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Breaking the Mold: Designing a kung-fu game that's not about fighting - Part 4
by Drew Parker on 10/15/13 10:45:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


By Drew Parker, Mark Animation (Ontario, Canada)

Creative Director, Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess, coming this Fall exclusively to iPad

This is part four of a series in which I'll blog about the Making of Shuyan the Kung Fu Princes - Designing a kung-fu game that's not about fighting. Missed Part 3? Read it here.

Part 4:  To Fight Without Fighting  -  Punching as a Declining Strategy

Most of the gameplay designs and playtesting we did at the beginning excluded our punch attack. This was for two reasons: first, the uncertainty of the move itself was low - we knew how a punch could work from countless other games. Second, I kept taking it out to focus our testing on the other "soft kung fu" mechanics that were much more uncertain.

But a big question remain unanswered: How will we put a punch in this game, without people always wanting to use it, and without it breaking all of our "no intention to fight" mechanics?

Punching in a hand-to-hand melee combat game is a genre standard; it makes sense players will want to use it.  From another perspective, how can we make a kung fu game WITHOUT punching?  We had to have it, but how do we balance it with our other systems?

Initially I designed our punch attack as what combat designers call a "Heavy Attack."  It had a large payoff (large damage output), but an equally large trade-off (long recovery time).  I hoped that was enough - it wasn't. Players just ran around pulverizing all enemies on the screen, and pulverized our essential experience in the process!  But that wasn't their fault, it was a fault in the design.  I had to find a way to include the punch, but not as a winning strategy.

I momentarily considered limiting it with some resource consumption, but that just sounded ridiculous, and of course would break the fiction.  Maybe it would work for wooden automated Kung Fu robots, but not for this game.

Returning to our essential experience, "Finding self-restraint through kung fu training, by learning to have no intention to fight," I thought one of the biggest ways to capture the "self-restraint" part of the experience would be in the choice of whether to punch or not.  That's always the choice in real kung fu. But how to turn that into a mechanic?

I searched through memories of my own kung fu training. Back then, as my kung fu level rose and I entered the Intermediate class, the training changed from solo drills and tightly structured one-on-one drills, to more free form exercises and some sparring, both of which included striking the other person.

My first time in the late-night Intermediate class, I remember my teacher saying, "Look, your kung fu brothers and sisters are going to hit you now - really hit you.  You're going to get angry - people cry, people bleed, people scream - it all comes out.  But whatever happens, you need to remember that they are your kung fu family, and are not trying to hurt you - it's just training."

And there it was. What if, just like in real training, you don't restrain yourself and get carried away with hitting too much or too hard, and the other person gets angry?  Really angry.  So they are out for payback.  That makes your training a lot more painful.

Yeah - this is a feedback loop!  We setup an "anger system," where the more an enemy gets hit, the angrier they get.  We added some logic where even onlookers get a little annoyed when they see the player being too violent.  Once an enemy gets too angry, he "loses it" and goes berserk, and charges the player with an extremely strong attack.

This worked!  You could play it safe with the soft kung fu, or let loose a little with a series of punches.  But the punching easily could become a downhill battle. You won in the short term by knocking down a few guys, but if you kept it up you'd lose in the long term. The other enemies would be too angry, one hit would set them off, and you would get smashed! They would erupt one at a time - you got smashed into other enemies, smashed back and forth like pinball, smashed through wooden walls - it was great!

Some members on the team were getting better at the game, and with focus could cruise through many areas without throwing a single punch, passing levels quickly - because the enemies trip up when you deflect their attacks and it buys you time.  During one playtest with a team member, something had gone wrong in her plan, time was running out, and she was getting tense.  The enemies were piling up on her with the clock at 10 seconds, and she started saying "Just get out of my way!" and began punching furiously to clear a path, tossing enemies into each other and one through a wall. 

But an enemy across the room saw it all happen, got furious from the countless punches, and yelled, "That's it!"  and he chased at her from across the room.  She had the last stone in her hands and was sprinting for the collection bowl, and just before she put it in - he sidelined her and bulldozed her through a wall!  The stone went flying from her hands as the clock hit zero, she lost, and everyone in the room cheered! 

Everyone said, "That's awesome!"  Because that was exactly the experience we wanted - she lost the game not because she didn't have the skill, but because she lost control of her emotions and couldn't restrain herself from punching out of frustration!  I was sold, we had done it - we had found a way to make the punch work! 

External playtests were held to verify the result.  When using the punch people would say, "These controls are broken - you're going to fix that, right?" They were trying to invoke the Punch too often and the recovery time was stopping them, so they thought it wasn't responding to their input.  I was like, "Well, you have to, um, wait a bit and punch less - remember what the kung fu teacher was saying before about the GREET?"  But they would keep spamming the Punch and think it was broken.

They also said, "This is way too hard!  These guys keep smashing me!  I can barely move the stone before I drop it, or I run out of health!  You know that's broken, right?"  And I was like, well, see they are getting angry at you, and so... 

And the player said, getting angry at me? Why?  I was like, well, remember the kung fu teacher whose been teaching you for the past three levels?  He was saying too much punching will make the students angry, so...  and the player goes, that guy at the top of the screen - I need to read what he says? And I was like, nevermind, see you punched him too much instead of using the GREET, so....  and the player goes, what is a GREET? 

And that's when I was like - oh man.

This thing is coming apart at the seams!  How could our team's experience with the game be so far from our players' experience with the game?  How were we going to resolve that?  Or do I just have to work with marketing on how we will explain we have a kung fu game without punching??

Watch out for Part 5 (the finale) of the series where I'll get into how our team fixed the punch.

Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess was featured in the "Best of Canada" showcase at MIP Junior in Cannes, France.  It was also part of Telefilm's "Canada Showcase" held during GDC in March. The game will be available exclusively for iPad in Fall 2013. Website: Twitter: @ShuyanGame.

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Chris Londrie
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The two thoughts that come straight to mind are: "Manage player expectations." and "Show, don't tell.'

Drew Parker
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Hey Chris, good advice! We actually came up with solutions that worked for us, which will be covered in my final blog entry for the series next week.

Chris Dias
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You punish players for doing things the way they're used to doing them, which makes them think the game is hard or unfair. Wouldn't it make more sense to focus on rewarding players for doing things your way & clearly indicating the correct way of doing things?

Drew Parker
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I agree. We had to do a lot of playtesting to find a balance where we gradually bring players into our new experience, without it feeling like we are slamming them.

This had a lot to do with balancing as well as some new mechanics I'll discuss next week. The anger feedback loop helps a lot because it is tweakable - kind of like a stealth "discovered" mechanic - how much do you tolerate before the player is discovered, and when they are, how much will you punish them for it?

"Mark of the Ninja" is a stealth game which did a great job of this, letting you get discovered and not dishing out a huge punishment. Basically still a suppressive feedback loop, but a very well thought out response to it. We are trying to find that same type of balance.

Jason DeThomas
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@ Chris Dias--Punish players? By making them drop the stone or run out of health (lose the game)? For "Doing things the way they're used to doing them" meaning not reading directions or reading anything the Kung Fu instructor said for the past THREE levels?

They tried to reward players. By letting them keep the stone via the use of the GREET and careful management of the anger system, and they explained HOW to accomplish this ("the correct way of doing things") via the instructions of the Kung Fu Instructor at the top of the screen, which apparently not one of the playtesters bothered to read. So they did try to reward players for doing things their way, and explained how to do things their way via the Kung Fu instructor. Sounds to me that their playtesters were far too ignorant/lazy/stupid to bother reading the directions or giving any thought to the narrative or the reason for the Kung Fu Instructor in the first place.

Didn't you even read the blog? He clearly explains not only that the Kung Fu instructor had been telling them how to play properly for the past three levels, but that the playtesters ignored it and didn't even know the terms or skills the game asked them to utilize (mainly, the Greet, or the Anger system).

@ Drew Parker--Wow. "That guy at the top--we need to read what he says?" I am dumbstruck by that statement. Am I the only one thinking "....Well....DUH! Yeah! If someone in the game says something, you need to READ it. How else are you going to understand? Obviously you are missing something if you keep dying/dropping the stone every round. Why else would the designers put the Kung Fu instructor in? For their health?" But no. "You know that's broken, right?"

Oh man, indeed.

With players like that, why bother making an interesting narrative or unique experience at all? Why not just develop a punching simulator and let them punch themselves in the face? $$ Fun!

I feel bad for intelligent designers like you with such clever and interesting ideas who have to deal with apparently totally ignorant gamers like the external playtesters you describe. What a waste.

Drew Parker
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Hey Jason, thanks for checking out the blog. We discovered a lot of our problems were feedback related, which I'll get into in the next blog. For the teacher speaking bit, I wanted some brief dialogue during the action, because that is like a kung fu training scenario. But it's been hard making that work, so we are looking at other UI means to draw the eye where it needs to go, and in some spots we just stopped the action to make sure to grab the player's attention.

Jason DeThomas
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@ Chris Londrie--you give two pieces of advice, but don't explain how to do this better than they are.

"Manage player expectations": They attempted this by having the Kung Fu instructor...well...instruct. I assume they don't have voice-acting, so they used what all games used before that: text. Apparently no one bothered to read the instructions.

"Show, don't tell," because people can't be bothered to read? How would they show the use of the Greet, use of the Punch, and the management of the anger system without using text to explain what was going on in a game with no voice acting? Even showing such a scenario would take control from the player and give it to a cutscene that explains the mechanics of gameplay, and if the player can't be bothered to read text when they have control, why would they bother to read now? I thought the point was that they learned it slowly from a Kung Fu instructor.

From what he explained, it seemed like they did both of those via the use of the Kung Fu instructor, except no one cared about the instructor. Should they have included an instruction: "Don't forget to LISTEN to your instructor so you know what to do! We added him for a real purpose--he is not just a pretty background!" ??

Seems like some pretty obvious instructions to me. If there is text, it was meant to be read. Unless you have played through the game already, and know what it says, why would you skip it? It might contain...oh, I don't know...instructions. A way to manage player expectations. A demonstration or explanation of what you are supposed to do.

It seems to me like the designers did a great job setting it up and explaining the purpose, and it seems like the external playtesters were too lazy/stupid to bother with caring about or reading the instructions, and simply wanted to dive into the gameplay, which they immediately assumed was to punch people. "Hey, you know that's broken, right?" Cool. Sounds like a lame game with no purpose. The real game of avoiding fights, greeting, and managing the anger system while trying to get the stone is much more complex and rewarding. If I could get that without ever seeing the game, then how could a playtester miss THREE levels of instruction from the Kung Fu instructor?

What better way to explain something to players than...hrm, let's explanation. Which = text, right?

Ilya Chentsov
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You think like PC game designers, I like your general idea very much, too bad your target is iPad.

Drew Parker
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Hey Ilya, thanks for checking out the blog!

With Shuyan, we hope to bring something of value both to long-time gamers looking to enjoy a unique experience on their iPads, as well as iPad players who are new to games.

Our main goals to achieve this have been to:
- give all players something totally unique (unique means new and new is interesting)
- make the controls completely accessible (iPad touch design excels at this)
- make the story professionally crafted and emotionally meaningful (people tend to like good stories)

Samuel Batista
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I'd love to get this series together so I can print it out and store it in my vault of designer goodies. Thanks for sharing!

Drew Parker
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Hey Samuel, thanks for the comment!

There's so much awesome information on Gamasutra that's benefited our team. We wanted to share some of our development experiences in case they could be of benefit to others.