A critical part of the human brain wants to overcome obstacles. We all know this to be true, because when we successfully overcome something we experience a distinct sense of pleasure. That is our brain sending a message to the body that "Hey yeah that was fucking awesome you should do that more because it make you even more fucking awesome and more likely to LIVE". Our highly evolved neurological systems have come to understand for themselves what is good for you, and this reward process is an iconic example of this. Recall now what it felt like when society graduated you after all that work, or when you experienced your first major professional success, or when you narrowly avoided that terrible thing because of a smart decision you made. So what does this have to do with beat 'em ups?
At GDC I did an interview for Unwinnable.com. Unwinnable is a great site, by the way! You should like them and read them.
Anyway, I shared the interview on Twitter and my esteemed thought colleague Hamish Todd asked me if I really only ever play beat 'em ups for 3 hours before never touching them again. Then he said that he'd love to know why that is. It's a good question and I'm going to answer it!
When analog sticks were born, the way walking and running was implemented in games changed. But before I go into that, it's important to understand the key differences between the joystick on a traditional arcade machine and the little analog stick on your console controller. When you push on an arcade stick, it's pressing down on one or two of four different little buttons that lie underneath the stick. Each button only has two states: pushed and non-pushed. So when you push the stick upward it's going to press on the northern button and when you push the stick up and left it's pressing on both the northern button and the western button. Now when you push on an analog stick, it's cross-referencing two different axises (a "left to right" axis and a "up to down" axis) and the controller is finding the precise location the stick is resting at, which could be anywhere inside that plastic circle your analog stick is poking out of. With all this extra possibility space, you can alter the way the player tells the character on the screen to move. What I'm gonna talk about here is the three major ways this can be done based on the implementation across a handful of different games. The first variant of this is the most straightforward.
A fascinating subject that came up in the comments of my post about animation issues in Kingdom Of Amalur was about the key distinctions between beat 'em ups and its "cousin" genres. I wanted to quickly elaborate on those splits and changes and touch on the essence of each of them from a game play point of view. I mostly want to answer the question "What is a Beat 'Em Up?" out loud so we can all agree and move on. Haha! But first let's talk about a really important spectrum; the danger level of an individual attack.
David Rosen over at Wolfire (creators of Lugaru, Overgrowth, and the Humble Bundle) suggested that I make an analysis similar to the ones I usually do here on the blog except in video/spoken format. I figured it was worth a try so I ended up making a couple in the last week: one for Warhammer 40k: Space Marine and one for Darksiders 2. The response was good so I'm sharing them here now and opening it up for feedback. Keep in mind that because of the short video format, I can't go into nearly as much depth as I do in my written analyses, so the videos take the form of a mechanic analysis, where I evaluate the game's mechanics in an open area without enemies. I always do this whenever I get my hands on a combat heavy game for the first time, and I've found this exercise terrifically useful. Anyway, here they are! Let me know what you'd like to see from videos like this in the future.
I will continually update this entry with new videos as I make them. Hit the jump to see the rest!
This is a list of the highly influential articles on game combat that I've collected and sat upon over the years. I should not have been sitting on these for so long! Please dive in and enjoy. If you have anything that you feel should be in this list, please let me know and I'll add it. :)
- Very in-depth article about enemy behavior by Tom Smith, a creative director at THQ.
- Incredible overview of the animation principles at work in Capcom's Darkstalkers.
- Really fun behind-the-scenes vignette on God Of War 3 from some of its key design guys.
- Video interview about combat intent in God Of War 3's development with combat lead Adam Puhl. I've had some email exchanges with Adam and he's a rad dude who knows his stuff.
- Higher level discussion about combat from Jason McDonald, combat designer on God Of War: Ascension.
- Interesting animation-centric discussion on proper sword movement.
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.
I was compelled to put this timeline together after someone told me that they were under the impression that a specific beat 'em up was more seminal than it actually is. So instead of offering a lengthy explanation I put together the chronological facts. As it stands, it's the cursory data that is easily available on Wikipedia (all of the timeline's articles link to the corresponding Wikipedia entry) but I may supplement it with more interesting information about mechanical evolution if enough people show interest.
There are three strata of individuals that play beat 'em ups in distinct ways at specific skill levels. What's interesting about these skill divisions is that they're based on a hierarchy of requirements. Because of this, I've come to realize that it's not only possible to please them all, but it's highly advisable! This article explains the nature of these divisions, why you want to please their members, and how to go about doing it.
Division 1: "The Scrappers"
The scrappers are the the lowest level player in terms of skill, but this is not a condemnation! They are playing beat 'em ups for what is arguably the purest reason; just to have fun being violent. They simply enjoy pushing buttons and experiencing a sense of power and impact when they do. Their zone is the quick feedback loop of aggressive burst > defend > move > aggressive burst > defend > move > etc. Essentially, they are the button mashers.
Watch 'em ups are a newly emerged genre of game that appear to bear the key properties of beat 'em ups, but are actually far less interactive. Their existence is entirely due to the popularization of Quick Time Events. A watch 'em up looks like the type of experience arcade born gamers love and cherish, but they are actually hollow and unsatisfying experiences in comparison. The reason they feel like this is because they are comprised primarily of what I call "low interaction mechanics".
While Kingdom Of Amalur's combat wasn't compelling enough in either direction (good or bad) to dedicate an entire combat analysis post to it, I wanted to address one major mistake the game made that prevented it from feeling a whole lot better than it did. It's frustrating to me personally because it's so easy to correct! The issue I'm about to elaborate on is a perfect example of how one simple nuance can make or break the feel of entire systems.
When you swing a weapon in Amalur and you do NOT cancel it with the next attack in the combo sequence (or it's simply the last attack in the sequence), the attack animation finishes. Now in many situations you want animations to finish playing because interrupted animations can look really bad. But the game's attack animations have a significant amount of follow-through at the end of them. While this is good application of animation principles (most character animations, especially attack animations, should have this follow-through to add weight to the movement), the problem here is that the player's movement input does not cancel this follow-through and it feels super sluggish as a result.
We're getting ready to fuse the fun beat 'em up we've made with the fun turn-based strategy game we've made and concern is growing about whether this fusion will be fun or not. The reason I came up with this fusion in the first place is because I desperately wanted to try something new and shake things up in the hopes that this type of game can be way more fun. Since there's never really been a game like this before (there's been games very similar in concept but not in execution) we don't really have a way of knowing if it's going to work. In the wake of this concern I've been thinking about porn, and the ratio of sex to story.
I've studied these numbers across the year, developer, and even climate. I'm starting with Devil May Cry 1 because I believe that's when the third and most recent age of beat 'em ups began, marked by their migration to consoles after their presence in arcades ended in 1997 after the release of Capcom's Battle Circuit.
- Developer/Director: Capcom/Hideki Kamiya
- Released: October 2001
- Units Sold: 2.7 Million (PS2 exclusive)
- Why: DMC was a hugely publicized launch-era title (end of the first year) for the PS2, as it should have been. It essentially ushered in the new age of the genre by introducing so many innovations and novelties it changed the face of the action game completely and its influence is still felt today. Its success was no marketing phenomenon though; it's an incredibly solid product.
- Developer/Director: Capcom/Hideaki Itsuno
- Released: January 2003
- Units Sold: 1.8 Million (PS2 exclusive)
- Why: DMC2 was taken from Kamiya and given to Itsuno, a then newcomer to combat. The game just wasn't very solid as either a game or a combat experience (I think it somehow got worse) but it had the already all-powerful DMC brand attached to it and that got it into the hands of a lot of people. For what it's worth, Itsuno would eventually prove himself as a remarkable action game director.
What exactly happens to the entities in a combat play space when they get struck by an attack is important for two reasons: because the player needs to be punished for making a mistake and allowing themselves to get struck, and also because the player needs to feel a certain way when they successfully strike enemies. But there are a lot of factors involved in a struck event both on the player and enemy entity side of the equation, and these properties can be mixed up in various ways to control EXACTLY where the player lands on the emotional spectrum when entities get struck.
I recently got into a super interesting conversation with the guy that wrote this article on the game God Hand (an entirely remarkable game experience; his write-up is fascinating and worthy of your attention). He's a brazen and intelligent mandude (we need more of these) who at some point in our very engaging conversation asked me an important question. "Why do you do this? Why design and criticize beat 'em ups?" I realized that before I could answer him I had to do a little digging and this is what I brought back up with me from the hot, wet mind-earth.