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.

3 thoughts on “Learning from Guilty Gear XRD’s Story Mode

  1. I’m inspired now. I might even have to use some of the cheats to get my projects in on time at school, lol.

  2. Great article! I like how you break down the concepts of asset value and cost efficiency in such a simple and easy to understand way. I teach at a vocational school for game development, and this is something that a lot of my students struggle to grasp (or even consider), even though it’s really one of the most important aspects to take into account when figuring out what to make and how to make it.

    Going the extra mile to make the most of what you have is a great tool that really can benefit a game production of any scale.

  3. Yeah, me and my cutscene artist have been chatting, trying to figure out which character shots would be the best for cutscenes in terms of reusability. It’s such a fine line, but people are usually waaaay too far on one side or the other (either making lots of ‘low value’ assets or relying on certain assets to the point in which everything blends together).

    Anyways it’s cool to get such feedback from someone actually in the realm of teaching games! Makes me feel fuzzy and shit. :)

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