About That Indie Feel pt.2
Friday, December 31, 2010 at 8:22PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Balance, Indie, Mechanics, Skill, Super Crate Box, Super Mario Bros., Super Meat Boy

part.1

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:

 

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:

 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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