Category Archives: Game Design

Manage Your Anger

Chuck has three apples. If Chuck needs half a cheese wheel to defeat the Nameless King, then where did Jesus hide the prune juice? All these are very valid questions pertaining  to Dark Souls but more importantly, they represent resources that a player can manage to ensure the greatest reward. Although, in Dark Souls, the best outcome is probably just survival and to escape from the endless humiliation of the “You Died” screen.


In Dark Souls, the player is given three resources to manage during combat, it consists of health, stamina, and mana. While both health and mana are both depletable the stamina bar recharges with time, but when the stamina bar does deplete the player goes into a pathetic limping state of  being that couldn’t dodge the broadside of a moving tortoise. Dark Souls balances ease of combat with punishable restrictions that discourage reckless spamming of the attack button. As I posted in my last piece, Dark souls series are all about timing and smart decisions. Screw up and pay the price. However, it doesn’t mean the game doesn’t give the player the necessary tool to finish the job at hand. Health is depletable but items to restore health is abundant. They balance this mechanic by making the items also depletable until the player reaches a checkpoint, enemies hit hard, and the player starts the game with very limited health recovery items. This teaches the player the necessary skills to survive but forcing them to be cautious and gaining the tools to avoid, or diminish, the damage taken. FromSoftware goes even a step further because the health recovery items can be recharged the game doesn’t want to reduce the challenge so all the enemies you’ve slain are revived with the exceptions of bosses.

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Blue Flask restores mana. Orange Flask restores health.

Balancing the tools given to the player and the gameplay makes Dark Souls a true experience that not only challenges but stay fair in its mechanics. Furthermore, the game realizes if the whole game consists of swinging your weapon of choice, it would be both boring and a waste of their fantasy genre tag. Therefore, with the addition of the mana bar, the game can introduce a whole other set of tools for the player to incorporate into their own personal playstyles. Once again, FromSoftware balances the player’s actions by limiting their usage of special abilities in a certain amount of time frame before they require a mana recovery item. Like the health items, though, the mana recovery item is also rechargeable. Mana restricts melee orientated players on using their weapon’s special ability and creates an opening for enemies from the relentless assault of the magic orientated players.

Dark Souls has a system in place that required the players to manage their resources wisely or face the heavily punishing consequences. Of course, managing the increasing levels of frustration from losing over and over again can be considered a game mechanic, but it is more likely the player just needs to stop and take a break. Go smoke a cigarette or something. You’ve been cursing for hours now and I think your neighbors are calling the cops because of their pretty sure that you’re beating your wife and you know how the last time a police officer showed up at your doors when you beat Dark Souls 1. Anyways, see you all next post.

Signing off,

John

Changing up Combat: More Zelda Talk

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One of my favorite Legend of Zelda games is Skyward Sword, something that quite a few players don’t necessarily share with me. There are a lot of reasons for this division, from the story structure to the graphics to the over-world system it uses, but I’ll be focusing on what I think is one of the biggest talking points: The motion control based combat.

What does this have to do with difficulty? The way Skyward Sword handled a mast majority of its difficulty is with motion “puzzles” formed around swordplay. Link’s sword is controlled by the wiimote and his shield by the nunchuck, and parries, lashes, and spin attacks were all mapped to actions. This allowed for a new kind of combat curve where players needed to learn how to angle and properly time their sword swings and blocks to get past an opponent’s guard, deflect projectiles, and cut objects. This buttonless attacking system threw people for a loop as they adjusted to how fast or slow they needed to move (along with a few technical difficulties for others), but after learning the basics, the way you can design fights truly opens up.

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Standard enemies each became their own challenge, requiring fake outs, dodging, and guarding to defeat them, and bosses also evolved to match the flexibility of your sword.

The first main boss even acts as a gatekeeper of sorts, forcing you to master each direction you can swing in, and how to quickly change directions on the fly. And from there, you jump from standard duels between blades, to countering a giant scorpion’s claws, to even cutting a sea monster’s tentacles apart to hit it’s eye.

Some players found this sword system tedious or unreliable, but on a personal level, I really did feel immersed with what I was doing when I swung the wiimote. Like I had really earned that victory beyond just pressing A to hack at some monster. It was one step closer to actually holding the Master Sword, and I think that’s the kind of emotion that Zelda as a series really shines at, no matter what direction they take the controls afterwards.

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-Alyssa

Difficulty Scaling: The Legend of Zelda

When it comes to difficulty settings in games, the majority have options clearly labelled as some form of Easy, Normal, Hard, and other settings on a scale like that. The differences between them were usually just easier or harder versions of the regular content, vial altering the enemies or the puzzles faced by the player.

There are a few games that take difficulty settings in a slightly different direction than this linear path, and one series that has been implementing this is The Legend of Zelda.

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An example of the methods they use to create extra difficulty in Zelda games is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Originally for the Nintendo 64 system, it was rerealeased multiple times over the years, and during it’s GameCube release, added a second version called the Master Quest. Ocarina of time-Master Quest was the equivalent of its Hard mode, something that hadn’t existed at all in the original game.

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It flipped the entire in-game world’s map to a mirrored version, and then redesigned all the dungeons to have harder sets of puzzles and tougher enemies. But the most noticeable change was introduced in the final re-release for the Nintendo 3DS. in this version of the Master Quest, all damage taken from enemies is doubled. And when poor Link stars out with only 3 hearts, double damage can kill him in about two hits in the very first dungeon.

This sudden vulnerability really makes the player think during puzzles and combat. There aren’t nearly as many times one can use trial and error when it’s so easy to die. You’re placed on the defensive, using your shield and trying to do damage as efficiently as possible without risking yourself.

Later Zelda games like Skyward Sword and The Wind Waker (HD version) also implement this double damage system in what they call Hero Mode, where naturally occurring healing items are removed at the same time. This form of difficulty feels different to me because it doesn’t quite mess with the AI of enemies, but forces the player to take what was once a simple enemy more seriously by decreasing the mistakes they are allowed to make.

I don’t necessarily think this method is the best form of difficulty I’ve seen, but I do think it’s a slightly fresher application of what Hard Mode should be.

-Alyssa

A Fight Between You and the Gimmick

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Gimmicks aren’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to video games. In fact gimmicks are often integral and can provide a very much needed change of pace for the player by providing a much different and interesting approach to things that normally come out of the game. Simply enough gimmicks have to be chosen wisely and implemented even more skillfully, otherwise they can break the pace of a game or at worse be an agitating annoyance for players.

Most cases gimmicks are roundabout ways that break away from the status quo the game establishes. For example the Yhorm The Giant boss fight in Dark Souls is a gimmick fight. While ordinarily, Dark Souls requires the player to carefully choose when to strike darting in and out of combat, perfectly timing switching from offense to defense. The Yhorm boss fight is an entirely different approach which casts aside pretty much all the difficulty of combat away. After the player successfully realizes that standard weapons have little to no effect on the boss, and they figure out that a conveniently placed weapon at the back of the room is the only real way to deal damage, the fight becomes trivial, so much so that its quite easy to beat the boss without taking damage, or even letting him getting an attack in at all.

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This behavior isn’t just limited to bosses, but can be found in several games where entire levels are dedicated to a gimmick. These are quite finicky as most platformers often employ gimmick levels that are a fun and engaging change of pace. Alternatively one can be stuck with a gimmick level which is amusing at first, but quickly takes a turn for the tedious. For example Dragon Age: Origins has a section in the middle of escalating a mage tower, where the player and his party is transported to a dream world known as the Fade. The Fade section of Dragon Age: Origins has gained a reputation among its fanbase as being an extremely tedious and annoying level, so annoying, that a user created a mod for the game which allowed players to skip the section entirely.

The section is entirely based around solving puzzles and navigating combat by using different unique forms for different situations. Its interesting and fun for the first few minutes, but as the exploration continues and combat continues, the player just wishes they could go back to normal gameplay and be rid of the shapeshifting gimmick.

While gimmicks can often be used for fun, they are just as commonly overused and just not put into effect in a fun and enjoyable way for the user. More often than not gimmicks are tedious and a headache for the player that breaks the flow of a game, where a break is not even necessary.

-Michael

A Lesson in Early Game Difficulty

This post isn’t really going to be me pointing out a general trend in Video Game Difficulty, but an interesting difficulty spike that I recently ran into. Games start off easy and simple, and then gradually become difficult, right? Well that’s not necessarily true, especially if your resources are more limited than you expect.

I lost to the first Pokemon Gym in Pokemon White Version a couple of days ago. Not only did I lose to the first real obstacle in the game, but I lost more than once and tried multiple strategies before I won.

“But how?” you ask. “The first gym is built to get players used to gyms, so how can the very first one be that hard?” Sure, I was stubborn and only wanted to use a couple of Pokemon at the very beginning to cut down on grinding, but my main Pokemon was of equal level to the Gym Leader’s strongest one. The answer is a combination of a lack of plentiful EXP and the power of boosting stats at the right time.

Starting with Pokemon Black and White, EXP, or Experience Points, are no longer gained based on the level and species of the Pokemon defeated. Instead, the points gained are now altered based on how higher in level your own Pokemon is. For example, defeating a Pokemon at the same level might give you 500 EXP, but defeating one 5 levels below yourself will cause you to gain less. This drop continues until the gap grows large enough to make battles pointless. In theory, this is an anti grinding technique to try and get players to not just steamroll everything with one Pokemon. But before you defeat the first Gym in Pokemon Black and White, you are stuck in an area with finite encounters that are actually worth fighting.

Once you’ve defeated all the trainers available, your Pokemon will be stuck with fighting low level random encounters, which take far too long to realistically level up with. As an example, my main Pokemon at the time was pretty much stuck at Level 14 when I went to the Gym.

And this is where the Striaton City Gym’s strategy comes into play.

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There are three potential fights in the Striaton City Gym: Chili, Cress, and Cilan. The one you will fight is based on who you chose as your Starter Pokemon. The game always makes you face the one with a type advantage.

This gym already puts you at a disadvantage, since their strongest Pokemon will have the elemental advantage against your starter Pokemon. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but because of the EXP problems you have before this gym, it’s difficult to raise more than one Pokemon and have them at a high level. You either get a diverse team and split the EXP, or stick with a smaller party and have less options. The game does give you a Pokemon with a type advantage against the gym for free, but it’s at Level 10, meaning it won’t do a huge amount of damage unless you train it. But the thing that really adds to the difficulty is one move the gym tends to use quite a bit: Work Up.

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Both of the Gym leader’s Pokemon know Work Up, which boosts their Attack and Special Attack stats every time it’s used. Stat boosting and lowering techniques are powerful in the early game, because the player doesn’t have many attacking options, and once Work Up is used a few times, it’s very easy to get one or two hit KOed. The longer the battle goes on, the more dangerous it becomes. And since it’s nearly impossible to quickly defeat them without a lucky critical hit, the AI is nearly guaranteed enough turns to set up their stats.

And that is how I lost 5 times to the first Gym. What would be a fair fight becomes far more difficult just by restricting a few resources and giving the opponent something you don’t have access to. Later on, Gym Battles aren’t nearly this hard simply because you have more options to consider, making this very first gym one of the tougher fights. An unexpected Difficulty Spike.

-Alyssa

Quick Time Events

Let me describe a potential game scenario. You’re walking though a dark cave, exploring it slowly, a torch in one hand and your other hand trailing along the walls. Just as you’re reading some ancient text carved into the stones, a big pop up prompt appears on your screen, demanding that you press a button before some random boulders collapse on you.

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I’m looking at you, Tomb Raider reboot. What does that circle around the Y button even mean? What’s the timing? It’s a mystery.

Welcome to Quick Time Events, or to give an abbreviation, QTEs. A lot of them are completely unnecessary, yet some of otherwise fair, player controlled, games toss them in for the excitement. And then the player dies because they had zero idea they had to mash a button before an invisible timer ran out (and sometimes what exactly needs to be done isn’t even clear). This annoying variant has earned the name Press X to Not Die.

To make matters worse, many of these instant death QTEs occur in the middle of what seem to be cut-scenes, a time where the player is not expecting to have to do anything. Bayonetta games have a habit of doing these during action sequences, where one moment you’re watching her dodge attacks effortlessly, and the next moment, you have to mash your controller in less than a second or watch her get killed by a chunk of flying concrete. This kind of cheap difficulty doesn’t reward skill. Instead, it forces people to replay sections until they memorize the exact moment where they need to press a button, and that’s just repetitive and frustrating. Ironically, Bayonetta uses QTEs to increase damage on finisher moves, and they’re really fun to execute, yet still decides to do the Press X to Not Die variant within the same game. I’m honestly not sure why.

On the flip side, there are good ways to insert QTEs, like not killing the player if they fail it. Sometimes, they are used to unlock cool cut-scene visuals, extra story paths, or more score points. This way, all it does is reward players for getting it, and positively encourages them to replay a section at their own leisure if they don’t get it. A really fun example of good QTEs that benefit the storytelling are the ones you get in the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm fighting games.

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The Ultimate Ninja Storm series uses QTEs within story-line fights to add depth, scope, and choices to battles, making the player seem more involved with what’s happening on screen.

Playing story mode in these games lets you replay many of the high energy fight scenes in the Anime and Manga series, but instead of just making a ton of cutscenes that the player just watches, they insert controller commands to integrate the player into the moments. They have to power up the attacks, dodge, and parry. And the better the player performs, the more interesting the fight scene becomes in response. Stars gained during QTEs unlock secret battle cutscenes, and sometimes the player can choose objectives mid fight to perform to get certain endings or a better score.

Overall, I don’t really like QTEs. I feel like they drag you out of your game experience to punish you for some arbitrary reflex check. Unless more games make more effort to make them feel more integrated and fun, I don’t see much of a point to them beyond shoving in unnecessary game-play elements.

-Alyssa

By the Skin of Your Rotten Teeth

Chances are high that before the invention of toothbrushes the mass majority of the human population had teeth like swiss cheese and breath like moldy cheese. I can not even begin the imagine rancid hell that is the breath of every boss monster that resides in the dungeons that have been around since the dawn of time. Now imagine dying then reviving from your grave countless times but each time you lose a little more of your humanity/sanity, and your teeth comes just a little bit more rotten. God, the Dark Souls’ universe must just smell like the worst parts of the collective butt sweats of every living being in the entire universe combined. But I digress.

Perfect timing. It is a measure of how long a player should wait before executing the right movements/actions to gain the best outcome for a dire situation. When your mother screams at you for not cleaning your room, the perfect timing would be to wait until your father comes home so that your mother’s mood alleviates before you start mouthing off. Chances are lower that your mother would lay the smack down on you for speaking out with your father around. Dark Souls is similar in that sense but with fewer uncountable variables that might change the situation. When a boss does a move set then a player, after experiencing it, should understand where it will move, swing, or grab next. These actions are premade therefore should not deviate from their original patterns. Grab. Dodge. Swing. Parry. Move. Attack. Simple, right?


The secret behind a well-crafted challenge in a game oriented around close encounter combat, like Dark Souls, is timing or more accurately the amount of room for error that is allowed for each player’s actions. Dark Souls takes these concepts to the max. Every action requires a nearly perfect reaction. Otherwise, the player would soon find themselves face first in the dirt. While the boss made cream cheese out of the player’s health bar. Creating these perfect scenarios requires the game to have hitboxes, areas where the game acknowledges the entity has been struck or not, where executing the perfect action grants the perfect reaction. These might leave little to no room for player error but Dark Souls is a game that wants its player base to learn. To breakthrough from their current skill level. Some interpret this as heartless or difficulty for the sake of hardship, but true satisfaction only peaks its glorious face from overcoming trials once thought impossible.


Timing is everything in Dark Souls. Unforgiving but fair. (Sometimes the game screws up but that is simply another story to tell your friends about) No other game does this better than Dark Souls. It dares to push the boundaries of how much a player seeks overwhelming challenges for a taste of that rush reserved solely for heroin addicts. Excuse me, I will not go attempt to experience the cheap thrills of Dark Souls once again.

Signing off,

John