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Standing Invitation: Game Dev Streams, 8:30PM Central!

So, over the past couple of months, I've created all sorts of Game Dev Stream posts in Design Mode letting people know when my game dev streams were happening, what the agenda was (which, sometimes got blown out of the water completely), and other comments.

The thing is, this blog is about game design, and my game development streams encompass the greater project of writing my games, or patches for the same.

So, I wanted to do something a little different, and less repetitive. I wanted to issue a standing invitation to my game dev streams!

WHERE: My Twitch Channel
WHEN: 8:30PM Central Time
WHAT: Writin' Games!
WHY: Because I'm a geek.

If you ever miss one, don't worry; you can catch it on my youtube channel.

So, see you all there!

EDIT: One other note: I'm also going to be clearing all the other Game Dev Stream posts from this Blog, to clean things up a bit. There's no sense in wading through a bunch of now-defunct notices of livestreams, is there?

Question: Are Game Challenges Actually Interesting?

While surfing the interwebs today, I came upon yet another video from Extra Credits.

While I'm not going to get as passionate as I did about their analysis of the Blue Shell in Mario Kart 8, I feel that there is a valid point in their attempt to analyze what players remember from their gaming experiences.

Some Introductory Questions
In the comments section, EC has some questions. For the sake of argument, I will repost them and ask you to actually attempt to answer them. Seriously, please try it.

  • How many times did you shoot in the third room of the last FPS you played?
  • How many enemies were in the fifth encounter of the second level of the last action game you played and what moves did they use on you (not what moves do they have)?
  • In the last RPG you played what specific enemies did you fight to hit level 22?

Do you have your answers yet? Need more time? It's OK, this is a blog post. I can wait.

...Right so now that you've got your answers, what are they? Can you not remember? If so, that's OK too. That's because there's something critical that I feel Extra Credits is fundamentally missing in this episode.

I feel Extra Credits is ignoring the fact that as humans we have a few key directives hardcoded into us all directly. Among them:

  • Survival
  • Reproduction

These are the two most base aspects of humanity, that we've spent millenia creating rules to harness in a constructive way (e.g. civilizations! And not the ones from Cid Meyer.) We need to have resources to live, we need to be safe from danger, so that we can reproduce and keep our neighborhood populated. For the purposes of this article, higher needs like self-actualization are ignored in that list, but they will figure in later.

Back on the subject of those three questions, if you can't remember, I have some new questions:

  • In what situations is it necessary to know how often you have fired your weapon, in an FPS?
  • In a given encounter, is it necessary to know how many enemies there are and their movesets, in an action game?
  • Is it necessary to know how many enemies you must defeat to advance to the next character level, in an RPG (western or eastern?)

I bet you don't have to think too long on these. In fact, as a gamer I bet I can predict your answer.

In a FPS, you sort of keep a background tally of how much you've used your weapon in a firefight, because ammunition is a finite resource. You have a weapon counter to ease this process, of course - it's salient tactical data.

In an Action game, it's often easy to see how many enemies you have to deal with in a given encounter. If you don't know their movesets you're at a severe disadvantage, but chances are a game designer wouldn't force you to face a bunch of new enemies with new moves or completely different moveset dynamics that you've never dealt with in a pack, the first time you meet them...unless they're really weak!

In an older RPG, yes, because they're tough and you need every character level, because RPG designers were total dicks back in the day! In a modern RPG, no for various reasons, including the fact that completing quests rewards experience. Chances are good that you can do a minimum of combat to attain even an intermediate level (such as Lv.22 from the EC question.)

There's a common theme in all of these answers to why you would do the sorts of behavior that EC is asking about - it's all down to relative challenge.

What if we weren't playing a Modern Military Shooter (MMS, a subtype of FPS) - what if we were in the American Civil War instead? There were no ammo counters back then period, weapons had horrible reload times, prior to the automatic repeating rifle, which if my history serves was introduced in the later days of the war. You'd walk into a stage with a known number of bullets. You'd be forced to keep a mental tally.

What if we were playing a new Battletoads? Most modern gamers have never experienced the delightful ease of Battletoads. Let's go a step further - what if it was a modern adaptation of Battletoads with dudes with firearms (ineffective of course; in a beat-em-up, why would we want the players to die in one hit? Oh...yeah. Battletoads. You know what, forget that for the time being...) or other projectile mechanics? I'd be willing to bet players would be defeated before realizing the new mechanics in play, and it would be minorly upsetting (because, Battletoads.)

What if we were playing a the successor to World of Warcraft? We still wouldn't care, because modern RPGs, as noted above, have been dispensing with 'grind' scenarios in favor of more varied sets of challenges.

But, that may be a bad example; let's try another - Dragon Quest? That's better; DQ is a more traditional Eastern RPG series, where spells cost, there are no Phoenix Downs (actually they're Yggdrasil Leaves). Now we're back in a grinding scenario again, but DQ games aren't known for being pushovers - they're actually hard!

Shall we try a Final Fantasy, assuming Square Enix wants to start creating JRPGs again? That's better - grinding, easy, no quests that yield XP. No, you wouldn't pay any attention to the number of monsters, for any reason except that they're between you and Point B.

So...why do we forget our gaming experiences
Simply put, they're just not challenging enough. There's certainly things worth remembering (awesome multiplayer moments...awesome boss fights...close shaves against what should have been an easy opponent), but really the reason we forget what's in our games is it's just not challenging enough.

This isn't a bad thing; there has to be valleys between peaks of challenges. We need time to experiment with new player-facing mechanics. We need breathing room to be honest (those emotional needs are finally creeping in!)

But, why are we answering those super-geeky questions from Extra Credits?
That's the best question I've read all day.

Just because it's theoretically possible to recall fine details of an experience, doesn't mean it's necessary. Why should we recall how many enemies it took to grind to Lv.22? Who cares!? We need to be stronger because there's a T-Rex with special attacks that involve lasers coming from its eyes!

My answer, is that EC has the wrong general idea. They're mistaking that for videogames to be considered seriously, that they must be processed in the same way as books and television and other established media. This is wrong; videogames offer a completely separate type of experience.

But why are we, the audience retaining so little? Are games worth less than traditional media?

No. The answer is that parts of the media in question are worth less. You have useless mooks who, charitably put, are there for target practice (in a speedrun, you just skip them.) All of the reasons you wouldn't care about the fine details of your game...comes from faceless mooks, actually.

So, Faceless Mooks Ate My Memory?
If we want to create memorable games, we need real challenges, even on easy difficulties. The reason we remember Mega Man for being great, is because nothing was handed to us on a silver platter. We died - time and again - to learn a Robot Master's attack pattern so we could defeat it with our mega buster and the sliver of health we had. Conversely, the reason we forget Final Fantasy XIII is long narrow hallways filled with useless mooks and no freedom to choose anything.

Faceless Mooks did eat your memory. Now, let's stop designing faceless mooks as the go-to option for adding filler to our games; let's create true, memorable challenges for our players to overcome.

Livestreaming - 8:30 PM CDT, "The Hero's Journey"

One more Sunday, one more Dev Livestream!

This week, I'm doing some work on The Hero's Journey, in preparation for the 1.1.5 patch to the game, which revamps some things to be less, Evil Castle 2, the one dungeon that I made perhaps too evil.

I'm also going to consider some level design for a section that got cut from my official release back in February - the Lake Aylea bridge sequence. So, there will be a level design double-header if all goes well.

As always you can catch it through my livestream widget, or directly on Twitch. If you miss the livestream, you can always catch it on my YouTube channel.

See you all there!

EDIT: Another livestream done. I found new reasons to consider physics my greatest enemy, and reasoned out some solutions to the worst dungeon I've ever created with the feedback of my viewers. You can see it here.

Livestreaming - 8:30PM CDT, "Sara the Shieldmage"

It's a Sunday. You know what that means!

I'm going to be livestreaming some final bits of development on my basic mechanical prototype of Sara the Shieldmage. I've got a Trine-like spellcasting system in the game, a small level that uses the nature of the Summoned Blocks to your advantage (which, is your only spell in this demo), and a treasure that does nothing, because I'm not really concerned about that yet.

Catch it on Twitch if you can.
Otherwise, it will be on YouTube after the fact.

As an added bonus, a link will be added to my playable prototype build.

Speaking of, if you like my work, give me a like/subscribe, and feel free to chime in on Twitch chat or the YouTube comments...or, even in response to this blog post. I do seriously consider all suggestions and ideas, especially if they happen during my stream.

EDIT: Another successful livestream! Had some good comments/ideas. You can watch it here. See you next Sunday!

Livestreaming - 8:30PM CDT, "Sara the Shieldmage"

Hi all!

Once again, I'm going to be livestreaming some game development at 8:30 PM CDT tonight, working on my mechanical prototype of "Sara the Shieldmage", a side-scrolling action/puzzle platformer.

Over this past week, I've been looking at my feedback, and people really liked when I got into the pixel art part of my last livestream. I'm going to be doing that again tonight, because some of my animations need a bit of work. If I get any inspiration, I'll try to do some music composition too, but I can't promise that will happen; more likely I'll wind up adding more mechanics to my 'jungle gym' scene instead. I'm keeping the 45-minute chunk idea, people liked that too.

As always, you can catch my livestream either from here on the livestream widget, or directly on my channel. Should you miss the livestream, not only will I save highlights for each of the 45-minute segments to Twitch, the whole livestream can be viewed from my YouTube channel - I always make my last recorded stream my new subscriber clip.

Speaking of, if you like my work, give me a like/subscribe, and feel free to chime in on Twitch chat or the YouTube comments...or, even in response to this blog post. I do seriously consider all suggestions and ideas, especially if they happen during my stream.

EDIT: Another 'smooth' livestream! It would have been actually smooth had I not boffed a Git commit and cleanup earlier in the day, and wound up nuking my stuff. Much of the code in the livestream was rewritten 30mins before broadcast. The art was all done on camera. The 45/45 rule was tossed out the window pretty quickly, but everything went amazingly well. This is how you recover from a critical failure.

Game Design Patterns

Way back in October 2010, a League of Legends designer that goes by 'Zileas' compiled a list of what he considered game design anti-patterns as executed by some MMORPGs and MOBAs.

As someone who's just turned my attention to designing a new game, I read this list again yesterday before my Game Dev Livestream. Today, I want to talk about what I've extracted from the list - while these 'negative rules' are useful for knowing what to, if you want to design a fun game, what should you do?

Rule #0 - These Aren't Rules
As Zileas put it in his introductory paragraphs, the point of game design is to ensure that the fun of playing a game outweighs the fun of the game playing against you (or, other people playing against you.) As a rule, it always feels at least a little good to win; it always feels at least a little bad to have something happen that hinders a player.

Game Design and Development is, among other things, an engineering discipline. We make tradeoffs in service of completing a product that is of use/enjoyment to people. Sometimes, an antipattern needs to be invoked to buy us some other advantage in our design.

Of course, this article isn't about antipatterns, it's about things we should do.

Guideline #1 - Power is Derived From Gameplay (The Cid Meyer Rule)
The legendary game designer Cid Meyer once defined a game as, 'A series of interesting choices'; others like Steve Rabin et al have defined a game further as, 'A series of interesting choices made in pursuit of a clear and compelling goal.'

Compelling goals are interesting things. They can be a long-term goal, like destroying an opponent's Nexus in League, or a short term thing like recovering from a Blue Shell strike in Mario Kart 8. These are things that you know why you want to do them, because they give you a clear advantage with intrinsic value.

When doing something, it's a given that you're creating a problem that the opposing agent is tasked with solving in some time scale. Generally, if you choose correctly, you are rewarded and the tables turned. This is A) the concept of counter-play in a nutshell, but also B) a core tennet of good game design.

Power by its definition is not your abliity to win the game, or your ability to do some situational thing like cast a stronger spell. Power is the ability to make choices that allow you to fulfill your goals, both in real life and in games. At the most fundamental level, as designers we should endeavor to make sure that the challenges our players face lead to the ability for the players to make some set of choices that lead to progress in the game, but also the ability to deal with new sets of challenges.

Guideline #2 - The Game Affords Play Easily
There's a saying in game development that I still struggle with implementing: "Easy to pick up, difficult to master." In Zileas' list, he talks about mechanics having an unusually high 'Burden of Knowledge' as an anti-pattern, either due to being extremely convoluted, poorly 'sold' in such a way that players know what is going on, or similar acts of mind-screwery.

What all of this suggests to this designer, is that we want to think about what our player finds as 'intuitive.' Extra Creditz calls this the concept 'affordances', but it's not purely their term - it's been in use long before anyone created the first video game; it's in every door handle, every keyboard, this website's's everywhere. And, it needs to be in your games.

The benefits of this are A) it may be easier to implement a more intuitive mechanic, and B) you can engineer situations that are unintuitive. Remember that part about breaking a rule above? This is where it comes into play. If, as in my example, you're devising mechanics all about summoning objects, the first case you may be presented, is using the summoned object to move around. However, after you do that you may be faced with an enemy that spits projectiles! As it's something you can climb, chances are good you can deflect that projectile with your summoned object. Later on, you gain an ability that lets you weaponize this summoned object - the original setup didn't tell you you could do that! But, it makes sense that you can.

That's affordance. It makes sense that you can do something that the game didn't go out of its way to tell you that you can do. That's "easy to pick up, but difficult to master." I feel like I've had a truly worthwhile revelation in that.

Guideline #3 - Themes are Things
One of the cool things about the human brain is that it's a pattern-recognition engine. Most of our brain's workload is finding and interpreting patterns (not unlike the characters that your brain is parsing into words that have meaning, about game development, at this very instant!)

Thus, it's usually rather disruptive when something is thrown at us that willfully and blatantly violates this pattern; a suitable term might be 'cognitive dissonance', or as laymen might call it, 'a profound feeling of WTF!?'

Let's return to my next project's example. Sara the Shieldmage is a mage whose magic revolves around shields and barriers. She can summon blocks, shields, monoliths, and dispel the same. Given her theme of protection and influence of things that protect, this makes sense.

So what if, we gave her a fireball? It'd be cool, I admit. It'd reinforce the 'mage' part of 'Shieldmage.' It'd give offensive potential which is nice. The cost would be, that the entire playstyle of the game would be undermined. The character is decidedly defensive in her magic use; giving her an offensive spell renders more than a few of her powers either obsolete, or way less useful than they should be, since fireball tends to beat horde of goblins armed with sharpened sticks.

When you violate this, you get what I call a 'Violated Theme.' For instance, for a long time in League, Master Yi was optimally built using the Ability Power stat, which is usually more commonly invested in by Support and Mage roles...despite Yi being a Fighter, possibly even a Melee Carry. The best build to use with Master Yi completely violated his archetype, and was a mindscrew, until you figured out that he had been built to scale better with AP than Attack Damage. Fortunately, Riot has since (partially) changed that.

Guideline #4 - Choices Need To Be Clear
Generally, I feel that choice in a game is about tuning. When faced with two+ choices (mutually exclusive options, if you will), you're willingly locking yourself into some path, for a given amount of time.

If a mechanic affects you in such a way that the results are too small to be immediately/easily measured, that's a sign that the design needs a change; players should quickly be able to consider the ramifications of choosing a particular path. The example I like is +1% damage vs. +1% attack speed. These are really small bonuses that, at low stat levels, don't even account to floating-point rounding criteria much of the time. Granted, at end game when your base stats are in excess of the 100s, that +1 can theoretically make a huge difference! But, it's not clear immediately, which leads to some problems.

Another problem exists in trope from: 'But Thou Must', as fashioned by Princess Gwaelin of Tantegel, in Dragon Warrior I. After rescuing her from a dragon (yes, this was an original plot at one time!) you're asked by her, "Dost thou love me?" You cannot continue the conversation unless you say 'Yes', which leads to her giving you a GPS that makes finding one of the key items to completing the game, Erdrick's Mark, much easier (though, it's strictly not necessary if you already know the coordinates.) This is a false choice, but the game is patient. It can wait for you to realize that saying 'No' will continue this conversation. This is rather anti-fun, because you lose a feeling of agency, or that your choices/ideas matter in the game world.

Finally, the way you do this right, is the way the Mass Effect series does it, albeit the Mass Effect series does it whole-hog, and remembers key decisions you made in previous games. You're always reminded if it was Ashley who sacrificed herself in ME1, or if you took the time to max out your companions' affections such that they chose to get their species to make peace in time to stand up against the Reaper invasion. A game that makes choices effective is a game that remembers those choices, and runs with them.

Guideline #5 - Reliable Mechanics Reliably Please
One of the last items on Zileas' list is about overuse of RNG in game mechanics. As many people have said in other games, particularly Magic: The Gathering, RNG is not good design. RNG adds uncertainty, which has uses. But, generally, the point of a game mechanic is to allow the player to make a choice based on their assumptions/knowledge, and have some insight as to what the result will be.

Having shades of uncertainty seems like a good way to keep a mechanic fresh, but can lead to irritating losses if the player 'somehow' manages to roll wrong (have I mentioned the RNG Gods hate you today? They still do.) It's much better for the game world to have some form of uncertainty (random encounters haven't quite gone out of style, based on Elder Scrolls Online and Skyrim), but most of the player's mechanics be solid and predictable, albeit with more interesting uses.

Zileas' list, and my own observations on things you want to do, are hardly scripture, they're guidelines. However, the gaming community, and high profile designers, have noticed trends that generally work, time and again.

Players' choices, and enemy choices, should lead to satisfying sequences of decisions. The game's mechanics and world should be consistent and make some form of sense. Themes for a character or location should be violated only sparingly, because breaking them shatters the consistency the game world needs to suspend our disbelief. Choices that are presented to the player need to be clear, to be enjoyable and empowering. Finally, mechanics need to be stable as they're tools for the player; there are places in a game to include uncertainty in pursuit of a more suspenseful game.

Writing this article made me think of things I can improve in my own titles, and I hope it sheds some light - or at least, leads to some interesting discussions - on game design principles that we who write games can use to make more cool experiences for our players. What do you think of these guidelines?

Livestreaming - 8:30PM CDT, "Sara the Shieldmage" (Tentative)

Hey guys!

I'm going to be livestreaming today, at 8:30PM Central Daylight Savings Time. On the agenda today is a brand new project, based off of The Hero's Journey.

Given my feedback of my last episode, It will probably be 1:30:00 long. The first half, I'll be talking about the general mechanical design of my new project, Sara the Shieldmage (Tentative Title). The 45 after that, we'll change gears and I'll do some live pixel art!

I also replaced my mic and have locked down my OBS settings, so this time, there will be no lost content. The next thing I have to do is upgrade my computer such that my broadcasts are less choppy.

As always you can catch my stream on or my livestream widget here. Additionally if you miss it, no worries; you can just catch it on my YouTube Channel.

Looking forward to it. See you all there!

EDIT: The livestream was a success! For once, I had no technical issues, and I think my voice sounds better with my new microphone than before. As for the livestream, you can see it on YouTube here. The Mechanical Design segment goes from 00:00 to about 45:00; the pixel art segment goes from 45:00ish to the end.

LIvestreaming - 8:30PM CDT, The Hero's Journey

Hey guys!

I'm going to be livestreaming some game development again tonight, at 8:30PM CDT. The game is The Hero's Journey, which you can always play over on GameJolt*.

Everything happening in the livestream will go towards the 1.2 release of The Hero's Journey, which will feature vast improvements to some of the level design, and resolution to some bugs that are bugging me.

As always, you can either catch the stream live on my Twitch channel (or, from the widget here on Anook), or you can watch after the fact from my YouTube channel.

See you all there!

*: You can also play it on Wooglie,, Kongregate, and NewGrounds, but those links are in a previous livestream blog topic.

EDIT: The stream was a success, except that my headphones died shortly into the broadcast and I didn't become aware until later. As before, will totally be fixed next broadcast. For those curious this is the recorded livestream.

How not to give a nasty GIFT

While browsing some tech-related topics during my lunch break at work today, I saw an article about an open petition against hate speech in online games.

As a gamer who values other players of different persuasions/natures, I could not agree more. I am only saddened that I didn't get an opportunity to sign this petition.

But, this got me thinking about solving the GIFT problem (has language that may not be safe for your workplace; if in doubt, read at home.) Given the rise of speakers like Jack Thompson, or Anita Sarkeesian, and the vitriol leveled against their ideas of how to reform gaming (in Thompson's case, censor it out of existence, in Sarkeesian's out-and-out revolution against the grand male conspiracy? I guess,) there's no doubt that people are reacting to people who play videogames being completely toxic jerks in- and out-of-game, and with rather strong reactions.

None of this would be necessary if we could institute ways of dealing with jerks in games, as easily as we do in real life (someone who passes the upperbounds of the 'jerkass threshold' will know it, because someone will inevitably sock them in the face, as they correctly deserve.) Games make it harder due to anonymity and no chance of physical repercussions.

...But That Doesn't Mean We Can't Do Anything!
The thing is, video games are more than just mathematical systems of mechanics and payoffs. Video games are more than algorithms coded to enforce, and present, these systems. Video games are a culture, which is part of the cure, but more importantly, video games are a software package.

Think about that. If we can make software that controls a computer that means we could design systems in our games to help mitigate the GIFT.

Approach I: Penalize Garbage-Spewers
The obvious approach is to cause people who can't intelligently or positively converse to leave. You can look for specific words in chat logs, you can include reporting functions and a team of people whose sole goal in life is wading into the shallow end of our gene pool, smacking these garbage-spewing muppets with the full weight of the banhammers that were issued from the studio armory.

Microsoft's approach with their XBox Live program is a good example of a properly-implemented punitive mechanic: as you get downrated, you get placed in matchmaking groups of progressively more toxic players. There's nothing like having your own filth regurgitated at you, for you to realize what you're sounding like to others. Admitting there is a problem is the first step to recovery.

In certain cases, this is unavoidable, too. There are players who are just so toxic, you can't reform them, period. Losing a few players to keep many more playing, buying, and enjoying your game, seems a rather easy decision to make.

Approach II: Reward Positive Interaction
Of course, if you perma-ban everyone who gets heated at someone, before long you're going to be running a ghost town on your server that will be powered down slightly before you start receiving unemployment checks. Draconian countermeasures against griefers will never stand, either due to having to ban everyone, or having necessary holes that these dull butterknives in the gaming community's crayon box will be just barely intelligent enough to navigate through, or worse weaponize as part of their trolling campaign.

To this end, we can approach hateful behavior from another end of the spectrum: rewarding positive interactions. League of Legends has done this to great avail; in my time in that game, after the 'honor' system was implemented, I noticed my solo queues tended to be less toxic as time went on. Before I stopped playing due to burning out, it was the best I've ever seen that game's community!

Of course, rewarding people has downsides - most of the people who will reap these rewards are the gamers who are just nice to begin with, and if such a reward system is poorly implemented, gamers may feel that they're being the subject of Draconian punishments for slight slip-ups in behavior or judgement.

Approach III: Let's Join Hands And Sing Coombaya!
Both of the previous approaches have rather large holes in their logic. The worst of the community gets eliminated, the best gets rewarded for being themselves. What do we do about the people who aren't so foul or fair? How do we get people to be nicer, rather than more noxious?

I don't feel there is a clear mechanical answer for this one. Instead, it's a social problem: we have to instill a sense of community, especially in games where we compete with each other. If you start spewing garbage, part of the process involves helping the offender to understand that, by spewing this, they are harming themselves and their community.

Part of their recovery involves the community acknowledging their penance and aiding the recovery process. We, the gaming community, can do a better job than any developer (sadly, me included; I'm not Super Dev) of making bad behavior unwelcome, and good behavior praised and renowned. With supporting, and punitive, mechanics, and a good community from Day 1 of a new title, I honestly believe that we can marginalize GIFT to the point where a few good mods with ban-hammers are all that is needed to make bad behavior in the gaming community a thing of the past.

That's a future worth developing.

...But what if I don't have moderators?
This is the part where I could get some flak. But, I'm going to say it anyways. Bear with me.

As a small developer myself, I think that if you are unable to support an online community with moderators who can institute the peace, that you should not have an online community at all.

That is not to say that if you are small you cannot develop a game with multiplayer; in fact, I think as a small-fry, it's important to do so for a variety of reasons. It just means, you can't prevent spam, hate speech, harrassment, trolling, or other bad behavior, from a logistical perspective. It's bad for your fans, it's bad for you.

Of course, you don't have to forgo communication in your small indie game, either. Hearthstone has done a great job with their non-freeform communication system. I recommend that as a template to developers at my level, who are starting out and understanding how to build good communities.

...So, what's the answer?
Right now, there is none. The problem, and the solution, are still in flux, changing as quickly as we can dream up some new countermeasure. But, by having good community mechanics, a philosophy that underlies our gaming communities, and the ability to properly police them, it's not unthinkable to making gaming the recreational activity that it should have always been.

We just haven't been trying, or thinking about the problem, nearly hard enough. All of us.

Why don't we get started on that, together?

Livestreaming - 7:30 PM, Central Daylight Savings Time!

Hi everyone!

One of the things I've wanted to try for a long time is streaming one of my game development sessions. Not only will this help me be better at communicating, and getting feedback on my indie titles, it brings me closer to the people in the gaming community (even moreso than Anook does!)

So, I'm going to be livestreaming a session of improvements to my sidescrolling swordfighting game, The Hero's Journey, on my twitch channel!

If you want to play the current version of The Hero's Journey, you can find it:

You can catch the stream either from here on the livestream widget, or you can go straight to my twitch channel. Be sure to follow me if you like what you see!

More importantly, I'll be watching chat, so any ideas or suggestions you have on how to improve stuff will be taken into consideration.

If you miss it, no worries; I'll be saving the stream to YouTube so you can see it at your leisure on my YouTube channel. See you there!

EDIT: The stream is over, due to some settings I wasn't aware I needed to change until I lost the last 15 minutes of my stream. However, next time that won't be a problem. For those curious, here is the recorded stream. Feedback is appreciated, because I want to A) be a better developer, and B) stream better.

Why Extra Creditz is wrong: The Blue Shell is NOT a catch-up mechanic!

Earlier today, I was elated to see a brand new video from the famed designers/developers/artists behind ExtraCreditz appear in my YouTube queue. As I was at work, I took a break from some other training, and took a listen; it's only a few minutes out of a standard 15-minute break.

While the video was certainly well-written, there were all sorts of points that simply didn't add up. Among them:

  • How does an item that only intentionally affects potentially the top two players in a race count as a 'catch-up' mechanic?
  • If this mechanic is so useful, why does so much of the Mario Kart playerbase revile this mechanic so much? Generally, catch-up mechanics are looked upon as a good thing that makes for more interesting games, not something nigh-universally loathed.
  • The Blue Shell supposedly appears more for players who are doing worse, but only affects players doing the best. Why is doing better in a game penalized?

For once, ExtraCreditz is wrong
In this article, I am going to make my case for why ExtraCreditz is flat-out wrong this time, despite their game development experience (for the record, I'm not without game development experience myself.) Even the most seasoned professional can make flaws in evaluation or judgement; I've done it, they've done it, and future generations of game developer or commentator will do it.

I say this not to personally attack the talented crew at ExtraCreditz, and more to have a better discussion about a more insidious problem in games: the potential for trolling, which is what the Blue Shell is built to do, along with some other powerups in the Mario Kart franchise which do much the same thing, and instead provide a better catchup mechanic.

That said, let's rip 'em a new one; this time they need it.

What Is The Blue Shell?
As the video talks about, the Blue Shell is an item that can be randomly obtained from the question mark blocks scattered around a given race course. While the chances of obtaining one seem random, it is noted that players doing worse tend to get the Blue Shell more often, than players in a leading place.

Upon using the Blue Shell, it acts as a homing missile for the player in first place, hitting anyone in its way. Upon finding the first place player, it unerringly swoops in front of them, dive bombs them, and detonates in a rather impressive nuclear explosion, with a slight area of effect; if players are close to the first place racer, they suffer the same fate (spinning out, dropping coins.)

This was first introduced in Super Mario 64, and has existed in every Mario Kart released since. However, there are other items that are similarly powerful (in the case of the Thunderbolt, more powerful) that achieve the 'catch-up' objective much better than the Blue Shell. That leads me straight into my first point.

Problem I: The Blue Shell Is Not A Catch Up Mechanic
The Blue Shell, as noted above, homes in on the leading player. It does not confer a direct advantage to the player who uses it; if you launch it from 12th place, at worst you will spin out the first place character, who falls behind a couple of slots. Let me re-iterate: you are still in 12th place.

However, in Mario Kart 8, the Blue Shell is a grounded projectile. This means, on its quest to ruin the 1st Place racer's day, it can ruin everyone else's day in one fell swoop. This is the best case scenario. It won't earn you first place, as spin-outs only last for a couple of seconds, but you can gain a slightly better place for a time.

The Blue Shell is also not a catch-up mechanic because it doesn't compensate for weaknesses of local setup or player skill. If you are a weak player, the Blue Shell buys you a temporary edge; more skilled players, or more advanced AIs, will overcome your ability to play sooner or later. Hopefully you get other items to either stave this outcome off, or gain insights as you're playing and evolve your abilities mid-game (this is the best outcome, actually.)

The Blue Shell is not a catch-up mechanic, because if you have a cart with particular weaknesses (e.g. low maximum speed, poor acceleration, bad cornering), using it will not grant you any of these vital physics bonuses. Again, you're buying a temporary material advantage. If you're a skilled player who knows how to handle your cart, chances are you can stage either a comeback, or hold out until you can get to an actual catch-up mechanic. Of course, a truly skilled player probably isn't going to be in that bad of shape in the first place.

TL;DR - The Blue Shell is not a catch-up mechanic because it buys you a temporary edge. It does not resolve any problems of personal practice, or game strategy.

Problem II: The Mechanic Is Punishing/Anti-Fun/Built To Troll
The lack of utility as ExtraCreditz attempted to imply is merely one problem with the Blue Shell: it is not the only one. The reason the Blue Shell is a bad thing, is because it is an inherently toxic item/mechanic, intended to cause pain, and not make the game a more enjoyable experience for anyone.

The shells in the Mario Kart series are weapons, albeit wacky, franchise-themed ones. There is a conflict at the heart of the Mario Kart games: I want to win. To do that, I must cross the finish line first, at the expense of everyone else. In Game Theory, a branch of mathematics revolving around how games play out, there is a name for this sort of game: a zero-sum game (the TL;DR version - only one person can win by fiat of holding the majority of the game's resources.) All of this is to say, pain is somewhat inevitable. The presence of pain, or a feeling of loss, cannot be avoided. However, it can be made fun.

Mario Kart 8 attempts to rein in the Blue Shell with the most basic item in the game: the humble boost mushroom. There is an extremely tight window where, by boosting, you can outrun the nuclear shell-splosion. It requires cracker-jack reflexes, and is briefly telegraphed by the shell's homing animation, which makes the shell, admittedly, slightly fairer (that's all the praise I've got for it.) Alternatively, you could go invincible. Invincibility means invincibility where the Blue Shell is concerned.

Extra Creditz claims this is to make the Blue Shell not entirely horrible in professional-level play, and that may well be one reason for the visual tell and (slight) window to react, if you can at all (remember, mushrooms are a random question-block drop, too!)

The problem is, this is still not fun. If you reach first place, you're entirely reliant on the RNG (random-number generator) for specific drops (the mushroom or the star, two out of a number of possible items). If you don't have them, you can brake your cart and try to get the 2nd place racer caught in the blast - that's always fun! (Not really. You jerk.)

If that's not good enough, let's take this to its logical conclusion, shall we? Let's make an entire strategy around the blue shell. It's simple: the ingredients are, being in a low place to get a better blue shell drop rate, our minimap, and enough practice to have a sense of predicting where the 1st Place racer is. Even if that racer has a boost mushroom or star, it's perfectly useful to make them waste it by forcing a boost into a wall when they're in a difficult turn, or to waste invincibility when no one is close.

We've already established that the shell does not confer an appreciable competitive advantage unless we get darn lucky. The point of this play is because we know we're going to lose. We want to screw with someone's head while we're doing it.

We're a troll, the bane of a good party game.

This item is a troll's paradise. Everyone already hates this item for their own reasons. By a simple bit of reverse psychology, this 'humble' item is a cudgel with which we can wreak havoc on a good-natured social interaction. It's built with us in mind - nearly undodgable, intended to be harsh to the most successful...this item is the crystallization of what a troll strives for at any given time: something near completely useless that elicits a deep emotional reaction, for the sheer lulz of the matter.

Alternatively, if the troll gets in first place, the troll knows they will probably see one of these. That 'braking' mitigation strategy mentioned earlier (y'know, the one that doesn't work?) is now prime just to irritate someone else. Enjoy laughing yourself silly.

This leads me to the final point of why the shell is not a good or useful mechanic...

Problem III: The Shell Penalizes Good Play
We've established a few facts about the Blue Shell:

  • It is built to affect the first place player
  • It has an AoE to affect any nearby players
  • It confers no significant strategic advantage
  • It only causes pain

The worst one is that you stand a better chance of surviving the shell if you're not in a leading position. Given that anyone can pick up this nuke at any time, you're better off being mediocre until right before the end of the match...if you dare to be that.

See, the way cups in Mario Kart games work, is you gain an amount of points for the place you finish each track in. First place gets the most, followed by second, third, etc. If you want to win the cup, you need the most points. However, being at the front of the pack means you're the primary, and nearly guaranteed target of, a blue shell. It's a simple summation at the end of any track to determine how many points you need to edge out another player to win. Here's a hint: 1 point is the difference between losing a battle to win the war, or the opposite way 'round.

While this is as old as the Mario Kart series itself, and is a well-implemented mechanic to avoid penalizing players unduly, this unwittingly helps make the Blue Shell an even more potent weapon, because the worst player has indirect control of the game. That's right, if you're doing well, you have less control over your victory than someone doing worse than you.

Think about that for a second. Let it sink in.

Instead of the game 'providing a series of choices in pursuit of a clear and compelling goal', the opposite is happening. This is anathema to the point of a game. It is a game design anti-pattern. By making a good decision, you put yourself at unusually high risk of being taken down violently, with nearly no way to counter (unless the RNG gods really like you. But, they don't.)

Conclusion and Suggestion of Correction
ExtraCreditz is fundamentally wrong on why the Blue Shell is 'needed.' It is not, it is a game-design anti-pattern that strips the value of control from the game. It is of no value to the user, causes pain, and more tellingly penalizes good plays. This can be seen even within their own video, as the narrator himself can only use negative language when talking about the Blue Shell, particularly at the end (specifically, "whether you hate it, or really hate it...")

ExtraCredits should pull their video, re-do their play-testing and other key parts of their research, and not play up their ficitional 'positives' of this mechanic. None of those are truly there. They should re-post a different video that, correctly, criticizes this malicious game mechanic, in pursuit of reinforcing to the AAA game industry that anti-patterns like this are bad, and should not be added in games, period.

TL;DR - If you polish a turd, all you have is a shiny turd.