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A Detailed Cross-Examination of Yesterday and Today's Best-Selling Platform Games

Why are history's best-selling platform games so successful? How important is a solid reward structure? Can a control tutorial negatively affect game sales? Answers to these and more, in today's exclusive Gamasutra cover feature.

2006 Revised Introduction

[Note: This unprecedentedly detailed survey of the platform game genre was originally created in 2003 by journalist and game designer Daniel Boutros, but this special 2006 version includes much additional information and is publicly released for the first time.]

After writing this piece, I got an equal amount of heat and praise for it. Thanks to some much-needed critical feedback, I was made aware that there were far too many terms that really didn’t need to be there, so they’re gone, so now some of the data won’t be such a headache to read.

I also realised that there was a need to develop a detailed taxonomy to describe common game elements and at present I’m working toward a project that will address that, though cannot announce it in detail just yet. Some of these processes and measuring standards have also been significantly refined and will be revealed in the next paper.

As for the platform game market, since the writing of this piece we’ve seen the market go more toward a ‘hybrid’ genre, with richness of interactivity in the environment traded off for more crudely (but competently) implemented multiple genres and sub-games. Conversely we’ve also seen a resurgence of late 80s / early 90s era 2D platform gameplay in the handheld Nintendo DS and Sony PSP consoles.

Current darlings of the scene include the simplistic and charming Loco Roco, which has considerable depth in a simplistic control scheme where you tilt the environment to move the lead character. It also contains concepts where you squish the character and split it up to move through areas of a certain shape and size.

New Super Mario Bros is regarded as a hybrid mix of all the best features of Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros 3, married with completely new concepts and a fully comprehensive two-player mode. The game has achieved excellent reviews and for good measure, I’ve added it to the analysis below, just for comparison’s sake. Though sadly lack a copy and the time to play through Loco Roco at present.

As for overall game design trends in the last few years, games have taken on a philosophy to become more rewarding. Burnout is the perfect example of this, with players being able to unlock hundreds of bonuses, be they titles, pictures, extra vehicles or special areas. It’s rare to find any sports or general action games nowadays that don’t contain a reward at least once per level or every five to ten minutes. Some games now have more unlockables than actual levels.

To end, you may find that some of the conclusion data has not aged well, though regardless, it’s hard not to find something useful in it at the end of the doc. Hope you get something out of this,

Dan


Platform Games

Platform games used to enjoy a 15% share of the market in 1998 - and considerably more in the 16-bit era - but 2002 Chart Track results showed a staggering drop to 2%.

As consequence, marketing circles are reportedly deliberating that platform games – as a genre - are not as attractive to consumers as they once were.

We believe it’s not an issue of genre, but an issue of effective design principles of past being forgotten.

Thanks to Naughty Dog and Insomniac, the PS2 has been awash with well-produced platform games and we’ve also recently been blessed by new outings from Mario and Sonic on Gamecube. However, although they’ve all been successful in their own respects, these games have failed to match the astronomical sales success enjoyed by their predecessors.

To prove our point, we’ll use the best selling games of each top-selling platform game series and compare them alongside the recent next-generation updates.

According to online reports, the worldwide best sellers of each series – that were not initially bundled with their respective consoles - are:

  • Super Mario Brothers 3 – more than 17 million worldwide total sales
  • Rayman – over 4 million worldwide total sales
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – over 6 million worldwide total sales
  • Crash Bandicoot – over a million worldwide total sales

And the next-generation products we’ll examine are:
Jak and Daxter, Super Mario Sunshine and Sonic Adventure

Some would say that it’s pointless to compare to the 16-bit or even 8-bit days, as it was a different market and of course, it’s true that the market has changed.

Another truism however, is that if online reports are correct, not a single game – of any genre - has sold as much as Super Mario Bros 3. Being that we’re in an industry which is largely built on forward thinking, it may be productive to look to the past for lessons in improving the present and future of games - and this includes looking in classic game designs and ideas.

For effective feedback, we’ll look at game design elements in these games alongside other relevant conditions, in detail.


Super Mario Bros. 3

  • TOTAL WORLDWIDE SALES AS OF JUNE 2006 = 17 million
  • Gamerankings Score: 92%
  • NES system
  • Origin: Japan
  • Number of Players: 2 in sequence and 2 simultaneously when in VS mode
  • US release: Feb 1st 1990

It is well known that Super Mario Brothers sold more than this title, being that it was bundled with every NES. We’re choosing this title however, as it was not bundled initially and still managed to shift more than every other unbundled game – let alone platform games – in existence today.

Instead of relying on holiday bundles for a sales surge, the game benefited from a high-profile product placement in the film ‘The Wizard’ - 3 months before the U.S release - helping SMB3 rocket to worldwide sales, reportedly in excess of 15 million.

SMB3 was also the most varied and experimental of all other platform games in existence. It broke new ground in it’s genre by being the first to introduce a level progression system in the form of a fully interactive World map – which was a level in itself. This also presented the option to complete the game without having to finish every single level – another first for the platform genre.

It took the original Super Mario Brothers formula and outdated it considerably, resulting in one of the finest examples of effective game design and design progression in recent decades.


Rayman

  • TOTAL WORLDWIDE SALES AS OF JUNE 2003 = 4 million (no updated figures available at time of publishing)
  • Gamerankings Score: 70%
  • PSOne
  • Origin: France
  • Number of Players: 1
  • US Release: Jan 1st 1996
  • ESRB Rating: K-A

Rayman was initially released on the ill-fated Atari Jaguar and was initially met with disdain by critics because of its on-the-surface shallow gameplay - masked by lavish visuals and animated introductions.

Another negative, was the fact that the Jaguar release came at a time when the market was being saturated with generic characters like Accolade’s Bubsy and Sunsoft’s Aero the Acrobat and thus came into the world un-noticed in the sea unoriginality which many critics decided to make Rayman a part of.

Upon its 1996 port to the PSOne, it’s been an evergreen title, and then upon its budget re-release - combining it with Rayman 2 - it sold even more, possibly owing to it’s residence on high-street super market shelves.

It was hardly ground-breaking, but its lush visuals and bizarre world, characteristic of French design, won plenty of young hearts and the total series has now sold in excess of 11 million and climbing at time of writing.


Sonic the Hedgehog 2

  • TOTAL WORLDWIDE SALES AS OF JUNE 2006 = 6 million
  • Gamerankings Score: 89.4%
  • Sega Genesis
  • Number of Players: 1 or 2 simultaneous
  • US Release: Dec 31st 1992

Sonic 2 was released on New Years day in the US, although some would say foolishly, as the impact of its release would likely be muffled by the New Years celebrations. This however, didn’t stop Sonic 2 becoming the best selling 2D Sonic game and furthermore – one of the best selling platform games of all time.

Sonic was the blue to Mario’s red, combining lightning fast movement with vast and plush areas to explore – an antidote to Mario’s far more compact game levels.

Sonic’s design allowed for new ways for players to move around levels that were often larger in size than those in other games. These levels mainly consisted of half-pipes, loop-the-loops and ramps as parts and pieces of some very unique navigational situations. In this episode of the franchise, you could also race through selected stages with a friend in a simultaneous two-player split-screen VS mode – a first for platform games.

Sonic 2 had the first fully simultaneous competitive two-player mode and some say that this episode was also the greatest moment of the entire franchise.

It reportedly propelled Genesis unit sales to that which surpassed the legendary Super Nintendo and helped secure Sega as a powerful force for years to come.


Crash Bandicoot

  • TOTAL WORLDWIDE SALES AS OF NOV 2003 = 6.8 million
  • Gamerankings Score: 78.4%
  • PSOne
  • Number of Players: 1
  • US Release: Sep 3rd 1996
  • ESRB Rating: E

Crash Bandicoot seemingly came out of nowhere and filled the void that was waiting for a Playstation mascot.

Crash wasn’t a groundbreaker in terms of new ideas, but the way the developers worked with the Playstation hardware to achieve environments with such visual wealth and compacted gameplay, was impressive for it’s time.

Naughty Dog created a level-design formula which although on-rails and slightly claustrophobic at times, created a large amount of challenge through skill-jumps and completist-geared navigational puzzles which required pixel-perfect accuracy.

Crash Bandicoot has since gone on to star in a dozen more games and has even crossed into Kart game territory, showing that the Crash franchise has indeed become strong enough to stretch outside the platform game market.


Sonic Adventure

  • TOTAL WORLDWIDE SALES AS OF JUNE 2006 = 2.5 million
  • Gamerankings Score: 87.2%
  • Sega Dreamcast
  • Number of Players: 1. 2-player option is a short-term secret mode
  • US Release: Sep 9th 1999
  • ESRB Rating: E

Sonic’s first full 3D adventure was clearly a labour of love, as displayed by the sprawling and beautiful environments and the ambitious and well-realised multiple-character story perspective feature.

The game displayed an almost entirely new persona from its 2D counterpart, emanating a more uniquely stylised and unique look to its 16bit counterparts.

The 3-dimensional update scaled down the open and vast level designs that were familiar throughout the 2D episodes and went for a far more linear and focused layout that limited the player to only a handful of off-path areas to explore for bonuses. Some found this off-putting.

One change was well received however - the inclusion of a multi-story viewpoint.
In short, you could play as six different characters, each with its own view on the main narrative and a suitable twist on the core game engine - another platform first, courtesy of Sonic.


Super Mario Sunshine

  • TOTAL WORLDWIDE SALES AS OF JUNE 2006 = 5.5 million
  • Gamerankings Score: 91%
  • Nintendo Gamecube
  • Number of Players: 1
  • US Release: August 26th 2002
  • ESRB Rating: E

Super Mario Sunshine reportedly began as an N64DD intended update, minus the water cannon, before the 64DD was scrapped for a full worldwide release and Gamecube was given the green light.

SMS is a large departure from the traditional Mario formula, removing the old power-up system of past and the ability to pick up and throw enemies.

The new formula introduces the multi-functional ‘Fludd’ water-jet and consequently a wider breadth of possibility for original puzzle and level design ideas.

Although initially praised by the specialist media, some publications have back-tracked in recent stories to say this is Mario’s least spectacular moment, made even more so by the arguably unpolished camera software, which at times requires extreme precision of movement and can cause immense frustration.

It sold 500,000 copies in Japan in its first week, but sales spiked low after the initial excitement wore off. The game was soonafter announced for Budget catalogue inclusion. Now, in ’06, the game has since enjoyed sitting in the ‘Player’s Choice’ catalogue on a heavily discounted console and has amassed a rather impressive amount of sales.


Jak & Daxter

  • TOTAL WORLDWIDE SALES AS OF JUNE 2006 = 3.2 million
  • Gamerankings Score: 90%
  • Playstation 2
  • Number of Players: 1
  • US Release: Dec 4th 2001
  • ESRB Rating: E

Jak and Daxter was born from the same loins that originally gave Crash Bandicoot to the world - Naughty Dog. In terms of level-design style, both share similarities – not in the superficial sense, but in the sense of a design ethos favouring less-puzzles and more movement and action. Jak and Daxter trimmed the puzzle-fat further, by possibly becoming the first fully action orientated platform adventure.

Jak and Daxter was also a test for Naughty Dog; a test of whether the studio with not much of a reputation prior to Crash Bandicoot could carry on being successful without relying on the Crash franchise.

Thankfully for Naughty Dog, Jak and Daxter was a success and more than that – it showed a clear difference in style between U.S and Japanese platform game design:

  • Japan’s style favouring puzzles and abstract play-themes - within an action orientated environment
  • And U.S designers pushing for more action and variety and less brainwork in terms of elaborate puzzles or complex navigational dilemmas


New Super Mario Bros.

  • TOTAL WORLDWIDE SALES AS OF JUNE 2006 = 2.5 million
  • Not yet released in Europe
  • Gamerankings Score: 89.2
  • Nintendo DS
  • Number of Players: 1 or 2
  • US Release: May
  • ESRB Rating: E

New Super Mario Bros is the first traditional 2D Mario sequel since Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo.

Touted as a return to form for the series, it compiles the best of the 2D Mario games. NSMB has seen across the board rave reviews and having only released in Japan and America thus far, it has totalled more than 2.5 million sales worldwide.

It remains to be seen how much power this classically influenced realisation of the Mario brand has and thus far, things are looking positive.

From a recent Nintendo press release:

“After just 35 days on store shelves, New Super Mario Bros.® for Nintendo DS? has racked up sales in excess of one half million in the United States alone. That's a sell-through rate of more than 20 every minute since the game went on sale May 15.”


The First Ten Minutes

A common belief amongst psychologists is that people make up a vast majority of their total opinion of a person in the first five seconds of meeting. It would also be fair to say that games are also subject to this nature-programmed degree of scrutiny.

We’ll stretch this test time slightly from five seconds to ten minutes and examine factors that are relevant to a player's enticement and enjoyment within the first ten minutes of gameplay.

Bear in mind that games reviewers are particularly sensitive to negativity in a game’s initial moments, and when games nowadays are mostly reviewed for an average of a handful of hours before the verdict goes to print, you’ll be able to appreciate why the functionality and enjoyment of a game’s beginnings is worthy of your focused attention.

1. Visuals

Just as the 16-bit era was drawing to a close – thanks largely to Sony’s Playstation - a flood of titles appeared which promised ‘best ever graphics’ as their main unique selling point. This was largely because the title was made entirely using FMV technology. Such titles included Night Trap on Mega CD, Voyeur on Phillips CDi and Sewer Shark on 3DO.

This flood was met with initial awe and helped titles that relied on better graphics to sell rather well, but of course these fads eventually died out and as a result, the market was made aware that appealing visuals are not worth hinging a while game on for an engaging game experience, if the mechanics and play rules are at least not up to standard.

One thing developers learnt from this short-lived gold rush, is that enticing visuals are important, and the old adage of “graphics doesn’t matter”, was and is largely an idealistic and unrealistic view in regards to having your titles sell well.

In turn, marketers learnt that mechanics play a significant role and a game is more likely to sell if both graphics and mechanical design are well executed.

See the terminology on the following page, to understand terms that will be used throughout this analysis.

Terminology

Touch Hurt Hazards: Hazards that take a hit-point from the player character when the hazard is touched.

PC: Player character – meaning the character whom the player controls.

Kill Zone: A bottomless pit or an area that upon entering will kill you instantly.

Boost: An object, which increases the level of whatever it’s boosting – speed or strength for instance.

Quota Token: A token or item which is part of a set. Once the set is complete, a reward is received. Types include:

  • Area unlock: To gain access to an area when quota is met
  • Ability unlock: To gain access to a new ability when set quota is met
  • Event unlock: To have an event cue upon meeting a specified quota
  • Bonus area unlock: To open a Bonus area upon meeting a set quota
  • New level unlock: To open a new game level upon meeting a set quota
  • Character unlock: To unlock use of a new character upon sufficient quota
  • Bonus game unlock: To unlock additional bonus games

Sub-Quota token: A token or item which is part of a sub-set. Once this set is complete, a reward in the form of a Quota Token is received.

A Beat: A word describing an on-rails navigational route that an enemy or platform takes – when you see an enemy walking back and forth on a platform for instance.

Current generation games: Games on PS2, GC, Xbox and Dreamcast.


























 

Spec

Approx Head to Body Ratio

Screen
Space

On-Screen Decor

First Level

Camera

8-bit
2D

40% - 60%

Mario is a sixth of the screen high.

Static cutouts.
Platforms. Hills.
Pipes.

Abstract area at daytime.

2D flat pan.
2 axes of movement.

16-bit
2D

33% - 67%

Rayman is a fifth of the screen high.

Animated plant-life.
Animated wildlife.
Platforms.
Hills.

Tropical jungle.

2D flat pan.
2 axes of movement.

16 bit
2D

50% - 50%

Sonic is a sixth of the screen high.

Animated plant-life.
Animated wildlife.
Animated backdrops.
Multi-layered backdrops.
Far-reaching ocean.

Tropical hills.

2D flat pan.
2 axes of movement.

32 bit
3D

33% - 67%

Crash is a fifth of the screen high.

Static plant-life.
Location and era revealing statue ornaments.

Tropical jungle.

2D overhead on rails with vertical scroll.
2D Flat panning with horizontal scroll.

128 bit
3D

45% - 55%

Varies with camera.

Animated plant-life. Animated Wildlife.
Far distant animated environment.
Far-reaching ocean.

Clean, modern city with Tropical land-scapes.

3D intelligent camera with occasional fixed angles.

128 bit
3D

25% - 75%

When controllable, Zoom Out = a fifth of the screen, Zoom In = 3/4 of the screen.
Otherwise, adapts to area.

Animated wildlife.
Animated backdrops. Far distant animated environment.
Far-reaching ocean.

Tropical Island.

3D player controlled with occasional fixed angles.

128 bit
3D

40% - 60%

Zoom Out = a thirteenth of the screen.
Zoom In = a fifth of the screen.

Gameplay-relevant organic plant-life.
Far distant animated environment.
Far-reaching ocean.

Tropical Island.

3D player controlled camera, with context dependent effects.

64 bit 3D

40%-60%

Mario is a sixth of the screen high.

Static cutouts.
Various plant life.
Platforms.
Red bricks.
A Palace with animated features.
Scrolling Clouds.
Hills.
Pipes.

Abstract green area overlooking a palace at daytime.

2D flat pan.
2 axes of movement.
Horizontal scroll possible through L and R controls.


Spec

Aka - the graphical muscle that the artists can stretch. The results show that 2D graphics have clothed the top three best selling platform games. They also show that comparatively speaking; the lesser the graphical muscle on the platform, the bigger the head.

Head to Body Ratio

The data shows that through the ages, lead character’s heads have gotten smaller. In the lo-tech days, big heads were necessary so that distinctive features could be present in the characters – much like Mario’s moustache or Sonic’s spikes.

Both Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario’s creator and Jason Rubin, Crash’s creator, have revealed in interviews how the use of a large head on their characters, was merely to give more distinction to them on machines capable of lesser levels of detail. Of course, nowadays the method is no longer required, due to the amount of graphical creation power available.

Co-incidentally enough, Disney’s technologically-unrestricted Mickey Mouse, owns a head proportionally large in relation to his body – similar to Mario and Sonic head to body ratios - so perhaps big-head-to-body-ratio is a key factor in character distinction throughout all medias and not just low-spec games?

Screen Space

This is an important issue, as you need your character to be visible - but you also need to see what’s ahead. The results conclude that a good balance of both these factors lies in having the player character’s height take up between a fifth or sixth of the screen.

The two most extreme cases however, are Super Mario Sunshine and Jak and Daxter; Super Mario Sunshine’s zoom-out function stops when Mario becomes a 13th of the screen high and its zoom-in stops, when Mario’s a fifth high.

Jak and Daxter seems to prefer the up-close ap

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