Though I'm not yet to the end of the Examination of Skill series, I wanted to talk about the skill spectrum of Station 38, a game made by Pat Kemp. A skill spectrum is the range of skill needed to play a game at a specific level. Typically, skill spectra are used to analyze the level of skill needed to beat a game, 100% complete it, or compete at a tournament level. Being a relatively simple platforming game, I'll be unpacking the spectrum needed to beat and/or master (100% complete) Station 38.
In Station 38 you take control of a space ship. To pass each level you must safely navigate to the teleporter using the BOOST mechanic. To BOOST, click and hold the mouse button, drag it in a direction, and release. The farther you drag the cursor, the more boost power you get. The direction you drag the cursor determines the vector direction you travel. Though this single, core mechanic may seem simple, understanding why it's engaging and exactly how it challenges the player requires using the DKART system. As a pun on René Descartes' "Cognito ergo sum/I think, therefore I am," the DKART system is rooted in the fundamental concept of video gaming. Being a uniquely interactive medium, players have the power to influence the game state/presentation/art form. This act of influencing is our agency. To act we must use some facet or combination of our skills. Therefore, we can express the idea of selfhood or agency in a virtual environment as, "I DKART, therefore I am."
The following is a breakdown of the skill spectrum of Station 38 for mastering the game.
- Speed. Because the ship moves smoothly in real time there is a time sensitive, action element to the game. To reach the end of the level, undamaged or not, one might have to make quick adjustments. Quick adjustments requires a quick hand.
- Control. The mouse gives players the freedom to aim and BOOST in 360° (see circle above). This design already raises the potential level of control skill needed. Factor in that you can also drag the mouse to any point within the circle with pixel precision, and control easily becomes the most important facet of dexterity skill needed to be successful. For fun, I did the math quantifying the exact number of BOOST variations. (74^2) * pi =~ 17,203
- Harmony. This facet of dexerity skill isn't much of a factor. Because players can click anywhere on the screen to BOOST the ship, players don't have to worry about centering the mouse. With such a design, even wild flicks of the mouse don't get in the way of resulting motions.
- There's a small list of basic game objects to learn about including normal blocks (1), teleporter (5), the ship, green bounce blocks (3), blue magnet blocks (4), and plasma barriers (2).
- Additionally, there are a few additional properties that are more "invisible" including how the space gravity "feels" (vertically/horizontally), what trajectory speed results in a damaging crash upon impact (see image above top-right for minimal fall distance for taking damage), how much fuel is consumed relative to the BOOST drag distance, and how quickly the ship automatically recovers fuel in mid air.
- Due to the level arrangement and a smooth learning curve of developing ideas, building your knowledge base should come naturally and easily.
- Because BOOSTing is highly variable in power and direction, one must constantly adjust to one's ship position, fuel reserves, and momentum.
- The static levels and lack of enemies create very straight forward level challenges. After the start of a level, nothing should surprise you. For these reasons, reflex is the least important skill when playing Station 38.
- There are virtually no static, internal, or track facets of timing skill in Station 38. The visual presentation limits the use internal timing. After all, the fuel and health bars are clearly displayed. The hitboxes are very angular and precise. And there's only one moving, dynamic, changing element in the entire game (the ship).
- We can generally expect external timing skills to take priority in a platformer's skill spectrum. Timing skill wise, where Station 38 shines is in its complex timings created from a significant level of momentum due to the accelerative and deccerlerative design of gravity. To understand Station 38's design better, I'll use two other popular gaming models as an illustration.
- Mega Man features fairly static or simple gravity. When you let go of the JUMP button, Mega Man sharply drops back down. Horizontal momentum doesn't apply to him either. This design makes the timing skill required for Mega Man's jumping/platforming challenges low.
- Mario hangs in the air a little longer than Mega Man after releasing the JUMP button. Furthermore, the RUN mechanic gives Mario's horizontal movement more variable speed. With this speed comes momentum. The faster you move in one direction horizontally, the harder it will be to recover distance in the reverse direction. This design not only gives players the option to adjust the difficulty of their on experience, but the momentum complicates the platforming by incorporating knowledge skill. In other words, to navigate well in a 2D Mario game, you have to look ahead of your actions. If you're about to soar over the top of a landing spot, you might have to cut back early to compensate. Some times you have to look where you're going before you even leap off the ground. Visualizing possibilities and timings before the action is typically more difficult and engaging because it complicates the challenge by requires two skills (knowledge and timing).
- The ship in Station 38 takes momentum even further. Being able to move in any direction means you can have momentum in any direction. The greater the movement speed and momentum, the more potential there is for complex timing maneuvers and challenges. The ship in Station 38 has a progressive momentum design. Though there's a maximum velocity, reaching it takes all of ones fuel (a 2x max BOOST) focused in a horizontal direction. When attempting to navigate a tricky area, you don't just have to worry about how you'll maneuver when you get there. You also have to take into account the speed and angle of your approach. The smallest difference in your BOOST will change the timing challenge of a maneuver considerably. And if you're not conscious about your fuel consumption, you may find yourself jettisoned out into deep space. Your knowledge will break down a challenge and give you a strategy, but only your timing and dexterity skills will see your through it.
Such is Station 38. It's a great game with a great core mechanic and just the right amount of levels/story. I don't know how popular this game is, but I like to think that I'm one of the few "masters" in the universe.