Digital Truth: Emergent Origins pt.2
Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 12:21PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Advance Wars, Emergence, Street Fighter

My curiosity with the universality of dynamics and emergent systems stems from a comment my brother made years ago. He pointed out that the movement paths, patterns, and tendencies of players in Halo were the same as players playing Pac-Man. At first the comparison was striking. After all, one game is a modern FPS while the other is a retro, top-down action game. Then I started organizing the movement in these games into 3 categories; chase, retreat, and navigate. Whether you're avoiding ghosts or Spartans your ability to move is defined and limited by the space. It seems like whenever you add space (2D or 3D) into a system specific patterns of movement are nearly impossible to prevent from emerging. This theory requires investigation.

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We even started an experiment to show the similarities between Pac-man and Halo. We created a map in Halo that was roughly the same layout as the classic Pac-Man level with spawn points in the center and custom powerups where the power pellets would be. We had planned on getting players to play the map without knowing it was Pac-Man. Afterwards, we would analyze the movement paths using the the vidoc feature. Unfortunately, this undertaking proved too difficult because we didn't own a Xbox360.

While the Halo-Pac-Man experiment was dropped, I've since carefully studied the movement of gamers, sports players, and people. The similarities between different these activities never ceases to amaze me. Simply by interacting in a 2D or mostly 2D plane the system supports simple truths of the universe. Take the relationship between the radius and the circumference of a circle for example. You may not know the exact math involved but you probably understand how this specific mathematical relationship works by watching a sword swing or a rope movie in an arc. Or you've probably witnessed how difficult it can be for a person to run past another person (perhaps in football). Since it's easier for the defender to swivel than the runner to move around him/her, by watching we can internalize this basic relationship of objects moving through space.

About 5 years ago I had many ambitious ideas I wanted to implement into an action RPG combat system I was working on called Neo*RPG. I had a magic rune, spell casing, equipment, and sword fighting system lined up somewhere in my mental development pipeline. However, all of these features were dropped for what became my final release of the game demo. Unlike my previous disaster where I jammed feature upon feature into my Chrono Trigger themed vertical scrolling shmup, with Neo*PRG I wanted the gameplay to be as simple as possible while being very deep. So, at every step of the 3 week development period I tested the game really paying attention to what was most interesting about the game. It turned out it wasn't the RPG stats, the graphics, or the sound. Rather, it was simply moving and attacking in the 2D space evaluating strategies based on unit and environment positions. So, I focused on this aspect of the gameplay by making all the interactions clean and the scenarios varied from enemy property tweaks. I'm quite pleased with the results. I imagine this kind of design process is similar to what Miyamoto goes through when creating new games. By focusing on the most basic and core interactions of his games, I believe Miyamoto and his team also focuses on the interactions that are closer to the truth. 


As designers, it's important to know how to listen to the games you make. It turns out that the core gameplay dynamics of 2D/3D space, time, and decay are more profoundly effective at sustaining emergent truths than other design elements or choices. Perhaps you knew this all along. Most games build on the foundation with mechanics and interactions designed around some combination of these dynamics. But as developers seek to make their games more individual and complex, often time systems are added on top of this foundation that work against the profound and simple truths that these dynamics facilitate through emergence.



Let's take the Advance Wars (AW) series. As a turn-based, strategy game AW is at the top of its genre. Simply with a grid based 2D field and a few other design limitation Chess like strategies emerge. It's all about positioning. The strengths and weakness of the unit types and other unique complexities work to encourage a wide range of scenarios and counter strategies based on position. This is what I love about the games. With that said, I've played and beaten every game in the series, and Advance Wars: Dual Strike generally ends up at the bottom of my list. For one, the RPG like leveling and CO customization  allows players to bend and break the balance of the game making for a more tactical experience. I do not think it was good to add so many systems (complexities) to the game at the expense of depth and balance. These systems exist on top of the core AW design and, at their worst, work to deemphasize the spatially focused gameplay.

And the arbitrary, abstract complexity layers don't end there. In addition to customizing your CO, in some of the more complex mission you play with two COs at a time on two battlefields across two screens! Hence the name "dual strike." It's literally like playing two Chess games at the same time (or one Chess and one AW game; something I've done before). The basic creative idea behind these dual layered design features isn't bad. Overall, I still really like AW:Dual Strike and applaud Intelligent Systems for trying something new. But because this discussion is about digital truths, how to recognize them, and what happens when you don't design around them, I have to explain exactly how these abstract systems affect Dual Strike's emergent gameplay.

To be clear, the goal isn't to have a game that embodies the truths of the universe 100%. As blow put it, when you did deep enough or look closely enough at some games you'll find the part that reflects the truth. So, we're really talking about a ratio here. How much truth is evident in the gamepay versus how much arbitration/abstraction. Since designing games with more truth is merely a design choice, we're not talking about what's right or wrong, good or bad. So, let's say that in AW we want to focus mostly on the interplay of individual units and the formations they make on the maps. To have this kind of gameplay, you technically don't need COs at all. In fact, you can even turn them off in the menu settings for multiplayer matches. Having COs adds perks to units while typically balancing these bonuses with some kind of drawback. This CO design layer gives the gameplay more variety (assuming it's balanced).

In the AW games each CO has a CO power, a powerful ability that can only be activated when your CO meter is full. This comeback mechanic is difficult to avoid giving to your opponent and difficult to avoid using yourself because of how powerful it is. So, for such AW matches, a large part of one's strategy considers this CO meter and the near inevitable push back the opponent will unleash. Yes, many of the CO powers are still unit dependant, but not all. So, this design layer divides some of the attention away from unit positioning and onto COmeback (see what I did there?).

Advance Wars: Dual Strike takes the additional system layers to the limit. Building on top of the scenario I just described, you can control 2 COs in Dual Strike and switch between them at the end of every turn (CO Swap). Now, the advantages and disadvantages of the units due to CO effects are even more varied and unpredictable within a match. On one turn you may be positioned to avoid attack from long ranged units, and then on the next turn your opponent can switch to Grit and blast you away with the range increase. You also have 2 CO powers per CO. That's 4 comeback style, tide turning abilities to use and up to 4 to worry about your opponent having! And if both COs fill up both their meters, they can execute the devastating "dual strike" and use both their CO powers at once doubling their turn!

With powerful comeback mechanics and other system layers in Dual Strike, the gameplay becomes less about unit position and more about these CO powers. CO powers can happen often and the whole game becomes flashy and complex. And even if it's still deep, the complexities of these layers makes the interactions less appreciable to our general sensibilities. Instead of seeing units positioned on a 2D map to understand the battle state, you have to understand the more abstract CO meter power struggle.

Fortunately, the next game in the series Advance Wars: Days of Ruin completely redesigned the COs to keep the gameplay more focused on the unit level. The new design requires players to put their CO on a unit. Then that unit emits an area of effect that boosts nearby units. When your units do damage inside this area, the CO meter feels. With this design there's more interplay (because you can attack and destroy the CO carrying unit), and the system plays works more directly with units and positioning, the foundation of the combat system. By only building CO meter from offensive attacks, the new CO design no longer functions as a comeback mechanic. I love this kind of inward innovation that looks at existing conventions and redesign them to be more intuitive, direct, dynamic, or organic.



My preference for games that feature layers of systems on top of more concrete core gameplay is that they balance their frequency of use. In fighting games like Street Fighter IV, there's a reason why we call normal attacks "normals." They're the moves that are supposed to be used in most normal situations. Normals aren't as unique as specials or supers, but they fill a very important role of defining the basic combat. I like the balance in Street Fight 4 pro matches (see video above). Normals are plentiful, specials are frequent, ultras are fairly common (not happening every match), and supers are pretty rare.


The Marvel vs Capcom games are the opposite. Well, not quite. In comparison the amount of supers used in a match is extreme. Instead of just 1 super bar to fill, players have up to 5. And players can cancel supers into supers if they have multiple characters alive. MvC3 is also the kind of game where once you're stuck in a combo there's next to nothing you can do to get out of it. So, players have to wait it out taking hit after hit then super after super.

I prefer the cleaner, less extreme ratio of normals-to-supers. Still, perhaps this is just a perception issue. Just because the game calls an attack a super doesn't mean its function changes. If supers in MvC3 are as frequent as specials in SF4, then why not think of them as specials? Furthermore, there are levels of supers in MvC3 that are rarely used and some that are almost never used. Why not just think of those as the "real supers?" Well, our concern here at least for this article series, is what the gameplay is focused on; gameplay dynamics and features that give rise to emergent truths or layers of abstract-arbitrary systems. Since supers tend to be over the top power moves, there's a smaller chance that increasing the use of supers would make the emergent truths more clear or prevalent.


In part 3 we'll look at more emergent examples. 

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