Ranking the Soulsborne Games

Now that all dark souls/demon’s souls/bloodborne games are out (for the foreseeable future?), how would you rank them all, and why? what strengths and weaknesses give them that rank for you?

I don’t know if I can totally rank them, it’s hard for me to remember demon’s souls at this point, and it’s tricky for me to say which game is best, just that dark souls 2 is worst, albeit still very good.

Demon’s Souls had the shrine of storms, the prison of hope, firelurker, maneaters, false king allant, some of the fastest movement, the least broken PvP matchmaking system. Great enemies like all the different skeletons, gargoyles that can actually fly.

Dark Souls had the best world design, sen’s fortress, blighttown, anor londo, painted world, the best tutorial, the best secrets, kalameet, artorias, oreo and smores, kellog, sif, lmao4king. black knights.

Dark Souls 2 had good combination encounters, forced you to fight enemies instead of just skip them or put more effort into skipping them, good use of ranged enemies, shrine of amana, black gulch, undead keep, drangleic castle, and relatively few major screwups. executioner’s chariot, looking glass knight, ruin sentinels, twin dragonriders.

Bloodborne did away with shields, did away with backstabs, had lots of enemy mixup attacks, aggressive enemies, variable hitstun and poise, enemy patrol patterns, almost nonlinear design, great hunter encounters. Ludwig, Maria, gehrman, logarius, shadow of yharnam, ebrietas, mergo’s wet nurse.

Dark Souls 3 has a difficulty curve, tons of great enemy designs that are threatening into the lategame, good use of nonlinear areas and shortcuts, even though it has the most linear progression path overall in the series. Best implementation of backstabbing in my opinion, best enemy AI, best enemy designs. Cathedral of the Deep, Irithyll, farron keep, grand archives, pontiff sulyvahn, champion gundyr, aldritch, dancer of the boreal valley, lothric & lorian, nameless king, soul of cinder.

Dark Souls 1 will always be my favorite, but there’s something to be said for all of them.

How I’d Design a Horror Game

You’ve talked about how to design a horror game but it doesn’t seem like you like horror games. How would you design a horror game that YOU would play as in, what the gameplay be like (actiony, stealth, puzzle, etc.)

I’d aim for somewhere between action and stealth. A lot of horror games use puzzles as filler between the horror bits, but they don’t put a lot of effort into the puzzles, and I don’t think puzzle solving meshes well with horror. You essentially need an excuse to wander a large area, and puzzles can be used to that end by ferrying pieces back and forth, but that means people can’t see the whole puzzle at once, and it delays a lot of the feedback of getting stuff right or wrong which by itself would be irritating, and it gets compounded by the spook factor, so I don’t think it’s totally the best idea.

The trouble with horror is that you need a lot of not-horror to make it work, or people condition themselves and become desensitized.

Maybe the Queen Vanessa levels from A Hat In Time might be a good angle to work from.

Basically you’re set up with a bunch of essentially chores to do, then it makes a loud noise and HOLYSHITOHGODGETAWAYFROMME. You could get the enemy to come in on cycles, patrol around, you have hints it’s getting near, so you gotta hurry up while you have time. Then something that increases your risk factor, or something that requires you to take certain risks, something that alters the enemy’s scheduling a little to shake things up. Imagine that when the enemy is directly in your room, you can’t just hide the whole time, you NEED to move because it will eventually check your hiding spot. So imagine it’s like playing Perfection combined with Operation (the board games), you have this time limit you’re working against but you’re also really tense from trying to not screw up.

Couple that with a bit more potentially risky but seemingly empty traversal, a bit more randomness, a few more enemy types that have different behaviors, sections where you can’t always perceive the enemy, or know whether there is an enemy or not, and it could work.

Good Ideas from Bad Games

What are some good ideas from bad games that you would like to see more dev’s implement in the future?

I called Nier good overall, but something I loved about it was the way that killing an enemy grunt would cause it to drop blood, which refilled your magic. This meant that you could kill grunts during boss battles to get ammo to fight the boss back, or even kill them right before you started charging so it could overcharge your magic meter, allowing you to shoot more than your maximum of dark lances or dark hands. Also the regenerating health unless you hit a timed weak spot was a pretty good idea, and bullets you can shoot down integrated with ones you can’t.

Batman Arkham Asylum. Having the guards go back to back was a really great idea. Bombing the gargoyles wasn’t a terrible idea.

Dishonored, basically all the powers, especially blink.

Legacy of Kain, getting shunted to the spectral realm when you die.

Psychonauts, levitate, palm bomb jumping. Great abilities.

Zeno Clash, that fucking strong punch’s momentum. That was godlike.

Mighty No 9, weakening enemies to a certain point, then hitting them with a special attack (the dash) right there, and being careful not to hit them past the point where they’re weakened. (trying to just barely push them over the point of weakening and not one hit further)

Planescape Torment, best meme.

Thi4f, swooping.

TF2 Remarks and Ideas for Improvement

Do you like TF2? Hats/gambling aside I think it’s a briddy good shooter

It’s alright. Not bad. Like 3/5 territory. Kinda simple. Some classes have some cool stuff like pyro’s reflect, soldier and demo’s explosion jumping, scout being scout.

I think TF2 would be better if every class moved twice as fast and there was a crit queue system, so as to make crits deterministic instead of random. I wanted to test it, but wasn’t able to mod the classes to move faster than scout. There’s like a hard speed limit. I think some people have gotten around it, but I couldn’t figure out how.

Otherwise, characters move at a reasonable speed. There’s no iron sights. Everyone has a couple weapons. Cool.

Now my crit queue system idea is basically this: kill someone, and a crit gets queued up for later, much like Engineer’s revenge crits off the Frontier Justice. Kill assists queue a mini-crit instead of a full crit. It will deploy after a certain delay period, like 30 seconds to a minute or even 2 minutes. I didn’t really work out a good timing. Once that time is up, your next attack will be a crit. You can speed this up by dealing damage. Ideally the system is tuned to dispense crits more or less at the same rate as they currently come out. The primary difference is that crit dispensing will be more regular, less sporadic, and you cannot crit without killing someone first.

Currently there’s some balance issues, demoman is a bit too powerful, medic is definitely too powerful. This stems from the high level of lethality in the game versus the movement speed. You can kill people really fast, so it’s easy to stymie progress. Medics can overheal (and just plain heal), making it harder to kill people, so they can actually push. The competitive format has restricted the number of demomen and medics for this reason forever. Overwatch has the same deal, medics are the best characters in the game with mercy and lucio.

This is why I think the characters could stand to move about twice as fast. It’s harder to kill people who move faster. It’s easier to play aggressive and bypass enemy blockades when you move faster. Maybe scout doesn’t need to be twice as fast, but whatever. It could solve a core issue with the game and maybe lessen the reliance on medic and demoman.

I tried making a TF2 Turbo mod, but eh, couldn’t get it to work.

Wordless Tutorials are Overrated

What do you think of tutorials that try to teach the player without words?

Okay, personally, the idea that you can make a tutorial without words, and that I’ve been playing games where this was the case all along, that hit me like a pile of bricks back in 2011 or so where I first heard it. I hated common tutorial structures, and I still do. It’s irritating to get stopped to explain something so basic I was already doing before the prompt came up. So naturally for someone frustrated as hell by Zelda tutorials, Mirror’s Edge tutorials, Far Cry 3 tutorials, and others like those, it was like, “aw man, this is the perfect way to build a tutorial, everyone should do this.”

And we had great examples, like Valve games which never stop you with tutorial messages, at most having a control hint pop up.

But I think the flip-side is, sometimes things need to be explained with words. Like there’s no way to explain how to kick in dark souls without using words. Sometimes things can be explained faster and with less effort with words. I remember reading this one gamasutra article about a space ship game where players just didn’t get the stealth system at all and how it related to power usage and no matter how hard they tried to build a wordless tutorial, they just couldn’t figure it out, so eventually they just threw in a tutorial video and everyone understood it fine.

Wordless tutorials are elegant, they aren’t necessarily functional at the job of teaching the player. A lot of people advocate them because A. They’re sick of hand holding tutorials that stop the flow of action to explain things B. They dislike being demeaned by tutorial text explaining them the obvious C. They think mentioning how the game is operated breaks the 4th wall and therefore their immersion

For a corollary, I’d like to present the Dark Souls tutorial. It has tutorial messages written as text on the ground. You are free to ignore them. They do not pause time while being viewed. You can finish the tutorial in less than 5 minutes.

I’d also like to present tutorials like exist in Braid, where the instructions are written as text in the landscape and a simple barrier is placed in front of you that must be passed with that knowledge.

Tutorials can have their information delivered through a lot of different methods, many of which don’t stop the player, or unnecessarily waste their time. This is cool, lets do more of that. Some tutorials, like the Mirror’s Edge and Ori and the Blind Forest ones, allow you to hit escape and skip the whole thing. Awesome.

If a game is simple enough that you can just make a level and not bother with a whole tutorial, like most NES games (1-1 is the most famous wordless tutorial ever), then go ahead. Otherwise, balance between teaching new players adequately, and allowing competent ones to proceed unhindered.

The Merits of MGS

Is the MGS series worth playing through? I am really wary because I hear they are heavily story/cutscene-driven but people with good taste seem to like them and I love the visual design.

Yes.

The thing is, however long the cutscenes are (and they get way too long with some of the longest clocking in at 90 minutes), there’s an equal dedication to the gameplay systems. Beyond that, Kojima has no problems with using gamey abstractions wherever he wants with no hint of irony. Characters will actively tell you to press the action button when needed. He makes up things like jungles in Russia when it suits him. There’s the Soliton Radar based on “currently existing technology”. MGS3 introduced the “Active Reload” system, which allowed you to reload a gun by unequipping it, also canceling that gun’s animation. This was mentioned in the manual. MGS games break the 4th wall frequently without making a joke.

Beyond that, they’re just good games. The first one is kind of rough and simple, don’t know if I’d really advocate it, but it has its moments like vulcan raven. The second one onwards is where it really comes into its own. The games offer an absurd number of options to the player in how to distract enemies, take them down, manipulate their AI, and even simply move around.

I’d personally consider Metal Gear Solid 3 the actual best stealth game ever made. You can capture animals, live or dead, to serve as food. They all help different amounts. Some can be released to distract guards. Some are poisonous. You can also poison guards by blowing up their food supply, then tossing them rotten food, which they’ll eat. You can knock guards out, shoot their limbs, then they’ll walk with a limp. You have disguises where you need to show your face to some people and hide it from others, camouflage based on floor tiles, a stamina meter that depletes based on how much you’re carrying at one time. It has bizarre things like spinning snake in the survival viewer to get him to throw up, which can actually help food poisoning. You can knock on walls, throw expended magazines, shoot guards in the foot so they’ll fall asleep later rather than sooner, timing it for the perfect moment, or in the head to take them out now. You can diveroll through windows or over walls. You can of course hold guards up, shoot out their radios so they can’t call for help, interrogate them, and throw them to the ground, knocking them out. You can plant TNT and remotely detonate it. You can fake kill yourself and come back to life. You can leave dirty magazines on the ground to occupy guard attention. All the bosses leave you special items if you can take them out nonlethally.

The Metal Gear Solid series is fantastic. It has this amazing dedication to simulation as a way of augmenting gameplay complexity, not for a sense of realism or immersion, and frequently has characters tell you to press the action button, or comes up with awesome abstractions that fit the gameplay really well.

It’s the bizarre perfect split between a story focus and a gameplay focus. There’s nothing else like it.

Novacanoo Jak 1 Reply

Thought you might check this out. We established that our interests lie in slightly different places, but I think this shows massive improvement on those criticisms that I did agree with.

I think it’s a bit reaching to say that naughty dog suffered from genre fatigue. The concept of needing to do something to “reinvigorate the genre” seems more than a bit fuzzy to me.

If the level transitions can’t be skipped, then it’s a load screen. Avoiding loading screens is an impressive technical feat, but what really matters is avoiding making the player wait for things. Loading screens are kind of unavoidable and common, so I think there’s not much that can be done but to view them as a necessary evil where they pop up. On that note, the unskippable scene of the rocket ship going to a planet every time in Ratchet and Clank drove me nuts.

Don’t care about the story.

Sum-up of the tutorial is alright, doesn’t go over how it specifically teaches.

Don’t care about daxter. As an aside I like him.

Okay, Blue Eco Vent. This is a trend I see a lot, where a dude points out the first time something appears in a game, then says that it “teaches players” about that element. The Vent here doesn’t really teach them anything. It’s just a distinctive shape on the ground. It’s not teaching them that they need to come back here. It’s just a thing they might see, and later on when blue Eco vents are activated, they might remember that they saw one here, which, if they remember successfully, will teach them to check back after activating vents of a certain color.

I would like a demonstration of how the enemies work relative to Jak’s abilities honestly. They, and the platforming near them, act in tandem to deliver challenges and bar progression. Instead there’s just a remark that the area is a bit harder and that there’s no bottomless pits, so you have to climb up, which is its own sort of punishment (which importantly means you need to jump across correctly, developing jumping skill)

I think you’re reaching a bit with the sound effect for precursor flooring, but it is a nice sound effect. Having unique sound effects for different flooring is a neat touch in terms of feedback. More important in games with full noise propagation engines that are factored into enemy AI, like Thief.

I think the boss is basic reinforcement of your ability to move and jump. And I think the idea you were searching for was if a vine had gone limp while the boss was still attacking you, so you need to find a point between the boss’s attacks to attack it, opening up the leaves, then the boss would feel less condescending and maybe a bit more back-and-forth, like you’re fighting it as it fights you, rather than simply cycling phases.

Funny that you say variety can make something more than the sum of its parts given my recent criticism of how variety making it so every part needs to stand on its own more than being able to rest on others. I think variety adds exactly what it adds and nothing else. The strength of adding a new mode is that it’s a new mode with a unique strategic space to explore, so it can help keep players engaged by turning them onto a new task. The weakness is that it’s segregated from the rest of the game and doesn’t build on or take from the existing strengths of the game. Also in a developmental sense it can strain dev time and end up half baked, which is a problem by itself that can simply be called out for what it is.

Is there really a lack of acceleration on the net in the fishing minigame? Or is it that it accelerates on a funny curve, moving between low speed and high speed over a short period of time, so if you try to tap it, you go nowhere, but if you try to hold it, you go way too far? Added to that, a slight deceleration curve so it continues moving after you let go? The motion doesn’t look instant from the footage. I’m just guessing. I played about half of Jak 1 before declaring, “fuck this shit” to all the collectathon nonsense, so I don’t really remember.

Hmmmmmm, your discussion on how power cells are the core progression metric, yet are also partially optional is interesting. You bring up a good point and concern as a reviewer. As an aside, I’d say that a collectathon style game where collecting every single collectible was mandatory would be a flaw. There needs to be a suitable amount of leniency. I don’t really know how to resolve the dilemma you’ve brought up here, except by saying that all the content should be reviewed as if it were required instead of potentially optional, but that doesn’t really seem like the correct answer either. Simply put, by reviewing everything, everything can individually be declared good or bad and worrying about the sum total is easier, since most games have good and bad levels anyway.

Fair statement on the driller enemy and drop out floor combination. I don’t think that the combat mechanics and 1 hit enemies necessarily prevent them from combining platforming and combat challenges, I think they just failed to integrate them.

I think they made the punch the way they did intentionally. I think they didn’t want the player to chain the lunge punch into itself and zip across the levels that way, rather they wanted player to use the roll jump. Also canceling the punch into the spin is kinda technical.

Yes, it does make it feel awkward to have a much longer window to self cancel the move than canceling it into other moves. If the lunge punch had a stationary followup then I’d write it down as a flaw without a second though. I don’t think you needed the frame counts, but I appreciate the effort. Yeah, it feels jank, but I don’t think it was done without purpose. I don’t think you’re right in saying it makes the spin kick the vastly superior option, just the superior one up close. Also it means that there’s a clear purpose for both instead of the lunge punch being flat out better.

Hmm, fair point about the level design. Levels are nonlinear, but every possible route involves all of Jak’s moveset regularly, and avoids open areas where you don’t do anything but walk around. I don’t think that keeping the player active is necessarily the path to great level design, but it’s certainly a step up from your cross-example with Ty the Tasmanian Tiger (forgot that game existed).

Okay, I hate the precursor orbs and scout flies. I hate collectathon shit in general. I hate having them stuck everywhere so you don’t just get past the level, but you practically need to sweep up all these little bits and bobs sitting everywhere. I’d be much more okay with this game as a whole if these were totally removed in favor of just the power cells. I’m fairly certain in many areas you’re gated so there aren’t enough power cells to continue on power cells alone so you need to collect these.

Wish you went into more detail on the roll jump move than just that you can access some power cells that unskilled players cannot with it. Like, it’s more than a gating mechanism, it’s a fundamental part of movement.

I dunno about the spin. It always felt kinda lame to me, like it didn’t last long enough, compared to contemporary hover mechanics. I don’t think it’s really that hard to press the appropriate buttons. Something feels fiddly about the jumps in Jak, but I’d mostly chalk that up to the slow movement speed of the character.

That’s the common argument against ice physics? Shrug. I thought it’s just that people don’t like characters moving independent of input, of sacrificing some measure of direct control over them. Also I don’t really approve of your logic that the ice physics are dumb because they’re only there to make something normally unchallenging, challenging. The order you present it in almost makes it seem like they had the buttons first, then threw in ice so it was harder to step on the buttons. I think the buttons are a legitimate challenge, they emphasize not only being able to orient yourself on the ice so as to move across it to a desired location, but because they require you to jump, you carry the momentum on the ice into the air, and it’s noticeably higher than your normal top speed on ground or air, so you have this excess momentum in the air that you need to control by either jumping preemptively so you’ll land smoothly on the button from afar, or control in the air to correct your trajectory onto the button, or slow yourself down close to the button in order to make a more easily controlled jump on top of it. You also neglected to mention the rather genius move to have a force field around the buttons that repels you if you get too close, because then the challenge could be trivialized by getting really close to make a completely slow and controlled jump instead of trying to get as close as you can without getting rejected. Plus they throw enemies at you at the same time. Also the lunge punch has a unique affect on your ice momentum which is cool. I think they were on top of their game here honestly and your criticism isn’t coming from the right angle. You gotta look at the challenge as it is, in context, not as what it could be. or would normally be. The ice serves to make a difficult task that takes some coordination and thought to do.

You make a fair point about the opportunity lost here, though I wouldn’t use the word cancel, just for the sake of clarity. they could have had more cliffs around the ice, and more circumstances where you need to be careful not to overshoot into danger.

Using the base mechanics doesn’t necessarily determine whether something is a decent test of skill or not, just that it’s consistent and probably deeper than whatever variety themed system they try to shoehorn in at the last minute. If it suddenly switched into a full-on dark souls or bayonetta style boss fight with all of those mechanics completely replacing Jak’s mechanics, then it would be a greater test of skill, and deeper than the rest of the game, but incredibly inconsistent. Whether it’s a bad thing or not, I don’t really know, it’s never happened before and I think my reaction would be, “why wasn’t the rest of the game like this” rather than panning it. And speaking of that, weren’t there other bosses in this game than the first and last ones?

I think it’s intensely debatable whether Jak 1 outdoes Mario 64 (I can’t debate the rareware collectathons, I haven’t played them) on its very first try. Beyond that, I feel like you’ve somewhat missed the spirit of the game here. I didn’t like Jak 1, and I liked Jak 2 a bit more, due in large part to the removal of collectathon elements. I feel like Mario 64 keeps its collectathon elements extremely constrained, limiting them to just the goals of each course, not littered throughout the game world. Mario has always used coins, but never as a barrier to progression, and the 100 coin challenges in Mario 64 are not only optional, but far in the periphery of available stars for progression. There is an excess of stars that can be used to progress that are not 100 coin challenges, where Jak 1 felt like collecting things was much much more obligatory.

I feel like many of the level design challenges were probably interesting, but glossed over. Mario 64 very directly creates challenges that require dynamic platforming skill with control over velocity and momentum, where jak is very much about simply jumping as far as possible to the next platform with each jump, since Jak has such high friction and accelerates to top speed so easily, a speed that is rather slow to begin with. That and it doesn’t mention how frequently progress is barred by things you need damnable power cells for, rather than simply allowing one to clear areas and progress and get it over with (like the later Jak games did).

And because it’s me, here’s a speedrun. Pretty cool. Notice the combination use of rolling and punching and other moves.

An appreciative rebuttal, since I bet you’ve never seen a critique of a critique of a critique before. Critique-ception? We need to go deeper: http://pastebin.com/yGTns0bY

I thought collectathons died out because they were never particularly popular.

I liked the transitions in R&C the very first time I saw them, and was in agony thereafter. If I can’t skip it, it sucks. I’ll eventually replay the game, I’ll eventually want to cut to the chase. I don’t want to deal with anything forcing me to just watch.

I like Jak 2 better so far. I only just got the two gun types, but it’s a lot more straightforward than collecting endless power cores.

I don’t play levels fast. I just dislike being asked to visit every possible location in a level. It’s not that these elements obligate slow collection, it’s that you’re not really allowed to find your own way through a level and whatever works works. You’re obligated to collect whatever comes your way to speed up progression, or you might hit a roadblock and need to backtrack to collect more things to clear it.

Yes, I do think the roll in OoT being slightly faster is a fundamental part of movement. I think it was put there intentionally to encourage you to move faster. Sidehopping and backflipping are never required in OoT, but they’re important too. I don’t think something has to be strictly required to necessarily be fundamental, though definitions and cut-off points may vary. I think roll jumping is a big deal to the movement system, and it deserved a little more focus.

We’ll see what happens with Jak 2.

I’ll check out whiplash, it sounds interesting.

Information Denial: Pros and Cons

What are the relative pros and cons of showing vs. hiding a boss’s health bar?

Same as showing or hiding the healthbar for any enemy, except with a boss.

If you show it then the player knows how much damage they’re doing relative to the boss’s total HP. They can gauge how long the fight is going to take based on how long its taken so far versus how much is left. It also means they can tell whether their attacks are having an effect at all. This means they can gauge whether they should rush in for a final attack or not and tell what attacks are more and less powerful.

Hiding the health bar means the player has no idea how long the battle will take, they cannot see what attacks are more or less effective, they need visual feedback that they’re doing damage, otherwise it can be unclear, they can never be certain whether it’s safe to launch a final desperate attack.

It’s a matter of feedback. How much should players really know? is it important that they know? Also I’d recommend including a health bar for really long boss battles because otherwise players are just plain likely to get disheartened.

Health bars again: What do you think of tying the health bar (or perhaps other info) to an RPG trait or item the player has to earn? In general, what do you think of denial of information that can be rectified through player effort?

Witcher 3, Pokemon, and Shin Megami Tensei all do a bit of this, by having you steadily learn traits of enemies over time. Gathering information in this way isn’t incredibly interesting in my opinion, but it can add to the theme of a game, it can change the experience of the game. There’s something that feels good about hitting an enemy with its weakness, about matching like to like, about uncovering new information.

What ends up happening when you go down this route is either you end up with a collectathon type of thing where you gotta collect all these extraneous information objects, or spend extra time in battles analyzing enemies instead of fighting them.

If a game wants to go down that route, fine. It’s just not a big addition or subtraction, and I can’t think of a way to make it more significant, or an example where it was more significant. It makes the game more about memorizing arbitrarily assigned esoterica in many cases (like pokemon types and weaknesses).

Denial of certain information, like where enemies are currently, or what they’ll do next, or what their plan might be, that can make sense. There can be a dynamic of retrieving information, and acting based upon it. Stealth games are in part based on this. For something like enemy properties, I dunno. Doesn’t seem like the most interesting thing in the world, but it’s also not really a big deal.

The Evils of Focus Testing

What’s your opinion on focus testing?

Here’s something I found recently on something like that: http://www.designer-notes.com/?p=1170

I think focus testing and test audiences in general are a tool, and like any other tool, they can be helpful, but also misused. Testing a product with actual people who are unfamiliar with the product is of incredible importance. Especially in the case of a game. Making a game is about creating a possibility space which extends far beyond what you can easily imagine just from looking at the code. You might set up the rules with one intention, then find people completely ignore it, or that your intended method of play is actually boring, or that it’s optimal, or the game suggests to play a different way entirely. Getting first impressions repeatedly is important throughout the development cycle. Getting experienced player impressions is important too.

The downside is that focus group testing is used as a type of insurance in the entertainment industry. When you invest a lot of money into something, you feel a greater pressure to make it a hit. Once you drop something, you can’t take it back. So focus testing is used to gauge whether something will be a hit with a general audience before it actually comes out.

The trouble is that first, a focus group is not a general audience. They might not be representative of the general public. Second, focus groups don’t always word their issues with developers the best. And third, executives have a tendency to take the word of the focus groups over the word of the designers. Working with focus groups effectively is something Valve has always been good at, for better or for worse. It requires watching their behaviors and sussing out troubles that they don’t necessarily vocalize. Take the example of point 5 from this blog post: https://www.platinumgames.com/official-blog/article/1924

Of course, for an example of focus testing gone wrong, we have Fuse (formerly Overstrike)

Kids apparently complained that the game looked too kiddie and said they wouldn’t play it. End result is that we got something totally generic looking that nobody was interested in on launch.

Another arguably negative example might be Hideki Kamiya not listening to feedback on Viewtiful Joe. It wasn’t exactly a big success, but nothing from Clover was. I remember finding the game too hard as a kid. I think it’s a bit rough around the edges even now.

1470788072235.jpg

I remember Itagaki once said that when he got feedback from some game testers saying Ninja Gaiden was too hard, he made the game even harder? Would that also count as a focus testing negative?

I don’t really know. I’ve definitely heard that quote before, and at the time (even with the Kamiya quote) I was like, “Haha, yeah, show ’em!” but on reflection, it might not have been the best idea even if it’s clearly a creator showing authority over the uneducated masses.

Honestly, I’m not even sure about the Kamiya example, except that I remember my experiences as a kid, and replaying it, it’s annoying to slow down time right when enemies shoot at you. I wasn’t used to that arcade type of difficulty as a kid, especially the unforgiving lives system, so I just played other games. Now as an adult, this is all manageable. I was progressing fine through the game last I played it, but I’m an expert. I can quantify how the game works a lot better, so I might not be able to judge it as accurately as someone experiencing it for the first time. And this difficulty of adoption might have lead to its largely unsuccessful sales. Is this a result of focus testing? Who really knows?

As for Itagaki, I don’t really know. He certainly made the game harder, but look at this version comparison between Black and Sigma. Sigma was made easier in some ways, but harder in others, where black (presumably the game his quote was talking about, or more true to his original vision) has a lot more sections with awkward controls where you’re simultaneously assaulted by enemies, such as in the swimming/water walking sections or some areas where you need to wallrun. Also the tank and horse bosses that need to be killed with arrows that can only be shot in first person view in black.

Ninja Gaiden Comparison Black Sigma.jpg

Novacanoo Crash Bandicoot Reply

Critique these critiques?

Holy crap, 11 reviews, jesus christ. Are 11 reviews really necessary?

Second, you’re really monotone. Like really really monotone. Sounds a little forced. Also are you actually british or just putting on an accent?

I don’t think the information on why you’re not covering the games prior to Crash is really relevant. I’m honestly not that interested in the history of Naughty Dog. Maybe someone else is, but I think it’s fluff when it comes to a game review.

Also I think your sentences are a bit long and drawn out, maybe using more words than necessary.

It’s weird to present the introduction to the game before the attract mode cutscene. It’s like you’re starting one idea then interrupting it with an earlier one.

Right here, you don’t mention what the character’s abilities are, how they work, or how intuitive they are.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that the X axis is barely used at all, it’s used about as much as the Y axis. Also don’t think it’s fair to say that obstacles that make use of the X axis don’t play into the strengths of the design. If they didn’t play into the strengths of the design in some way, then wouldn’t it effectively just be a different perspective version of a 2d platformer? A not very impressive 2d platformer?

Today we’d probably call it arcadey? Is that implying that arcadey is a bad thing? Today I think I’d call it uninspired and derivative same as they did back then.

Okay, so a game with high commitment jumps is alright as long as it’s, “designed around them.” This is a buzzphrase. What does “designed around them” mean here? It would appear to be, “the player is asked to jump any distance except the maximum length of the jump”, but castlevania, the example you just cited, requires you to jump the maximum length of the jump sometimes. Also doesn’t it seem like a good common sense rule of thumb to never ask a player to jump the maximum jump length so they don’t have to do ridiculously frameperfect jumps?

What does “poor physics” mean here? Are you sure you don’t mean the fact that you’re jumping into the Z axis, where distance is harder to judge?

“since most of the game’s jumps are the same length, there’s nothing stimulating about the act of jumping.” That’s a decent observation coupled with a swift judgment. I think it would have served your purposes better here to cite examples of how different jump lengths could have been used to construct more varied challenges, and how the system for controlling crash during jumps makes those infeasible, rather than jumping into the conclusion that this is compensation for an unruly physics system.

I don’t imagine that getting the physics right was a big hurdle at all. I think making a competent rendering engine was a much bigger hurdle. Crash’s system for rendering 3d graphics is legendary for its performance on the PS1 hardware. Physics calculations comparatively are very simple (at least, when you aren’t coding something like havok). Collision detection in 3d is harder.

Talking about what’s probably hard or the troubles the developers went through is very much copping MM’s style. I don’t think it’s helping your case, because like MM, I don’t think you have a background in computer programming or knowledge of game engines. Saying, “it must have taken a lot of effort” or “they put a lot of thought into this” or “I imagine that getting the physics right was one of the biggest hurdles” are kind of empty statements.

It doesn’t really matter what the intent of the designer was, or what was hard or what was easy. You can spend tons of effort doing something a hard way that doesn’t really pay off, and a reviewer should be impartial to that in my opinion. It shouldn’t matter to a reviewer how much effort something took. It matters to a development team. Saying “Man, they spent a lot of effort on this thing that turned out to be worthless” isn’t saying much about the final state of the game, it’s advice to make sure a hypothetical design team doesn’t fuck up another game. And maybe you want to include that type of thing as an aside, but it doesn’t properly indict the game itself for it’s own faults.

I’ll draw one exception when it comes to proposing alternative implementations that could have been better than what the game actually did. I usually limit myself to implementations of mechanics that existed at the time, to prevent hindsight bias. However this is still only loosely connected to evaluating the game as it is. If a game did something wrong and the correct interpretation was come up with later, you could just as easily say the game was made too soon to actually be good. It doesn’t matter if the developers tried hard, had the wrong tools, or incredible setbacks, either the game works out or it doesn’t.

I think you could have put in a better shot at explaining how that level doesn’t work so well with the dpad and physics. The dpad claim is especially weird here considering the dpad should make a level that looks like it’s just a straight line easier. It’s a digital input tool, it should be good at staying straight on a level that’s straight, and only moving you forward when pressed and not otherwise.

You’re reaching when you say that the developers tried to force intricate platforming after making compromises to their original design. I don’t think you have sufficient evidence to claim that. The developers are dead. You don’t know what their intent was. It doesn’t matter what their intent was.

Stating that players probably gave up once they reached this level is similar reaching. You don’t know that. Please avoid guessing at other players’ experiences.

The spin attack thing was probably intentional. It would have been easier to implement it the other way, where you stop when you release the dpad. They probably went to extra effort to make it move regardless of your dpad because they wanted you to feel committed to the motion of the spin attack, feeling like it has inertia of its own, like dash attacks in many games. Dying due to it sounds like it speaks more to incompetence on your part unfortunately.

I think the level analyses could have been better if you went over the way the individual levels attempted to challenge the player rather than the extreme cliffnotes versions. How was the level design actually utilized to make the player think? What sort of play does it bring out? How are the enemies used? For the water level, I think it would be appropriate to mention that aligning the camera with the primary plane the character is moving on helps players significantly with accurate movement across that plane. This is why we have 2d platformers with cameras from the sides instead of the back. In many Crash level, the camera is behind crash, which makes it difficult to judge how far things are ahead, but in water levels, they clearly felt that this wasn’t as important as simply showing the player exactly how far the character is moving relative to what’s below him.

I don’t think having a variety of stage types is necessarily a strength, especially if all of those stage types are bad or average. It’s better to do one thing well than 5 things poorly.

In what way do the hog ride levels rely on trial and error? You’re presenting a conclusion before your evidence. Same thing when you say the slippery climb level is extremely challenging but in a good way, because it “takes the limitations of the controls into account” which is incredibly vague. When you mention how it’s a pain to jump on moving platforms with these controls, that could do with some explanation as well. I’d presume it’s because you don’t inherit the platform’s movement when you jump and need to manually accelerate and deccelerate in the air to keep up. Also it would help if you had a better explanation of how bad the controls are in the first place. Also vague is saying that you were frustrated by the last level because again, the controls suck, especially versus the things introduced in that stage, which you don’t elaborate on.

I don’t really care how fancy the final boss’s scenario was for the time.

Game feel isn’t a concept that’s ethereal, though without knowing the exact game logic it can be hard to put a finger on. I think you could have broken down the mechanics of how crash moves and jumps much better than you did. I think this is particularly remiss given it’s a platformer game. This isn’t a factor of age, Mario 64 was released months before it. The game logic required to make a good feeling 3d platformer is not hardware intensive nor beyond the mathematical capabilities of developers of the time. Game logic is usually the least cpu intensive part of any game, barring AI. The issue is that they built a faulty implementation.

Also, it’s really bizarre how you can say that they basically screwed everything up, levels, camera perspective, physics, enemies, bosses, yet the game is somehow still worth playing. You haven’t really mentioned any of the merits of the game at all. Also, dark time when we played 3d games with Dpads, try playing the Ys games on PC. They have a very similar control system to Crash, and you can in fact play them with a dpad (or arrow keys). They control fairly well. The dpad limitation is something that can entirely be worked around. The Crash developers simply failed.

To look into the game a bit more, I downloaded a rom of it and had a try at it. Something I guessed from the video was that diagonal running was at the same speed as cardinal direction running, and that turned out to be correct. My guess is that they have an independent X and Z velocity value that both have physics calculations run independently, rather than a cental polar coordinate value that is later converted into X and Z velocity values using trig. This is a common error in games of the time, but I’d guess that it’s not an error here because of the boulder sections. If you ran with correct angular velocity, then you’d lose distance to the boulder across the boulder chases when moving left or right. Obviously having different speed ordinal directions is part of what makes movement feel so awkward. Another observation is that you didn’t really explain how the health powerups, the tiki masks work. More or less they’re like a mushroom from mario, giving you another hit before dying, but not providing any other function. Also you failed to mention that you can control your movement during a spin, but you have basically no friction and a smaller acceleration force than normal. And that spins can be canceled by jumps and vice versa, and canceling a jump with a spin seems to increase the speed at which you fall, so you don’t seem to get as much distance from jumps if you spin out of them (I can’t totally tell, all my testing seems to indicate the jump is unaffected, but it feels like you get less distance).

I think the game feel issues can be chalked up entirely to the way acceleration works. The character moves at a slow speed across the screen, much lower than say the perceivable speed of mario in Super Mario Bros on NES, or Mario 64, yet the acceleration value is also fairly low. The friction value is the same as the acceleration value, so it creates this feeling like it’s difficult to get moving or to stop moving, where in mario 64 by contrast, if you hold a direction all the way, you get moving almost instantaneously. The dpad is a hinderance here because there is clearly extra acceleration and decceleration going on here compared to 2d games where acceleration is usually close to instantaneous, yet because of the digital controls, fine control over the acceleration is not possible, so the character always moves a bit further than you intend, or not as far as you intend when you press or tap the dpad directions. It’s like having ice physics, except the friction level is the same as the acceleration level, so it comes across as feeling weird rather than clearly like ice. Also friction is only applied when the dpad is released (I think), which is why it takes so long for crash to turn around (because if it’s applied all the time, then he’d lose speed from the direction he’s going at double the normal rate instead of the same rate as when the dpad is released).

This is the same in the air, making it so that if you’re directly over something at the peak of your jump and hold back directly when you’re over it, you’ll still overshoot it based on the time it takes to slow down. Unlike Castlevania, you’re required in some sections to accelerate in the air, which means you need to accelerate enough to get onto the target platform, but stop before you’ll overshoot it when you hold back. Because the acceleration value is so low, it’s easy to over/under shoot this. To accurately jump to another platform from no acceleration you need to accurately hold in your mind how long it will take to accelerate to the appropriate speed to get to that platform across the amount of time you’re in the air, and the point at which you need to hold back in order to not overshoot, plus the added constraint of how long to hold the jump button. This is so far from real-world physics and even commonly intuitive videogame physics that it’s a huge pain in the ass to jump accurately even in the 2d platformer levels. In Castlevania you at least have the luxury of always knowing the exact arc of your jump.

Speaking of the jump, something feels awful about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. I don’t have frame advance or a memory reader that can tell me Z position over time, so my best guess is that as long as X is held, you move up at a certain velocity until a timer runs out, then gravity handles it until you hit a terminal velocity equal to the rising velocity. The end result is that the jumps look consistent every time, but feel like you don’t have a lot of control over them. This is likely because the rising velocity and terminal velocity values, as well as the gravity value, are all fairly low. This produces a sensation that feels floaty and like you don’t have a lot of direct control (because you have no control over the jump height while gravity is doing its work, as opposed to the way 2d sonic and mario control their jumps where either your upwards velocity is instantly braked to a lower value when the button is released, or gravity is altered as long as the button is held, respective to the two games). On a more simple level, you get maybe 1.5 times as much height by holding the button down all the way as not. That’s a really shitty amount of variation.

That the running animation also is forced to play through a full cycle before coming to a stop doesn’t help matters. It seems like there’s an animation of him taking a step, and doing a full run, and it transitions between these when he hits a low enough speed threshold, but the full run can only transition to the step animation when his feet are together, at the passing position. So it looks like he has this exaggeratedly big level of motion when his velocity is very low, which is disconcerting. Animation blending didn’t exist back then, but they could have added extra animations to help buffer this transition out (like mario 64 did).

I also feel it’s weird you didn’t mention the life system and how collectibles work, granting an extra life when you gain 100. Compared to most games in the genre, there are a lot more collectibles dispensed, and the game chastises you for missing collectibles at the end of each level. Also in your review I felt like the remark about how it was unconventional that you could destroy collectibles, even really important ones, was weird. Playing the game, I feel like the reason it’s there is so there’s a hazard as you open boxes, that in your rush to destroy more boxes, you might destroy collectibles too. I just destroyed a save point collectible like 4 times in a row while playing. A more appropriate criticism of the mechanic would probably be to mention that there’s no benefit or alternative use to destroying powerups, or objects in general, they’re just gone.

Also you brushed over way too many of the level challenges. The core of the game is moving forward in the direction the level goes, and around obstacles as they crop up, jumping and spinning as appropriate. You could have explained how the level designs, the enemy arrangements, and so on, combine these 3 key aspects to make the player need to think (or not need to think too hard) about, planar movement, jumping, spinning.

I think overall you need to focus more on describing how the core mechanics work, or don’t work. You’re going to need to develop a better eye for that sort of thing. I think you brushed over a lot of the central interactions between the core mechanics and the enemies/levels. You frequently remarked that they were trivial or not worth mentioning, sometimes that they were hard or frustrating, but rarely got into detail about what goes into any particular section that makes it trivial or frustrating.

Your review ends on an upnote for a reason that is not at all made clear by the contents of the review. I mean, I really have no reason to not think this game is a walking talking abomination all things considered.

Well, thanks for your effort. There’s certainly plenty there to consider. I will say though that the last few paragraphs on controls are where we differ – people like you and me who can understand all that jargon are few and far between, and there are even fewer who find it interesting.

What do you mean we differ? Like, you don’t agree with that part, or you didn’t quite have the knowledge to pull that type of thing out?

Anyway, I find it super interesting. I think it’s one of the most interesting things about games. I’ve programmed a number of simple physics simulations, collision detection systems, and other stuff, and the vast number of different ways these things can be implemented is fascinating to me.

“What do you mean we differ?” I just meant that, while we can both understand everything you meant when talking about acceleration/friction/gravity/velocity values, you find it super interesting where I don’t. And, while I usually hate the phrase, to each their own.

Hahaha, damn! That’s unfortunate.

I like math, and physics, and animation. Games are like the intersection between those things.

With that said, you’ve got a follower in me if you ever get around to making videos of your own. You say you’re lazy, but take out the references to me and paragraphs 51 through 60 could fill out a focused video on Crash 1’s controls just fine. I just dunno what kind of audience you’d find. To show that that 3000 words doesn’t go unappreciated: http://pastebin.com/r12Jjafy I’ve taken the parts I unreservedly agree with and written a little something to keep myself in check. In particular, I really needed to hear that part about making claims about a game’s development as justification for a fault being a totally worthless endeavor. Sorry for quadruple post – I appreciate how constructive your criticism is, and this is the way to act on it that makes the most sense to me. Also it’s a New Zealand accent, believe me you aren’t the first one to wonder.

Thank you and you’re welcome.

You’re right, my remarks on the game from trying it is practically an analysis in of itself. However writing is easy for me, video editing is harder. Why do you think I answer so many asks?

Thanks for your pastebin summing up some of my remarks. That fits into this ask from earlier: http://ask.fm/Evilagram/answers/138183828245 At the time I couldn’t remember some of the more specific procedure I had, but your pastebin sums it up nicely. I might append a rewrite of some of that when I post the ask to my blog.

Good luck, have fun.