Greetings everyone! I was planning on using this space to mainly discuss various design concepts and how to use them, especially in the first issue. However, since I got inspired, and it's an important subject regardless, I figured we could start with a case study and talk about analysing!
Every great designer out there realise that you never stop being a designer. Everything you do and see in your life will have the secondary use of helping you further expand your designs... if you let it, that is. One of the best targets to use is, of course, video games that you play. If you can get into the thinking behind it, then you can with ease learn and contrast from games you would be playing regardless!
First things first though. I'd like to make a few things clear: No design philosophy or idea is indisputable, nor can you ever reach a point where you know everything a designer needs to know. Any advice anyone gives you on design, yes even me, should stand up to your scrutiny. However, it's critical to not disregard what people say on the subject. As it might just be important, regardless of how dumb what they are saying sounds. If someone tells you to do a certain thing, consider why that is instead of just disregarding their statements. It might just be that you have a better idea to the underlying problem they are suggesting you to improve! (This is why I personally believe iterative design with feedback is crucial to high quality products.)
With that out of the way, let's get into the meat of analysing while playing. The best way I can think of to explain it is to provide a case study, though do note, it's not all inclusive. As for the game in question, I'll be taking a look at Freedom Planet, the fairly recent "sonic clone". I'll be attempting to keep it as spoiler free as possible, but if you're iffy about them then I recommend playing the game first before reading on~
Freedom Planet is a 2D sidescroller that features a linear level progression in an arcade like fashion. Score and time on a level is a fairly large focus for re-play value, as the game is moderately short otherwise. The game also features multiple playable characters with very different movesets. And the characters have some variation in what levels are available in their story arc. For the purpose of this study I'll be mostly focusing on Lilac's story/level progression.
So, what is the goal of the study? The answer is fairly straightforward: I am to contrast the game with the Sonic series and franchise, as the two are compared. I'm also considering what certain design choices have had for impact on the game, and, most importantly, why.
Ever since the game's inception it has been labelled as a Sonic clone, and even after release it is, by many, considered as a Sonic game done "right". Which is not wrong, as it did start as a fangame. However, I'm not sure I agree on either points, as I prefer to consider games on their own merits. But also because it actually moves quite far out from the general classic Sonic formula. However, it would be hard to dispute that the developers have taken inspiration, both from a visual standpoint as well as a mechanical one.
Getting into the mechanics
As soon as you start up the game, you get thrown into the choice of either starting a story mode playthrough, or a classic arcade one. While players don't lose out on any gameplay from picking either or the other, it's fairly obvious that story mode is what is considered the ideal point to start, as it paints up the world, the narrative, and the characters. I won't be focusing a great deal on the story, but it's interesting to note that it is compelling and does throw a few curve balls. It's not a literary masterpiece, but it is compelling, and a great step up from what is expected in these type of games. (The full on voice acting certainly helps in this regard.)
Once you actually get into the game the player will be in for quite a surprise if they expected Sonic like gameplay. One of the first things to note is the robust combat system. Players can take quite a few hits before dying, and there are health refills to pick up spread out around each level. This probably won't come into play for expert players who get into speed running the game. But, what it does do is lower the barrier of entry! Since the game is much more forgiving, new players have a much more safe environment to practise in and get better at the game. (On top of this, the game actually offers several difficulty levels. And for reference, this analyses is based on the Normal difficulty level primarily.)
Lilac, the main character, also has a wide variety of combat moves. A slash, a downwards kick, a spinning air move (that also doubles as an added height giver.), a rocket attack in which she's invincible, etc. The game focuses a lot more on combat in contrast to sonic games. While boss fights in both games/series have gimmicks, the fights in Freedom Planet are more varied as the player has quite a bit more options. (Which also lets the developers design fights with those options in mind!) Timing becomes key in the Freedom Planet combat system. While there are very few scenarios where you have to stop and wait for enemies to be vulnerable, players have to time their attacks otherwise they will take contact damage instead of the enemies.
The game also treats speed very differently from Sonic games. The only thing that is somehow suggesting that you need to move forward with high speed, aside from the narrative, is the timer that is counting upwards. Personally, I would probably have removed that from being on display during the levels in story mode, as the story mode is more intended as a narrative driven experience rather than speed running. And really if the story is the focus, only giving the player their run time at the end of the stage would be more than enough, but I'm getting sidetracked. Most recent Sonic games put you in a state where you'll want, and have the means, to get up to top speed as fast as possible, and then attempt to maintain it. If anything, Freedom Planet does it more akin to Sonic 1, where speed would be the reward from knowing the level layouts well enough that you can maintain the speed.
While Lilac has a move that propels her forward to top speed from nothing, even while in air, it is not without its cost. During gameplay you have a special meter, it refills on its own, quite rapidly even, but this prevents you from spamming it. Lilac's cyclone move uses special too, this makes it a choice. If you used the cyclone move to reach the height needed to clear a jump, the player won't be able to launch away at top speed right away. But since the rocket move also functions as a combat move and has invincibility frames, the player really has to consider when to use it, and when they might want to save it for a future obstacle.
One issue I have personally had with Sonic titles is present in this one too: The field of view, or FoV for short. If you're a PC gamer you have probably heard it before, it is a term used to describe how much the player can see in the world. In real life, humans have quite wide FoV, so when certain first person games have rather low FoV it can cause motion sickness. This is also tied in how far away the person who is playing is from the screen. Sonic games have historically been offered a very narrow field of view, this means that you got less chance of seeing an enemy before it hits you, compared to if the FoV would have been wider.
This isn't an issue in most platforming games, and indeed, it wasn't in most places in Sonic 1 either. However, when the series moved to put more and more emphasis on having the player travel as fast as possible at all times, this has become an issue. The faster a character travels in a platforming game, and the more narrow the FoV is, the less reaction time the player gets. You might not necessarily agree, but I assert that most Sonic games are more about level memorization than reaction due to this.
Freedom Planet isn't nearly as speed focused as most Sonic titles, but you can't deny that time attack is one of the titles selling points. While they might not have thought about it until they were already in production, I do believe that the development studio realised this problem, because there are several things present in the title that makes it more about reacting than memorization. When an enemy attacks, or a fast moving enemy is coming from offscreen, a blinking warning sign will show up on the screen edge to let the player know of this. (I realise this might sound annoying, but it's very seamless for players.) This gives players a much more fair chance to dodge things.
But on top of this, Freedom Planet is actually using some clever tricks to help with level memorization too! Each level features at least two thematically different areas, within the same tileset. For example, level one, Dragon Valley: Starts off up in the mountains with a mountain background. The background is very empty and the foreground is mostly stone. A little less than halfway through the level it switches over to a more lush environment, with high trees, grass, lakes, and a few buildings in the background. The transition is very seamless, but the two areas are very distinctively different. This is important, since the more different something is, the easier it is to remember. Throw in a few level specific gimmicks as well and what you end up with is a level that is much easier to memorize, compared to if it was all looking the same.
(Click for full size)
This means that not only does the game require less memorization from the get go in order for players to enjoy the title, it also makes memorization easier than similar titles. This also helps promote players to actually learning the levels more and getting into the time attack aspect of the title. Furthermore, I'd also like to point out that the title does not feature bottomless pits in majority of the levels. (And those that exist are very obvious.) This means that there isn't any blind jump penalty, aside from time. Which given the focus of the title, is a much better penalty than forcing the player to go back to the last checkpoint.
There is also another reason why the FoV is so narrow in this title, and it has to do with the graphics. The title features some stunning pixel and animation work in order to make the characters very dynamic. All of the characters in the title are very expressive, both in narrative, and visually. If the perspective was more zoomed out, it would subtract from it. So Freedom Planet does have some reasons for keeping the status quo at least.
At the end of the day, do these changes make the game better? Subjectively, it's of my opinion that they do. But that's not really the point here, to be honest. What is important here is to look at what effect certain design choices have had on the game. You can never make a game that is subjectively good for everyone, the perfect game is a but an illusion. What is important is to think about what effects your design choices will have, and if it will serve to make the game more enjoyable for the target audience.
By studying the cause and effect of design choices in previous games, you can take the lessons others have learned before you with you. And that, my friend, is what Design Corner is all about.
See you next mission,