Metroid Prime: Federation Force Podcast Project (8+ hours of content!)

June 24th, 2017

Wireframe

Last year two friends and I played through Metroid Prime: Federation Force together. Overall, we invested about 80 hours into the game each, completing both the main campaign and Blast Ball on both difficulties and with all medals and unlocks. Needless to say, we enjoyed the game very much and being the savvy folk we are, we wanted to dig deeper. So over the past few months the three of us have been trading notes and partaking in a series of podcast discussions to better understand Federation Force‘s cooperative take on the Metroid Prime template. As you may have noticed from my screen name, I’m particularly fond of the Prime games. The original Metroid Prime changed my perception of the video game medium and remains a personal favourite. So I’m pleased to finally share this project with you.

Each podcast runs for about an hour in length, with hosting duties taken by yours truly. We generally start out by introducing the particular design element we wish to discuss, teasing our its nuances, and then working our way towards the higher order questions. The topics tend to follow in a sequence, so it’s probably best to start with the first podcast. However, the final podcast (a standalone recording on Blast Ball) includes our conclusion on Federation Force and isn’t a bad taster either. Unfortunately, our recording process for the first two podcasts meant that some of the audio wasn’t as clear as we would have liked. By the third episode though, everything is cleared up.

Episode 1: Core Mechanics

We discuss the player’s abilities and how they’re tuned to create clean gameplay and accentuate the spatial and timing dynamics. Understanding the role of space and time in Federation Force is essential for understanding the core moving/shooting gameplay.

Episode 2: Mission Variety

Federation Force was rightly praised for its mission variety. We identify the different types of missions and discuss how the mission types are arranged to create variation across the campaign.

Episode 3: Incursion

For the next three podcasts, we analyse our favourite missions starting with my pick, Incursion. This podcast focuses on the spatial arrangement of each room in conjunction with the nuances of the particular enemy sets.

Episode 4: Blender

Greg discusses Federation Force‘s “mine cart” level, Blender. We break down this unique level and how roles are created through the natural limitations of perspective and space.

Episode 5: Insurrection

Adrian’s favourite level, Insurrection, divides the crew into mech and mech-less players. We discuss how Next Level Games were apply to explore this gameplay concept through the differentiated catacombs of Bion.

Episode 6: Boss Battles

Federation Force‘s bosses are both generous in their number and variety. We break down each boss and analyse the gameplay challenges and play strategies we employed to secure victory.

Episode 7: MODS and Loadouts

MODS and Loadouts modify the core moving and shooting gameplay by changing the player’s viable options. We discuss the implications and share our favourite combinations and strategies.

Episode 8: Blast Ball

In our final podcast we dissect the sports side-game, Blast Ball and conclude by discussing Federation Force‘s place in the Metroid Prime series (sans Pinball).

I feel like we were able to have so many deep and constructive discussions because we really listened to each other, kept the conversation grounded, and chewed through our ideas collaboratively. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, I’ve include links to the other podcasts which I’ve recorded with Adrian and Greg as part of the VG Commune on the About page.

On a final note, I can’t help but feel that our completion of this project was quite timely. At E3 Nintendo announced the development of Metroid Prime 4. However, they didn’t reveal the studio developing the game. Personally, I suspect that Next Level Games (the developers of FF) are at the helm of Metroid Prime 4 (most likely partnering with Nintendo Japan and possibly with some oversight from Retro). My reasons for are as follows:

So, in saying all this, I think the podcasts provide a useful lens for considering how Next Level may develop Metroid Prime 4, if they are indeed working on this project. A tasty proposition in my books.

Racing Commentary Mini-Mix (Wave Race 64, Wipeout HD, MotorStorm: Pacific Rift)

April 9th, 2017

In finalising copy for the (eventual) release of the Adventures in Games Analysis bookazine, I decided to roll several articles on racing games into the one essay. Four months of semi-regular writing later, the essay has evolved into a side project of its own. I’m very happy with how the copy is shaping up and plan on releasing it as a separate piece of writing at some point in the future. The following three sets of comments were clipped from my original notes and I thought it appropriate to share them here.

Wave Race 64

Bumps Fog Clearing Lens Flare Tide 1 Tide 2 Tide 3

Wipeout HD

Wipeout Flip

MotorStorm Pacific Rift

I’m currently taking a break from writing the racing game essay, so expect to see more material up on the blog.

Additional Readings

Getting the Most from Speed Races in MotorStorm Pacific Rift – Playstation Blog

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift – Can You Beat Us? – Playstation Blog

Nintendo Magazine System – Wave Race 64 Maps (I couldn’t find any decent maps online, so I put them online myself)

VG Commune Episode 35: Dynamic Challenge (Wave Race 64)

VG Commune Episode 36: Optional Challenges (Wave Race 64)

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story – Traditional RPG Systems meets Functional Design

December 17th, 2016

Bowser’s Inside Story‘s battle system adheres to Nintendo’s clean and functional approach to game design (see earlier articles on narrative and level design). Attacks operate in real time and test a variety of different skills, while the turn-based structure organises the moments of action into clean, discrete chunks. This strong core is surrounded by levelling, equipment, and badge systems which both enhance and weaken the game’s key asset. In this post we explore what happens when functional design meets traditional RPG systems. 

Stats and Levelling

BIS retains the levelling system of the earlier games. As the player defeats enemies they gain experience points through which they level up and increase their attack, defence, and other stats. Levelling up is necessary to counter the increasingly stronger enemies the player encounters on their journey. This connection between levelling and enemy strength sustains most RPG battle progression. And yet I don’t believe that it serves the genre—nor BIS—very well.

BIS’s battles hinge on the player’s ability to successfully attack and dodge enemies. We know this because if a player cannot achieve these actions, then they will lose. Assuming the player is levelling up their eyes, mind, and fingers (which they are by virtue of them defeating a stream of unique enemies), then what purpose does having statistically stronger enemies serve other than to artificially inflate the difficulty? More to the point, how does levelling enhance the attacking and dodging functions which are central to BIS’s battle system? The numbers on screen change, but the animations, hit boxes, tells, and mix-ups powering the core functions remain the same.

(I’m a bit worried that my proposition here is somewhat simplistic, but so far I haven’t been able to come up with a counter argument, so we’re going to roll with it for now).

I would be lying, however, if I were to claim that the numbers game doesn’t serve some useful (albeit limited) purposes. Levelling clearly communicates to the player their progress in the form of a digit, even though they have no barometer at which to measure, compare, and ultimately make sense of the number. The player can also use levelling as a means to increase or decrease the challenge as needed by either avoiding or grinding enemies. Unfortunately the leeway afforded by levelling systems can be exploited so as to decrease the challenge to the extent that the game is unable to “squeeze” the player and express meaning through its gameplay challenges.

By removing the levelling system and visible statistics (aside from HP and SP), more emphasis would naturally fall on variation within the battle system (variation between individual challenges = difficulty curve). Between the large range of enemies, different combinations of enemy types, the enemy mix-ups, differences between the Bros and Bowser attacks and dodges, and external elements such as Bitties, there’s more than enough variation to sustain the gameplay. The player would still have access to a variety of existing means of scaling the difficulty, such as buying healing items or finding more beans. Speaking of which, a lack of levelling would increase the significance of beans and encourage the player to partake in this worthwhile side activity.

Equipment

The clothing (equipment) system is similar to levelling, but not quite. Multiple times throughout the adventure the player can spend coins on new clothing items which increase either the Bros.’s or Bowser’s stats. This routine adds another layer of artificial progression and does not support the core of the battle system. Purchasing goods itself also isn’t terribly interesting. Yet like levelling, equipment provides some wiggle room for less proficient players. Assuming enemy stats did not rise as the player reaches new areas (as mentioned earlier), I think it would be best if the clothes stores in the Mushroom Kingdom all closed shop.

Closing down the clothing shops wouldn’t actually have a significant effect as a great deal of clothing items aren’t available in shops. Rather, they’re strewn across the overworld in various nooks and crannies. In this sense, clothes are similar to beans, a reward for being observant and participating in extra tasks on the overworld. So while buying gear only serves to combat the artificial growth of enemies, finding gear makes the overworld portion of the game more engaging.

I would be remiss in not mentioning that a significant number of clothing items do more than simply prop up the stats of the avatars. Some items regenerate health, increase the chance of critical hits, potentially make the enemy dizzy after you jump on it, etc. Again, I can’t really fault this aspect of the equipment system either because such gear adds player-determined variation to the battles and encourages the player to experiment with different strategies and gameplay styles. Below, I have included some of my favourite examples:

Coin Socks

If the wearer takes no damage during a battle, 1.5x coins awarded

Gall Socks

Foes are 50% more attracted to attack the wearer

Challenge Medal

All enemies have HP, DEF, & SPEED increased by 50% and POW increased by 150%, but coins gained from battle increase by 50%

Heroic Patch

Special attack POW +30%, but SP cost doubles

POW Mush Jam

When wearer eats any type of mushroom (healing item), POW +20%

I just couldn’t go past the Softener Gloves:

Due to a coding error, occasionally raises enemy DEF by 25% rather than lowering it.

The examples above are unfortunately the exception and not the rule. The majority of non-stat-increasing clothing items are buffs and therefore aren’t terribly different to stat boosts at all. Where levelling was completely artificial, the equipment system is perhaps half synthetic (the routine of buying better gear and clothing as buffs) and half functional (clothing as collectables, clothing as adding variation and options to battles).

Badges

Badges are the third and final piece in the pie of systems which surround the core battle system. Mario and Luigi each have their own badge halves which connect together. As each character lands “Good”, “Great”, and “Excellent” (well timed) hits, their badge meter increases. Once both meters are maxed, the player can tap the touch screen to activate an effect. Mario’s badge determines the effect and Luigi’s badge determines the degree of effect. Unlike levelling and equipment, badges support the core functions of the game by rewarding the player for attacking and countering enemies. They also allow the player to customise battles so as to support their own playstyle. For example, I set the badges up so that after landing enough well timed attacks, I could heal half of the Bros’s SP. This meant that I had more opportunities to use the special attacks, something which I felt I needed more practice with.

The levelling system and some parts of the equipment system don’t support the core of what makes BIS’s battle systems so unique and engaging, and so they’re more like clutter than the potent force they are in more traditional RPGs. On the other hand, badges and some parts of the equipment system support the core functions of attacking and dodging and also enhance other areas of the game, such as the player’s engagement with the overworld. So depending on the implementation, traditional RPG systems can both complement and clutter a functionally designed core.