Anime has been one of those mediums ingrained in gamer culture; a suitable fit as many gamers’ first exposure to games came from Japan. It may surprise you, but I don’t watch a lot of anime these days due to the issue of filler.

Most mainstream anime is based off of an existing manga (Japanese comic book,) and it is usually created at the same time that the manga is being written. What happens however is that the anime development overtakes the manga, leaving the studio producing the anime in a position where they have to wait for the manga to continue before they can continue the story development of the anime. The thought of going a month or so without any new episodes is not a good prospect, so the writers create a filler episode. Filler episodes have no plot or character development and most often, there is nothing actually gained from watching these episodes.

There are usually three tiers of filler, an episode, movie and the worse: a filler arc. If you ever watched an episode dealing with a flashback, clip show, or everyone stopping what they’re doing and go shopping, that is a filler episode. A movie in an anime usually involves the same pattern:

1. A new character/characters and setting are introduced that once the movie is over, will never be seen again (unless there is a sequel.)

2. Characters will not use any new powers or knowledge, if there is a case that they’ll use something new, it will be a onetime use and not used again.

3. The status quo is always restored by the end of the movie.

If you have watched any of the Dragon Ball Z movies then you know what I’m talking about. I’ve sat through four of them which the basic summary is that,” Goku gets beaten up , then hits the bad guy one time and wins at the 59 minute mark”

Filler arcs however are the worse as they combine the qualities from a movie, but go on for far longer. Another name for these is a “side-story”, but they still do nothing towards development. Naruto is perhaps one of the worst offenders of this and where I first heard the term filler hell. What happened in the series is that at the end of the main story, there is a five year gap story wise, between when the second big arc starts. However the manga was still being written, so the anime writers made around 100 episodes of filler. Think about that for a second, that’s 50 hours that nothing happened that would ever be referenced or used again. For those wondering, yes there were filler episodes within the filler arcs, transforming into some kind of filler squared situation. By the time the second arc officially aired, I was so sick of the anime that I stopped watching all together.

Before we get started I do want to make one point, the same kind of filler does exist within many animated series in the US as well. The difference is that most cartoons are not created with a serialized story line, as the majority of their episodes (except for two parters,) are standalone.

Now, after what could be considered a filler intro, it’s time to talk about how this relates to game design. Filler in terms of game design can be anything that adds tedium to the game and there are a lot of examples to go by. Essentially, whatever keeps the player from the main gameplay in the design can be considered filler, such as in a RPG, having to stop after every battle and go through several inventory screens to heal your party. Most acts of filler in game design are usually in the UI and innocuous, but the more the player is expose to it, the more it can take a toll.

If you ever played a game where you are just tired of dealing with it and turn it off, that is when tedium sets in. The act of tedium also goes back to an earlier entry, when I talked about how games have about 15 minutes to hook me before I lose interest. Finding any tedium within that time is usually the nail in the coffin for the game for me. Now the big question is how do you reduce filler or tedium?

What works for one genre doesn’t necessary work for another. In my article on skill abstraction I talked about how different gamers expect different elements in their design. When I’m playing an action game, I want information to be as clear as possible, and found easily. However, if I’m playing a game where there are a lot of stats, I want that information to be detailed, yet easy to thumb through. The trick is to understand the main focus of your design, and try to figure out what elements in your game distract from it.

If it’s an RPG where turn based combat and exploration is the focus, then anything that keeps the player from those two elements can cause tedium. Going back to the health recovery example further up, one way to make that painless is simply have the option to auto use enough health items or skills to recover your group at a push of a button, or just auto heal after the end of the battle. Now, the concept of tedium and automation go hand in hand, as the designer is adding automation to reduce the tedious actions the player has to deal with. However like all things, there is a line to watch out for when reducing tedium.

While automating actions is a great way to keep the player focused on the game, having too much automation can lead to another bad scenario, a game that plays itself. The first sign that something like this is happening, is when there is automation built into the focus of the design and not the elements that distract it. Dungeon Siege, which was an action RPG several years back allowed players to preset commands for their AI partners and their character, putting them into a situation where they can just sit back and watch the combat play out.

The second remake of Prince of Persia from a few years ago met similar criticism, but with a different design. In the game, the player could not fail any jumps or platforming maneuvers, as the AI partner would rescue the player each and every time.

Now in both examples, what happened was that too much automation was added to the focus of each game: Combat in Dungeon Siege and platforming in Prince of Persia. You don’t want to downplay what gamers have bought the game for, or in other words, order a pizza and get a cheeseburger instead. The Zelda series since Ocarina of Time has automated jumping by making Link just jump whenever he runs off an edge, and that’s fine because the gameplay pulls in the Zelda series are combat, exploration and puzzle solving.

Of course, some tedium or player control can be a good thing. In games that give the player the option to automate climbing up ladders or even adjust tax rates in a strategy game, sometimes you want to be able to control that. Automation’s biggest advantage is that it allows players a chance to learn the game piece by piece, but sometimes expert players who have a greater insight compared to novice gamers, will want to act on their own.

The last concept of tedium for this entry is one of the hardest to nail down: progressive tedium. Sometimes mechanics that started out fine become tedious as the game progresses due to more things to examine or deal with. For example, managing one city in Civilization 4 was fine; managing 10 cities was another story. While examining the early game content for tedious mechanics is important, designers also need to examine late game play to see if there are any hang ups. UI features like auto-sorting and detailed screens may not seem that big of a deal in the early game, but they can be used as a way of preventing problems down the line.

Tedium is one of those traps that designers have to watch out for and being able to differentiate between a tedious action and a meaningful one is a challenge. More gameplay mechanics doesn’t always make the game better, as hiding gameplay underneath tedium is never a good thing. The same goes for most animes as well, usually ones that have less than 70 episodes are pretty tight, which is not what you can say about the ones that are 200+ episodes. While the thought of having 100+ hours of game is an appealing one, the question however, is how many of those hours are actually meaningful?

Josh

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For those that don’t know me, one of my constantly played games would be the Left 4 Dead series. Between the two, I have at least 1000 hours of combined play time. A few years ago when L4D2 came out, one of my friends set up his own server so that my group could have our own stomping ground. To makes things interesting, he set up unique server achievements for us to go for, with one being who can kill me first in a map (and the people who got that still talk about it.) While we were joking around coming up with new achievement names, one of my friends had an interesting thought: what about implementing “anti-achievements,” used to tell someone that they are playing the game wrong?

The server was eventually shut down, but the thought has stayed with me and I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of having such a concept. First, let’s change the name to “denouncement” to keep it completely separate from achievements. As many of you know, when playing team based games you are only as strong as your weakest player. In a game like L4D where it’s just the four of you, having a bad enough player makes it feel like your team is only three people strong.

Because L4D doesn’t feature a manual or tutorial, players will spend a lot of time learning by playing or watching better players. The problem is that there are a lot of little details that expert players know that they don’t have the time to explain in the middle of the game. One of the worse learning experiences I see in game is when a novice player does the wrong thing with a special infected (such as spawn the boomer 30 feet away from the survivors,) and still manages to hit the survivors by a stroke of luck. The reason is that the player did something wrong, but was rewarded for it in game sending out mixed signals, so they’ll keep doing the wrong thing because that one time it worked.

That’s where the idea of denouncements come into play, with the advantages based on my thinking is that they can be used as a learning tool. As mentioned above, many times players will do the wrong action and being hit with a small slap on the wrist can help them learn. Another use is as a form of anti griefing, as many of us know, some players just want to ruin the fun of everyone else; most of the time, doing the same things that would show up on a list of denouncements. Seeing that someone has the entire list of denouncements on their profile would be a strong indicator that this person doesn’t like to play the game right.

However, I can’t help but think of the problems with this kind of system as well. First is just how much of a learning tool do we have? The beauty of a well designed achievement is that they should give two things to the player, first, recognition for doing something good and second, knowledge and skill with an advanced mechanic. Several of Left 4 Dead’s achievements were for pulling off tricky maneuvers, such as shoving a hunter in mid pounce, stopping its attack. The problem I can see with denouncements is that the player will only learn that the action is wrong, but not get the correct mechanic.

Second, is just how long should they stay active? I can just see someone who is new to the game and before learning the game, get numerous denouncements and feel like they should quit before they get any more marks on their record. Maybe have them on for a week and then any denouncements are cleared from the profile, allowing them to remain on but not be permanent.

Before anyone says it, I do know of some games that have “dummy achievements” for not being good at the game such as with the Dead or Alive games, for losing so many rounds. The difference is that these are things that you should strive not to get and that message has to be made perfectly clear. This is actually why as I think about it, that they shouldn’t be permanent as you just know that the completest out there will play the game intentionally bad to get them all.

The idea of implementing anti griefing tools directly into the game design is interesting to me. With Dark Souls, while the designers want to promote a cooperative experience, many gamers do play it to track and kill other players. One of the items you can pick up allows you to view a list of all griefers online and another item allows you to invade their game to take revenge on them. Another title that has a similar result is World of Tanks, normally there is a penalty on your stats for killing a team mate , but if someone keeps team killing enough, they’ll be marked with a different color on their name, making it ok to kill them every time.

This is one of those entries where I’m interested in opinions, as achievements sometimes have a polarizing affect on gamers, can the “tough love” approach be applied to something that is normally a reward?

Josh Bycer

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Two things that go together like peanut butter and jelly would have to be RPGs and secrets. If you have played just about any RPG within the last two decades then you have probably ran into (or not,) hidden side quests so obscure that the average gamer would never find them. This has been one of the reasons to pick up the strategy guide for the game (or go to gamefaqs,) next to needing help to continue. However, this raises a design problem and a major mistake that some designers make: designing content that only people with outside information of the game would know.

Having content that the game gives no information about is just lazy design and feels out of place. Good game design should give the player everything they need without having to resort to help. Even if random NPC #20 casually mentions that throwing a turkey into a fountain will do something good, that is still better than having the player just guess to find any secrets. One of the more infamous examples of this is from Final Fantasy 12, in the game there is a secret item that the player can find by opening treasure chests in a specific order. However, nowhere in the game does it tell you that order or even hints at this side quest, that information is reserved for the strategy guide. I believe in a few rules of design and in this post I’m going to share a few with you, starting with this one:

A player should not require any outside information to finish your game.

To define finishing the game is simply, beating the normal content in a game. I don’t care if you are designing a game as easy as Sonic The Hedgehog or as hard as Ninja Gaiden, the rule stands. The player should be given all the information they need from either the manual or in game to succeed. The point of contention is if the player can understand the information that they are provided which I’ll be coming back to later on in this post.

One of the complaints I had with Dark Souls was on the lack of bonfires allowing the player to effectively “checkpoint” their progress. Looking at guides online showed several bonfires that are hidden behind walls. That to me is a huge no-no and an arbitrary way of inflating difficulty. There was no reason to explicitly hide these from the player; several of which are behind walls that look like every other wall in the area which is just adding salt to the wound.

The core mechanics and systems of your game are vitally important and should be explained as thoroughly as possible to the player, which leads to this rule:

If the player cannot figure out the base mechanics of your game either through in game or the manual, then you have failed at your job of being a designer.

Something is very wrong if after reading the manual that someone can’t figure out how your game works. Granted, in today’s age the quality of printed manuals have degraded somewhat, but that’s why we have in game tutorials or tips. A player should never have to turn to a guide or the Internet to answer questions about the basics of the game. In Dark Souls, two of the new basic mechanics: humanity points and kindling bonfires are never explained in manual or in game. For the longest time I thought that being human affected the drop rate, but it turns out that I was wrong after having to look it up online.

Now while this post has been largely negative towards guides and saying that you shouldn’t need a guide to play a game, but that doesn’t mean that guides are useless, which leads to several caveats where a guide can be beneficial to the player.

1. Walk-through: Let’s face it, we’ve all had a point in a game where we were hopelessly stuck and no amount of playing the game would fix it. These are the points where the next step is simply giving up and quitting the game. Sometimes we just need that one push in the right direction to get us over the hump and that’s where a game guide can become useful. As I said further up, the game should give the player all the information they need to succeed, but for the times that we can’t find that information, a guide can be useful.

2. Statistical Information: When it comes to more complex titles like RPGs, there is a lot of information to keep track of: equipment attributes, enemy information, what each shop keeper sells and so on. Some games are decent enough to give the player easy access to this information, however there are titles where there is just too much for the designer to catalog in game, case in point, all the information in a Nis America SRPG.

Having a one stop spot for all this information in the use of the guide can be helpful to cut down wasted time scouring for the information and helps players make informed decisions in game. I read the sections in the Demon’s Souls strategy guide about equipment information and enemy drops more than the general walk-through.

3. Advance Play (AKA Post Game Content): I’m a believer in saving post game content for the times when “the gloves come off”. This is where it is best to save all the toughest, game tester mind breaking content for. Some games feature very advance mechanics designed to work with the post game content. Going back to Nis America, their SRPGS are famous for having complex mechanics and systems that aren’t needed for the regular game, but are used for the post game “super grind.”

While the player can find out this information on their own, having a guide nearby can trim a lot of the fat of digging through the mechanics to find what you’re looking for. Each Double Jump guide for Nis’s SRPGs has a section detailing the exact ways to use the mechanics to completely overpower your characters and the formulas for how all this works. Reading these sections gave me a better understanding on how the interplay of the various systems works.

Now there is a caveat to this caveat, post game content should still be accessible without turning to a guide. If you want to hide an entire dungeon requiring the player to solve five puzzles, three math problems, translate a phrase from Latin to English and have the character run in place for one minute, then there better be clues in the game to tell the player to do all that. This is one area where Disgaea slips up; one of the post game mechanics involves attaching NPC monsters called “specialist” to your weapons. Each specialist enhances the weapon in a different way, with the better ones very important for the post game grind. However, nowhere in the game does it mention the difference between the various specialists.

Going back to that famous Sid Meier quote that a game is about a series of interesting decisions, in order to make said decisions, the player must be given adequate information. That is the point of in game help and manuals, to give the player the knowledge they need to play the game. The best game designs don’t tell the player what the choices are, but let them find out for themselves. For the times where the player wants to find out about the choices, that is where strategy guides come into play. While game manuals are getting smaller, there should be no excuse at shrinking strategy guides. A good measure of a strategy guide should be how much damage you can inflict on someone with it, and with the Disgaea 2 guide from Double Jump, you could probably give someone a minor concussion with that beast.

Josh Bycer

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(Warning: the following post is a closer look at the areas of Dark Souls, this entry will be spoiler filled and discussion can include spoilers, don’t read unless you have beaten the game or don’t care about spoilers.)

I’ve reached my boiling point with Dark Souls and can no longer play it without feeling my blood pressure rising. When I first wrote about the game I was about 30-40% done the main game, not counting optional areas. At this point, I’m close to 70-80% finish and can see more of the big picture of the game.

When Dark Souls works, it is a great experience, unlike anything else this year. However, the times that the design fails, and it does multiple times, it keeps the game from reaching the same heights as Demon’s Souls. Before I begin, you should read my last post on Dark Souls, as I already covered some of the problems with the design there.

Let’s start with how magic works. In the last post I talked about how building a pure caster build was almost impossible due to the limits of how many times you can use a spell. Getting further into a game I want to edit that to say that it is completely impossible to be a spell caster in Dark Souls. Basic spells that cast somewhat quickly do too little to be effective, while the decent spells leave you wide open for at least 4 to 5 seconds, which is a very long time when a boss is charging at you.

Originally I was going for a similar build that I had in Demon’s Souls, which was a magical samurai. However, it never felt that magic was worth it in Dark Souls. By the time I created a weapon from a boss’s soul, it was doing more damage per second then my strongest spell, and safer to use.

I know why the designers changed how magic worked, to force people into close combat more. However, I would argue that removing a potential option from your game does more harm than good. If someone wants to spend the time becoming a mage, they shouldn’t be punished with systems designed against them.

Another point I want to talk about are my issues with the lack of shortcuts. As I got farther into the game, the amount of shortcuts open improved dramatically. Sen’s fortress has a huge shortcut that literally drops you back at the start of the level from near the boss’s chamber. However it remains to be answered why there are so few shortcuts in the world itself. I spent plenty of time doing nothing but running to and from bonfires. Blight town is a clear example of this. Even though there is a back and front way into the area, there are no shortcuts making the place a pain in the ass to get around and to get out of.

Eventually you do unlock a minor warping ability, but it only lets you warp between three bonfires once it is originally unlocked. This means that you still have to spend a lot of time running through areas you already went through because of the lack of bonfires and shortcuts.

Speaking about the level design, one problem that I had was that the graphics and art made the levels look aesthetically busy. I had plenty of times that I couldn’t tell if I was looking at the right way, wrong way or about to kill myself. In Anno Lundo, I was lost for about thirty minutes as I couldn’t find the way out of the starting area. The Duke’s Archives seem to be about repeating the same room structure and feels creatively flat. There were plenty of times in the game that I got lost by the sheer amount of visual content in the levels, hiding the right way to go. The crystal caves was a nightmare for me, as I killed myself several times thinking that the crystal below me was the correct path when instead I slid off to my doom.

Going through darkroot gardens, I completely missed the path to the butterfly boss several times because I couldn’t see the way due to how the camera was pointing. The level design seems like it was design for visual quantity instead of quality.

Once again going back to Demon’s Souls, the levels seemed to flow a lot better than in Dark Souls. Each area in a level had a different look and feel to it allowing you to figure out where you are by the environment. I rarely got lost in Demon’s Souls, with exception to 5-2.

Moving on, the boss fights in Dark Souls were one of the worse parts of the game for me, especially coming from Demon’s Souls. In one of my many posts on Demon’s Souls, I talked about how every boss in the game was designed to provide a unique challenge, for example, you couldn’t fight Man-eater the same way as Flame Lurker.

In Dark Souls, the majority of the bosses follow the same pattern of having a lot of health and requiring you to keep attacking until they die without any other real strategy. One big issue I have is that a lot of the bosses were designed to be fought with a 2nd person, as when you are in human form, there will be a summon sign outside of the boss room even when you are offline. This is a big issue for me and a huge departure from Demon’s Souls. In Demon’s Souls, you could fight every boss solo, but if you were online you could get a helping hand if needed.

What this meant was that the bosses were balanced and designed for single player fighting only and their stats were adjusted accordingly. In Dark Souls, bosses like the duo fight in Lundo, the spider boss in Blight town and the gargoyle fight at the parish pretty much require a second person by design. Fighting more than one enemy at once shows one of the main problems with the Demon’s Souls style of combat, which I’m come back to further on. With the spider boss, she attacks so quickly and has so much health at that point of time, that you need someone to take the heat off of you to fight it.

Some of the later bosses seem like they belong in the Monster Hunter series and not Demon’s Souls in how they are designed. They are slow moving creatures that rely on you spending 5 to 10 minutes hitting them to deal with their huge health bars, where they can kill you in 1 to 2 hits. The only boss fight that felt like a return to form was the Pinwheel fight in the Catacombs, as the boss produced copies of itself and you had to find the right one (like the false idol battle of Demon’s Souls).

The Capra Demon is perhaps one of the worst offenders of bad boss design in the game, as it systematically hits every bad point of Dark Souls design. We have a boss in a narrow environment for the camera to get stuck on, able to attack with wide attacks making it hard to avoid. Who also has two fast moving enemies as back up keeping you from focusing on the real threat. The only way I saw how to beat this thing was to cheese it while standing in an area he can’t get to.

The main theme of the issues that I have with Dark Souls and what I mentioned in the last entry is how Dark Souls seems to capitalize on the problems in Demon’s Souls without improving them and being imbalance. About half way done the game, it was no longer exciting finding enemies who were placed in the blind spots of the camera forcing me to always keep my guard up; it just felt lazy at that point. Having to fight more groups of enemies while dealing with the poor collision detection without any fixes to the engine was bad form; worse, is when you head into the ruins and have to fight ghosts who not only have no collision detection to begin with, but can attack you through walls and floors.

On my first run in the ruins, I was stun killed in a narrow hallway by six ghosts who attacked me through the floor before I could raise my shield or see them. I also noticed far more technical issues present in Dark Souls compared to Demon’s Souls. Slowdown occurred more often making it hard to react to attacks. I was also knocked through the floor in one area by a special attack and the only way out was to kill myself. Larger enemies are so big that the camera gets stuck on them every time, making the auto target more of a death sentence then being useful. Along with the control issues mentioned in the first entry, makes Dark Souls less polished compared to Demon’s Souls.

Playing Dark Souls I had to “find the fun” more often than I did in Demon’s Souls. Sure I got frustrated in Demon’s Souls plenty of times, but I always felt like the game was fair with how I died. In Dark Souls it felt like the game’s own mechanics were out to get me and while that is a challenge, it is a different kind of challenge compared to Demon’s Souls. The concept of wandering around a vast, dangerous world was well done and I have no complaints about the overall regular enemy design. However, one of the mainstays of creating a proper sequel is to get the foundation set and fix any issues present in the first game. Dark Souls feels like someone built a 2nd floor on their house without making sure that the first floor was completely stable.

At this point I’ve lost my remaining desire to play the game and will probably shelve it for now. Maybe a patch or two could fix my issues, but I’m not holding my breath. It’s very discomforting to me how one of the games I was dying to play has disappointed me to such a degree. For people new to the series as a whole, I still recommend Demon’s Souls as an amazing title that still holds up and I would say to wait on Dark Souls so that it doesn’t kill your wallet as much as your character.

Josh Bycer

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