Raw Game Design pt.2
Sunday, November 4, 2012 at 8:46PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Balance, Bastion, Clean Design, Combat, Competition, Design Space, Guitar Hero, Metroid, StarCraft, Street Fighter

Continuing from part 1, the following is a list of qualities of raw gameplay experiences, their possible design sources, and multiplayer gaming examples (raw or otherwise). 


Matches That End Very Quickly

There's a good reason why most competitive matches aren't decided after each player or team makes one move. As I explained in my article One Hit Wonders, there's not a lot of gameplay possible when an entire game is decided with just one action. Interplay develops deeper gameplay when the counters go back and forth (push & pull). Likewise, interesting choices are more interesting when they are made in a series, where the later choices are made out of the results of the former. Having more interactions in a match means exerting more skill, stressing more diverse skills, and giving players a chance to learn more of their opponents so that this knowledge can be plugged back into the match. For these reasons, multiplayer games that end too easily reflect raw design. 


Do take the time to watch this match. 


Many developers get around this design pitfall by creating timed matches forcing players to interact until time is up. Others set up rounds for their games so that matches are won after a number of victories. And even when matches do end quickly, it's possible for a game to feature suspended gameplay elements to help create another layer of strategy on top of the experience. A good examples is the super meter in Street Fighter 4, which persists between the best-out-of-3 rounds. 


Only Part of the Core Design Space is Viable

An oversight in a single player game that makes the game too easy to win might only affect 1% of players. A balance oversight in a competitive multiplayer game can ruin the entire development effort. An unfair tactic will travel quickly throughout the playerbase like a virus and ruin the experience for everyone. Game balance is a potential “single point of failure” for the entire project, so get it right. ~David Sirlin


As I explained in part 1 and as Sirlin describes, unfair or dominant strategies are like a plague to multiplayer gameplay communities. These strategies easily narrow all the viable gameplay possibilities around a single technique or strategy, which in turn easily bends the design space in ways that often reduce a game's interplay, dynamics, and its interesting choices. Dominant strategies are often highly emergent issues that are difficult to identify during the course of development. Conversely, core mechanics are not very emergent in themselves.  I find it raw when a game presents players with a set of core tools (gameplay mechanics) and only a small fraction of those tools are viable.

Believe me, I understand how metagames work. I understand that some moves, tactics, and strategies go "in and out of style" depending on a variety of factors. For this discussion on raw gameplay experiences and the design elements that produce them, I'm talking about games where the core mechanics aren't viable through many if not all stages of its metagame. If a designer gives you 3 core mechanics to use and one is functionally useless, the intentionality and control the designer communicates through his/her rules becomes questionable. If the designer couldn't figure out how to make their core mechanics useful in actual gameplay, then it is likely that he/she didn't understand how to balance and tune any other, more emergent, higher level of the design. If designers can't get the core mechanics correct (the foundation), then the potential for other kinds of imbalances sharply increase. 

In the FPS Metroid Prime Hunters for the DS, all player characters have a multi-shot (like a SMG burst), a charge shot, and missiles. On top of these weapons each player can obtain a special weapon that gives them a unique ability. In all my time spent competing in this game, I don't know of any player who used the multi-shot or the charge shot effectively. These core mechanics just didn't do enough damage compared to the other weapons, and they were too hard to hit targets with. The entire competitive metagame revolved around the near exclusive use of the special weapons. Useless core mechanics doens't reflect a strong design, and sure enough there were other raw issues in this game.


Difficult To Execute Basic Actions

If a game is about shooting, and after a genuine attempt to learn the mechanics you still can't successfully shoot targets, there may be a problem. Games are generally designed around actions assuming that players will grasp the basics of these actions and then use their skills to be further challenged in execution, application, and increasingly complex scenarios. But if players can't ever quite get the hang of the basics, the higher level gameplay won't be reachable. Imagine playing a fighting game that controls like QWOP where characters would fall all over themselves unable to stand back up. If you're familiar with Toribash, then you don't have to imagine.

You can argue that such games simply have a large skill barrier for beginners. But I argue that when we look at skill and design more accurately, that it's clear when a game has a initial learning curve and when it is not designed as a cohesive experience. When designers puts highly engaging and challenging elements into the basic controls of a game, they set the skill ceiling for the game and subsequently set what kind of gameplay experience players of varying skill will have. If the basics are really engaging and challenging, then most player effort will go there and the higher level gameplay will be less likely to emerge and be controlled. In other words, players can only think, be conscious of, and do so much with their agency. Game designers have to divide this theoretical player effort among various parts of their design so players can engage and enjoy the game best. Designing far beyond what players can handle leaves us to question who the designers designed for and for what kind of experience. 

If it was mandatory to play StarCraft with an Etch A Sketch instead of a mouse, it would be much harder for all players to play. Even if the best players put years of practice into this version of the game and fully acclimate to the controls, there are some parts of StarCraft's design they will not be able to experience like micro management and complex army management. When there are significant complexities in a game that are not well implemented into a multiplayer gameplay experience because of other limitations in the design, then these complexities become a kind of clutter, which reflects a raw design. 

Often times basic control issues occur when porting games to alternative controllers. For example, if tweaks to the aim assist systems and aiming sensitivity aren't properly redesigned, players can easily have problems with the basic interactions in shooters. Section 8 is a game that's designed for both PC and consoles. Some gameplay challenges seemed to require mouse controls. It's just nearly impossible to hit small targets flying around in the distance with the Xbox360 analog stick (it's hard enough with a mouse). Fortunately for Section 8, there's an innovative lock-on mechanic and other options players can use to cater to their playstyles and particular controller limitations. 

Bastion on the PC is a perfect example of raw ported controls. The game was clearly designed to be played with an Xbox360 controller. But on the PC version there's a keyboard and mouse option. With the keyboard and mouse option players can free aim with the mouse instead of being forced to lock-on, auto-aim, and switch between targets. You may think that the less complex, direct aiming of the mouse would be an elegant alternative, however it's actually quite difficult to use. Because of the isometric overhead camera angle and other visual presentation choices, it is difficult to accurately judge and hit targets. The result is a ba3D like presentation problem for mouse users. I couldn't come close to getting 1st place in the Fang Repeater Proving Ground Trial using the mouse. See how easy the Xbox360 controller lock-on makes it compared to this video using keyboard and mouse?


In part 3, I'll wrap up by focusing on two indie games examples. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.