Aztez – A Game of Conquest and Brutality

Three Hours? Why?

At GDC I did an interview for 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!

The beat 'em up has a very very traditional (ugh) game structure that has been firmly in place since their inception in the arcade environment in the mid 80's. It's very linear, requires no mid/long term tactical planning, and is very difficult. It's also tremendously satisfying, and for a handful of key beat 'em ups; very fulfilling when mastered. This made perfect sense in that environment when a single arcade machine was competing for your attention in a giant room full of interactive spectacles. Once the game got your attention (and your quarter) it was their job to be so difficult and ornery that only the committed could pound their way through its content (requiring lots and lots of quarters), but so fun and easy to pick up that everyone wanted get their hands on it, regardless of how well they may or may not do (which also meant lots and lots of quarters).

Cue to almost 30 years later, and this basic formula hasn't changed. On one hand (as an artist) it sort of blows my mind, but on the other hand (as a gamer and human) I understand that if something isn't broke you don't fix it. This game structure has been an acceptable vehicle of thrilling game violence for a long time and continues to be successful because people aren't there for the game structure, they're there for the thrilling game violence. And designers know this! It's why the modern beat 'em up has highly evolved combat, but game structures that have not changed mechanically in any major way; run into a room, fight monsters; run into a room; fight monsters; run into a room; fight monsters; rinse and repeat ad infinitum. As a 28 year old gamer who has been compulsively playing beat 'em ups since I was sub 5 years old, I'm bored to death of this formula.


But what about the white hot combat on the inside of these games? Well it tends to be so white hot that I'm always reduced to working my way through the trite narrative in order to experience it. I don't WANT to do this, but unfortunately, beat 'em ups don't offer a simpler, structureless combat experience I can opt into from the start*, so wanting to sit down and experience the combat of just about every beat 'em up ever made means I've got to wade for X minutes through this highly tedious game structure in order to enjoy it, and those minutes add up! As a result, I tend to give these games just enough time to break open the combat and sniff out the gold. This is the reality of the three hour beat 'em up.

*The one exception to this rule is the Bloody Palace found in Devil May Cry 2+. This is a great start because it lets you get in and get your hands dirty without slogging through menus and narrative, but is such an inflexible game experience that non-purists are simply not engaged. We can do much better than this!

  • Perhaps if you could get into the debug mode of a fun game, and constantly hammer the “spawn enemy” button…

    • Haha! I would LOVE to get into some of these games (into a room with a checkerboard material) and go nuts with enemy spawning. Not even kidding. I mean I realize this is no substitute for a well developed and engaging game structure, but it’s a huge improvement over the 30 year formula. :(

  • Jorge Garcia

    This is exactly the methodology that needs to be implemented when researching/ designing during the pre-production stages. Not everyone has sat down and played EVERYTHING, so putting a limit on how long you engage a game or genre of games during your design phase needs to be tightly regulated both for financial and design reasons. We tend to allow games that we are more familiar with, or that are closer to our design principals, seep into our mechanics. Putting a limit on your time with any game, including a game you absolutely love, puts things into perspective, and allows you to get down to the meat of a particular experience.

    I’m glad you explained this, I find it challenging to have to break down why I play games the way I do. When you design games, or, more specifically, interactions for specific genres, you have to cut straight to the main focus, in this case, combat. Anything that is in the way of that ultimately takes away from that core experience. Whether that is good or bad is based on the game, the flow of the particular game and the desired pacing, but in this case (combat), we only need enough time to experience, test, break, explore, and notate everything or importance. I think 3-5 hours is about right.

    I think I did about 8-10 hours of lab time in Anarchy Reigns, and that was all just practice mode. Then I did a few hours of the main game and a few hours of multiplayer. That was a very rewarding experience, and it was all research rather than “play”. I knew quite a bit about the game, and was able to test stuff out in other modes and add the really interesting bits to my knowledge base. Better still, it feels like a course in arena based multiplayer combat design, with Atsushi Inaba and Masaki Yamanaka.

    What I really like is the way this kind of engagement changes your perception of games. You really do create a subset of gears/states of play, one for play, one for competitive play, (if that’s your thing) and one for work. The more time you practice each, the better you get at them. That 3 hour play cycle limit forces you to make your “work” state more efficient, sharper, and methodical, which makes you better at learning about interaction and game design. This seriously deserves an entire article of its own.

    • Ah! But here’s the thing; I don’t intentionally put a time limit on play sessions. I always sit down sincere intent to play it as long as it will engage me, whether that means 1 hour or 50. It just so happens that because of this archaic and dull formula, I only end up (on average) enjoying modern beat ’em ups for roughly 3 hours.

      But you are bringing up an important point about the distinction between “playing for play” sessions and “playing for research” sessions. They’re different states with different results, despite some overlap. Just to be clear, I play most beat ’em ups WAY LONGER in a research state then I do a play for fun state. DMC4 is a perfect example of this; I played through the game “as a player” on the standard difficulty and it took roughly 5 to 10 hours. But the hours I’ve spent on that game in the bloody palace experimenting with mechanics and observing animation and effects FAR outweighs the time I spent on it as a player.

      It’s a significant time investment, but I don’t weigh it in when I make a comment like the one I made in this interview, which was ultimately about how I want to engage people. I DON’T want to give people a game they pick up, experience once or twice and then never touch. If they do because they’re a designer and they’re researching that’s awesome, but I’m not selling this product to other designers so I’m not concerned with that appeal.

      AND OH YEAH I forgot about the practice lab in Anarchy Reigns. That shit was GREAT! I really appreciated that a whole lot but it’s in the same category as the Bloody Palace in the sense that it’s great for purists and researchers, but not for gamers.

  • Victor Borges Angelo

    You guys Prevented this from happening with Aztez by adding that nice strategy bit.

    however, as a person with a never ending flux of ideas, many of them almost impossible to realize, i often imagine a good, original and engaging Beat-em-Up game (if you wan’t i could share some of this ideas with you, but they aren’t very developed). The point is, how do you think a Beat-em-Up could be made Interesting, by other means.

    BTW does Aztez have some kind of Blood palace mode, or a debug mode where you can spawn enemies, or some kind of training room?.