Aztez – A Game of Conquest and Brutality

“Hour Zero” Or, When Expression Begins

I had a very interesting conversation with a good friend of mine (this particular friend is one of the most technically minded game thinkers I've ever known, as both a player and a designer), where after reading my Bayonetta combat analysis, brought up the issue of discovering mechanics through experimentation. In the combat analysis I mentioned that Bayonetta doesn't appear to have a substantial air game until you discover (and then learn to execute) a specific exploit inherent in this one obscure mechanic. The only reason I knew about this exploit (and a lot of the game's other rules systems and technical properties) was because I bought a specially made guide and I resent the developers for this.

To be clear, I certainly don't resent them for the inclusion of implicit mechanics (things you can do by utilizing the explicit mechanics in interesting ways). I love implicit mechanics to death! It's one of the reasons good beat 'em ups are so deep and interesting. I resent them simply because they're not transparent about it. On the subject of Bayonetta's air-game-activating-exploit, I feel like these things should be in a manual, or in an official wiki/database, or even explicitly stated within the game.

So my friend took issue with this idea, his point being that there is tremendous merit in discovering those kinds of things on your own through experimentation. My point was that I play games like these to express myself and feel amazing, and not to go searching for the tools I need to do this. I simply derive no joy from implicit mechanic discovery. At this point in my life (lifelong gamer of 27 with no intention to stop playing or making games anytime soon), I don't have all the time in the world to dick around with super complex systems and not having access to all of the tools from the start of the experience feel like negative hours building up to "hour zero", or the point when I get to express myself and use all of these amazing tools in interesting ways so that I can feel amazing. Note, this is also directly tied to my boiling resentment of mechanic and weapon unlocks. "Earning" access to these things feel like negative hours because I'm having way less fun knowing I'm essentially handicapped while I await the rest of my tools.

While I certainly can't argue with the point that the time you spend discovering new mechanics is legitimate skill building time, it doesn't change my (and a lot of yours) personal issue where experimentation isn't enjoyable and/or practical. My assumption here is that it can't possibly hurt the game experience by explicitly declaring all of the implicit mechanics, rules and score systems, and technical quirks so that hour zero occurs as quickly as you can possibly make it happen (hour zero rarely occurs immediately, especially in games of the nature). So now I desperately require your feedback; should I squash all of the negative hours for you? Is this something you'd love or hate? Would this affect your opinion of the experience in any way? This is important data to have before moving forward, so hit me with your thoughts and hit me hard. It can really go either way but I want it to go YOUR way.

  • E Hocking

    I agree with your dislike of time spent learning hidden mechanics and the first game that come to mind that alleviated this is Castle Crashers. While the game had lots of mechanics they introduced them one at a time as you level. Granted the drawback is you could not execute a known mechanic until you unlock it.

    Another way to do this is allow the user to perform these mechanics at any point, but maybe unveil them to the user as they progress. Not in the sense of “You’ve unlocked this” but rather “Hey, try this!”.

    I’m a big fan of progressive mechanics, being educated as I play. I think the Aztez platform would fit informative progressive mechanics perfectly.

    • I’m totally with you; I want it all to be there on the table from the start. Now the question is, how explicit am I with the players about what’s there? So I’ve got one vote from you for “progressive introduction”, which is a good route to take. Thanks brah!

  • So, I honestly think there are 2 sides of the story here as there are two (and probably more) types of gamers out there. I can not talk too much on the gamer that loves the idea finding this discovery, but I can talk about the casual gamer that I feel that I am.

    Let’s start with the manual/wiki/pause menu (controls) that you discussed. To be honest this is all a waste of time. The vast majority of people skip right over this content. I have not opened a manual in who knows how long. In fact a lot of games do not even include them anymore (which is sad). Also no one wants to have to go online or open the pause menu because it takes you right out of the gameplay and the immersion that the game designer is creating.

    I personally like being told about the different moves in the first few parts of the game. Now don’t get this twisted as I HATE going through a tutorial level that tells you everything. I will never remember every single movie/button press that you tell me if you dump all this information on me in 2 minutes… or 1 crappy level with blue electric nebulas…

    A few games that do a really great job of slowly introducing you to moves that I have played recently are probably Batman Arkham Asylum and Super Mario 3D land. In fact in mario I think they just tell you to go and they put little touches in the game that help you discover the moves on your own. It feels natural and not forced into trying to tell me everything.

    It is fun to discover fun moves half way through the game that you never knew existed and it gives you some price that you figured this out. However it should not hold you back from enjoying the game. If it is something that is crucial to the gameplay and will make the player enjoy the game more then go ahead and tell them.

    I really like batman because they usually introduce it through a series of weapons or specific scenes. it never feels like oh crap I wish I would have known about this 2 hours ago.

    Hopefully this makes some sense.

    • That definitely all makes sense! And I’m going to make that another official vote for “progressive introduction”.

      While I hear what you’re saying about having a bunch of explicit information in some form available to the player, I don’t see the harm in having it there for those that care enough. My problem with Platinum/Bayonetta is that I DO care enough and I had to BUY an expensive artifact in order to access the information. But I’m with you in that it certainly should not be crammed down anyone’s throat.

      The trick with Aztez is developing the venue for this sort of progressive introduction. The game’s structure is not at all linear, so this might be a matter of creating a mode specifically for slowly learning the game. This is going to be tricky and I will definitely have to think about it.

  • There are 3 possibilities that come to mind. I think they all have their place depending on the mechanic/game type.

    1) explicity declare all implicit mechanics and make them all available from the start
    -risk overwelming the player with too much info. Some may overlook most of it and never find a cool-helpful mechanic.

    2)make implicit mechanics available from the start, but only explicitly declare them at an appropriate time.
    -risk annoying players that already found the mechanic on their own.

    3) lock all non-basic implicit mechanics until declared when the designer sees them as useful to know.
    I believe you have stated before that this is lame and I agree. I’m sure there is some special case where this may be the best option to take, but general I think this sucks.

    Overall I’d say it depends on if the mechanic is required or an option.

    If it’s not required to use a specific mechanic to achieve a goal, I see no harm in never explicitly declaring it. For example, in a brawler you could possibly make it through a level using only 1 basic attack the whole time. That’s boring so the player may explore and find a variety of badass ways to defeat enemies with no need to explicitly declare it.

    The flip side of this is that if a certain mechanic is required to progress, you begin to step into the realm of considering to explicitly declare it. For example, If you have a particular enemy that can only be harmed by 1 move in particular, you may begin to consider explicility declaring it(directly or indirectly) to prevent any kind of frustation–maybe not, maybe you want exploration here only playtesting will tell you how a player behaves here.

    Definitely don’t overlook the possiblity to indirectly introduce the mechanic in some other way before the above mentioned battle. This adds that tool to the player’s mind so that when they see basic punches aren’t hurting the enemy they will cycle through their learned ‘toolset’ before taking the mashy/exploration approach.

    Twitter: @johnkisor

    • I love lists!

      1. You’re definitely right about the risk. The burning question here is, “what is the proper rate of explicit declaration, introduction, and enforcement”. This is something I’m going to anguish over.

      2. So yeah, I suppose the anguish of the previous idea will address this one. Although even without proper declaration, the risk of annoying some of the players that already discovered the mechanic is way less dangerous than overwhelming most player with too much information.

      3. Same page! Moving along.

      The grand idea here with Aztez is that while only the fundamentals are truly required (the most regular of the game’s goals being to start fights and survive them), it will look good, feel good, and PAY good to be spectacular. So while I see what you’re saying about unnecessary implicit mechanics not being enforced, the problem I still have is them being HIDDEN. What’s the middle ground here? So far the only logical conclusion is a destination for explicitly stated information that the player knows about, but is not required to go.

      As far as required mechanics go, I suppose I need to see how exactly the game structure takes shape before I am able to establish what is required and not. So far the plan is this; if you can mash and you can defend yourself, you can win, and once you get bored you can up the ante for greater reward. Am I putting too much choice in the player’s hands?

      Good insights, thanks so much!

  • I despise the use of language in games. I mean this for any purpose at all, including storytelling, tutorials/manuals, and credit rolls. If I can possibly help it, the games I make won’t even have publisher’s logos or safety warnings. Every single word the player reads or hears is either a waste of time or a barrier to joy. Nothing should ever be verbally declared.

    The joy of playing a game is the joy of exploring a system. Playing in a creative and expressive manner is great, but only because it allows you to explore that system.

    I love seeing higher level mechanics emerge from things I thought I knew everything about. Am I right in thinking that’s what you mean by “implicit mechanics”? If so, I think that the continual introduction of new implicit mechanics is something a game developer should aim for. As a result of this some of my favourite games are Mi, Ikaruga, and English Country Tune.

    Watching high-level play of some of my favourite games, I start to feel that it is naieve to think a person could ever reach “hour zero” for a game! There are so many interesting things that can happen in the most basic game systems! Even the creator of a game will probably never reach a perfect understanding of it, and this is a beautiful thing! Though you don’t have to agree with me here to stay with me as I make the following point.

    Ben, you feel cheated by games when you discover there was more to them than you found out. I agree with you that a game in which this happens has failed you. I disagree with John; whether or not we’re talking about a mechanic that is “required”, it is still a mechanic and therefore it is still interesting. However, when failure happens, the fault is not with the manual’s writers. The fault lies with the level designers.

    One of the purposes of level design (I would say the main purpose) is to isolate pieces of a system and, for a moment, force the player to pay attention to them. This is one of the fastest ways of building up a deep understanding of the system in the player’s head.

    My favourite action game of all time is Osmos (it’s really puzzle/action, but only because the player has control over the passage of time. The line between puzzle and action is thin and I’m happy to see Osmos obliterate it). Level A2-3 of Osmos is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Please don’t look up what that level contains unless you’ve already played Osmos! And if you haven’t played Osmos, play it.

    What can beat-em-up developers learn from Osmos? Taking Bayonetta as an example, here’s an idea:

    Mini boss encounter: “Susano, the sleeping panther”
    1.Susano is found asleep, on a slightly raised platform, in the middle of a room.
    2.Littered on the floor around him are weapons
    3.He will not wake unless the player attacks him.
    4.Attack him you must; he carries the key to your progress.
    5.He is very powerful, but he is useless without a weapon.
    6.In fact, the moment he gets a weapon, the player is done for. His hits are undodgeable one-hit-kills that occur the instant he acquires a weapon.
    7.When he wakes, he has no weapon. He must touch one of the ones on the foor in order to be able to use his deadly attacks.
    8.Any initial attack the player uses will causes the platform to blow up, sending Susano briefly into the air. So their first hit, which they get “for free”, is guaranteed airtime.
    9.Despite his power, Susano’s lifebar is extremely short. How much damage is it possible to do without using the extend-airtime technique? His lifebar is twice as long as that!
    10.The pieces are in place for the player to be communicated to, in no uncertain terms, “YOU CAN AND MUST EXTEND YOUR AIRTIME”.
    11. All that’s left to do is to *invite* the player to… do whatever they have to do to extend their airtime. You know this better than I. What ever it is, I’m guessing it’s some chord of button presses, yes? Well, try and think of ways to make the player think “I should try doing [that]”.

    Maybe this all sounds heavy handed, though it’s less heavy handed than, as John suggests, just having every other technique not affect his lifebar. We want to communicate to the player “there is something you can do that will open up many combat possibilities”. We want to communicate that in a way that is elegant, punchy, sticks in the memory, makes sense in context, doesn’t waste any time, and shows thoroughly just how important the thing being communicated is.

    Expressive level design is also a great source of ideas :) Though it doesn’t have to be a boss:

    • While I don’t have anything against the idea of integrating text and games, I have come to despise it as well because 90% of text in games now is there to “lengthen” (waste) the time I spend with a game. I don’t find it inherently unfun or evil or inappropriate on principle.

      With that being said, I do think certain game types can afford a complete absence of text/instruction, but that type of game has very few verbs! I don’t believe a beat ’em up of substantial depth can get away with this. Well it can I suppose, but rendering everything implicit but the fundamentals is exactly what I’m trying to avoid. It’s literally like learning to run and jump in real life versus learning to fight in real life. You can learn to run and jump without instruction but the only fighting you’ll learn without instruction will not only be very primitive, but it will also involve a lot of time getting your ass kicked.

      You’re mostly on the money with the idea of implicit mechanics. Some clarification is in order; some “higher level mechanics” are interesting things you’ve learned to do because you’ve gotten very familiar with a system, i.e. in Bayonetta; learning how to juggle an enemy in witch time with a wicked weave since you’ve come to understand that Back To Forward Punch is the shortest combo that ends in a wicked weave (assuming you’ve got the magic). But SOME higher level mechanics are simply things that are not complex expressions of developed understanding, but are things that should have been in the fucking instruction manual but simply weren’t, i.e. in Bayonetta; cancelling an air combo with a head hop to reset your jump count and prolonging your air time. The latter example is the type of thing I have a problem with. There is a fine line, for sure! And the line between is implicit and explicit is often very arbitrary. I’m simply wondering where I can put the line.

      I would posit here that hour zero is simply when you are conscious of all your explicit verbs. That’s all. Hour zero usually happens fairly quickly in my experience. Not as quickly in fighting games and beat ’em ups or complex simulations, but the idea is the same. By the time you’re one hour into Yoshi’s Island you’re at hour zero (which, by the way, I believe is the most wonderful and perfect video game of all time). 40+ hours into Bayonetta and I’m still not at hour zero. Skilled? Sure! But not still INCOMPLETE.

      I completely understand what you’re trying to do with that example boss, but I do find it a little heavy handed. This is itself isn’t bad, but from a production standpoint something like this is a little rough to compose. I’d rather put those hours into building something more sandbox and freeform. Argh! This is going to be tough. Haha!

      • And just to be fucking clear, I don’t have a problem with getting your ass kicked. I have a problem with spending a ton of time getting your ass kicked that you absolutely don’t have to.

        • It doesn’t have to take a long time! One little room is all it’d take, I reckon a perspicacious player could have it click in a minute, and it’ll live with them for the rest of their lives. Maybe it sounds unsubtle on paper, but I promise you it’d be fun. It’s cliched, but: “show, don’t tell”!

          It’s possible that there’s an irreconcilable difference between your design philosophy and mine though. I want to lead the player into understanding the systems of my games slowly, sweetly. Doing so is the entire point of the game; for me it is the journey that matters, while you give more meaning to the destination.

  • Sorry I forgot this final link which is better than all the above

    • Amazing. Thrilling. Funny. Loved it.

      Mega Man X is so near and dear to my heart that hearing the Zero theme almost makes me weep. God DAMN the soundtrack to that product is incredible.

      • See the part with the bee boss? That’s what I’m talking about!

  • Regarding mechanics, I like how the recent Ninja Gaiden games have handled them. First, many of the combos and moves are available to do, but the game shows them explicitly in case the player hasn’t found them (scrolls for flying swallow, etc.). Second, some moves are only available when the weapons are upgraded. This isn’t necessary, but I kind of like this since it forces the player to focus on a smaller moveset to begin.

    Regarding weapons and moveset unlocks (should you choose to use some sort of currency to do this like many action games have), I would like them to be easily accessible in one playthrough. One of my problems with Bayonetta is that I finished the game with at least one weapon missing and several of the mechanic related items. If your game is good enough (and Bayonetta is), then I will replay it. No need to lock mechanics away that deep.

    Regarding other unlocks, I really like how DMC handled this. Beating higher difficulty levels netted the player some skins and artwork. I hardly care about these, but it was good to get something for finishing all that work.

    One other example of weapon related unlocks I’d like to mention is in Bastion. I liked the idea of the weapon challenge areas because it gave the player a reason to check them out and get introduced to new ways to use the weapons. However, I didn’t complete a few of them and the rewards were special moves for the given weapon. Since I didn’t get them, I don’t now how good that move was or whether I would have used it. I liked the experimentation these areas offered, but I didn’t like being limited in my selection of special moves if i chose not to complete the challenge.

    I like progressive, explicit introduction of mechanics. If you choose to lock things away, I don’t really have a problem with that as long as the gameplay related items don’t take forever to unlock, so I can actually use them.

    • I definitely see the merit in making the player focus on a smaller move set. For sure.

      You obviously have more patience than me; I wanted everything Bayonetta had to offer immediately because I already knew how in love with the combat I was. No reasonable person would have ever said “gee I have too many unenforced but super deep weapon options at my disposal here; I’m not buying this!”. Fuck. But yeah, it’s like games don’t have faith in how enjoyable they already are. :(

      Agreed. The weapon challenge areas in Bastion were neat. I especially like that the weapon itself was the basis for the reward but just not that it was new mechanics. Haha! I do feel like this would have been PERFECT in a training mode of some kind. “Here’s 10 weapon-based rooms you can go through at your own pace and every time you clear a room you will be better with the weapon and we will give you access to something fun because of it!” BUT THIS WOULD BE OPTIONAL, OF COURSE.

      Anyway, another solid vote for “progressive introduction”. Thanks so much for dropping your thoughts here!