Pokemon Go is a fun game that does virtually everything wrong

So I’m still playing Pokemon Go. And I’m still enjoying it. Mostly what I enjoy is bike riding with a purpose and weird emergent social situations with just enough slot-machine randomness thrown in, but I’m still playing.

Still as I sit there thinking, I am just constantly taken back by the fact that this is a game that does virtually everything wrong in terms of nuts and bolts game design. TECHNICALLY the game is massively impressive, but it feels like a game designed by engineers and not game designers. The core concept of ‘pokemon but like… in the real world’ is GREAT. So great that it gets around a lot of their bad design. And some things are neat. Seeing a lure, going there and meeting people is cool. Some issues (no trading) are because the game is kinda half baked. it’s admittedly a Minimally Viable Product. But some things are just bad.

How Pokemon Spawn is Rubbish

“So like, pokemon spawn points are dictated by cellphone usage in areas and–” … like… why? “Because Ingress did it that way.”

I imagine a lot of problems are “because thats how Ingress did it”. But you have a spawn system that shuts out a huge amount of potential players. I can’t say its ‘for no reason’. There is osme inherent optimization that goes on here, but you can’t even give a logged on player a certain amount of spawns or something? Any decision here is likely a challenging one, but the one that makes a huge group of potential players have the game be virtually unplayable is clearly the bad one.

There is also no real reasonable way  to tell when you’re in another biome or make any real deduction about when you’re likely to get anywhere with different spawns or anything.  Even if something pops up on the radar, you have no way to really know. Water is about the only type of area easy to find. You could also do things like making sure every area has some non-trash pokemon and hide them based on level. So early game is a lotta Ratatta and Pidgy garbage but once you level up you get to see more of the local flavor.

Also how they level up with you is ALSO rubbish but we’ll get to that.

Tracking Pokemon is Rubbish

This is actually something that could be a non-problem is the way biomes worked was a bit more understandable and varied. But when something rare pops up on the radar, what do you do? You can be a crazy person and try a bunch of weird tracking methods or if you’re most casual people, you’ll just flail and fail with no direction or idea what you should do. When you’re only way to find certain pokemon is sheer luck, seeing them and failing to find them is frustrating, especially when you didn’t do anything obvious wrong.

Capturing Pokemon is Rubbish

Throwing pokeballs is great! I love it! But the actual catching mechanics are rubbish. First, the randomness is so high that nothing you do seems to affect anything. Even though Niantic said “Hey, small circles are good” people would say “Oh yeah small circle is like holding B in pokemon its a placebo thing” because there was no way to feel that you did anything good. You do the same thing, regardless of whether its a weedle or a Dragonite. Maybe you use different balls, but you have one strategy. Once you get ultra balls and get good at throwing, the only thing that separates you capturing a weedle and a powerful pokemon is luck. Luck is a part of pokemon but when luck is so high that no one feels their actions have consequences well… thats bad?

I can’t even beat up wild pokemon what kind of world is this

“Training” Pokemon is Rubbish

I find the fact this game gives you a Starter to be insulting. It’s cargo cult game design. The game is basicaly like “yo here are 4 candies.” … Yeah. Thanks. A little bit better now with the buddy system but the fact is still clear — you should NEVER, EVER, EVER DO ANYTHING WITH YOUR STARTER. Besides maybe use it as a buddy. And wait to find a better Bulbasaur or whatever.

Which gets to the problem that Stardust leveling is one of the worst, least player friendly systems in existence. Powering up a pokemon is something you should absolutely not do  until you’re at least in your 20s. You’re going to find stuff thats going to invalidate your old pokemon so fast. If you use your Stardust sooner you get to feel like a fool. If you evolve a 3 stage pokemon too soon, you feel like a fool. In normal pokemon games, you aren’t a fool for leveling up crappy pokemon — that’s all you got! This isn’t a resource your wasting.  Having a pokemon in Go is about being totally lucky. Once you’re totally lucky, you spend your resources and you have what you want. This not only is unsatisfying and undercuts one of the larger appeals of pokemon (training and bonding) but also cuts the life of the game down. People complain about there being no end game in Go and thats because there isn’t really much of a sensible need to build up a team, nor mechanics for prolonging the development of a pokemon. “Well, catching is like battling and you can just apply XP retroactively” sounds like its the same but maybe even better, but its basically totally worse.

Battling is Rubbish

Like throwing balls, capturing gyms are fun, but the actual act of battling is not. First, battling is massively unaccessible. There is no way for lower players to compete. They’re tyrannized by powerful players, shutting people off from trying a whole different part of an already thin game. And battles aren’t interesting. You have a huge attacker advantage and can brute force so much stuff. Attack and dodge attack and dodge. Nothing has any utility. There is no reason to try and do clever type counter things or have certain pokemon on hand. You widdle down gyms one pokemon at a time, using the ones best for the job. It quickly becomes work.

Gyms are Rubbish

Terrible rewards, terrible mechanics. Getting in takes tons of effort and  how the game works encourages a mercenary approach of just throwing in strong pokemon and hoping no one even tries. There is no rewards for a successful defense, nothing for weaker players to do.  If I had to decide one thing to be changed it’d probably be the gyms (or the spawning). Just change it to have NPC battles, to have different leagues for lower level players and other stuff like that. Someone should be about to put a 200cp ratatta in there and I should not be able to step on it  with something 10 times stronger.

 Niantic is too busy fighting cheaters rather than designing their systems to be resistant to cheating… and.. uh… that’s Rubbish

If people could fight people closer to their own level, botters taking over gyms would be less of a problem. Why you would have such an aggressive pvp system in a game with high casual appeal is beyond me. Super players are just as disruptive as botters. By dealing with this on a system level and reducing the harm caused by strong players, you reduce the negative effects cheaters have on other players. So much so that you can’t even have a rooted phone or some chinese phones. If I was still on android I would have been furious. Even if I could still jump through hoops to make it work, that is still unacceptable.

Just tons of random Rubbish

Why are their no dailies or anything like that? Some people may be glad it doesn’t have them, but that’s the type of thing that gets people coming back. Why doesn’t the game do more while its off? Why do you need the watch? Why don’t have the push notification YO THERE A SQUIRTLE. Even if you have to do it as a step-tracker sorta random personal spawn thing, give players a reason to go back. ALSO why is the distance tracker so bad? I GIVE YOU MY GPS COORDINATES EVERY 10 SECONDS WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING.

Really in the end, the list of things Niantic has done well in a game design sense is… a very very short list.

Design Literalism vs Lateralism

My recent rants about some of the character design in Overwatch has gotten me to think about some new… design terminology. I kept using the word ‘lateral’ in reference to character design and people didn’t get what that means. So I want to try and explain this because it’s helped me think about designing certain things a little different. So first, lets talk about DESIGN LITERALISM.

mccree-gameplayThis is McCree. I hate McCree. I have issues with other characters, but I am EMBARRASSED by McCree. I’ve spent a lot of words picking on Overwatch on Twitter and Tumblr, but since I actively want to like most of those characters I criticize, I’m going to ease up and focus on McCree. Because I won’t feel bad in the least.

I’m still not sure anyone actually did any actual designing with McCree. You say “Space Cowboy” and this guy is basically what most people would have pop into their head. You’re either going to have a Cyber Clint Eastwood/Stranger or a Cyber John Wayne. Maybe if you’re a special soul you’d imagine that totally sweet Kung Fu Cowboy on Mars from that Muse video. McCree is about a literal a design as you can have. You have two descriptors and you receive exactly what it says on the tin. Besides the stupid ‘BAMF’ on his belt, there is not a single unexpected, clever or interesting design element to this character. I did a google image search for ‘Space Cowboy’ and got close to the same design. Different style, obviously, but still.dh0yoyn1367cfg7rwv6b

The sad thing is, this design with it’s dorky but interesting astronaut head bubble and the others I saw were often at least a little bit more interesting. Not necessarily as good or well executed (McCree, if nothing else, is refined, polished genericness) but having thought into what western tropes could be converted sensibly into science fiction themes… and not just… a cowboy with some cybery bits.

Literalism isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s appropriate. Sometimes you’re making an NPC! Sometimes you’re aiming for realism. Red Dead Redemption’s protagonist isn’t particularly out there in his design, but like costuming for a movie, there is almost so much you can do. A lot of the armors in Dark and Demon’s Souls are very literal to historic armor, often to the point of becoming their own awkward aesthetic. But in the case of someone like McCree where you’re still making up elements because you are, in theory, concocting something new in a new setting, there is little excuse for not having a bit of lateralism. But what IS lateralism?

Lateralism is divergence from the expected interpretation. When you lay out the basic description of a character like say “Cyber Cowboy”, how different is it from the tropey image that conjures. It’s not about being complicated. It’s not about necessarily adding detail. It’s about interpretation. Like you can’t go A “CYBER COWBOY… BUT HE’S A NINJA”, because you’re just adding ninja to the description.

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Bayonetta is like the queen of design lateralism. “Sexy witch” …. “Sexy moon witch”? … “Sexy Gun witch”? “Sexy ELEGENT gun witch”?  Does any one sentence properly describe or capture the essence of Bayonetta’s design? Bayonetta has very little to do with a witch, but none the less is very witchy. The beehive hair as a cover for the a pointy cap… the arcane baubles covering her body, the subtle gold trim, the look of her guns… She’s just WITCHY… While not at all being what you’d imagine when someone said ‘sexy witch’. Well, besides the fact you KNOW Bayonetta now and of COURSE think of her when someone says ‘sexy witch’ because you have good taste. Bayonetta is an amazingly awesome design that does a lot of work. She’s also absolutely layered with detail, down to embossed runes down the seam lines of her hair-leather outfit. Does lateral have to be crazy and complex?

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Lets talk about Sam from Metal Gear Rising. I love Sam because his design is very simple, let very complicated. How would you describe Sam…? Future South American Samurai? Sam comes off as Samurai-y but it’s subtle. The facial hair and top knottish pony tail. The beefed up legs of his suit which have that ‘tucked hakama’ feel without actually being that. And of course a katana. And then the details like the severed arm that isn’t obvious and IS THAT A GUN SHEATH? And that’s a detail that isn’t just ‘lets slap future stuff on old stuff’ it’s a design element that plays into how he moves and operates and uses quickdraws. Sam is super simple but every part of his design involved someone stopping for a second and considering “How should this look”. Not taking the obvious road isn’t about being difficult or being different for the sake of being different, it’s because there is almost always a BETTER answer than what is immediately obvious. You’re not stepping laterally to disguise your design, you’re stepping laterally to escape your own assumptions about how something should be.

Johnny

Johnny is a character I think about a lot. Because Johnny is great. But then I look at him and it’s like “isn’t this some bottom of the barrel character design? Why is it okay?” But when you think about what Johnny is, he’s actually… not quite any of that. A cool sky pirate captain? To quote a friend “he doesn’t even have goggles”. What makes Johnny interesting is he’s TROPEY and SIMPLE but he’s not literal. The hat invokes some western vibes which can invoke some outlaw vibes. Having a katana that’s in a shirasaya housing kinda has a sense of austerity.  It can also be bandity (I could afford a blade not not a real housing). The duster is also very western but the pants and boots and glaces are more fitted, modern and stylish. Johnny is a THOUGHT OUT BAG OF TROPES. You can be SUPER DUPER SIMPLE AND TROPEY AND CHEESE BALL and STILL have levels of sophistication and lateralism in your design.

Mara

Megaten games are LITTERED with lateral design. Depicting the Buddhist character of Mara, a representation of self destructive lust and desire as a dick on a chariot?  It’s strange and very direct in it’s symbolism.

Caesar

Caesar is one of my favorite designs for a persona. Like “oh it’s just a roman soldier with a globe” but the man inside, who is basically controlling an anthropomorphized Rome is super interesting. It’s a detail that rewards attention. You can grasp the design at a glance but really looking at those elements really helps. You are REWARDED for putting your eyes Megaten designs, because they are so well thought out. And again, it’s not a COMPLICATED design.

Basilisk

Dark Soul’s basilisks are another great example. From likes to use very literal designs next to very lateral ones.  You can wear “basically real historic armor” vs what is basically a straight forward minotaur demon but then you get shit like this. No interpretation of a basilisk looks anything like this, outside of the vague lizardiness.  The eyes are alarming, the frog like…. sac thing is perfect for communicating that this thing blows a projectile. You can look close at it and see that it as actual real, small eyes and it’s beak looking thing is its actual head. It’s weird and alarming looking while being dorky. The LITERAL thing to do for most monster designs is to make them look as scary as possible, but From is good at realizing that “weird” is unnerving.

2012-09-02_00040Locations and other elements of design can also be lateral. A lot of European board games for example are SUPER lateral (have a theme for a game and then have rules that I GUESS KINDA SORTA ARE LIKE THAT THEME). But Ash Lake is a good example of a location like that. Not an obvious sight for ‘bottom of the world’. The opposite of the very literal ‘abyss’ that is also in the game. I could probably think of a better example, but right now DS is on my mind, so it’s the first place my mind went.

Now before I close up, I want to be clear on a few things…

First: It’s not necessarily important to be lateral or to avoid being literal. Often using these elements in contrast is important! Having a totally typical person in historic full plate with a totally modern SMG is not very lateral for example but the clean juxtaposition of something like that  can be effective (see: Shadow Tower Abyss). But even when you are being literal you should still arrive there in the same way that leads to good lateral design — consider all the elements and why you designed them the way you did. A lot of the BEP characters are not really lateral but they’re elements are considered (little things like ‘try to invoke a football player silhouette’ ‘mix materials intentionally anachronistically’ blahblahblah). And being the game has been in the works for so long, I kinda wish I did some things differently anyways (I might still try and get a sorta redesign of Naomi’s armor since the small resolution of the sprites makes that a think I can get away with). And don’t get me started on ‘lateral color choices’ for limited palette games!

Second: Context matters. Back when no one had made any fighting games, just having KARATE MAN and SUMO MAN was fine. Then SNK tried to do the same thing and everyone was like “bro that’s lame”, leading them to go crazy with their designs to compensate. Bayonetta is very lateral but a lot of witchy stuff has drawn from her design pool, diluting the lateralness of certain elements. If you say “witchy guns” I’m gonna think Bayonetta’s gones at this point, just like if you say ‘energy sword’ I’m going to think of a light saber. ‘Lateral’ changes with the times.

Third: If you like a character, you a design, it doesn’t matter of they’re literal or lateral or whatever. but it’s a.. .potentially interesting way to think about things

Brave Earth: Prologue – Difficulties

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything let me talk about what I’ve been working on lately. Difficulties!

Brave Earth contains 4 different difficulty setting: Beginner, Easy, Standard and Advanced. The difficulties don’t simply change things like the amount of damage you deal or take, but also things like the amount of pushback you receive from being hit, enemy placement and even on Beginner, geometry. So the stated goals of each difficulty go like this.

Standard: To be a complete, fun but challenging experience for the average player with fun but fair enemy placements and a thought out difficulty curve. Intended to be the first difficulty, even for players familiar with the genre.

Easy: To provide a gentler game experience for gamers who are perhaps a bit lacking on platformer experience. Some hairy situations have changed or removed enemies. The goal is to make the game easier without insulting the player and to provide a gentler difficulty curve, with most changes being earlier in the game. Player takes slightly less damage and knockback.

Beginner: To give hope to those with very little experience in general. The goal is to still provide highpoints and difficult situations for the player, just on a much simpler scale. Damage is drastically reduced and the player receives no knockback from enemies. Filler blocks are used to fill in many difficult platforming segments.

Advanced: In advanced, the goal is to add elements to standard to make a more challenging and fresh experience. Difficulty curve is thrown out the window in favor of interesting enemy encounters. Player also receives additional damage and pushback.

Anyways I’ve set up some examples.

normalplatThis is an easy segment from stage one for the player to get introduced to some jumping. There are pits, but the game assumes most people playing this will have some level of platforming experience and don’t need super introductory platforming early on (Their is also a tutorial stage for that).

easyplatBut on Beginner, these holes get filled in to help new players through it. Not every hole is filled in Beginner, but the exposed pits are chosen much more carefully.

I also have an example of enemy placements for one segment…

standard

This is from the middle of Stage 1 and is a difficult segment for new players. The Zweihander soldiers are real jerks and the bandit enemies come from both directions. The player can trick the second zweihander soldier (a doppelsoldner, for the record) into the pit to spare themselves a difficult encounter.

easy

Easy has a small but significant change. The first Doppelsoldner is replaced with an archer, who still provides a challenge in this situation but is less overwhelming. With that and reduced damage, this section is slightly more managable.

beginner

Beginner has a significant reduction of enemies, removing bandits who ambush from the above and rear. The bottom encounter is completely changed — a mad bomber over flat terrain. Challenging, but with the player’s reduced damage, not a real threat, hopefully providing some fun. The hole has also been filled up.

advanced

Advanced is… tricky. Two archers have been added. Archers below you can fire up to hit you, so now the player has to dodge the lower archer while dealing with bandits above and both Dopplesoldners have firecover now. This segment is completely handleable by an experienced player and not so different from encounters found later in the game. In advanced though, it can happen in level 1 because that’s what advanced is for.

So hopefully with these difficulty options I’ll be able to both give a level of accessibility while at the same time providing a good, challenging harder mode for those looking for a challenge.

Tumblr Roundup

Posted a bunch of BE/Game Dev related posts on tumblr recently, so I figured I’d link them here, if only to help me find them later but also to share them.

I’m very active only tumblr so if you’re interested in BE stuff but also don’t mind me mostly posting Evangelion pictures and bad memes, tumblr is a great place to follow me. I’m definitely the most glib and open there. Even more than on twitter. Generally I try and save this blog for real complete thoughts, but sometimes fun content ends up elsewhere. Anyways…

Post about my earliest games (MZX stuff is super proto-BE stuff)

Quick Roundup of Naomi Idle Animations over a Decade

Sprite Making Process

Level Design Process

How to Ask Game Design Question

I saw two posts on a forum that I vaguely sometimes follow (despite my better judgement) that encapsulated a lot of what I see beginning designers do wrong with questioning design. They ask questions like these two… (No offense to these two posters, you just made good examples)

“Do fighting games need chip damage?”

“Are dizzies in fighting games good?”

These topics got good answers and discussions and asking them as is was better than not asking at all, but I believe this is the wrong way to ask these types of questions. The question shouldn’t be if something needs something — nothing needs anything (okay not strictly true, but whatever). Good is intensely subjective. The question should more be along the lines of…

Why do fighting games have chip damage? What does chip damage DO?

This is step one for any other question! “Oh, chip damage forces people to act rather than block forever (usually against keep away characters) in situations where throws aren’t a threat.” yeah you could say more about what chip damage does, but this works here. From here you can ask the other two questions! Is this good? Well doing nothing in a game about doing stuff is one of those things that is usually bad, so nah, this is good. But you can imagine situations where this question isn’t cut and dry. For example “This mechanic rewards players with higher APMs in RTSs”. Depending on who you ask you’ll hear differing opinions on whether thats a good feature for a game to have . The goals of the designer and of the game will decide if that is good.

And now you can look at “do they need this” in a meaningful way. Do you want to support those features in a 2d game with distance zoners? No? Well maybe you don’t need it. But at the same time, it is my understanding (though this is an area outside of my expertise) that most 3d fighters have chip damage on everything (And soul calibur 5 might even have it on throw breaks? Not sure). Those games, due to the timing and recovery of attacks, usually have more risks associated with attacking (since you can more easily be punished). so chip damage is another way to help force action and allow players benefits from using the longer attack string sequences 3d games are designed with. Okay. But lets say you hate chip damage! You can replace it with stuff! Guard breaks, intense meter gain for the attacker, a Guilty Gear style RISC bar (GG still has chip damage but I’d say it doesn’t NEEEEEED chip damage. Even if it benefits from having it). You can do a bunch of stuff I’m probably not thinking of. But you have some idea the shape of the design piece you’re taking out of the game design puzzle and what you’d have to replace it with for things to work.

You can get good answers from a poorly framed question and bad answers from a well framed question, but asking the well framed question helps you more likely get the information you need and frames things in your mind to tackle the issue in a more thoughtful and useful way.

Brave Earth: Prologue Update!

Its been almost a year since I wrote an update. Might start posting more too as things get closer (NOT CLOSE, CLOSER) to potential release.

I’ve made a lot of progress on smaller stuff that really helps the game come off as ‘a game’ and not a distant dream. So what do we got?

Saves Games

Saves!

Obviously BEP was going to have saves, but having the system in place and having progress saved did wonders for how I felt about the state of the game. Yes, you have to enter names with your controller, no keyboard inputs. :P

Oh also the menu options are probably close to settled. I had a whole bunch early on but now things are way simpler and mostly focused on visual options.

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I might have more ‘retro’ options in the future but Construct’s shader support is a pain. Still, if anyone ever bothers to make a great CC shader for emulating retro stuff, I’d put it in as an option. I don’t care too much about this stuff, personally, so I’m not going to bother writing anything crazy about it. But still, lazy scanlines, yay.

Button config has some recommendations now too!

recommended

BEP is, like a modern game, hands off with saving. Everytime you hit a checkpoint or die, your progress saves. I played around with suspend saves for quitting mid level, but Construct Classic was not having it one bit. Still, you never need to worry about saving your game. So speaking of progress!

Map Screen

Map1

Yeah there is a map. Originally there was this abstract hub level thing going on that gave me all sorts of anxiety because it was abstract and hard to explain and forced the game into a sorta ‘post retelling’ framework, but… well, now I have an awesome map, game is simplier and awesomer looking at one go.

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The map updates the conditions of the world as your progress. Sweet! Not a big deal, but a nice detail I think.

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The map will also inform you when you unlock characters or extra. Speaking of which, things like the bestiary and other fluffy bonuses are hidden in the world. I figured “kill the enemy to get its entry” was a little silly in a game where you would kill everything at least once getting through it. The book entries are staggered in a way that you can actually find previews of whats to come if on other character’s paths and if you find the books at the right time. There will probably other details too (Like I have a neat continent map that is entirely superfluous but I figure ‘why not’?).

The Hub area still exists as a “Level 0” but it serves a more exploratory, fun purpose and could even be mostly ignored.

library

Here is the Library of the hub level! Sinlen is reading in the back ground. You’ll probably be able to talk to other NPCs there too (Both before and after the game) to sorta get some more plot details if you care about those.

Ugh, a Tutorial I guess

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Totally skippable, but its there and describes mechanics or all the characters. Hooray.

As for stage stuff, here’s the intro to Trevor’s first stage (the last part is unfinished and this is an older build, but all the better. You can see it full and proper when the game is done.

Also here, for the heck of it, heres me messing with indoor lightning effects

So What’s left?

Too much still! About 4ish stages (out of 9 already done), which could definitely take a while. Or it might not. Not all the stages are necessarily going to be massive or have complex bosses. In fact I think I need to throw in a few simpler bosses for my sanity. Cutscenes, which are an issue too. I need to work with Neolucky to get some nice, very reusable assets. That’d make life a lot simpler. There are some extras I want to do but I might cut those and throw them in a patch later. So yeah. Game isn’t dead! I’ve been working on it constantly but often I just don’t wanna update about every little thing. Once it becomes time to put the game on greenlight (I really should do that now, but I don’t wanna bother until I have a trailer and I don’t wanna make a trailer until I have enough cutscenes to also draw from).

So no update on release date don’t even ask me. BUT WE’RE GETTING THERE. This is happening.

Learning from Guilty Gear XRD’s Story Mode

So this might not be “GAME DESIGN omg ludology” game design but this is definitely relevant to actually, you know, making and finishing a game. For those of us who make (or want to make) games with stories, how you go about it in an effective way (both ‘story telling’ effective and resource effective) is a big problem to be solved. While XRD’s Story Mode isn’t really a game in any sense (it’s like a movie/choiceless VN), it does use techniques that would be effective in many 3d games… and even has some overlapping with 2d games.

Now, I didn’t work on this game obviously and there may have been technical problems with some of the things I suggest I’m not aware of, but that isn’t so much the point as it is to figure out, even in theory, how things could be done better so we can learn from it.

Asset Value

One thing to think about when creating assets for a game is “how much is this asset worth”. Not so much the cost of making it (though that is relevant), but how cost effective it is. Super specific tiles for an area that get used once are low value. They can be worthwhile to create set pieces and memorable moments, but they’re not very ‘cost effective’. You need to choose your indulgences carefully. On the other hand, a set of tiles that can be combined in different ways to create different environments are very high value. Bastion shows this — while having only a small handful of actual tile sets, the ability to tint colors and mix up the shards allow for huge variety from a small pool of assets.

Guilty Gear XRD is 3d. While in many cases, ASW has said that 3D was just as time intensive as 2d, 3d assets have higher value. An individual 2d fighting game frame is pretty low value — it can be used only in one context. Sometimes it can be used in 2 (OR EVEN 3 OMG) but for the most part they serve one role and you need a lot of them to make one attack. 3d models and animations are interchangeable. Putting animation on other models allows for costumes variations while different costumes in 2d games is so inefficient it’s almost unheard of. You either have different costumes being different characters, or you’re Noel from Blazblue (and also your redesign is trash).

Models can be put in different contexts too. The value you get out of a good model is very high while the value you get out of a good sprite is low. So a huge advantage for XRD’s storyline is it could use 3d models to create more visually interesting story mode moments. Reusing different animations on different models also allows for things like Sol changing outfits halfway through (to his weird Pachislot costume).

Now this doesn’t just apply to 3d cutscenes. I usually try and consider the value I’ll get out of various cutscene pieces and facial expressions before I make them. 3d might have higher value, but if you’re not working in 3d, the concept is still important and you still need to choose your spots carefully.

Creating Movement

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A big failure of the XRD story mode is how static it is. Now, clearly the story had a lot of content and not nearly as much money to do things ‘perfectly’ but still, many poor, cost neutral choices seemed to be made to contribute to this problem. First is the ‘dialog’ setup. It often switched to your typical “codec” or “Visual novel” setup, with two characters facing off in different sides of the screen with a divider showing the setting/background and a dialog box under it. This setup I feel is awful. First, we are looking at both characters at the same time with no cuts. This creates staticness. This also requires both faces to move and respond at the same time to seem animated. Replacing this with a simple “Shot/Countershot” would have many benefits. You know, that simple thing they do in movies where they cut back and forth between people’s faces when they talk. This removes a static entity from the screen while also creating artificial movement. You also have less time to focus on the staticness of a scene. Think about a lot of anime and how they from simple stills to create movement without animation. You might go “Yeah but I notice that and it makes me sad!” but XRD is worse than THAT.

You can look at something like the Ninja Gaiden 1 intro for an extreme example. It’s basically 2 faces and 2 frames of leg animation plus the big wide shot and you get a TON of movement just by way of fast cuts. NG cutscenes also use a lot of pans and other minor effects to make the best with the little they had. On that topic, stock camera movements would do wonders and make the cutscenes still easily scriptable. You wouldn’t be adding much work for a lot of gain. Mass Effect uses a number of stock camera moves and animations to create the illusion of more content. While a lot of us notice this and get bugged by it, it’s still better than where XRD is. In fact, XRD could do less. Going off the anime example, less extreme movements and stock animation would keep the style while requiring less effort.

GuiltyGear-5Also axe the dialog box. It’s unnecessary and ugly. Treating it like a VN also makes the timing on many shots weird and have weird pauses. You don’t press A to advance so it’s not like it matters much. Kill all that and you get a much more cinematic look without much more effort. Now a lot of that might add up, but setting up that system might save more time elsewhere. Now you got something that looks more like a cheap anime movie which is… not optimal, but an improvement.

Also stop talking during freezeframes of attacks during action scenes that looks so gross. FAST CUT.

ALSO EDIT THE DAMN SCRIPT. The script is bloated. I don’t even mean by storylines — by nature of being a fighting game story it HAS to be bloated and include everyone. That said, there is a crazy amount of redundant dialog. You have to record that dialog in two different languages and script it, even though it adds almost nothing. Lots of cuts would improve the pace not only over the overall story, but (and more relevant to this topic) make us linger less on reused shots and environments.

Make Only What You Have To

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XRD’s story mode makes good use of billboards to create simple environments. This is nice because it’s like matte backgrounds in animation, but more flexible and you can sometimes get a few different angles out of one asset. You can also see which characters are drawn and which are models. Things like the Illyium soldiers get models because they allow for a great false sense of scale. Stuff like Chipp’s Ninja Phone Operator get a drawing because… well… Come on. The only real indulgence here seems to be models for the whole Jellyfish Pirate crew, but they’ll probably get mileage in the long run.

Some whole scenes are done with still drawings. This is a reasonable time saving measure that suffers only from the fact they go on for too long and dwell on the staticness for too long. Stuff like the Ken Burns effect can also be used to stretch some mileage out of those shots.

Of course you should invest when it counts. XRD definitely puts some time into its cinematics for certain parts. The climax plays off pretty well too. There still isn’t a lot of animation, but great use of camera helps a lot to create many memorable cinematic sequences. Definitely have to know when to indulge and overdo things or make one-shot animations that make the story memorable. Basically invest in your story beats.

Quick Summary

Make assets that can be used in multiple ways to get the most value out of your time. Make use of the camera, either 2d or 3d, to create motion and make shots more dynamic and engaging. Question if you are putting your work in the best light. Both cut corners and invest where you can to create a sense of scale. Both are applicable in different situations and identifying which is which is important.

Not included in the above, but relevant — if you’re working with cutscenes, think about movies, animation and film. ESPECIALLY animation and ESPECIALLY anime. Why anime? Because anime is done so hardcore on the cheap that almost everything made can help teach you how to cheat. CHEAT CHEAT CHEAT CHEAT and make more with less.

More direct comments on XRD’s story that isn’t relevant to the above but might still be interesting?

  • The assassin’s guild really feels like 3/4 people fucking around in the woods and that’s awful. Nothing is done to make it seem like a larger organization. For all we know, Slayer, Venom and Millia are all weirdass LARPers.
  • A big issue is there is very few ‘action’ scenes. Not fighting scenes, but scene where an action is taking place. We’re cycling through points of exposition and random dialog. Very little in the way of arriving, leaving, interacting, etcetcetc. The moments where that does happen flow better and benefited the story mode. More establishing shots would have definitely added cost, but would have made things a lot nicer.
  • Game used a lot of running scenes. Those worked pretty good for making motion!
  • Zepp had a LOT of random backgrounds and setpieces for the amount of screentime it had. Though we never saw the city proper.
  • Dr. Paradigm was on point.
  • TOO MANY MUSICAL CUES they got old so fucking fast
  • Elphelt’s breasts have twean frames when nothing else really does and it’s weird!
  • Sin is less obnoxious in this game than GG2 because now he more clearly looks like a god damned nerd and it just… fits better.
  • Oh my god Justice out of armor looks awesome.
  • I love when Ky got fucking shot that was amazing like fuck Bandit Revolver, Ky got Revolver Revolvered.
  • Leo looks like a total badass.
  • Gabriel seems like a Giant Robo OVA character
  • Where the fuck is Potemkin
  • Story mode made me like Faust more. So chill and helpful for a man with a bag on his head.
  • Pachislot outfits are in full force with Sol’s second outfit and Dizzy. Johnny doesn’t have a beard though and I’m glad. Where the fuck is my Johnny DLC?
  • I hate Ramlethal’s design like they couldn’t decide if she was a loli or this big meaty badass woman and she ends up somewhere in between and that makes me sad.
  • Chipp is a motherfucking President. Of Ninjas.
  • The storymode made me somehow not hate Bedman
  • Sol tries to talk out his feelings with Elph. When it doesn’t work, he punches a lot and that somehow works. I respect that.

Telling a Joke through Level Design

I was watching some Extra Credits recently and got to the episode on Comedic Games. It correctly talks about a few things — how much funny games are not funny in their game bits — they’re funny in writing or in cutscenes or whatever. They then talk about how it’s hard because comedy is driven by timing and wonders how we could rethink how we do comedy in games. He then goes on for the rest of episodes about how glitches are funny ( and they ARE funny ). All while I’m just sitting there thinking “BUT WE KNOW THIS. WE DO THIS. WE’RE NOT THE BEST AT IT, BUT WE ACTUALLY DO THIS ALL THE TIME”

I would have loved IWBTG to be talked about but it could have been anything. It could have been Kaizo Mario, a romhack made up of what are basically challenging mechanics jokes. The so called “kaizo block” is a mechanical joke. It is subversive in numerous ways, It is a betrayal of trust. It is turning a positive secret into a death trap. It turns a simple jump into a puzzle. It’s also not a one off sudden slapstick gag. This is a joke that can be told with timing. Remember, comedic timing isn’t about “timing”. Humor isn’t a fighting game combo. Comedic timing is about psychology. It’s about anticipation, or misdirection or number of other components. The jump in the classic Kaizo Block trap is MISDIRECTION. You are putting the players focus somewhere else to solve a different problem. This is a real comedic setup. The state of a person right after making a jump, mentally, is about as predictable as one could ever hope for in comedy. The kaizo block then hits, right at those crucial, weak, post jump input moments. The Mario death music is practically a rimshot here, rubbing it in the players face. It’s a full featured, if short, joke.

Or I can talk about IWBTG. IWBTG’s long jokes generally function in sets of 3 (a common number in comedy). The first screen of IWBTG shows this. You walk off the ledge, you hear a suspicious click, a barrier closes above you and, after a slight delay, a big crushing spike wall slams into you with a horrible, grating loud sound. So that’s a mini joke — not particularly clever, but the elements are there. You then figure it out, go to the second floor and go “Ahah! Can’t fool me twice!”. The 2nd rep in a 3 part joke like this is to establish a pattern. It doesn’t need to be pure repetition like it is here, but it still needs to generally contrast the punchline. So the player gets past the second spike platform with no problem. Then they drop down, do the same with the 3rd and get splattered. That’s a 3 stage joke. Of course all this work leads up to the joke of falling into the horrible spike room and dying, but this isn’t a 4 stage joke because the spike room is modular and could come after any real frustrating segment. Also worth saying real quick that there seems to be a lot of humor in delaying game over music just a little. Works for IWBTG games and Mario Romhacks at least.

But okay more IWBTG stuff. The Delicious Fruit room. First fruit is a mini joke. Fruit generally is not thought about as a hazard and some early players (before IWBTG got it’s reputation) would jump into them wondering if they were a pickup. Subversion of expectations is probably the easiest form of videogame humor especially with how much visual language we have with them. Anyways the second part of the joke is clearing out the apples. The player knows what to do and while there are a few headaches, he’ll make it through. In his feelings of victory will be dashed as soon as he jumped and get hits by an upward flying apple. That sequence also has another joke I love. After doing the upper path, the player sees one unfortunately placed apple at the very end. A lot of players will try and bait it out, but it seems very stubborn. The player knows not to trust anything at this point and eventually have to make that jump with and just cross their fingers… and the apple falls down instead of up at them.

A lot of humor in games happen when we take away control from the player in games, but it can be funny when we comedically give them back. The parachute gag is a long build up — a heroic glide in to the stage on a parachute, with awesome music and parallaxing layers and stuff and it’s all cool and the ground is coming up and BAM you are released a few feet away from ground and you fall unceremoniously into the water and die AND forcing you to do the long fly in a game. It’s an obnoxious joke and sometimes people complain about it, but I love it. The repeated waits really sell the gag and, by initially taking control away from the player, you can build your joke however you want, only to drop them, with full control, into the punchline.

My favorite and last trap is in Gaiden — Stage 1-2. After a series of difficult swings, the player is running through a row of crushers. When they finally get to solid ground, they are met with a pit with two spikes over it and a save point on the other side. The swings earlier build up the stakes (don’t wanna do it again) and the crushers build up the tension. The two spikes stop the player from jumping clean across. It would be an easy jump, but one does not simply trust spikes to simply be spikes in IWBTG. Almost all players at this point pause to get their bearings and prepare for the jump. After a few moments of preparing the floor shoots up on hydraulics and smashes The Lad into the ceiling. This is one of those traps (like the tombstone after the Spike Corridor) that just destroys people. For maximum comedic effect, it is important that the floor does NOT come up right away. The player needs enough time to relax just a little and lower their defenses. It’s almost like the Kaizo Block setup only instead of punching them during their commitment, you punch them during their preparation (which you can predict due to the previous crusher segment). The two spikes that make them pause do absolutely nothing…. well, besides making them fall for the real trap. Misdirection is a POWERFUL.

I find there to be a similarity between comedy in magic. Performance arts with a lot of emphasis on timing and pacing… but magic is interactive. Even when no one directly taking part of a trick, the audience is scrutinizing the performer and trying to see through them. The magician on the other hand employs misdirection to control them. Misdirection works in comedy, but isn’t essential like it is in games. I feel like good game jokes need lots of misdirection because it’s one of the best ways to control and setup an active participant. Once you’re cleverly controlling the player, you can do all sorts of stuff! The problem isn’t too hard — we have basically all the answers we need to tell real “game jokes” and are doing it RIGHT NOW. We just need to get better at it and get more creative and try and have more variety (more ways to be funny WITHOUT killing the player?).