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Overlapping Elements: Making one game and not several

A comparative analysis of how games make various elements feel like one game and not several.

This is a cross post from here: http://guilelessmonk.tumblr.com/

Super Ghouls’n Ghosts

Super Ghouls’n Ghosts health system is that you get/find armour along the way and as you get your new armour your attacks get stronger and move in more helpful directions. By having the health mechanic serve two purposes they can make the game more ‘streaky’ where you have really good runs if you get the gold armour quickly and don’t lose it but dieing at a key point loses you your armour and forces you to face enemies while at your weakest. The weaker you are the weaker your attacks and the stronger your are the stronger your attacks, the game uses this to reinforce it’s demanding difficulty curve and reward players who know the game’s secrets (where hidden armour stashes are). The game isn’t shy about its arcade roots.

Sonic

Sonic’s health system of collecting and losing rings also serves another purpose, it gives hard core players a reason to collect rings. Go watch a speed run of the original Castlevania and notice how often the player gets purposely hit in order to skip sections of the game, by making it so the score system and the health system are integrated in such a clean way (getting hit doesn’t just cost you time it costs rings, but you can get them all back if you are quick) it makes it so both casual and hardcore players play the game in the same basic way and by aligning these two play styles you make it easier for the casual to transition into the hard core.

The price of not combining elements

Combining elements in a game is all about making the game feel like a single experience and not several different mini-games that in no way relate to each other. A genre that typically has trouble with this is the classical RPG (also called the JRPG) where the game can feel like 3 different things at times; an adventure game, a battle system, and a movie. If you have played a JRPG before you are familiar with the pattern, you run around in an environment and then for no visible reason are transported to a different place with different music and different character models. To cap it off, sometimes you are shown pre-rendered cutscenes with character models which can look different if you are a large enough studio to have a different modeling team for the pre-rendered stuff.

Most JRPGs are aware of this problem and try to address it to varying success. In Final Fantasy 6 they used the same models for the characters in battle as the ones in the overworld despite the fact that enemies were more detailed in their models so that the random transition into this mode doesn’t feel so jarring. Chrono Trigger had no random battles but rather ones you could see coming and had the battles without a screen transition so the battles never felt like they were miles away.

Pokemon

Pokemon has the most perfect overlapping element ever though, the pokemon. In most JRPGs even if they do a good job of making the battles feel like they happen in the same space as the exploration, how do you make the battles feel region specific? Is the enemy something new, or do I have to come up with a new strategy to battle them? Most of the time the battle strategy you use is agnostic to where you are, you make a team to specialize in one strategy (healer, DPS, tank) and so when a fight comes up you execute that strategy to varying degrees of vigor (to conserve mana or items, see ‘Grinding: The problem with Numbers’). But in pokemon, your strategy must be based around switching in or out various pokemon (each of whom is a different strategy) in various locations and so you must be aware of what pokemon you are likely to see in order to have the pokemon you have for dealing with that out front, tying together location and the battles.

Battles in Pokemon come in two flavors: random and non-random. The non-random exist largely for grinding purposes, in these battles the pokemon are much stronger (for more experience) to compensate the player for the increased difficulty you can easily get back to heal up between fights because these fights aren’t random and you can see them coming (though the do punish you for doing this with Nurse Joy’s monologue). They also serve as a kind of showcase for pokemon you can get later, giving the player incentive to keep playing and get that cool pokemon that pre-school kid had. 

The random battles exist for collection purposes, you collect things in the game through the battle system by fighting, weakening and ultimately capturing pokemon which gives the battle system a new purpose beyond just getting your battle numbers higher for other battles. All of a sudden battles don’t feel so disconnected and isolated, they don’t just give you new numbers or new things to do in battles but they give you a new thing out of battle, a thing with personality and a story. Collecting all the pokemon requires you to explore the world, finish the story and fight a lot of pokemon. The pokemon serve so many purposes in every system the game has (collection, story, exploration, battle..) that it unifies these by default different systems into one game.

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