Micropositioning: Another Source of Depth

Editor’s Note: I have slightly edited some of these conversations to be slightly more clear in the absence of context, and to elaborate more on details.

Um, Contra is deep? Always thought of it as very constrictive rather than “deep.” Is your argument that the (slightly) different weapons add depth?

Yes, it’s deep. No, I don’t mean the slightly different weapons, I’m more talking about the movement around enemies and the enemy variety and attack patterns. It’s about micro-positioning, same as Zelda 1.

Depth doesn’t just mean the explicit technical stuff. I defined it as relating to tiny game states because I wanted to capture the difference between say Mario’s jump and a castlevania jump, but acknowledgement of redundancy is necessary too, otherwise more restrictive sets of options like the castlevania jump are ruled out completely because something like mario’s jump can totally dwarf it in complexity, and castlevania’s jump works really well in the context of the game it is, allowing certain types of challenges to exist that could not in Mario. So Mario’s jump is invariably deeper of the two, allowing for a massively larger range of expression, but it shouldn’t be judged as exponentially better just because it can produce exponentially more measurable state. A lot of those states are different but achieve similar results.

Also I meant the Contra series, not just Contra 1. Continue reading

Interaction: The Key to Depth?

You’ve talked a lot about depth and complexity in regards to game design, but what about interaction between mechanics? How does it relate to depth and complexity? Any examples done well/poorly?

Alright, if game quality was purely tied to the number of states possible then the scale would not be linear. It would be exponential or logarithmic, like decibels. A strictly linear addition of states does not create a big jump in quality.

For a mechanic to significantly improve the game it must interact with the other mechanics, multiplying or exponentiating the number of possible states. Continue reading

Games for Learning about Depth

What games would you recommend for learning game design and depth in different genres (games for FPS, Action, Fighting, Strategy, Puzzle, RPG, etc.)

I think you gotta play a little of everything, good and bad. It pays to see games that screw up too. I think analyzing Nier was interesting in part because it’s so clearly flawed.

Doom (great enemy variety, great level design, alright weapons), Blood (one of the best doom derivatives), Quake (3d successor to doom, awesome movement, so-so weapons and enemy variety, but still good compared to modern shooters), Unreal (I dunno, supposed to be good), Serious Sam 1 & 3 (good enemy design in the absence of good level design), Tribes (cool movement system, amazing emphasis on large maps), Desync (great enemy/weapon variety, very focused on combat encounters, weapon combos), Crysis Warhead (best in the series, nice suit abilities, nice levels, decent enemy AI)

SF2, SF3, SFV, KoF 98, 2002, XIV, Garou, Last Blade 2, Guilty Gear AC+R, GG Xrd, Marvel 2/3, Skullgirls, Vampire Savior, Melee, Divekick,

Pokemon (lots of configurable parts, every monster you encounter is made from commonly accessible parts), Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne/Digital Devil Saga (press turn system is brilliant, strong emphasis of buffs/debuffs), All the Mario RPG games (Timed Hits yo, and a couple other nice things), TWEWY (alternative approach to RPGs from the the ground up, tons of interlinking systems), Penny Arcade RPG (unique approach to ATB systems and realtime action queuing), Zeboyd Games RPGs (interesting choices at every step), Tales of Symphonia/Abyss (I think these are the best in the series, I don’t really know, action combat with a fighting game inspiration), Megaman Battle Network (deck building, unique grid based combat system)

RTS/tactics: (I’m weak in this category and haven’t played a lot of the games I’m recommending)
Starcraft Brood War/Starcraft 2 (I recommend brood war because it’s good, though unless you have someone who knows how to play that you can springboard off of, you won’t get much out of it, 2 for contrast and because it’s also good, but less so), Supreme Commander Forged Alliance (I believe this is the best version of supcom, I’m currently playing this), Company of Heroes 2, Dawn of War, Dungeon Keeper, Warcraft 3, Warcraft 2 (for contrast, the two games are significantly different), Age of Empires 2, Homeworld, Command and Conquer (Red Alert 2 or Generals), X-COM, a fire emblem game, advance wars.

Thief 1 & 2 (great emphasis on lighting levels and floor surfaces, great level design, slightly collectathon-like regrettably), Metal Gear Solid 3 (the deepest stealth game), Mark of the Ninja (one of the most versatile stealth games around, second deepest perhaps), Monaco (gets the interesting part of running away from guards completely right, does alright at everything else), Hitman (disguises), Splinter Cell (I dunno).

Mario 64 (has a ton of different options for movement and levels that allow you to take advantage of them), Mario Sunshine (Same, but slightly different), all the mainline Super Mario Bros games (1, Lost Levels, 3, World, NSMBW) Yoshi’s island, Kirby Canvas Curse (unique as hell, one of the best kirby games), Ducktales, STREEMERZ, Bubble Bobble, Sonic (pick one), a donkey kong country game, Megaman 2, 3, 9 (solid design), Megaman X1, 2, 3, Megaman Zero (I don’t know which to recommend), Castlevania 1/3 (great level design with simplistic limitations), Order of Ecclesia (nonlinearity and complex melee platformer combat), Ninja Gaiden 1-3 (great simple fast design), Cave Story, Kero Blaster, Demon’s Crest, Metal Slug, Contra, probably a dozen NES and SNES games.

Metroid, Super Metroid, Metroid Zero Mission, AM2R, Ori and the Blind Forest (tons of movement mechanics that all have interaction with each other), La Mulana, Battle Kid 2, Megaman ZX, ZX Advent.

Top down 2d action:
Zelda, Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, Oracle of Seasons, Ys Origin (like a 3d zelda), Ys 1 & 2 (Bump system!), Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (tons of unexpectedly 3d object interactions), Hotline Miami (stealth and mixed action),

Beat Em Up:
Devil May Cry 3/4 (command moves for days, tons of recombineable moves), Bayonetta (Dodge offset, great enemy designs), Ninja Gaiden Black/Sigma/2 (enemies that want to kill you so hard, great use of blocking and dodging in one system), Transformers Devastation (culmination of everything platinum, 3rd person shooting, unique vehicle dodge system and vehicle attacks),

Mario Kart DS (my favorite mario kart, best physics), F-Zero GX (deepest racing game), Wipeout, Trackmania, Need For Speed (dunno which one)

Antichamber (metroidvania puzzler with a funky layout, and nice unique puzzle mechanics), Portal 1 (lets you place portals in a ton of places, has multiple solutions to every puzzle, great speed tech), Professor Layton (just a ton of nice puzzles of all different varieties, not really deep necessarily), The Witness (interesting approach to puzzles even if it doesn’t work out all the time)

That’s all I can think of. Notably this is not just a “my favorite games” list.

Definitions: What’s a Game State?

After reading some of your articles on depth, I have to ask. What exactly counts as a “state” in a game? Depth is characterized by the number of non-redundant states, but I’m not clear what counts as a state.

Have you ever used an emulator? You know how there are save states in emulators? Save states capture the current value of every single variable in the game. This is basically what I mean when I say a state. A state is the current value of every single object, element, or variable in a game. Any time something changes, even slightly, in a game, that is a new state, strictly speaking.

For an easier to imagine example, in a board game, a state would be every possible combination of pieces on every space on the board.

In most video games, it’s harder to think about every possible state because many games have things like velocity, or extremely minute and precise position tracking. Things appear to be more analog thanks to the use of floats and sub-pixels.

This is why I specify that depth does not count redundant states, because this level of minute detail goes far beyond what is significant in the majority of cases. Many of these tiny states can be said to be negligibly different from other states around them. Determining what states are non-redundant is unfortunately still a matter of interpretation. I count analog spectrums of information tracking as being more deep than a digital spectrum, but only slightly. I believe there are diminishing returns for additional subdivision of states. You only gain so much for going from an integer to a float in my book (look up data types if you don’t know what a float is).

This will probably help.

What’s Deep as a Fighting Game?

I’ve seen you claim that fighting games are probably the pinnacle of depth. How much of that would you say is related to them being multiplayer–depth being squished out by players themselves? what about strategy games or good competitive shooters? Any SP game you consider to be as deep as them?

Dante from DMC4 is more deep than any individual fighting game character ever. Maybe not more deep than an entire fighting game, but more than any single character in one. The number of options and ways he can combine them are absolutely tremendous. DMC3 dante with the style swapper might be even more deep than that (considering he has more styles, more moves in individual styles and more weapons, he’s almost inarguably deeper), though, shit, something about the way he’s animated manages to make his style swap combos look less impressive. Maybe the lack of color flashes and hud notifications.

Some speedgames are ludicrously deep, like Mirror’s Edge, Half Life 1 and 2 (amazingly in completely different ways), Mario 64/sunshine, Dark Souls 1, ocarina of time (I say reluctantly), Ori and the Blind Forest, Ratchet and Clank, Super Monkey Ball, Metroid Prime, at least one castlevania game, at least one sonic game, F-Zero GX. Though I’d be hesitant to put them on the level of a fighting game.

RTS games absolutely go toe to toe with fighting games, they might be even more deep than fighting games, I don’t really want to make a call there.

Go is up there with fighting games, no doubt, probably chess too (though you could argue that the development of the meta has shifted the relevant field of depth into a smaller range).

Quake 3 and UT 2004 are close, but I think fall a bit below fighting games, less options, less complex neutral.

But I mean, there’s a reason I play fighting games, and it’s because they’re the best games around. They’re games that I can put more research into than any other and have more to verifiably show for it. They’re games that I can confidently say I don’t understand completely and have a lot left to learn, where Dark Souls is one I think I do understand completely.

And is being multiplayer part of why fighting games are so deep?

Being Multiplayer is a part of that, a lot more fine interactions are tested in a multiplayer environment that can’t be tested in a singleplayer environment. Player psychology is a very real thing that can be played with and experimented with to produce favorable results. In a singleplayer game I don’t have to consider my opponents adapting to me, I don’t have to consider common habits that some ice climbers players have and others don’t. I got 2nd place at a tournament last monday, facing an ice climbers player twice, probably the third best ICs in the state. The first time I beat him 3-2, the second time I beat him 3-0. I realized between those games that if I stayed on platforms, he’d eventually get the climbers out of sync, as his offense was too weak to overwhelm me and that was my chance to attack, separating them, and that he loved to shield to bait me into a shieldgrab, but I could run up to him and grab him, usually getting a free followup and there wasn’t a lot he could do to stop me, and he definitely couldn’t wobble me. So the game changed from me poking him a lot and getting wobbled, to preying on split up climbers and fthrow fsmashes. In a netplay match I lost in marth dittos the first round, then won the next two by counterpicking to snake, pure intuition that the player was unfamiliar with the character despite it being an amazing matchup for marth. In street fighter I recently realized that I need to just walk into their range and hit them with mediums sometimes, I need to start comboing into spiral arrow off my light jabs, because I usually get a few of those for free off my pressure setups, but the grab afterwards is less free, and they don’t do much damage by themselves. In multiplayer games, it’s a constant cycle of improvement and thinking about common player tendencies.

This is why icyclam’s claim that bots are better because they’re harder is such bullshit, because human tendencies create depth in the form of bringing game states into relevance that normally wouldn’t be, and computers simply cannot recreate that.

Local top PM players Kysce and Flipp went to Shots Fired 2 recently, teaming in doubles, and Flipp’s Snake plants C4 all the time, leading Kysce to say, “Got ’em!” whenever he does. However Kysce knows Snake well enough to know that sometimes he doesn’t have the stick, but it looks like he does, so he says “Got ’em!” even when the stick isn’t on them, and this occasionally confused the other guy, even enough to make them kill themselves or irrationally shield or airdodge when they weren’t really in danger, opening them up to attacks. I played a friend in third strike, and jumped when I hear him do the fireball motion. AI doesn’t have that sort of internal model of self or other, and Desk’s video on SFV survival shows it. Survival mode itself shows it.

Depth and Meaningful Complexity

What is the difference, if any, between gameplay depth and meaningful complexity?

I use them as synonyms personally.

Possibility space is essentially raw complexity, it’s all the possible states and outcomes, even the pointless and redundant ones.

Depth is what you get when you cull the possibility space for only the relevant and non-redundant states. It’s the complexity that’s left over.

In layman’s terms, we know that games are better as they get more complex, but we also know that some games are complex on a surface level, but end up being simple in execution. Like, you have to sort through a ton of variables, but the actual sorting algorithm is simple, despite being time consuming.

Games need to become more complex overall to have more meaningful complexity, however the way in which they’re constructed can lead to a more complex game that isn’t more meaningfully complex.

The enemy of depth is optimization and redundancy.

How a Simplified Input Game can be Interesting Too

I don’t get the hype behind Rising Thunder. Simplifying inputs? And you like Divekick, yet you’ve said that complex inputs are more rewarding (when I asked about PM’s input leniency compared to Melee, or when discussing wavedashing in Melee).

Divekick explores a unique strategic space. It’s fast, and there are things to learn about the game. I played one friend in it and seriously beat him every game for like 20-30 games in a row. I perfected him multiple times during that. One of my friends actually figured out a new way to advance safely, by jumping, then kicking near the end of the jump, which I would normally do at the beginning of a very shallow jump.

There are actually some advanced techniques in divekick, like performing special moves requires pressing both dive and kick at the same time, but there’s a short leniency period, so you can kara-cancel into a special move. For example, Mr N can kara-cancel his kick into his hover, allowing him to effectively kick for a frame before hovering, kicking with less commitment. And of course he can keep doing this as long as he has enough meter.

Rising thunder has unique character designs, like Crow, who is so unique he couldn’t exist in another fighting game because of his invisibility power, or Vlad who has a weird air dash with a meter you can expend as you like, or Dauntless, who has some really amazing combos and unique special moves, along with one of the rare normal anti-airs. I like that with Chel I can cancel sweeps into fireballs (which I almost never get to do in SF, it’s only possible in SF2), and the combos are reasonably interesting. It’s cool to be able to see someone else do a combo I’ve never seen before, then start doing it on them. The kinetic advance system is also cool, it’s like FADC, except you can also jump out of it. Not to mention that combos do get rather execution-heavy at a high level. There are even link combos, usually from M into L.

In its own way, it’s interesting that all the special moves are on single buttons because it very much changes the amount of time you can execute moves in. I remarked on picking up Chel that it was like every character with an anti-air special was a charge character. I mean this in that you can instantly react to jump-ins with just a button tap. I was so trigger happy at first that I even reacted too soon in some cases to jump-ins, whiffing completely, because I expected my fingers to be slower. And the cool-down periods, much as I dislike the use of cool-downs as a balancing measure, do actually add a strategic element to the game, so if your opponent whiffs an anti-air, you know jumping in is safe for the next few seconds. Chel’s projectile has the cooldown negated if it hits the opponent too, meaning that you can keep up fireball pressure as long as the fireballs are hit or blocked, clearly pointing to neutral jump as an answer to Chel’s fireballs.

The other thing is, and I admit this isn’t speaking to the game’s favor, but it’s a proof of concept that even if you simplify the inputs down to the minimum possible level, scrubs won’t magically get good at the game. This is a moral victory for me.
Having inputs that are hard isn’t something that’s strictly speaking a good thing. I don’t think any fighting game needs a pretzel input ever again. I think the move away from FRCs for GG Xrd was a good thing and made the system more interesting, even if there were some OSes that worked in 1.0.

I think that the difficulty of an input is something that should correspond to how helpful the result is. It’s not something that can easily be judged. The difficulty of a given input should be relative to how rarely it needs to happen, so you get easy inputs most of the time, hard sometimes, impossible rarely.

The bigger compromise here is the depth of Rising Thunder in part because of the input system they chose. There are less options, less ways to modulate options, and thus the game is more strategically flat. Having movement commands act as a modifier on top of normal button presses allowed for a larger range of moves to be accessible at once.

Also seriously, wavedashing isn’t hard. You can learn to do it in 30 minutes or less.

Is Depth not Enough if it’s not Stressed?

Would you say that a deep system in a game is not enough, the game must appropriately push it? thinking about this while playing Bulletstorm, which has great weapon variety and ways to defeat enemies, but encounters don’t really demand it, and you get points for doing combinations to compensate and in DMC series, often you can just get used to the attack patterns of enemies to avoid them, and spam a basic attack, and you can get through even Dante Must Die with that, and the game basically becomes God of War, despite having far greater possibilities. Whereas Quake for example ammo depletion forces you to change weapons, and enemy positioning forces you to use movement options and level geometry more fully, so you necessarily get a more complete exploration of the system’s possibilities through the game itself, and those possibilities are actively being tested.

To an extent yes. I have two measures of depth, absolute versus relative. Absolute is the amount of differentiated game states in the game as a whole. Relative is the number relevant to the playerbase. There might be a huge depth inherent in a game, but the playerbase will only access a certain portion of it. To that extent, the game developers must be cognizant of how the game will actually be played. Creating depth relative to the playerbase is a matter of balance. If you have one weapon for which ammo is abundant which does the highest DPS to enemies in all possible situations, then the amount of depth relative to the playerbase will shrink in relation to the absolute depth of the game. If you have enemies which can be dispatched easily regardless of weapon choice, then the game loses the depth of strategic weapon selection as the situation demands it. If you have a ton of weapons that are each only good at killing one enemy, options that only do one thing and don’t even slightly overlap, then you lose all the scenarios when you use a normally suboptimal weapon for an optimal situational purpose (and a lot of alternate solutions, the game becomes more puzzle-like). If you have a ton of options that all do the same thing, then they lose differentiation, which also is a lack of depth.

Designing for depth is about making it so as many different components of the game are relevant in as many different situations as possible. That’s why I have my 3 criteria shorthand, a given option should have it’s own niche (different role from other options), it should have multiple uses, and create different outcomes based on manipulation of the option or circumstances (like allowing jumps of different heights, getting more distance from different timings, more damage for better timing/positioning, inheriting properties from other variables). It occurs to me that I should add a 4th criteria, for whether an option has an interaction or synergy with another mechanic.

From a design perspective, I feel it’s stronger when a ruleset is enforced by winning or losing, by barring progression or recognition of victory until you actually succeed. It’s one thing to have scoring or time as a supplementary objective, but for most people, that feels really weak. Most people don’t care, I usually don’t care. Difficulty can act as a selective force, pushing players to try different things out to optimize their play, which is what brings out the depth of the game.

Yes, I’ve considered how you can just get by spamming a basic attack before and discussed it with a few different friends. I didn’t like how multiplayer games push us to master everything about the game, but single player games seemingly lack this capacity to always push us higher. How do you even grade high level play in DMC? It’s a matter of style and creativity? How could you make a pass/fail system for that type of thing? The truth is, you can always win literally any beat em up game by spamming the weakest attack and not getting hit. This isn’t true of another human opponent, because they adapt. You can’t spam the same thing forever because they’ll just start doing the thing that beats your spam every time. Though theoretically, you could win a match against a human opponent by spamming if you just always did it at exactly the right time.

If you push for scoring systems, then more often than not, solutions become incredibly rigid and repetitive, rather than vaguely allowing anything that manages to get through.

Yeah, you could probably beat DMC3/4 by spamming nothing but stinger, but I don’t imagine it would be particularly easy to beat it that way. Ninja Gaiden can be beaten with flying swallow, but it’s slow and harder than using other moves.

NG is arguably a good case study here, you shouldn’t always use flying swallow because it doesn’t have the best damage output (though it can insta-kill many smaller enemies), and it can be blocked and punished. You shouldn’t always run directly at opponents because many have ranged attacks that will punish a straightforward approach. You shouldn’t always block and counterattack because enemies have guard breakers or throws, which require you to either reverse wind away or dodge outright. You can’t always spam powerful combos because other enemies are around to hit you, and some will block and punish you (though this is only really true of enemies with super armor in NG1, I noticed the chapter 2 boss of NG2 will do this, requiring hitconfirming). Even without an adaptive AI, if you throw in moves like these which incentivize using some moves for some situations, it influences the decision-making process of the player. Oh, and you should always use the ultimate technique, it just may be tricky to find an opportunity.

Another good case study is DMC4’s bloody palace, which has not only waves of enemies, but the timer which you need to defeat enemies quickly and efficiently in order to earn more time for (with only the loose bonuses for enemy deaths, and no damage). Where in story mode you can win with anything, bloody palace is far more selective, pressuring players to not only deal damage without taking it, but to continually do it the most efficiently they can. Though if you play well enough, you can earn a ton of time and not care how much you waste. Might have paid to set a cap on the maximum amount of time you can earn, to like 15-20 minutes or something maybe.

Regrettably even Quake doesn’t require everything from you. I’m pretty sure it can be beaten with nothing but an axe. (Don’t quote me on that, a vore + shambler like in the final map might be trouble). Still yeah, Quake does a lot to make sure all the components in the system are used through ammo limitations (otherwise lightning gun or rocket launcher would wipe everything out).

Still it’s a pretty good example. Custom Gamer goes over rather frequently how even though one enemy, like a Shambler, might be easily beaten with just an axe (which he does) by itself, if you have two enemies, they can fill in for each other and prevent you from just repeating the thing that kills one enemy dead easily. If you throw in a fiend, then you can’t move into melee range for the shambler, then out again as he attacks, the fiend will hit you. You need to dodge both the fiend and the shambler at once, and the optimal pattern for one doesn’t overlap with the other.

But yeah, difficulty, in particular challenges that stress the different options the player has, requiring them to prioritize some over others, making it difficult to pick the one necessary to survive on a moment-by-moment basis, and giving each a chance to shine, is a big deal for depth.