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Green Barrels Don't Explode

Tim Latshaw | 14 Jun 2011 12:43
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One Spooky Squid project, an action-platformer titled They Bleed Pixels, is currently planned to employ a two-button "jump and attack" control scheme. The challenge for the studio is finding a good way to teach players that the attack button doesn't just initiate one move, but various effective slashes and kicks depending on direction and how long the button is held down.

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In initial testing, Sternberg left the action open assuming players would discover the moves on their own, but found most of them were following the classic platformer behavior of attacking while relentlessly pressing forward, unleashing only a fury of slashes. Testers would occasionally trigger a different move, but often wouldn't know how they did it.

Sternberg hopes to come up with some "tricks" to acclimate players to the uncommon control scheme in the game, retaining a sense of discovery and not having to hammer the controls into players' heads with bulky lessons. It is possible, though, that the studio will have to cut their losses, adding tutorials or another button, but Sternberg considers it part of the game-making process.

"In the end, we pick our battles and focus on what the core of the game we want to make is," he said. "So we'll do something traditional in one aspect of the game so that we can try something new and exciting in the other." Trope-busting is a surprisingly difficult game of give and take where developers' intentions must constantly be weighed and adjusted against players' predicted responses. Every deviation from the expected is a risk capable of reaping high praise or alienating the audience.

Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure on the Wii broke the mold by incorporating our perceptions of real-life tools into the game, making players imagine the Wii remote to be the on-screen objects they had to manipulate. It brought real-world functional fixedness into the game world, where the concepts of both could be challenged while still feeling intuitive and easy to "get." One in-game example skips the conventional uses of an umbrella as a parachute or shield by making the player flip it over with a toss of the Wii remote and employ its hooked handle. The player must first realize the flipping motion exists in the game world, however, which Zack and Wiki points out in a previous level by giving the player a crank handle that obviously must be flipped over to fit the necessary hole. Unfortunately, not many people "got" the game saleswise, but as motion-based gaming marches on, developers may try similar ways to use our own preconceptions against us.

Until then, however, you don't have to pity the developers who are caught in the constant balancing act of making the next new thing with enough of the same old conventions. They and their predecessors created us and must summarily tame us. But the next time you're tempted to call out a designer on a cliché, remember the words of Arcade:

"We tried not doing red barrels, but The Customer is always right."

Tim Latshaw is a freelance transplant from Western New York to Western Michigan. Many thanks to Miguel Sternberg of Spooky Squid Games for the insight and inspiration.

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