Hacking, Miscellaneous

Appealing to the Most Players in a Post-Generations World

So, Takashi Iizuka recently gave an interview to GamesReactor concerning the future of Sonic the Hedgehog, and I was personally fascinated by the following response:

 But we want to reach the widest possible audience. So, you know, we will probably see Sonic going into other genres of games and also seeing Sonic in different media. So we will hopefully be able to have as many people as possible enjoy Sonic.

I am totally down for appealing to as wide an audience as possible, despite the mocking comments I read on that article. Wide appeal is good appeal. My question is this, though: can you appeal to both the three-year-old and six-year-old in all of us?

Seeing as most of my friends have kids, and I’m the “cool friend of Mom/Dad” for most of those kids, I usually wind up hanging out with young kids a lot. You could do worse in life. What has always intrigued me, though, is how differently kids play as they grow and change.

I was talking to my friend’s three-year-old girl about her day a little while back, and as you can imagine, most of it involved playing—there’s not a whole lot else kids do at that point in their life. So, with great enthusiasm, she goes on to tell me all about the adventures she and her friend got up to and oh her friend just got back from the moon and they found some treasure and so they went to be princesses that fight ninjas and on and on and on…

Let’s just say I basically lost track of any coherence about 90 seconds in, but she enjoyed regaling me with her tales of glory. Most three- and four-year-olds you talk to have this same pattern: erratic, off-the-wall play that mashes ideas and colors outside the lines.

That same friend has an older daughter in first grade; her stories of playground fun are much more…dramatic. With all apologies to the six-year-old contingent at Sonic Retro, they are much more obsessed with the rules of a game and fairness than any sane adult would be. Whatever play time they have usually involves a lot of arguing about structure.

“[Scarred Sun], we were playing dodgeball and Jose acted like he didn’t get hit but he was hit and he kept trying to play and IT WASN’T FAIR!!! He kept trying to say that if the ball hit your hands that didn’t count but it totally does count, right?”

The difference in these two play styles is really representative of two larger differences in play-style: inventive play vs. structured play. We can identify all sorts of games in life that fall closer under one of those labels than the other, but the greatest games we have—the ones everyone finds enjoyable—combine both of these elements to make them constantly at odds with each other. Marshall McLuhan neatly sums up this very idea in his opus, Understanding Media: “The uncertainty of the outcomes of our contests makes a rational excuse for the mechanical rigor of the rules and procedures of the game.” That is, both things are needed for the most endearing play experience: inventive uncertainty operating under structured rules.

For instance, one of the most structured games I can think of is tic-tac-toe. There are very set rules and set ways to win; there’s no real deviation from the script. It’s also incredibly boring because it is so simply structured: it’s pretty much impossible for anyone above five to not get a perpetual stalemate. On the converse side of this would be a game like Art Alive: sure, you have unlimited creativity, but without anything to actively build a framework around, most players goof around for 20 minutes and lose interest—after all, the “game” becomes more of an “art project” than anything with a goal.

An example of a game that combines both of these principles would be chess. If you’re an aficionado of the sport (or, like me, just got in a weird phase post-Searching for Bobby Fischer), you’ve probably heard about the chess records library at Moscow Botvinnik Central Chess Club. There, plays of millions of chess games have been recorded over centuries of competition. These plays were studied and memorized by the Grand Masters of Russia in the 20th Century, leading to their dominance in chess. Players can rattle off famous and common plays excitedly to you if you give them a chance. It is quite strange, when you think about it, that a game with nearly infinite possible plays often shows patterns of being the same game, played out with millions of different people over time.

But what happens when someone switches it up and you get a game that has never been recorded before? When the game goes “out of book”? Then you have a creative experience that challenges even the most seasoned masters.

This very same idea of different play types can be brought up with the Sonic series. Many people point to various reasons why classic Sonic games are held in higher regard than newer ones: level design, aesthetics, physics, etc. I would argue the key element of difference—the one thing that makes those games different than newer games, even Sonic Generations—is that there are affordances for both types of play.

A culture of gameplay such as speedrunners are analogous to chess masters memorizing famous game moves. By learning how a level is constructed down to muscle-memory levels, they can shave seconds off a race and perfect a strategy, tool-assisted or non, to play the game in the most pure form of structured play. They see the rules and limits of an environment and perform in the best way possible. However, speedrunners also creatively look for loopholes and deviate from performance to achieve even faster times. Both types of play are perfectly integrated. The thrill of watching a speedrun video comes both from seeing the skill of the player and their imagination in tackling a problem.

Debug Mode, Sonic 2If you attack the same question from the other end, you get…hackers. When I was a kid, you were basically only going to get one or two video games per year, so you made it count—and for me, the Sonic 1 and 2 debug and a Game Genie went a long way for that. By essentially making the rules elastic, gameplay becomes infinite: if you alter jump values so they’re super-high, how does this change your route? What if you set up fifty blank monitors in a level and have your friend search for them? What if you and your brother are playing two-player competition and the actual game is trying to stay on the couch and play Sonic while you two try to shove each other off to lose? Those are the parts of the game that stick with me more 20 years later than the actual game itself. It’s probably why there’s a Sonic Retro and not Super Thunder Blade Retro. There’s an underlying framework of Sonic the Hedgehog underneath these types of play, but infinite room to build and expand upon them.

ROM hackers take this very principle and use the subversive play styles they’ve developed to make whole new games. Take Sonic the Hedgehog: OmoChao Edition, recently done by Retro’s Own™ Cinossu. The basic idea is to penalize a number of normal actions in the game: collecting rings, going through loops, etc. By doing this, the player is still essentially playing the same game, but the way they play is fundamentally altered—the paths and muscle memory acquired over time must be disregarded. The game has to be viewed anew, and the outcome of your play is once again uncertain.

Now, in order for this sort of inventive and structured play to work, this puts a great deal of stress on the structured side of things. If something like the physics of a game aren’t accurate and predictable, building a new experience to layer on top of it becomes incredibly difficult. If levels are built solely to encourage going as fast as possible instead of thinking about different paths, the ability of the player to innovate is greatly reduced. It’s why I was frustrated at E3 that I couldn’t run backwards through loops:  although a player doesn’t need to be able to do this, not having the option to do so for more creative play experiences dampers my own experience.

This is the root frustration I experience towards most modern Sonic games: the intended gameplay experience is the only one available. I privately said around the time of Sonic 4: Episode 1‘s release that the game is a good game if you play it the exact way the creators wanted it to be played, but if you deviated, it was pretty crap. I still feel that way about it now. Modern Sonic games are very interested in packaging a cool experience for you, but that experience is shown rather than made: whether it’s a scripted path in Sonic Heroes, alliances made in Shadow the Hedgehog that don’t actually change anything about gameplay, or the endless frustration in Sonic Colo(u)rs‘ later levels for not performing jumps in an exact way, it’s punishing the player for wanting to go off-script. People too often think of exploration solely in terms of level design, but exploration is part of every aspect of a game. Even in older games, there was some (albeit buggy) reward to exploration and deviation of play: sure, getting Amy into Casinopolis is fundamentally broken in Sonic Adventure, but didn’t it make you want to try? Didn’t it make you want to test all other boundaries and play around? Even Generations, which everyone still currently loves, suffers from this problem: beyond the few pre-scripted gameplay variations, there’s no room for experimentation. You can play the missions, you can play the main game, and you can race against other people, but will you be able to go back in five years and create some crazy derivative playstyle that will engage you the way the game is engaging you right now? Could you design a Sonic 1 – Return to the Origin with Generations levels?

Just saying. At the end of the day, that’s maybe a little more important than a character’s iris color.

However, solid yet flexible structure is what separates good gameplay experiences from great ones. When you create something truly excellent, something like OmoChao Edition can flourish: the entire game’s rules are changed, yet it still manages to be a great game in a different manner. The “solid yet flexible” thing applies to all facets of game design and not just engine design, though. As much as I deride fan fiction (because it’s pretty uniformly horrible), the same principle applies: a story has to be told with enough room for expansion for a fan to fill in the blanks, yet not be so overly hemmed in that it forces Jurassic Park/Sonic crossovers. Though I suspect those would be there either way. Oh well.

It’s tempting as a creator to want to put your seal on everything and make a pre-packaged experience. I know this first hand. Our wiki, for instance, has some really great articles that we spent lots of time refining and personally polishing up. It also has some real turds. That’s just what comes with sharing things you make with a larger audience. Everyone is going to interpret things differently. Everyone comes away with a different experience and emotion from a game or article or song. I’d go into the John Berger-y specifics, but I’d probably just bore most of you to death. If you want games that appeal to as wide an audience as possible, give as many opportunities for that audience to make the experience their own as possible. This is a fandom that is clearly creative: look at the massive amounts of fanart, music and animation that come out of it. Let players take that same innovation into games themselves.

That’s not to say people who prefer traditional playthroughs of games are wrong or shouldn’t enjoy themselves. Just the opposite. If Generations was supposed to teach us anything, it’s not that one style or the other is good or bad: they’re just different. It’s why reviewers can see the game differently. Let’s just work to get everyone’s views represented, regardless of how they play.

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23 Comments

  • Reply

    In a weird sort of way, I’m satisfied enough with Generations that even if the next step for Sonic is one I don’t like, I won’t mind because they made a game I do like.
    This is a well written article though, it’s interesting to read about the types of gameplay in a way that’s a little bit more in depth than “well ya got runnin’ and ya got jumpin'”

  • Reply

    I totally agree with the sentiment of this article. I find myself playing the old games in very similar mannners most times I play through it, but I have changed the way I played over the years to become the ultimate amalgimation of my years of experience. Sonic Generations does have that speedrun aspect of creativity to me. I’ve seen videos that tweak the system to shave off inches and I’ve made minor creative tweaks in my personal plays as well.

  • Reply

    I was thinking about this recently, after I was thinkIng about all the ‘trick shot’ dos videos there are, an fps engine gives a lot of freedom for experimentation and freeform tricks.

    Same with some if my favourite games, Devil May Cry, for example, has some fun, basic combo’s and a few timing based combo’s as well, but with some switching of weapons and combining moves, encouraged by the style points system, you can pull off some REALY cool looking, effective tricks.

    I liked generations because it gave jut enough creative freedom in it’s level design, with some creative use of the boost, spindash and stomp, you fan fling yourself allmost anywhere. What sega REALY needs to do though, is take into account more possibilities. Remember in Mario 1 where you got to the first warp zone, thinking you broke the game, and got rewarded? Like that, boosting over a large portion of the level in a sonic game, only to find that instead of hitting an invisible wall/ landing back on track, you end up in a new area for a faster time, that you can only get to using that tricky, expert manoeuvre you just pulled off. Maybe even on say, green hill, you fall down a pot, only to land in a modern rendition of marble zone or something.

    A game can REALY be great If you give players TOOLS, not just abilities. Don’t give a player a missile that only hits targets via heat seeking, give them slight resistance to their own attacks, so they can rocket jump etc. Add ricochet onto bullets so people can do some crazy round corner shots(actualy, that soulss unbalanced in multiplayer, if you’re going to do that do it in single player, and make your character a walking tank. It fits).

  • Reply

    First off, excellent article. I think you’ve really nailed why so many classic games (in general, not just Sonic) were so great and so many modern games (which tend to be much more “on rails”) are mediocre (with, of course, many exceptions). For me, this is also why classic Sonic games are better than classic Mario games (sorry to drag up the old argument). Sonic levels have several different paths you can take through the level, whereas Mario games a fairly linear, with only one or two paths through any given level. It also explains why Minecraft had to add things like “Survival mode”; with no rules, the game is pure creativity, and therefore gets boring after a few hours.
    I’m not sure, however, that it’s really fair to hold up StH Return to the Origin and Omochao Edition as a prime examples of why classic games are more dynamic. It’s just a lot easier to hack 2D games, especially when they weren’t thinking about stopping those big bad hax0rz back in the 90s. I don’t think we’ll ever see a Sonic Generations — Return to the Origin (or anything like it) because it takes a lot more thinking to wrap your head around creating (and editing) a 3D environment on a 2D screen than a 2D environment on a 2D screen. The average 12-year-old with a little creativity could draw you a new 2D Sonic level on a sheet of paper in a few hours. The average 21-year-old with a little creativity doesn’t know how to model a 3D world, much less shoehorn that into Sonic Generations’ code. (I don’t mean to say 2D hackers aren’t talented or creative or compare their work to 12-year-olds’ scribblings, I like many of the StH 1/2/3&K hacks I’ve played, just saying 3D takes a lot more effort than is reasonable for a fanmade hack; you might as well write your own engine at that point)

    • Reply

      “I’m not sure, however, that it’s really fair to hold up StH Return to the Origin and Omochao Edition as a prime examples of why classic games are more dynamic. It’s just a lot easier to hack 2D games, especially when they weren’t thinking about stopping those big bad hax0rz back in the 90s.”

      You’re missing the point. It’s not whether or not people have the capacity to hack a 3D game. Generations is hackable. We’ve seen it hacked. The point is that the older games are designed so well that when the minor gameplay alterations found in “Omochao Edition” and “Return to the Origin” are made (these hacks also don’t alter the original game’s terrain), it’s still a solid, yet totally different experience. Since Generations is only really successful when played by the designer’s hand, so you can’t create new experiences through your own experimenting or creativity.

  • Reply

    Great article. I barely ever explored the levels in the old Sonic games, I always liked going through the levels as fast as possible more so it rarely crossed my mind.

  • Reply

    The first half of generations was so wonderful, that it had me in tears of happiness. The second half made me sad, frustrated and miserable.

    This was the first sonic game I bought in over 10 years and I swear to you It will be my last. Sonic is dead.

    • Reply

      If even one half of the game brought you to tears of happiness, why let it be your last? Besides, most people who complain about the second half of the game just don’t know how to finish the levels quickly, once you realise that the level design has no problems, and that it’s just difficulty, everything is enjoyable.

  • Reply

    i loved sonic generations, and i think that sonic is finally back on his feet, but scarred sun has a point, the way creators make things is open to interpretation, and making something everyone will like is very difficult. Sonic is back, to that there is no question, but i believe that there are a wide range of (endless) possibilities that the hedgehog could have. If we see a sonic movie, so be it, some people will like it, others may not. The point is, we all love sonic right? lets just enjoy what he has to offer, regardless of its quality.

  • Reply

    I thought Sonic Generations had some of the largest levels in terms of exploration. I found hundreds of interesting ways to complete levels. In Chemical Plant, I never knew the other two paths were accesible. In Speed Highway, I never knew you could get to a high up rail and skip most of the level if you’re really good. The level design in Sonic Generations is some of the best level design I’ve experienced. Everything feels so open…

  • Reply

    Debug PWNS.

  • Reply

    Brilliant article! 

  • Reply

    Nail, head, hit. Brilliant article, I wish this sort of reasoned thought and development of argument could be shouted from the rooftops in such a way that Sega might actually listen, overall. Many people say Generations is where they started listening, but I feel they only heard a distant voice, drowned out in a sea of white noise.

  • Reply

    Such is the way with modern gaming. It looks like every non-indie title is so focused on a forced scripted experience to wow the player that it locks out the joy of just dicking around and having fun.

    I’d cite Goldeneye as another example. Although the missions given to the player are very much strict in what has to be done, a player can go around doing the mission in whatever manner they see fit. This is especially so as secrets are unlocked, allowing for new weapons, DK mode, Invisible Mode, and the ever awesome 007 Mode.

    And I’m not even talking the multiplayer side of things. One-hit kill Slappers? Come on, man!

    I guess that’s my problem with Generations. It’s fun, sure, but I’ve honestly not felt compelled to actually finish it for the 100%. The game honestly feels so sterile and cold when looking at it without the rose-tinted goggles. If you don’t do this in such and such a way, you get punished for it. Meanwhile, and very oddly enough a game that is flawed as crap like Sonic 2006 or Sonic Unleashed had me captivated. Granted, the scripted nature in those games were about the same if not worse than Generations.

    But the glitches! The bugs! Abusing Sonic’s gem powers or breaking boundaries with Silver’s PK in 2006. Using the werehog’s moves to glitch through walls and skip whole chunks of a level–or even enter unused portions of a stage. Or just dicking around with Sonic’s boost. Look at some speedruns, especially in Empire City Act 1. I know I’m getting a lot of eyes rolling for even MENTIONING these two games, but these bugs made the games captivating to play because it allowed you to think outside the box in how to shave off time.

    I can tell you now, I love the feeling of playing Kingdom Valley with Sonic and never having to switch to Silver or skipping that last ball puzzle in Silver’s Dusty Desert. Or even using Blaze in all of Silver’s final Crisis City.

    If Sega, and game developers in general, can capture this feeling without having it all be accidental cause of terrible development and lack of quality assurance, it’d definitely help games. As it is, lately, I’ve been feeling rather deflated by games. They offer sterile experiences as how the director and producer want it to be played instead of letting the player decide what to do. I don’t want to play a movie. I want to play a game. Let me decide how I play.

    All you need to do to get a perfect encapsulation of this problem is look at the Metroid series.

  • Reply

    If you want a “game” where you can have all of the “freedom” you want without the game encouraging you to complete any given objective, go play Sonic 2006. The pink gem and the sky gem will keep you on the edge of your seat for hours. You can break or bypass pretty much everything if you try hard enough. The game is an unfinished glitchfest and there’s poor design choices up the wazoo, but what does that matter? It’s all the fun of a GameShark – without the GameShark!

    Sarcasm aside, if you really want to “experiment” with the game, just give it time. There will always be low score/ringless/no boost/minimalist runs, speedruns that exploit every possible aspect of the stage and physics, and people who have nothing better to do with their time. But this isn’t LittleBigPlanet or The Sims; there’s only so much freedom you can give a player until the objective is lost. The thing to remember is that things like debug mode and getting Amy into Casinopolis WEREN’T intended for the player; they were discovered by him/her. If that’s the kind of experimentation you want, then it’s up to you – not SEGA – to discover those secrets for yourself, just like the trophy room codes and moonjumping in City Escape Act 2 were discovered. Generations has a goldmine of easily-exploitable materials, you just have to seek them out for yourself.

    And yes, a game should be played at least loosely by the way the creators wanted it to be played – that’s kind of the point. Again, this isn’t The Sims. Every game has restrictions. They’re a part of what makes discovering these things so fun; without them, every new “secret” would just be as obvious and predictable as the last. Sometimes, restrictions can ultimately be the very things that challenge and inspire you to find more obscure and unconventional ways to solve a given problem.

  • Reply

    People…

    WIDE AUDIENCE = MORE ABERRATIONS LIKE WEREHOG OR SWORD SONIC.

    end of transmission.

  • Reply

    I like this article, and I think it’s all completely true. For me, Sonic Generations was fun when initially playing through, and save for the lacking story, was enjoyable enough, but now that I’m done, I’m thinking, “now what?” And while reading this article, I realized it’s that flexibility you describe that adds to a game’s replayability, something Sonic has had a good deal of trouble with in recent years.

    But I think Sega is more aware of this than you give them credit for, and I think Sonic Generations is proof of this. They clearly tried to break away from that pre-set path attitude with the game, in both modern and classic (albeit significantly more in classic) and while they weren’t entirely successful, the fruit of their efforts is still apparent.

    I think what the issue is that the very idea of a Sonic game is pretty simple. Basically you’re just supposed to reach the end of level as quickly as you can without dying. It’s simple enough that one doesn’t immediately acknowledge that you can still achieve that goal and still be creative with it at the same time, and so it can be difficult to think “outside the box” sometimes. I’m sure the makers at Sega frequently focus more on meeting that goal than meeting that goal and being creative with it at the same time. I’m also sure that the scheduling and “meeting-the-deadlines” a gaming business like Sega adheres to also plays a factor, and could also keep the designers from having enough of a chance to even realize the need to think outside the box.

    That’s not to say that’s an altogether bad thing. If it weren’t for this methodology, I’ve sure new Sonic games would be few and far inbetween because they had no schedules to meet and could sit and fine-tune the game as long as they desired on their own time. But they would also probably rock a lot more than they do now. Point is that there are downsides to it no matter how you roll.

    Aw well, the important thing is that what you say is true, and I agree that the entire gaming industry (not just Sega) could stand to remember this principle. 🙂

  • Reply

    Maybe this means we might be seeing more genres of games or returning old ones, like Sonic the Fighters 2.

  • Reply

    It’s all well and good to appeal to a wide audience but Iizuka’s yet to convince me he can make a good Sonic game without resorting to old material like classic gameplay or the mariokart formula. Anyway, about the article, I completely agree with what you’re saying and with every article like this I read I think you guys at Retro know what you’re doing with games like Sonic a lot more than Sega do

  • Reply

    I almost cried this is so true. You hit it right on the mark. Sometimes you need to be able to make your own paths. This is amazing thank you

  • Reply

    Wow. Wonderfully written, as always. You really hit the mark on explaining the differences in gameplay.

  • Reply

    @Anonymous86

    … why comment that little blurb here? That has nothing to do with this article’s main point. As a matter of fact, it only has relevance because Sonic Generations was MENTIONED. Just take your hate into the forum section, or better yet: comment on Retro’s review of the game. At least you’d be on topic there.

    But back to ths article, I really respect your points ScarredSun. Hardly ANYBODY brings up things like this as a reason why the classic games have that charm. Most people just resort to design choice, which I think is a total cop-out. THIS, however, brings a new sense of depth to the classic games’ playability, and for that I salute you.

  • Reply

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mfj68jyDoF8
    Are you CERTAIN about that? 😉

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