Dear Javed: A Response to DEAR SEGA // Sonic Re-design

Javed is an animator by trade, and it shows! The video’s presentation is clean and lively. Certainly the work of a professional.

I believe if you’re going to criticise the creative content of others, bring a creative solution to the table with you.

This is the opening statement to Javed’s critique “DEAR SEGA // Sonic Re-design”. It’s a statement that I disagree with. It’s hard enough to talk about games and articulate clear points about specific design elements, there’s no need to make it harder by throwing in your own ideas. It’s overreaching to suggest that all critics should attempt to step outside of their direct experience with a game and expertise with critical analysis, then pretend to be a designer. Doing so complicates the critique process and runs the risk of under-analyzing the source, over-scoping, and distracting the audience from the critical conversation by focusing too much on your ideas, which are immaterial to your critique of the game. Javed suffers in just this way: he over-scopes by addressing the entire Sonic series, fails to analyze any part of any one game sufficiently, and offers fairly generic design suggestions.

“Before we go further I think it’s important that we look your sales and ratings and take a look at how your platforming rival Mario is tracking as well. “

Games criticism and analysis has little to do with sales and ratings. A critic should be able to play a game and say something meaningful about the game or their experience. I can’t help but think that the reason Sonic doesn’t sell well these days is because the games aren’t very good. And so all talk of marketing, demographics, and how the “true fans” are now 30-year-olds with jobs and money is completely beside the point. Games criticism isn’t about sales at the end each fiscal year; it’s about the games at our fingertips.

After throwing all these numbers and graphs at us, the most Javed extracts from the data is “Mario is doing something right here.”

“When Sonic jumps he doesn’t become a ball straight away like the original games . A second action like the x button triggers a charge attack, and here he is powerful against enemies. Down and x smashes sonic into the ground. Left and right and x gives sonic a kind of air dash. While in his basic jump mode he’s vulnerable and this adds great tension into the gameplay. “

Javed describes how he would change Sonic’s mechanics and says this approach is different from the most recent Sonic games. His approach isn’t so different–many Sonic games already feature the mechanics Javed proposed. I can’t tell if he knows that these Sonic mechanics exist, or if he thinks they weren’t good enough as mechanics, or if he thinks the level design wasn’t good enough to highlight these design elements. The more recent games like Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Generations, and Sonic The Lost World feature gameplay that’s a refined mix of classic Sonic 2D platforming gameplay, 2D Sonic Rush gameplay, and the on-rails, runner-style of Sonic and the Secret Rings. Many of these games feature some kind of air dash, homing attack, and ground slam.

“[Sega hasn’t] arrived yet at a platform where Sonic’s speed can thrive in a 3D environment”

The big question is why hasn’t Sonic worked in 3D. Javed supports his claim about Sonic in 3D by describing the various surface-level differences between Sonic games without diving into specific examples, or giving reasons rooted in principles of game design. Almost every statement is missing the specific examples that would give his analysis weight. His discussion of Sonic Generation, again, uses sales and ratings data to make a claim about game design. There’s no mention of the camera design, level design, enemy design, or mechanics design. Though I know 2D platformers are easier to design and easier for players to control, the specific reasons must be articulated.

“I believe the best way to use Sonic’s speed …  is a momentum-based system where the player determines how fast or slow they wish to proceed.”

When is this not the case for a Sonic game? I know there are a few auto-runners out there where players can’t directly control Sonic’s speed. But for all the others, players have lots of control over their movement.

Javed does better when he talks about puzzle design and puzzle ideas for his version of Sonic. In his attempt to elegantly solve the problem of multiple gameplay types and the need for Sonic to have lives and restart levels, Javed proposes a power-up backpack and ring currency system. I like it a lot though the application is a bit janky. Javed’s idea essentially takes a power-up and makes it portable, like the hold items in many Mario games, but then turns the activation of the power-up into a more dynamic mechanic.

I find it weird to introduce a “summon block” mechanic into a platformer because, based on some of the examples given, it needlessly adds “summon” as a main verb along side MOVE, RUN, or JUMP. It doesn’t fit with Sonic’s platformer roots and Javed’s principle of Sonic games being all about moving and managing inertia.

The entire analysis lacks the kind of detail that would lend it substance, and then Javed lowers the level of critique further by resorting to incredibly short-sighted faux game design rules of thumb such as “respect the intellect of the player.” These phrase-crutches often treat players and developers as if they are in a kind of personal struggle. Thus when a game disappoints them, some gamers talk as if they were directly insulted, when by no means is a game’s quality some kind of intentional direct attack on the player’s intellect, time, or wallet. There are many reasons why games fail to be great–making games is unbelievably hard. The failure to deliver is not a personal slight aimed at every player, it’s the end of a long journey that mostly consists of well-meaning people making understandable mistakes.

Dear Javed, the talent and energy you’ve displayed is impressive. Let’s have a chat about Sonic’s game design sometime to see if we can aim the conversation in a more Design Oriented direction.

The Design Was Disregarded

Original Article: What Games Must Learn From Children’s BooksA designer studies her favorite works of play and picture to explain what’s missing from many modern video games by Anna Anthropy

“It’s this placement of the text accompanying each illustration that makes the book playful. Because you have to turn the page in order to read the caption, you can’t help looking at each picture and trying to guess which letter-appropriate act of violence is being depicted. I showed the book to my partner and they started guessing without even being prompted.”

Anna Anthropy opens her analysis well by identifying the subject, describing it on a surface level, and then highlighting particular details about the book The Z Was Zapped that are key to “inviting” play. By separating the explanatory descriptive text from each accompanying picture, the book gives readers a chance to observe, ponder, and guess at the correct verb to describe the scene on every other page. Unfortunately, Anna’s concrete, detail-oriented, properly-scoped analysis based on her own personal experience is only applied to The Z Was Zapped in the few paragraphs of the article.

That’s really very typical of games these days— games are obsessed with control. A digital version of The Z Was Zapped wouldn’t let you turn the page until you’d entered the correct word. When you got it wrong, it would blarrrt at you and make you do it over again. Maybe there’d be an “in-app purchase” that would let you see the total number of letters in the word.”

Over-scoping is Anna’s first issue. “Games these days”  is way too vague and broad. I don’t know if Anna is referencing browser indie games like Draknek’s collection, the wide variety of Nintendo games, Minecraft and the many games it inspired, or just the popular style of mobile app that game critics seem to universally dislike. If “games these days” actually means “the games that I’ve come across recently” then a few specific examples are needed.

The tone in the description of the theoretical digital version of The Z Was Zapped is negative: “obsessed”, “blarrrt”, and “make you do it over again.” I don’t yet have a decent idea of what Anna is upset about.

What I like about The Z Was Zapped is that, as a humble picture book, it doesn’t provide any explicit rules, nor does it make any effort to enforce a guessing game.”

The core of Anna’s critique is comparing a favorite children’s books to tropes of game design. The quote above, however, fails to draw a useful comparison between game design and book design. These books are not games without rule enforcement, they are simply following the form of their medium–a medium which does not involve rule enforcement or game-like interactivity. At this point in the article, I’m looking for a statement about a similar element between games and books and how that element works in two different ways.

“The trick of The Z is Zapped, and most good children’s books, is to invite play, not to try and enforce or legislate it.

Okay, but what do I mean when I use “play” as a noun?…In Play Matters, he makes statements like “Play is…an activity in tension between creation and destruction.” … Above all else, play is transformative.

Here Anna has establisheds a key point. The rest of the article should define, outline, or frame what she means by “play” “invite” “enforce” and “legislate.” She starts well by presenting definitions of play and capping it off with her own view of the concept. Unfortunately, Anna’s version doesn’t define “play”; rather she describes it as being “transformative.” At this point I lost hope for a structured side-by-side comparison between games and children’s books because the very core terms of Anna’s argument are ill-defined. It’s not that a quality argument is impossible without the structure of well- defined terms. It’s that, in my experience, such a structure hones the mind before the writing process happens.


The media does not provide the play itself… This is the fundamental thing most game designers get wrong. …we’re becoming obsessed with rules. Game designers have become pedant legislators, trying to make sure players are playing our games the right way. We’ve become obsessed with controlling play.

I believe Anna is trying to explain why she feels that games with many rules and complexities are restrictive to the experience of play. By saying the media “does not provide the play” she’s trying to articulate the idea that the most important and valuable parts of a play experience are what the people bring including their quirks, questions, and life experiences. And if people are the key cog in the game-play machine, it doesn’t do gaming and play justice to force players to learn too many rules.

Anna is addressing a few common realities about playing games; namely that increased complexity and rules generally put a greater stress on the player. Put simply, players have to learn more before they really “get” the game and apply their unique personality to the experience. The freedom players feel inside of a rule based system is correlated to their understanding of it.

Anna fails to illustrate the spectrum of obsessive-rule-legislation and pinpoint where she thinks play happens. She mentions that designers use rules to “make sure” players are playing games the “right way.,” but there’s also a right and wrong way to experience The Z Was Zapped. If you read the book backwards or decide to engage with it by ripping out pages without looking at them, I’m pretty sure your experience won’t be meaningful in the same way as someone who reads front to back while engaging with its implicit guessing game. Looking at design through the lens of “right vs. wrong” isn’t an effective approach because it fails to address the vast range of experience designed for a wide range of players.

The difficult part of comparing unlike things that aren’t polar opposites is that the difference will generally be a matter of degree. It’s not that Anna thinks games shouldn’t have rules., Iit’s that the rules shouldn’t be so complex that the player cannot make creative or playful choices or engage with the game in some other mentally stimulating way. I think this is something we all can agree on.

Play, creativity, and understanding are tightly interwoven experiences. We play to explore, experiment, learn, and express. We create to express, explore, and mix up what we’ve learned. We understand based on our own experiences, often using experimentation, play, and creation to fill in gaps.

The tricky part is that everyone is different. Everyone has different learning styles and has a different comfort level at which they can engage with complex information. If you are untrained musically, a Piano fugue of three voices (listen here to Bach: WTC1 No. 21 in B flat major BWV 866) may quickly overwhelm you. This doesn’t mean the composer is trying to force their more complex work on you regardless if you can “feel” the music or not. And this doesn’t mean creators shouldn’t make complex works or that they’re overly obsessive and controlling. Rather, the complexity of art is an attempt to reflect the complexity of life and the uniqueness of individuals.

The beauty of complexity is that, for most works of art including most games and books and movies, we have the ability to learn over time and level up our ability to comprehend and enjoy complexity. For those who haven’t leveled up yet or refuse to, engaging with works that are more complex than they can handle typically results a relatively meaningless, flat experiences that feel like just going through the motions or “lubrication.” Anna wrongfully blames designers for “controlling play through rules” rather than acknowledging the fact that “overly-designed” games offer a unique kind of playfulness and self expression for some players.

The rest of the article is a series of disjointed comments.

“The formalist approach to design reveres the game as a kind of mathematical artifact, pure in form and precise in function: A neat matrix of abstract systems in which comfortingly quantifiable values bounce off one another in rational ways. Only in numbers are there truth, formalism tell us. All else lies.”

A jab at formalism, and a misguided one at that. To paint formalism with such a broad brush in such a cold manner is unnecessary. Formalists aren’t robots. They’re people: People who have different values and see the world differently. Being a formalist doesn’t necessarily mean  obsessing about function and rationalism while excluding everything else as “lies.” It seems that Anna uses her limited capacity to engage meaningfully with complex rule-based systems as an excuse to draw a line in the sand.

As a marginalized person in a field where I am constantly reminded of my difference, …I can’t think of anything more alienating to me than an e-sport in which depersonalized squares shunt balls at each other.

One thing that I like about competitive multiplayer video games is that they are worlds unto themselves; worlds that act like windows that allow players to see and interact with each other on a level that is impossible to experience otherwise. I like how a player’s gameplay choices and actions speak volumes about themselves. It’s neat how hundreds of players can all play the same character in a fighting game or shooter and yet they’re entirely distinguishable by their actions. Playing games can often side-step our ability to judge based on race, sex, or body type.

“Games do not exist in a vacuum, as much as we might like to find beauty in the perfection of pure design. It has become clear to me that the lumpy, messy thing we try to smooth out in our iterative design is often our humanity.”

Anna’s use of the phrases “pure design” and “humanity” is vague and misleading. I assume “pure design” is what she thinks formalist are focused on: a world of rules, rationality, and math. This is a false dichotomy. As designers, humanity is in everything we do whether we decide to focus on individual mathematical relationships or isolate a specific kind of play that exists on an intensely personal level.

Though the Be Witching development examples Anna describes are interesting, they do not support the idea that less complex rules create better games and better play for all games. When analyzing game design I find it most beneficial to look at the type of game, consider the audience, and define the type of desired play experience. Without this context, I cannot understand Anna’s example. Anna “over-designing” her own game because she was too focused on her own “cleverness” is less a lesson about game design and more a glimpse at how she interprets her own process of refining her game for her audience.

Like all designers, Anna designs and revises based on her own sensibilities. It’s great that she can create the kind of play she values most. It’s ironic and sad that she speaks so disparagingly and narrowmindedly about a type of design, experiences, and play that she can’t personally relate to.

Reblog: Play What You Like’s Guide to SRPGs


Mike says: I’ve been digging around the internet for design analysis on SRPGs (TRPGs as they’re more widely known in the west) since I started my series on Final Fantasy Tactics. Play What You Like is one of the few particularly useful sources of opinions focused on the genre. The author, Gregory Faccone, catalogs and posts a relatively brief critique on each SRPG that he plays.

Though I think that many of his reviews include important information about the games in question, and I would definitely play the SRPGs he recommends strongly, his approach to analysis leaves me wanting. His judgment-heavy posts seldom back up their claims with solid evidence. He clearly has certain expectations and assumptions about the genre that are not specified anywhere, yet his expectations play a critical role in his opinion–and so many of his opinions are presented with no further analysis or explanation and in a disorganized fashion. I think he has the knowledge to do fantastic analysis, but from the five posts on the site that I’ve read he seems to be unwilling to provide the structure and detail necessary to properly articulate and substantiate a critique that would satisfy me.

Richard says: “Conquest did a fine job including a great many [Pokemon] in a deeper way than typical Pokémon games.” a bold claim indeed. I agree with you, Mike. The breadth of topics covered in the Pokemon Conquest analysis is pretty great. He mentions everything from mechanics, level elements, modes and features, to feedback issues like the 3D environments occluding the player’s view of Pokemon. The game design reasoning behind his claims is often missing. I learned enough about this game from the analysis to push me over the fence. Now to look for a copy to purchase.

Reblog: How the Survivor Bias Distorts Reality

In How the Survivor Bias Distorts Reality Michael Shermer says for complex subjects many sources offer their advice based on analyzing success. He says that this is dangerous because if one only analyzes the successful one will not investigate the unsuccessful for its successful traits and qualities. This “survivor bias” leads to advice of severely limited value.

Credit: Izhar Cohen Credit: Izhar Cohen

Mike Says: I see this all the time in the analysis of game design. Analysts take a game that they love and tell us how great it is, but speak in terms that don’t actually differentiate the game from other much less successful games in any way. It’s important when coming up with principles of good design to examine unsuccessful games with a clear eye and see if they exhibit the design principle–if they do, more analysis and attention is needed.

Chris Says: I wonder how much more successful a converse approach to analysis of game design might be: start with a design failure and attempt to analyze why that design failed or why a particular design feature isn’t working. This approach seems to be used when working out the kinks of a game’s design during playtesting, and for good reason: often it’s easier to tell what’s not working that what is. Though a comparative analysis would obviously be the best, this approach is an easier one for beginners doing any sort of design analysis to take, and avoids some of the pitfalls of survivor bias.

Richard says: Hey, Mike. Didn’t you have a blog called “that’s a terrible idea” that specialized in understanding the many flaws of MMO game design? Sounds like you did the method Chris described. 

Critical Angles

POV: Academic.  DIFFICULTY 2.   LEVEL 1 - 1 POV: Academic.  DIFFICULTY 2.   LEVEL 1 – 1

When we set about the task of trying to analyse a game, often we are faced with the choice between two angles of approach. Say we’re analyzing StarCraft. From one angle a Marine is a symbol denoting a certain bag of properties and behaviors (small ground unit that costs 50 minerals, has a ground attack of 6, a defence of 45, the ability to use Stimpacks). From another angle a Marine is a trope: a reference to the gruff, hypermasculinized, gung-ho space marine.

Which of these angles should game critics focus on? Is one more valuable? The endless narratology vs. ludology debate has this question at its core.

You can roughly class analysis into two buckets:

  • Cultural relevance and critique. (Marine as an icon of militarized masculinity.)
  • Functional systems analysis. (Marine in its role as a unit used to try to win a match.)

image from image from

I conceptualize these two angles as outward and downward. The systems perspective analyzes the symbols in the game as pointing downward to the game’s mechanics and rules. The systems analyst sees symbols as references to the outside world that are chosen to teach the player about the system. The enjoyment then comes from the system in itself: the problem-solving endeavor of play, or merely exploring how a system works and bending it to your will. There is a certain beauty and artfulness in the masterfully manipulated system.

Other analysts–and these predominate in the critical sphere–look at games as pointing outward, at the world and culture in which the games are made and played. The game is a cultural artifact, and outward-lookers see the symbols in games as references that the game uses to say something about the human condition. The game acts as a lens through which to see the world. Play then becomes a way of exploring a new perspective and engaging in a cultural discourse with the player, the designer, and onlookers.

Consider Super Bunnyhop’s review of Wargame: Red Dragon and his review of Doorkickers. The Red Dragon review starts with a multi-minute discourse on war and power, contextualizing the game in its real-world basis, and using games about war as a lens through which to glorify war. He talks about how Americans can console themselves for the dreary and often tragic realities of modern military action through their recreational military-focused gaming. “It’s with that ethos that the Wargame series charges into battle.” Wargame: Red Dragon is used as a lens through which the player can see the world outside the game, its symbols pointing outward and organizing the real world into a package that is easier to deal with than the bafflingly relentless complexities of the real world could ever be. All of this is circumscribed by the analysis of Red Dragon without the slightest mention of any gameplay details.

Contrast this grand, zoomed-out view of the cultural context of Red Dragon with the way that Super Bunnyhop sets up his analysis of Doorkickers. He begins the Doorkickers video by tracing the game’s roots back to the planning stages of Rainbow Six games, then summarizes how the game plays using direct references to controls and mechanics, all in less time than he spent on his monologue about war that led off the Red Dragon video. The shooting and explosions and human suffering in Doorkickers could’ve been highlighted, but instead he treats them as symbols that the player uses to engage with rich tactical gameplay in a strategy-focused context. Instead of analyzing the cultural context of hyper-militarized police forces bringing overwhelming force to bear on under-equipped perhaps-guilty citizens, the video highlights the engaging gameplay of planning out how to breach a building and neutralize its inhabitants through quick shooting and smart movement. The critique is oriented downwards, on the way the symbols bring the player into the gameplay, not on how the symbols portray the world at large.

As in other forms of art, the analyst who can appreciate and deeply understand the facts and details of a work’s form is more prepared to accurately critique it. All of a work’s details combined with its context form a rich fabric of meaning in the player’s mind while he or she plays a game just as it does when he or she reads a poem or views a painting. In game design analysis we can think of this as the downward-oriented analysis informing the outward-oriented.

Here at Design Oriented, we’re working on gameplay-oriented, and thus downward-oriented, critique. We hope that our analysis will help not only advance our understanding of games through examining their gameplay, but also better inform others’ outward-looking critique.