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Platformers and Game Balance or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sprint

A look at platformers and imposing limits on gameplay mechanics

My time during these last few weeks has been spent between working on a semi-stealth-based top down shooter and revisiting the platformer genre through New Super Mario Bros and Super Meat Boy. In this time I made some beautifully written code that implemented a timed sprint function and then completely scrapped it.

Re-playing these platformer made me realize that platformers are some of the most open gameplay experiences available, rarely are designer imposed limitations placed on the player. Instead it seems much more common that players are left to an unmonitored set of tools to build whatever they'd like with, but just as in real life there a reason you don't only use a hammer to handle all your household chores (unless you like to have a few beers before doing these chores).

One gameplay element in particular stood out to me in these games, the sprinting mechanic. In both of these previously mentioned games there is no limit to the sprint time like is commonly found in games of other genres. Why is that, surely player will just hold down the sprint button at all times in order to move faster right? I mean faster is better, or maybe it isn't. I found that after focusing on how often I would sprint in Mario was nowhere close to the percentage of time I spent holding down the sprint key in games of other genres, games where sprinting is finite resource. This made me ask myself “Why would I sprint more in a game that obviously doesn't want me to abuse it over a game that doesn’t care what I do with it?”

This has made me think that good design is about balancing out mechanics with other mechanics, not imposing limits to those mechanics for the player. I can sprint through 100% any Mario game, but I don't because there are other elements that I'm more affected by when holding down that special key, be they the lack of time to fully see and respond to the obstacles ahead of me or not having that precise control of my movements in air and on the ground. So I removed the limits on sprinting in my game and am now determined to find other ways to balance it out, be that through AI or other means. This has made me wonder if there are any other gameplay mechanics that are limited simply to provide balance instead of creating that balance more fluidly with other aspects of the game.

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