I’m in Your Skin, Using Your Moves


Mike says: I’ve been playing Abyss Odyssey recently. It has a mechanic where when you have full mana you can use a special attack to capture the soul of an enemy once it dies. You can also gets monster souls by buying them from shops, but shop selection tends to be pretty limited compared to what you see in the dungeon. You can only have one soul equipped at a time, and you can press a button to transform into the monster whose soul you captured. Pressing the button again transforms you back into your actual character. You can’t gain mana while you’re in the soul-form, but it does give you another character worth of HP. Since Abyss Odyssey has permadeath-lite, having that extra health bar can significantly improve your chances of beating the game. When you lose all you HP as the monster, you lose its soul and have to somehow collect another one.

Once you’re transformed into an enemy you can use all of their moves–all of the enemies in the game have the same number of moves mapped to the same inputs as the player’s character, so it’s like having a whole new character to master. This adds a whole new dimension to gameplay and offers the player a lot of new movesets to master and experiment with.

I know another example of this kind of a mechanic will immediately pop into Richard’s head, since he’s the KirbyKid. What’s your thought on Kirby’s similar mechanics in the Smash Bros. series or in Kirby’s own games?


Richard says: I have no idea what you’re talking about, Mike. Just kidding. As you described the “what’s yours is mine” scenario has two parts: capturing the target and then transforming. If there’s one character that is all about these mechanics it’s Kirby. Each Kirby game does it a bit differently. In the earlier games, Kirby would only take a single mechanic or power from his enemies. But from Kirby Super Star, Kirby gains access to a wide range of moves to use that range from simple inputs like the press of a button to directional commands that mimic fighting games like Street Fighter (see example here). Some of these powers and transformations are so complex, that I feel that I could play the entire game with those powers only!

Smash does it a bit differently. Here Kirby only replaces his neutral B attack inhale with the neutral B attack of the player he captures. So while these Smash transformations only replace one out of roughly 30 moves that Kirby has, one move may be enough to allow Kirby to take on a new playstyle.


Mike says: Dynasty Warriors 8 also has multiple movesets that the player can choose between on the fly in battle. It’s done by weapon. You can equip two weapons at any one time, and press a button to switch between weapons. Weapons level up and are upgraded separately based on use. Enemy officers pull from the same overarching set of weapons that you do, so you can learn the movesets of various weapons and use your knowledge to your advantage against enemies by exploiting timing gaps in their attack patterns that you’ve learned from using the weapon yourself.

Richard says: I love it when enemies are designed with the same kind of rules and limitations as the player. The classic style 2D Mega Man games are pretty good at giving Mega Man the powers defeated bosses use.  

Reblog: It’s Time to Fix the RTS Earlygame

Michael Lowell says that RTSes should start players with armies and bases roughly equivalent to mid-game progression in current RTSes, because the early game is boring and predictable.

(Screenshot taken by Edward Varfalvy)
(Screenshot taken by Edward Varfalvy)

Mike says: The early-game in RTSes is often rote. It’s a good area to analyze and suggest improvements, but without examining your assumptions about the genre it’s hard to make conclusions that will hold up. Michael’s article focuses on base-building “massive” RTSes like Starcraft and Planetary Annihilation without articulating the design patterns particular to these games that cause the slow start. He also doesn’t examine what value the slow start may have for the play experience: for instance, he doesn’t mention the value of having a period in which players can essentially warm up their hands for the upcoming segments of play that require high micro.

Michael’s suggestion to simply start players with early-mid-game amounts of units and buildings is probably the easiest solution to think of, but has many knock-on effects that Michael doesn’t seem to even consider. For instance, the micro burden on players at the very start of the game will become significantly higher than most other points in the game, because they have to as-quickly-as-possible give orders to potentially fifty units and several production buildings. Seconds lost here mean fewer units for climactic battles which may happen as early as a couple minutes after the match begins, since we’ve totally skipped the early-game.

The largely unopposed nature of the early game leads to several minutes of less-interesting play, but this play sets up for all the variety that Michael so values in the mid-game, and without a span of time to make these preparatory decisions, some foundational design aspects that Michael doesn’t touch on will shift, perhaps profoundly. Unit and building tuning will need to be adjusted and rebalanced now that a whole breed of rush strategies no longer exist. Michael’s suggested change is brash and potentially requires significant additional design work. It’s far from a quick fix.

And what about games that follow different design patterns than these “classic” RTSes? Michael fails to address the successful approach of “non-massive” RTSes to this problem, most notably Company of Heroes and Dawn of War 2, which are micro-focused affairs where first contact with enemy units happens within the opening two minutes of the match. Certain build orders in these games are common, but the fluidity of the ongoing battle and growing tension over sorely-needed resources ripe for the taking ensures that the early-game is far from an exercise in  boring build order execution.

Dual Progress pt 3: Finding the Slack


To examine the intersection between character progression and the battle system of Final Fantasy Tactics, we must first ask and answer a basic question about feedback: What do XP and JP reward the player for doing? They’re a reward for using characters to ACT.

Successful actions have a variety of effects in Final Fantasy Tactics: they can do damage–which is most common–but they can also restore health, increase or decrease attack stats, or inflict status effects like sleep that expire in a fixed number of clock ticks but do no lasting harm. Thus XP and JP are awarded for actions that ostensibly move a battle towards its conclusion, but also actions that can reset some elements of game state (like healing HP or restoring MP), or lessen the impact of actions that would move a battle towards its conclusion (like lowering Physical or Magical Attack).

This aspect of the Final Fantasy Tactics rewards system allows for some serious slack. The player can engage in a variety of stalling strategies, using abilities that heal or buff allies and cripple enemies, that result in their characters getting more XP and JP than they otherwise would from play that is wholly motivated by fulfilling the win-condition. These stalling strategies become extremely low-risk as fewer enemies are left in the battle. By employing this brand of low-risk, infinitely-repeatable reward-focused strategy, the player willfully compromises any quality gameplay arising from the risk-reward-balanced interplay between characters’ abilities that sits at the very core of the battle system’s design.

The design facts that lead to emergent low-risk reward-focused strategies are

  1. Rewards are granted per individual action.
  2. An action that grants XP and JP doesn’t necessarily move the battle toward its conclusion.
  3. A battle becomes much easier as the player eliminates more enemies–at some point the battle will become easy enough that the player can safely start optimizing for long-term character progression instead of having to optimize to win the battle.
  4. Battles can be manipulated such that the player directly controls when the battle ends and the player can indefinitely prevent it from ending.

Take a look at this video of a player exploiting the slack in gameplay that I’m describing.

Mustafa Anssar corners the last remaining enemy after killing all others. Then he uses the Monk’s Chakra ability to ensure all character have their health and mana topped-off, while using the very weak Gil Toss Thief ability to deal damage to the only remaining enemy. A Priest rounds out the team and provides some additional area-of-effect healing. Combining the Gil Toss, Chakras, and healing, all characters get in on the act and harmlessly can gain XP and JP until the player gets bored, at which people he can stop healing the enemy and kill it in a few hits.   can limitlessly loop useless actions that end up making no lasting difference in game state except for the XP and JP gained by everyone involved.

But why is this a problem? RPGs typically allow the player to engage in some similar low-risk activity to increase stats and thus make subsequent battles easier. Why should Final Fantasy Tactics be any different? I’ll be examining these questions in upcoming articles.

Pac-Man Design: Variables of Difficulty


With video games it’s common for levels to increase in difficulty as the game progresses. I knew this  was the case for games as old as Pac-Man. But when I read through Jamey Pittman’s Pac-Man Dossier, I was surprised how many variables were tweaked to give each level its unique challenge.

Out of the 21 levels, only a few pairs of levels present an identical gameplay challenge. Otherwise, one of the game’s 13 gameplay variables is tweaked.

  • Pac-Man Speed
  • Pac-Man Dots Speed (Pac-Man slows down a bit when eating Dots)
  • Ghost Speed
  • Ghost Tunnel Speed (Ghosts slow down when traveling through the Warps on the sides)
  • Elroy 1 Dots Left (When there are this many Dots left, Blinkies/Red Ghosts increase in speed)
  • Elroy 1 Speed
  • Elroy 2 Dots Left (When there are this many Dots left, Blinkies/Red Ghosts increase in speed again)
  • Elroy 2 Speed
  • Fright Pac-Man Speed (after Pac-Man grabs a Power-Pellet)
  • Fright Pac-Man Dots Speed (speed eating Dots after Pac-Man grabs a Power-Pellet)
  • Fright Ghost Speed (the speed of blue vulnerable Ghosts)
  • Fright Time (in sec.) (the time Ghosts spend in the blue vulnerable state)
  • # of Flashes (the visual indication that Fright Time for Ghosts is about to expire)

Tweaking these variables across the 21 levels in Pac-Man gives players more comprehensive exposure to the design space. Players can better learn Pac-Man’s gameplay by progressing through the game and refining their strategies as the challenges get harder.

When Pac-Man eats an Energizer Power-Pellet his speed changes. In the early levels his speed increases to help players chase vulnerable Ghosts. On the other hand, during this “fright” time Pac-Man’s speed is lowered while he eats Dots. Between levels 4 and 5, the difference of Fright Pac-Man’s dot-eating speed is 4%, a change so subtle that players may not perceive it consciously, but I’m confident that players can feel the difference.

All of the variables listed above control gameplay elements that have clear feedback. Pac-Man and Ghost speed can be discerned by simply observing their sprites for a few seconds of motion. The number of times frightened Ghosts flash before becoming deadly is either 3 or 5; It would be more difficult to determine exactly when Ghosts turn deadly if the number of flashes ranged from 1-5. 1-2 flashes doesn’t give enough warning. 6 flashes is too long. Keeping it 3 and 5 gives players who anticipate a 3 flash change to react accordingly by the 5th flash.

Many variables are tuned to be easier for players to keep track of mentally. Ghosts flash an odd number of times before becoming deadly, which helps musically-inclined players who are used to musical phrases ending on an even beat. Fright times are whole numbers measured in seconds,  which makes counting easier. Blinky, the red Ghost, speeds up two times in a level based on the number of Dots left in the maze. The speed values for Blinky are all divisible by 10. Pac-Man’s normal movement speed is also divisible by 10. Pac-Man’s speed matches Blinky’s, a design choice that allows Blinky to chase Pac-Man effectively and makes the tiny speed boost granted when Pac-man rounds corners more obvious. However, when there are very few Dots left in the maze and Blinky moves at his fastest, his speed is consistently 5% faster than Pac-Man’s (except on the final level of difficulty where it’s 15% faster). This consistency among all the other changing variables in Pac-Man’s difficulty design goes a long way in making the interactions easier to learn yet variable. No matter how Pac-Man’s speed changes between levels, players can rely on the ratio of speed between Pac-Man and the most aggressive Ghost, Blinky, to be the same for 20 out of 21 levels.

The most interesting piece of feedback design is the classic “waca waca” sound effect that plays when Pac-man consumes a Dot: Pac-Man’s slight speed change when rounding corners while eating Dots can be can be seen as well as heard! Listen here.

Difficulty I Choose You


Game difficulty is hard to discuss especially for games like Pokemon. In this video Speedster presents a top 10 list of the hardest story battles in the Pokemon RPG series. Speedster’s video interests me not because of what he had to say about the difficulty design of Pokemon, but because he struggles to frame the discussion of difficulty. He opens with this:

“why are some battles just really hard?”

“I know that most battles in RPGs in general are really easy if you just grind levels and quite hard if you don’t grind levels.”

Speedster attempts to pin down the variance in the player’s Pokemon and items by stipulating that the notional player uses properly-leveled Pokemon for each battle. I assume “properly leveled” means that the player’s Pokemon levels closely matches the opposing Pokemon’s levels.

Speedster struggles to describe the conditions that make many of the battles in his top 10 difficult. Sometimes the opposing Pokemon have stronger moves. Sometimes the challenge is due to a Pokemon type disadvantage because of the availability of catchable Pokemon. Sometimes the lack of Speedster’s offensive strength increased the effect of random moves like METRONOME, SMOKE SCREEN, or DOUBLE TEAM from the opposing team. Basically, when he couldn’t KO the opposing Pokemon fast enough, his opponent had time to set up a some nasty situations.

“I only won with luck”

Throughout these descriptions Speedster doesn’t articulate how challenging the battles are in a consistent, objective, or measurable way. Instead he gauges difficulty generally by describing opposing Pokemon strength, the number of times he retried the battle, how frustrated he was, or if he had to leave the gym to grind a few more levels.

“I never had to.. reset and try again or go off and grind without losing. Easily the hardest champion for me.”

“I have never gone through this gym without at least a few of my Pokemon fainting”

The Pokemon battle system design space is massive and allows for an incredible diversity of strategies (read more here). For games like Pokemon, I’ve found that difficulty spikes occur not because the challenges gets much harder in a linear way; it’s not because the designers all of a sudden make the difficulty curve steeper by simply adjust one variable like enemy level. Rather it’s because the challenges start to require players to explore specific parts of the design space and use specific counter strategies. These challenges push the player to take advantage of elements of the complexity and depth of the game that they had been previously ignoring. For these battles, general strategies used previously will not be effective.

“[The Norman Gym battle in Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire] is a huge spike in difficulty curve”

Speedster didn’t describe using any boosting items, like X Speed or X Defense. Maybe he’s used to competitive battling where items are banned, so he chooses not to use such items in the single-player story battles. But trading for Pokemon and using items in battle is a legitimate part of the single-player game. This is a clear case of a player making challenges harder for himself by not exploring all the options available to him. I don’t blame Speedster. I do the same thing when I play Pokemon. Not only do such choices make the difficulty design of the game harder to grasp, but it makes talking about the difficulty of these challenges even harder.

One Night Wereworlf Chang Edition


Everywhere I go, I always seem to find a design-oriented conversation. This time, I was hanging out with friends in a hotel room at an anime convention. Every year for the last 10+ years, we meet up to play some video games and some board games. This year we played One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

Going into that session, Marcus and I knew next to nothing about this style of game. As is common with board games, the person who brings the game to the group takes up the role of explaining the rules. Meet the guy who brought Werewolf, Chang, the shirtless guy with the green hair. Without much introduction, Chang sucked us into a detailed discussion of his customized deck for the game.

The point of this article is to highlight some of the design-oriented points made in this real-life conversation. Before we hear from Chang, I’ll summarize how One Night Ultimate Werewolf works:

  • The game is played with 3-10 people all sitting around in a circle.
  • There’s a deck of roles (character cards) selected for the game.
  • Each player draws a character card and looks at their role while keeping it a secret from everyone else. Roles are different types of villagers and werewolves defined by their special abilities.
  • NIGHT PHASE: Everyone closes their eyes and the moderator gives a set of instructions for everyone to follow in turn. Instructions involve having a player open their eyes, do an action, and then close their eyes again. Our moderator was a customisable cell phone narrator. (Very fancy!).
  • DAY PHASE: Everyone opens their eyes. It’s up to everyone to then figure out the roles of the other players. Keep in mind that no one can look at their role card at this time and that the roles have probably been switched around or manipulated in some way.
  • VOTE PHASE: It’s villagers vs werewolves. At the end of a set discussion time, each player votes trying to “kill” a member of the other team (villagers / werewolves). Majority vote decides who “dies.” If that player is a villager, werewolves win and visa versa.

One Night Were Wolf Chang Edition

For One Night Ultimate Wereworlf, Chang is both a player and a game designer. He is very clear about why he dislikes playing with certain cards and articulates his idea of a well-balanced deck. Most often we discuss balance in terms of preventing game elements from being too powerful or too weak. In Chang’s case, he considers the difficulty of his deck for new players and the balance of skill, which he expresses as warding against too many “chaotic” elements. Notice in the video how others in the room like character cards that Chang dislikes. Often Chang chose not to include a card into his deck because of the deck’s overall balance not because he’s against the particular card.

The following are comments and notes extracted from our conversation with Chang.

“My goal for smaller games and [when playing with ] people who are new, [is to remove] cards that have too much chaos or cards that don’t introduce fun into the game (sit out roles or taking people out of the game. E.G. villager, revealer).“ ~Chang

  • In One Night Ultimate Werewolf, you need to figure out what role you are and figure out what everyone else is. You can only do it based on what other people say and the werewolves don’t want you to know that they’re werewolves. This game is about lying. That’s the difficult part and the most fun part. It’s like a group puzzle.
  • When you play regular Mafia you already know your own role, but with One Night Ultimate Werewolf, you may think you’re one role in the night phase, but in the day phase you might not be that role anymore.
  • Removing players from the game is a problem with Mafia. You can take out a player very early and that person doesn’t get to play more until the whole game is over which can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes.  
  • Chang likes the Alpha Wolf card because it adds or removes a wolf card and this isn’t too chaotic.
  • According to Chang, One Night needs at least 5 people to be consistently fun. 10-player games are still fun but some people get left out of the discussion part because there are too many voices.


  • The Villager role doesn’t have a special ability Having this role in the game means Werewolves can claim that they’re a villager and thus don’t have to make up a dangerous lie about using a special ability they didn’t actually use.
  • Whoever the Bodyguard points to during the VOTE PHASE is protected from being killed. Chang thinks it would be more interesting if the Bodyguard role could only protect Werewolves as a Werewolf-Bodyguard. Villagers by default have more power than Werewolves because the more people discuss the easier it is for werewolves to expose themselves. If the Werewolf-Bodyguard existed, that player can listen in on the discussion,  and then upset the Villager’s voting efforts by protecting a werewolf caught in a lie.
  • Chang introduces the Paranormal Investigator into his deck when playing with an experienced group of players because the role has more complicated rules than most roles.
  • In Chang’s idea of a well-balanced game there should never be a role that is a “0%” where there is no reasonable way to find out who has the role or what actions were taken during the Night phase. Likewise no role should be 100% where it’s too easy to find out who has the role and that role does the same action in the same way every time. This means Chang doesn’t play with the Revealer card, a role that reveals another player’s role for the DAY PHASE.
  • Village Idiot creates complete chaos by switching around all the role cards (excluding his own card) in a clockwise or counter-clockwise fashion at the end of the NIGHT PHASE. This role can nullify strategic choices made by other players by scrambling the order of things. The role always goes last and thus has a ton of (chaotic) power.
  • During the NIGHT PHASE the Drunk switches two players’ roles without looking at them. During the DAY PHASE it’s very hard for the group to gather enough information to follow the trail and figure out what the Drunk did. The Drunk doesn’t make informed decisions in the NIGHT PHASE and does not gather much information to share with the group in the DAY PHASE. The Drunk is essentially a dice role.
  • “The deck I created is more structured and balanced, creating uncertainty without making it too confusing.” ~Chang. I like how Chang doesn’t completely reject all elements of “chaos” from his games, but, like randomness (which essentially the function of the Drunk), a touch goes a long way.

Hold My Vlambeer


Mike: This Vlambeer series has shown us how we can develop a critical metric from conception to application. It required us to go chin-deep in the details of over a dozen games. What has this effort taught you about the process of digging into the details of games?

Richard: One thing that I like about the Vlambeer Scale of Quality is that it’s a series of 31 questions, most of which are easy to answer. You don’t have to be a game designer to recognize if a game has screen shake or faster enemies. These are the kind of details that are relevant to players. Does the game have camera lerp, on the other hand, is a question that the average gamer might have to research before answering. Marcus, what were some of the trickiest Vlambeer Scale questions to answer?

Marcus: Creating a distinction between very similar questions was the trickiest thing in creating the scale. There are essentially two entries named “more enemies”. Listening to the original talk closely, I finally settled on making one entry a question about the density of enemies and the other about level progression (do more enemies show up later to provide additional challenge).

Richard: Ah. Good point. I think I had to think carefully about the 3 questions of permanence (#12, 21, 30). It’s pretty helpful that you added helper text for each question. Sometimes when working with the Vlambeer Scale I got the feeling that I was struggling to find a fitting example for the category. I had to make a judgement call of how many enemies qualified for “more enemies.” The whole experience of scoring a game is a great mental exercise that got me thinking in very specific ways about very specific parts of games.

Hold my Vlambeer while I transport this nuke.  Hold my Vlambeer while I transport this nuke.

Marcus: At first I was worried about making some of the questions more abstract so that games without guns for example could have a chance of scoring points on the more gun-specific questions. My thinking was “I know this game has good game feel. It can’t score so low!” But then I realized the distinction between game feel and Vlambeer game feel.

Richard: Yup. The scale is a system of measuring the Vlambeericality of games. We have to score a game fairly first, and then compare the results to what we think the score should be. When we started this series, we got feedback from some who were confident that the scale was useless. They argued that the scale isn’t universal and that it doesn’t apply to all kinds of games. They didn’t understand that the limitation of the scale is the reason why it’s good. It’s neat to consider that there’s some universal theory of game design that can be applied to all games, but that’s not what we’re going for with the Vlambeer Scale: it’s an organized way of seeing how other games measure up to one company’s unique style.

Marcus: That’s right. Game feel is such a nebulous term anyway. It’s mostly used as a offhanded way to talk about a game after there is nothing left to say. To actually start out with game feel as a way to say something about a game before anything else is a small triumph I think. Doing so means we can have a design conversation and zoom in to the details immediately.

Hold my Vlambeer while I jump over this fire pit. Hold my Vlambeer while I jump over this fire pit.

Mike: It’s important to note that the value of a measure isn’t so much about how closely it hews to some ideal objective metric of quality or inherent “goodness” of games. The process of carefully analyzing a game through a regimented approach is, in itself, extremely useful and a skill worth practicing. Analyzing game design is subject to so many subtle and not-so-subtle biases–having a set approach, even if it’s somewhat arbitrary, can help against temptations to play to the home crowd and cheerlead for a game just because it’s a classic or because you happen to like it.

It’s easy to cheerlead when you’re trying to assess something as deeply subjective and personalized as a player’s perception of game feel. The Vlambeer Scale helps us cut through some of that, even if it isn’t perfectly fair to games that, say, don’t happen to involve guns and bullets.

Richard:  Game feel is a strange topic. The elements of game feel can be extremely obvious (screen shake) or incredibly subtle (milliseconds of sleep on enemy death). It’s both style and substance: an artistic technique and a collection of seemingly-arbitrary tips. We often talk about it with concrete details, yet it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” kind of topics. Because it has a large style component, many tacitly concede that achieving good game feel is at least partially luck-based or an art that cannot be taught. For all these reasons, the art of game feel is a perfect analogy to the art of game design.

“With diligence and luck, you’ve got a game that feels great.” ~ Steve Swink:

“[understanding the fundamentals] is going to be completely different for every type of game. And I’m not sure that be Shigeru Miyamoto is particularly useful advice.” ~Mark Brown.  

Hold my Vlambeer while I take out this basic enemy with my golden gun.  Hold my Vlambeer while I take out this basic enemy with my golden gun.

Marcus: The Vlambeer Scale of Quality : Game feel :: _________ : Game design?

Richard: Super Mario Maker : Game design? I think that answer works. Nintendo has always made my favorite platformers. But the Nintendo-Mario style is just one way to achieve greatness. It would be unproductive to compare every new platformer against the “Super Mario Bros.3 Scale”. Comparing games is a good way to highlight their differences, but eventually as critics and fans and designers, we have to be able to see how games can do things differently. So Super Mario Maker for the Nintendo Wii U may be a great way to engage in the design style of Super Mario Bros., but it isn’t meant to be an instruction book for all other types of games. For example, how does the design of Super Mario Bros. help you think about the design of strategy games, Mike?  

I know that the term game feel is most commonly applied to 2D action games, but do you think the Vlambeer Scale is useful for a game like Final Fantasy Tactics (FFT)?

Mike: It’s tempting to say that  the Vlambeer Scale is not useful at all in analyzing FFT since a turn-based tactical game is about as far as you can get from an action game. But I think the Vlambeer scale is definitely useful here. The game doesn’t need to specifically be giving the player feedback on how they’re jumping and moving and shooting in real time in order for it to have a Vlambeerian feedback system. Good game feel in a turn-based game can be the difference between a mechanical, bland-feeling experience and an exciting experience. FFT has screen shake and knockback on critical hits, animations for being hit by attacks, elaborate and exaggerated animations for powerful attacks, and dynamic camera movement to accentuate important moments. The game doesn’t score highly on the scale (for instance, there are guns but bullets don’t show up on screen at all!) but it uses many of the tips and tricks embodied by the scale to make the player connect more viscerally to what’s happening to their characters on the battlefield. For that, I’m grateful. It certainly contributes to my enjoyment of the game, as much as I’d like to claim that I can detach myself from these purely superficial details and focus on pure strategy!

Richard: FFT has critical knockback! How interesting! I’m sure we can have a whole conversation about turning off animation in games like Fire Emblem and Advance Wars, but let’s wrap up this Vlambeer game feel topic.

Even if you think that game feel is just a buzzword, the process that we modeled in this series is important. By taking the scale seriously and doing the detailed work, I know how useful the Vlambeer Scale of Quality really is. And this isn’t as simple as a “yes, the scale is great” or a “no, it’s useless.” Getting more out of games as a player, being a more diverse designer, and writing more effective critique all require me to have more cups than just “good” versus “bad.” Ideally, I’d have a cup for every kind of style, and player, and designer, and effect that games can achieve. That’s the tricky part. Understanding game design isn’t about cramming everything into 2 good/bad cups or even a 100 cups. It’s about being open and ready to create more cups as needed.

Mike: Although it’s called game feel, we can more than just feel it: we can know it’s there without actually playing the game ourselves, and it’s all because we carefully broke down a talk by a game feel master into a metric, then carefully applied it. At first I was a skeptic of the usefulness of the Vlambeer Scale, but I’ve been converted after reading what the Super Terrell Brothers have had to say. I hope we can use this style of analysis to build other metrics and turn yet more feel into knowledge.

Richard: Right! Design Oriented is about moving in a better direction, to a place where we can have better conversations about games and game design. Engaging with game design is more analogous to sightseeing than participating in a court proceeding. We’re primarily interested in exploring ideas and execution. Likewise, I like the Vlambeer cup metaphor because it reinforces the idea that with game design and the style developers express through their design, we take, sip, drink, and eventually put down the cocktails of creators. And if you try to take too many drinks at once, merging them into one giant punch bowl, you’ll miss out on the individual flavor combinations… and probably end up drunk.

Non-Vlambeer Games Scored


Previously, we applied the Vlambeer Scale of Quality to Vlambeer’s games. It turns out Vlambeer has been slowly increasing the score for their character action games over time, and Nuclear Throne has earned the highest score of all the games we’ve scored! To get a better idea of how effective the Vlambeer Scale of Quality is for measuring game feel, we have to apply it to non-Vlambeer games.

Games series that date back to the NES era tend to have lower Vlambeer Scores.

Super Mario Bros. series

  • Super Mario Bros. : 13
  • Super Mario World : 14
  • New Super Mario Bros. U : 16
  • Super Mario 3D World : 14

From 1985 to 2013 the Vlambeer Score, and therefore the look and feel, of these Mario platformers has stayed relatively stable. In fact, the scores are more consistent than with Vlambeer’s games. This is likely the result of a very conscious effort from Mario’s developers.

“Of course, when we were making Super Mario Bros. 3, it was important to add in lots of new elements, but I also think Super Mario Bros. has stayed popular precisely because we have preserved the original foundation.”  ~ Tezuka Iwata Asks

Screen Shake: The POW Block was first introduced in Mario Bros. (1983), which is the first example of screen shake in the series and, from what we can tell, in all video games. The POW Block was introduced into the side scrolling games with Super Mario Bros. 2, but was surprisingly absent from the 2D Mario platformers from then until the New Super Mario Bros. series 2006. Screen shake is often used when large enemies crash into the ground. (e.g. Super Mario Bros. 3 final Bowser battle)

Gif from Scroll Back by Itay Keren Gif from Scroll Back by Itay Keren

Camera Lerp: The 2D Mario platformers use the camera design that was established in Super Mario Bros. for the NES. The camera keeps Mario oriented slightly off center so players can see what’s up ahead. The camera will also accelerate to catch up to Mario when he speeds up. Camera lerp is used to smooth out the motion of the camera view. See Reblog: Scroll Back by Itay Keren for more details on camera design and terms.

Enemy Count: Since Super Mario Bros., 2D Mario platformers’ challenges are a balance of overcoming level elements and and enemy elements. Enemies are mostly used as a dynamic obstacle while not being the focus. In other words, Mario gameplay is primarily about moving and jumping not enemy combat. Mario games generally don’t ramp up the enemy count as the main way to increase the challenge for players. There are a few notable levels in each game that feature many more enemies than normal. Examples from New Super Mario Bros. Wii include 1-4, 4-1, 7-Tower, 7-6.

Faster Enemies: The fastest horizontally traveling enemy element in a Mario game is typically a kicked Koopa shell. Most Mario enemies move at a brisk walking pace. Mario enemies don’t amp up in speed as a means of increasing challenge. This is mostly because Mario’s challenge comes from the layered design combining level and enemy elements. Because enemies also interact with the level in dynamic ways (falling off platforms, destroying platforms, etc.) it works best to keep their movement relatively slow in order to give players time to react and plan their actions.

Mega Man series

  • Mega Man 2 : 9
  • Mega Man X : 14
  • Mega Man Zero: 17
  • Mega Man Powered Up : 12
  • Mighty No. 9 : 10

Mega Man, unlike Mario, has underwent various reboots and reinventions, tailoring the main character of the series to suit each generation of consoles and players. As his appearance changed from classic 1960’s classic anime, to radical 90’s humanoid, to Ghost In The Shell-like cyborg, Mega Man’s game design also adopted the trends of the times. While Mega Man classic can only power walk, Mega Man X and Zero can dash and wall jump, mechanics that turn a steady march through robot baddies into a kinetic romp. Mega Man can only shoot. When Zero entered the series he featured his Z-Saber melee attacks along with the Capcom game feel technique of hit pause [sleep]. Every new power and movement mechanic made these games faster and more diverse while increasing the visual flare.

As the Mega Man series grew its Vlambeer score increased. It is interesting to note that Mega Man Powered Up and Mighty No. 9 are throwbacks to classic Mega Man games and scored lower because of the homage. Mega Man Powered Up for PSP translates the 8-bit Mega Man style as cute “chibi” 3D models while keeping the gameplay as close to the 8-bit games as possible. Mighty No. 9 features a new character, new mechanics, and a new graphical style, however the gameplay looks like a mix between classic Mega Man and Mega Man X.

Various Games:

Richard says: A big take away from our examination of the Vlambeer Scale for game feel is that some points convey the Vlambeer style more than others. Lots of games have permanence, sleep, hit animations, and other effects from the Vlambeer Scale. But it’s the bigger bullets, more enemies, explosions, camera lerp, and screen shake that most effectively give a game that Vlambeer game feel.

Every game has its own style. 3D games in particular achieve their game feel differently from 2D games. Bloodborne and Splatoon both scored a 19 on the Vlambeer Scale. 3D games use many of the same game feel techniques but they don’t “feel” the same. Getting 3D cameras to work well for 3D games is incredibly difficult that often requires so much fine tuning that elements like screen shake and large (explosive) special effects are kept to a minimum.

Below are the points from the Vlambeer Scale of Quality that I feel are the most important to feature in a 2D action game in order of importance with a priority on creating good gameplay.

  1. Basic Sound and Animation. If your game doesn’t have these, then it’s probably not a 2D action video game.
  2. Impact Effects are important for communicating to the player what happens to projectiles and moving objects when they interact with other objects. This effect is usually a small pop, spark, mark that appears when bullets collide with enemies or walls.
  3. Lower Enemy HP works well in action games because the lower HP correlates with fewer actions needed to take the enemy out. The fewer the actions, the better players can mentally keep track of their damage over time because the value is well within our short term memory capacity. A common trope of boss design is the 3-hit-KO.
  4. Strafing comes in many different varieties. I love strafing in action games because it creates an asymmetric relationship between offense and movement. Being able to move and shoot at the same time at maximum effectiveness allows for simple solutions. Simply move well and shoot well. When offense comes at the expense of movement more interesting choices have to be made because there is a tradeoff between both types of actions.
  5. Sleep along with impact effects are very important for communicating to the player exactly when interactions take place. Impact effects alone are good for projectile interactions, but for certain collisions, like melee attacks, localized “hit pause” or global “sleep” is incredibly effective at communicating when collisions occur and seeing how the hitboxes overlap.
  6. Hit Animation are specific effects and animations played for when two game elements interact. The more complex the interacting elements, the more specific hit animations help communicate the game actions to the player. Look very carefully at a fighting game like Street Fighter, weak, medium, and strong hits cause characters to recoil with different animations. Also, fiery and electric attacks have a unique hit animation. The classic and perhaps most common type of hit animation is when elements flash a color (usually white).
  7. Bigger Bullets. Making informed decisions while playing an action game requires the game to communicate its actions well and also to have fewer actions on the screen to consider. Along with lower enemy HP, bigger bullets help players keep track of how many projectiles they launch. This design tip applies to melee attacks and other kinds of actions. It’s important to be able to count each individual action and potentially see the result of each.