This is where my Eureka moment comes in. And it's all thanks to the Nintendo 3DS (which releases in 7 days!). Miyamoto and the designers of the 3DS went to great lengths to construct a 3D Depth Slider on the side of the 3DS. The idea is everyone has their own personal "sweet spot" for the 3D stereoscopic effect. Instead of giving the player a few options of 3D depth to choose between or even a couple of +/- digital buttons to increase the effect in small increments, the depth slider provides the most effective and elegant solution. By effortlessly adjusting the 3D Depth Slider up and down the palyer can quickly zero in on their sweet spot. In this way, a very analog and continuous experience can be simplified into 3 states: too little, too much, and just right! I recently wrote an article on simplifying complex timing, but this is about simplifying complex variables.
Consider that a player's personal "sweet spot" is equivalent to their opinion. Opinions can be vague, squishy, imprecise, fickle, complicated, and in many way continuous. But they are also very personal because they're influenced by observations and thoughts. People love their opinions (as we should) even if we cannot articulate them. As you play a game you constantly form impressions of the experience. Even when these impressions are negative we don't quite form our opinion until we hit some kind of distinct moment.
So, putting it all together, when a video game experience is made up of variations along a continuous design space where incremental changes are difficult to discern, we can simplify our opinion of the experience by dividing the variable range into 3 distinct types; too little, too much, and the sweet spot. If you graph these values with time on the x-axis and "enjoyment" on the y-axis, you'd probably get something that looks like a bell curve. So like Einstein's brilliant revelation, the design-space-time continuum is curved around the player's opinion with the sweet spot at the crest. This model is like the flow in games concept but it doesn't deal with gamepaly difficulty.
What does this mean exactly? With this new model we have a effective way to pinpoint our opinons from large continuous experiences to help us understand how we formed them and why. Consider my opinion of Tales of Symphonia for the Gamecube. This game is an action-RPG where the player levels up gradually through a variety of common RPG stats. Along my 50-70 hour adventure, specifically in terms of the combat gameplay, I feel that Tales of Symphonia (ToS) was at its best at a relatively early boss fight against Yuan and Botta. Now the question is why do I think this is the best part of the game?
If you're a reader of this blog you know what I like in gameplay. Relatively few complexities. Interesting choices. Depth. Co-op that stresses various facets of team skill. And cleanness so I can enjoy all of these elements as I play through challenges for the first time. In the the Yuan and Botta boss battle in ToS all of these elements came into focus in a balanced way. The vast majority of the battles before this point and after were not nearly as interesting for me.
It's been over 6 years since I played Tales of Symphonia, so all I have are my memories. But this is precisely the kind of situation that the design-space-time continuum model works great for. There's a reason why this boss battle sticks out in my mind. To uncover the why, let's look at an excerpt from the gamefaqs guide written by AIEX.
This fight can be rather annoying because no matter who you're going after, the other will usually be doing a number on the rest of your party. Neither is really any more or less dangerous than the other, so begin by focusing your attacks on Botta since he has less Hp. Blocking will play a key role when fighting Botta since his attacks can knock you back and really slow you down. For Yuan, you won't need to block quite as much but you will want to run out of the way if you see a large circle begin to form around your party, you'll have a good bit of time to move, but if not everyone in the circle will take a good 1500-2000 damage.
- This fight can be annoying if you've been coasting on simple, mindless, or tactic play to get to this point. It's time to buckle down and use real strategy.
- There are only two enemy targets. This makes for a cleaner battle in that there are fewer characters to stand in the way of the limited camera view.
- If you focus on one (either Yuan or Botta) the other will focus on the rest of your party. You can overcome this challenge in one of two ways. Playing solo you can micromanage your CPU controlled allies in the menu to adapt to the changing battle conditions. Othwerise, this is a great opportunity for co-op players to step up and make a difference.
- Blocking is a move that was not useful previously (at least in my experience). Now against two strong enemies it's very useful. Proper blocking limits the action frequency becaues players must stop their attacks early to recovery in enough time to put up a block.
Here are a few more reasons why this battle is the best in the game...
- Jumping over the enemy for a "cross up" is a viable strategy like blocking that requires more timing and knowledge skills. Jumping wasn't very useful before this point.
- Bosses can break out of combo stun (combos are very effective in this game) by going into the "over limit" mode. In this mode enemies don't flinch from hits putting them in a very aggressive stance. This change in boss ability is great becuase my brother and I had previously found an infinite combo on bosses (an effective but cheap strategy). Over limits give enemies an effective way to turn the tide of battle.
- Air Teching was a previously unused technique because we easily overpowered enemies before. Also, one must get hit by a lengthly combo that launches you into the air to to make the air tech useful. Botta's Stalagmite attacks can be countered with this technique.
- Interrupting enemies in the middle of summoning spells became a crucial counter strategy. Loyd's beast strike knocks down enemies for an interrupt.
- We had access to several special moves (like beast fang strike), but not too many. Because each character wasn't too powerful or too mobile, using attacks like Psy Tempest to move around the battle field became an important defensive strategy. In other words, we found new applications for our attacks.
- Backing away from Yuan and Botta was key to surviving because we were under-leveled. The more we evaded, the more the bosses separated us from each other and our two CPU controlled allies. This stressed more teamwork, individual skill (DKART), and strategy.
- The enemy attacks were few enough that we could identify them, learn them in the heat of battle, and coordinate our team strategies via callouts.
You can tell by the way I described the interplay and dynamics of this battle that it played like a balanced, real-time, action strategy game filled with interesting choices and few complexities. After this boss battle, I continued playing Tales of Symphonia for dozens of hours trying to find another battle like it.
There wasn't another battle like it. That's right. The gameplay maxed out at the end of part 3 of 9. After the battle against Yuan and Botta we acquired more characters that were slight variations of the caster and swordsman types that we already had. There were few new, unique enemy attacks like the large spells of Yuan and Botta. The new player abilities were more of the same. The RPG stats allowed us to over power enemies thus encouraging the combo heavy, cluttered, and somewhat mindless strategies. Though my comments reflect my person experience with the game, see if you can discern a significant difference between the Yuan and Botta battle in the video above and this video of the final boss battle.
Yes, my opinion is by nature subjective. However, the point is to use my opinion to pinpoint and understand the game better in terms of its design.
In part 3 we'll go over another example and future application of the design-space-time continuum model.