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World's Best Players
by Nathan Fouts on 09/26/12 11:31:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.


How do the best players in the world, play your game? Or how *will* they play your game (if it's still in development)? I think coming at your design from the 'best players in the world' angle can shed light on some possible gaps.

After mulling over an inspired question by Jason Rohrer of his own Diamond Trust of London, "I'm interested to see over time what a really good player of Diamond Trust is", and reading a Super Hexagon tip list by a world-class player, I wondered how the best players of my own games would play them.

We're working to finish our first XBLA game, Serious Sam Double D XXL. It's not out yet, so I don't know yet how the world's best players will climb its leaderboards. But I have a good substitute--myself. If you're a indie dev like me and you're working on a game still to be released, chances are your team includes your game's best players.

You play the game day-in and day-out working on and testing it. You may be using techniques and abilities that are perfectly in-line with your designs, or you may be side-stepping intended gameplay without knowing it. Will your players do this as well?

Here are some questions I've been using and you put to your game:

  • What would you tell others to allow them play as well as you do?
  • Practice writing a small walkthrough for your game before it’s finished. What are you telling players to help them through? 
  • Should you have to tell them these things? What are you explaining that should be better explained within the game itself (hopefully through design, rather than explicit text). 
  • Are you subverting the game design in the way you're playing? Is this intended? 
  • Can you uncover exploits to hopefully redirect players into the intended portion of the game?
  • Best players know the levels and mechanics well. How? Is there a proper introduction of each mechanic?
  • How do you think the best players will discover the deepest tricks of your game? Are they fair and discoverable? Is it fun to suss them out, or will they find them only by accident?

Best Tricks
For instance, In Serious Sam Double D XXL there are campaign levels (with a story) and challenge levels. The campaign levels have leaderboards for quickest level completion time. Based on how I play, I know this means they need to get the Air Buffer gun upgrade, which lets them hover some as long as they shoot. I also know its possible for players to skip a lot of enemy setups. Is this okay? Is this still fun?

Air Buffer in action, encouraged through Speed Run attempts

For me knowing how players (and myself) try to skip enemy setups, can help foster new ideas. This led to creating a shotgun upgrade with pellets that slow down time momentarily for any enemies hit. This combined with the hover ability can get you through fast.

Thinking about this from the original PC release of the game, I realized some setups players were skipping too quickly in any case. Even though the game now registers speed runs, I wanted some spots to give them something more substantial to fight sometimes which led to the introduction of armored enemies.

Another aspect of the campaign is collecting currency to spend on new gun upgrades. Similar to getting infinite 1UPs in a Mario game, I know there are a few spots in the game where a player can grind to gain currency. If you have exploits like this, make sure you know about all of them, to properly manage them.

Collecting currency actually helps the simpler setups now as well. In the earlier, easier levels, players will still engage the smaller enemies because they drop currency on death. The original designs of the game had no such system, and no incentive to engage the smallest enemies once players became accustomed to the level setups.

Imagine that best player wrote a walkthrough about your game. What are they telling others in order  to perform well that's missing from within the game itself?

New to SSDD XXL, There are over 30 upgrades which let you heavily modify your weapons, some of which are pretty strange. That's a lot of new gameplay to introduce; how do I know players are getting it? This is especially tricky to consider because as the creator you inherently know all the abilities of your guns (or various gameplay).

Bee shotgun in combination with the turret gun

It may sound obvious, but a good place to start explaining things is a description of your guns (or whatever advanced gameplay you have). If there's some advanced technique you regularly employ and expect the player to know, explain it somewhere. For instance, XXL has a 'Cybernetic Bee' upgrade for the shotgun which shoots bees which can lift enemies into the air, stinging them. Cool! But it can also be used against armored enemies. While normal bullets bounce off the armor, the bees can go under their armor. One way to explain this is with text. I do this now, but originally the Cybernetic Bees description only mentioned what they were, not their ability against armored enemies.

A better way is organically letting the player discover abilities. For instance, in the game, the Gunstacker system lets player stack up their guns, allowing players to have multiple guns firing at once. Here players don't have to exclusively try out the bee gun to see it working--it will likely be in a stack anyway, and the results against armored enemies speak for themselves.

Bee shotgun against the new armored soldiers

While I assumed players would be able to figure out that the bee gun can be used on armored enemies, since this is a quasi-required mechanic (not just a secret), it's best to go ahead and explain it wherever possible.


I'm still learning about gaps and looking for issues in Serious Sam Double D XXL, but it's getting much better.  With my game still in development, imagining what tricks the world's best player would employ, I can see what areas of the design are being exploited, require shoring up, or better explanations, and hopefully you can do the same for your designs.

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Ivan K. Myers Jr.
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Good article. Question: when to draw the line between explaining and allowing players to discover on their own? Things that are required for progression obviously need explaining, but what about other subsystems that maybe straddle the line between major and minor mechanic?

For instance, in one of my favorite games, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, there are entire subsystems that are never really explained. Some weapons have "street-fighter-motion"-triggered special moves that do some powerful things, the familiars gain special abilities as they level up, the entire second half of the game is a secret unlock, etc... I had a friend who thought he beat the game but was befuddled when I started talking about the up-side-down castle! He completely missed out on the other HALF of the game! He still liked the game though.

So again I ask (more for discussion purposes), where to draw the line? Should CotN have better explained some of those mechanics, and would it have been a better or worse game for it? Is it better to sometimes keep a mechanic secret if it's really complicated but adds alot of depth (ala the secret streetfighter motion moves), maybe instead of cutting it altogether? Alright, im just rambling now, but good article man!

Nathan Fouts
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Hi Ivan,
Good questions! Fun stuff to think about...
>when to draw the line between explaining and allowing players to discover on their own?
For me personally, I like to work backwards on this. What would it mean if the player didn't know this mechanic? If it's virtually stopping play for them, but you *think* they'll get it, you should probably explain it as well as possible.

So in the case of the armored enemies in our game, there are a lot of ways to beat them, *but* we do throw them at you many times, so we expect you to be able to have figured out some way of beating them. Thus my designs to ensure if you don't read about it in a description, you'll figure out some way of beating them.

In that case of an armored enemy that was more digital--as in there's only way one to beat it and it will destroy you if you don't know--then even more care would be required to make sure you know how to do it.

As I described, I think the most elegant solution is the 'organic' one, and something I strive for, but don't always achieve. As I mentioned, our Gunstacker allows you to fire a lot of guns at the same time, so in a way, it side-steps the issue of a player forgetting to try some gun with a special ability.

In SotN as you mentioned, there are some attacks with weapons that are activated using quarter-circle attacks. So I think you know the answer.. but how did you find the attacks? Probably the same way I did, which was by accidentally performing the attack in regular play, being confused, then playing around with it some more until you figured out what caused it.

I think those attacks were really cool, but I also think they were part of the "skill depth" for the game, another way for the more skilled players to get better at the game. They were far from critical knowledge, which I think allows them to not have to ensure everyone knows them.

>I had a friend who thought he beat the game but was befuddled when I started talking about the >up-side-down castle! He completely missed out on the other HALF of the game! He still liked the game >though.
Wow, it's been a few years since the last time I've beaten SotN, but I didn't think you could miss the second half. Hmm... on the other hand, it was a substantial game by that point and your friend had fun too.

>Is it better to sometimes keep a mechanic secret if it's really complicated but adds alot of depth
Keeping it 'secret' or at least not mentioning it will definitely pare down the "necessary" information for most players. If the mechanic is very discoverable (like an input similar to inputs they already perform), then skilled players will probably find it and enjoy it.

I think as long as the core game has plenty of depth already, hiding mechanics is fine as long as it makes sense in the theme of the game. A straight-up military shooter, story driven, with linear fights, might seem a little weird to have lots of secret mechanics in it but it makes sense in a very exploratory game like SotN. (But hey, maybe a straight-up military shooter that seems straight, but then has tons of hidden abilities and strange secrets could be nice contrast!)