Collision Box

In the early 90s, a trend developed among shoot-’em-ups that was affectionately (or was it rancorously?) dubbed “bullet hell.”

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An example of bullet hell. It gets worse. Much worse.

The impetus behind it was to add visual flair to 2D games in order to compete with the craze surrounding 3D games. Arcade cabinets were more powerful than ever before, so these shooters could handle many more sprites and the extra calculations required for the accompanying collision checks. The approach worked relatively well, providing plenty of “Holy Shit!” moments. However, there was one major issue: playability.

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Ikaruga's dual colour scheme was the focus of its gameplay.

Shoot-’em-ups tended to be one-hit kill games, and simply saturating the screen with harmful projectiles made them incredibly difficult (if not downright impossible). Now arcade games are meant to take your money, but that wouldn’t happen if no one played ’em. In order to implement bullet hell without alienating customers, something had to give.

Part of Ikaruga‘s solution was to make all bullets and your ship one of two colours, and then simply ignore collisions between like-coloured objects. Other titles used shields and various powerups, but the original solution, and, in a way, the purest to the genre, was the (roughly) 1-pixel collision box.

Instead of surrounding the majority of the player’s ship with an area susceptible to fire, a single pixel was used to indicate its vulnerable spot. This was a rather elegant solution as it required no other changes and didn’t present an extra hit to performance. Players were also less likely to feel cheated if they came out on the positive end of some collision-fiddling. The end result looked something like this:

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Saint Dragon's eponymous lead actually looked pretty good in motion.

The visual oddity of having the player’s ship fly straight through harmful projectiles was lessened by the nature of the top-down perspective. This view had issues with representing depth/elevation, and that actually made it easier to imagine bullets just skimming over the player’s ship. The 1-pixel collision box also had the side-effect of making the player feel more skilled at the game, which — in the very least — provided the illusion of empowerment.

As a side note, something of a similar concept was used in an old Amiga shooter called Saint Dragon. The player’s ship, the eponymous Saint Dragon, consisted of a head and spiraling tail. The head used regular collision detection, but the tail was purely aesthetic. This added scale and personality, and allowed the player to control a vehicle that seemed grandiose despite being virtually identical to countless other shoot-’em-up ships. The head could be easily destroyed, but the tail would actually absorb many types of bullets and even damage most of the enemies it touched.

Supplemental:

Since I’ve posted this article, it’s gotten a lot of attention from numerous shmup enthusiasts. Many have been eager to bring up the specifics of the tiny-collision-box phenomenon, as well as variations on the theme. I think that’s great, and one of the sites that has been pointed out to me contains a lot of interesting information on the genre. Of particular note are its threads on shmup strategies, the dos and don’ts of good shmups, and the glossary of common shmup terms.

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Deductive Puzzles

Adventure games are filled with their fair share of sleuthing, so why do they often turn into a parody of MacGyver?

Well, gameplay, of course. Browsing the scenery for usable objects — whether they can be picked up or not, and whether they can be used by themselves or in conjunction with other objects — is the interactive cause-and-effect bit.

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Way too many designers have asked themselves that very question.

Considering how many adventure games revolve around solving mysteries, though, it’s surprising that so few of them rely on the player’s deductive skills. Instead, the audience is often stuck doing all sorts of illogical things, especially on a micro level. There’s usually a clear goal, but getting there is a matter of figuring out the logistics, not the mystery.

Now relying on the player’s deductive skills can be a big challenge. It’s not the most casual concept, it can be difficult to keep all the details of the “big picture” in one’s head, and even small discrepancies between the player’s conclusions and the designer’s intentions can result in an impasse.

Still, it’s not impossible.

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Orange Box Designer Commentary

Valve first tried out designer commentary with the Lost Coast standalone demo. Apparently it was such a big success that they decided to do the same for all the games in the Orange Box.

Now Valve is a group of some very, very smart people, and it shows.

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Escape from City 17 at the end of Half-Life: Episode One.

Generic behind-the-scenes specials tend to tell the same old story: the development cycle was hectic, but the team eventually persevered and released a great product (even if it was a little flawed and missing some features). In between all that you might come across an interesting tid-bit or two, but don’t expect any mind blowing revelations.

The commentary on the Orange Box, though, is full of pure-gold nuggets. In fact, playing through its four commentary-enabled titles will probably teach you more about various aspects of videogame production than any game design book. If you haven’t checked it out but are in any way interested in videogame design, I urge you to do so now.

Here are just a few segments I picked out:

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The Greatest Collectible Of All Time

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One of the famous coin arrows in Super Mario World.

In-game collectibles are a staple of platformers and play a big part in various videogame genres. They help to fill out maps, provide points bonuses and aid the player in overcoming the game’s challenges. They also flesh out the setting, sometimes even being used as part of its architecture, e.g., the coin-arrows in the various Super Mario games.

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Apparently all clocks in Final Fantasy VI are secretly powered by elixirs.

Collectibles seem to speak to the kleptomaniac side of our personality, encouraging us to take all that we see. In console RPGs, it’s common to break into people’s homes, rummage through their belongings, and generally pillage the entire world that you’re trying to save.

And why not, really? After all, as players we want to be rewarded for exploring. It’d be awfully dull going from one empty room to another, so letting us interact with the game as if it were an episode of Supermarket Sweep might not be such a bad idea.

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