BaraBariBall (BBB) is a competitive sports game inspired by Super Smash Brothers according to Noah, the game's creator. The website does a fantastic job of explaining the basics, so quickly review here before continuing.
The topic of the day is abstraction, particularly abstractions of abstractions. Understanding this topic is a way for us to design better video games and for us to better analyze games. Keep in mind that we do not need to know how the game was developed to find support for whether or not it was abstracted from other game or other art work. So though I could have simply asked Noah how BBB came to be, I intentionally kept my questions to a minimum so I could get an honest impression of the game.
BaraBariBall follows the path of many indie games in that it abstracts, or simplifies, off of an established genre while adding a twist. The twist of BBB is the game is won through points which are awarded by dropping the ball into a goal like a sport or defeating your opponent like a fighter. As the product of one man, BBB didn't have the resources or the budget that popular fighting/sports games have. So, to make a game in this genre, Noah had to make some simplifications. The most obvious of which is the art style, which I'm a big fan of due to the 8-bit like character models and animations, the simple shapes, and the gradient of colors. Obviously, BBB can't have all the complexity of Smash Brothers in terms of levels, character, attacks, or even properties of attacks. Because cuts had to be made I want to examine what Noah decided to simplify, how he did it, and what he decided to cut.
I will say here that BaraBariBall is pretty good. It's got a lot of interplay (clashing attacks, invincible rolls, etc.), enough variation between the 3 characters and 8 levels, and enough wrinkles (helpless state hit stun) to keep things interesting for the hours that I've already put into the game. But the game does have a few issues, mainly cleanness (feedback) issues. I argue, the reason that these issues exist is mainly because the core of BBB's design comes from an abstraction of abstractions. To illustrate my argument in detail I want to draw a cross comparison between BaraBariBall, a special modded mode in Super Smash Brothers Brawl, and Super Monkey Ball 2: Monkey Fight 2's top down fighting game.
This video contains footage of all 3 games. MonkeyBall@ 4:20 - BBB@ 8:15.
The video jams @ 0:15-0:40.
Brawl ... BBB ... Monkey Ball
As far as core fighting game engine complexity goes, BaraBariBall exists somewhere between Brawl and Monkey Ball. In Smash Brawl there are over 35 characters. Each character features about 30 different attacks which are all important in their unique context and design space. Each attack has at least 22 different properties (read more on the different properties here). That's a lot of necessary complexity in Smash that gives each character enough tools to engage with the rich core triangle interplay system that makes up the foundation of the fighting engine.
Super Monkey Ball 2's Monkey Fight 2 is a fighting game that doesn't feature the classic core interplay triangle of attack-block-grab. All you can do in Monkey Fight 2 is move and attack. Yet, being an abstraction of boxing, which is a fighting sport, Monkey Fight 2 features the same basic kinds of positional tactics and gameplay as other fighting games. It's just far more simple. In Monkey Fight 2 you can do a lot with just the MOVE mechanic. In fact, the entire game of Super Monkey Ball is designed to make the most use of the degrees of smooth control players have with the Gamecube analog stick. All you do in the main game is just MOVE. So in Monkey Fight 2, whether you're in the air and on the ground, you'll need to manage your position and momentum using the analog controls to play effectively. As for attacks, you have a quick JAB and a CHARGE punch that grows in size and range. There is a lot of variation you can achieve with your offense by combining the 3 core mechanics. And with a few wrinkles like how your speed decreases when you CHARGE, the game has everything it needs for engaging, interesting gameplay.
BaraBariBall doesn't have the core fighting game triangle, which makes it's more like Monkey Ball. In BBB you can move and attack, but your only purely defensive option are ROLLs that can only be executed on the ground. In fact, your best defense is smart spacing and using your own attacks to clash with your opponent's attacks. BBB simply has too many complexities to benefit from a simple design with lots of variation like Monkey Ball. And by borrowing so many Smash Brothers like elements (rolls, tech, spikes, ring outs, ledge grabbing, fastfalling, and edge guarding), BaraBariBall's gameplay is a lot like Smash Brothers, but not quite. Finding the design balance of BBB required coming up with new design solutions.
Finding New Design Solutions
Noah couldn't copy or abstract everything about Smash Bros. He certainly had to make BBB his own. As I concluded here, adding new complexities and being very knowledgeable of the design of the source material is one way to successfully abstract from abstractions. It's great that Noah found the solutions to get BBB to work, but I'm not so sure Noah anticipated the design side effects. For example, the decay dynamic of the limited air JUMPs works well in BBB. This feature is a unique type of decay that Smash doesn't have as Smash features dynamic hitstun, dynamic knock back, and stale-move negation. At some point, I believe Noah had a game that looked a lot like Smash Brothers and played a bit like Smash Brothers, but didn't flow like Smash Brothers. Though I don't know BaraBariBall's particular development process, I find a few other design choices suspect.
BaraBariBall features a few design elements that seem to help fix issues or patch some of the Smash inspired design elements. The double tap to dash seems like an odd mechanic to put into BBB. But the game certainly needed something like a dash. After all, Smash Brothers and Super Mario Brothers are both games that benefit from having different movement speeds. But Smash, like Monkey Ball, gets the job done with analog controls, something that doesn't come easy using digital buttons. To make up for the lack of control, Noah implemented a double tap dash like other fighters. For the record I think it would have be better to have a dash button or a RUN mechanic like Super Mario Brothers.
While there's nothing wrong with double tapping to DASH in BaraBariBall, it does increase the action frequency of the game, the overall game speed, and adds a cancelable move. As you may remember, these are the kind of gameplay elements that make games less clean because they shrink the skill spectrum and stress the game's ability to convey timely feedback.
For an example of the great feedback design, I love the hit pause, energy waves some attacks project, and the simple sound scape in BaraBariBall. Unfortunately, the lack of unique audio sound effects for each attack can make the high speed actions hard to distinguish. If Noah likes the game speed the way it is now, I'd suggest some hit sparks so players can better tell when and where their attacks connect. Otherwise, the characters move too fast and frantically to get a clear idea of how the interactions play out.
Another side effect of BBB's dash design and speed is a fairly high learning curve considering how simple the game appears to be. Learning to move effectively on the air, ground, and with the ball takes time. Another way of understanding the learning curve of BBB is by considering how complex the risk-reward balance is of player actions. When you boil most competitive gameplay down to its essence it can be understood by considering which player actions are part of the risk-reward balance. In other words, it's important to understand how quickly a new player can understand and engage with the strong risky options and the weak reliable options. Monkey Fight 2's core risk-reward gameplay is entirely made up of the JAB vs CHARGE mechanics described above. The risk-reward in Smash Bros is pretty simple as well, though the game is very complex. Most smash attacks are powerful yet have significant cool down timing drawbacks. Smash attacks are balanced against quicker, less damaging, but more reliable attacks (see video/article here. More on the balance of Smash here).
But with BaraBariBall, the risk-reward balance is a lot harder to understand because the core gameplay features complex, dynamic interplay between 2 very different systems (players and the ball). Yes, the attacks work in BBB, but with so few options and such extreme movement capabilities, understanding the core competitive balance (risk-reward) takes a lot more knowledge of how all the parts work together. Ultimately, the source of the learning curve stems from the interplay design that makes the decaying JUMPs a core element. I found myself fighting to pressure my opponent to waste jumps so that eventually I could get a significant advantage in the match. And that's the trouble with the design. Having to think so many moves ahead to understand the risk-reward invovled among many different actions isn't easy. Remember, decay dynamics and interplay of decay tends to develop soft counters, meaning their effects are not only subtle but delayed.
The Sport: Ball vs Bag
The ball that players fight over and score with in BBB lacks a sense of weight and intentional interactivity. Players automatically grab the ball whenever they come into contact with it. This feature allows players to easily catch, throw, and pass the ball. Players can attack and throw the ball to move it, but because all the force imparted can be completely stopped with a catch or an attack, the ball itself doesn't seem very substantial; like it's a beach ball that's part of the scoring system but not an object that's part of the fighting combat.
The ball in BBB may be too easy to manipulate and move with too complex of motions. Maybe the DASH was implemented because the ball rolled and fell so fast. Maybe it was the other way around. Either way I think it's worth comparing the ball motion to the sand bag in the Super Smash Brothers Soccer mode (see video).
What I love about Smash Soccer is that victory is about points and KOs. Just like in BBB, players try to knock the sandbag off the stage on a particular side to net points. But unlike in BBB, instead of KO's detracting from player's overall score, in Smash Soccer players have a set amount of stock for the whole match. If a player loses all of their stock, they lose immediately no matter how many sandbag points they have. So at any time, players must fight for the sandbag and their lives. And because Smash is a fully featured fighting game, doing either will be well supported by the core design. In BBB, there is no player health or any long term effects from taking hits. The only thing you lose for getting heavily comboed is time and perhaps position. So if you're ahead in points in BBB, your losses from engaging in fighting combat with the other player will be minimal.
But notice how the sandbag works in Smash Soccer. At first it's hard to move. But with repeated attacks it becomes easier and easier to launch. If you haven't guess it, the sandbag itself has its own dynamic percentage health just like Smash Bros characters. This makes fighting over the bag very dynamic. Different moves with different knock backs and trajectories become useful at different points depending on the sandbag health. But no matter how hard you hit it or at what angle, the sand bag will always slowly fall straight down. Being able to see the fall, anticipate, and fight around its position is what makes Smash Soccer so effective. Because all the core gameplay has all the complexities it needs to be interesting, the sandbag can be relatively simple, relatively slow and still add a significant wrinkle to the design. For BaraBariBall I wonder if the speed and the design issues associated with it are the result of trying to make the core abstracted/inspired design elements work, or if it was a preference of Noah from the outset.
BaraBariBall works very well. There are still some tuning issues with feedback and stage design like the edges and corners of some stages are hard to maneuver around because they poke out oddly. The camera zooms in too much when two players are fighting. And when one player scores, the camera doesn't follow the on screen players properly. I'm sure these issues can be easily ironed out over time. Most of the feedback issues I described above become less significant after gaining more and more experience with the game.
What I like most about BaraBariBall is that once players get comfortable with the system and the rules, battling over the ball looks and feels like the wire-fu from some of my favorite Asian films. While engaged in combat over the ball, players can clash attacks, grab the ball, throw it around, and do it all while rising and falling in mid air. It's fantastic and is worth putting in a bit of practice to experience.
I was worried before that BaraBariBall would need more wrinkles to its gameplay. I wondered if there wasn't enough move complexity to the combat, dynamics to the matches, stage variation, or enough layered wrinkles to be very interesting. While I don't think BBB needs anything more than it has, it would still be nice to play around with some of these ideas.
In the meantime, I wait for my rematch with Noah.