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Breaking the Mold: Designing a kung-fu game that's not about fighting - Part 5
by Drew Parker on 10/21/13 02:44:00 pm   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 five (the finale) 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 4? Read it here.

Part 5:  Your Players Always Know Best  -  Fixing the Punch

The players clearly had a serious problem with our game - their gameplay experience was totally different from our team's experience. When the punch was left out of the playtest build, they were very receptive to learning how to do the soft kung fu.  But when the punch was active and they learned about it, immediately they just wanted to smash everything in the room, and complained our game was broken when it didn't let them!

Another thing was - for a game about kung fu training, meaning you have to be TRAINED by someone constantly, which features a kung fu teacher in almost every level, for some players to completely ignore the teacher... we have serious issues!

But what we had was serious feedback issues. Feedback in game mechanics, and feedback in player instruction. The mechanics themselves felt mostly solid to our team internally. Most players noticed the teacher, but the thing was almost all players did not learn how to play the game the way we intended.  And it all led to them spamming the punch, and getting annoyed by the results.

We identified all the specific areas lacking feedback, and tried to beef those up considerably - by adding more sounds and animations, especially during mechanic state changes.

In terms of helping players to learn our game, we referenced Portal.  Portal also teaches players an unfamiliar game mechanic in a "training" type of atmosphere, and the learning curve is tuned superbly.  Level by level, we analyzed their game and tracked when they introduced new concepts, how often they re-inforced concepts, and when they "gated" concepts (not allowing players to progress unless they definitely could perform the new skill.)

Looking back at our game, we added more stepping-stone levels and tried to prevent having more than one new concept per level, and also tried to reinforce concepts by repeating them in subsequent levels more often.

After all that, players had less questions as to what was going on, and less frustrations, but still spammed the Punch, and would not use the GREET very often. Then someone on the team said, "The punch feels really satisfying.  The idea to fight without fighting - maybe they are not ready to accept it yet."

I just stared at him for moment, while what he said sunk in. He was spot on! We were forcing our concept into players heads. No one likes to be forced. If I had walked into my first kung fu class, and the teacher had said, "You are not allowed to punch here."  I probably would have said, "I came to learn how to fight!  This isn't kung fu!"  And perhaps I would have left.  And that is exactly what our players were doing - leaving our game unsatisfied (when the punch was in).

So we changed it.  We changed the punch mechanic.  We changed our levels.  We even changed our story.  We let the players "button mash" and spam the punch as much as they liked, by removing the recovery time penalty.  They stopped complaining it was broken. Of course it became way too powerful since it was first designed as "Heavy Attack," so we also removed the bonus damage. We adjusted the anger response to be more forgiving - players stopped complaining it was too hard. 

We allowed the player to keep spamming the punch as they learned the GREET.  However, they kept facing off against enemies of higher skill, which matches the fiction - their kung fu level is raising so the player is paired with more highly-skilled opponents.  And those opponents get increasingly better at stopping punches - because they use the GREET on you! 

We came full circle and, after avoiding it at all costs, we let the player start with "button mashing" the punch since its familiar, just how most people start real kung fu training wanting to punch everything. Then over time through Kung Fu training the player learns to give up this behavior since it's not effective, and this turns upside down a common genre-trope and weaves it into our essential experience.

We realized something - the kung fu teacher in the game wasn't just teaching Shuyan.  And he wasn't just teaching the player gameplay concepts.  Along with the game, he was literally teaching the player a genuine real-life principle - you CAN actually fight without fighting - and that principle had to be questioned, tested, then finally accepted by the player before the player's kung fu journey could continue, and time needed to be allowed for that.

In the story, instead of our hero Shuyan being initially welcomed to the temple to learn soft kung fu, the students try to kick her out, and she has to do what she knows best - punching - to prove her worth!

It's not until about 25 minutes into the game that the teacher pulls the player aside and says, "Hey, you know with this punching thing - you are really good at it. Why don't I show you another kung fu trick you might like?  It's also really powerful.  It's called the GREET."

Once we did that, the players stopped complaining about our punch, our story and gameplay experience became more unified, and players finally started to embrace our unique "fight without fighting" gameplay and started to enjoy our new take on kung fu combat.

So what's the big take-away from all of this?  Take the time to find and carefully define your essential experience first, then playtest it through development.  As you define your essential experience, you may discover a whole slew of interesting game ideas that never would've come about if you started with "Let's take game X and add piece Y, or make piece Z better."

And with playtesting your prototype throughout development, you can ensure the player's experience matches your intended essential experience.  You'll know it does, because you playtested it to make sure.

With a clear essential experience, you can take inspiration from anything you love or that impacted you.  You can distill your inspiring experience down into a simplified format suited for games, and allow countless others to enjoy that potentially hard-to-come-by experience.

This is what we sought to do with Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess. And from the response we’re getting so far, it seems we may be on to something.

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: www.ShuyanGame.com Twitter: @ShuyanGame.


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Comments


Brandon Van Every
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Interesting observations, since I too have trained kung fu (Wing Chun) in real life. "Punch everything" doesn't ring true about my early kwoon experiences. Granted I was a somewhat experienced martial artist by then, although hadn't trained in several years and had hit some kind of "expertise gap." I decided to take this guy's class when I saw, in the subtlety of his wrist movement and the way he was explaining what he was doing to enter someone's guard, that he clearly knew some things about fighting than I didn't.

Nobody practices striking in Aikido and I had learned some of that years earlier. Similarly Judo. When I stopped training Wing Chun and moved on to focus on Russian (Systema) fighting, it was my grappling skills I was seeking to improve, not my punching. Even in Wing Chun, punching was something we drilled a fair amount, but it was not core to the art IMO.

In a real school, you are expected to have respect for your instructor, and you are paying him or her. If you cannot show respect, you are generally made to leave the school. I suppose these basics of real life training are lost in a video game, which sounds more like a McDojo / gotta pander to crybabies sort of experience. I accept that you would need to design something for it, to deal with the problem. I just don't really think it's like real life training, there is no "punch everything." You accept the wisdom and guidance of your instructor, at least at first, or else you are made to move on.

Some instructors will also test your willingness to do the real work, like making the warm up exercises reasonably difficult. So that if you're not mentally willing to strain some to get the knowledge, you'll move yourself on.

Drew Parker
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Hey Brandon, thanks for the comment and sharing your experiences!

Personally, I think it's great "punch everything" doesn't ring true about your early training experiences. Perhaps this type of martial arts concept, of not fighting force with force and being willing to submit and work around someone else's aggression, is a concept you had already grasped.

Also I totally agree it is key in training to accept the wisdom of your instructor.

Our game aims to capture the essence of kung fu, and this idea of being merciful to others in combat. To do this though, you have to address and challenge this concept that training to fight in kung fu is learning to dominate others - which is where the "punch everything" concept comes in.

Of course that phrase I used "punch everything" was an exaggeration to make a point - you see in new students, or people who want to prove themselves, they can't help but want to get the one up, or in other words, get the punch in.

So it's not that every person is going to start their training with fists flying everywhere. But rather, each person will start with some intention, consciously or subconsciously, and in a fighting form this drives them to want to fight.

Classical Kung Fu training is exactly to discover those intentions, and to remove them, making oneself a better fighter, and consequently, a better person. In this regard, I think our game aims to be true to the spirit of kung fu training and kung fu, and I hope ultimately we deliver on that experience.

Thanks for the comment!

Brandon Van Every
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Ah, that's a little more deep. I thought you meant a literal overemphasis of striking with fists. I said I don't think the punching is core to Wing Chun. What I think *is* core, based on my training, is centerline theory, footwork, and bridging energy, which can be expressed when punching but won't happen if it is forgotten or not trained. Tan da and Bong sao, both forms of blocking with lateral force on the forearm, are more important than the punching, especially when combined with the footwork. One doesn't punch a wooden dummy, one clashes with forearms and steps all around it, for the most part. Of course it is just a dummy, but it teaches some things.

We did not talk about removing intention. We did talk about "listening" to the opponent, with one's hands. We did a lot of chi sao, "sticky hands," to train sensitivity to opponent's movements. If you have a firm idea in your mind of what you're going to do to someone, of course you are not listening and responding to the situation.

To the beginner, a punch is just a punch
To the advanced, it is not a punch, it is much more
To the Master, a punch is just a punch

Heliora Prime
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Close combat is one of the most complex versions of combat.
Shooting is easy as hell compared to it.

Drew Parker
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Hey Heliora,

Exactly because of that, initially I hoped we could make a projectile dodging, throwing star kung fu game - in other words, a kung fu shooter! And somehow make it authentic.

But the more we got into it, I realized of course a "shooter" just would not work, and if we wanted to be true to the spirit of kung fu, we were going to have to build a close combat system.

Brandon Van Every
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It's tough to build a good one with any kind of authenticity to the style one practices. Doing one for Systema, my dominant style now, would be a heavy research project. Then there's the narrative and gameplay problem of getting an audience to care about the subtleties. Moviegoers don't care, most of them can't tell what real fighting is. Nor do they know what good fighting would be about. Flash some punches and kicks, most of them are entertained. A more discerning eye might rather watch a UFC match, and even then, one is aware of the limitations of a sport. I commend you for trying to tackle these difficult problems in your work, to get at what fighting actually is.

Drew Parker
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Thanks Brandon!

And thanks for sharing your training experiences!

Bharat Parikh
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Interesting article. We had similar issues while designing a gameplay for our recent Android game - Temple Treasure Hunt. The gameplay is different from the usual "play the game sitting in your couch" style. The game requires hunters to move around to uncover a treasure trail. Initially we had support for only multi-player gameplay. After some feedback we realized that players would usually want to start hunting the trail alone right away without waiting for a trail to be setup. This is when we added single player mode where one could simply "auto-create" a treasure trail and start hunting it right away.

We are looking at gathering some more feedback and simplifying the gameplay further. You can checkout the game at: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.thoughtshastra.templetreasure

You can

Drew Parker
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Yeah playtesting is just so valuable. And when you are able to have multiple playtests in rapid succession, it becomes very clear where the big problem areas are, because everyone trips up in the same spot.

Nuttachai Tipprasert
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Very interesting read. Too bad I don't have iPad otherwise I will buy your game in a heart beat.

Your GREET system reminds me of SF III's Parry system. You don't need to master Parry in order to play the game but you will definitely get owned by skillful player if you don't know how to use it. It's very rewarding system, so, in the end, every players need to master (or at least good at) it in order to win a match.

Player's expectation is something that quite difficult to manage. I saw many games got squashed by their players whilst delivered very high quality contents, because, they expected one thing but the games delivered another thing. Glad to hear that you found the way to work this out.


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