Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Put In Another Gun: It'll Add Gameplay!

Edit: Recently, someone called this "ranty". I'm a pretty ranty kind of guy, but I'm not trying to rant, here. I'm trying to explain using some specific examples, but it doesn't mean I think more or less highly of those examples than others not mentioned.

Last post, Chill made the following innocuous comment: "Meaning that there may be a few stats, but the important thing is that there a lot of places on that scale that one could be... Point is, the more actually different ways one can affect a system and get meaningful feedback, the better."

I think he was trying to agree with me, but this is a chance to spring some fundamental design principles on both of my readers, so that's what I'ma gonna do. Chill's comment provides a useful springboard.

I no longer believe anything I quoted above is correct.

It hasn't been long since I changed my mind, though. Less than a month.

I think that the key to good gameplay is a few simple rules that produce complex results. But... I don't think that's clear enough. Let's give a surprising example:

In a shmup, you have a spaceship. The interaction is simple: you can move, you can shoot, you can use the bomb. Pretty simple? You know what I think when I look at that?

"What's with the bomb special case?"

The bomb isn't a deep rule. It just rescues your ass when you prove to be too inept. It serves the same basic purpose as a life. Why does it exist?

Some shmups have a really nifty bomb. For example, it switches what enemies you're immune to, or it sucks in bullets and turns them into a super-shot. You know what I say then?

"What's with the bomb special case?"

The core of the game is moving and shooting. You already have moving and shooting. If you need to add a bomb mechanic, don't. Change your shooting or moving mechanics to be deeper. Or make something automatic - either the bomb or the shooting - so that it isn't an interaction rule any more. Having duplicate attack mechanics is just saying "our design-fu is too weak to make any of our stuff actually good, so we give you more rules and hope you don't notice."


"Did he just say that shmups are too complicated? Shmups, the simplest game outside of match three?"

Not exactly. I'm saying that shmups have too many ways of meaningfully interacting with the same system. Modulating your movement, shooting, and how you die... if you can't make deep gameplay out of that, you're just screwed as a designer. As a designer, you should be able to make deep gameplay out of any one of those.

There are games with "complex rules". For example, action RPGs. Let's say: combat movement, world map movement, combat moves, items, equipment, money, leveling... tack on optionals like managing team-mates, social management, plot trees, TACOs, skill challenges...

I'm not saying those are bad. The rules in good games are chosen so that they feed each other but don't step on each other. While you can slice with a sword or cast magic fire or throw a grenade, those are actually just one rule: attacking. You modulate the cost and effectiveness of attacking, allowing the player to express himself within the rule.

The problem with phrases like "places on the scale" and "lots of ways to get meaningful feedback" is that they do not actually encourage good rules. They simply encourage rules.

Being at a point on a scale is not a very good way of expressing yourself: it's too one-dimensional. The good news is that in a game like Magic the Gathering, you're not just expressing yourself one-dimensionally. Sure, you show a preference for a particular mana cost, but you also pick a particular color and, hell, particular cards. It's one of the most expressive games out there. While the actual combat has a lot of dumb rules that aren't deep, the actual game of Magic the Gathering lies in creating and using decks of cards... a simple but very expressive set of rules.

Getting meaningful feedback isn't important, either. Again, a rule should allow the game's characters (or other challenges) to express themselves as well. It's not about feedback: it's about establishing a distinct feeling that this part of the game has a personality and something resembling a will.

The rules for combat are relatively simple, but by giving monsters different combat stats and capabilities, the ice caves of Hrraaaalg play very differently from the soldier's barracks...

So don't think of rules as being deep or wide or good or bad. Think of rules as tools for expression, and if you can't think of a way to express a wide range of intents and personalities in the rule, don't put it in.

And, of course, if there's another rule that lets you express yourself in the same way, but not as well, kill it. It's just extra fat.


That would have been a good place to end it, but I have to say this:

Adding more guns isn't adding more rules. It's simply adding another permutation to an existing interaction (in this case, the "attack" interaction). This can be good or bad, but it's an entirely separate question.


Patrick said...

So what you're saying is that the verb to adverb ratio should be higher than 1:1; maybe not MUCH higher, that depends on the game, but definetly higher than 1.

Craig Perko said...

No! NO! There is not such a thing as a verb/adverb ratio! That's just an artifact of the way some storyworlds are constructed.

"Attack" should not be a verb. It should be a language. A language with which to express yourself. The final button press is not an action: it is a publication.

Patrick said...

Well described. You should be aware though, I was borrowing from Bateman's Grammar idea instead of Storytron's framework.

What I mean, is a verb as an abstract denominator, rather than a discrete function carried out by a button press. I'm thinking of on-paper game design, rather than coded - so a verb parameterized by adverbs is a language, as you say.

Anyway, I think I get what you're saying. The beauty of it, is that the extensive but shallow stuff usually takes longer to implement than tweaking parameters of the core game, and also requires more art assets; so this perspective doesn't just make for better play, it also makes for a smoother production.

Craig Perko said...

"Attack" still isn't a verb as I'm trying to communicate. Maybe you could claim that specific attacks are verbs: "hit with sword", "blast with spell", "poison", "throw item"... if you want to think of verbs and adverbs (and I don't suggest it), those are the verbs and "attack" is... a language. A verb holder.

majcher said...

The bomb isn't a special case, it's *punctuation*. It's an exclamation point after a run-on sentence made up of dodging and shooting. It's a deep exhalation after the long, tense buildup. It's not absolutely necessary in a minimalist design, but it's a pleasant touch.

Craig Perko said...

Maybe that can be argued, but I have to disagree: you can't express yourself with the bomb. You just use it when you're about to die.

IMO, death is the exclamation point, and how you let yourself die means a lot. The bomb is just a way to weaken both that and attacking.

Chill said...

What I meant by the places on a scale thing, was that there are pretty high variety ways to express yourself. Meaning, that the strategy isn't just pushing the scale as highly as it can go, or that there isn't one obvious optimization point.

Course, I'd also argue that the bomb and shooting are not different ways of affecting a system. One's just crappier and more boring.

Craig Perko said...

That's pretty much in line with my thinking. As I said, I don't think there's a disagreement. I was just taking the opportunity to expand on a theory.

Anonymous said...

Your core meaning is true. Putting stuff in for the sake of it, even if you dress it up really nice, is still there just for the sake of it. The first two things a designer should know is beware feature creep and KISS.

But, you can make things too simple. Is shoot, move and bomb really so many mechanics that bomb becomes a liability? Is three breaking the threshold of quality vs. quantity?

A bomb is a separate gameplay mechanic to your standard shoot and stock of lives. A bomb gives you the opportunity to bail when you know the stuff is going to hit the fan. It is not applicable to unexpected death (ex: navigating through a tight formation and getting clipped) and isn’t comparable to the standard shot because it has a limited stock and clears the screen. It is not one-dimensional because it requires judgment; Can I dodge this, or should I bomb it? Should I risk it to save my stock? Additionally the majority of games have the rule that bombing is less penalising than dying (ex: dying lowers your power). I’m not particularly sticking up for the mechanic, but it’s one in its own right.

We could take this to extremes; in danmaku shooting is really second to dodging especially during boss fights as it’s nearly impossible to miss anyway. If you want to go to extremes separating the wheat from the chaff, you end up with no focus, no shooting and no bombs. You get movement, and that’s it. It’s certainly streamlined and focusing on the core gameplay element, but it would be highly debateable if you just made the genre better.

Craig Perko said...

Anonymous, I understand what you mean, but I don't think you can get enough new gameplay out of a bomb. A bomb straddles the gap between serving the same role as your gun, and the same role as your death. It's just clumsy.

I don't know if taking out a bomb "improves the genre", but it certainly doesn't have to simplify the game!

For example, you could have two small ships always located a specific distance from each other, which complexifies navigation and firepower significantly.

Or you could pick larger and smaller ships, with the larger ones having more shields, which affects navigation and death.

Or you could have overheat mechanics, gravity wells, be required to defend a freighter, have to worry about fuel, collect pieces of downed ships, be able to transform...

These are all things that fit easily within the realm of "gun, navigate, die". "Bomb" isn't part of any of them: none of these ideas are cop-outs or partial duplicates of the other elements of the game.

In 99% of shmups, a bomb is just a cop-out, just a hack to allow for lazy design. You can create very good games without it. In my opinion, better games than you could create with it.

Craig Perko said...

But, uh, again, singling out shmups was happenstance. I have the same things to say about nearly all genres of game.

Textual Harassment said...

I agree that a bomb that just saves your ass is a boring cop-out. But a bomb that can be used strategically, say, to improve your score, can be interesting.

Guitar Hero has a bomb in Star Power, but if you're using it to save yourself you're already screwed. It's much better to use it when you are doing well to boost your score.

But yeah. Speaking of shmups, I made one. Perhaps you would like to play it. It has a special feature, but It's not so much a bomb as it is an extra life.

Textual Harassment said...

Um, this is the link. Foiled by copy+paste again!

Craig Perko said...

Sure, then it's a different part of the gameplay entirely.

Your shooter is a really nifty idea, although it has strong shades of a certain unreleased platformer... ;)

The standard mechanics of moving and shooting are a bit too rough for my taste, but the spin you've put on the death mechanic is fun as hell. It's not really a bomb at all - it's a modification of the death mechanic.

Good example. :D

Daniel Benmergui said...

Rings me as a feature gremlin, which are harmful even for non-experimental games:
Feature Gremlins

Craig Perko said...

I'm not sure which "it" you mean, but the idea of feature gremlins is roughly the same as what I'm trying to convey. Not precisely, but similar.

On the other hand, games like Textual's shmup, that's not a "feature gremlin" - it is the central focus of the game, just as it is intended to be.

Alex said...

I know this is an old post, but I really disagree with your arguement about bombs. If you had some way to know when you were definitely about to die, always used a bomb then, and only used it then, and always succeeded in using it in time, then you might be right.

But that's not how it works - its possible to wait too long and get killed before you can get the bomb off. And you never know when you're going to die, all you can have is a sense that maybe you're about to. Sometimes you're slightly concerned, sometimes you're in a panic. And you have to define for yourself when the appropriate point to use that bomb is, and when that point has arrived.

I linked to this post from your post about weapon choice as an expressive mechanic in Halo. Bomb use patterns are an expression of your play style, how conservative you are, your confidence in your ability to get out of a jam, your paniceyness. Its the difference between the new player who throws out a bomb every time there's trouble, and the veteran who knows the right spot to let them fly.

Shooting and dodging are expressions of skill, but bombs are limited, bombs use is a matter of experience and strategy.

Would Halo be better if everyone could only use the pistol, so that we could get back to the basics of maneuvering and shooting? It would lose its soul, and so would the bombless shooter.

Craig Perko said...

Welcome to the blog... or at least the old part of it. :D

I thought I explained clearly. Let me try again.

While I don't disagree that there is some skill involved with bombs, it is a very shallow strategy and a very tiny play space.

On the other hand, different weapons in Halo are expansions of the SAME play set: the "run n gun" play set. Even the grenades are fundamentally the same basic play system as the guns. This is one simple mechanic that is expressed in a wide variety of ways and with a deep skill level.

Now, Halo 3 added items to the mix - portable turrets, bubble shields, cloaks, etc. Those are roughly equivalent to the bomb in a shmup. They are a completely different play dynamic that can, if used correctly, save your butt. They serve almost the exact same purpose as bombs.

But they aren't very deep play. There is skill in using items - moreso in multiplayer games - but it's not really something you can spend years perfecting.

An easy way to say it is this: if you were to have a game consisting entirely of that technique, how fun would it be?

A shmup with only shooting? Still fun. A shmup with only bombing? Not so much.

An FPS with just guns? Still fun. An FPS with just shields and portable turrets? Not so much.

You could make a game where these limits are fun... but you would need to radically expand the depth of the actions.

I hope that's clearer.

Craig Perko said...

Errr... and items in Halo 3 are a MUCH deeper play space than the standard screen-clearing shmup bomb. Yeah, forgot to mention that.

Alex said...

Thanks for the response, good to see that the older topics are still fair game - I think its an interesting topic.

It almost sounds like you are against defense in games, that killing should be the primary gameplay, and that anything you do trying to prevent yourself from being killed is some bastardization of the pure kill-before-you're-killed gameplay.

By your just-this-mechanic arguement, any defensive action would appear to be extraneous.

To what extent is that an oversimplification of what you're saying? Are there games where you can add a defensive measure that's not a problem?

I'm getting in a bit over my head, and should probably read the rest of your blog, lest I make you retread old territory - just an issue that got me caught up.

Incidentally, I agree that Halo 3 has gone way to far in terms of all the extraneous bollocks it has added. Your bomb example just strikes me as a situation where the principle has been taken far too far. Maybe you approach shmups differently than I do - the idea that a bomb is just something you use to prevent death is simply anathema to me.

Alex said...

On further thought - I suppose if the main thrust of the game is killing (as in a shmup or fps like Halo) defense might be inherently a distraction. Regardless - I'm curious to see if that's a reasonable generalization of your point.

Craig Perko said...

Fundamentally, you're right: I think that defense should be part of the same play mechanic as offense in games that are about offense.

For example, in Halo, defense is (A) a regenerating shield and (B) cover. Both of these are simple methods to let you adjust your running-and-gunning tactics to defend.

Of course, I'm not against games where the primary play is defense, or whatever the designer likes. It's just that most of our games are all about offense.

... but this is entering complex territory, because I'm not actually arguing for simplification or reduction... I think I'll post a clarification later today!