Aztez – A Game of Conquest and Brutality

The Skill Divisions Of Beat ‘Em Up Players

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.

Why should we please them and how do we do it?

It's very very important to please the scrappers because truthfully, most beat 'em up players are scrappers. And while they are not taking it very seriously, they are still having a very genuinely good time and they are the division most likely to get excited and tell a bunch of people about it. In order to please them, the mechanics need to look and feel really good so that they are instantly hooked aesthetically. While this is a universal rule of all action games, it's especially important in beat 'em ups because of the inherent complexity. At best, scrappers don't care about the complexity but at worst it will intimidate them. Hooking them in this manner will help them continue to play the game in spite of its complexity. But it's also very important that the second tier of mechanics (anything that involves more than just mashing on one of the primary buttons) need to be easy to do AND feel powerful. Ideally, the scrappers get to feel awesome without having to move into the higher levels of play.

Division 2: "The Warriors"

The warriors are the mid level players. They are the ones who will develop enough of an understanding of the mechanics to express themselves in interesting ways. They can withstand arduous series of fights because they have the ability to find the key rhythm and stay in it. They play beat 'em ups because they enjoy the nuance and expressiveness of combat systems, and require a certain level of complexity because of it. A very reliable metric of a beat 'em up's depth is if it holds the warrior's interest.

Why should we please them and how do we do it?

You want the warrior to be excited about the game because their word is meaningful to members of all three skill divisions. In order to please them, it goes without saying that the requirements for the scrappers need to met. Assuming a game hits that benchmark, there also needs to be enough complexity and nuance that they don't get bored. Warriors play a lot of action games so they're very comfortable in the stress of combat, and without a remarkable spectrum of tools to utilize, they will very quickly map out the range of mechanics and become under-stimulated. Warriors are particularly fond of games that have a lot of weapons because of the inherent variety, but will be content with games that have a few weapons that are very rich. The caveat here is that while warriors require a certain breadth and depth of mechanics, most of them want to be introduced to them slowly and methodically so they can meticulously construct their vocabulary.

Division 3: "The Masters"

The masters are the highest level player. They're incredibly rare, but they are unbelievable beasts. While the masters also need the scrapper's requirements met, they want what the warriors want as well, but at a much higher level. Their pleasure comes from the rigorous exploitation of the combat systems in order to achieve an otherworldly level of success and expression.

Why should we please them and how do we do it?

In all honesty, it is not important to the success of your game that the Masters are happy with your beat 'em up. They're so few and far in between that even if the scrappers and warriors cared about their word, it wouldn't make a huge difference in "moving units". However, the master's approval indicates that a beat 'em up is immensely deep and meaningful. Masters won't even play most beat 'em ups because most beat 'em ups simply don't have enough to offer them. Shallow systems negate the value of their commitment levels, so in order to please them a beat 'em up must be very, very rich. But in addition to needing a wide and compelling variety of tools to utilize, the tools needs to be somewhat balanced against themselves. It contradicts their highly expressive nature to participate in a combat system that is imbalanced by an overpowered mechanic or two. Making sure these players are happy is obviously very daunting, but when done it means a beat 'em up qualifies for timelessness, which very few beat 'em ups have done. But it happens; to this day people are still making combo videos for Devil May Cry 3, and it's incredible to watch what masters do within the game's profoundly nuanced and expertly engineered combat system.

On principle, we beat 'em up makers should be shooting for this! ;)

  • Anything to say about different difficulty levels? Maybe you’ve said this elsewhere, but will Aztez have difficulty levels?

    • What I want to do with Aztez is to have different difficulty levels that you can raise and lower whenever you want. However, I want to abandon the convention of “Easy, Medium, Hard, Bananas, etc” and utilize less patronizing language. Ideally people play at the level they want without the game making them feel belittled. I might get tricky and not even refer to it as “difficulty”. We’ll see.

      And don’t get me wrong, the game is going to be plenty hard by default. But ultimately, I’m less concerned about swinging my dick at action game players than I am about making sure the most people can play and enjoy it.

  • Michael Pianta

    This game looks cool – I saw a video of you talking about it at Evo, and that’s how I became aware of it. Anyway, this idea in particular of skill levels for the different players interests me. I’m sure something similar exists for every genre, and understanding these different tiers of players and why they play would help any designer improve their game.

    I was wondering, if you have the time (I’m sure you’re very busy) if you could elaborate on these ideas some. For instance, it sounds like these players are approaching the game with different states of mind – is that separate from actual performance? Is it possible to be a master without actually mastering a game? And, conversely, could a scrapper achieve a high level of skill at a particular game without advancing to the next tier (since mentally they are still scrappers)? Is it game specific? Maybe some games inspire people to become better? Or is it an attitude that people approach all games with?

    When I was a kid I was a definitely a scrapper. I walked up to the enemy and pressed attack a bunch and hoped he fell over before me. For some reason I still found that really fun (sounds boring now) and I put a bunch of quarters in. A couple of weeks ago I picked up the Genesis version of Golden Axe, which, even though it’s a classic, I had never played before. I played for a several hours, but in a fairly systematic way. By the end of the night I was clearing the game without needing to continue – however, my ranking at the end of the game remained stubbornly in the “B” range (it goes all the way up to “AAA”). I was playing fairly well – kid me would have been thrilled – but apparently there is a whole other level of play that still eludes me. I guess then that I’ve progressed to warrior, but not yet to master, at least in that game. Or maybe I am a master (if I’m approaching the game like a master) but just haven’t practiced enough to execute at that level?

    Anyway, keep up the great work!

    • First of all, thanks! Glad you like what you see so far.

      I think you’re asking an interesting question. If a scrapper is playing at a very high level, then they have put enough time and energy into the system that I wouldn’t personally call them a scrapper. I do believe you can have a warrior or a master who doesn’t take what they do very seriously but their skill level still defines them because skill levels require time, energy, and thought. Now I realize some players are naturally very skilled at certain things and may spend a comparatively lower amount of time, energy, and thought on the system than everyone else (in my experience, these kind of players are pretty nonchalant about their aptitude, and could seem like a scrapper because of it), but again, the skill level is still a reflection of commitment.

      Your experience with Golden Axe is actually fairly textbook for most players, based on what I’ve come to understand. You probably approached it nonchalantly, thinking “I’m going to play this and have fun” (as opposed to “I’m going to exploit every mechanism in the system in order to subjugate this game”) and ended up having the warrior’s experience. I would say at this point that whatever experience you’re most likely to slip into is the skill division you belong to. But I also believe an individual player can live in different divisions over time, over game types, over moods, etc.

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  • w4yn3

    im in warriors level, im playin final fight 3 and im understandin some stuff, but just not there yet, but im having alot of fun!