Monday, April 20, 2009

On CCGs, Fun, Money, and Business

I've been doing a little bit of research on CCGs (Collectible Card Games, e.g. Magic, YuGiOh, etc) lately - both digital and physical - and generally they run into a few basic problems. The biggest of these is balancing money vs. fun.

Essentially the way these games work is that you pay for either a service or for actual cards/pieces/whatever, to expand your library and create the deck/arsenal you want. The obvious, inherent problem here is that in addition to the cost of entry (buying a starter deck or buying the game) you have to pay extra on top of that to get to the entry point you want to be at.

This is a tricky problem because anything you do to help the player out will immediately and drastically affect your profits. CCGs are pretty much money machines, but then, this isn't the Better Business blog.

So we'll take a hit on profits, specifically the constant stream of it. Create a digital package (which we call a "video game") with a base of cards, with something like 20% unlocked at the start, 40% unlocked through a single player campaign, and the last 40% unlocked through competitive play.

Now there are two routes we can go: leave the base game as standalone and create expansion packs with new cards and a new single player campaign, or charge a subscription fee for competitive play online.

Expansion Pack Goodness
The key thing about using expansion packs is that, development-wise you already have an engine built, so all you really need to do is focus on new content. If you're feeling adventurous you can add in new features as well. It's compact, it's optional, and if you add enough content your customers will never feel ripped off.

This is the key here, as you keep a healthy community going because, well, no one has to pay to play - and community is the most important aspect here. It becomes very cyclical, in that the better your community is, the more likely you are to sell your expansion pack. Of course, this is the least lucrative of the available options, but will also keep your player base fat and happy.

Subscription Fees and Fears
The main thing with subscription fees is that there's more to consider than recouping development costs and paying for bandwidth. You have to be certain of two things:
  1. That your service is good enough to be worth a subcription fee. Glorified chat rooms are NOT paid services!
  2. That your subscription fee is reasonable compared to the quality, content, and support of your game. There have been several games that could have been infinitely more successful if they had lowered their monthly fee to a price point fitting of their game (ex. D&D Online, Age of Conan).
These are the downfalls of many pay-to-play games, it becomes hard for people to justify a price point so high ($15/month isn't a lot in the scheme of things, but when you've just paid $50 for the game it's asking a lot) for a product that is clearly in its early stages. Keeping customers, and keeping customers HAPPY, is far more important than the extra loot you'll pull in for those first couple months.

While I've spilled over a bit into MMO territory, I do believe that this sort of model will be vital to CCG-esque games soon enough - they're practically built for the medium. These are somewhat random thoughts on the matter, but it was something that popped up in my mind recently (while considering game design options) and I wanted to regurgitate my thoughts onto the internet!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Street Fighter Revisited: Designing A System

I wanted to come back to Street Fighter IV for a moment, as I was recently thinking about how defensively oriented the game is. It's hard to catch opponents and at higher levels of play it seems that things like Focus Attacks aren't used very often for anything besides cancels, so I started thinking of a way to alter the game to be a little more balanced between offense and defense.

Eventually, this led to a rethinking of the current system and the addition of a new one. Obviously it'll be broken at some level because, well, there's no way to do any sort of testing, but really what I'm going for here is the theory of the system.

Before we get into it, you may want to read the previous Street Fighter IV posts, as this is building upon those suggested changes, and wouldn't work as well without them. Now ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you...

The Momentum System
The idea itself is very basic, and in a way somewhat similar to the K-Groove from Capcom Vs SNK 2. Each character's health bar will pulse - essentially a heartbeat (I suppose you could call it the heartbeat system, or adrenaline system, but nomenclature isn't the point here). This is really just another gauge on screen, done without adding anything bulky to the interface - there are tons of different ways you can handle it, but this way seems the most unintrusive.

We'll say the heartbeat starts at 1 beat per game second. We'll call this 50%. As you attack, the heartbeat speeds up (meter increases) and as it does so, your damage percentage increases at a rate of 3:1. This means at 80% you are doing 10% more damage than normal, and at 100% you are doing 16.7% more damage than normal. Your heartbeat also goes up minimally when you're hit (1% per hit).

When your heartbeat hits 100%, you go into Momentum Mode (or whatever the hell you want to call it) and for 5 seconds your heartbeat will not decrease, Focus Attacks absorb two hits instead of one, and Supers cost only 2 bars of the Super gauge. Afterwards your heartbeat resets to 25%, not 50%.

Your heartbeat will only decrease during moments of inaction (including whiffed normal attacks), at a rate of 10% per second above 50%, and 5% per second under 50% - when decreasing, your heartbeat will hover at 50% for 5 seconds, and your heartbeat will only begin to decline after 2 seconds of inaction. Also under 50% your damage percentage decreases at a rate of 5:1, so at 0% you are doing 10% less damage than normal, and you gain heartbeat (back up to 50%) at a 1.5x rate.

Let's sum things up in a list and see if we can't simplify all this a bit now. There are essentially two sets of rules: above 50 and below 50.

Above 50%
  • Damage increases 1% for every 3% heartbeat increases
  • Heartbeat decreases at a rate of 10% per second
  • Heartbeat will pause at 50% for 5 seconds when decreasing
  • At 100%, player gains 5 seconds at 100%, 2 bar Supers, and 2 hit armor on Focus Attacks
Under 50%
  • Damage decreases 1% for every 5% heartbeat decreases
  • Heartbeat decreases at a rate of 5% per second
  • Heartbeat increase is boosted by +50%
  • Heartbeat will begin to decline after 2 seconds of inaction
  • Heartbeat remains stationary when blocking or performing a special move
  • Heartbeat increases on successful attacks
  • Heartbeat increases minimally on damage taken

And that's it. The trick here is that characters who are not made for frantic close combat (Dhalsim, Vega) shouldn't be negatively affected - this is why under 50% it's harder to lose momentum. Generally the idea is to keep combat going, and that if you decide to stay away from your opponent for long periods of time you also have to make the conscious decision to reduce your damage.

This system rewards the aggressor, and in a way is a counter to the Ultra system. The idea is to prevent staring contests and keep both players on the move at all times.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Spy's Sappin' Mah Game!

I am, admittedly, not a big fan of shooters. Specifically of the first person variety. So when I enjoy an FPS, it's a big deal. It's an even bigger deal when I find one to be completely awesome.

Enter Team Fortress 2. A class-based shooter that is fast-paced, team-oriented, and bucketloads of fun. This is one of the rare times I'll take a game and put it on a pedestal. The game has its faults, but they're mostly balance issues that I believe will be ironed out in time.

The great, great thing about this game is that it avoids the big pitfall of the shooter - generally you are either killing, or being killed. This very basic ideology is the downfall of many, many games, as there are really only so many ways you can kill or avoid being killed without one way being clearly better than the other. In single player games this means you strive for that one, most efficient way, and in multiplayer games it means you either choose the best way or end up frustrated.

TF2 manages to squeeze 9 completely different playstyles out of "kill or be killed," each of which is fun in its own right. You can switch from the fast, furious Scout, who can't take a hit but is incredibly mobile, to the Engineer who sits back and builds defensive equipment. Not only are these classes a great variety, they also provide enough difference in style of play that almost anyone can find a character they enjoy and can play effectively. This character usually ends up being a gateway drug into the other classes of Team Fortress.

In addition to these, the geniuses at Valve (creators of TF2 for the uninitiated) have begun putting out packs of new achievements and weapons for each of the classes. Unfortunately, here there is room for improvement, so let's run down a quick list:

One at a Time

These packs are released one class at a time, and usually several months apart. This means you usually get a large influx of whatever the new class is for quite some time while everyone gains the new achievements, which are a problem in and of themselves...

Achievement Whoring

To unlock the new equipment, you have to get a certain number of achievements. This would be fine except that some of the achievements are silly (see: example) and result in people doing stupid things they wouldn't normally do to unlock achievements. Silly and fun achievements are fine, but they shouldn't be required for new equipment.

Either add more standard achievements that reward good gameplay (without upping the amount needed for new equipment), or remove achievements as the qualifier. Maybe use kills/points instead?

Equipment Balance
Some of the new equipment is great (see: the Pyro's Flare Gun), adds a new dimension to the character, changes the way you should be playing, and fills out some gaps (while creating new ones, which is very important).

Some, however really do nothing for the class (see: the Heavy's KGB). They fall short of being useful, and are really only a status symbol. In the example of the KGB, the heavy really shouldn't be meleeing much at all, and when they do, slower swing speed and more crit is not at all useful. It fills in no gaps, it creates no interesting situations, and in general is somewhat half-assed.

Finally, some are simply clear and better options than the weapons they replace (see: the Medic's Blutsauger). Once you get these items there's really no reason to ever switch back. This essentially introduce an artificial form of "leveling" into a shooter, where it has no business. If the class needed a boost, it needs it across the board, and if it doesn't, there's no need to make a weapon simply better. The Blutsauger loses the ability to crit, but crits, in addition to being a rare occurence in the first place, aren't really a concern for the medic. There is no reason to not use this weapon, and that's a poor design decision.

Altogether, TF2 is still an awesome game, and these updates certainly don't detract from the experience in any way - they are additional and never detrimental to playing. I only think if the new equipment erred on the side of being more interesting, and they released updates for two classes at a time, we'd be in much better shape.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


My friend Mark who does that whole webcomic thing is working on a flash game named Turble. While I have nothing to do with the project I'd plug it because, well, that's pretty cool. You can check out his updates on it here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Like Wedding Crashers, Sans Vince Vaughn

I recently made the huge financial decision to drop $15 on Castle Crashers for XBLA, and I must say I'm very pleased with the results.

The game is in many ways an homage to old school arcade sidescrolling brawlers like the original TMNT or X-Men arcade games. At its core it's extremely basic - light attack, heavy attack, jump, magic - but it throws in a few key RPG elements and some fun combo-style gameplay, and it really helps to bring the sidescrolling brawler into the new millenium.

Of course, what with this being a game design blog, we're not here to review the game, we're here to tear it apart. The game is tons of fun and is in no way an incomplete package in its current form, but if we wanted to make it better, well, there are a few things that we can change.

The Spice of Life
The biggest and most obviously RPG-ish element of Castle Crashers is the fact that you level up while you play, gaining points to put in some basic stats: Strength, Magic, Defense, Agility. This is a great way to keep the game fresh as you play through, and a way to give your current character an identity and play style.

Unfortunately, it falls a little bit flat. Characters end up being similar as so few stats mean everyone is putting points in the same crucial areas. One of the more obvious instances of this is the fact that you don't gain any new magic abilities unless you specifically put points in your magic stat. This is intuitive and makes sense, but the problem is that, if you want to keep things as fresh and fun as possible, new abilities are key.

The problem isn't that you gain abilities by putting them in the magic stat, it's that you don't get them for putting them anywhere else. If once every 4 or 5 points you put into each stat you gained a new ability, it would really give each character their own identity as you leveled them a specific way. A few examples of said abilities would be something like a new combos/attack for strength, a last stand ability for defense (when HP is critical take less/do more damage), or a double jump for agility. They don't really have to be AMAZING, just fun and useful in some situations.

Up Your Arsenal
The weapon selection in the game is great, and there's a ton of variety and fun little things to be had here. Really the only suggestions I have for this are more, varied effects (stuff like crits and and elemental properties), maybe something like extra knockdown, a percent chance of instant kills, or even weapons that actually grant new abilities.

The other big suggestion I have is to change how the weapons attack. Obviously the issue here, with this sort of game, is that you have to create new hand-drawn animations for things to attack differently, but it would be cool if you wielded swords and maces differently, and they then took on different properties on attack (maybe even a different combo set).

The game is incredibly fun, and has a lot of replayability, but it would be great if there were more levels. Obviously this will always be true and any great game can always use more, but I'm imagining a world map not unlike Super Mario World, with lots of different levels, secret levels, hidden pathways, bonus levels, and the like. Of course, in a $15 game it's asking a lot to have this much content, but if they put out Castle Crashers 2 with all the above additions and a world this large, I'd be willing to spend a little more for the amazing experience it would undoubtedly be.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wishlist: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2

I've been going back and playing a lot of Marvel Ultimate Alliance lately, and with the sequel on the way, I thought I'd put together a wishlist of things that I'd like to see improved in this version.

First and foremost, fix the glitches. MUA was glitchy as hell, and it would be completely retarded for a good portion of them to not be fixed this time around.

Character Balance
There are lots of fun characters that simply aren't as effective as the powerhouses. If you're going to have a character who's deal is more than just big numbers, PLEASE boost their effectiveness so that they're not completely worthless. A lot of the buffs could be a lot better, and maybe have specific character-targeted buffs (i.e. extra armor for Hulk) to balance out the fact that they're more useful.

Better Boss Fights
Most boss fights in MUA are either 1.) Minigame driven or 2.) a normal enemy you can't stun/control with a lot of health. It never feels like you're fighting a real supervillian. Give them a weakness, make them more powerful, and make them susceptible to SOME form of status effect. Too many powers become useless when fighting bosses.

Better, Independent Online Play
Online play in this and all previous iterations of the game were essentially the same as playing locally. Instead, characters should be allowed to go wherever they please, and have their camera follow them. This allows you to actually split up if you need to, and you're never trapped because of where your teammates are. I think this would do a lot to boost online play, and could really step the game up to the next level.

Power Augmentation
The ability to have Spider-Man's web bullets hold enemies in place on hit or to have Human Torch's fireballs explode OR do burning damage creates a lot of interesting options, and gives players the ability to further customize their characters. The implementation can be tricky, but the key is to have as many different options as possible, without giving any one of them a clear advantage over the others.

Better Equipment System
The equipment in these games can end up somewhere between Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, and the original MUA. X-Men Legends toyed with the idea, but I think there's a lot of room here to play with different options for characters - with equipment providing a wider range of bonuses. Some of the items in MUA are really interesting, while others are a boring "+10 Striking." I think you can really mess with this, toy with different kinds of damage boosting, and make all the stats clearly visible.

Interesting Levels
This is straightforward, add some branching paths, make the environments more interactive and destructible, and make doing these things matter.

Better Enemies
Give the enemies a larger variety of attacks. Give them more interesting, varied bonuses. Instead of making them resistant to all powers, make them resistant to Electricity, or Ice damage. Give their attacks some interesting properties, and don't let any attack be guaranteed damage. Make the players have to think about more than "our damage numbers need to be higher than theirs."

That's it for now. It's too late to push to get any changes made to the game, as it's releasing in the next quarter, but here's a quick list of things I'd really like to see them do.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

MMO Philosophy: Old vs New vs Newer

World of Warcraft is one of the biggest video game successes ever, in a genre that before its arrival, was considered somewhat niche. Why was the game such a widespread success? Well there are several reasons: a base set of users from the Warcraft name, good graphics and advertising are all contributing factors, but it comes down to a new philosophy of MMO design.

Let's go waaaaay back, to one of the first true MMORPGs: Meridian 59. This game did a lot of things right that most games since haven't thought to incorporate, and when it came down to it, it wasn't quite the grind-fest that MMOs today are (to the uninitiated, "grinding" is essentially doing a monotonous task for extended periods of time for a given reward). The game actually employs a lot of "new" philosophy designs (we'll cover this in just a sec) but that was more the fact that it was new and didn't get into the rut that later MMOs did. It did have one old philosophy aspect to it.

Death sucks. In M59, when you die, you lose a small portion of hit points and skill points you've gained (a more painful loss the higher "level" you are - the game didn't have levels in the traditional sense), and ALL OF YOUR EQUIPMENT. You then had to come up from the underworld, find your body before anybody else did and before it despawned, and grab all your gear again. Essentially, in one moment of poor judgement - or when another player snuck up on you, you could lose hours, maybe even days of work.

So what is all this old and new philosophy crap I keep bringing up? Here come the bullet points! Old Philosophy is:
  • Players are the Enemy: as a developer, the player is your enemy. Your goal is to, essentially, defeat them. The harder they try, the harder you push back. Bosses that are seemingly impossible to beat are a great way of accomplishing this. Also areas that are difficult to navigate works well too. Players will sometimes view this as "creating a challenge." But there's a difference between challenging your player base and purposely making things overly difficult, because the only way to beat obscenely difficult situations in an MMO is to...
  • Spend lots (and lots) of time! If players are the enemy, time is your best friend. Nothing should be done quickly. If you can drag out the simple act of walking across town, then do so. Every second an MMO player spends doing something menial or basic is another second you get paid.

    Essentially every challenge in your MMO should be overcome with time, not skill. Skill-based challenges do two things: alienate your unskilled player base, and allow skilled players to beat challenges quickly. Both of these mean less money, and we all love money.
  • Death sucks. I said it again. Make dying as painful as possible for your players. After all, you're helping them out by not just deleting their characters every time they die. The beauty of making death as miserable as possible is that it brings everything together. Players spend lots of time to attempt our ridiculous bosses. They die and are miserably punished, requiring them to spend time to get back to where they once were so they can try and fail again. Now we're thinking like successful game designers.
Hopefully you can see the inherent issues with old philosophy MMOs. They kind of suck balls. It's great for the company charging a monthly fee, but terrible for players. The reason MMOs were so niche is it takes a special kind of perseverance to deal with this kind of gameplay.

World of Warcraft broke down a lot of the MMO barriers by removing some of these design flaws - namely treating players terribly and removing the overly harsh penalty for death. This is what I consider the "new" MMO design philosophy, and is the reason WoW has been so successful - it doesn't piss you off when you play it.

At least, not for the first few months. Eventually WoW takes the time sink aspect and really pushes it. Dungeons that take hours at a time to complete. Gaining reputation by completing the same or similar quests over and over again. Playing through dungeons several times to get the one desired piece of gear.

They've done a lot to actually fix some of this in the latest expansion, but inevitably players end up on the same hamster wheel. In addition, several other MMOs have risen and fallen, trying to copy WoW's model and hoping for similar success. However, the key to WoW's success was that it broke a model that was previously established, and the next MMO will have to do the same.

As I'm sure you could have guessed, I have some ideas on the matter.
  • No Grinds: There should be goals, but you should never have to grind to get to them. Grinding is a cheap, easy way to keep players playing, and doesn't require you to create a lot of content, but it's also incredibly annoying and tedious.
    For gear, present players with a choice after defeating a boss/dungeon, and have the amount of gear you get scale with how many players are participating. Getting three pieces of loot for 25 people is just silly.
  • Skill-based Challenges: Have some bosses/encounters/dungeons require skill and not be influenced by time spent or gear collected. Yes, lesser skilled players will have trouble overcoming these challenges, but a subscription fee isn't license to make your game out to be digital drivel. Instead, make your challenges scale so your players get better as they play. I know, it's a crazy design concept, but it just might work.
  • Make Players Matter: Players should influence the world in some way. This is tricky with games with large player bases, but the key is to not have one player on a pedestal, but teams/groups of players who stand out, and can influence the world in some way. This list of players should swap out often, and the requirements shouldn't be outside of the realm of possibility for the average, casual player.
These are just some thoughts off the top of my head. There's obviously some testing that would need to happen, and some of this might not work as well in practice as it does on paper, but one thing is certain: it'll take some serious innovation to dethrone World of Warcraft as king.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I am not a fan of your balls.

After last night I have a seething hatred for Blanka.

That is all.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Left 4 Dead: First Impressions

I finally played the Left 4 Dead Multiplayer Vs the other day (behind the times, I know!), and I figured I'd post up some thoughts. I can't do a detailed analysis of any kind, (I'll probably post one up later once I have serious experience with it) but I can throw out my first impressions.

So, I hop in, start off as infected. I spawn as a Hunter and the game tells me how to pounce and swipe, followed by "find somewhere to spawn!" I will start by saying this was not intuitive at ALL. I was wondering where I'd select the kind of infected I play as, if it was possible at all (it's not), and randomly trying to pounce before realizing I had to manually crouch beforehand. The tool tip says you have to crouch first, but I assumed that was part of the pounce motion, not an actual crouch.

After figuring out how to pounce, I find our friendly neighborhood survivors and, well, pounce on them. I quickly take a shotgun to the face and drop dead, waiting 20 seconds before I'm allowed to spawn again. First things first - the whole suicide-bomber style of attack really got on my nerves. Being an admittedly crappy first-timer, I spent 75% of the match watching the spawn screen. Beginner friendly this is not.

I finally figured out how things work and try to stay with my team (which included a couple other beginners, not the best match) and discovered that playing as Infected pretty much means you spend a lot of time waiting, grouping, planning and spawning. An interesting gameplay mechanic for sure, but not one I was particularly crazy about.

It'd be nice if you were able to set up complex traps, but it just felt like - with all the multiple paths through any given level - that as infected you really needed to know the map to be effective. I spent a lot of time running around looking for decent spawn areas, and waiting around corners for survivors that never showed.

A couple quick suggestions I can think of to improve things a bit:
  • Instead of watching a spawn screen, give Infected control over generic zombies when their main dies. You won't do a lot of damage but it lets you feel like you're still in the game, and you can still shuffle around a bit. You can also spend this time getting a feel for the level.
  • Let characters swap. You won't always have a Boomer, but when you do you should be able to pass him to another player if he's a better Boomer.
  • When spawning, give Infected the option to teleport to the nearest teammate.
One last thing is that when playing as the Survivors, I didn't really feel like I was playing a human opponent - though there was teamwork and planning, it just still felt like going through the zombie horde. I know this is intentional so the survivors still feel like survivors, and it doesn't turn into TF2: Zombie Edition, but maybe giving Infected more health (so they don't die instantly) and balancing it out by adding in more health packs, would really give the multiplayer a competitive feel.

All said and done, I did still enjoy myself, and I'll do it again. I just think there's room for improvement, and this blog is built on the concept that nothing is perfect.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Creating Powerful Characters

Today I'd like to talk about something that I think doesn't come up nearly enough - creating a powerful character.

Often times in games we end up playing as some average schmuck stuck in the middle of some crazy situation. And almost as often said schmuck gets a little more powerful in some form as the game progresses - whether it's physical strength, better weapons, or new abilities.

This model is great in that it gives the player a great sense of accomplishment as they progress throughout the game. Unfortunately it also leaves the initial portion of the game feeling a little less awesome. A standard practice in this case is to give the player everything up front, and then have the character "lose" their abilities, which must then be regained.

Of course, if your game is designed well enough, not having a ton of abilities at your disposal from the start isn't so bad, but what if your character started out that powerful and only got better? Well that's what we're here to discuss.

High Ceilings
One of the biggest issues with powerful characters is having nowhere to go. Superman Returns actually does a really good job of making you feel powerful, but as the game progresses, there's not a lot of upward movement (pun not intended). The key here is making sure there's room for improvement, and that everything isn't the same at the end of the game as it is at the beginning. Your character is powerful, but he still needs to get better.

Keeping On Your Toes
The other serious downfall with a powerful character is that they may be too powerful and the game no longer presents a challenge. So how do you make the scenario challenging for your demi-god while keeping things fun?
  • Swarms of Enemies. Put your powerful character up against an army. Keep in mind you don't want the battle to be at all annoying. It should be satisfying but still challenging. My humble suggestion is to have waves of semi-decent enemies - removing the annoyance of cheap shots from a ridiculous number of opponents coming at you at once, but still giving you the satisfaction of having kicked a whole ton of ass.
  • Enormous Bosses. For a perfect example of this, see God of War 2, or Shadow of the Colossus. Make your bosses huge, and it'll equal out the power level of the character (not that SotC features a powerful character).
  • Equally Powerful Rival. Give our powerful character a rival of equal strength. The combat should look as amazing as it is - a true clash of super powers. You don't want to make it a mirror match though, as that isn't a theme you can bring up again later in the game.
So you've got the right moveset, and you've got plenty of room for that set to grow, but how do you get people to believe that these moves are truly powerful?
  • Variety. Give players the option to power their move up for big damage, or keep it fast and easy. A good example of this are a lot of the charge up attacks in Marvel Ultimate Alliance - it's a basic concept that time = damage, with the downfall being that you give up something like the ability to use an attack button, or mobility, or something in that vein, in order to get the more powerful attack. The key here is to make sure that both the fast and strong versions are useful, and that your game doesn't stuff the charged moves (making them effectively useless).
  • Area of Effect. Any move that hits an area and can hit multiple enemies at once is a good bet. You don't want to overdo it so as to make it the only attack of choice when presented with multiple enemies - perhaps a timer on the ability or something of the sort - but in general this helps with the hordes of enemies we discussed earlier, letting you handle several opponents at once in a way that let's you feel powerful.
  • Hit Hard, Hit Often. Your character should be able to hit HARD, and it should be obvious. Flying bodies, explosions, dismemberment, whatever it takes. When he hits, there should be someone, somewhere saying "oh, SNAP!' In addition, he should have the option to hit fast and often, allowing him to trade his powerhouse moves in exchange for something a little more combo-friendly. This is something the Devil May Cry games do fairly well, but not until later in the game when you've collected all the necessary weapons.

Well, that should be it for now, this is simply a rough outline with several ideas to make a character seem powerful, while still keeping them in the scope of the game. It'll always be a tricky balance along with keeping things challenging, but it comes down to a lot of play-testing, and how the game feels in the hands of the player. And with that, I want to touch briefly on one last piece...

Multiplayer Woes

All of the above becomes infinitely more difficult to implement when you factor multiplayer into the mix - specifically versus multiplayer. No one wants to get hit with the aforementioned big, meaty attack, only to almost die from one attack.

In this situation, it's incredibly difficult to keep both sides feeling powerful - but the key is to make gameplay revolve around landing attacks over simply pounding the opponent. Your powerful characters are going to need tools to avoid getting hit by their own attacks, and should be able to take a good series of hits before falling to their knees. You don't want combat to drag on, but you don't want people dying so fast they get annoyed either. Besides that, we'll leave multiplayer issues for another post, as there's a lot to be said about balancing any kind of competitive multiplayer game, and is somewhat outside the scope of this post.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Easy Does It: Street Fighter IV, Final Round!

This will be my last entry (hopefully) in the Street Fighter IV vein, but there was one last thing I wanted to touch on - the ease of play.

In general, SF4 is very beginner friendly. There are lots of things to give you a rough idea on how to play the game, and an online mode that will pit you against your peers before you fight the big boys. Unfortunately, once you pass a certain point, it seems like there's a big execution barrier to pass before you can get serious at the game, and it may just be unnecessary. Let's find out!

Probably a big gripe among average players, if you've attempted most of the character's the hard trials, you've undoubtedly had to string together a couple normal moves with incredible timing. Understandably you want some things in a game to be difficult, because if not the gameplay devolves into something that's not fun or challenging. These, however, I feel have no place. I can see a Link being in the game by an accident of programming, but intentionally putting something this silly in the game? To string together a series of jabs followed by one actual hit? Honestly it seems, and looks silly.

They seem even more ludicrous when you realize that several characters have Target Combos, taken from 3rd Strike. Specific strings of normal attacks that chain together. This is what Links should have been. The Target Combo list for every character should have been much longer, and this Linking crap really should be tossed out the window, there's no need for an execution barrier that high.

Focus Attack Dash Cancels (FADC)
When executing almost any attack, you can do a Focus Attack and it will cancel into the Focus at the cost of half your Super meter. This is a great, neat, fun little thing, and is easy to do. I vastly approve of this concept. Unfortunately, a big part of the higher end game is cancelling into a Focus, and then another cancel into a dash to give you the ability to do an attack of your choosing, and this is a bit much for a player without perfect execution to land.

So, my proposal is that in addition to Focus Attacks, (and by extention FADC since I don't want to change that mechanic at all), we add an additional cancel, done possibly by hitting both Heavy attacks - we'll call it a Taunt Cancel! - that will cancel you out of your move in a similar way to the Focus Cancel, but with putting you in a neutral state.

Of course this is a very powerful mechanic, arguably more powerful than an FADC as it requires less execution expertise, so it may need to cost 3 bars instead of 2, but that's something that can be ironed out with a little bit of play testing.

In the end, the idea is to bring the super high execution-level stuff down a bit so that you don't have to spend hours in training mode master motions when you should be worrying about mastering opponents. This gives everyone the tools they need to be competitive, which I think ends up being a richer experience for all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fireballs and Uppercuts: Street Fighter IV Part 3

I promised a character breakdown, but I think if I were to go through every character, well, not only would we be here for a while, but I also cannot claim to know the ins and outs of every single character (especially since the game is so new), and thus my assessment would not be worth much. Instead, I'll group the characters and discuss each group, with highlights for the characters I know need a bit of work.

The Glass Cannon (Akuma, C.Viper, Seth) A personal favorite of mine, these characters are low health, high damage output characters. They're also usually very mobile to make sure you have the tools to avoid being hit. The Glass Cannon gets the biggest benefit, percentage-wise, from the health increase we mentioned back in the first session. Overall this type works well in SF4, as each of these characters has the tools they need to close or create space as needed (teleport, super jump, teleport, respectively). A couple quick notes, however:
  • Akuma has a Raging Demon Super, AND a Raging Demon Ultra. For his ultimate move it certainly does seem to have its variations. Unfortunately this really creates an unnecessary predictability, especially considering the nature of the Raging Demon (easy to escape if you're watching for it). Instead, let's give him a Fireball Super - which can also be done in the air a la 3rd Strike - and replace his Ultra with his Super, which does less damage but grabs the opponent faster.
  • Viper is a little too twitchy, and though she has a ridiculous amount of combo and cross-up options, she has to work REALLY hard for a win. I would up her damage on normals very slightly, and I think that would really make her an amazing character.
The Charger (Guile, Vega, Bison, E.Honda, Blanka, Balrog) There isn't too much to say about this group in general. In a game that lends itself a little more heavily towards defensive play, a character that has you holding down-back to do all your moves is going to be powerful, and most of these characters are. Unfortunately, the problem lies in the fact that, though they have their differences, they play somewhat similarly, and the differences more or less end up with some characters being left behind. Let's do a little breakdown:
  • Guile, despite the previous statement, plays unlike any of the other characters. Unfortunately he's been weakened a lot in his current incarnation. An easy drastic improvement is to make his Super and Ultra moves a double quarter circle forward motion. This not only makes them easier to perform in general, but also allows him to land them after a Dash Cancel. Also his Ultra needs to be beefed up a bit. It should be doing as much as it does now, under the new revamped rules back in the first SF4 post.
  • Vega also needs a shortcut for his Super and Ultra (if you can't tell, I am not a fan of that ridiculous motion). He should also either not lose his claw at all, or gain a minor boost of speed without it. The fact that he loses it after taking only half of his health is ludicrous. Also, his roll should start up much faster than it does now. In its current incarnation it's utterly useless.
  • E.Honda is in pretty bad shape. He has a lot of damage output, but is a charge character who has a lot of trouble making it to his opponent. His EX headbutt should be able to absorb one hit - as Balrog's EX punches do. In addition his standing fierce punch should do a little less damage in exchange for being at least a decent anti-air attack.
The Grappler (Abel, El Fuerte, Zangief)
Characters whose soul purpose is to get in your face and grab you. They are generally high damage, high health, slow speed (we'll get to this in a second), and the challenge in playing them is in closing the distance and being able to set up the grabs. Grabs in SFIV are pretty beefed up so, in general, these characters are easier to play than in previous games. There is, however, one exception:
  • El Fuerte. A completely different kind of grappler, high speed, low health, low damage. His game revolves around his run and the moves he can perform during it. Unfortunately this is also one of his greatest shortcomings - he can only do two moves without performing a run first, and while he can cancel out of the run at any point, it makes moves that should be straightforward require extra inputs and it just makes him a pain. In addition to that he simply doesn't have a lot of options to make up for his incredibly low health and damage.

    So, let's fix him up a bit shall we? First things first, let's up his damage output by about 10% across the board. This should make him a little more competitive and make his grabs actually worth performing. Let's also give him the ability to do all of his throw options from a standing position with a standard DP motion (F, D, DF). Last but not least, let's change his Quesadilla Bomb from charging a kick button, to charging B, F+kick, to ensure that holding it down doesn't remove any options (EXing it means you can't use two kick buttons until you let go) and will remove the aggravation in letting it go at the wrong time and getting nothing.
  • Zangief is almost fine as he is. More powerful than he's ever been really. But his lariats need fixing. They hit too often and have too much invincibility. If Honda does his Ultra, it will push AGAINST Zangief's lariat until it's over, and then the lariat will hit Honda on recovery. You should be able to punish this move if it's thrown out for no reason.
The Rushdown Master (a lot)
A lot of characters fit into this category - characters made to pressure your opponent. In general, it's hard to catch someone who doesn't want to be caught in SFIV, and rushing is tricky. Sure we could change the game around, but the better choice is to give characters more options. You don't want to make defensive play worthless, but you want the rushers to not feel like they're fighting an uphill battle. It's all about the tools.
  • Chun Li is almost entirely fine as she is. She has charge moves, which seem out of place for a rushing character, but placing them properly really gives her a lot of options at any point in the match. The ONLY issue here really, is that a charge Super/Ultra has no place on a character like this. Change her motion to a double QCF.
  • Fei Long is almost there, his Flying Kick/Chicken Wing is very useful for closing distances, and can even crossup a ducking opponent occasionally. If done at the right distance it's incredibly difficult to punish as well. The motion is silly though, so let's go ahead and change that to a DP motion. (Side note, let's do this for Cammy's Hooligan throw as well.)

    Also, his Tenshin needs to be way more useful than it is. The timing is ridiculous, and the options off of it aren't what they should be. The stun effect from it needs to last longer than it does. In addition, the EX needs to come out faster and have a higher priority than it does now.
Extra Notes
The one type of character I haven't touched on is your standard, well-rounded average character. I feel most of these are fine as is, and will be balanced by a lot of the changes previously mentioned. A few final notes:
  • Sagat needs his damage toned down by about 10% across the board. He already has a lot of really useful options, powerful moves, and a good deal of health, and his damage should reflect how well he does at everything else.
  • Gen could really use his chains from his previous incarnations. He's lacking a bit in his current form.
  • Rose should be able to combo in a Soul Throw from a juggle.

That's it for the time being. I lied about this being the last installment though, I'll probably do one more dealing with, well, everything else. THAT will be the last one though. Honest.

Interlude: The Power of Rock

My computer here took a crap today, and so in the middle of fixing it I don’t have time for the third episode of my Street Fighter roundup - which will end up being a pretty long post I imagine. Instead, I figure I’ll throw out some thoughts regarding the newly crowded music game genre.

Guitar Hero is up to about 9 games now (GH1, GH2, GH80s, GH3, GH:Aerosmith, GH:World Tour, GH:On Tour, GH:On Tour 2, the coming soon GH:Metallica and any I may have missed). We’ve also got Rock Band and it’s sequel. Then the stuff like Rock Revolution, Guitar Freaks, etc etc. The genre that was once barren and populated by DDR remakes and Parappa the Rapper (which, if you haven’t played it, is an obscene amount of fun) is now filled with options - some good, some not so good.

So what makes one of these stand out from the others? Let’s start at the holy grail of music games: Guitar Hero 2. When the first iteration of Guitar Hero came out, people scoffed, and players were laughed at for playing with “plastic instruments.” Then GH2 came along and laughter turned to the sounds of rocking out. It came down to a fun, slick interface, amazing song selection, extras that remind you you’re playing a game and last but not least, you really felt like you were rocking out.

Guitar Hero 2 was a smash hit, and suddenly the market was saturated with sequels and with Harmonix throwing out tons of downloadable tracks for Rock Band weekly, players had all the plastic music they’d ever need. Eventually, a bit of the magic was lost, and we’re here to figure out exactly why.

Old games are old
People who jumped on the bandwagon in GH2 have been playing these games for 3 years. What’s the last game you played for 3 years? Probably World of Warcraft or some other MMO if anything, and even then the reason is constantly changing content and a player community. Music games don’t have the luxury of the latter, and now rely heavily on additional content. If we stopped getting DLC, or new iterations of these games so often, they’d fade out. The fad has passed, and while adding drums and vocals refreshed things for a bit, it’s time for something new. Maybe Keyboard Hero is next?

MTV now has a stake in Rock Band, and the influence is easy to see when comparing Rock Band’s original track list to, say, GH2’s. There’s a lot of variety and a lot of new music. My personal music taste aside, there’s a distinct difference between playing “that new song that’s been on the radio” and “that song I’ve been rocking out to for ages.” Music has to establish itself, and flavor of the month stuff ends up having the same lasting power in the game as it does on the radio.

All cleaned up
It feels like there’s a gloss over these games now. GH2 had a grit to it that really just felt like you were in a seedy rock band. Rock Band removed the grit entirely, and the result looks nice, but that presentation layer sits itself inbetween the player and the music, and it comes off lacking personality. The GH sequels took a different approach, and tried to force that grit down our throats. Unfortunately their presentation just looks like a dull and uninspired paper mache version of the original. In a game all about rocking out, personality means a lot.

A most righteous conclusion
In the end, the biggest problem with new music games is they’re not that new. The only difference between one game and the next is the track list, and with the variety of songs being so scattered, it becomes less and less of a lure. Players desperate for new songs drop money every so often to pay for new tracks, but the magic has died and the curtain has closed.

It’ll take a a serious new innovation to get guitar games back to the glory they used to have. I’m sure instead though, we’ll get more rehashes and remakes and track lists, and players will buy it because well, if you want to rock that’s what you have to do. I’m hoping there’ll be some new revelation, something that makes these games as fun as they were when we started playing, but I’m not holding my breath.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Round 2: Of Gauges and Their Uses

We’ve discussed Ultras, but what of their close cousins, Supers? The fate of the two is somewhat intertwined, as there is sometimes a decision to be made regarding which of the two to use. Unfortunately, the decision almost always is in favor of the Ultra. Why, you ask? Well here’s a run down:

  • The Revenge gauge resets each round, the Super gauge does not - therefore if possible using an Ultra still leaves you with meter for the next round, whereas using a Super leaves you meterless
  • Using a Super means you’re missing out on the ability to do 4 EX moves
  • A Super will usually do less damage than an Ultra

Now obviously there’s more to it than this. Supers can be cancelled, and Supers are easier to combo than Ultras. Still, for chatacters that can combo their Ultras, Supers offer little incentive. But don’t fret - this is an infinitely less complex problem than the Ultra dilemma!

Decrease the length of the gauge
We mentioned that you have to trade off 4 EX moves to do a Super. So how do we make Supers more enticing? Make them cost 3 EX moves! It’s simple, quick and dirty, but this does two things: fills up your Super gauge quicker, allowing for more Super action during play, and makes the decision to use a Super a much easier one. We’re not breaking EX moves, since you will still gain them at the same rate, we’re just making Supers a little more… thrifty.

Allow the gauge to hold two stocks of Supers
The one bad thing about our previous change is that we have less EX stocks! Easily remedied: allow the Super gauge to hold two stocks instead of one. This gives you 6 total EX moves, or 3 Focus cancels, or 2 supers. Mmmm… tasty! This also lets you do interesting things like EX into Super (which of course, needs to be playtested to make sure it’s not broken). Overall this opens up a ridiculous number of options for every character and gives Supers a stronger presence.

Increase the gauge increase rate on damage dealt
One other problem is that if you use EX moves even somewhat regularly (even worse if you use cancels) you can easily end every round nowhere near getting a Super. A very slight increase in how much meter you get upon dealing damage (not taking, and not blocking) does two things: allows a faster rate of increase and thus more delicious Supers, AND rewards offense in a game that makes it easy to turtle.

That’s it for this installment, the next (and probably last SFIV) episode I’ll deal with character-specific tweaks. Fun times ahead!

Round 1: FIGHT!

The inspiration for this post, and this blog in its entirety, was a post I made over at the forums, regarding my set of ideal, “fictional patch notes” for the game Street Fighter IV. It was only a list with no rhyme or reason to it, but I’m going to use this space to really expound on what I think are the games biggest areas in need of improvement.

I should add that I thoroughly enjoy the game in its current incarnation. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have played it enough to make this assessment. I should make a note to anyone and everyone that “then just don’t play it” isn’t really a response. There’s not a single game that wouldn’t benefit from every single gamer enjoying it, and it’s our duty as gamers to rip these things to shreds and let developers know what we liked and didn’t like.

I’ll be doing this in installments, as this will be way too much for one big SF4 post.

And with that, on to the post!

Ultra Moves and the Revenge Gauge
I’m going to start here, as this is a big gripe for a lot of players. Ultra moves are essentially big, powerful attacks that can do up to 60% of your opponents total health. You earn the ability to do Ultras by essentially taking hits in the face. Around 50% health you can do an Ultra, with the damage you do increasing as your health decreases.

So what’s the problem? Well, it comes down to a few characters being able to easily land their Ultras. Imagine the following scenario: Vega has been pounding on Abel, who is almost dead at this point. Abel has only landed a handful of combos on Vega, leaving him still at around 50% health. This match is, to the naked eye, already Vega’s. However, Abel managed to land a crouching fierce punch, which he can combo into his (now full) Ultra. Abel has just won the match.

See, the issue is that an Ultra can give you a lot of benefit for a little work. Now we could just pull Ultras out, sure. But they’re in there for a reason - Ultras give a player on the losing end a chance to make a comeback. Pardon the cheesery, but the match isn’t over until its over. This is a great mechanic, and keeps players trying their hardest despite how behind they are. So how can we remedy the issue without making Ultras obsolete? Let’s find out!

Increase every character’s health
Ultras really accentuate a big underlying problem with the game - no one has enough health! A simple jumping roundhouse -> crouching roundhouse combo does something in the vicinity of 20% of an average character’s life. When you put it like that, 50% health for what should be your big, damaging move doesn’t seem so ridiculous now does it? I mean it should be more powerful than landing two incredibly easy 2-hit combos shouldn’t it? It doesn’t need to be an enormous increase, something like +150-200 health across the board (to put things in Perspective, Ryu has, I believe, 1000 health). Already our ridiculous 60% combos are down to 50%, players can be competitive for longer and matches last a little longer than 20 seconds.

Decrease Revenge Gauge rate of increase
Ultras are supposed to be comeback moves, but do you really need a comeback at 50% health? Getting them so early simply means they replace Supers (which I’ll touch on later) as your big attack of choice. Instead, the Revenge Gauge should increase at a rate that leaves it at 75% full just before your death. This way you get your Ultra at 2/3 dead instead of 1/2, when you really need it to make your comeback.

You can still get it earlier by using the absorbed damage from a Focus Attack (which is also the only way to get the gauge to 100% with this change). This makes Ultra more of a reward if you successfully get it before you’re almost dead - pushing it from a free super, to something you get as a reward for being a more skilled player.

Increased damage reduction for mid-combo Ultra
This is simple and straightforward. If the first hit of your Ultra is not the first hit in a combo, the damage should be decreased by somewhere in the vicinity of 1/4. This helps to balance out characters who can easily combo in their Ultras. We don’t want to necessarily remove this ability, as it could be a key component of the character, but we don’t want an easy win button either. It should do more damage than inserting any other move into the combo, but not nearly as much as a clean Ultra.

End Result (warning: fuzzy math!)
With all of these changes in place, let’s revisit our Abel vs. Vega example. I’m going to throw some math in here, and these numbers aren’t going to correct, but it’s for the sake of proving a point!

Let’s say Vega has 1000 health, and Abel’s crouching HP -> Ultra combo at 100% does 500 damage. In our previous example where Abel was almost dead and Vega has 50% health, this won Abel the match off a normal hit combo.

With the revamped rules, Vega now has 1200 health, and Abel is only at 75% Ultra. The damage doesn’t scale linearly I’m sure but let’s say at 75% it does 420 damage for the sake of making my math clean.

Now, Abel hits with a crouching HP -> Ultra. Because it’s in a combo, it now does 315, bringing Vega from 600 down to 285. If he does a clean Ultra he brings him down to 180. Vega is definitely now in comeback range, but he did not instantly lose, and only did about 25% of Vega’s new and improved health with a combo into Ultra. This seems like a much better solution.

That’s it for round 1! Join us next time where we’ll discuss Supers and EX moves!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

So It Begins

Welcome to Better Gaming. A blog I will hopefully be updating semi-regularly with my insights and rants on whatever game I’m playing at the time. I’m not a game designer, nor a game programmer. Hell, I can’t even draw anything more fancy than a stick figure.

But I’d like to think I have a general handle on what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been a gamer for just about the last 20 years, and I may have picked up a thing or two regarding what makes good games good and bad games bad.

So let’s see how long I can keep the shenanigans up for, shall we?