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About That Indie Feel pt.2


Mechanics and Interactions

The best way to learn about the interactions in a game is to experiment yourself. In the same way that hitboxes should be designed with the fiction/forms in mind to meet the player half way, so should the actions. Features like buffered inputs, aim assist, and snap-to landing are all examples of tuning mechanics/gameplay. Often times, indie games are programmed very exactly regardless if the action-reaction pair is confusing, frustrating, or misleading. In my game design 101 series, I started by explicating gameplay mechanics (actions). The four categories to evaluate any mechanic is by its dynamic effect on other elements, directness to controller input, individuality of controls design, and intuitiveness

Recall in Super Mario Bros, if you stand just underneath a platform to where part of Mario's hitbox is still underneath, if you JUMP the game will assist you and push you over to the side (see image above). The way this interaction is tuned, when the majority of Mario's body is beyond an obstruction, it's only natural for the momentum/force of the JUMP to carry him up and around the obstruction. Think of it like barely nicking the side of a table. You don't stop dead. Instead, you are pushed off and around. Because Mario's hitbox is literally a box shape instead of a human shape with rounded features, this design features compensates making Mario's interactions with solid objects more intuitive and convincing. 

The same tuning applies when Mario just just barely misses clearing over the top of a structure. Notice that Mario will scoot over the top (see image above). This feature goes a long way in making SMB easier to play and Mario a more convincing character. After all, if you were jumping and you barely come short of a jump, you can expect to perhaps... roll over the top, kick up over the side, or grab onto the ledge. Mario can't grab, so this feature is the next best thing.

Directness is also very important. Depending on the action, repeated actions should require repeated controller inputs. A machine gun can has a button hold for repeated fire, but Mario's JUMP works best as the result of an individual button press. Designing in this way makes each use of the game's primary mechanic intentional and distinct, which helps build a strong connection between the virtual world and the player's intentions. 

Games are packed with complex actions. To learn these actions we must see, feel, and hear them. Just watching Mario slide down against a solid object is not as convincing as seeing him reach out and brace himself. In Super Smash Brothers Melee/Brawl, if you DASH into a wall the characters show it. In Donkey Kong Country Returns, if you fly into a solid surface the Kongs will collide and fall back. In Super Smash Brothers Brawl, if you barely miss a target with an attack a small orange spark will appear along with a faint "chink" sound. This is called glancing blows. This one visual effect gives players one more division to the ruler, so to speak, to measure hitboxes. Now you'll either land a solid hit, a clear miss, or the just barely miss. 

Here's another list:

  • Super Crate Box, Small Worlds: If you hold the JUMP button your character will continually JUMP. This is a common mistake indie games make. The game interactions become especially tricky to suss out when JUMPing up and forward onto higher platforms. Because the mechanic is highly sustained or buffered, you can get two quick JUMPs when you only intended on one. Games are generally more cleanly communicated when they're built upon individual actions that are layered and combined to create challenges.
  • Planet PlatformerThe Company of Myself, and The Unfair Platformer: In these indie game you can hold the JUMP button to repeatedly jump. This takes away from the directness of the button input. Furthermore, there's no variable JUMP height. 
  • Super Meat Boy: There are many unintuitive elements to Meat Boy's mechanics. For example, you can instantly stop when running at max speed, yet when you walk and reverse directions you slide. This violates the concept of inertia. 
  • Shotgun Ninja: In this game you may think the controls are "loose." Perhaps this is because of the unintuitive inertia. When you move on the ground, whether you reverse directions or release all directional buttons you slide to the stop. If you move, jump into the air, then let go of all directional buttons the ninja almost immediately slows to a completely vertical fall. Where does the inertia go? 


Game Speed

The speed at which a game operates (not of frame rate but of action-reactions per unit of time) is an extremely important design choice. Speed affects everything across the skill spectrum. It also affects the ability for the player to comprehend the action of the game as it happens. "Non-stop-action" is actually very stressful and hard to follow. Because of our limited reflexive abilities and limited short term memory capacity, we can only see so much action as it happens in real time. In the same way that games and other forms of art do well with high and low levels of intensity, moments of low action are just as important as high action. 

So when I play games that crank the speed up to 11, I generally do not agree with the decision. I much prefer the slower action of RE5/Halo to COD4 or Team Fortress. I prefer the cleanliness of Brawl to Melee. I like the action of the Zelda series' combat better than Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry.

For those who think that turning up a game's speed increases the skill of play, it doesn't (necessarily). I've explained the entire complex situation here near the end of my "an examination of skill" series. To recap, the faster the game speed dexterity, reflex, and timing skills generally decrease while adaptation gets reduced to a lot of guesswork and frantic actions. To compensate, players use their thorough knowledge of a game system to augment the other skills. Instead of reacting to the on screen presentation players see more and more of the game ahead of time in their heads. For example instead of failing dexterity challenges (like precise, high speed aiming) players learn strategies that require less dexterity. In an FPS these strategies may involve shooting early or aiming in the space opponents are likely to run into. So the idea is, the level is skill remains constant (to a certain degree). The only thing that the increased speed does is shift the skill spectrum stressing knowledge skills even more.

The problem with this is that video game complexities are varied and specific. Each rule of the game must be learned individually. And because learning/memorizing is a very slow and mysterious process, fast pace games can create a significant skill barriers. So, assuming the skill level is the same for a moderate versus a fast paced game, then this is really an issue of balance. With a more well rounded skill spectrum, players can use a variety of skills to help them learn and operate within the game system. The more players can use their dexterity, adaptation, reflex, and timing skills without taxing much of their knowledge skills the more engaging and the more clearly the game actions are communicated. Furthermore, the player can stay in the flow zone easier. More on that later. 

When Mario gets hurt or grabs a powerup the game pauses giving the player a moment to breath and analyze the action. Otherwise, Super Mario Brothers is a game of moderate speed. To increase the speed of player, you're free to use the RUN mechanic. 

Game speed in this sense also applies to mechanics design. For example, in a paltformer if the character movement is very fast, even with no other moving elements the platforming gameplay tends to be fast paced. Likewise, mechanics that have very quick animations cycles or that cancel into other moves can increase the speed of a game. 

Indie games with speed issues:

  • Super Meat Boy: I know that Meat Boy is the speed character, but the air control in this game is extremely high. Just tap forward and run in some cases, and Meat Boy will rocket off. Coupled with the fast falling speed and the gameplay becomes heavily stressed. So if there was a small design issue before (like hitboxes or mechanics), it becomes a bigger issue at high speeds.
  • Super Crate Box: I like the speed of this game overall, but there are times when it's very difficult to see the interactions because of the fast movement speed of the player character and some enemies. Even if the game speed were slowed, the game would still maintain non stop action. 
  • FlyWrench: In this game you move fast and die fast. Before you know it, you can die, respawn, and die again. Of course you can get used to it. Perhaps the game isn't manageable/fun until you do. 


« About That Indie Feel pt.3 | Main | About That Indie Feel pt.1 »

Reader Comments (5)

Ah I really like this post. I especially like your discussion on game speed. I am very much in agreement with your tastes; I often find the excessive speed unnecessary or even detrimental in videogames. Even games I play a lot of, like StarCraft II and Super Street Fighter II HD Remix, I believe are actually too fast at their 'default' speeds - which are the only real ones you can play at if you want any varied competition. Now, in SFII, my knowledge skills can compensate as you describe, but at StarCraft II, far less so! I also feel that both these games (and many others) really lose out on potential playerbase due to their speed.

Of course if you want to make an exclusive "e-sport" title, perhaps primarily aimed towards having lots of spectators rather than lots of participants, then perhaps you want to crank the speed up for a variety of reasons, but, I still personally have my doubts that the positives outweigh the negatives, even for spectators. A big part of the problem is that the actual 'hardcore' fan base of these kinds of titles generally loves speed and wants more of it - and generally they cannot see the reason why anyone would want to slow it down. So generally it seems there's no hope of even the developers doing that kind of thing, as they dare not risk alienate their niche.

You also reminded me of this post I also liked:
It's funny because his description is very close to why (even as a fighting game player) I detested SMB when I played it for about 2 minutes (my only experience with it!).

January 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRik Newman (Remy77077)

@ Rik Newman

"Rik Newman has joined your party!"

Good, insightful comment.

Interesting article you linked to. That's a blog I'll have to read more of.

Speed generally creates or increases a knowledge based learning barrier.

Thanks. Hey I think I 'joined' a while ago when we had some youtube comments discussion :-)

BTW.. one oddity you may or may not be aware of on your site, the "notify me of follow up comments via email" only seems to work when other people comment, but not when you do. This is a shame as I suspect I may have missed some of your replies on older articles that I clicked links to when reading around.

January 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRik Newman (Remy77077)

@ Rik Newman

Hmm. I wonder what's up with that. I'll send a ticket to the squarespace people.

I try to replay to all comments made across the entire site within a day.

And for those who wonder what Super Mario Bros would feel like without those "push-me-to-the-next-block", I suggest you try Great Giana Sisters on Commodore 64.

November 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPypeBros

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