Aztez – A Game of Conquest and Brutality
13Dec/1213

A Combat Accessibility Fork

Common Warrior

An amazing thing happened in the last stretch of our Mexico work trip! We released a Friends and Family build and the feedback was hugely positive and also very thorough! Now I have a very liberal approach to feedback; if it can be implemented, played with, and marinated on without disrupting the flow of the project I will do it on principle, provided I haven't already explored the issue previously. There have been many minor (and major) pieces of feedback that have improved the game and I think it's a good, albeit authorially uncomfortable policy. Not every piece of feedback is valuable and is worth investigating, but in my experience, MOST are. I wanted to write about this fascinating fork I'm standing at right now with the appeal of the scrappers on one side and the appeal of the masters on the other.

On Cancelling

Most of the attack mechanics I've built up until this point can be cancelled with a block at any point, cancelled with a dash at any point, and cancelled with movement input roughly halfway through the animation. This is the average makeup of most of the game's existing attacks.

This means that most attacks have a very high degree of three key things:

  • Safety - being able to block at any point means defense is simply a matter of identifying an attack and pushing the block button before the attack hits. You might be thinking "duh" but the traditional defense mechanic implementation has subtle restrictions that make it a more complex affair. Aztez's current "anytime block" is definitely a cue taken from God Of War, which as we all know, was an accessibility benchmark for beat 'em ups.
  • Flexibility - being able to dash cancel at any point provides a high level of attack flexibility and is super conducive to aggressive player momentum. It has always been this way as my goal from the start was to create a system in which aggression is rewarded by maintaining the mash flow.
  • Looseness - by providing movement input cancelling, we avoid the Amalur Problem and make the mechanics feel non-punitive, which is CRITICAL for scrappers. That kind of classic stiffness freaks them out something awful.

Most of the feedback came from scrappers (which most gamers playing beat' em ups are) and they all LOVED the way it felt. There was not a single complaint about danger, inflexibility, or punishment that originated in player mechanics. The warriors were also very pleased for all of the same reasons, and the amount of available mechanics made them very content. But it was the discussions I had with the few masters that really made think.

The Master's Beef

The issue the Masters had is that they quickly discovered and exploited some implicit mechanics and as it tends to go with brains like theirs, their experience was cheapened. And it had almost everything to do with our hugely cancellable mechanics. It had SOMETHING to do with some overpowered nonsense that I have since toned down. Haha! But the cancelling is definitely the core of the issue. Now at some point Matthew and I were over the shoulder of the brilliant and enthusiastic Colin Northway as he played, and it occurred to Matthew to cushion the brief part of the animation that the hit box is active with a few frames in which you CANNOT cancel the move in any way. This was hugely compelling! I ended up trying and the results were FUCKING FASCINATING.

GEEZUS BRO, WHAT HAPPENED?

I changed the makeup of the attacks from their scrapper-friendly tuning to something a little stricter. Take the mechanic I described previously with its open hit box between frames 20 and 25, except NOW the dash and the block will only cancel the attack between frames 1 and 20, close when the hit box opens, and then open up again at frame 35 when the movement input flag occurs, and they all stay open for the duration of the move. What this boils down to is that the player can cancel their attack in any way early on, but once the hit box is out they're highly vulnerable to our game's rather aggressive enemies who are intentionally not conscious of what the player is doing or at what point the player is into their attack.

It COMPLETELY changed the feel of the game. Roughly 15 frames of unavoidable danger (that's a quarter of a second) made the combat feel 10 times as hardcore. It suddenly became much more master friendly, and much less scrapper friendly.

What's Going To Change Because Of This Insight?

It is very hard to say because I have a few more things to experiment with that could swing this in a couple different directions, but if I had to take an educated guess based on my goals for the game, I'd say very little is likely to change; I am most likely going to reverse these recent changes and restore it's accessibility. The goal of Aztez from the start has been to create a beat 'em up that serves the audience of beat 'em up lovers with fun and expressive combat but also brings new players into the fold with friendly and accessible mechanics. I realize that the benefit of building the kind of strict system that appeals to the masters is that those players essentially measure and determine the long term value of a combat system. But while building the kind of timeless combat (assuming I am even capable of this, which I don't believe I am at this point) is great and all, leaning the game towards the masters in such a significant way does major damage to the game's friendliness, which directly affects how many hands it will make it into when it's all said and done. The truth of the matter is that there are simply not enough masters out there that it's worth it to make Colorblind's first game for them. :(

I took the time to write this out to make a simple point; aim steady and shoot. Too many developer's don't aim, or they change it once something else appears in the scope. Yielding to the insights described in this article would have been a completely legitimate design decision on our part, but it would have had profound affects on the game. It seems obvious but I almost let it happen without even realizing it! So just keep your eyes peeled for business like this.

  • Evan

    While I most defiantly fall under the “scrapper” label, do you think this could be a possible difficulty setting? Maybe an unlock, for these so called masters?

    • http://www.benruiz.net Ben Ruiz

      It COULD be! I personally don’t like the idea because I believe difficulty in games like these should have consistent player rules, but under more stressful circumstances.

      I’m imagining a player getting good and comfortable on a difficulty where the canceling windows are set in a certain way, and then jumping up to the next difficulty only to realize that the skillful habits they’ve developed have been nullified. For me personally, this would be incredibly frustrating. It would feel like the rules got unfairly changed on me.

      Now when you alter enemy behavior (the traditional method of raising and lowering difficulty in beat ‘em ups) you are definitely changing rules, obviously! But it doesn’t feel unfair when the external forces get altered.

  • http://www.gameaccessibilityguidelines.com Ian Hamilton

    Why does it have to be one way or the other? Why not just have a choice of difficulty? That way both masters and scrappers can play in the way that they find most enjoyable

    • http://www.gameaccessibilityguidelines.com Ian Hamilton

      Sorry, hasn’t seen the previous comment, so +1 to that. How about offering more fine grained control over difficulty? So instead of just a linear scale that affects multiple things, offer separate options for enemy difficulty and attack mechanic?

      Eg. http://www.mobygames.com/images/shots/l/302076-silent-hill-2-restless-dreams-xbox-screenshot-combat-and-puzzle.png

      • http://www.benruiz.net Ben Ruiz

        To be clear, I don’t actually believe that the issues I discussed in the article are necessarily about difficulty. It’s about friendliness of controls. There is definitely a direct relationship between controls and difficulty, obviously, but the changes I experimented with made the game feel a certain way (independent of actual combat with enemies) that was too significantly different.

        To address your suggestion, there will definitely be control over difficulty! I want people to play on any level they’re comfortable with…provided we’ve made a game that has controls accessible to everyone. ;)

        • http://www.gameaccessibilityguidelines.com Ian Hamilton

          Yes, that’s exactly what I’m getting at. As it is not the same thing as difficulty, but you have two starkly contesting control options that suit different audiences, separate it out, have one setting for difficulty, and one setting for control style. How does that sound?

          • http://www.benruiz.net Ben Ruiz

            I see what you mean! Thanks for clarifying.

            While having the option to change that set of properties would not be hugely difficult in itself implementation-wise, it would have huge effects on the rest of my design decisions, so in that sense it’s not practical.

            That is a fascinating idea, though!

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  • http://www.gameaccessibilityguidelines.com Ian Hamilton

    Very glad you find it an interesting concept, perhaps it may plant a seed for some future project :-)

  • VictorBorgesAngelo

    What if you made the option to turn this on and off that wasn’t based on the difficult. like some kind of item (like a reverse blood marionette (from Bayonetta))

    • jpL

      The only problem with this is it will split the player base. You’ll have some players playing in a different system and others playing in another. By system I mean a completely different combat system. Changing the cancel times completely changes the core gameplay. Some players will think they are mad cool but then they’ll get asked the crucial question “were you on mode “x” or using item “y”? If so then “you aren’t a true pro”

      I’m not speaking of changing difficulties. That would just be changing the enemy count/intelligence/spawn points/etc. but still using the exact same player system across all difficulty modes.

      I think what you are suggesting has never been done before and for good reason.

      • http://anothercastle64.blogspot.com Michael P.

        Actually it sort of has. Depends on how broadly you define it. For example, in the original Devil May Cry there was a mode where holding down the fire button would allow you to shoot continuously and a mode where you had to press the button for each shot. Ostensibly the first one is “easier” but it also capped the damage you could deal – because in fact you could fire faster by pressing the button each time, but it was a bit more complex to do that while also dodging around.

        Another example: In Sin and Punishment: Star Successor you can choose between two characters and they have slightly different rules. The one requires you to switch between manual aiming and lock on aiming, and you can lock on to one target. The other will lock on automatically and can hit multiple targets with a charge shot.

        The more I think about it, I can think of lots of games with multiple characters where the rules are slightly different, and that’s basically the same concept. But perhaps multiple characters would be necessary for that to work, as opposed to just a mode setting in a menu somewhere.

        • http://www.benruiz.net Ben Ruiz

          Michael, your examples are really interesting; the DMC gun modes are indeed slightly different implementations of the same mechanic, it is a very metered and subtle alteration of risk and reward. I find this entirely acceptable! Allowing the player to pick between these two tunings of many attacks is a HUGE alteration of risk and reward in a very obvious and scary way.

          With that being said, Victor, I believe your idea is legitimate way of handling the issue. But in this case I totally agree jpL; it’s not something I personally want to do because I don’t want to create a rift between player types.

          It’s a pretty fascinating problem!

          • Evan

            Another potential way to include both implementations is to change to Master Mode on a New Game+

            Kinda like how Muramasa: The Demon Blade’s New Game+ drops the health bar to 1, it offers a new way to play the same game and, due to its unlockable nature, is inherently understood to be a mode for the hardcore.

            It won’t eliminate player type rift, but could probably make the transition from one side to the other smoother.