Recently I’ve been browsing YouTube for some examples of JRPG combat mechanics. This little search led me to a low-level, initial equipment playthrough of Final Fantasy IV (Advance). It was a pretty interesting watch, and it reminded me of just how much varied content exists on the site. Sure, you have your usual gameplay footage, corporate trailers and fan reviews, but there’s a lot more beyond that.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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:
- A mechanic based on diminishing resources that forces the player to advance in order to avoid game death.
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.
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:
Alec Meer’s retrospective on The Thing mentioned an interesting phenomenon: the emotional cycle of the “Alamo standoff.”
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.
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.”
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.