design, games

Making it Better: Tokyo Jungle

tokyo jungle header 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.

tokyo jungle 4 Making it Better: Tokyo Jungle

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.

tokyo jungle 3 Making it Better: Tokyo Jungle

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.

tokyo jungle 1 Making it Better: Tokyo Jungle

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 5 Making it Better: Tokyo Jungle

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.

tokyo jungle 2 Making it Better: Tokyo Jungle

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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design, games

Why Resident Evil 5′s Co-op Worked so Well

resident evil 5 header Why Resident Evil 5s 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.

resident evil 5 incubators Why Resident Evil 5s Co op Worked so Well

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.

resident evil 5 partner help Why Resident Evil 5s Co op Worked so Well

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.

resident evil 5 healing Why Resident Evil 5s Co op Worked so Well

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.

resident evil 5 inventory Why Resident Evil 5s Co op Worked so Well

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.

resident evil 5 fairy tale sheva Why Resident Evil 5s Co op Worked so Well

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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design

Design Roundup #4

articlesheader Design Roundup #4

  • The Psychology of Randomness – People tend to be terrible at accepting randomness for what it is, and it’s a very important trait to accommodate for in game design.
  • Testosterone and Competitive Play – Danc’s essay on playing against friends, playing against strangers, the perception of luck and skill, and pro-social/pro-dominance tendencies.
  • Groundhog Day and Video Games – Groundhog Day is a fantastic movie with a surprisingly wide-spread appeal, and I always thought its concepts were perfect for a videogame.
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