The AAA “Design Pillar” Methodology

Modern AAA Games tend to follow an approach in their development process called Design Pillars. The creative direction for the game picks out distinct pillars for how the game will work, and this serves as a guiding beacon for everyone below them. A common problem in game development in the past was that design documents would spiral out of control, no one would read them, and and all the different people involved in development have their own vision of what the game is, leading people to make conflicting choices about how to implement different parts.

Design Pillars help orient everyone towards a common goal, creating a unifying vision of what the game is, so that everyone will hopefully make game design choices oriented towards the same goals. Design pillars help keep massive teams of people on the same page in a way that older game design practices didn’t.

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The Barrier to Entry

Do you think the real entry barier to videogames might actually be the player? At the end of the day, no matter how hard or easy a game is, how good they perform is determined by what they practice, how they practice, and whether or not they have the motivation to learn how to play.

Thinking that way is pointless.

Why are some games more popular than others? Is it because they’re necessarily easier? Harder? Or is it a lot of other factors? Brand popularity? Marketing strategies? Graphics? The concept of the game?

Either factors about the game affect the game’s popularity, or it’s random luck of the draw. Given that there are correlations between various factors and popularity, it can’t be purely luck of the draw.

Is it individual players that decide to be interested in any given game? Is there not something about the games themselves that influences this decision to play overwatch or call of duty for hundreds of hours?

The Melee community as a whole is at a much higher base level of competency than it was in 2006. The weakest players are stronger than ever. That’s why there’s the meme about low level smashers going back in time and tearing up the tournaments in the early days with advanced future technology. The worst players are better because the quality of the instruction has gotten better. There are way better tutorials and low level players understand a lot more about the game.

If you put the resources closer to the game, give people better tools, make the game give more feedback about what is going on and what they did wrong, then they will learn the game better.

Individual players have barriers or setbacks, but in considering what can be done to make a game or video games in general more approachable, you need to think on a systemic level, not an individual player level. In large groups, people tend to act predictably, even if it’s difficult to predict individuals. People follow the path of least resistance, and it’s up to you to make that path the one towards your product.

East Vs West

Do you really believe that eastern devs are better than western devs? if so what brought you to that conclusion? What is it that eastern dev do differently?

Y’know, yeah. I do think that. I mean, I think it because Japanese games tend to be good more consistently, and the majority of my favorite games (and the games I believe are the best games) are Japanese.

There’s some indicators of what they do differently in articles like these:

“I’m stereotyping, but in the West, scope, visuals, and features are the main attraction. For example, when we used to have Kojima Productions L.A.—we had an office in Los Angeles—we would get proposals for new games, pitches. It always started with: “This is the world you’re in. This is the experience I’m going to give you.” And gameplay was relegated to page 5 or 6 or 10. It was always about who you’re playing, who is the character, what’s going on, but not the “how,” how am I playing this?

In Japan, a pitch is a page, maybe two. The first page you write what the game is about and how you play it. And the second page, maybe you need an illustration. We don’t care about who, or what the story is, what the game world is, all of this doesn’t really matter.”

“Halo 2 and Half-Life 2 were developed in foreign countries. Perhaps foreign gamers simply like to play in realistic environments but I feel like there is something else to it. I think that American gamers have a stronger feeling that they themselves are the character in the game that Japanese gamers don’t feel as strongly.

Both of these games are FPS titles which have become very popular lately. I don’t think they necessarily rose to popularity because people simply like the genre or because the United States is a gun society, but rather because FPS is a genre that lends itself to really feeling like the character in the game.

An example that comes to mind is hearing a female gamer from overseas say that she thought it was awesome that she was able to become Dante when playing Devil May Cry. Overseas developers also spend a lot of time talking about how their games are immersive and feel realistic. Even for games that are in the same genre, if one uses cel-shading and the other doesn’t, the one that feels more realistic will probably be better received. This might also be a factor for why Final Fantasy games have taken on a more movie-like feel.

I think the feeling of actually being in the game world has become very important. It might be fitting to describe it as a Hollywood movie you can play. When looking at games in the west, that seems like a fitting description.”

“Sakurai: I think 3D games give American gamers a more immersive feeling. Japanese games are more of a fusion of 2D and 3D, or rather the visuals are 3D but paired with 2D game elements. I feel like there are a lot of those types of games. I don’t think that’s necessarily good or bad though. There is a gap between the, ‘I’m truly in the game world so this is natural,’ and the, ‘a game is a collection of systems,’ ways of thinking. This gap is changing the way we think about what makes a game feel like a game.”

I think that Japanese developers simply think more thoroughly about the game systems and how they can be used to challenge the player. They put a lot of polish into those where in the west we have more the AAA model, which focuses very heavily on superfluous details as well as unskippable cutscenes/tutorial sequences which drive me up a wall. Japan’s system-oriented approach turns out to be better for fostering the things I consider to be important in the final outcome of the product. Nintendo with the Mario games tend to mash together ludicrous ideas and characters to make certain mechanics work. It’s why Koopas are a turtle, so you can have that visual metaphor of the turtle going into the shell, then kicking the shell. It’s why you have Cappy and hat-wearing enemies in Mario Odyssey.

Although interestingly, despite being less game-oriented and more movie/simulation oriented, western gamers prefer higher difficulty levels than japanese gamers. I have two indicators of this:

“Western gamers like to challenge things. If a game is very difficult, they view beating it as a triumph over a sort of foe. Japanese gamers will quit if a game is too hard. They want an RPG where you never die. If you play an RPG correctly, you should not die. That is the point. Most RPGs are not concerned with raising your skill, they are concerned with raising your EXP – Experience. I think that Japanese companies are slowly losing the ability to make hard games that still appeal to Japanese users, and this is evidenced by the decline in sales of action games as Japanese users lose interest in challenging higher difficulty levels.”

And the feedback from the Nioh beta, Japan was not as happy with the difficulty and game balance as the West was. It’s kind of interesting that we’re split this way, but it would explain why the highest difficulty mode in western games is frequently challenging to the point of actually constricting depth instead of carefully drawing it out as tends to be the case in japanese games. As one person put it, “Built for no one, and playtested by no one.” I wish we stuck with the difficulties in Quake and Doom where more/different enemies are added instead.

nioh demo survey results.jpg

In the feedback for the Final Fantasy XV demo, we see a similar discrepancy between NA and Japan.


One point I have to admit to the west though is, the west has always been better at FPS and RTS games. Japan has never really tried to compete there, presumably because Japan is not very big on PC gaming, and both genres need a mouse to really be effective. Although, our glory days in both genres are long behind us.


Is Difficulty in Games Exclusionary?

What do you think about Skip Gameplay buttons and Difficulty being a means of excluding other people from being accepted as real gamers?

The thing I have to say on the recent “Difficulty is Exclusion” topic is, a big part of the art of games is their challenge. Challenge isn’t some arbitrary wall that exists to restrict you from experiencing the entire product you paid for; That wall is literally a part of the product you’re paying for, part of the desired experience. People pay to get walls like this set up in front of them that they can test themselves against and work to improve at and overcome. Games are a type of structured play that entertain us by allowing us to overcome challenges, a drive that’s built into us as humans. The design of these challenges is varied and artistic in its own right, not simply a gating mechanism for experiencing the other art present in the game. Having a system that is constructed to only allow access to successive challenges if you can beat prior ones is a unique type of experience that a lot of people intensely value, and they’re not wrong for desiring and valuing experiences that force them to “git gud”. This plays on a natural human instinct that is highly cathartic.

I don’t have a problem with “tourist” or “pacifist” difficulty modes that allow people to stroll through the game without resistance. I don’t have a problem with games having an easy mode, or a skip button for gameplay. However, not all games should have these things. Games should be allowed to exist and thrive for not giving the players an easy way out, for not even presenting the option. There isn’t an objectively correct way to do difficulty, and some people intensely value games that force them to put their nose to the grindstone in order to succeed, just as other people don’t value those things and intensely value the other aspects of entertainment software. Games should exist to cater to both these tastes instead of uniformly insisting that every game is hard only, or that every game allow you to skip gameplay. Games should be free to occasionally not give you a choice. This isn’t exclusionary, it is the nature of the art itself, as much as color is part of the nature of paintings. Not everything needs to be for everyone. It’s okay to cater to the individual tastes of a niche. “git gud” is another way of saying, “Try a little harder, you can do it, and you’ll see why I enjoy this game too.” It’s a way of ending toxicity from people who blame the game for their failure instead of themselves.

The concept of a skip gameplay button draws a kneejerk reaction from a lot of people, including myself, because having that in a game can feel patronizing, can allow us to cheat ourselves, and not having the option to do that brings a type of certainty and reassurance. It’s okay to let people skip things sometimes, but it’s also worth recognizing the value in being forced to achieve with no alternative. The advocation for the ability to skip any challenge is seen by many people as a sign that journalists just don’t get what so many people love about games. That they don’t get a fundamental part of the medium, from tabletop games, to sports, to video games. These people aren’t exclusionary (usually), they want other people to enjoy the same thing they enjoy, without removing or altering the thing they love most about it.

It’s not a matter of you being entitled to all the content you paid for. A big part of the thing itself is the enjoyment of needing to work to see all of it, not because it’s exclusive, but because working hard and challenging ourselves is intrinsically enjoyable. It’s fun to improve and figure new things out on our own. Games are the artistic expression of different types of challenges. This art form of artistic challenges, including and especially intensely difficult ones, deserves to exist! It is as pure a reflection of human nature as any other art, and it should not be truncaded in a misguided attempt to deliver it to more people, without delivering the soul of the thing itself. Please make an attempt to understand why this is something people enjoy for its own sake, rather than assuming it’s the petty exclusionary amusement of a club of insiders. Please don’t dismiss it just because it is not to your taste and you cannot empathize with the concept of enjoying the process of learning through overcoming hardship. Games are beautiful, but this type of discussion is aimed at dividing people and turning them against one another, as members of separate tribes, rather than each taking a chance to understand and enjoy what others have enjoyed in the games they love.