Posts Tagged 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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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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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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The Thief’s Ring

“An ancient sapphire ring.
It subdues your presence, making it difficult to be detected by enemies.”

The description for the Thief’s Ring in Demon’s Souls is innocuous enough, but it’s one of the most useful items in the game.

When I first obtained it, I scoffed at its effects. I generally tend to be underwhelmed by “ancient and powerful artifacts” that serve as nothing more than marginal stat modifiers. I also wasn’t playing a stealthy character, so it seemed like a fairly useless trinket.

Demon’s Souls is a game where a small boost can have an enormous effect, though, and a few deaths later I quickly discovered the benefits of donning the Thief’s Ring.

There’s nothing magical about it, really — it simply does what it says — but its effects are very deliberately tied into the game world and its design.

Here a few examples:

Isolating Enemies

Unlike many 3rd person brawlers, the enemies in Demon’s Souls do not patiently wait for their turn to attack the player. As a result, it’s often important to draw away individuals from a group to take them on one-on-one.

The Thief’s Ring facilitates luring enemies by preventing the player from being pelted with projectiles during the approach. What’s more, the combat in Demon’s Souls requires a lot of movement, and the Thief’s Ring makes it less likely to draw the attention of more enemies while battling a solitary opponent.

Avoiding the Dragons

The ramparts of Castle Boletaria are patrolled by hostile dragons that roast anything in their sights. These sections are quite unforgiving, but the Thief’s Ring expands the window of safety between the dragons’ fiery onslaughts.

Slaying the Geckos

Crystal Geckos are timid creatures that are almost impossible to catch with a melee attack. They can spot the player from very far away, and if they do, they skitter back and fade out of existence. The Thief’s Ring slightly dulls their awareness, making it easier to catch them and the large quantities of minerals (used to upgrade armour and weapons) that they drop.

Boss Runs

Chances are that during most everyone’s first playthrough at least a few of the boss battles will not end in victory, but the Thief’s Ring makes it easier to give ’em another shot. Simply running past enemies is often a valid option, and equipping the ring lowers the duration/distance they’ll take into account when chasing the player.

Backtrack-Farming

Upon defeating a boss, the player can warp back to the boss’ lair from the Nexus hub. This not only provides a shortcut going forward, but it also allows the player to go back through a completed area in order to obtain more items and souls (the game’s equivalent of gold and experience).

What makes this backtracking different from playing through the same area from the start is that enemies tend to face only one direction. Combined with the Thief’s Ring, this makes it quite easy to sneak up on them and unleash a backstab, a special attack that deals extra damage and yields more souls.

Scaling the Shrine of Storms

Equipping the Thief’s Ring is practically the only way to travel up narrow mountain paths without being shredded by flying Storm Beasts.

Defeating the Old Hero

The blind boss of the Adjudicator Archstone is quite a fearsome opponent, but it’s actually quite easy to stay out of his reach with the Thief’s Ring equipped.

Invading Other Worlds

Player vs. Player combat is not greatly affected by the Thief’s Ring, but it does partially obscure the invader. This makes it more likely that the battle might begin with a sneaky backstab.

Even without any significant gameplay mutators, though, it’s still quite unsettling to see a swirling, red aura make a beeline for the player’s character.

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Why Resident Evil 5’s Co-Op Worked so Well

Resident Evil 5 is notorious for its stiff controls, frustrating partner-AI, obtuse interface, questionable quicktime events, and an incredibly silly storyline. As one would expect, these elements don’t make for the most compelling single-player experience.

However, the game’s co-op mode is incredibly fun and rewarding.

For all its faults, Resident Evil 5 has some very high production values.

The Standard Co-op Setup

Most action games encourage players to work together by turning a Prisoner’s Dilemma into a Trust Dilemma, i.e., making it so that helping each other out is always the most beneficial course of action for everyone involved. To achieve this, friendly-fire and other possible sources of griefing are diminished or removed, enemies are tweaked to take on the firepower of multiple players, and player-goals are designed around non-competitive challenges, e.g., everyone gets an achievement for defeating the boss instead of one person getting an achievement for the most kills.

Healing a defenseless comrade is another common mechanic that ensures players try to help each other out. Letting a partner die diminishes the chance of success — or can even result in a game-over screen — so all members of a team can usually depend on friendly aid. This in turn fosters a reciprocal relationship facilitated by special indicators that display the location and status of everyone else in the group.

In addition to resuscitating nearly-defeated partners, RE5 also lets one player save the other from various health-draining, potentially-lethal grappling encounters.

Forcing gameplay-cooperation at specific script-points is common as well, e.g., having one player boost another to higher ground in order to proceed. While these sound good on paper, such statically-defined activities are rarely as satisfying as letting the players come up with their own strategy for traversing a level. With that said, scripted gateways serve to differentiate the gameplay and ensure that each player feels like part of the team.

All of these co-op elements are present in RE5, but there are many more as well.

All The Extras

A great example of something that’s conducive to cooperative play is RE5’s shared-healing mechanic. Whenever any healing item is used (except for the eggs), both characters get healed if they’re standing close to each other. This encourages players to communicate and plan rendezvous points in order to get the most value out of their reserves.

Communication is also made easier by the fact that all firearms come equipped with laser sights. Laser sights allow players to point directly at areas of interest simply by aiming at them. The visible laser-pointers reduce the amount of explaining needed for proper communication, and they’re cleverly implemented as they give a secondary function to an existing mechanic.

Looks like both of them could use a little healing.

Another interesting element is that both players must activate the map-exit in order to transition to the next area. Some players complained about this being a bit inconvenient, but I personally thought it was a great decision. Having a loading screen suddenly pop into view while sniping an enemy can be quite jarring. The wait mechanic prevents this from happening, and it allows both players to fully explore each area without feeling rushed.

Whenever one player activates the exit, his point-of-view also swirls around to show his teammate. This is a neat little touch as it informs the player to the whereabouts of his partner, which in turn let’s him quickly decide whether to stick around at the exit or go back into the field.

Money is another important asset in RE5, and here the game takes a cue from a various co-op RPGs. In order to prevent players from squabbling over treasure, both players simply receive the full monetary value of each collectible. While this is definitely not realistic, it prevents anyone from worrying about splitting the loot and keeps the focus on the action.

Finally, the level and enemy designs make it beneficial to communicate and devise on-the-spot tactics. Maps tend to be closed off arenas with multiple paths, and they allow players to split up and cover each other from different vantage points. This is especially important when fighting the more powerful enemies as attacking them from alternating directions helps expose their weak spots.

The above mechanics enhance the standard cooperative template, but there’s one more element that makes RE5 special.

From Good To Great

Each player has a 9-slot inventory, and all items take up a single slot. Some items can stack within a slot as well, but only up to a point.

While this might seem like plenty of space, the real estate is at a constant premium.

The 9-item inventory greatly affects how the game is played.

The weapons in RE5 are differentiated by their damage output, area of effect, firing rate, range, penetration, clip size, and chance of scoring a critical hit. The enemies and environments are well tuned to these attributes, creating situations where one firearm is much more useful than the others. Since each weapon also requires a custom ammo-type, it’s impossible for a single player to hoard all the goodies. Instead, each player must take on a specialized role.

For example, one player keeps a group of enemies at bay with a shotgun while the other snipes some archers in the background. Or one player pilots a vehicle while the other showers fast-moving opponents with a semi-automatic. Or one player leads a boss up a path with some explosive barrels, while the other uses his handgun to blow them up from above.

In addition to the standard firearms, though, the inventories must also accommodate healing items, armour jackets, and miscellaneous other collectibles such as proximity bombs and stun rods. It’s very easy to fill up the available slots, but the ability to trade items alleviates the issue.

Trading also encourages additional cooperation, especially when one player’s path leads him to stacks of ammo for the other player’s weapons. Although enemies never drop ammunition for weapons neither of the players possess, forking paths often force players to collect items they don’t really want. This in turn creates a unique flow to the game: an area is entered, its enemies are dispatched, the players scavenge for loot, and finally they regroup to heal up, trade, and get ready for the next challenge. The pattern doesn’t keep the players tightly tethered together, but it always brings them back to help each other out.

Successful cooperation is eventually rewarded with plenty of unlockable costumes and gameplay modifiers.

Like most co-op games, RE5 ultimately needs players to cooperate with each other; progress can’t be made if one person refuses to play along. If both people are on the same page, though, the game’s rich tactics and inter-player interactions elevate it above the co-op modes of its contemporaries.

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