Game Design: Patches, Iterative Design, and Basketball

When it comes to competitive gaming and eSports, one debate that’s often at the center of developer-player relationships is the decision to either leave a game alone—thus letting the players do what they want with the hope that they will advance the game on their own—or to patch it, essentially modifying the rules for the sake of making it a more enjoyable experience.

I occasionally see discussions about this go to real sports, but in actuality real sports also have examples of both “iterative designs” and “patches.” In particular, basketball provides a couple of interesting examples.

James Naismith square

The classic example of letting players influence the parameters of a game is dribbling in basketball. When basketball inventor James Naismith first developed the game, players were primarily supposed to pass the ball to move it forward. His students were the ones who started dribbling as a kind of loophole around the rules (they were “passing it to themselves”), and Naismith allowed it. Rather than seeing dribbling as a distortion of how the game should be, it was welcomed and ultimately proved to be a skill that enhances the sport of basketball.

120314_wilt-chamberlain_600

However, decades later a new problem arose. Wilt Chamberlain, One of the greatest athletes ever, Wilt was known for having a critical weakness: he was terrible at free throws. At the time, there was no off-the-ball foul rule, so even if Wilt wasn’t holding the ball at the time, opposing players would chase him down just so that they could foul him. The aforementioned rule was implemented to keep the game from becoming ridiculous. It was decided that watching a bunch of guys run around not actually playing basketball was detrimental to the sport, and while some residual problems still exist, it was also good for the game that just needed another “patch.”

Two different cases of “messing with the rules,” two different solutions. In the case of dribbling, it was welcomed with open arms, but when the optimal strategy was to turn basketball into an absurd game of tag, the rules governing the game were changed to prevent this from developing further.

So, when people talk about how the solution is to leave a game alone and let the players handle it, or that continuous patches and modifications to the game are the key to longevity, remember that neither is inherently right or wrong. It depends on the given situation, the community surrounding the game, and the direction that it would be taken should things either be changed too drastically or ignored entirely. In other words, it’s not wise to let yourself take a polarized philosophy in terms of what makes games, competitive or otherwise, “work.”

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Smash Bros. Patches Value Concept and Design over Strictly Balance

Though it can be said that previous games received changes among releases in different regions, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U is the first official game in the franchise to receive regular balance patches. With every patch that comes out, people, including tournament champions, aspiring game designers, and just fans of the series give their thoughts and opinions, and a lot of it revolves around whether or not a character is now “good” or whether or not a character who was seen as too powerful is now “fair.”

I’m not a game designer. I’m not even much of a competitor. So, take all of this with its own massive grain of salt. The way I see balance, and the directions of the buffs and nerfs that have happened to the characters in Smash, is that it’s not solely a matter of making a character viable or able to win tournaments, but rather…

1) Making their strategies clear, effective, and unique…
2) While maintaining the identity of the character
3) Allowing them to on some level fight the rest of the cast…
3) While also giving other characters an opportunity to fight back

When it comes to game design, based on what I’ve read and even what I’ve seen Smash creator Sakurai’s comments on game design, 1 and 2 are the most important. He chooses characters for Smash based on what they could bring to the series on a gameplay level, which is why, for example, Bowser Jr. fights in a clown cart and isn’t just a tiny Bowser. It gives him a variety of tools and an overall feel that you don’t get with Bowser, namely the feel of an aggressive trickster. While certain characters over the course of Smash have been “clones,” using other characters as a template with a few tweaks, they’re more time-savers in the development process than anything else, and should be judged differently.

The result is that, when buffing or nerfing characters, I believe that the thinking isn’t “How can we make them just as good as the top characters?” That’s probably not that difficult: just improve frame data, make a bunch of hitboxes bigger, make hits stronger and faster, etc. etc. Rather, it’s about “how can the characters be expressed more effectively?”

In his posts on Miiverse, Sakurai mentioned that the character Marth is meant to fight like a fencer. Thus, he was designed to be weak when fighting in-your-face but does massive damage when striking with the tip of his sword, which requires you to understand and master spacing as a concept. Ever since Super Smash Bros. Melee, the second game in the series, Marth has at his base been all about grace and positioning, and theoretically rewarding players for fighting with that fencing mentality.

However, in both previous games that Marth was featured, he could short hop through the air and do two quick swings with his sword (his forward air), and then recover quickly. The question is, then, does having a double forward-air which he could then recover quickly from upon landing follow along with this fencer archetype? While I think it might be argued either way, I think a lot of people who played and played against the character, as well as probably Sakurai himself, have seen how double forward air is less about grace and more about brute force, just bullying your way through lesser opponents and sometimes even greater ones too. Thus, it’s out, never to be seen again, and instead everything about Marth emphasizes not only being rewarded for good spacing, but HAVING to space well. That’s why his f-smash is shorter than previous games, but it kills earlier than ever. That’s why he has the end lag on key moves but even tilts can kill when spaced properly. It challenges you to be the fencer OR ELSE. All of his (and Lucina’s) buffs emphasize this game plan further.

So why then has Roy changed so drastically from Melee? Again, this is only my own thoughts on how this might have come about, but I think that Sakurai looked back at Melee Roy and what he intended Roy to be, and realized the result didn’t match the planning. He was, as we all know, mainly a worse Marth. So, in order to emphasize the whole idea of having the sword that does more damage up close, and also perhaps giving him a feel akin to Melee, he was given high movement specs, effective throw combos, etc, and in exchange he gets wrecked off-stage. Roy’s character identity becomes a swordsman who charges in and values offense over defense, and any buffs or nerfs that happen to him in the future will likely still reflect this concept.

In other words, Concept/Meaning > Viability from a game design perspective. Of course, it’s not bad if you have both, but balancing a character in the context of a video game isn’t just making them stronger or weaker but doing it in a way that allows the individuality of the character, and thus the person who plays that character, to shine through.

The Elite Fourdinators: Pokemon Contest and What Could Have Been

Ever since the first games, the Pokemon franchise has tried to include side quests and activities, things that change the game from the classic “beat 8 gym leaders and fight the Elite Four.” There’s the “end of game” content that only happens once you become champion. There have been ideas like the Safari Zone and the Bug-Catching Contest, which were alternative methods of catching Pokemon, as well as alternate venues for battling such as the Battle Tower and Battle Frontier, both of which function as a sort of arena for “advanced” players. But it was in Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald that they introduced a concept which came the closest to being a true alternative from the gym badge system: Pokemon Contests.

In Pokemon Contests, elemental types don’t really matter. Nor do things like attack power and hit points. Unlike the Safari Zone, the Battle Frontier, and all of those other extra features, the Pokemon Contest system is the only competitive activity which was so different from the rest of the game that almost none of the traditional rules applied to the way contests worked.

The goal of a Pokemon Contest is to win the votes of a panel of judges in a specific category, such as “Beauty” or “Intelligence,” and in order to do so you must have your Pokemon be more appealing than the others. To this end, every attack has its own unique features and functions entirely separate from battling and trying to KO your opponent. For instance, the attack “Flamethrower,” which is a Fire-type attack in battles, is a move which shows off “Beauty” in a Pokemon Contest. Contest Pokemon have to be fed strict diets and be groomed properly to win the visual portion of the competitions. They eventually even included dancing.

It might sound pretty boring compared to the intensity of taking on your rival in a flurry of lightning and sandstorms, and this might even be the reason that Pokemon Contests are non-existent in Pokemon Heart Gold/Soul Silver, but the big thing that Contests had that previous side games in Pokemon didn’t was 1) rewards and 2) increasing levels of difficulty. Instead of getting Gym Badges, you get Contest Ribbons, and as you go from city to city, the Contests get more challenging. In a way, it could be seen as an alternate path to the Gym system, something that wasn’t so much a game within a game as it was another activity entirely. It might even be perceived as something on par with battling. In fact, the anime tried to push this idea, by having characters like Haruka (May) and Hikari (Dawn) decide to forego the path of collecting Gym Badges and have them focus on obtaining Ribbons. The only problem is that in the anime, Contests resemble battling with a somewhat different flair, and the games themselves don’t give any rewards other than the Ribbons, essentially meaning that it’s still considered “inferior” to hitting the Gyms.

I think that Pokemon Contests could have become a really viable alternative to Gym Battles, and that it should be an option at the start of games to go on the path of a “Pokemon Coordinator,” the term the series uses to denote people who have devoted themselves to Pokemon Contests. There should be personalities you get to know and the opportunity to practice against opponents. Perhaps winning should net you TMs that are rare and powerful within the context of Contests. There should be an equivalent of the Elite Four to take down, and when you win over them, there should be an ending. Most importantly, you should be able to play against your friends.

I understand that it might be virtually impossible to try and balance two completely disparate systems running off the same basics in the same game. I also think the concept of the Pokemon Contest could stand to have some tweaking, such as making Type matter more, or perhaps even taking a cue from the anime and having it come down to battles where you’re judged on not only your ability to take down your opponent but to look good doing so. But I really believe that, done properly, Pokemon Contests could truly add another layer to the world of Pokemon by giving kids a different kind of opportunity to go off on an adventure.

Here’s hoping to their return in Generation V.

Pokemon types don’t really matter. Nor do things like attack power and hit points.

From Mew to Arceus: A Discussion of Rare Pokemon Events and Beyond

The Pokemon Who is Also God is available at Toys “R” Us until November 15 this week, and I don’t know about you guys but I am totally gonna get me some divine Pockets Monster and then not use it at all because I haven’t actually played the game in forever. Nobie’s been out of the Pokemon gig for a while now.

As a result of the Arceus giveaway I’ve been thinking a lot about Pokemon as of late, and so if you’ll forgive me I’m going to ramble on while trying to touch on a number of points that I want to discuss.

Arceus is not the first rare pokemon I’ve obtained. I’ve gotten Darkrai and Deoxys through Toys “R” Us and Game Stop by bringing in my DS with my Pokemon Diamond and using Mystery Gift to get eggs from that one shop. However, I also went to the Pokemon Center back when it wasn’t called Nintendo World, and I was even there to get my official Mew for my Generation-1 Pokemon games, as well as at Six Flags to get my Celebi years later. I’ve been at this for a while.

The biggest difference between then and now, is that with the way event Pokemon get sent to you through the Mystery Gift function, you can totally get your Arceus without anyone noticing or wondering why you’re even there. This was not the case with getting that original Mew. You had to stand in a line with your game cartridge in hand while next to people of all ages (mostly kids, obviously) talking about Pokemon, and then you had give it to the Nintendo official who was wearing a bright Pokemon shirt so that they could use a machine to give you your Mew. In other words, there was no way to disguise the fact that you were a Pokemon fan. You had to accept it in order to get your Mew, or you were out of luck. Or you could just Gameshark it, but that’s another issue entirely.

I’m the kind of person who was never afraid to tell people I was into Pokemon, and keep in mind that I was into Pokemon starting in high school, so I was well beyond the target age. So what I liked about the Mew event was that you had to proudly show that you were a Pokemon fan, and while I can definitely say that the current way of obtaining event Pokemon is a lot more convenient for everyone, I do end up missing that aspect of camaraderie where you couldn’t hide in shame. And I’ve known people like that online and off, who were afraid to tell other people they were fans of Pokemon. They in many ways helped to inform my posts about having confidence in yourself as a fan of anime and such. It’s something I want people to come to terms with, no matter who they are.

Going back to the whole “people of all ages” thing, it’s really amazing how Pokemon is able to attract such a wide age group, and it’s a testament to the effectiveness of the game design and the supporting material. The game is easily playable by children 4 and under, and yet the battle system is one of the most robust and entertaining vs modes you will ever find in a video game. With currently almost 500 Pokemon available, 17 types, tons of attacks and items and more, it creates this intricate web of decisions and actions that you have to consider in order to make an effective Pokemon team. If it wasn’t obvious before, I’ll say it now: I love the strategy in Pokemon. Love, love, love it. It’s one of my favorite games of all time as a result, where I focus my efforts on trying to make Pokemon with lesser stats and abilities viable in competitive play while still maintaining what makes them unique. I’ve been a part of Azure Heights, Pokemon Daily, I used the Pokemon Battle Simulator, GSBots, Netbattle, Shoddy, and I even wrote some of the strategy sections on Smogon for some of the lesser-used Pokemon such as Noctowl and Sableye (though they are out of date), and was one of the first to suggest Yawn + U-Turn on Uxie. The only reason I don’t play it more now is that I know how easily it can draw me in.

And the best part is, if you don’t want to be a part of this insane world, you can ride on back to Pokemon just being about going out on adventures with your Pokemon friends and trading and having fun and ignoring all the number crunching that goes on. But if you do choose to stay? Why, there’s a whole plethora of options available to you. You can make a team according to your personality and what you think is important in a game, and you can still be competitive.

I know it can be a very daunting task to try to get into Pokemon multiplayer seeing as how there’s so much information. You’re supposed to memorize the fact that Steel is only weak to Ground, Fire, and Fighting, while also knowing that Ursaring has a very high attack stat. You’re supposed to at the very least know all 17 Pokemon types and most of the Pokemon out there. It’s a lot to commit to memory. But do you know who does commit it to memory? Kids. And they don’t do it by first going, “OKAY, I, GEORGE PEEPANTS, AM GOING TO BE A COMPETITIVE PLAYER.” No, they just absorb all of the media naturally. They learn everything about Pokemon because they love Pokemon, and that’s the true beauty of the Pokemon concept.

I know some people are of the belief that games shouldn’t require you to learn so much before you get to play. To that I say, first off you don’t actually need to know all this stuff to start playing against other people, it just increases your chances of winning. Secondly, I think you are rewarded much more richly for understanding the Pokemon system first. Sure, Pokemon is glorified Rock-Paper-Scissors (and Yu-Gi-Oh is glorified War, but that’s another topic for another day), but it’s that glorification that makes it the solid game that it is, and the complexity of the type chart is not something which people “just know.” And if you want to learn, just do what the kids do, and play.

Wow, are you still with me? In that case, let me share one of my favorite Pokemon to use with you. It’s designed primarily to annoy people who hate it when luck influences a match. I won’t go into stat distributions and what-not, so you can have the opportunity to see what works for you.

Registeel @Leftovers
Substitute
Dynamicpunch
Zap Cannon
Explosion

Both Dynamicpunch and Zap Cannon have 50% accuracy, so you’re essentially fighting with coin flips, until you’ve had enough and you explode on somebody. Have fun with it, and watch as your opponents grow to hate you. You can use it in both the current generation and in the Advance line of games. If you want to apply it to Gold/Silver/Crystal, note that Ampharos can learn both Dynamicpunch and Zap Cannon.

So yeah, Pokemon.