Category Archives: Design

Self-Competing and Time Blocking

Daniel Ahmad, writing on his new ZhugeEX Patreon blog (paywall):

This trend isn’t going anywhere right now but it is important to note that only a set number of service games can be successful each year. There is a danger of over saturation or poorer sales from self-competing games. We’re not quite at the point where this is a real danger but it does mean that games need to have higher production values and enough differentiation within one of the top super genre’s to be successful. This is probably something to watch out for at the end of the generation.

First and foremost, for my dollar, Daniel Ahmad is absolutely crushing video games industry analysis. He’s a great follow on Twitter (@ZhugeEX) and his efforts are well-worth supporting via his Patreon.

Now, I’ve been meaning/trying to write about an idea that self-competing games use game length as a means for competing. That is, the length and release date of a game can block the sale of another similar game with a proximal release date. I’ve struggled to put together a theory that these proposed “time blocking” tactics are meaningful, coincidental, or off-base:

  • Meaningful – Publisher X purposefully schedules release date of Game X against the release date of Game Y. (I find this hard to believe due to the large lead times and estimations required for AAA games.)
  • Coincidental – Publisher X and Publisher Y happen to schedule releases for Game X and Game Y around the same time. (More likely, but rings a bit too innocent.)
  • Off-base – There are so many massive, feature-rich games released that, like TV series and books, there will inevitably be overlap in release dates.

The latest example of this “time blocking” tactic occurred around March 2017. Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were released three days apart (Feb 28 and Mar 3) and clock in at an average of 45.5 and 72.5 hours respectively. (HowLongToBeat.com) Both games were followed up by Mass Effect: Andromeda (61.5 hours) and Persona 5 (102 hours!) within a month’s time.

One could make the observation that the hours necessary to experience these games as intended puts them on a closer par with a modern television series. (As of this post, there are roughly 55 hours of Game of Thrones episodes, 72 hours of Mad Men, etc.) So, with customers’ appetites for feature-rich gameplay experiences, maybe my concept of “time blocking” is off-base. However, I like to believe that this “appetite” doesn’t actually exist.

I’m currently 50+ hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and only 3/5 of the way through the main quest. No doubt that it’s an incredible experience with it’s unparalleled physics-based sandbox, wide-open exploration, and stunning art style. But for me, 50+ hours is an immense amount of a time to spend with a single game. Unlike a TV series, most of the 50+ hours I’ve spent with Breath of the Wild have consisted of wandering a vast landscape, retracing my steps, or banging my head against puzzles. It’s a fantastic escape of exploration, but I can’t help but think 30 or 40 hours to complete would have felt sufficient.

As a developer, I would certainly want my audience to experience my art and efforts for as long as possible. And as a publisher, I would want to players to adopt an affinity for my franchise over another. But as a player, it’s hard not to feel that the release dates of similarly massive titles, or “self-competing” games, are beginning to overlap. And this overlap has reached a point that players must now choose which experience will block another.

Nicalis: Switch development is ‘light years ahead of what we were doing with Wii U’

Tyrone Rodriguez, the president of Nicalis, speaking to Polygon about developing for Nintendo platforms:

“The Switch is, by far the easiest and most programmer friendly so far,” he said. “I know this sounds like lip service to Nintendo, but it’s actually not. If this wasn’t true, we wouldn’t be able to get these games up and running as quickly as we have, and we wouldn’t be able to have a launch title. It’s light years ahead of what we were doing with Wii U.”

Nicalis has developed 18 games, eight of which shipped to Nintendo platforms—all eight to 3DS, two of which hit Wii U.

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Jose Otero, IGN: ‘Attaching and detaching [Joy-Con] from the [Switch] is satisfying to the point that it’s almost addictive’

Jose Otero, IGN, timestamp 3:11:

Outside of the tiny face buttons, the analog sticks, digital triggers, and shoulder buttons feel solid and well made.

The Joy-Con are surprisingly comfortable and versatile in the hand too. And attaching and detaching them from the console is satisfying to the point that it’s almost addictive.

I remember feeling satisfaction attaching and detaching Controller and Rumble Paks from the Nintendo 64 controller’s expansion port.

I can’t wait to get my hands on this thing.

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Nintendo: Amusement Provider

Takashi Mochizuki, The Wall Street Journal:

Rivals were pursuing high-end games with ever-greater technical sophistication. “We looked back at what Nintendo has done, and when you think about it, it’s really been an amusement provider,” Mr. Koizumi said. The Switch’s concept of playing games anywhere with anyone was born.

“When the concept was set, most of the Switch’s basics came together quickly,” he said. “Things like, you have to be able to take the controller outside, and you’ll need two of them.”

The 48-year-old Mr. Koizumi, who has participated in making titles in popular Nintendo series such as “The Legend of Zelda” and Mario, said one of the first decisions was to attach the two controllers to the console, making a self-contained unit that can be taken anywhere for two-person play.

“You could go out with a hand-held game device, but you can’t play with others if they don’t have the same device,” he said. “We wanted to provide people with more options to play games.”

Mochizuki has done a nice job extracting a top-level perspective of the Switch from his interview with Yoshiaki Koizumi.

Between Fils-Aimé’s comment about consuming Nintendo IP and Koizumi’s amusement provider bit, Nintendo has circled the identity wagons.

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The Switch is a home console. The Switch is a “home” console. The Switch is a “home” console?

Chaim Gartenberg reporting for The Verge:

Storage-wise, the Switch includes 32GB of onboard memory, which feels dramatically low in today’s age of 500GB and 1TB Xbox Ones and PS4s, especially with the modern focus on downloadable titles. However, storage can be expanded through the use of microSD cards. Games for the Switch will come on physical GameCards, which may help alleviate the console’s onboard storage space by offloading most of the storage requirements for each game to the individual GameCards.

Lastly, the Switch can connect to the internet through an 802.11ac Wi-Fi connection, with the ability to connect to up to eight Switch consoles at once for local multiplayer. Additionally, the Switch will be able to connect using Ethernet using a USB LAN adaptor with the dock.

I keep needing to remind myself that the Switch is a “home” console you can take with you. That is the dream.

But the fact that the dock does little outside of charging and video output, not to mention the need for a USB LAN adaptor for an Ethernet connection, begs the question, “can Nintendo keep up with this ‘home’ console marketing push?”

The Switch is a powerful tablet with novel input devices. Curious to see how many players use it while docked. Also curious to see if developers cater to battery life over fidelity and performance.

UPDATE: Nintendo’s UK website now lists the Switch’s technical specifications, confirming separate wired LAN adapter:

Communication features

Wireless LAN (IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac compliant) / Bluetooth 4.1 (TV mode only. A wired LAN connection is possible through the use of a commercially available wired LAN adapter.)

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How the inventor of Mario designs a game

The explainer people at Vox put together a nice distillation of Shigeru Miyamoto’s design philosophy:

I imagine this interview was filmed during Miyamoto’s monstrous press tour for Super Mario Run. Love the inclusion of beautiful animations and archival footage by Vox’s team.

For more on the design of World 1-1, watch Dan Emmons’ breakdown ‘Level 1-1 – How Super Mario Mastered Level Design‘.

For more about the business side of Nintendo, read ‘Console Wars‘ by Blake J. Harris.

For more about his characters and Super Mario Run, watch/listen to Miyamoto’s interview with Katie Linendoll at Apple SoHo.

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Ben Thompson: “What Nintendo is doubling down on is controllers”

Ben Thompson, in his latest weekly free Stratechery piece, “Surface Studio, Nintendo Switch, and Niche Strategies”:

What Nintendo is doubling down on is controllers, another smart move. I argued in 2014 that controllers are so important to the user experience of consoles that they will hold off general purpose devices like Apple TVs when it comes to living room gaming; Nintendo’s bet is that they can attract gamers who want mobility by offering high fidelity control that smartphones can not4.

First and foremost, you should subscribe to Ben’s Daily Update. $10 per month gets you the best business/technology analysis out there.

Second, Ben’s observation is something I should have realized and mentioned in my “Nintendo Switch and Parents” piece. As a reminder, I wrote the following, emphasis just now added:

Enter the Nintendo Switch. A dedicated seemingly state-of-the-art-ish portable/home console multiplayer-ready uncompromised gaming device, surely ready for YouTube when on wifi (an optional data plan would be even better), by the greatest game designers on the planet, Nintendo.

By uncompromised, I was eluding to those features we consider critical to console gaming: power, fidelity, and breadth. One item that skipped my thought was physical controllers. Because physical controllers have been a staple of console gaming since the beginning, it was easy to overlook. But the importance of Nintendo doubling-down on physical controllers for the Switch, seemingly ignoring touchscreen capabilities based on the Switch trailer (however, patents may reveal otherwise), cements the vision, nay dream of portable console-level gaming.

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Nintendo Switch and Parents

Parents surrender their phones and tablets to their children. E.g. child clamours for device—iPhone, iPad, or otherwise—the parent surrenders said device to child. Child commences gaming and/or YouTube.

This is anecdotal, of course. My wife and I have no children. But we’ve seen this time and time again with friends and family.

And if it’s not the guardian’s own device, it’s a separate device dedicated to gaming and/or YouTube for the child.

From the POV of a parent, wouldn’t it be nice to keep your device on your own person?

From the POV of a child, wouldn’t it be nice to have your own device dedicated for gaming/YouTube without the other unnecessary calendar/email/messages/etc apps?

Enter the Nintendo Switch. A dedicated seemingly state-of-the-art-ish portable/home console multiplayer-ready uncompromised gaming device, surely ready for YouTube when on wifi (an optional data plan would be even better), by the greatest game designers on the planet, Nintendo.

While none of the talent in the trailer appear to be under the age of 20—even donning red cups at a rooftop party!—the Switch could be a game changer for the household.

Of course, it will come down to Nintendo’s ability to attract third-party devs—a feat they have struggled with since the Nintendo 64. And not just any third-party titles, but titles outside of Nintendo’s own legacy: education, infants, toddlers, etc. Lock down the third-parties with simple development and distribution, and (price willing) the Switch will be a boon for parents and children alike.

Children: here’s a device for the things you care about.

Parents: take your devices back.

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Nintendo 64 and Avoiding ‘Sequelitis’

Sam Machkoveh, Ars Technica:

Perhaps most notably, this was the last console on which Nintendo could rehash its older characters and series without fielding non-stop complaints about “sequelitis.” The console’s best first-party games were mostly sequels—Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Mario Kart 64, Star Fox 64, F-Zero X, even Wave Race 64 and Excitebike 64—and yet all of them felt incredibly new thanks to their steps up to fully 3D engines. Nintendo had been a purely 2D game-making company for nearly a decade, yet it somehow pulled off the transition to 3D gaming in pretty much every way that Sega flubbed its own total overhaul.

Yours truly, in a November 2014 post titled Iterative vs. Redesigned Experiences:

If the doomsayers are correct and Nintendo’s failure is eminent, redesigns are going to be required to prevent it. So far, the majority of first-party titles on Wii U are iterative: Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. Wii U, Super Mario 3D World, Pikmin 3, Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze. While not every redesign has worked in Nintendo’s favor (I’m looking at you, Star Fox Adventures…), they are at the very least refreshing. This is another reason why I think Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is genius; while it’s not a new take on a old classic (because there is no old classic!), it’s a new perspective from the Mushroom Kingdom. Until then, it’s back to smashing and karting.

Pokémon Go was the most recent example of a redesigned rather than iterative experience. Real-world Pokémon is an experience many fans have yearned for since the days of Red and Blue (or Green). Nintendo’s decision to make Niantic, Inc.’s Ingress a venue for real-world Pokémon was not only brilliant, but for a company that’s built their namesake on changing our perspectives, hidden-in-plain-sight.

With surprise experiences like Pokémon Go and Nintendo’s further foray into the new terrian of smartphone hardware, we are sure to see at least a handful of  redesigned experiences on mobile. With the NX, my hopes are not so high. But if anyone can reimagine the console experience, it’s Nintendo.

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Disneyvania

The release and my playthrough of The Witness happened to coincide with a ramp-up in my video game podcast consumption. (Maybe not so much a coincidence than a subconscious attempt to glean a hints from podcasters.) Through this, I came across a couple of keen observations of the game’s design that I had not considered:

Idle Thumbs, ep 248, 14:55:

Jake Rodkin: It uses so many rules of Disneyland-esque design and video game level design to make it easy to navigate, but it’s not built assuming there’s that huge framework of video game messaging beneath it.

Chris Remo: That Disneyland thing is a good comparison. Video game designers have often—for good reason—and accurately pointed to Disneyland as a really useful design touchstone. Not for the experience of the rides themselves, but for the design of the actual park.

JR: Disneyland is the closest we have in real life to a constructed open-world level.

CR: Areas are connected where there’s an intuitive sense of structure, but when you’re in any given place, it feels like it’s entirely enveloping you.

JR: Until you come around a corner and then the foliage and architecture perfectly frames on a sightline – spire that is in a waypoint to a different land of the park.

CR: And The Witness is totally like that.

I completely agree. The Idle Thumbs crew may also have unraveled a core reason why I loved Myst so much. And quite possibly why I love Disneyland so much.

Jared Petty on IGN’s Game Scoop!, ep 376, 3:27:

This is a secret Metroidvania game. In a Metroid game, you get to an area. You can’t get far. You go off to a different area. You find a power-up. (In this case, the power-ups are not items you find in the game. It’s the knowledge that you gain through working out a different set of puzzles.) You get frustrated. You go off to a different area. You learn something. You come back. Boom! You get through.

Sometimes you can “bomb-jump” your way around it by figuring out something by being clever that you got a little ahead of. Or a little more doggedness or experimentation. It’s a neat game.

A very neat game.

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