Sunday, September 23, 2012

A penny for your thoughts, a hundred for your life

In this article, game developer Ben McGraw offers advice on designing power-ups based on his observations of indie game platformers.

I’ve spent the last 12 years of my life as a member of the verge community. And I’ve learned a thing or two from watching a few hundred game demos fly by.

Let’s talk about platformers and power ups today. 

The Master

In Shigeru Miyamoto’s games (Mario, Zelda, infinite others), the enemies all have some unique gimmick. Each one has a distinct movement pattern and/or ability in a combination that no other enemy has:
  • Goomba : charge forward. Fire is Fatal.
  • Koopa: charge forward, plus Shell Special. Fire is Fatal.
  • Para Koopa: bounces while in Parakoopa mode, or hovers back and forth. if stomped, becomes Koopa. Fire is Fatal.
  • Spiny: Cannot be stomped. Fire is Fatal.
  • Buzzy Beetle: fireproof. Shell Special if Stomped.
  • Lakitu: usually out of reach, shoots Spinys. Fire is Fatal.
  • Podoboo: Unkillable timing hazard.
  • Piranha Plant: Unstompable timing hazard. Fire is Fatal.
  • Bullet Bill: travels in a stright line, ignoring obstructions. Fireproof.
  • Cheep-Cheep: Special ability: TO BE THE MOST ANNOYING FUCKING THING EVER. Flies diagonally upwards at high velocity.
  • Hammer Bros.: Shoot projectiles towards you in a parabolic arc. 

Each of these separate enemies has a different modus operandi that alters how the player deals with them.

Reality marches in

When I’ve played indie games towards the low end of the quality spectrum, I’ve noticed a tendency to ignore this simple design tenet. On more than one occasion I’ve encountered the Monster, and then the Palette-Swapped Monster, and then the Yet-Again-Palette-Swapped Monster. At our luckiest, they will be of increasing speed or variable hit points instead of exactly the same gameplay-wise; At our unluckiest, they will be brokenly faster or tougher.
If video games exist to make you feel like a rockstar, then power-ups are the nosecandy that fuel you and alter your world for a short time until it all comes crashing down. And then you will do anything to get another one.
Unless you’re targetting masochistic assholes with your game (which you may!), making your game insanely hard is a losing strategy. You will alienate your players. Your game will not be fun.

A lot of the time in Mario 1, the level design was built specifically around the enemies. Lakitu levels were designed for Lakitu, low and flat so he was a hazard, with occasional moderate-difficulty jumps for the opportunity to take that bitch out.

Similarly, the SMB powerups all did specific things. The Super Mushroom gave you wiggle-room HP, and was required for firepower, which was helpful against most enemies, and necessary against a few. Invincibility was rarely granted when you would’ve wanted it in SMB, but was a pleasant distraction; The player didn’t notice that it was almost never granted when needed, they were just pleased to be an all-powerful god for ten seconds.

Often when I see power-ups in beginners indie games, they aren’t as clearly black-and-white. Assuming that the power scale is held in check, you get temporary effects that are largely inconsequential for how you interact with the enemies or the levels. Whereas the super mushroom in SMB lets you break bricks and the Fire Flower lets you destroy previously unassailable enemies, these games trend more (again) towards speed increases, HP increases, and damage-inflicting buffs.

I assume that the low-end indie games trend this way because, programatically, these traits are the amoung the easiest and most straightforward to tweak.

I’ve come to believe over the years that a power up exists so you are eager to get it. Video Games exist to make the user feel badass, as the man once said, and becoming slightly more of what you were just isn’t badass. What’s badass in the context of platformers is killing the unkillable, or exploring what was previously unexplorable.

Hey guy! What should I do?

The easy-to-implement usually doesn’t equal fun for the player. Give thought to your level design, and how the player can interact with the levels. Hide tempting things in plain sight and then give them the power to grab that forbidden fruit by smashing a brick or jumping higher over a wall.

Do not fear Lack of Content. If you don’t have a really compelling reason to have a Red Slime and a Green Slime, just stick with the Green one. Super Mario Bros 1 had the plain, simple goomba in every world. It wasn’t compelled to make a color-shifted goomba that was faster or meaner.

Do not be afraid to have a short level. Do not be afraid to have a short game. As long as you’ve got some clever tricks and conceits that your levels are based around, you will entertain. If you artificially inflate your game just to be longer, you will bore.

Don’t bore your players, or they won’t be your players much longer.

[This article originally appeared on the Ben McGraw's Egometry.

Ben McGraw has been making freeware rpgs and tactics games since 1997 and is currently working on an old new title at  Silicon Valley calls him "Grue", and you can find him on the twitternets as @bengrue.


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