Can a Game be Good Without Anything Extraordinary?

Do you think games with several different gameplay elements, where each of them is serviceable, but not great, amounts to a merely competent game, or can proper implementation of those features, make the overall product great. Does a game like Beyond Good and Evil succeed at it?

I’d say it’s competent or bad. I wouldn’t call Beyond Good and Evil good.

To make a good game, you can’t just do a bunch of things well. If anything I think it comes down to doing at least one thing really well, then continuing to do other things well or really well. Continue reading

How should we form values to judge games by?

How is it possible to establish which values we should hold games up to in order to figure out how good the game is? You can point to the best games and say they have X value, but in order to establish that those games are great, you have to presume a value by which to judge it.

It’s based on people. People tend to like certain things, we notice what those things are, we attempt to establish what values within those things are desirable, we produce new work based on those values, we see if our work is effective, and refine our model.

It’s a big cycle that informs itself. We need to build models, and refine them based on observation and experimentation. Nothing of what exists today came to exist in a vacuum. We’ve gone through millennia of cultural evolution. I think that the base desires that motivate us have stayed relatively consistent on a human level (though this is debatable, and also culturally influenced) and we’ve steadily found things that we respond more strongly to, then we had children, who also responded strongly to those things, either because culture informed them they should, or because it’s a human desire, or both, and the previous generation died. So the next generation is stuck with preexisting works that express preexisting values, and does not begin totally from scratch. We’re born in the middle of a chicken and the egg problem. Objects from the prior generation are already considered valuable by the time we get here, and we need to individually interpret whether that value is true or false. I wasn’t around for the NES, I came to the conclusion NES games were good based on playing them myself.

I’ve selected values based on what I think the most important aspects of games are across observation of a bunch of games, and tried to separate those values from the influence of culture. These might just be what I personally value more than anything else, people have certainly accused me of that in the past, and will again in the future. However I try to separate it from my own value system by acknowledging that not all games I’d consider good are necessarily games that I like, and not all games that I like are necessarily good. I think that the values I’ve chosen tie back to human nature, or exist for practical design reasons. I recognize that human nature varies a bit on an individual level, but I think we’re similar enough as a group to attempt to make general value evaluations.

I think what people get hung up on with your way of thinking is that you think of the word ‘good’ as objective while things you ‘like’ are subjective, whereas to most people they’re both subjective and pretty much the same thing. Why bother ‘liking’ things if you can’t call them ‘good’?

Because the qualities I admire in them don’t outweigh the negative aspects of those things, but are unique to those things. Or I liked them as a kid and still unironically like them even though they’re fucked up or kinda lame. Like Dungeon Keeper 2, even though everyone else seems to prefer Dungeon Keeper 1 and DK2 itself is kinda broken and one dimensional in a lot of ways.

I think most people connect things that are good to some type of objective basis. I think that when you assign something a property, you’re saying that belongs to the object, not to your perception of the object. Rampant subjectivism comes from recognizing that we assign properties to objects based on our perceptions of objects, so it is assumed that especially for non-functional or impractical objects that their properties are indistinguishable from our unique perception of them, which is unmappable to other people’s perception of them. I’ve explained my reasons for disagreeing with this in the past and don’t really want to repeat myself.

That loltaku post you linked on twitter is retarded. no good first year philosophy course will tell you “nothing is objective.” he also equates objectively quality with how the “average person” sees art.

I’m pretty sure the implication is that first year philosophy isn’t good, it’s introducing people to basic philosophical concepts, not all of which are in agreement with each other. That and haven’t we gone over before that nobody can be perfectly objective off the bat, but we can use various methods to get closer and closer to objectivity and refine our models until we approach analysis more descriptive of the world as it is and detached from our individual lens?

“Roger Ebert, on more than one occasional, gave movies he personally disliked a thumbs up, and movies he liked a thumbs down, because despite his personal enjoyment he could recognize the quality of the movie and how the average person would feel after seeing each.”
loltaku is coming at this from a pretty standard perspective, where the problem isn’t the methodology of the reviewers, the problem is that they give the wrong scores relative to common consensus, which is why people like older game reviews and dislike modern ones. They perceive that old game reviews were more in line with public opinion, or at minimum that reviewers were more direct and honest.

And the concept of a general audience reaction thing is a type of objectivity, I mean, I’m pursuing a slightly different standard in my own writing, more about the way a game appeals to the base instinct of fun, but both of these are about generalities in relation to people.

That and the important parts of the post to me were,
“yes, reviews can never be purely objective, but if we want to get into intolerable first year philosophy, nothing can really be objective. That doesn’t mean you can’t attempt to judge things with an objective eye.” with that last sentence being the operative part of the paragraph.
“The ability to detach yourself from your personal preferences and view things objectively, as well as the ability to articulate why you think something is good/bad are what is SUPPOSED to separate a professional critic from an amateur one”
“Roger Ebert, on more than one occasional, gave movies he personally disliked a thumbs up, and movies he liked a thumbs down, because despite his personal enjoyment he could recognize the quality of the movie”

Critiquing Control Schemes

What do you think is the best method to critiquing controls?

That’s complicated. I think criticizing controls sits somewhere between User Experience and Game Feel. Also controls can mean a number of things. It can mean the actual buttons that each action is bound to, and it can mean the way the game responds to input. It’s a matter of figuring out what feels good in terms of how the animation responds tightly to your input (like nero’s shuffle or calibur). And it’s a matter of figuring out how to make it easy and understandable to input the actions the player is trying to input.

Here’s something recent for binds: Nero’s controls in DMC4 are just fucked. There’s 3 buttons you want to be holding like, all the time, Lock-on, Gun, and Devil Buster. Holding onto an enemy with Devil Buster is optional, it’s not the most useful feature in the world, but the other two you want to be doing rather frequently. In the default control scheme, charging the gun is ridiculous. Everyone I know rebinds the gun to a trigger. Even with the gun bound to a trigger, it’s a pain in the ass to hold the trigger and also pump the shoulder button to get EX-ACT. Maybe a better configuration might be having the exceed bound to the button gun used to be on, but devil buster is just completely fucked. It gets worse when you want to juggle an enemy, summon swords or stay in the air longer by shooting the gun repeatedly. That’s difficult on a trigger. Continue reading

My Standard of Quality for Games

Your definition of quality in games is meaningful/interesting depth, right? Doesn’t that leave out satisfying gameplay? Melee would have the same amount of depth if there were a big input delay, all the sounds were really annoying, the animations were not as pleasing, etc.

Depth is not my only component for quality of gameplay, it is only the most significant component by a large margin.

Melee and other competitive action games end up being very different games if you introduce significant amounts of input delay, for reasons of reaction time. Though their absolute depth stays the same, their relative depth changes when you introduce a big delay like that, because players are less able to adjust and make fine grain inputs precisely, so the way they need to play the game changes, basically always for the worse. Continue reading

What Should be in a Review?

How would you sum up what you want from a game review?

Ostensibly the purpose of a game review is to tell the reader whether the game is good or not, with or without existing knowledge of the game. (usually without, but it becomes more of a tastemaking thing over time instead of a consumer awareness thing). The goal is either to give a consumer enough information to make a purchasing decision, or to justify/influence a player’s opinion of a game they’re familiar with.

Assuming this is the job of game reviews, then the question is, what are all the things necessary to accomplish this? Assuming the reader has no knowledge of the game beforehand, the review must make clear how the game plays. Thanks to streaming video, we can do this much more easily than we used to be able to, but everything about a game’s operation is not clear from video alone.

From there, I think it’s about evaluating the way the game is played, and the content that is played through in a way that is made clear through predefined criteria. You need to establish what traits make a game good and how this game lives up to that. If this game violates norms, you need to argue for how it redefines what makes a game good, and not in a localized way that explains this one game without offering a broader, more general, explanation for games categorically.

Beyond that, there’s probably a bunch of really specific examples of what I’d like to see out of game reviews that are hard to sum up generally. I’d like to hear less of, “This mechanic feels loose and difficult to control” and more of, “This mechanic functions exactly this way, which may produce a loose feeling.” I want to see more of the scientific process going into game reviews, more evidentialism. Cite examples and use them to build conclusions. Do not mix opinions and observations. Do not attempt to tell us how you feel about something in the process of describing it. Describe it first, then explain why it does or doesn’t work.

Beyond that, try to get at the heart of the game. What’s the central enjoyable thing the game is about?

Have you talked about what you think makes a good review? Is it anything besides a precise description of mechanics and an evaluation of depth?

Yes, I answered that in this older ask:

It’s about user experience, depth, challenge, game feel, and maybe a couple other things.

Novacanoo wrote a summary of what guidelines he inferred for reviews from my critique of his review:

Oh yeah, I’ve updated that. The first and second points are now somewhat contradictory, but that’s the eternal struggle.

That’s cool, thanks for the update. Don’t totally agree about the judging intention thing. I’ve gone over that in other asks.

Definitions: Fairness and Challenge

You’ve got a solid definition for “depth.” Can you give similar definitions for “fairness” and “challenge”?

Sure thing.

Fairness is perceptual, people have differing standards of fairness. In single player games fairness is typically a matter of accurately communicating to the player what they’re engaged in, preventing them from getting blindsided, or letting them know that they may get blindsided and how to prevent it. Fairness is typically perceived as a matter of clarity. For that purpose many single player games even overcorrect, adding extra buffers or leniencies to tilt things in the player’s favor, because player perception is not always perfect, and they can miss an input in the space of a frame or two and think they got it when they didn’t. Many games make enemy hurtboxes smaller for this purpose.

In multiplayer games, there’s a similar impetus on communicability for fairness, but more than that it comes down to fairness between players and there’s even more widely varied standards there. This is typically a matter of balance, but players can perceive a lot of things as unfair, leading to scrub mentality. They can get hung up on individual moves that they think are unfair. They can get hung up on other players being better than them. They can get hung up on which characters are good or bad. It’s a mess. Is it fair that players can master certain techniques and win way more consistently? Is it fair to use unintended tricks? Is it fair to use unreactable mixups? Is it fair to have randomness affect the outcome of a match? Is it fair for a player who puts in less time to beat someone who puts in more time? Is it fair that some characters are better than others? A lot of these questions will be answered differently by different people.

Fairness means treating players without bias and preventing injustice. In Singleplayer contexts, preventing injustice is a matter of figuring out what players perceive as injust or imposing your definition of just upon them (“average human reaction time is about 15 frames, if this move’s startup is 15 frames long, you have no right to complain”). Ultimately you’re working to satisfy your players, so you need to be in tune with their perceptions to make them feel like the game is fair.

Challenge is a lot simpler. It’s a task that one is inconsistent at completing, where consistency is dependent on the individual’s skill. It may be used to refer to a specific instance of a difficult task in a game (eg. a reaction challenge).

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.

My Influences

What are your influences in your work?

That’s complicated. There’s a lot. Between places I’ve been, things I’ve read, games I’ve played, and the experiences I’ve had. The following is not in strict chronological order.

Egoraptor’s sequelitis was an early influence. I wanted to make a game analysis channel with some friends because of him. It showed to me that there was a hidden layer to games that I didn’t really perceive. That’s what made those cartoons so successful I think. That’s why channels like NerdWriter or Every Frame a Painting are successful. It’s the basis of video essays. I had a similar experience early on in college with film theory. My storytelling professor told us about a scene from a film and he recontextualized the scene in a way that was incredible. He also broke down scenes from disney movies like 101 Dalmatians into all the staging and other elements going on in them, things that people see and perceive and pick up on, but don’t consciously examine why those elements are arranged.

Of course being on 4chan /v/ was a big deal. It’s a cesspool, but a bunch of intelligent people pass through and there’s no easier way to stay on top of what’s currently happening as well as get obscure content. I got introduced to extra credits, I found other blogs and resources on game design from amateurs, like Dagda-mor

Running into icycalm and the ghetto forum was something that helped me figure out where I stood and develop my ideas, even though I’m not a fan of their practices and my current ideas don’t really derive from theirs in any way. The ghetto ended up introducing a ton of games to me that I wasn’t previously familiar with, and I was able to get good at fighting games and play a bunch of obscure ones thanks in part to them. Got into older games and got a ton of NES recommendations from one guy. Nobody there agreed with my views, and I had to figure out a coherent way of voicing my position, and iterate on my position to really argue with them. From threads on 4chan and other resources I started assembling my playlists of vidya skill videos. I also gained countless infographics, like that old one positioning narratology and ludology as juxtapositions, opposites.

Early Gather Your Party videos like the rise and fall of bunnyhopping as well as instig8’s videos were an influence in presentation formats. Video essays like that are rather common now.
I read this a lot in high school and college. It probably helped my analytical thought process more than a lot of other things. In addition to it I read books on influential psychology, the “you are not so smart” blog, other resources on behavioral psychology as applied to human behavior, hypnosis, and neurolinguistic programming.
This work more than any others of raph koster’s has influenced my view of fun in relation to games.

I also became familiar with speedruns and TAS, and originally I didn’t like speedruns, only TAS. I had negative experiences with rhythm games, super meat boy, and other really rote score-based games that I did not really get the appeal of speedruns. TAS was cool because it was like pure magic. I eventually came around, I’ve explained that elsewhere. Speedruns have helped me understand a lot of how games are put together, though my own investigations have helped too.
Fighting games helped that, because they require you to know a lot about their systems. Thankfully Smash Bros Melee was well documented, helping me out with that game.
Sirlin helped out a lot, he’s done a ton of great and practical writing on games.
Kayin’s written some neat stuff, can be a dick over personal and game politics.

Sean Malstrom has made me think about how fun, arcadey action oriented games might not only be popular, but in the financial best interest of companies.

zeboyd published a bunch of nice stuff on RPGs

Radiator has interesting notes on level design, this one in particular
This is a larger compilation by Hamish Todd, who also independently published interesting articles on gama sutra and even kotaku

Reading Kirbykid’s writings and disagreeing with a large chunk of them and other stuff has been a big influence on getting me in the right place. Used to participate in google hangout sessions with him and other people affiliated with him. I worked with him on the starseed observatory, but regrettably never contributed a piece to it. I felt like I kind of missed out, because I did have a unique idea for it.

Raph continues to write cool stuff on his blog

I don’t know how I found all this stuff, it just comes to me, and I have a lot more stuff I could cite, but I won’t.

Control Scheme Critique

How do you approach critiquing control schemes? Do you often change control settings? Do you think certain control schemes like motion or touch are inherently bad or is it just that most devs don’t design around them and instead try and retrofit them to established designs? (Or dumb down established designs to fit those control schemes.) What about playing fighting games with keyboards/hitboxes or playing shooters with analog controls?

I change control settings for a lot of first person shooters, like I recently changed the melee attack button in overwatch to F instead of V. I frequently switch crouch to control instead of C. I rebound the jump button in Dark Souls 2 to be the same as the dodge/run button.

I frequently use xpadder to bind screenshot keys to my controller in various games, or so I can play non-FPS games on PC that lack proper controller support, or don’t let me double bind buttons.

Critiquing control schemes is generally about figuring out the best way to map buttons so that none of the buttons interfere with the use of any of the other buttons or inputs on the controller, and maintains a suitable controller metaphor.

For example, Dark Souls maps its attack buttons to the shoulders, which is rather unconventional, because it wants you to move the camera as you move around and attack, and because it maintains the left hand/right hand metaphor set up in the equipment menu.

Conventional action games map their attack buttons to the face because it’s more readily accessible, and because their levels generally have wide open arenas for fighting instead of more careful level design that the camera can get caught on (except MGR, and the camera suffered there), so they don’t need to worry as much about the player having active control over the camera.

Nioh is inspired by dark souls and has very similar gameplay, but does not maintain this same control scheme, in part because it has no 2 hand metaphor for its weapons, and because it has a new stance system metaphor. Stances are changed using the R1 button as a modifier, then pressing a face button. R1 is a shoulder, making it perfect as a modifier button, because it does not conflict with the face buttons, where the reverse would not be true. It’s hard to use face buttons as modifiers for other face buttons, except pressing two buttons at a time. You could use a single button for this like DMC does, but the R1 here has a function for regaining Ki too, so you don’t always want to switch stances.

I don’t think Motion and Touch are inherently bad, I just think they’re good at different things than conventional interfaces, and most games made with those control schemes don’t leverage what they’re capable of. Wii Sports is the best selling Wii game because it literally could not exist in any form but motion controls. You can’t really do games like Bowling and Golf nearly the same way. 99% of the other games on the system didn’t deliver in anything close to the same way.

As for touch, it’s a similar deal. Touch doesn’t do a lot that can’t be done by other means. Most games on the DS didn’t really take advantage of touch, and that’s fine because the DS had capable regular controls and capable regular games.

So what does touch do better than conventional controls? What’s a game you couldn’t control as well if you reverted it to standard controls? The World Ends With You is my first answer. In that game, you need to move the character in battle by picking them up and dragging them. You control and differentiate different commands in battle through how they’re activated, and a lot of those are gestures that not only specify what action you’re using, but where you’re using it and how.

You can tap to fire off bullets to specific areas, you can slash to launch enemies or create pillars at points, scratch to produce an effect on the scratched area, drag to pull objects, circle enemies, and more.

And the combat system ended up being pretty cool/dynamic in the end.

In a traditional control system, you can’t control things so far away from the character that precisely, or move the character as quickly and slowly. With a mouse, it’s harder to draw gestures precisely, or trace/draw paths that aren’t straight.

Touch interfaces also have the benefit of multitouch, but I can’t think of a good example that uses that.

As for the difference in input methods for fighters versus shooters, I think there’s a very different and weird thing going on between these. In fighting games, almost any input method is basically as good as any other input method. There isn’t a lot of difference for arcade fighting games. People have seen success using anything with enough separate digital inputs for the directions and all the buttons basically. Evo has been won on pad, and recently at that with Luffy. In traditional fighting games, controllers are mostly seen as a preferential thing with very minor advantages across controller types.

In shooters, there’s a very clear best way to play, and it’s keyboard and mouse. Mostly the mouse. The reason this differs from fighting games is, shooters take analog input, not digital input, and there are very clearly different things possible across different types of analog input. Some games aren’t possible unless you have enough buttons, the difference here is that some games aren’t possible no matter how many buttons you add. It’s not something that can be linearly scaled up.

Nothing but mouse allows as fast speed or fine modulation of aiming on an infinite canvas.

Similarly, you can’t play Smash as well unless you have an analog stick, because it has actual analog inputs you can’t replicate otherwise (like DI, dashing vs walking, etc)

Digital input methods seem to scale well, analog tends to be more specialized.

Do Games really need to be Fun?

Do all games need to be “Fun”?

Fun means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Minecraft is one of the most popular modern games, but a lot of its activity is extremely slow and passive. Despite this, many people would say Minecraft is fun.

I’m not going to go into a detailed explanation of each, but lets list off some games with unconventional fun: Horror, Puzzle, Masocore, Building, Text-based, Adventure, tower defense, simulation, gambling.

All of these are fun in some way though, even if they don’t strictly share the same fun elements.

It’s like movies, plenty of movies are sad, some are scary, some are depressing, some are inspirational, but all are engaging. On some level, we enjoy feeling sad, anxious, or scared in the form of a movie. If we don’t enjoy that, if we don’t experience some type of catharsis through seeing the film, then we typically turn it off, or avoid it.

Movies don’t have to be fun, however with games, I think the fundamental operating method is through fun. People who have different definitions of fun than I do will disagree, and that is fine. It’s not a very clearly defined word in the public consciousness.

Games are the art of challenge, the art of manipulating systems. Fun is a response to the successful manipulation of a system. Games modulate this in different ways, which is where the art comes in, but fundamentally what makes a game is connected to fun in one way or another. Even horror games, commonly presented as a counter-example to games needing to be fun, use the mechanism of fun as a road to horror.

Yeah, I think fun is something intrinsic in games, which is a bit unlike other artistic media, but (most) other artistic media isn’t founded on manipulating a specific behavioral process.