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The Art of the Platformer

The platformer genre is one of the oldest ones in the industry. Even though it may be considered one of the simplest, there are a lot of factors under the hood to consider.

The platformer genre is one of the oldest ones in the industry. Even though it may be considered one of the simplest, there are a lot of factors under the hood to consider. 

In my recent analysis of A Valley Without Wind, I talked about how the platforming gameplay didn't feel as refined as I would have liked. As I thought about it more, I started to think about why certain platformers fared better than others. Why is Super Mario Brothers as highly regarded as Super Mario Galaxy? Why do we get such a thrill running and jumping across rooftops in Assassin's Creed or going after skill orbs in Crackdown?

Platformers are up there as one of my most played genres of all time. Super Mario Brothers was the first video game I played back in 1988. Platformers have evolved from the 2D era to 3D, then in a strange situation found resurgence with 2D again with titles like Explosion Man and Super Meat Boy.

 

                                             Super Mario Galaxy

When it comes to platformer design, either 2d or 3d, there are three elements to examine: on the ground action, what you can do in the air and finally the environment itself. Different platformers over the years, each have their own take on these three aspects.

Run, Run as Fast As you can...

Let's start with the ground as it is the simplest of the three. This is simply the act of giving the character "weight” in the world. If you remember in the original Super Mario Brothers, Mario would never jump as far when standing in a stationary position as oppose to running before leaping. When it comes to ground movement, there are two design philosophies that are followed.

First is movement being based on locked speeds: walking and running. When the player pushes either the key or analog stick, the character will move at one speed constantly. Pressing a modifier button will cause the character to run, which also has one speed. There is no in between, either the player is not moving, at walking speed, or at running speed.

The second type is using a gradual system. Instead of using one or two locked speeds, the player has more control over it. In this system, there are two extremes: stopped and full on running. Depending on how far the player moves the analog stick, determines their speed between the two. Push the stick a little bit, and the player walks, a little more and they move quicker. Push the stick as far it will go and the player runs.

The gradual system has become adopted primarily by 3D titles as it coincided with the analog stick becoming popularized. However some 2D titles like Super Meat Boy also use this, due to the challenge level and need for greater control. The other consequence is that it made button control for movement not applicable due to not having the level of control with a button compared to an analog stick. This can increase the difficulty of a game dramatically, which anyone who played Super Meat Boy using a keyboard could attest to.

 

                                                     Super Meat Boy

In terms of which one is better, the gradual system is used more when  movement is more important. However, if the challenge of the game is making tricky jumps and not about ground movement, then the lock speeds can work.

Hang Time:

Next up let's talk about what happens in the air. The amount of possible actions in mid-air are far greater compared to the ground. For instance, in Mario Galaxy, players have more than 5 different ways to jump that affect distance and height.

In the past, the original design of air control was that there was none. Meaning that once you hit the jump button that was it, and you could not affect the character until they land or died. This kind of control was one of the reasons why a lot of early games were so difficult due to the precise actions needed to survive. As consoles entered the 16 bit era and beyond, this type of design was mostly replaced by allowing the player to control characters in mid air.

Another major design decision that changed the design dramatically was the option to allow the player to hang from ledges. This affected how the level was designed, as it gave the designer the luxury to create leaps that were beyond the character's jumping limit forcing them to make leaps of faith. The problem with edge holding is that as a designer, you have to prepare for the player to try to reach any point by trying to hit the exact point on the ledge that's needed to activate it.

In games designed around fast movement or time trial style gameplay, edge holding can be more trouble than it’s worth. The reason is that the mechanic of edge holding is always automatic and automatically hanging on to edges when dropping will cost precious seconds. Also the mechanic can be viewed as training wheels and hurt learning the game.

 

                                             Assassin's Creed

If you want the player to focus on making precise jumps and moving as quickly as possible, the safety net of holding onto edges can prevent players from learning about making those jumps. As an example: many of Super Meat Boy's levels rely on the player having a constant momentum to make the jumps or wall run safely. If the player would constantly stop to grab a hold of edges, they would not be able to build the momentum needed to get through the harder levels.

Other aerial movements that have become popular among designers are double jumping, wall running and air dashing. The point about these additional moves isn't to trivialize the platforming but to be integrated into the player's actions. No one wants to play a platformer where the character has infinite mid-air jumps as that would be boring.

These moves should be used to help the player get to where they want to go, not trivialize the challenge. This is why setting up hidden areas or alternate paths using additional moves is a popular past time. As it allows novice players to get through without having to worry about advance mechanics, while rewarding expert players for learning the mechanics.

Going From Point A to Point B

Lastly, how the player moves on the ground and in the air can be all for moot if the environment doesn't provide an adequate challenge. The difficulty when it comes to platformer level design, is balancing out the design of the levels with the move-set given to the player. The basics would be not setting up traps or challenges beyond the scope of the mechanics, like pits that are longer then the player can jump.

Good environmental design should be almost puzzle like. The player is at X, and they need to get to Y, with the world or Z in their way. For games built around multiple mechanics, it's always good to challenge the player with the basic mechanics first, while having advanced mechanics as side options or alternate routes. Eventually those harder mechanics will become standard but by then, the player should have a grasp of the basics. That philosophy can be seen in titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Dust Force, and are a good example of subjective difficulty from my article.

 

                                                          DustForce

The thrill of exploring the environment has a real world equivalent in the sport of Parkour. The joy of playing platformers is not about infinitely jumping in mid-air until you reach the end, but about using the tools and abilities at your disposal to succeed. This feeling is why games like Crackdown and Assassin's Creed worked so well in regards to movement.

Crackdown was more about turning the environment into a puzzle. With agility orbs placed all throughout the city, the player would have to figure out the best way to reach them along with climbing up the different buildings. As the player moved through each district, the buildings became taller to match with the player improving their agility.

In the Assassin's Creed series, the game was about creating a constant state of movement. Players were able to climb up almost every crack or edge protruding from a wall to allow them to reach almost every point in the different cities. My only problem with AC is that the designers never took this design and made challenges and different exploration elements around it to the same degree as Crackdown.

I would love to see someone take the idea of Parkour and translate it to a game, similar to how the Skate series attempted a more realistic gameplay with skateboarding. The platforming genre may seem simple compared to other genres due to its focus on movement above all else. But its simplicity allows for a wide variety of games, from the accessible Super Mario Galaxy series, to challenging titles like Super Meat Boy, Dust Force and what could be the greatest platformer in all of time and space.

Josh Bycer

Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye 

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