Tag Archives: design

Traditional Games

Walt Williams in his book ‘Significant Zero’:

A traditional game is a challenge in which a player’s skill comes up again a rigid set of rules. Turn-based strategy, multiplayer death match, platformers—these are traditional. The modern, high-end, blockbuster AAA game is not a skill challenge. If it were, the player might fail and be disappointed, and then we wouldn’t sell as many copies. The rules are fluid. We change them to create tension, surprise, or excitement. Saying yes to the player only goes so far, and that distance is the exact length required to make you feel in control.

Last week, a colleague of mine asked how far I was into Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. I told him that I was in the middle of the fourth (and possibly last) stage — Lava Pit. (For what it’s worth, I had recommended the game to him.) I also told him that playing Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was the most fun I’d had with a video game in a long time. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was great, but the aesthetic doesn’t draw me back. Likewise, Splatoon 2 is lots of fun, but only in casual, Mario Kart-style doses. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battlle has me not only progressing through the main campaign, but backtracking to achieve better, cleaner results in previous battles and optional challenges.

Right now, it seems the “traditional” game is where I find fulfillment. When life feels like a maze, solving simple, zero-stakes problems — in a world you adore — is unbelievably gratifying.

If platformers fit into this bucket, then boy, oh boy am I looking forward to Super Mario Odyssey.

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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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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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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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Porting Primer

Bridging the Generation Gap: Porting Games to New Platforms by Tom Bennet of Polygon.

From remasters to down-ports to cross-platform development, this is a brilliant introduction to the world of video game porting. Audio version read by Dave Tach via Polygon Longform podcast.

Separate from porting, I am ever intrigued by the following:

Commentators have also levelled criticism at the arguably destructive nature of certain re-releases. These titles exist on a spectrum; to use film as an example, there is an obvious difference between Criterion’s restoration work and LucasFilm’s treatment of the Star Wars films.

Cifaldi argues that true remasters — distinct from remakes or reinterpretations — respect the original artistic intent. “If we’re talking about The Last of Us Remastered, we’re talking about 3D assets,” says Cifaldi. “You’re actually going to the original source elements and presenting them in an even cleaner way than before. And I would argue that that is a totally valid approach for that kind of game; it is the equivalent of putting [Star Trek:] The Next Generation on Blu-ray.” [Edit: This paragraph originally omitted the Star Trek reference from Cifaldi’s quote.]

Is there any legitimacy in stating 2D animation is more evergreen than 3D? Are 8 and 16-bit sprites poorer quality 2D animations, or are do they stand in a class all their own? Are there any instances of 3D animation that stand the test of time?

I can look at Mario’s first primitive 8-bit version without any cringing. Mario’s 64-bit likeness on the other hand is rough on the eyes. In the world of cinema, there is no batting an eye to any classic hand-drawn animation. But even with today’s advances CG characters and worlds thread a fine-line between believable and terrible.

I guess what I’m trying to ask is is 2D definitive?

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Buttons

Over the past week or so, I’ve learned that you can play Splatoon with two controllers taped together. I’ve also learned that Batman: Arkham Knight is a sprawling complicated buffet of gaming genres.

While the latter may be less about controls, I’m going to bet a “complicated buffet of gaming genres” would be a whole lot less daunting if I didn’t have 17 input methods on my PS4 to use at a moment’s notice:

  • D-pad (up, down, left, right)
  • Left joystick
  • Right joystick
  • Circle
  • Square
  • Triangle
  • X
  • L1
  • L2
  • L3
  • R1
  • R2
  • R3
  • start
  • options
  • clickable touchpad
  • PS button

After you’re done digesting all of that, take a moment to get to know your Xbox One Wireless Controller.

As Ben Thompson pointed out:

Beyond casuals, this is a problem for returning and often busy players. The fear of returning to a video game after days, weeks, or months of not playing – hell, the fear of picking up any video game to begin with – may stem from the problems above. Tutorials are commonplace in video games. Half the time I forget what the tutorials taught me. But instead of digging through menus for a refresher, I return to button mashing and familiarity for the sake of progress.

I began playing video games with the following inputs:

  • D-pad
  • A
  • B
  • Select
  • Start

Today, most people start with less: A touchscreen. Even with an unabashed fondness for the admittedly hideous and complex Nintendo 64 controller, I’ve taken to iOS games that require simple gestures and brief touches but offer rich experiences.1 (See: Alto’s Adventure, The RoomMonument Valley)

Whether or not Journey can be considered a “game”, it is an award-winning experience that only utilized for 44% of the PS3’s buttons. While all buttons were used in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it did something extremely interesting: Auto-jumping. When I first played the game, I thought it crazy that jumping was defined by the world, not the player. But I got used to it and eventually loved it. It made perfect sense. In a physical world of button fatigue, a virtual world helped establish what was critical to player timing and what was trivial based on surroundings.

I’ve been dipping in and out of Far Cry 4 lately. I haven’t come across a good instance where I should be the one to define when to grapple or it necessary to control the climb mechanism. (Granted I’ve only played for a few hours.) Grappling seems trivial. On the flip-side, Dragon Age: Inquisition controls my use of potions based on programming, default or player defined. Potion use is trivial. Your character needs to be healed, so the game heals you. The player need not press a button.

I certainly have a reverie for the days of 5 inputs. A colleague and I spent time handling an original Game Boy last week, remembering just how comfortable and satisfying the early handheld felt. (The feels and travel of it’s buttons are a thing of beauty.) The more I sit back and think about the backwards oddity of shutting out an extremely large swath of consumers while deterring those who are ripe to purchase but are fatigued and tired of re-learning, the more I picture grandma’s remotes.

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1 UPDATE: Super Mario Run nailed it.

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Online-Only Consoles

Dan Stapleton, IGN:

When Microsoft announced the Xbox One in 2013, it was going to require an always-on internet connection to function. After backlash from gamers and Sony’s gloating proclamation that the PlayStation 4 would play games just fine without the help of the internet, Microsoft backed down and dropped the requirement (except for a one-time console activation). As it turns out, Microsoft’s initial approach was more realistic about the modern reality of how games are made, and what’s effectively required in order to have a reasonably stable experience with a physical copy of a game you buy off the shelf today. Your console will indeed run without a connection, but your disc-based games may not give it much to work with.

This piece started and ended exactly how I wanted it to; picking up with Microsoft’s original (and much maligned) “always-on” strategy, and ending with today’s “always-on” gaming reality.

Ben Kuchera recently spoke with former AAA developer Keith Fuller for this tragicomic piece on the instability of recent AAA titles. In short:

This sort of thing is more common than you think, and it leads to muddled, unfinished and often buggy releases. It’s not a matter of including the kitchen sink; developers are sometimes tasked with adding a hot tub at the last second as the project develops.

Stapleton touches on the fact that patches are blessing, but I seem to remember a time when there weren’t even a reality. Maybe I’m showing nostalgic naivety, but I’m having a very difficult time recalling game-breaking bugs from the pre-PS3/Xbox 360 era. But can today’s AAA, reality-verging games truly exist in a non-patchable world?

Games are more complex than they have ever been. The benefits of more powerful hardware are simply enablers. In 30+ years, we have moved from simple sketches of fantasy to unparalleled productions that now challenge reality. Global resources are required to make today’s video games. That doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the time and resources it takes to generate cutting-edge animations and textures in highly detailed main characters, let alone randomly generated NPCs. I imagine it’s easier to create windblown hair now than five years ago, but nothing compared to the two frames it took in 1988. Just because a console “can” doesn’t make it any easier create.

As an aside, allow this 2011 piece from Gamesradar entertain you: Top 7… horrendously buggy games we loved anyway. Only one of which did not ship on a patchable console. Oh, how I wish Microsoft would have stuck with their original strategy.

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‘Nobody ever says “I don’t care if the music sounds bad.”‘

John Gruber, The Talk Show:

In general, I would rather read an interesting, well-written novel that’s poorly typeset than read a terrible novel that is beautifully typeset. Of course. That’s the difference. Even me as somebody obsessed with typography would agree with that. Whereas with music, nobody ever says “I don’t care if the music sounds bad,” like at a technical level. It’s fundamental to listening to music. But as the person making the device, that should be the obsession.

Relinking similar thoughts about broken video games from Luke Plunkett of Kotaku and myself.

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Monument Valley is Magic

Myke Hurley of Relay FM interviewing Neil McFarland, Director of Games at ustwo:

MH: Visually, Monument Valley’s levels, they focus a lot on optical illusions and trickery. How much more difficult is that to develop for than just creating a straight “go from here to here” type level?

NM: It offers a lot of different challenges. We’re trying to delight people. There is that moment of delight when you turn the Penrose triangle around, you see it for the first time. Something goes from 2D to 3D and you suddenly see a connection that’s not there. It’s magic. For us, it was a drive to see how many of those we could uncover and re-engineering things and playing and trying and failing and getting it right and getting it wrong. It’s not easy but we were following our noses and following intuition and just seeing how many of those moments we could find within the concept.

The software engineering behind video games is still beyond me. Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder just how ustwo were able to engineer Monument Valley’s impossible yet traversable objects on the fly. Magic is right.

Relinking my review of Monument Valley 1.0 here.

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The Making of Lumino City

Brave. Daring. Ambitious. Inspired. Inspiring. Beautiful.

Not twenty minutes before watching this video was I listening to Howard Shore’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey soundtrack, ruminating on what it must have felt like to be involved in such a massive, all-consuming project as The Lord of the Rings film franchise. I often fantasize about working as a builder or set designer on those projects, bringing Tolkien’s Middle-earth to life. Imagining the construction of Lumino City brings about the same thoughts and is far more compelling than the game itself, and boy what an amazing game it looks to be.

State of Play’s Lumino City will be available tomorrow, December 3rd, via Steam for Mac and PC. Official trailer below.

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