Wonderful 101’s User Experience is a Nightmare

I started replaying Wonderful 101 Remastered recently (I’ve bounced off this game before), and the User Experience (UX) of this game is REALLY REALLY BAD. Here’s a quick introduction to User Experience for people who don’t know. User Experience is a field of design descending from User Interface design that incorporates a lot of different aspects that users run into in the process of trying to interact with a software product or service. In a game, User Experience covers not just the UI, but the presentation of game elements on the screen, the way that rewards are structured, the way new options are unlocked, the color coding of various elements (like enemies, attacks, etc), the presence and intrusiveness of cutscenes, the controller layout, online ranking systems, cosmetics, the tutorialization, and even the structure of the game’s mechanical design itself. Something like the way Gears of War gives new players in online multiplayer a subtle buff for the first 5 matches, so they’re more likely to win and therefore stick around, is UX. UX is ideally informed by research, both on the level of the whole discipline, and for individual games and playtesting to find pain points for new users. Playtesting with new users is inherently UX.

This article helps explain UX in the context of games better: https://medium.com/@player_research/what-is-games-user-experience-ux-and-how-does-it-help-ea35ceaa9f05

Platinum games AS A WHOLE, have extremely bad UX. Wonderful 101 manages to kick it up a notch from the normal badness of Platinum’s UX.

A common Platinum Game UX problem is requiring basic defensive abilities to be unlocked in the store (sometimes through progression). This is in practically every Hideki Kamiya Platinum action game, from Bayonetta (air dodge), to Wonderful 101 (unite guts and unite spring), to Metal Gear Rising (Offensive defense, a dodge. Technically not a Kamiya game). Wonderful 101 is notable here, because Unite Guts and Wonder Spring are your block and dodge, your ONLY defensive abilities. Blocking attacks with Unite Guts is the only easy way to make some enemies vulnerable and the easier of two ways to make them susceptible to juggles. If you do not unlock these abilities, your only way to defend yourself is to run away from attacks, some of which home-in! There is a big tutorial pop-up telling you to buy them when you first visit the shop, but you do not have them for the entire first mission, and the first fight versus bigger enemies in the game. Plus, you won’t see that pop-up unless you go into the store, which you’re not guaranteed to do immediately. Presumably the reason such basic moves are unlocks is so that tutorials don’t need to be front-loaded at the start of the game, and can be spaced out more over the first few missions, and requiring you to buy them makes it obvious what you have versus what you don’t, and you try out the new thing you got. However it would be easy to just have these unlocked from the start and have prompts pop up about them at appropriate points, instead of locking you out of mission critical moves.

The ranking systems in Platinum Games are extremely demotivating to a new player. They function on a triad of time / combo score / damage taken. A new player is guaranteed to score poorly on almost every mission, because they don’t understand the systems, they aren’t familiar with the encounters, they’re practically guaranteed to get hit once per fight, and they get penalized harshly for using continues or items, which these games hand out like candy. This annoys a lot of new players. The ranking systems do exist to give players an incentive to work towards playing the game better/more perfectly, but the combo score component depends on unlocking moves that you do not have from the beginning of the game, and will not unlock until multiple playthroughs through the game. In Wonderful 101, it is not really possible to get a platinum in many fights on the first playthrough because you need to unlock Wonder Rising first. With each weapon no less! My proposal for fixing this problem is to have a completely different grading system for the easy and normal difficulties that is biased towards only giving the highest ranks. Getting a platinum in any of the 3 scores should yield at least a gold rank on the fight, 2 should yield platinum, 3 pure platinum (and if the last is a gold, maybe give pure plat anyway, at least on easy and very easy), REGARDLESS of the other scores. Make it a similar deal with 1 gold yielding at least a silver, 2 gold = gold, 3 gold = platinum, and so on down the ranks. On easy to normal difficulties, make the penalty for using items, low or nil. Same for Continues. Save the real scoring system for the higher difficulties. Fans of action games don’t enjoy clearing out the lower difficulty modes for their score card, in large part because it is so annoying to get a high combo score on the easier difficulties.

Platinum games are loaded to the brim with cutscenes intermittently throughout missions. These cutscenes are frequently fairly lengthly, being minutes long, but don’t have a lot of real plot development. Some of them are unskippable, and skipping a cutscene means opening a menu, moving the cursor over, and selecting skip. It’s nice that you can pause cutscenes so you can walk away. It’s not nice that the pause has a delay before the menu is active, meaning it takes time to pause and unpause, as well as time to move the cursor over to the skip button. You need to do this a lot or sit through a lot of cutscenes and this can seriously interrupt the gameplay and the learning process. If these cutscenes played out without interrupting your ability to interact and progress, they would be significantly less intrusive. Nier Automata largely learned this lesson by having characters speak about non-critical story elements during battles and exploration.

Collectible consumable items pop up CONSTANTLY, with tutorial popups for what they do. These pop-ups always have a delay before you can dismiss them, to guarantee you’ve reread how they work after you already know. I KNOW HOW MUCH A BLUE RUPEE IS ALREADY! This is highly distracting and disturbing to flow. Collecting batteries factors into your final score, as well as how much energy you can use during each mission (???), adding more distraction during fights and exploration.

The screen is massively cluttered with characters, enemies, and random environmental objects, and zoomed in by default. The color scheme makes it difficult to discern enemies or your character from the background, especially in circumstances where the ring around your character disappears. The submenu can come up for rearranging your team leaders, or giving you a radar, which covers enemies underneath it, and it does not display the prompt to dismiss it anywhere onscreen and it does not go away automatically if you don’t use it. BY DEFAULT, THE PC REMASTER HAS KEYBOARD BUTTON PROMPTS ONLY, AND DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY SWITCH WHEN A CONTROLLER IS DETECTED. YOU NEED TO DIG THROUGH THE MENUS TO FIND THE OPTION FOR THIS, AND IT IS NOT CLEARLY LABELED. Tiny enemies are not clearly color coded when they are attacking, or vulnerable (I have not divined the way their states are color coded yet) and are generally easy to miss when they’re attacking, or there is one left to kill before the mission ends. Enemy attack cues can be extremely subtle and not have a clear cadence like in other action games, allowing even the attacks of large enemies to get lost in the sea of information on-screen.

There is no explanation that you need to use unite guts to deflect blunt attacks, or that it is pierced by spiked attacks. My brother actually got up to the tanks and quit because he couldn’t damage them. I knew you needed Unite Guts already from watching footage of the game, so I didn’t have a problem with them. There is no prompt to zoom the camera in or out, or to dismiss the submenu. You need to unlock wonder stinger and wonder rising WITH EACH WEAPON! These are the only 2 command attacks on each weapon and they need to be reunlocked with each one, from finding secrets and fighting enemies! WHY.

Wonderful 101 overloads you with information, distracts you from what’s useful constantly, hides essential features and information, fails to explain essential information, and presents information in a way that is very difficult to interpret. It is entirely clear why so many people had such a hard time getting into this game. It is made seemingly on purpose to drive people away from it as fast as possible, with the tank enemies in particular being hard barriers, requiring you to use options that you don’t necessarily have and certainly that aren’t explained to you.

I’m eventually going to overcome the new player experience and see how good the game is overall, but in the meantime it massively frustrates me.

Are Fan Expectations More Important Than Quality? ft. Durandal

Editors note: This article was co-written by Durandal and I. We each contributed a number of paragraphs and edited back and forth to make the final product.

If you stick around gaming discussions long enough, you might hear the phrase: “it’s a good game, but it’s not a good [franchise/genre] game”. Meaning: while the game might be fun, it does not fit the identity or expectations of a particular franchise or genre. A game not matching expectations is a valid reason to dislike a game, but there’s a tendency amongst fans and reviewers to treat not meeting expectations as an objective flaw with the game’s design. So when there’s a new game which breaks the mold of its genre/franchise, many would criticize the game’s design for not meeting their preconceived notions of how a game in said genre/franchise should play.

This can happen when a game tries to take a classic genre in a new direction, such as Ikaruga. During location tests it got mixed reactions because it didn’t play like any other shmup at the time. Most arcade veterans liked shmups for their straightforward appeal of dodging bullets and blowing everything up. But here the polarity-switching mechanic gives you a shmup that makes you rely much more on strategy and routing over reflexes, making the game more puzzle-like than your average shmup.

Instead of judging Ikaruga in a neutral light from a fresh perspective, many people judged it purely through the lens of what they think a shmup should do. But being a “puzzle shooter” doesn’t make Ikaruga worse or better, just different. Instead of acknowledging that the game is not up their alley, they view the game’s design as objectively flawed. Only how objective can said flaws be to someone with no experience with the genre/franchise?
Continue reading

What is “Souls-Like”?

A lot of people have covered this topic before. I’m more doing this to pin the idea down in case it comes up in conversation again, than because it’s something that really needs to be discussed.

Souls-like is a subgenre of Action RPG games, formed by the unique conventions of Demon’s/Dark Souls. Similar to a roguelike, the Souls series of games have come up with a number of unique conventions that many other games have taken some degree of inspiration from. Games that follow enough of these conventions can be called Souls-Like. Some of them are more influential than others.

High Influence

  • Collecting a currency that is lost on death, but stored at the place where you died, and erased when you die again.
  • There are standard action RPG trappings: levels, equipment, consumable items,
  • The player’s standard attacks have a startup of about half a second or longer (30f at 60fps)
  • Players and enemies can have their attacks interrupted by hitstun.
  • All combat actions (attacking, dodging, blocking, running, parrying) are rationed through a shared stamina bar.
  • You are committed to attacks once you start them and generally cannot interrupt your attacks, except by being hit by enemies.
  • Attacks have actual hitboxes during their animations, not paired animations.
  • There is a dodge and block ability.
  • Using checkpoints resets your health, healing items, and the enemies in the level, but don’t reset items collected or changes to the level’s state.
  • Level design based on checkpoints and opening up shortcuts to earlier checkpoints.

Low Influence

  • Spells, items, and other actions have associated animations that can be interrupted by hitstun before they take effect.
  • Other players can join you to cooperate in beating levels.
  • Other players can invade your single player session to try to kill you in PVP
  • The actions of other players on the network can have an effect on your local session, such as leaving messages behind.
  • You can warp between checkpoints.
  • Some moves have super armor, or there is a poise system that confers armor
  • No pausing, except at checkpoints
  • The controller convention of having attacks and blocking on the shoulder buttons, and item management on the Dpad.
  • Having a classless RPG system, where the only differentiation between characters is their stats and equipment, no fundamental new abilities, or permanent bonuses.
  • Having a metroidvania style interconnected world that becomes more interconnected over time.
  • There aren’t many cutscenes, or canned animations.
  • The setting of a kingdom that was once great, but some calamity connected to the main plot befell it, and now you’re wandering through its corrupted remains.
  • NPCs that all have a sinister chuckle.
  • The game is hard.

Why FEAR 1 Is The Most Important Hitscan Shooter – ft. Durandal

This is another guest post by Durandal. If you’d like to submit a guest post, contact me on discord.

In the 00’s, developers forgot how to make singleplayer shooters with deep combat anymore. For the sake of realism most weapons were made hitscan to resemble how guns work IRL. Enemy variety suffered, since hitscan tracers don’t have as many mutable properties as projectiles do. Weapon variety suffered, since identical enemies don’t warrant a varied weapon arsenal as much. Finally level design suffered, because there isn’t a whole lot you can do with identical weapons and enemies.

So what do you do if the core gameplay lacks variety? The common approach taken by most developers was switching to another style of gameplay to avoid wearing out the core shooting. Instead of running, you’re now driving a tank. Instead of gunning, you’re now forced to be stealthy. Instead of depth, you’re shooting for breadth. Shooters became theme park rides where every half hour they introduced a new mechanic or mode of gameplay and then threw it away for good. Remember all the vehicle sections? The turret sections? The sniper sections, forced stealth sections and escort missions? They weren’t mechanically deep, but they were at least something different.

Soldier of Fortune, No One Lives Forever, the Medal of Honor games, the Call of Duty games, TimeSplitters, Black, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, XIII, the new Wolfenstein games, the Gears of War games, the Killzone games, the Resistance games, even exceptions with standout combat like the Halo games and Vanquish all fell prey to this need to completely change the mode of gameplay for the sake of variety. That’s what happens when you don’t believe your core gameplay can carry the game — when you don’t know how to iterate on hitscan combat.


Stealthily sniping spotlights on a slowly moving monorail really plays to the strengths of Vanquish’ rocket-boosting combat

And then there’s FEAR. On the surface it’s identical to other shooters at the time, save for a slo-mo power and a three-weapon limit instead of the usual two. Here you’ll be fighting the same grunts over and over using a shotgun and some assault rifle variant. Yet despite this generic premise, FEAR managed to stand out in an oversaturated market. Not because of gimmicks or unique mechanics, but somehow good hitscan combat and “good” AI. So what did FEAR do right?

First, FEAR’s combat arenas are circular — meaning each path you can take is surrounded by one or two covered flanking routes. These allow you to circle around the main path and get the drop on enemies, which beats taking guaranteed hitscan damage in a direct firefight. Without these you’re left with a hallway (similar to the left layout in the above diagram) that only allows you to move back and forth, where all you can do is sit in place and play peekaboo; only moving up when most of the enemies are dead. Circular map design (like the right layout in the above diagram) then discourages simple and repetitive strategies like these by giving you the opportunity to move around enemies.

Second, the Replica AI can also make use of these flanking routes. Since no position is safe, both you and the Replicas are always trying to outmaneuver each other for a better angle. This new dynamic gives level designers more options to play around with: arena layout, height variation, player/enemy points of entry, cover density, and other opportunities for creating varied encounters can be used without resorting to gimmicks. More importantly, the levels provide the AI with options too. Without them the Replicas would be stuck playing peekaboo, just like you. “Good” AI is pointless if it has no meaningful options to use.

Third, FEAR grants you the initiative. Before the fight begins, the Replicas will spread out across the arena, unaware of you. This allows you to scan the arena layout, set up traps, and choose how to start the fight. This not only gives you more engagement options, but gives you more courage to start in the middle of the action.

Compare this to entering a new room only to find several Replicas inside already firing at you. Here your only options are to rush in for a better position, or retreat behind the doorway and take potshots. The former will kill you; the latter is boring, because it leaves you with no other viable movement options. There the Replicas can only flush you out with grenades, or waltz into your choke point one-by-one. Even if the room ahead is a well-designed circular arena, it’s wasted if you’re already pushed out of it when the fight begins.

But there’s another aspect to FEAR that sets it apart, and that’s information warfare. Here you have to deal with a fog of war. Enemies are spread out in such a way where you can’t see them all at once, and you’re rarely given a full overview of an arena. So without perfect information, you have to improvise through prediction and info gathering.

One such layer of information is sound, like how the sound of footsteps can give one’s position away. The Replicas are very vocal not just to appear smart, but also to give you more information. This way you can hear what their status is, or what they’re about to do next. Other sources of information may include lighting. Shadows reveal enemies around corners, and Replicas get alerted to your flashlight. And by knowing that Replicas prefer to flank, you can predict the path they’re more likely to take.

Compared to shooters with a similar focus on positioning like Quake 3 or Rainbow Six: Siege, FEAR’s info warfare is very basic. The former pit do pit you against actual human opponents, after all. But FEAR proves there’s untapped potential for singleplayer hitscan shooters where the AI can outmaneuver you. FEAR only doesn’t take the idea that far. To that end, there could be secondary objectives. Vying for resources or having to capture/defend a target would expand the mindgames; force both parties to consider more than killing each other. Diverse enemy behaviours (sneaky, distant, aggressive) could expand what you can predict/exploit. More movement options (destructible surfaces, teleporting, grappling hooks) could expand how you approach each other. Tools such as radars and drones could expand how to gather information. Both parties could spread misinformation using holograms, cloaking devices, traps, and smoke grenades. Most of the Siege operators would make for interesting enemy types, actually.

The flanking game is what makes FEAR great, but the slo-mo power and being able to carry up to 10 instant-heal medkits conflicts with that. Both allow you to tank damage that would have killed you otherwise. And because slo-mo energy refills fast and medkits are handed out like candy, you have a lot of resources to tank through enemy fire; playing down the flanking game in favor of a shallower yet more effective playstyle.

Mechanics that mitigate damage (regenerating health/shields, portable medkits, slo-mo) do allow more aggressive playstyles in the face of hitscan. But these tend to have the opposite effect of encouraging thoughtless brute-force playstyles. Why think about movement if I can tank most damage anyways? To compensate, games could offer you tools to gain the positional advantage. In Crysis and Vanquish you can spend your energy for a positional advantage (Maximum Cloak/Speed, knee thrusters) or an offensive advantage (Maximum Power/Armor, slo-mo). So could FEAR’s slo-mo energy also be used for a speed boost.

FEAR managed to remain engaging despite its limited enemy/weapon variety and it being all hitscan by adopting a new design paradigm. One where positioning and constant movement are emphasized rather than tanking damage or trench warfare, proving that interesting combat can be had with only hitscan. Sadly, no singleplayer game tried to follow in FEAR’s footsteps since, despite the massive unexplored potential of this new paradigm that Rainbow Six: Siege also hints at.

Reworking DMC’s Controls

I think you’ve already expressed your dislike for Chain Combos, and while I understand where you coming from, I can’t imagine a way to totally get rid of them in 3D Beat em Ups without making the controls an abomination to use

Does DMC4 count? Or is that an abomination?

I’d say God Hand is a reasonable example too, it has 1 chain on square, then command moves on X, Triangle, and down + X/Triangle/Square. Plus it has hidden contextual moves on triangle that are just direction + button, and dashing attacks. Since God Hand lets you assign any move to any button, you have a fair number of moves that you could potentially assign. A chain + 5 command moves.This obviously isn’t the most in the world, but it’s a fair number of moves with no chains required. Continue reading

Cool Airdashes (unlike Hollow Knight’s)

You mentioned that Hollow Knight’s airdash on its own was sort of boring, just moving you in a straight line. Whats an interesting airdash?

Something with an arc of some kind, acceleration, deceleration, a hop, a glide.

In Guilty Gear, you have an airdash whose momentum carries you forward as you attack, allowing attacks to chain in ways they cannot off just a jump.

In Melty Blood and UNIEL you have an airdash that’s more like a hop forwards. Mario Odyssey’s dive could be considered an airdash too in this way, it even lifts you up slightly to let you just barely clear platforms.

The dash could start with momentum forwards that falls off as it progresses, and a resistance to gravity that also decreases as it progresses, so it travels straighter as it starts, then begins to fall like normal as it goes.

It could transition into a glide, or have glide-like physics should the player move it manually.

Ori and the Blind Forest’s bash is a really unique airdash-type move.

Morrigan’s airdash in Darkstalkers lets her tilt it up or down as she goes.

Celeste has an 8-way airdash that can transfer its momentum into the ground for a big boost, much like a wavedash, which is interesting.

There’s a lot of ways to toy with momentum and gravity. Hollow Knight’s movement options are all kind of simple and straightforward, only really becoming interesting when you have a bunch of them to combine. Hollow Knight’s double jump is out of the ordinary, being a bit like the jump of the DJC characters from Smash Bros (Yoshi, Peach, Mewtwo, Ness, etc), but this doesn’t increase its utility, it more exists to nerf its functionality versus airdashing and wall jumping, so it occupies a distinct niche relative to them (doesn’t have as fast startup, so it’s slower for climbing and moving laterally), which is fair, and helps make the sum of all of these moves more interesting to use, even if none of them are particularly interesting individually.

At least Hollow Knight doesn’t have the teleport from Axiom Verge. That teleport somehow manages to be even less interesting than HK’s airdash.

Favorite Nioh Bosses

Surprised no one’s asked you that much of Nioh outside of general impressions, do you have any favorite Bosses?

In order of appearance, Hino-Enma, Tachibana, Yuki-Onna, Okatsu, Saika, and Oda Nobunaga. Plus of course the combination fights of Oda and Yuki, and Tachibana and Honda.

I think each of these bosses emphasized the core group of skills that the game was based on, had varied movesets that controlled different areas of space over different lengths of time, and were generally challenging. They’re some of the best bosses I’ve ever faced in a video game. Continue reading

Comparing Stylish Action Games

What are good criterias to analyze and compare hack’n slashes (Bayonetta, DMC, MGR, NG etc)?

I’d say the big fields are, attack design, enemy design, and defense design. Level design doesn’t tend to be a big factor, though enemy composition could be.

The big things in attack design for me are, how many command attacks are there and how varied in function are they? How many strings are there and how varied in function are they?

Platinum style games really emphasize strings on their characters over command attacks. Only DMC and to a lesser extent God Hand emphasize command attacks. The Platinum design ethos seems to be: here’s a bunch of strings, memorize them and perform longer or shorter strings based on the situation. Dodge enemies in the middle of your strings and use dodge offset to keep the string going so you can get to the wicked weave at the end. And maybe some strings have particular launching effects or something. Performing strings gives you magic points which lets you do powerful command attacks to get a wicked weave without doing a string.

DMC meanwhile has a ton of moves you can use at any time, and they have different area coverage, damage output, and combo potential, so their use can differ a lot based on the enemies you’re facing and the current situation.

God Hand sort of strikes a medium by having the customizable combo that acts as filler between everything else, and you also can bind moves that launch in various ways, guard break, dodge highs, hop lows, or other wacky effects.

NG has a lot of strings. I don’t really know why. Most don’t seem very useful really. You can get long combos by doing the right strings to launch and throwing shuriken at the right point in the combo to keep the juggle going.

In terms of defense design, DMC wants you to commit to moves, not allowing attacks to be canceled into defensive options generally. Also you generally jump for defense, though you can roll or trickster dodge too.

Bayonetta wants you to dodge and do it at the last moment for a big bonus, and it makes everything but wicked weaves cancelable, so nothing feels like it has much commitment except wicked weaves. They want you to juggle between doing combos and dodging at the same time without picking one or the other.

Ninja Gaiden uses a block, but the block can be broken, so you really want to block and then dodge out of block usually. And similar to DMC, attacks cannot be canceled, so an attack or string is a commitment you need to weigh carefully. There’s factors that help differentiate block from dodge so each are useful and exclusively dodging will usually get you killed.

MGR really wants you to parry correctly in the right direction the enemy is coming from and then forward dodge and BM cancel out of the parry block. Plus it had ninja run versus bullet attacks.

God Hand lets you dodge out of any attack like Bayonetta, but its dodges are much more constrained, giving a higher feeling of commitment. Plus there’s the differentiation between sidestep, weave, and backflip dodges.

In terms of enemy design, enemies can be more aggressive or passive. More mobile or static, they can be melee or ranged oriented. They can control space or time.

Enemies in DMC tend not to control space very well, being purely about timing really. DMC1 did something really clever and gave all the enemies a mix of close range and long range attacks, making up for the inability to combine enemy types together in the same room. DMC3 enemies especially were very one-note frequently, only having 1 or 2 attacks.

My gut tells me Bayonetta enemies are good, but honestly I haven’t played in long enough to really remember. I’m honestly blanking on NG enemies too. I remember them varying between clean solid design and being gimmicky bullshit a lot. Both games have extremely aggressive enemies however, which is generally nice considering how mobile the protagonists of these games tend to be.

MGR enemies were okay. Camera issues hurt some of them like mastiffs, who are great except for getting obscured off camera especially during their jumping attacks. Generic soldier enemies were a bit weak design-wise.

God Hand enemies are excellent for their ability to threaten different spatial zones, making each of your dodges differently effective versus each enemy type and their various attacks. They also used team tactics and had special quick but escapable throw moves that could vary the pacing of combat a lot. They used things like projectiles, whips, AOE attacks, multihitters, vertical and horizontal swipes, and lunging attacks to seriously vary what tactics were effective against each of them.

Nioh’s not technically in the canon, but I think it did an excellent job of combining all these factors, having a wide variety of moves, interesting and varied defense, and great enemy design.

Also I object to the name hack and slash, because that tends to describe Diablo style games more frequently, and not all stylish action games even feature swords, such as God Hand, or Bayonetta, which is primarily punching and kicking.

Thoughts on Pinball

What do you think of Pin ball?

Pinball is really interesting from a historical perspective. The original pinball machines were more like pachinko, no flippers, no spring, just put the balls in and let them roll downwards. They were more like gambling than the game we know today, and on the original machines, the only way to influence the ball’s movement was to tilt and bump the machine.

http://www.bmigaming.com/pinballhistory.htm

Later machines included tilt and bump sensors to detect if people were physically tilting them to cheat, usually tuned so there was a little tolerance, so players could still bump it, but not too much or the sensor would give you a warning, or eventually disable your flippers if you ran out of warnings. If you’ve ever seen old cartoons with the pinball gag, then this is where it comes from.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PinballGag Continue reading