Tabletop Game Designers Know What’s Up

This blog has attempted for years to articulate what game design is for video games. It was born out of a frustration in video games discourse that the discourse was so vague and distracted by the narrative, the setting, the immersive illusion created by video games. For the past decade I’ve aimed to discuss the raw mechanics of games and what makes gameplay good, because I’ve gone across the whole range of people talking about video games and no one else has been doing it.

There have always been hints of this raw mechanical talk in competitive video games. I’ve always recommended that people trying to learn game design study competitive games, because the way those communities talk about their games directly addresses the mechanics and doesn’t get lost in the fiction.

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SF6 is the Intro Game the Genre Needs

Street Fighter 6 is the “Beginner’s First Fighting Game” I’ve been looking for.

I’ve been harping on for years that fighting games shouldn’t be getting easier, they should do a better job teaching you how to play them. We’ve seen some improvements in tutorials over time, such as Skullgirls, Xrd Sign & Revelator, Under Night In-Birth, and Them’s Fightin’ Herds, but all our most of the above have been brief system tutorials for the most part with very little on fighting game fundamentals.

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Frame Data Patterns that Game Designers Should Know

Startup, Active, Recovery, Hitstun
Advantage, Disadvantage, Combo, Unsafe
Frame Trap

This Dustloop page is a helpful companion to this article.

Every attack has 3 phases, startup, active, and recovery. Startup is time before the attack has a hitbox out. Active is the time that the hitbox is out. Recovery is the time after the hitbox is out before you return to idle.

Attacks inflict a stunned animation on those that they hit, either hitstun or blockstun. This stun animation will interrupt whatever animation is currently playing, even if that animation is stun. In most games, the hitstun and blockstun animations are different durations, with hitstun being longer than blockstun.

If the hitstun animation is longer than the recovery frames of the move, then the attacker will be able to act first, before the enemy who was stunned. Frame Advantage means it’s your turn, and the amount is how much of a head start you get.

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Blocking is Cool Actually

It is easy to focus on a myopic view of skill in video games as pushing a button to hit a tight timing window. It’s a common skill test. It’s a very obvious demonstrable skill. Most laypeople can easily recognize that it takes skill. However, there are a lot of other skills that are common in video games, and the purpose of these skill tests is not just to test skills in a vacuum, which is easy, you could go hop on human benchmark and do that all day, but to create a larger system of choices and interactions that test a variety of skills at once, and creates variety in the way each skill is tested. Continue reading

Sekiro is not a Souls-like

I have previously written on what I feel makes a game souls-like or not. I think Sekiro has a lot of the same feeling that Souls games do, being made by the same developer and having a world that reacts similarly to your actions, but I don’t think it’s a Souls-like game because the combat doesn’t emphasize the same skills. I think Sekiro is closer to Batman Arkham Asylum than the Souls games.

Demon’s Souls was a critical innovation in combat systems compared to other 3rd person action games because of a few key decisions: Slow player attack speed, uncancellable attacks, shared stamina across running/dodging/blocking/attacking, a realtime healing animation. Sekiro has 1 of these, realtime healing, which is the least essential. Instead, Sekiro has fast attacks, it lets you cancel them for a significant portion of the startup of the move, and it does not have a stamina system, only a guardbreak meter.

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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 Traveling Soulsman

So, I’ve been playing Elden Ring lately, and taking some notes. In the process of drafting up my thoughts on it, I ended up with a long tangent about non-linear interconnected maps in Metroidvania style games, and how the souls series tackled this precisely once with Dark Souls, and never again, because they made every bonfire warpable. I decided this tangent was long enough to deserve its own article.

The open world of Elden Ring creates a level of non-linearity and interconnectedness that hasn’t been seen in the series since Dark Souls 1. Ordinarily, fast travel to every bonfire would ruin this, but I think it works fairly well in Elden Ring’s case. Areas aren’t connected by corridors like the Soulsborne games, so you end up doing a lot of exploration anyway, instead of just teleporting to the level you want to go through. Given the distance between locations, going without fast travel wouldn’t really have been viable, because you might end up needing to travel a really REALLY far distance.

The benefit of nonlinear games (like Demon’s Souls) is that you can complete content in differing orders, making it so that no two playthroughs repeat content in the same order, adding a degree of depth. Nonlinear interconnected games (like Dark Souls) expand on this by having you traverse mixed portions of content forwards and backwards, even after you’ve beaten it, meaning you don’t just experience content out of order, but in a varied stitched together order many times over, while also having to engage in pathfinding challenges. In a nonlinear game, you might simply select the content you want to complete as need arises (eg. figure out what level has the thing you’re after, warp to it, progress through the level until you get it).

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Emergent Gameplay in Fighting Games

A bunch of different videos have popped up lately in fighting game circles, about “Emergent Gameplay”. I’ve watched a number of them and they’re grasping at concepts they can’t totally describe. They use a lot of vague terminology and almost say what they want to, but not quite. The gist is, old games had Emergent Gameplay, new games don’t, but why?

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How Fighting Games can Retain Players

Fighting Games don’t attract a lot of new blood. The majority of people who will buy any game are people who will never attend a single tournament for that game, never post about it online, and never interact with the community in any way. This means for a game to be successful, pushing a competitive scene isn’t very effective advertising. The success of a competitive scene is tangential to the success of the game overall. Magic the Gathering went through a similar transition when they catered to pro players, and the game was slowly dying. They ended up revitalizing themselves by building their product, the cards, into a stronger IP, and decreasing their investment into the pro scene, which was not the product they were actually selling. Wizards of the Coast called the non-competitive players, “the invisibles” because they can’t be observed because they don’t participate in the broader community, yet they make up the majority of the consumers, and this is the case for every game or media product. The majority of fans will never ever participate, but they’re the ones who are the backbone of your sales.

Changes of this type, making games more appealing to the average consumer, is usually associated with dumbing a game down. We’ve seen a lot of recent attempts to dumb fighting games down or constrain their complexity in order to make them more appealing to the average consumer, such as Street Fighter V, Marvel Infinite, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and Blazblue Crosstag Battle. These have had mixed success, with only Dragon Ball really prospering and SFV holding a middle ground. DBFZ and BBTag both did a good job of scaling complexity so the games were really simple to play at a lower level, but still had difficulty advanced techniques for higher level players. However the ease of play didn’t appear to make these games any more or less popular than any of their competitors. Tekken 7 did not include any ease of play additions compared to its forebears, yet is performing comparably to DBFZ (which has more sales momentum) and outperforming SFV. The popularity of each of these games seems to have no correlation to the ease of play, and a much stronger correlation to the quality of service for the game, and in dragon ball’s case, the strength of the IP. Continue reading

Visualizing the Skill Curve

Recently in my discord, one user, Hambone, linked a study related to skill rankings in Blitz Chess, standard Chess, and the card game Yomi by David Sirlin, and how well those rankings correlated with win ratio. You can read the full study here. From it emerges this amazing chart:

This chart is a depiction of a game’s consistency across skill levels, with a spectacular illustration of how there are certain bottlenecks where consistency goes up and down. (for those with color blindness Player 2 winning is represented on the graph as yellow, losing as dark blue. Slight wins are orange, slight losses are light blue, and 50:50 is represented as teal). It’s worth noting that the skill ranking of an average player is 1200. From this chart, we can intuitively extrapolate a number of conclusions, but first lets make some observations: We can see that Yomi is less consistent across all skill levels than either variant of chess. We can see that chess has a short period near the bottom skill level where better players very consistently beat worse ones, then there’s a free-for-all near mid-low level, and another bottleneck at higher to top levels of skill. We see a mild version of this trend even in the yomi chart.

From this we can conclude that aspects of these games make them more or less consistent. From personal experience, I’m going to put forward that the big thing that makes a game consistent is execution testing, a style of game that I call an “efficiency race” (eg. racing games, games that directly compare a skill that is dependent exclusively on you and nothing else). The things that make a game less consistent are Randomness, and unweighted Rock Paper Scissors (eg. games of chance and games with hidden information, where you directly interact with your opponent). For example’s sake, there are some games where you cannot become consistent, such as a pure coin toss. The graph for this game would be teal (50:50 odds) across the entire chart. A hypothetical perfectly consistent game, where the better player always wins, would be a perfect split of yellow/dark blue directly across the diagonal center line, with almost no teal.

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