ORAS: The lack of Battle Frontier

The exclusion of a possible feature to a game is something that’s rarely worth writing about. Primary features take more time than expected. The budget gets cut short. The team loses key developers. Lots of fun things can leave half-finished or untouched features. However, from an interview with Masuda Shigeru1:

Q:We noticed ORAS had a lower difficulty level compared to previous Pokemon games. What bought you to this decision? Any chance that future games will have the possibility to adjust difficulty level as seen in Black and White 2?
A:What? How come you’ve already played the games? hearty laughter [the games were supposed to come out in Italy the day after the interview] We created a “balanced” game that was suited for our time and age, where everyone is very busy and young people have various means of entertainment. Using smartphones and other devices they can access a great number of games, so the time they dedicate to a single game is less than in the past. The player can choose to keep on playing after the main story and continue to the post-game, where the difficulty rises and there are much more difficult Trainers and challenges to overcome.
Q:Why wasn’t the Battle Frontier in the remakes?
A:This question is connected with my previous answer. We didn’t put the BF in ORAS for this very reason. Interviewer’s note: In short he means that they didn’t include the BF because only a very small part of the players would have fully appreciated and made use of this feature; nowadays players get bored and frustrated more easily and they aren’t interested in things that are so demanding/challenging.

Read that for a minute. Think about that. Game Freak did not add in end game content because of their target audience’s attention span and inability to accept challenges. It also doesn’t fit in with the audience that play mobile games. If I may say something a bit loud? The Pokemon RPG is something that’s not supposed to compete with mobile games. A popular mobile game typically gives you the opportunity to make meaningful progress in 5-15 minute chunks (people who play Candy Crush understand why I say opportunity instead of just saying make meaningful progress). An RPG that can manage to get meaningful progress in such small chunks consistently is likely to suffer in gameplay or suffer in story. An RPG pattern is not really one to thrive in those conditions.

Now, I am just a humble player. However, if Game Freak were to go to me and ask me how to get a game that feels like Pokemon but is accessible to the target audience, here’s what I would tell them.

Go back to Pokemon Battle Revolution. Your hardcore fans hated it because it wasn’t Pokemon Stadium 3, and it had some other issues on top of it, but it’s exactly the pattern you want here. Give the player a short introduction, and then hand them their choice of a pregen team, each of which have a mascot (I would say Pikachu, one generation’s worth of starters, Eevee, and Riolu), and let them go to town with this team. Essentially, you’re getting rid of a lot of decision points early, and making it all about the battles. Focusing the progression on clumps of battles where you’re shooting for enough points to get to the final match (people who know Yu-gi-oh the show should be familiar with this format) and small elimination tournaments focuses the game on the 10 minute clumps and 30 minute clumps that you’d really want to do for a mobile style game.

From here, players have the opportunity to earn higher rank battles (with teams of more impressive Pokemon, up to and including legendaries), customization points and free agent Pokemon for their rank (allowing Stadium-like rental customization), different battle styles within the ranks, and even special challenges (like Stadium 2 teaching challenges, Pokemon XD’s challenge battles, and Pokestar Studios) keeping the focus of the game in these small chunks.

In all of this, you have a game that people who put some time into it can enjoy, people can progress in 10 minute chunks, and a path where you can keep difficulty controlled until people decide they want to progress further. Now this is what I’d love to see from a game that needed to appeal to mobile players.

If Nintendo were to release a game like this, would you consider playing it given no massive implementation problems? Give your thoughts below.

1:Original Article: http://www.pokemonmillennium.net/articoli/1345/intervista-eslusiva-junichi-masuda-e-shigeru-ohmori-ci-
Fan translation: http://www.reddit.com/r/Games/comments/2olmtb/interview_with_masuda_on_oras_and_why_there_is_no/

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Alpha Sapphire: Too much Water/10

So it’s been a while since I’ve put anything up. Call it a combination of laziness, distraction, and running short on ideas. However, I did say (elsewhere) that I was going to put up a proper review of Alpha Sapphire/Omega Ruby (ORAS), so here goes.

Overall: 9/10 Although it already had a good base to work off of, this remake did an amazing job in a lot of ways. I find it generally hard to downrate a game that I’ve happily thrown as much time as I have at. Everything new and remade after being abandoned was generally redone impressively. In general, I wish they would have been a bit more bold, but it shouldn’t be enough to stop most from enjoying a really good Pokemon game.

Pacing: After Pokemon Black and White, and it’s borked Experience Formula, and the travesty of Pokemon X and Y’s Exp. Share, this seems like an important point for me to look at. Without the Exp. Share, the level pacing of the game was just about right. The ease of rematching trainers softened the blows of low experience wild Pokemon, and the second gym, which had probably the worst pacing issue if you weren’t turbo-grinding in the original game, was fixed up. If you went to face every trainer, there should be very few fights a decent team should brick wall against because of sheer numbers.

On the negative, I have to admit that the few instances of “Come with me” to town warp were jarring, and there’s about a half of a route that you miss out on that you would have explored in Ruby/Sapphire. Also, I cannot promise that the game will be paced right if you have the Exp. Share on (for your own sake, unless you’re trying to powerlevel through the game for the exclusives, shut it off). It also felt possible, but constrained, to make a solid team. The Hoenn Dex could have used 20-30 strategical additions that fit the feel of the region (Houndour, Magby, or Fletchling would have made a huge difference, for example). Also, please, never, NEVER, I mean NEVER again just give over a legendary. Not after such an easy quest. No, I mean it Gamefreak, Legendaries are supposed to be earned.

Storyline: Pokemon’s never been much for a storyline (get the badges, smash evil, get more badges, be the champion, catch them all), but at the very least, major events and NPCs felt like they had a solid reason to be there, and for a game that knows it’s likely to get burned through by a lot of people, they tried to give the NPCs personality. Not much more to say about that.

Soundtrack: Another thing that’s overlooked that can set the pace for Pokemon games in particular, the soundtrack wasn’t really improved on in it’s general use. For most of the routes and low-stakes battles, they got remastered to meet the requirements of the 3DS, but as you hit the Rival battles, Gym battles, Aqua/Magma admin battles, and the Champion Battle, and Wally especially, you can tell there was more care put into the themes. The end result is generally enjoyable, though I wouldn’t blame you for turning down the music after the 50th generic trainer battle, just to bring it back up for the Gym Leaders and the like.

Side Events/Quirks: I’m glad that they brought back contests and generally made them less frustrating. The Cosplay Pikachu you get in game is either very hit or miss. Either you have an adorable Pikachu in a dress, or you have an annoying rat…in a dress. Depends on how tired of Pikachu you are after so many Pokemon games.

Dexnav gets its own note, just for what it does. In X and Y, they revamped the breeding system as well as added the Friend Safari to make getting competitive Pokemon a lot less painful. In ORAS, you get the Dexnav. On the one end, it ensures that once you capture a Pokemon, that you basically can’t call that Pokemon rare, since you can search for it over and over. On the other hand, you get a system that seems rather familiar for anyone that played Gen 4 for getting more interesting versions of Pokemon. At first, I wanted to curse it after getting “Derp”, the poor Zigzagoon that lost Tackle for Charm. However, after getting a Mean Look Ralts (and nearly getting a shadow sneak one), I was a lot less annoyed at it. Basically, as you keep finding a species of Pokemon, whether in the wild, in trainer battles, or on the field as a Pokemon you can talk to, any of that species you search for has a chance at better stats, Hidden Abilities, and Egg Moves. At the end of it, if you don’t want to figure out breeding a max stat (6 IV) pokemon, you can go searching in the grass (a lot), and get yourself a reasonable Pokemon with an Egg move and a hidden ability. This ends up being the other side of the changes for competitive, lowering the entry bar, which is a good thing for Pokemon.

I hope if you already have your hands on a copy of ORAS, that you enjoy it, and if you have the spare money for it, and don’t already have it, that you consider it.

Design Flaw: Skill Vortex

I know this concept may have been talked about before by using another term, but this is about the idea of a Skill Vortex. To put it simply, a Skill Vortex is an element that, while weak or balanced at high level play, is so overbearing in lower level play that both play revolves around it, and the skill used to beat it is only tangentially related to the rest of the game. It is usually important that the skill needed on the game element to cause the vortex is significantly less than the skill needed to beat it, which is what pushes for the alternative strategies for it.

Such a concept is rarely just solved by just “get better” because interacting with the elements take either poorly transferable skills to the rest of the game or a huge skill gap, actually causing a problem that echoes up in a system that has matchmaking. Not only is this element immensely frustrating for the players at the specific level that causes it’s problems, it sends the area just above this skill vortex wild.

To understand that, let me look at the 3 kinds of players that escaped the vortex. The first are the players that were at just above the level before the vortex came to be, whether through a patch adjustment or a discovery of the vortex. These players are very likely matchmade exactly where they need to be, and even if they can’t handle the vortex consistently, there’s enough of a buffer of people who can where people rarely use the element in a abusive way.

The second group of people are the people who bypass it by the unorthodox strategy. The strategy works well for the element, but when that element becomes more rare, the necessary skills that a player didn’t get rear their ugly head. As a result, this group is generally weaker than the expected skill level.

Finally, there’s our brute force players. The skill vortexes are not completely unbeatable without resorting to the unorthodox strategy, but often take much more general skill, and thus these players are likely higher ranked, but stuck for a long time in the vortex. These players, once freed of it, start overwhelming everyone in the first two groups.

Now, not only is the area with the vortex compromised by this overbearing element, the area above the vortex is also compromised since whatever escapes the vortex is very likely not entering their true skill level. So, as a developer, when you see this evolve, you nerf the vortex, breaking it up, and making the game better, right?

Wrong. Remember that the element causing the vortex is already balanced around skilled people. A very good example of this is in League of Legends. In a patch about a year ago, Master Yi got a rework, focusing him on a dangerous, reset based physical damage dealer (for people used to other systems, a low-durability sweeper). This kit was nearly perfect for what he needed to do in high level games. However, the same tools made him overbearing in mid-level games. The skills that made it balanced (good teamwork, effective item builds and ally protection) was not a given in these games, thus making these games around who could get Yi. Allowed to persist, this would have centralized mid-level games around Yi and things that could survive him, but he was pretty strongly nerfed, thus while he still had power in these games, he lost a lot of capability in high-level games.

Now to talk the example of what prompted this post in the first place, Little Mac in Smash Bros. 4. Little Mac is a character that has incredible power on the ground and basically no power in the air, and the 1v1 stages are fought on featureless, platformless stages (Final Destination is the model) which play exactly to his strengths. Between that, and him having very few decisions in the air other than land as quickly as he can and counter punish poorly timed air moves, a player has to be a lot better than the Little Mac to get a clean fight with him at lower skill levels.

On the other hand, there’s mistakes that Little Mac can make that open up plays that work on very few other characters, even with moves styled as his. His Forward + B, while acting as a recovery, is also a painful dash. Dodged right, however, he falls off the stage and cannot recover. Others have dashes like this, but usually have some sort of escape if it gets dodged or can recover from it. Thus, standing at the edge and dodging, while good at messing up Little Mac, can hamper other characters, but requires a lot more gameplay than just watching them fall to their death. Grabbing at the edge, then tossing Mac to his death, the other common strategy, also requires more gameplay from the grabber to secure it on any other character. This again, seems to point towards Mac being a vortex.

People are figuring out how to beat him without having to resort to these strategies, so maybe it’s not a serious problem, but lets say I absolutely had to adjust him. The point of such a fix absolutely needs to ensure that he would not be losing tools at levels where he’s balanced.

Proposed: Counter (Air)
If Little Mac does not counter a move, he goes into freefall. If he successfully counters, he moves to the edge of the projectile or fighter towards the stage closest to the top of the projectile before doing the counterattack. The countered fighter moves a large distance from Little Mac at a 45 degree up angle, towards the stage, slightly affected by damage taken. The counter is slightly slower than normal. As a reminder, his counter while he’s on the ground is unchanged.

The basic concept here is that Little Mac, with well-timed counters, can boost his recovery range somewhat, but shouldn’t be able to chain it in a 1v1, except against projectile spam. A missed counter becomes his death. Now, once a player gets Little Mac in the air, a player that’s more telegraphed in his air game should have a better chance. In return, it’s very hard to zone a good Mac from the edge with spammed projectiles, and he can’t be continually pursued in the air even by heavy characters at low damage if they mess up. I admit that I’m not even sure if this would be a net buff or nerf at high level play, but the idea is still here that you must at the very least replace some of what is causing the vortex with something that helps really skilled play, or the vortex just gets unnecessarily nerfed.

Disclaimer: I don’t think even this change was necessary. I posted this as if I were pushed to make a change, what it might look like, and to try to demonstrate what people looking at these issues might need to consider to keep the element balanced while fixing the problem.

Global Smash Power, the Good and Bad

Now, I’m continuing on the Smash line of discussions because I’ve probably been playing too much of this for my own good these last few days. This time around, I want to talk about Global Smash Power, the ranking system that Nintendo is using for Smash 4.

The essence of Global Smash Power is that for any game mode that records something resembling a score, the system will record a rank that shows just how many people that score beats. Such a system works both for your high scores, and the score you’re accumulating throughout the match.

The good: Being able to both see how good both each run and how good your high score is versus everyone is an awesome feeling, and it doesn’t immediately put it in a way that makes you feel bad (height from bottom instead of distance from the top). You can see every action adding to your rank in a lot of the modes (smash run excluded).

The bad: There’s no good way to see how far from the top you are. There is nowhere in the client where you can even find the highest rank. Seeing that your first attack in classic/all-star is upping your rank makes you wonder how bad some people can be (and you can still feel bad recording a score that ends up in the thousands in smash rank. Grand total smash rank for a mode is not a very interesting measure of skill, instead being a measure of how much you’ve played that mode.

The short of it: Awesome on a small scale. Really shouldn’t be extended to a large scale (all of classic for example), and it needs something to add meaning to the rank.

Smash 4: The onboarding process.

The concept of onboarding is one of how someone is taught a new system or how to work in a new workplace, and today, I want to explore how Smash 4 attempts to do it.

Last time, I talked about Smash and how it taught high level play well by just letting people play the game. However, I want to talk about people just starting the game.

Now how many of you even knew that this video existed at the start (while this is smash 4’s version, it is very similar to Melee and Brawl)?

This is honestly the extent of what the game teaches a new person. While there is actually a lot of useful information there, it’s not in the easiest place to find. Realistically, you’re going in the game, and hoping you can figure it out. Now, such a method was amazing back in the old days where your actions were move, jump, and run, or move, jump, and spin dash. Now, however, games are getting more complex, and designers have to remember that somehow, the player needs to learn how to play their game in a way that’s actually going to be fun.

Now, a good tutorial must either be skippable, or fun enough that most people don’t want to skip it because you don’t want quick learners and people who have played similar games before to get bogged down. Smash does this perfectly, by hiding this little tutorial, and letting anyone just get to the game.

On top of this, though, there are 2 main components. First, the tutorial must be findable by someone looking purposely. A prompt to go through the tutorial when the game first starts up or basic hints as you play the first couple of levels or matches and somewhere to look for more difficult stuff is fine. While every match has hints, I feel that most of the hints are targeted at low-mid level play, where people already have all of the basics down, and need to just put it all together to do amazing things. At the same time, there is no way whatsoever to find the tutorial without being told “Don’t hit start.”

Maybe there’s hope in the next step. A new player will probably head right into the big icon that says Smash, and get into a game. Maybe they even realize that they’ve never done this before, and put the cpu on difficulty 1. What you get is a computer that really just walks around and attacks a bit, and will always recover if they can. If you have any of the smash games, load up a level 1 Pikachu bot. This little mouse does not make the same mistakes that players do, and will always recover, even though his B + Up is hard for new people to use right. While a nearly no action CPU is ideal for a training mode or easier 1 vs many, having such a punching bag is something that’s not fun for the player.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly ok to have a near punching bag bot to practice new things on. What I disagree with is putting it in the context of “This is a real match”. A person would expect the computer to be a bad person, flailing around, spamming showy moves, screwing up difficult (and sometimes easy) recoveries. They instead get someone who (maybe) walks around. This would be solved by one thing. Putting training on the front menu (and have it show character specific tips in the training). You make sure no matter what people perceive their skill, they have bots they can at least have fun with, and new players can find somewhere immediately to test their moves.

The last thing is something that Melee and 64 did right, but Brawl and SSB4 have messed up to this point: Target Test.

Now in Melee, Target Test wasn’t directly in your face, nor did you need to do it immediately. What it does, though, is act as a test of understanding all of moves that your character can pull off. In a sense, this is a final tutorial for each character which served as a fun minigame. There were a couple of target tests that were painful, but it was usually a matter of understanding that character’s mechanics better. Unlike Brawl, every target test is custom tailored for that character. Bringing this back would have been an amazing way to prompt people to really play around with their (and maybe all) of the characters. Unfortunately, SSB4 has nothing to replace this.

The interesting question of all of this is “Is this a horrible thing?” We live in an age where figuring out something like this is just a matter of going onto Youtube and getting someone’s video, and this actually lowers the barrier of games where you need someone else to show the things the game does not. However, I think a lot of people are going to try a game without searching Youtube for tutorials, instead using the medium to understand a game they like better. Thus, I believe in this day and age, it’s still necessary to make good tutorials to get people to want to play a game.

Smash Bros as a True Fighting Game

I know that this post is going to get more than a bit from from my usual content here, but with the release of Super Smash Bros. 4 for the 3DS tomorrow, I wanted to talk about this game a bit. For anyone that’s not familiar with SSB, it’s a fighting game that incorporates many Nintendo characters (and some semi-related characters) that has up to 4 people in a fight, and winning a fight involves forcing opponents out of the stage. This simple win condition makes it much different to play than your standard fighter. The other big difference is how combos work. In a lot of fighting games, while setting up combos have their sequences and positioning, the big moves have their own complex button sequences. However, in Smash, the most complex button sequence is the “tilt attack”, where you simply move the joystick in a direction somewhat, and then attack. Between these, and moves continually moving your opponent, these things make combos feel a lot different than a standard fighting game.

However, these basics on the surface actually seem to make SSB less of a fighting game, and more of a party game. However, this is something I’m looking to disagree with. In a fighting game, there are typically 2 levels of play. There’s low level play, where people are attacking each other, somewhat flailing at getting opportunities. With the complicated combos, that can be a lot of fun, but the second one, where every move is about either setting up your position better, or restricting the opponents choices, and trying to predict what the opponent is going to do and how he’s going to react to you, that’s the part that defines high level play. I want to put forth that SSB gets people thinking at that level, without having to say it outright, place a tutorial for it, or anything else.

The First Lesson: Positioning

The stage that I have here is Final Destination, a very flat stage that used as a tournament standard stage. While every stage is more complex than this stage, this is enough to demonstrate what I want to demonstrate. Once a player is forced to the left or the right of the platform, he has to attempt to get back on the stage before he reaches the bottom of the screen, or he loses a point. Given such a simple stage, there’s 2 ways you’re going back on. Either you’re going above the platform and then landing, or you’re going for the ledge of the stage, which you can grab on. As a further aid to returning to the stage, a character has one or more moves that can be used as a recovery move (usually Up + B) which not only makes them travel distance, but often has a harmful attack through some or all parts of it.

What does this show to the new player? You can set up somewhere that has few entrances, you can try to attack them as they’re off the stage (usually at this point by using character projectiles or by items), but you need to be careful as they try to get back on the stage. In other words, a very crude version of position control. While this is very raw and unrefined, there’s now suddenly an area you want people to go, have the tools to keep them there, and it doesn’t require anything more complicated than a button press and a cardinal direction to start.

The Second Lesson: Spacing and Range

SSB has a lot of items, which I will talk about in a bit more detail, because they are their own lesson. As far as items go in teaching lessons without trying, though, the award has to go to the later iterations of the beam sword. When you pick up your beam sword, several of your attacks get replaced with a beam sword attack. The beam sword attack is interesting because it changes it’s range as part of it’s dash attack (A while running) and Smash Attack (Hard forward + A). One big problem is when you play one character over and over (as newer players are bound to do), it’s harder to get a sense of range differences other than a longer range character feeling like “OH GOD, HOW IS HE HITTING ME FROM OVER THERE?” The beam sword, though, not only somewhat standardizes range, it also changes it’s own range, even while the new player is playing his favorite character. After a few dash attacks with the beam sword, it’s almost second nature to start the attack earlier to use it’s extra range, even though they can’t see the full range at all times. This is exactly the reaction you want players to get to alternate range attacks, and you don’t have to have them play with every character to see this, you just have to let the beam sword drop.

The Third Lesson: Guard Break and blocking well


The first image is a character in SSB blocking. The second image is from Guilty Gear (which I understand to be a good game), and the important part is the small meter under the health bar, which roughly represents the penalties for over blocking. Now in SSB, the shield that spawns around you when you hit block (L or R) is what takes the hit. As the shield takes hits, or you spend time with the shield up, the shield grows smaller. If the shield ever completely disappears, there’s a crack, and then your character is completely stunned for a significant period of time. Between only showing the information when it’s relevant, having a very clear system of how much you can block, and not requiring you to pull attention away from the fight for that information, you get a system that very clearly tells the player “Do things other than block.” While throws exist, this system doesn’t require players to be able to figure out throws to keep the game moving, and not just have a player sitting blocking forever. Some may argue that forcing an attack around the block would do the trick, but you have to remember that new players will telegraph those movements, letting the blocker react and be “invincible”. While the player may not know the more complex ways of avoiding attacks, it plants the idea that you need to do something else to be safe from attacks.

The Fourth Lesson: Controlling space against mobile targets

This time around, this is about the items in general. Now, if you listen to the SSB community a little bit, items are the quickest way to make it non-competitive. However, I propose that items are actually a good way to start the development of the community. Now, items can spawn anywhere, and have any number of effects. I’ve already talked about the beam sword, and how it in itself very clearly teaches how to use range. Now, when an item spawns, and it spawns as one of the gamechanging items (like the Smash Ball, which allows you to use an equivalent of a super move, or the Pokeball or Assist Trophy (which spawns a partner that harasses the other opponents), 2 very quick thoughts come to mind. How do I safely get the item, and how do I keep others from getting the item? Both of these get a player to start (intuitively) thinking of how others might approach a point, and how they can approach that point. Quickly, the player learns not just how to defend/survive the edge, with one entrance, but stop a point with many possible entrances, which leads to being able to counter and play around with the high mobility SSB characters are offered as it’s used to better and better purposes.

Conclusion: SSB, designed as a party fighting game, ends up using it’s party tools (and it’s unique knockout mechanism) to introduce players to the concepts that pervade high level fighting game play, while requiring nothing more than block, move, and some basic attacks. By introducing it early in the game, it flows better into the player improving as compared to hitting a solid wall against an opponent who can use these tactics, and then hoping and messing to try to get it. Thus, this lets SSB players enjoy this as a fighting game sooner than a real fighting game.