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5 game design lessons from the Tokyo Game Show

While demoing Gunsport at the Tokyo Game Show, I got some lessons from the pros.

I recently got back from demoing our upcoming game Gunsport at the Tokyo Game Show. It was definitely a different experience from Western consumer-facing tradeshows, but talking to other developers was perhaps the most interesting part of the experience. I got to have a lot of conversations, some short, some long, with Japanese developers who wandered by to play the game.

Here are 5 takeaways, either on game design, or being a game designer, that I gleaned from being at the Tokyo Game Show. 

(A quick primer on our game Gunsport for those who haven't played it – it's a 2v2 esports-ish action game, rather like volleyball with guns. On each team, one character doesn't move, and can fire twice per volley (the Keeper), and one character does move and jump, but can only fire once per volley (the Striker). Whenever the ball crosses the net in either direction, it's worth additional points. Also, our control scheme is rather different – left trigger and right trigger aim your gun up and down, and X fires. This is worth knowing as you read, because this is what we had to communicate to players as they went through the game – rather a lot. Now on to the lessons.)

1) Communication is everything.

Japanese is not my first language, so naturally verbal communication was at times an issue – but so too was visual and thematic communication within the game. One player in particular just didn't like the jump of the character he was using. “She's up in the air too long,” he said. “She's just floating.” To which I replied, “Well, we'll have a nicer feel to the gravity in the final game, but ultimately we want her to have serious hangtime, so she can aim and shoot to get a better angle on the ball.” “I just don't like that long jump,” he shrugged, adding “I'm used to quicker ones in action games.”

Then I had the realization – I'd been trying to explain to him why this character should have a long jump, when instead I should've retargeted. I showed him another character from another team, who has a very quick and snappy jump. “Oh!” he said. “Every character is different! I get it!” And the problem was solved.

But ultimately it highlighted an existing problem – how can we get people to realize that every character will be different, right from the start, without having to try every character out, or have a conversation with me? Street Fighter does this with character design, and we've tried there, but it isn't enough visual communication. We need to improve our visual language, but also our educate people about our verbs in general.

2) Be ready to test.

We had two new teams in the game, and we needed to test them, because they'd only been implemented the night before the show. I had no idea the teams would be ready, but our programmer surprised us and pulled through! So after some quick, blind balance attempts, we tried to test them out.

All I could really do was take notes about which team beat which, on a piece of paper, but this was ultimately invaluable. When one group played for a really long time, I'd urge them to try the new teams, so I could test this at a varied level of play.

So I got great data, but if we'd had some actual metrics-mining tools, I could've gotten a lot more hard data, and that would've been great to compare across shows.

Tak Fujii (ninety nine nights) wandered by at one point!

3) Praise can fool you.

At various points during the event, pals like Tak Fujii came by to play the game and give their feedback. At one point during the first day, Koji Igarashi (of Castlevania fame) wandered by. I grabbed him and asked him to play. Now, he's played games of ours before (like Oh, Deer! Alpha), and he gave a pretty neutral response. “It's okay,” he'd say, or “It's not really my kind of thing.”

Gunsport, on the other hand, actually engaged him. He was good at it right away, first of all, which is already nice to see (most people take a game or two to get decent). He got the nuance of the game very quickly, and was able to bring his team to victory almost singlehandedly. He kept saying “this is interesting,” as he was playing, or every time he learned a new rule. At the end, he pointed at the game and said “this is super fun.” 

Obviously this felt great to hear about our action game, coming from someone whose action games I've been playing since highschool. But as soon as he left, I realized that I couldn't let this praise make us complacent. We're far from done, and just because someone who is already very good at action games can get good at it doesn't mean others will figure out how to get there. The lesson here was, take the praise, but don't let it get to your head, as I almost did.

Iga plays gunsport.

4) Japanese players are patient.

This was an interesting one. We've demoed Gunsport all around the US, Europe, and now Asia, and each audience seems to be quite different. Younger Americans, mostly tweens, seem to really get into it. So do older folks once they're forced to play it (and you do have to force them). Your 18-25 year old Call of Duty player has a lot more criticisms.

But one thing was common among all American players – they didn't listen to my instructions, assumed they could figure it out, and just went for it. This is good and bad. It's a great way to test out whether your game teaches people how to play (ours really doesn't, which is a problem), but if they don't figure it out, they can get really frustrated. And that's something I noticed a lot – when American players weren't good at the game right away, or didn't “get” it right away, they got frustrated and mad at the game.

Japanese players, on the other and, if they weren't good at it, or didn't get it right away, they'd ask for further instructions and then try harder. The average player would try one thing, find it not working, then try something else and succeed. There was so much more patience on the whole, and much more measured play. Less screaming and yelling with excitement (though there was some of that), but much more precision. I noticed far fewer button presses than the average, because players were economizing their movements, the way I'd told them to economize their shots.

I don't know of what use this information is just yet, but it certainly was interesting.

5) The 1 coin experience.

At the end of the third day of TGS, a Guilty Gear battle systems designer played Gunsport for about 45 minutes with some friends of his (I unfortunately neglected to find out whether they were in the industry as well). I let them play even as others wanted to get in, simply because this was good data – I was currently testing out the balance of some new teams, as mentioned before, and these folks were doing great work in that regard.

He was on the team which has the most difficult character to play, because it can detonate its bullets remotely with a second button press. After he played, we talked for a while, and I mentioned I'd like to bring the game to arcades some day. 

He said, “If you do, you're going to have to work on that 100 yen, one coin experience.” I agreed, and he elaborated. “You've got a fun game here, after you've played it about three times. But up until then you don't know really what you're doing. In the arcades, you've got one shot at that player's 100 yen. The player has to be able to put the coin in, understand what they're doing, play, and have fun, all within that one coin. If they don't, they'll be frustrated and they won't play again.”

I knew we needed to work on visual feedback and letting players know what to do naturally, but this really hit it home for me. We have a rather obtuse control scheme, and unless we can get people in, playing, and having fun right away, they're going to be turned off. There's much more work to be done here, but hearing it from someone working on something that actually is successful in arcades made it all the more striking.


One of the other players of that 45 minute game had a whole lot of feedback, but he spoke a mile a minute so I couldn't make it all out. (here's a bit of video of them playing) One thing I did catch from his feedback was that Gunsport was a great “waiwai game.” I had never heard this term before. “Wai” is an onomatopoeia for an exclamation of happiness, but I wasn't sure how it related. He said, “you know, a waiwai game!” and raised his hands up in the air. I still didn't get it. He said, “Okay, it's the kind of game where you get a bunch of friends around, get a few beers after work, and play over and over while screaming at each other. A waiwai game!”

So that's a new term I'm putting it on the proverbial box. Gunsport: waiwai game.


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