October 20th, 2009
(Just a quick divergence from the Metroid discussion for those of you wanting something different.)
If you zip around the gaming side of the blogosphere for a while, you’ll notice that a lot of man-child bloggers (I’m 21, still haven’t quite graduated into that role yet) complain about the increasingly high barrier to entry of many current generation games. The entry price of familiarizing yourself with a complex, fatigue-inducing system of rules is often too steep to be considered leisure—it feels like work.
It’s an understandable qualm. I notice it myself when choosing the next game to play from my shelf. Suddenly length and accessibility have become determining factors of my consideration set, rather than personal preference (ie. the thought: “I feel like this kinda game”). Games require commitment and it’s difficult to dedicate yourself to finishing something that feels like work.
It’s not really about scope or difficulty, but rather baggage. Players don’t like to be burdened with unnecessary weight. For instance, an RPG which requires the player to buy, equip, unequip and sell their gear in a rotisserie-like fashion every time they arrive at a new township. Such sub-systems for many games are often mandatory components of the main quest and must be managed in co-ordination with the rest of the game. From the perspective of players such tasks can become menial, the rewards are measly and the effort in participating therefore seen as unjust. When these layers of weight amount, the game in its entirety can seem not worth the effort.
There’s an easy workaround for this problem and you’ve probably already figured it out: remove the dead weight. By doing this a developer can take a “high commitment” game and streamline it into a lighter product without skimping on the scale or sophisticated. I call it designing through deception. Reward the players with the perks from what is generally perceived to be a “high committal” game, offer them the depth and sense of scale, but remove the hard labour. We’ve become fussy over the years and our hobbyist nature requires cushioning.
Many portable games are pretty damn good at nailing this philosophy, which is to be expected given the properties of the medium. Console games are slowly starting to bend this way of thinking too. Nintendo really get it. Take Mario Galaxy as an example. Mario Galaxy can be played in short bursts or for marathon durations. Mario’s techniques are simple, there are no permanent upgrades, instead progression is embedded in the level design. There is only a single stream of skills and they require no maintenance, just mastery and technique. This player-centred approach lowers the barrier to entry without losing the sense of scale of a larger game and still rewarding the player quite frequently.
Super Paper Mario
A few weeks back I completely breezed through Super Paper Mario. I’d spent a week of my holidays cruising right on through to the end. It’s a game that I felt strangely comfortable with and as a result could dip in and out of play without that foreboding feeling of “I’ve started this game, so now I have an obligation to finish it”. It’s a game that embodies much of this design philosophy.
Super Paper Mario is actually a pretty sophisticated game though, as in it has many parts. I mean, it’s got platforming in two different dimensions, party management, inventory, abilities and side quests—that’s pretty wholesome right? It probably seems like quite the burden then, but isn’t. The trick is that Super Paper Mario manages to allude the player with the way its system is organised and presented. It does this in three ways: streamlining each “mode” of play to its fundamentals, clearly sectioning off different modes of play and only allowing the player to operate in a single mode at the one time. Let’s take a quick look at these different modes of play individually to see how they achieve this desired effect.
The most obvious example would be the platforming. Both the 2D and 3D platforming are relatively simple. Although the platforming is practically lifted straight from the original Super Mario Bros., the difficult never reaches anything beyond, say, level 3-1 in the original game. Enemies only take little damage from your health bar, bottomless pits are few and never wide enough to stop you in your tracks. Mario and company can’t even build up much momentum. Only the brothers can gain enough to leap one block higher which isn’t saying terribly much. The platforming is simple and doesn’t require too much attention, it basically works as the medium for everything else (the exploration, mild combat and puzzling) to operate in.
There are two modes of play here, the 2D and the 3D platforming, and the only difference between them both is the change in perspective which in turn covers and hides different parts of the stage. Flipping, as the game calls it, is done frequently but only requires a simple press of the ‘A’ button and occurs almost instantaneously. The player doesn’t need to learn any additional techniques to operate in either dimension. Players only play in one dimension at a time and Mario is the only character who can switch dimensions.
Party Management, Abilities and Inventory
Another example would be the inventory, abilities and party management systems. Collectively these systems are quite complicated, but individually they’re rather simple.
The player takes on 4 different party members each with a handful of specific properties. For instance: Bowser takes less damage, can deal more damage, is a slower walker, is larger and more difficult to more around in tight areas and can breath fire. This might seem complex but actually each character fits a gameplay archetype. Mario for platforming, Bowser for offensive attacks, Peach for long distance travel and Luigi for vertical jumps. It’s often very clear which character is suitable for which situation. Considering Mario has the ‘flip’ ability, players will use him for the majority of the game.
Over the journey the player acquires 8 different pixls each with their own ability such as turning into a bomb, platform or hammer. Again, very simple, each one has just a single function.
A series of items which can heal, take damage, add properties to party members and be traded and used in sub-games. The player has a tight limit on the number of items they can carry at the one time.
As with the dimension swapping, these systems are cleanly packed away from other parts of the game. For general use the player will access these three systems through the quick-use menu, a horizontal drop down menu which allows selections to be made on the fly. Whereas ‘A’ was used to switched between the binary 2D or 3D selections, the quick-use menu actually houses three different “modes”. To enter the quick launch the player must pause the game, cleanly separating these modes from the others.
Side Quest Options
Lastly there are side quest items such as cards, recipes and maps which are presented vertically on the menu screen. These cannot be reached via the quick-use menu, separating themselves from the rest.
As we can see, Super Paper Mario is collectively a rather sophisticated game which features two flavours of platforming, party management, a series of abilities and plenty of side quests. Yet at the same time each part is streamlined to it’s minimalist, and separated from the other modes of play by menus and buttons configuration. The player is only concerned about a small number of variables at a single time, often being the lite platforming, respective pixl equipped and the character they have chosen (more often than not Mario). Considering that the game is never designed to have the player frequently swapping out their characters, using items or switching pixls, the core part of play revolves around the platforming with moderate use of other aids for exploration. It’s very straightforward, and compacts it’s complexity, unpacking itself where needed. This makes playing Super Paper Mario very light weight and burden-less as the gameplay is presented in a way that never feels any more complicated than a simple platform game. In actuality though the player often resorts to peripheral mechanics, co-ordinating the different systems together to reach a desired outcome.
Next up: How Super Paper Mario Feels Gamey