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Platformers and Game Balance or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sprint
by Michael Estes on 08/23/14 04:12:00 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.


My time during these last few weeks has been spent between working on a semi-stealth-based top down shooter and revisiting the platformer genre through New Super Mario Bros and Super Meat Boy. In this time I made some beautifully written code that implemented a timed sprint function and then completely scrapped it.

Re-playing these platformer made me realize that platformers are some of the most open gameplay experiences available, rarely are designer imposed limitations placed on the player. Instead it seems much more common that players are left to an unmonitored set of tools to build whatever they'd like with, but just as in real life there a reason you don't only use a hammer to handle all your household chores (unless you like to have a few beers before doing these chores).

One gameplay element in particular stood out to me in these games, the sprinting mechanic. In both of these previously mentioned games there is no limit to the sprint time like is commonly found in games of other genres. Why is that, surely player will just hold down the sprint button at all times in order to move faster right? I mean faster is better, or maybe it isn't. I found that after focusing on how often I would sprint in Mario was nowhere close to the percentage of time I spent holding down the sprint key in games of other genres, games where sprinting is finite resource. This made me ask myself “Why would I sprint more in a game that obviously doesn't want me to abuse it over a game that doesn’t care what I do with it?”

This has made me think that good design is about balancing out mechanics with other mechanics, not imposing limits to those mechanics for the player. I can sprint through 100% any Mario game, but I don't because there are other elements that I'm more affected by when holding down that special key, be they the lack of time to fully see and respond to the obstacles ahead of me or not having that precise control of my movements in air and on the ground. So I removed the limits on sprinting in my game and am now determined to find other ways to balance it out, be that through AI or other means. This has made me wonder if there are any other gameplay mechanics that are limited simply to provide balance instead of creating that balance more fluidly with other aspects of the game.

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Fabian Fischer
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Nice one. This "internal balance" is indeed an extremely important factor in any game that has any sort of challenge.

Nikolay Kushnar
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Awesome view point, thanks!

John Flush
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Good observation. Watching some speed runs of Mario games made me realize that every turtle and goomba had been placed to make the sprint possible, but the funny thing is I didn't even notice how well timed they all were until I watched someone else do it.

My opinion on why I don't sprint non-stop through a platformer is because there is more there to get. Coins, extra lives, whatever, I want to get all of those, thus I don't sprint. Other games though, I'm more than happy to sprint through it because there is so much space and not much to do in that space. FPS for instance... I rarely sprint through games like Doom (unless I have killed everything and now am puzzle hunting or something, lots of boring between the action), but modern games like Halo and such I'm just in a rush to get somewhere else.

Nguyen Phu
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Thanks! Your view point broke my concrete mind.