The One Hit Wonders of Game Design Part seven: Comix Zone

The 90s would arguably be the golden age for Sega. Being the second major console developer behind Nintendo and the success of their arcade division gave Sega a lot of leeway in game projects. The Sega Genesis is home to a huge number of excellent games and like the SNES, the longer the system was around, the better the games got. Today’s game came out near the end of the Genesis’ timeline and without knowing it, the designers created the bridge between the beat-em-up and action genre.

Comix Zone was a 2D action game where players had to help Sketch escape a comic book of his own creation and stop the villain who put him there in the first place. Right off the bat you could tell that this was a late generation Genesis title from the stylish graphics. The game took place in a comic book with the player fighting from panel to panel through the detailed (for the time) world.

But what made Comix Zone great and the reason why I’m including it here is the gameplay. Comix Zone was one of the first beat-em-ups to evolve the gameplay of the genre. Most titles from the genre featured very few attacks and no options for defense. Comix Zone gave player different punches, kicks, grabs and the ability to block attacks. The different options to attack combined with the over the top sound effects gave the game a very visceral feel to it.

Comix Zone also mixed things up with one of the oldest traditions of the beat-em-up genre: health draining special attacks. While the player had special moves that could drain health, the real use of this mechanic was in the puzzle solving. The majority of the puzzles involved the player getting around or destroying an obstacle in their way. Attacking inanimate objects would drain the player’s health forcing the player to find other means of getting around them.

This challenged the player to figure out the solution instead of literally brute forcing their way through the game. The same idea would also be applied to the boss fights, as each boss could be killed with basic moves. But they each had another quicker way if the player could figure it out, making the fight a lot easier.

While the game sounds good so far, there were two big problems that affected the game’s popularity. The first was the length: the game was three levels long. Each level did have a few different paths based on what panels the player visited, but they all went to the same place. Once you get good enough at the game, you could finish it in about 30-40 minutes.

The other problem was the difficulty that many felt was too much. Player’s only had two lives and with bottomless pits, could end a run fast. Due to the energy draining puzzles, there was only a few optimal paths through the game, requiring players to play enough times to learn it to be able to win. Going the wrong way would force the player to attempt a harder scene or more energy draining puzzles which could spell disaster for them at the boss fights.

Comix Zone while an interesting attempt at the action genre did come out very late in the Genesis’ cycle. With other platforms already out, most people didn’t buy it and the complaints from those that did shut the game down from becoming a series. Today, you can find it on any # of Sega Genesis compilations as it remains an example of the variety of games the Genesis had to offer.

Josh Bycer

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Hinterland is one of those games that I keep harping on in blog posts, as it was the closest to being one of my favorite games of all time. Sadly, Hinterland came out at the wrong time both from the developer’s standpoint and the industry. Read more…

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I’ve been talking about Diablo 3 now for several posts and there is one part of it that I want to focus on today: the real money auction house system. Diablo 3 as many of you know, is one of the few online games where the developer has given their blessing over the use of selling in game items for money.

Now, let’s talk turkey for a second. The sale of virtual items for real money has been going on for years without the developer’s consent. I even knew someone who made a decent amount of money selling his Diablo 2 items back in the day. What Blizzard is doing is trying to legitimize the sale while making some extra money free of cost.

It’s safe to say that other developers are looking at the RMAH to see how well it succeeds to add to their perspective titles. But even if we look past the design issues with Diablo 3 as a whole. There are problems with the auction house that comes from Blizzard treating it as a system for a game,instead of as a legitimate business service. There is money to be made from both sides, but the best way to examine the system is to look at actual auction companies and where Blizzard needs to improve.

The Purpose of the Auction House:

Auction companies around the world exist as a centralized source for auctioning off items. They allow prospective sellers to have access to crowds of interested buyers while performing the task of marketing the items and getting the word out.

Many auction companies work with the sellers to provide them with a good idea of what the item is worth, to make sure that neither the buyer nor the seller is getting skimped. Many auction companies have catalogues sent out to repeat buyers, and people can view upcoming auctions online. For high end clients, the auction company can get in touch with them to let them know about rare items coming up to get them to the auction.

What happens is that all three parties: the company, the sellers, and the buyers walk away happy. The sellers will hopefully make more money than they could have by selling it on their own. The buyers get access to rare items that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. And the auction company receives a commission on each item sold, this could be anywhere from 10% to 30% or more.

Looking at Blizzard’s system, while they provide an outlet for people to buy and sell, they’re doing a horrible job of providing the other benefits of an auction house. As the system stands, Blizzard does not do anything to market perspective items to interested buyers. It could be as simple as having the system do a check and showing someone items that are pure upgrades to them on load. Another way would be setting up the system to send messages to people to let them know of a good item that has gone up on the market.

As it stands, besides the suggested items page, a buyer will have to use the convoluted search bar to try and find items that work. Blizzard also doesn’t provide easy ways of checking relative pricing for items so that sellers have a good idea of what to price an item for.

Servicing the Buyers:

Another important function of an auction company is to protect the buyers from fraudulent or broken items. Objects that are brought to auction are usually inspected by the company to make sure of both their value and their condition.

Depending on the type of object, condition could be less important than rarity, but that will affect the price. Since we’re talking about virtual goods, this role is less important as code doesn’t decay. On the flip side, it does make things harder to sell as the more items that flood the market, the less rare they are. However, that has more to do with design and can vary between games and is not part of the topic of this post.

Another part of the auction house is to provide accessibility for their auctions as they want everyone who can bid, to bid. Most auctions have phone bids available with high end auctions also provide internet bids. The point is that there should be nothing stopping someone who has money to bid on an item.

This is another major problem with Blizzard’s system. As you can only buy or sell items through the game itself. There is no way for someone to access the system from just a computer or mobile phone. Considering all of the apps and protection systems Blizzard has set up for online and mobile phone access, not providing this for the auction house is a major oversight.

Protecting the Sellers:

While making sure that the buyers are getting good products is important, making sure that the sellers are also treated fairly is vital. Without sellers there are no buyers and vice-versa. As mentioned above, it’s the job of the auction company to get the word out about upcoming auctions and to make the necessary connections. In real life, sellers also have to get the object to the auction, which for larger objects can cost a lot of money. This further raises the risk of taking an object to auction as it increases the cost for it.

If a seller walks away from an auction without selling their item, they are worse off for it because of shipping costs and the time of going to and from the auction. But there is another part of bad luck: if the item sells for less then what is expected.

If someone spent 30k on restoring a car and the car only brings 15k in auction, that’s a 15k+ lost for the person. Of course the auction company wants every item to be sold, as that’s how they make their money, but pissing off their sellers for short term profit, will hurt them down the road.

To protect their sellers, there is the option of putting a reserve on an item, which is usually done for rare or high valued items. What that means is that the auction company by contract, must meet the reserve on the item to sell it. If the item doesn’t meet the reserve, the auction company must either cancel the auction, or pay the seller the remainder of the reserve out of pocket. There are plenty of cases where the seller can take the reserve off, to renew interest in the auction, but the use of the reserve in the first place is an important tool.

One of the problems with Diablo 3’s auction system is how it’s set up for the seller. What happens is that once the item goes up for sale, it remains up for 24 hours. During that time (unless the person has a buy-out amount set,) people can bid whatever they want on the item. Whoever has the top bid is the one that is listed at the price. What that has led to is people waiting for as long as they can to bid anything on the item, in hope that they can grab it in the last few minutes for next to nothing.

As it stands, all the advantages of the Diablo 3 auction system is for people who want to buy items and not for those that want to sell. If Blizzard wants to turn the auction house into a viable source of income for all three parties, they need to do more to help those who are selling items. If an item doesn’t have any bids after X amount of time, then the item should just be sent back to the seller.

That way, people who are interested in bidding will bid sooner rather than later. Also the in game stash system is not conductive for people who are trying to use the auction system effectively. There is no way to sort items, or easily see if there are similar items on the market.

Currency Concerns:

Lastly, I want to touch on one area where I think Blizzard screwed up the most on with the auction house: the dual currency system. As it stands, you can either buy or sell items from two different auctions: either a gold auction or a real money auction. However, there are several problems with this set up.

First is that it splits up the buyers and sellers into two groups. Someone who is only interested in gold prices won’t touch the RMAH and vice versa. The other problem is that it has caused an inflation of gold prices, due to the limits on the real money system. It’s not uncommon for people to price good items in the tens of thousands for the gold system. While someone may price a great item on the RMAH for a starting bid of $3 and not get anything.

The problem is that by creating this inflation, it renders the original purpose of the auction system moot: to provide ways of players helping other players out with items while being compensated. This is where I’m going to suggest something controversial: remove the gold auction house and only have one currency.

Allow players to buy gold for cash, or cash out gold for money thus making the system only have one currency. By only having one system it will make it easier to sell items as the seller can see easily what their item is worth. It should also stabilize gold values as now: gold = money and vice versa. The problem with this system and one that I bet Blizzard thought of is that it means that they’ll have to pay people money for gold. To that I have to say “too bad,” if you want something to flourish and grow, you have to provide seed money.

Regardless of your opinion on the selling of virtual goods, we are moving from a traditional retail market to a digital one. The question of the ownership and selling of virtual items is only to get bigger. If developers want this to grow into another form of income, then they must treat it like a business and not like a system in a game. Or they’ll have to return to the old days: making it illegal and having it still happen on the black market thanks to farm bots and gold farmers.

The point of argument with virtual items lies in the concept of ownership: who owns the virtual items in a game- the player or the company? Perhaps if the RMAH grows, the game industry will someday have an online version of the Gooding and Company Classic Car auction.

Josh Bycer

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One of the hardest things to do when it comes to playing games is learning a new genre. As it forces the person to return to square one again and that can be frustrating for players. When you add up each genre with all the different quirks, this time can add up. This period of “learning time” has been dubbed around message boards as “gamer-tax” and is an important part of building (or diminishing) a fan-base.

When we talk about gamer tax, we’re focusing on the time it takes someone to understand the basics of a game. Or in other words: How long it takes for a player to be able to make informed choices when playing. We’re not talking about game mastery or beating the game, as by that point the player knows how to play the game.

As an example of real life gamer tax: someone buying a new barbeque grill. The gamer tax would be the person setting it up and figuring out how to cook some burgers. What wouldn’t be a part of gamer tax is if the person decides to learn how to create their own barbeque sauce or dry rub for ribs.

What makes gamer tax an important concept is how it repels new gamers from a genre. If someone would have to spend several hours reading manuals or watching tutorials just to figure out what is going on when they’re playing, chances are they aren’t going to stick around. Gamer tax also has an effect on game popularity, as the most popular games have the least amount of gamer tax.

Someone learning the basics of Call of Duty for the first time may have to spend at most 5 minutes figuring out how to move and shoot. Action games by design have very little gamer tax, as the player is learning the basics of the game very quickly over the scope of a few minutes of playing. On the other side of the equation, strategy games due to their complexity and multiple systems, have a much larger amount of gamer tax before someone can understand the basics.

 The Game Design Tax Man

Call of Duty Black Ops

Doing Some Accounting:

The amount of gamer tax a game has is correlated to how well the designer explains the game through tutorials and avoids cumbersome design. The easier it is for someone to follow the game, the less gamer tax there is.

If you look at any of PopCap’s games, each one is designed for someone new to comprehend the mechanics very quickly. At the last GDC, the lead designer behind Plants vs. Zombies gave an excellent presentation on how the team used very subtle techniques to make the game easy to understand, without simplifying it for strategy game experts.

For example, sunflowers which are important for getting sunshine (in game resources) are always the first plant available to be planted. For a tower defense expert, they know that resource producers are always the first thing to build, but someone who never played a tower defense game wouldn’t know that.

By making them the first ones available, a player would know that they should be planting one before anything else to make sure that they’ll have a source of sunshine coming in. While Plants vs. Zombies is an example of streamlining the tutorial to reduce gamer-tax, Final Fantasy 13 is an example of an enormous amount of forced gamer tax.

What the designers did was over the course of the first twenty or so hours of gameplay, they stretch out the tutorial by slowly introducing the basic mechanics of the game. The positive behind this technique is that it made sure that the player would fully understand the game by the time the designers finish holding their hands.

The negative is that it created so much gamer tax, that it turned away a lot of people. If your game has a period of time that the player has to play before “the real game begins” all you’re doing is piling on gamer tax before the player can start experiencing the game as you intended.

 The Game Design Tax Man

Plants vs. Zombies

Portal for instance, even with the physics based puzzles had next to zero in terms of gamer tax. The reason is that Valve integrated the tutorial into the starting levels. Testing the player on one concept and giving them something new if they pass. They didn’t try to cram everything into one puzzle, or bloat out the tutorial to make sure that the mechanic was understood. They did just enough to keep the game moving at a steady pace.

Valve introduced the base mechanics that all the puzzles stem from within the first few minutes. Meaning that the player understood them early on, allowing Valve to build on those mechanics while making sure that the player knows what to do. In Portal 2, when they introduced the concepts of the gels, they once again went back to the basics with a few simple puzzles. Then after a few puzzles, they integrated gel and portal based mechanics into the same puzzles.

The point of this post isn’t that you can’t have complex games. But that complexity should be avoided when someone is learning a game. As a recent example: I’ve been trying to learn Crusader Kings 2 from Paradox for the last few weeks.

Between reading the manual and watching tutorials and “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube, I have about 3 hours of learning about what is going in the game. That is a lot of gamer tax and a less patient person would probably give up trying to learn Crusader Kings 2, and the best part? I still don’t know a lot of how to play the game, as the in game tutorials are cumbersome.

When it comes to learning new concepts, the use of visual aids is one of the best ways to teach. As the majority of humans learn best through vision. Obviously video games are a visual activity which makes games that have poor tutorials even more troubling. There is no video game that should require lessons on par with a college accredited course. And for complex genres like strategy games, it’s a lesson designers need to learn if they ever hope to expand their fan-base.

Josh Bycer

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