Case Studies: The Importance Of A Core Theme

I’ve been looking at a few games, and I’ve been thinking something about design: the closer that every designed element is to the core theme of the object in question, the better the overall design is. Good design is about making sure that every aspect points to the core theme in some way, shape, or form. The following five games are ones I’ve analyzed with this concept in mind: first determining what the game’s core theme is, and then identifying mechanics that don’t tie into it sufficiently (or in worse cases, directly go against it). Hopefully, identifying and focusing on a core theme will help me design better games.

1. The World Ends With You: Solo Remix (Square Enix, 2012)

The new battle system implemented in Solo Remix.

TWEWY is a video game that mainly revolves around the theme of cooperation and teamwork. You play as the antisocial character Neku Sakuraba, who’s suddenly thrown into a confusing but life-threatening game that absolutely must be played in pairs. The most interesting thing about TWEWY was that you had to control both characters simultaneously: Neku Sakuraba, and the person he’s partnered with. This was obviously very challenging, because most video games only involve controlling one character at a time, and humans are not very good at multitasking in the first place. During the early stages of the game, players would normally focus only on controlling Neku and devote very little attention to controlling his partner, so the partner’s usefulness was extremely limited. Players at this stage would come to the conclusion that the partner was useless baggage and that it would be so much easier to play only as Neku (which is the exact same conclusion that Neku himself comes to).

However, as the player continues the game and gets better at it, they start being good enough to devote focus to the secondary character as well. After improving this way, players would be able to seamlessly control both characters simultaneously, gaining massive advantages that could not have been achieved by focusing on only one at a time. This system tied in symbolically with the game’s core theme, and was an example of pretty decent design. Many people complained that the game had a very steep learning curve, but I interpreted it as a way of forcing players to understand just how difficult it is for Neku to cooperate with other people. It definitely could have been improved, but it really drove home the narrative of TWEWY.

All of that was for the original TWEWY, which was released in 2008. In 2012, Square Enix released an updated version of TWEWY, subtitled as Solo Remix to differentiate it from the 2008 version. Solo Remix completely eliminates the simultaneous control system: your partner in Solo Remix is controlled by the game’s AI (1). Suddenly, the message was gone. Players no longer had to focus on their partner character as much as they did in the original version. It certainly made the game easier for new players to pick up, but it lost the symbolic meaning that the original TWEWY‘s system carried.

TWEWY had to find a balance between accessibility and symbolism. The original version chose strong symbolism, while Solo Remix went with accessibility. But there had to have been a way to get the best of both worlds. Square Enix had several ways to go about doing this: they could have given players more options that affect both characters simultaneously rather than force them to input commands separately for each character, or they could have equalized the complexity difference between controlling Neku versus controlling his partner, or they could have locked certain abilities so that only a specific character could use them. All of these could have made the game more accessible to play, but still maintain the symbolic nature of cooperation and teamwork.

2. Infinity Blade 3 (Chair Entertainment, 2013)

The Potionmaster at his cauldron.

Infinity Blade 3 is an action game where you play as a guy who fights lots of big monsters. It doesn’t have a deep narrative theme in the same way that TWEWY did, but the game did have a solid core experience: constant growth. In order to progress through the game, you grew. You would get stronger after every battle, and you would get money to buy stronger swords, and you just repeated that over and over until you were strong enough to overcome whatever hurdle the game threw at you. And then the game would throw an even more difficult hurdle at you, and you would have to get even stronger than you were before.

This was the philosophy behind the first two Infinity Blade games. However, Infinity Blade 3 introduced a new element: potions that you could drink before a battle to increase your combat strength. Some potions would let you deal more damage, other potions would increase the amount of damage you could take, and still more potions would do things like boost the amount of money you got after winning battles. Potion effects would only last for one fight.

Suddenly, players were pulled out of the “constant growth” mentality. You could just stock up on tons of potions, but unless you actually used them they wouldn’t do anything for you. And once you used them, you wouldn’t have them anymore, so the strength you experienced was only temporary, which directly contradicts the nature of constant growth. Players had to find a balance between using a potion as an easy way to win a fight, versus gritting their teeth and trying to win through sheer power of will. Whichever option they picked, their decision wouldn’t feed into “constant growth” anymore.

Not only that, but Infinity Blade 3 had to balance around potions. When the game didn’t have potions, Chair’s designers had a rough estimate of what the player’s power level was at any given time, and they could present challenges that were reasonable and scaled to give players a task that wasn’t too easy to be trivial, nor too difficult to be overwhelming. But potions suddenly threw this system out of whack: the designers had no idea when players were using potions and when they weren’t, so they didn’t know how difficult to make enemies. If an enemy was moderately difficult to defeat normally, players could just down a power-up potion and that enemy would pose no threat whatsoever. On the other hand, if an enemy was moderately difficult to defeat while under the effect of a potion, players without potions would stand no chance because their power level was significantly lower. Infinity Blade 3‘s designers had three ways they could deal with this: they could balance around potions and make the game obscenely difficult for people without them, they could balance around normal combat and make the game obscenely easy for people with potions, or they could make potion effects so trivial that there was no difference.

It’s not a difficult problem to solve at all: just remove potions. They weren’t in either of the first two Infinity Blade games, and there was absolutely no reason to include them for Infinity Blade 3. If they absolutely had to stay, Chair should have at least put in some kind of mechanic to give them lasting potential: what if after drinking a potion, it regenerates after a certain amount of time. As little sense as that would make, it would at least give players the sense that by collecting potions, they are slowly but steadily increasing their strength over time, which is the whole point of Infinity Blade.

3. FTL: Faster Than Light (Subset Games, 2012)

FTL’s ship upgrading mechanic.

FTL is a science-fiction game set in a world where humanity and other sentient alien races have developed faster-than-light travel, enabling them to navigate among the stars. You play as the commander of a space ship on a very important mission, and you must use FTL transportation to reach your destination while avoiding the rebels that want to destroy you. The core philosophy of the game, as described by its designer Justin Ma, was to make players “feel like they were Captain Picard yelling at engineers to get the shields back online.” Tasks like piloting the ship or aiming weapons at enemy ships are all handled by the crew you control: instead, the player has to manage the ship’s energy resources and decide what systems need to be powered on or off. Add more power to the engines and increase your chance of evading enemy shots, or add more power to your weapons so you can fire more shots at the enemy?

Ultimately, I don’t feel that FTL fully accomplished that vision, for several reasons. The game is very much centered around resource management, but you are always able to upgrade your ship’s energy resource supply. Powering up your shields costs energy, and if you’re in a situation where you want stronger shields, your primary decision should have been “what system do I divert energy away from so I can add that energy to my ship’s shields?” However, since you can increase your total energy supply almost at will, you can just do that and have all of your systems functioning at full power. I wonder what would have happened if you were unable to increase your ship’s total energy supply manually, but rather upgrades were purchasable as merchandise in stores, or received as rewards for helping other people, or found as loot from destroyed enemy ships. That way, the player’s energy supply would be capped with no easy way of increasing it, so they would have to figure out what to do with the limited resources they have at the time.

The other problem that I think limits FTL‘s core vision is the variety of systems at the player’s disposal. Shields, engines, and weapons turn out to be the most useful out of the five systems to put energy into. However, the ship has two more systems, oxygen and health, which refills the oxygen supply in the ship and heals crewmembers respectively. These systems can often be left with very little energy to continue running, and if no one in the crew is injured, there’s no reason to power your health system in the first place. Since these two are so simple and low-cost, players rarely have to make decisions based around them. Sometimes, you may want to depower your oxygen supply so you can power on another weapon and hope that you’ll end a battle before your ship runs out of oxygen, and that’s an exciting decision to face. But with how little energy is required to keep the oxygen system running, it doesn’t happen very often. If the oxygen and health systems were a little more engaging,  players would have had to juggle their energy supply around five systems rather than just three. What if your crew would move faster and repair items more quickly if the oxygen supply was high? I don’t know, but it’s just an idea.

4. League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009-present)

A support’s role in LoL.

The online competitive game League of Legends pits players in head-to-head combat against each other in teams of five. Each player picks a unique champion and enters an arena alongside the four other champions picked by their allies, and they fight over objectives against the enemy’s five champions. LoL has always had a core design philosophy, which was to encourage player interaction as much as possible. People should be incentivized to launch attacks against the enemy, defend against and counter incoming attacks, and support their teammates. However, LoL‘s design was shaken for a long period when its designers mistook what “supporting their teammates” meant in the context of their game.

Certain champions in LoL are wholly dedicated to supporting their allies by healing them so that they don’t die from enemy attacks. The designers at Riot Games believed that players wanted to fulfill a healer archetype on their team by playing as these champions, so those champions are given very little tools other than the ability to heal their allies. However, this directly contradicted the core design of player interaction, because there was no motivation to try to attack your enemies. Being aggressive and trying to defeat the enemy champion is a risky undertaking, but healing effectively erases all combative endeavors. If an enemy deals damage to you, and your ally uses a spell to heal you, it’s as if the interaction never happened at all. Why bother trying to fight against your enemies at all, if their healer and yours will just restore all the health lost during an engagement?

LoL was becoming very stale and boring because of the presence of dedicated support characters (2), and the fact that they directly contradicted the core design direction of the game. However, the fact remained that people still wanted to fulfill the fantasy archetype of being the one that saves, the one who helps everyone on his team and leads them all to victory. The designers at Riot Games needed to find a way to make healing and supporting feel active and engaging, rather than defensive and reactionary, so that players could still take on a support role without erasing player interaction from the game.

If it were me, I would have wanted to play more with movement and mobility: a supportive character could help allies escape from enemy attacks, or push enemies away before they can attack his allies. And in a way, this was part of the design philosophy that Riot Games adopted to create more engaging support characters: many of them revolve around undermining enemy mobility, enhancing ally mobility, or both. This way, a support character can help allies avoid taking damage, but if they take damage anyway then it sticks. Helping allies using active abilities keeps the game’s core philosophy intact, while still allowing players to feel like they are rallying their team together as powerful leaders.

5. Mirror’s Edge (Dice, 2008)

Faith about to punch a cop.

Mirror’s Edge is a game where you play as a Runner, an illegal information courier in a dystopian city where all communications are monitored. As a Runner, you must physically travel to your destination using parkour and freerunning techniques such as climbing up walls or jumping between rooftops. The game’s core meaning is about speed and momentum: you need to manage how well you can maintain them in order to progress through the game, especially when enemy cops are chasing after you.

But the problem is how those cops are used in the game. A feature I found unnecessary was the aspect of combat: your character is able to attack cops, take their guns, and shoot at other cops. This completely goes against the game’s inherent speed-based flow, especially because your character moves slower while carrying weapons. Mirror’s Edge is most fun when you’re moving really fast, but in order to fight you need to slow down and confront your enemies, and the phrase “slow down” shouldn’t belong in this game.

This problem is a strange one because it can be completely ignored in the first place. Players are never forced to fight against enemies, and are always able to run past them or otherwise find another way to navigate around without being in danger. However, the fact that enemies exist create several problems for the game: there’s always the unfun possibility that a random stray bullet will kill you, and you’re unable to fully explore areas with enemies in them because they will keep shooting at you until you defeat them. Even if you do try to avoid enemies and focus on the speed/momentum gameplay, they still end up being a hindrance to your ability to move quickly.

A potential fix might have been to remove all guns and ranged weapons from the game, and limit all enemies to melee only. This would have kept them as a threat, but would have given players more of an opportunity to plan around them, rather than being forced to take cover and hide from bullet fire. Another fix might have been to remove enemies altogether, but they are still necessary to give areas a sense of urgency.

ENDNOTES

(1) I was actually very, very wrong about Solo Remix, but that doesn’t actually change my point so I’m adding this as an endnote. Your partner isn’t controlled by AI: you actually summon your partner in battle to do attacks alongside with you. That still doesn’t fix the problem, because now your partner is like a tool you use alongside all your other ones, rather than an actual person you have to coordinate around. It’s like a picture-perfect example of direct control versus indirect control (more on that here). Still, goes to show that I shouldn’t have assumed the partner was AI-controlled.

(2) Morello talks more about the problem here.

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