That Video of that Journalist Failing at Cuphead

Watch the first minute and a half of this. Have a laugh! It’s okay to laugh! It’s pretty painful to watch. You’re getting a glimpse into how it feels to be a game designer watching playtesters.

So we all on the same page? Alright. So there has been a lot of discussion about this video online and I’ve been spouting off thoughts on twitter and I feel like I have enough to put them all down in one place. First, the boring one for me.

Don’t Games Journalists need to be Good at Games?

No. Absolutely not. “But if someone was bad at understanding movies or only watched kids movies, would you want them to review stuff?” Not the same thing. It’d be like saying only people who played in the NFL could comment on and critique NFL play. Which some people say, but most people agree is stupid. Knowledge and expertise do not necessarily imply skill. Also the consumer of game reviews are not necessarily great videogame players. For the average gamer, the opinion of an expert is just as far from their perspective as a poor player. Even with levels of play THIS poor, it’s important to remember that Platformer skill is a niche skill these days and nothing I’ve heard indicated that the player wrote a review or anything based off this. A journalist was just bad at a game. If you made me say, play a moba or a console FPS, I’d look like a jackass too, probably. Maybe not as much of one, but still. Maybe you don’t want someone who’s bad at a genre to review a genre (unless that’s the point of the review) but that isn’t the discussion people are having.

Not only is it okay, it’s BENEFICIAL. If every reviewer was good at games, whole areas of concern and accessibility would go completely unaddressed. More voices give more variety and more insight. You can argue about how those voices are used or w/e but they should absolutely exist. It’d be like saying ‘only great players should test games’ which is obviously absurd.

On Testing, and on the Game Design Perspective

So while everyone on twitter was burying this guy for being awful, pretty much every game designer I knew who was talking about it was like “okay but how do we make the TUTORIAL better???”. A lot of non-devs were like “WTH???” because to them it was like “Look this guy is CLEARLY bad and clueless it’s not the game’s fault.”

First things first. Even a complete knucklehead can teach you about your game. Bad players can teach you TONS of stuff. You might be like “Well why fix something to help people through who won’t be good at the game anyways?” because yeah, perhaps this guy wouldn’t be able to get far. But improving things like how the tutorial works improves things in little nice ways for everyone.

So what’s wrong with this tutorial?

It’s mixing elements really quickly. You have a dash you haven’t been asked to use yet and you have to jump, dash, and do so off a rock that isn’t a part of this  section but is an obstacle for the last. Also you gotta do this pretty strictly at the peak of your jump. Some people made fun of him dashing into the pillar over and over again but in tons of games that’s actually WHAT YOU DO. Dash into things to break them!

Now most experienced players can figure this out, but if you can make things nice and clean… if it doesn’t take that much more effort, why -wouldn’t- you do it? Some people protested like “Well, it’s not fair to make devs compromise their creative vision for bad players!” Lets ignore the fact that, like I said, most devs were already all about how to make this better, who’s CREATIVE VISION involves a really quick tutorial segment? “JUMPING OFF THE ROCK IS FOUNDATIONAL TO THE MESSAGE OF THE GAME!” I’ll just tell you right now, I don’t know the Cuphead guys and I don’t know if it’ll be different in the final version, but I can tell you it’s not an important part of their vision. But what if it was?

Working on BEP I used to have real old school castlevania jumps. No air control at all. But then I had some friends test it who aren’t that great a platformers. One of them I saw struggling to jump up on things. They’d neutral jump and then try and press forward to get on platforms. And they’d do this over and over again. Pressing forward and jump at the same time from a stand still didn’t come naturally to some players. Walking to and jumping over a pit, sure no problem, but it screwed up their vertical platforming.

Obviously I didn’t want to compromise my vision for my own game but sometimes you gotta ask yourself “What IS your vision?” Was my vision “No jump control?” No. but I definitely wanted a jump that had weight and commitment behind it. I didn’t want the player to be nimble in the air. I wanted a slow, deliberate game. So I built up a jump to fit my needs. I gave the player a strong neutral jump — one where they could change to a forward or a backward jump arc at any time. Which was fun for dealing with projectiles. Then then for the normal jumps, I gave the ability to slow down or speed up a little. Jumps felt like braking while driving a heavy truck. The jump had character, but also fit my goals and ALSO fixed a lot of problems players had. So did I compromise my vision? No, I got a clearer understanding of my vision and executed it. Those changes also allowed for more challenging gameplay in later parts of the game so changing things for accessibility strengthened my vision and benefitted hardcore players in the end.

8 thoughts on “That Video of that Journalist Failing at Cuphead

  1. I need to challenge this point at least a little bit.

    If a game journalist can’t get past a certain point early on in a video game, how will they know if the rest of the game is actually fun?

    Oh wait, this doesn’t typically happen with modern games now does it? Yeah fuck the game industry…No that’s not fair, fuck the people who play games that are idiotically uncomplicated…and then fuck the game industry for logically capitalizing on that! (Yeah that makes sense, sorta).

    I mean I watched the beginning part of the video, and I don’t really disagree with most of what you said. BUT! I do remember an interesting thing I read relating to the first Mario & Luigi game for GBA. For the sake of making my point, I’ll assume any future readers haven’t played that game. I forgot the specifics but a certain reviewer (reviewers? I think it was IGN but I’m not gonna go looking for it) were complaining a LOT about the jump rope minigame that you HAVE to play (and complete) right near the beginning of the game. People were (reasonably) saying in response to that, “I bet they couldn’t actually get past that jump rope mini-game. Which if that was actually the case, means they would NOT have been able to talk about any of the more advanced combat or truly unusual platforming elements that the game introduced. (The former of which gets fairly interesting pretty quickly after that jump rope game)

    I’m pretty sure the review ended up being fairly worthless.

    There’s obviously other implications here, (most of which you already talked about at great length) but since it was a GBA game, its not like they could patch that one part to be easier or anything. (The review was PROBABLY after the game was released to the general public)

    So yeah, IF the game industry does eventually swing back to having “classic” difficulty for most video games, a basic to intermediate level of competence would probably actually be necessary if you want to REVIEW the game properly. I guess it can SLIGHTLY work in reverse too though. If someones “review” basically just says the game is REALLY hard. I personally might think, “huh, maybe I should look into this”. But it wouldn’t necessarily tell me anything constructive beyond that. It wouldn’t tell me if the game evolves in any interesting ways later, or if it stays fun throughout.

    Obviously feedback from bad players can be relevant. But its also inherently less useful by itself. My Mario Maker levels were CLEARLY too difficult for the general player base. But on the flipside, besides mentioning the difficulty, their feedback was 90% worthless… These were random people on the internet, not “professionals” though. That didn’t stop me from making the levels even HARDER… but to be fair, I wasn’t selling them for money. I guess you know about this more than I would though. But I wanted to rant!

  2. So my question when this happened which would change the context is “Did the guy write anything about the game”. And he did write a quick preview — where he said “oh my god I suck at this game here is the video of me sucking at the game but then going out of his way to give as much information as he could. So it was very forward. It’s not like Dean got caught writing something and people found evidence of him being bad in a way that made original article terrible. IT seems like Dean is mostly a tech journalist and hitting Cuphead was probably more a matter of logistics than anything. You don’t get to send your best people to try every game at a convention, there are too many factors (and heck, I’ve experienced this first hand, having journalists who were bad at platforming play and write a quick fluff piece of BEP).

    So I kinda agree with you but this isn’t really that kinda situation.

    As for the Mario Maker stuff, I will say that bad player FOOTAGE is WAAAAAAY more valuable than bad player feedback. Even good player feedback can spotty at times!

  3. I agree that tutorial is not terribly important to artistic integrity or whatever…

    But I think this one is perfectly fine. It was actually succesful at teaching this guy the jump-dash mechanic. He beat the tutorial. Sure, it probably took him longer than you would expect, but two minutes is not terribly long. I think “WTH” reaction is perfectly reasonable in that case, this tutorial really isn’t rocket science.

    I do agree with your general point, but in this particular instance I think the game really didn’t do anything wrong :P

  4. I think the trap to avoid is thinking about this as “the game did something wrong”. Because the tutorial functions. It educates players. But the question is is always “Can I do this better?” and I think that in that tutorial? Yes. You could do a lot better without driving yourself crazy with a ton of work.

    I’m gonna guess the tutorial in the finished game is much different. Not just because of this but because it seems like it was made for the con so I think even they know it’s not the best it can be.

  5. To me, the cringey part isn’t the tutorial (tbh, I’m not certain I’d have done any better on that tutorial; holy crap it’s unclear, and I’d have tried doing a “dash-then-jump” like a dash-jump in Mega Man X), but rather the horrible attempts at the first stage.

    Aside from the obvious reasons why skill should matter (at least for someone reviewing a game — you’d look like an idiot in a console FPS, and I’d look like an idiot in Tekken, and neither of us should be reviewing the games we’d look like idiots in), how does someone who, presumably, has an interest in videogames and thus a wide variety of experience do so poorly in the genre that was the typical pack-in game genre in the 16 bit days, because it was so universal? Hell, aren’t the handheld Marios *still* 2D platformers? If you have little experience with videogames, then what could you write about that would be new or insightful to your audience?

    Also, I don’t feel that “Also the consumer of game reviews are not necessarily great videogame players. For the average gamer, the opinion of an expert is just as far from their perspective as a poor player.” is a very good argument. A gulf of knowledge between the professional critic vs. the average consumer in any medium is going to be just as large as the gap between the average consumer vs. the guy who isn’t into that medium at all. That knowledge pool is exactly why we seek out critics in the first place — to get the opinion and insight of the guy who knows more than us.

  6. I know plenty of people my age who grew up on games from the NES who were never any good at platformers and still aren’t. Doubly true for a lot of older PC gamers. Platforming is -not- a foundational gaming skill (much to my frequent headaches) and goes increasingly less relevant, sadly. And I certainly know people of all ages who, while fans of games, are also bad at them.

    Now remember, no review was ever written, because I’d agree with you on that. But with a preview? It’s surprising, but a lot of journalists who aren’t great at a genre can still manage a good preview (I’ve experienced this first hand with BEP). You don’t need to be good to enjoy a game and you can latch onto things people get excited about. It’s hard to be insightful about a preview because you really can’t be too critical while handling an incomplete product unless something is obviously deeply wrong. And a guy like Dean (Even according to himself) is the ideal preview but can swing it in a situation where he’s the only person at a trade show. While he might lack deep genre insight in this situation, he can still impart first hand information (Because knowledge from journalists isn’t just about expertise, it’s also about access) and write a piece that, while I normally wouldn’t bother reading but did because of all the hubbub going on, was kinda funny and informative. It sufficiently covered the topic while being open and honest.

    I’d also say in my experience, while it doesn’t go as far as people as bad as Dean was in that video, I don’t generally see a ton of correlation between “Skill” and “Insight”. There’s some, but I know tons of people who can be very knowledgable about things they’re not very good at. A gulf of knowledge can exist even if the skill gulf is not quite as high (or maybe even inconsistent). Someone with lower skill but still high insight and knowledge is more likely to write things that will reflect the experiences of average players.

    I don’t want to discredit skill here too much. I don’t think it’s essential to being a games journalist (but if you suck as much as Dean you better have the credentials elsewhere to back it up) but it is VALUABLE and I wish the industry had more money to make sure enough of those people were getting paid to cover things optimally. But there isn’t and I don’t see the video people are getting super mad about being anything to get mad about, even if it wasn’t an optimal situation.

  7. “Don’t Games Journalists need to be Good at Games?

    No. Absolutely not. “But if someone was bad at understanding movies or only watched kids movies, would you want them to review stuff?” Not the same thing. It’d be like saying only people who played in the NFL could comment on and critique NFL play. Which some people say, but most people agree is stupid. Knowledge and expertise do not necessarily imply skill.”

    There is a big difference here between games critique versus NFL critique. We can quantify the expertise of an NFL critic. If we have the critic play some fantasy football we can get numbers indicating how good the critic’s analysis is, even if the critic can’t throw a spiral pass or sprint 100 yards.

    If we were to put a clock on that Cuphead tutorial and had players try to speedrun it, then we could at least get some numbers indicating how readily the players can do the dexterity tests the game asks them to do. Then reviewers could post their time on the tutorial along with their reviews, developers could release the tutorial level as a demo so players’ could get their own times, and players could read reviews from reviewers with similar times in the tutorial. This way players can see what reviewers of a similar skill level to their own thought of a game.

  8. This would be a decent plan outside the fact that almost no one releases demos because they almost universally lose money. Really in general there isn’t enough previews and reviews out there to cover ground well in any consistent way outside of people following people they can know match their tastes and skill well.

    But yes it’s not a perfect analogy but it’s still the idea that you don’t need to be good at a thing to talk about a thing. I feel like without posting the video, Dean could have written a preview and no one would have been the wiser.

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