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The Interconnected Systems of Puzzle Strike

Here I talked about how it's best to have system where the subsystems aren't so tightly woven so that you can tinker with one subsystem without messing up the rest of them. Well, that's not how Puzzle Strike is. It's very tightly woven, and I didn't fully realize this until we were trying to balance it. This made it unlike any other game I have balanced. For months it changed radically, often multiple times per week, because changes to one system affected all the others. Some playtesters would come back a week later and feel like they were playing a different game. I've said before it's best to avoid such interwoven systems if possible, but I kind of wonder if they turn out even better and more fun *if* they are balanced--it's just that balancing such a delicate web is tough.

In my series on balancing multiplayer games, I talked about how "balance" can mean a couple different things. On the one hand, it can mean making sure that a set of different starting options, like characters in a fighting game or races in a real-time strategy game, are fair against each other. But there is also some concept of "balance" in games where everyone starts with the same stuff. The word can also mean making sure that the game system allows players to play in different ways, using different moves and tactics, and that it doesn't all boil down to just one thing (we'd call that "degenerate").

This is an abstract diagram of the card / chip game Puzzle Strike, not a screen from a video game.

In Puzzle Strike, I had to worry about both types of balance at the same time. You might think any asymmetric game has to worry about both, but actually I haven't really had to before. Street Fighter and Puzzle Fighter already had working systems, they only needed asymmetric balance, the kind that's about fairness. For Kongai, I created the system, but I didn't develop it in parallel to all the characters. I started by making the system, and it was basically fine from version 1. The only things that ever really changed about Kongai's system were adjusting the damage an intercept does and adding a switch-cooldown so characters can't switch two turns in a row. Other than that, all the balancing was about the characters, not the system itself. Same story for Flash Duel. I adjusted the system of En Garde, changing timing, edge cases, adding a push mechanic, etc, but Flash Duel's system was fine from day 1 and all the balancing was about the characters. Yomi comes the closest to Puzzle Strike in balancing system + characters, but because system changes happend over such a long period of time--6 years!--it was not quite as traumatic.

The Different Types of Chips

In Puzzle Strike, there are character chips, puzzle chips, gem chips, and purple chips. (There are also wounds, but those just clog up your deck and do nothing, so we won't worry about them for now.) You can see all 62 chip designs here.

Gem chips count as money when played from your hand.The character chips are the ones that need "asymmetric balance," meaning they need to all be fair against each other. But we can't even hope to fix problems there unless we have a game system in the first place. The puzzle, gem, and purple chips compose that system. The gem chips you play from your hand count as money to buy other chips for your deck. You can use gem chips to buy more gem chips to increase your buying power. You can use them to buy purple chips, the most important chips in the game. Purple chips let you empty your "gem pile" and fill up the gem piles of other players. (Each player has a special zone called the gem pile, and if a player's fills up, he loses. The gems in there don't count as money, they just get you closer to losing.) You can also use gem chips to buy puzzle chips so that you can do a bunch of extra stuff that gives you resources, gives you more actions per turn, slows down your opponents, and so forth.

The main balancing troubles here are that the money system affects the entire game, the way purple chips work affects the entire game, and that puzzle chips compete with the other types of chips for attention. Let's look at each of these situations.

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The Secrets of Donkey Kong Country 2

Nintendo has a long history of so-called platform games--games where you jump from platform to platform. Over the last 25 years, these games have evolved, though I would argue that even to this day, Rare’s 1995 game Donkey Kong Country 2 nailed the winning formula like nothing else before or since. (Make sure to click the SNES version if you follow that link.)

Before we go on, here’s a list of platform games relevant to the discussion:

It’s interesting that Shigeru Miyamoto basically invented the genre with Super Mario Brothers and re-invented it Mario64. These two titles were far and away the most innovative given what existed when they were released, but Donkey Kong Country 2’s handling of secret items deserves special mention. Before I explain why, let's consider the progression of these games over time.

In the early days, platform games were about trying not to die. Dying occurred frequently and the main goal of the game was to get through all the levels. As time went on, we see less and less emphasis on the dexterity of passing levels and more and more emphasis on finding secrets. There certainly are dexterity challenges in all these games (see the no-jetpack sections of Mario Sunshine or that damned Luigi’s coins level of Mario Galaxy), but collecting stars and secrets are definitely the focus of the modern ones.

The most extreme examples of moving away from the old model of “just avoid dying, try to pass the levels,” were WarioLand 2 and 3 for GameBoy where Wario cannot die. If he touches fire, for example, he runs quickly for a moment until he cools off, allowing him to travel more quickly or cross tiles of floor he wouldn’t normally be able to cross. The entire emphasis on those games is puzzle-solving and secret-finding, not death-avoiding.

WarioLand aside, the notion of finding secrets in platform games led to the "dual goal" platform games of today. A casual or younger player's goal might be to simply get to the end of a game. This doesn’t even require completing every level, because of warp zones and non-linear map screens that allow you to skip levels. A more demanding gamer's goal, though, is to uncover every secret the game has to offer. In Mario64, this means finding all 120 stars (only about 60 are needed to "win" the game.) In Donkey Kong Country 2, this means finding all 40 DK coins as well as finding all 102% of the bonus rooms. These dual goals allow a single game to appeal to a wide range of players.

If platform games are becoming more and more about finding secrets, we should define what a "secret" actually is. To a really old-school player, a secret might be a near-impossible-to-find item that's virtually randomly placed. That's not the type of secrets I'm talking about. In fact, a "secret" in the sense of modern platform games is a hidden something-or-other that is actually meant to be

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Subtractive Design

(This article originally appeared in Game Developer Magazine.)

Subtractive design is the process of removing imperfections and extraneous parts in order to strengthen the core elements. You can think of a design as something you build up, construct and let grow, but it’s pruning away the excess that gives a design a sense of simplicity, elegance, and power.

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." —Albert Einstein

First let's look at the theory behind this idea to see why designers in many fields often think in terms of negatives (subtracting things) rather than positives (adding things). Then let's look at several successful subtractive designs so we know what to aim for. Finally, I'll discuss why subtractive design often breeds controversy.

This image is simple, powerful, and without extraneous detail.

Why Subtraction?

Designers in many fields, not just games, often think in terms of negatives (subtracting things) rather than positives (adding things). Design is creating a form (a game in our case) that fits a context. There isn’t just one boundary we have to check between form and context though, there are infinitely many. Is our game easy enough to learn? Does it have the desired amount of strategy or depth? Does it appeal to the intended age-group? Is it cheap enough to make in both time and money? Is it aesthetically pleasing? Do the aesthetics help the player understand how to play the game? Do the mechanics work well with each other? Do they require the desired amount of dexterity? The list goes on.

We first come up with a design that might fit all the requirements. Sometimes this comes from the intuition of a designer who has internalized all those forces and somehow spits out a new answer. More likely, we start with something pretty well established so that we know it solves many of the requirements already. That’s how genres, sequels, and remakes help us make good (but not necessarily new) designs.

Once we have something, we have to evaluate how good our design is. Does our form actually fit the context? Architect Christopher Alexander had some choice words on this subject in his Notes on the Synthesis of Form:

We should find it almost impossible to characterize a house which fits its context. Yet it is the easiest thing in the world to name the specific kinds of misfit which prevent good fit. A kitchen which is hard to clean, no place to park my car, the child playing where it can be run down by someone else’s car, rainwater coming in, overcrowding and lack of privacy, the eye-level grill which spits hot fat right into my eye, the gold plastic doorknob which deceives my expectations, and the front door I cannot find, are all misfits between the house and the lives and habits it's meant to fit. These misfits are the forces which must shape it, and there is no mistaking them. Because they are expressed in negative form they are specific, and tangible enough to talk about.

Alexander explains that when a misfit occurs, we are able to point at it specifically and describe it. When we instead try to explain what a good fit would be like, we’re often reduced to generalities that are hard to act on.

With this in mind I should like to recommend that we should always expect to see the process of achieving good fit between two entities as a negative process of neutralizing the incongruities, or irritants, or forces, which cause misfit.

/// Ico

This isn't the real box cover for Ico, but it probably should have been.When Fumito Ueda designed Ico, he did not start with a list of everything the game should have. Instead, he started with the core idea that it should be

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Super Balance Articles II Turbo

I was the lead designer of Street Fighter HD Remix. This is a collection of all 20 articles I wrote about designing the game. Together, they are even longer than my book. CLICK ON THE PORTRAITS BELOW for each character's article. Enjoy.



Special thanks to all the Evolution tournament players who playtested the game and helped it be what it is.
(Text-only version of this page here.)


Street Fighter HD Remix Features

You get a hell of a lot when you buy Street Fighter HD Remix, way more than you might realize. Lets go over all the goodies.

1) Two games in one. You get the gameplay of the classic Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo, just like the arcade, and the brand new sequel to that game, Street Fighter HD Remix, both in one package. (They are called Classic and Remixed in the menus.) That means you get the nostalgia of the old, awesome gameplay AND you get a new, rebalanced game guided by the wisdom that tournament pros have accumulated over the last 14 years.

2) HD graphics. Every single piece of art in the game is redrawn in 1080p HD. That includes backgrounds, characters, endings, menus, and—well—everything. Udon Comics drew most of it.

3) Remixed music. All the music in the entire game is new. Every stage, every ending, and the menus. It’s from the OCRemix community, so the fans really contributed here.

4) Widescreen mode. On an HDTV, you can play the game in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, or switch to widescreen mode to fill your screen during gameplay. Widescreen mode zooms in and has slightly different camera behavior, but has no affect whatsoever on gameplay.

5) Every combination of the features above. Whether you’re playing the Remixed or the Classic game, you can turn HD sprites on or off. If you turn them off, you’ll get the original game’s sprites scaled up in all their blocky glory. This has no impact on gameplay, it’s just visual. Regardless of whether you play in Classic/Remix and HD sprites on/off, you can also turn remixed music on/off. If you prefer the original game’s tunes, go for it, it’s up to to you. Finally, no matter which of any of those modes you’re in, you can play in widescreen mode or 4:3 mode. All of this stuff is independent so you can customize these options however you want.

Also note that when you play online, your opponent won’t even know what your choices are regarding HD sprites on/off, remixed music on/off or widescreen mode on/off. All three of those affect your experience only, and your opponent might have different settings for those options on his end.

6) Advanced networking. The art delays in this project gave us a chance to experiment with several different networking techniques and we chose the best. We went with a predictive/rollback system that has the advantage of reducing input delay. I know that sounds pretty jargon-filled, so in plain English, it makes the game feel responsive and usually look smooth even during lag. We were able to refine this from the feedback on our open beta test, and also from a few experimental things we tried in the patch to the open beta.

The final version of the game has another feature called “smoothing” that lets you turn the input delay up or down. We found that best results were generally when there’s a very small input delay of 2 frames, as that leads to smooth network play that it is still so responsive that it feels instant to most people. You can set this to suit your own tastes, but try the default setting (2 frames) first.

7) Double-blind character selection online. When you’re playing online, don’t you hate it when your opponent refuses to pick a character until the last possible moment because he’s trying to make you pick first? He wants to see who you pick so he can pick the best character to beat yours. In HD Remix, all online play has double-blind character selection. That means that you cannot see who your opponent picked or even where his character selection box is until both of you finish picking your characters. Now there’s no reason to stall on this screen, you might as well just pick your character right away.

8) 8-player tournaments. As you saw from the open beta test, you can create your own 8-player, single elimination tournaments. The results go in the leaderboards. Those results don’t contribute to any kind of actual rank (you get to choose who enters your tournaments so we can’t really make them ranked) but after the tournament is over, anyone can see the bracket to verify who won.

9) A new announcer. We got overwhelming feedback that people did NOT like the voice of the high-pitched announcer in the original game. He’s usually referred to as “Big Bird.” We replaced him with a more gruff sounding voice. While we were at it, I replaced Guile’s girly sounding “Sonic Boom” with the more manly version from Street Fighter 2: Hyper Fighting. Give this one some time, and you’ll realize that almost anything is better than Big Bird.

10) Revised endings. Udon revised and rewrote the story and text of the endings to make them consistent with the current canon. And of course they redrew the endings, too.

11) Original costume colors. The original game has 8 costume colors for each character, but these costumes do NOT include the original iconic colors from the first Street Fighter 2. So if you want to play Ryu wearing white or Ken wearing red, your only choice was to play the “old” versions of those characters by using a code. The old versions had slightly different (usually worse) gameplay. First of all, you no longer need a code to select the old characters in Classic mode, you choose between two different game logos: Super Turbo and Super SF2.

The cooler news here about the costume colors in the Remixed game though. You can’t play the old characters at all in that game, but of course you want to be able to pick those iconic colors. You can. Select your character with the jab button to get that character’s old-school costume. If you want the color that used to be on jab, hold any punch button for 2 seconds. That means in the Remixed game, you have access to 9 different costume colors in total.

12) The CPU difficulty.
In the original game, the difficulty of the computer AI is ridiculously hard. It’s harder than in any other Street Fighter game ever. Beating the first opponent is hard and beating the third one is usually beyond hard. Well, it’s just as hard as ever if you pick Classic mode, but in Remixed mode, I fixed up the difficulty so that easy is actually easy, medium is actually medium, and so on. Try playing the HD Remix arcade mode (where you fight all the CPU opponents), then if you want to risk breaking your controller in frustration, switch to Classic arcade mode.

13) Hitbox display. In training mode, you can turn on a display of the game’s hitboxes to see what’s really going on under the hood. Blue boxes are where your character can be hit and red boxes are where you can hit the opponent. This is my gift to the hardcore community, so they can refine their strategies more than ever.

14) Game speed. The game speeds match the arcade version of the game, but this is confusing so bear with me. In SF HD Remix, speed 3 is the default and is intended for tournament play and online play. It’s the same speed as Japanese arcade speed 3, which is also known as US arcade speed 2. You don’t really have to understand what’s going on with all that, just play at the default speed 3 and be happy that it matches the arcade.

Furthermore, there is a speed 0 in there for the hardcore players. On all speeds except 0, the game uses its own system of dropping frames in order to increase speed (we didn’t touch this, the arcade version did it too). This does affect whether some combos are possible/impossible. Speed 0 is slow, but it will let combo masters and makers of combo videos take frame-dropping out of the equation when they are trying to figure out which crazy combos are possible.

15) Dipswitches. The Dreamcast version has several secret dipswitches for turning bug fixes on and off. We took the dipswitches that actually affect gameplay and put them in a menu for you to adjust, if you want. These only affect offline matches, so you can’t use them online. For example, they let you turn on or off the ability for Chun Li to “store” her super. Note that the default setting for many of these is for a given bug to be fixed in Remixed mode but still unfixed in Classic mode (have to stay true to the original!).

Here's a list of the dipswitches you can toggle:

  • Ability to throw an opponent who was dizzied by a throw
  • Ability to store Honda's super
  • Ability to store Honda's command throw
  • Ability to store Chun Li's super
  • When Bison does a headstomp that hits a rising opponent only a few pixels above ground level, he briefly pauses
  • Old Characters in Classic Mode can cancel the same normal moves into special moves as...Super/Super Turbo characters
  • Slowdown during hit-stun
  • Percentage chance that the first frame of Old Ryu's air hurricane kick is unblockable
  • Percentage chance that the first frame of Old Ken's air hurricane kick is unblockable
  • Percentage chance that the first frame of Akuma's air hurricane kick is unblockable
  • Percentage chance that the first frame of Blanka's horizontal ball is unblockable
  • Percentage chance that the first frame of Blanka's vertical ball is unblockable
  • Vega's super drains the meter when he...touches wall/grabs opponent
  • Ability for Sagat to perform a reversal Super
  • Can do Sagat’s super using a kick button during a 1 frame window
  • Dhalsim’s reversal super
  • Ken’s reversal super
  • Some moves, such as Chun Li’s throw, which normally require a forward/back input can be done with an up input.

16) The dipswitch “hat.” I didn’t want to have to worry about tournament situations where someone changes the dipswitches to their advantage without anyone realizing it. In SF HD Remix, if you change even one dipswitch, a blue dot with a chrome enclosure will appear at the top middle of the screen, above the KO box. It looks kind of like a hat for the KO icon. Anyway, if you see that, you immediately know that someone has changed the dipswitches. Dipswitches don't affect online play, so you don't have to worry about any tricks there.


17) Button config. You get the best button config screen we could think of. Both players can set their buttons at the same time. It’s NOT that horrible kind of button config where it lists the buttons, then you have to scroll through various functions for that button. That kind is bad because when it says Y Button, or whatever, you might not even know which button that is if you have an arcade joystick. Even if you know, it takes a moment to think about it and figure out what is what.

Our button config works like this. You don’t have to know what any buttons are called and you don’t have to care about the layout on your controller or joystick. You simply press the buttons on your controller in this order: jab, strong, fierce, short, forward, roundhouse. That’s it. You don’t even have to tap down in between: we do that for you automatically. Furthermore, after you press those 6 buttons, you’ll end up on something called “unassigned.” If you press the remaining two buttons on your controller, we’ll unassign those for you so they don

’t do anything if you accidentally hit them. If you unassign those (so you did 8 presses total) then we’ll move the menu highlight to ACCEPT for you automatically. Also note that we even support mapping more than one button to a function if you want. If you want two fierce buttons, then go for it!

18) Competition. I hope Street Fighter HD Remix becomes the new standard of fighting game competition and that you'll have plenty of online opponents to play against. Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo was still played in tournaments 14 years after its release, so I hope that you’ll be playing SF HD Remix for that long as well.

Thanks for your support and enjoy the game.