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.

A Platforming Thread Through E3 part 3


The woolly world of Yoshi reminded us of the yarn aesthetic of Unravel, and in part 1 and part 2 of this article series we examined the yarn-like mechanics and design of these two games based on their E3 trailers. Yarny, the player character in Unravel, has a diagonal grappling yarn shot that reminds us of Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash.

Game Category1 Category2 Name Description Link
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash Mechanics Ricochet Zip Lash The Zip Lash can ricochet off of objects. Video!
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash Mechanics Zip Lash Seems to be able to aim and throw the Zip Lash in 2 directions. Forward and diagonally up forward.
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash Mechanics pull Zip Lash The Zip Lash can grabble object and pull Chibi Robo along ending in a short jump. Video!
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash Feedback When aiming the Zip Lash, a red laser line shows the path the throw will take. After a certain distance or maybe after a bounce, the line fades forcing playres to use knowledge based aiming instead of visual based skill. Video!
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash Mechanics Dynamic, hover Preparing to throw and throwing the Zip Lash makes Chibi Robo hover in mid air. Video!
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash Level Elements Multi-Coin Block Just like Mario, there’s a block that must be hit repeatedly to earn multiple coins. Video!
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash Power-Up / Upgrade / Economy Burning Robo Special red outlets allow Chibi-Robo to catch on fire. Video!
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash Level Elements Fire Walls Walls that can only be progress through using Burning Robo Video!

Richard: Check out the diagonal ZIP LASH mechanic. It looks like players can only ZIP LASH straight forward and diagonally upwards. If this is the case, that’s really interesting asymmetry. Mega Man is great because he can only shoot straight with his default weapon the M.Buster. This means he has to jump to aim at things in the air or on raised platforms. Having to move in unique ways and coordinate that movement with shooting makes for more engaging gameplay challenges. It’s the same way with SHMUPs that only let players shoot vertically (e.g. Ikaruga) and games like Super Mario Bros. where Mario can only shoot fireballs forward and downward. Or perhaps the best analogy is Bionic Commando Rearmed.

Marcus: Bionic Commando is a great example. Not just because it contains a very similar mechanic but because it explores the design space of using a grappling hook in an action and puzzle oriented way. Comparing the asymmetric design of these two games is tricky. But the Challenge Mode (i.e. puzzle mode) in Bionic Commando is an isolated and focused challenge absent of enemies, weapons, bosses, etc. This mode focuses on problem solving and traversal through grappling. Looking at the Zip Lash trailer, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of battling so the puzzle comparison seems apt.

Mike: You can break this asymmetry down even further and look at the typical fighting game genre style of normal attacks. The player has to coordinate their movement along the stage, using forward and backward movement and jumping, with timing attacks that lock their character in place for varying numbers of frames. Some special attacks allow the player to move while attacking in specific ways, like Chun Li’s spinning kick and even Ryu’s fireball which he can walk behind as it slowly makes its way across the stage. This kind of trade-off and interconnection between movement and attack is so common in deep games it’s easy to miss it!

Richard: Good point, Mike. Even though the moves in fighting games are generally very quick, being forced to move or attack is the kind of asymmetry I love. I call this kind of asymmetric design “stop-and-pop” when we’re talking about shooters.

Richard: Looks like the ZIP LASH grappling spots are clearly marked as orange wall mounted level elements. Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash is doing it Zelda Hookshot style. Unravel’s anchors are, at least to my eyes, more organically integrated into the visual design. They’re easier to overlook, which is probably why the developers added that extra bit of glowing light to the anchor points.

Marcus: The anchors in Unravel function more like swinging in Bionic Commando rather than being pulled along the ZIP LASH. While I can see some of the Bionic Commando Challenge Room puzzles offering similar challenges to Unravel, the way the ZIP LASH ricochet along walls and blocks is more like the way an egg behaves in Yoshi’s Woolly World. Similar environmental puzzles could be used in both. 

Richard: Also, the ZIP LASH grabs coins and other pickups as it travels just like Yoshi’s thrown eggs and yarn balls!

Richard: The visual feedback design for the ZIP LASH is doing something pretty neat. In this game, the ZIP LASH extends in length as players progress through the level. This allows for the level design to create locks and keys pretty easily with space e.g. large gaps to cross. When preparing to ZIP LASH, Chibi-Robo swings the cord around. Notice how the red aimer turns into an ellipses near the end of its range. Also notice how a round red target mark appears when an object is in range. Looks like you’ll always know when you’ll hit an object in range, but after a bounce or two, the trajectory isn’t drawn out for you.

MIke: That’s an interesting learning aid. For most of the simple interactions in the game it lays out exactly what will happen, but for more advanced interactions involving ricochets and long distance ZIP LASHING it requires players to test their spatial judgment, experiment, and be able to forecast the ZIP LASH’s behavior.

A Platforming Thread Through E3 part 2


Game Category1 Category2 Name Description Link
Unravel Mechanics Yarn man unravels as the player travels through the level.
Unravel Mechanics Swing Tether swings with yarn from your own body. Video!
Unravel Level Elements Anchor Find anchor points in the level to create new swinging opportunities for progression. Video
Unravel Level Elements Kite, Anchor Has an anchor point players can use to fly themselves away.
Unravel Level Design Stealth Use the shovels and objects in the mid ground to hide and avoid dangerous elements in the background. Video!
Unravel Mechanics Pull Use yarn to pull a light source through a dark snow storm Video!
Unravel Level Elements Fish, Anchor Use the hook in a fish as an anchor to power your raft.
Unravel Feedback glow anchor anchor points glow very faintly with a while particle effect.

Richard: I initially thought that the Yarn theme in Yoshi’s Woolly World was completely visual, but as I’m looking at gameplay footage more closely, I can see more and more Yarn-like mechanics and systems. Contrast Yoshi with Yarny from the upcoming PS4 game, Unravel.

image by Cheepers   @mackadoodledoo  image by Cheepers   @mackadoodledoo

It’s not every E3 that we see two games with a yarn aesthetic! Unravel looks like more of a puzzle game or a set piece-driven exploration game than it does a platformer. The level design seems more linear and the camera view doesn’t look like it lets players see a large part of the level.

Marcus: The camera does look zoomed-in a bit. However, in the gameplay scenes, the ratio of Yarny to screen-size is about the same as Mario’s ratio in his wide screen platformers. I guess it is a matter of perspective: the slightly zoomed-in camera conveys how different the world looks when you’re small. The real take away is that the camera always appears to be a singular forward-focus camera. The camera in the horizontal side-scrolling scenes always positions Yarny in the center or the left quarter of the screen. Even when moving left the camera doesn’t adjust to give players a better view of where Yarny is facing (0m44s). Like the original Super Mario Bros., the camera is telling you to keep moving right, which hampers a potential exploration aspect.

Richard: The yarn theme is the aspect of Unravel that excites me the most. It has the potential to be mechanical (solving puzzles) and thematic (tying a story together) and a neat system for conveying player limits and other important information (feedback).

From the Unravel website:

  • “Yarny is a tiny new character made from a single thread of yarn that slowly unravels as he embarks on a …journey.”
  • “Using Yarny’s thread, interact with the environment… the tools may be simple but they have the ability to accomplish complex puzzles.”
  • “Unlock a heart-felt story re-connecting the memories of a long lost family…Yarny is the bond that ties everything together.”

The tricky part is that all of this potential is best realized with nonlinear gameplay. My first thought was that the puzzles would need to feature multiple solutions for the theme of tying things together to be well-supported by the gameplay. Then I realized that the puzzles don’t have to be nonlinear if the multiple attempts at solving a puzzle consumes yarn, which would limit the player’s ability to explore or use other mechanics. It’d be neat if yarn was a resource to conserve, spend, and consider.

Marcus: Not just multiple attempts, but an elegant solution to a puzzle could use less string than a brute force method. It’s the opposite of The Longest Path puzzle in Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Each street intersection in the Layton puzzle could be a hook to attach your yarn to and swing across in Unravel. Taking the optimal path by hooking the correct series of hooks would take up less yarn and thus could afford you more string to work with later.  

Richard: I found a secret! Right where the rock crumbles, there appears to be a cove with a small red, yarn-like collectable. I assume this is an early level in the game so the secret placement is relatively simple. Still, secrets are optional challenges that give gameplay a degree of nonlinearity. I wonder if grabbing this secret will leave a trail of Yarny yarn to indicates the player went off the main path.

On a side note the visuals are very impressive. The snow scene in particular reminds me of the Polar Express art. Also, the way Yarny throws out lines of yarn reminds me of Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash, a 3DS game from Nintendo that was also featured at this years E3.

Stay tuned as we continue this thread.

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.

Vlambeer Scale on Vlambeer Games


It’s time for the judge to be judged. We’ve nearly come to the end of our Vlambeer Scale article series. So far we’ve used the Vlambeer Scale of Quality to measure the Vlambeerian game feel of Ridiculous Fishing, Ninja Fishing, and an upcoming indie game called Downwell. Now the question is how do Vlambeer’s games measure up?

The following is a list of Vlambeer’s games in chronological order and some of the points from the Vlambeer Scale of Quality that each game does not have.

Super Crate Box

Muzzle Flash, Impact Effects, Enemy Knockback, No level of permanence, Lerp (no camera manipulation at all), Sleep (only for katana), Strafing Muzzle Flash, Impact Effects, Enemy Knockback, No level of permanence, Lerp (no camera manipulation at all), Sleep (only for katana), Strafing

Serious Sam: The Random Encounter

Enemy Knockback, Level 2 and 3 permanence, Player knockback, Sleep, Gun delay, Camera kick, Meaning Enemy Knockback, Level 2 and 3 permanence, Player knockback, Sleep, Gun delay, Camera kick, Meaning

Ridiculous Fishing

Hit Animation, Player Knockback (guy is in a boat), Strafing Hit Animation, Player Knockback (guy is in a boat), Strafing


Less Accuracy: No random spread with “Spread” weapon, Hit Animation,     Enemy Knockback, Player Knockback (you are a plane), More Bass Less Accuracy: No random spread with “Spread” weapon, Hit Animation,     Enemy Knockback, Player Knockback (you are a plane), More Bass

Nuclear Throne

    Random explosions, gun kickback, Player knockback     Random explosions, gun kickback, Player knockback

Marcus says:

  • Nuclear Throne The highest scored Vlambeer title with a 28 out of 31. It’s also the highest game of all the games we’ve scored!
  • Not every game has guns to fire to create camera kick or recoil. Some games seem to start off not even being able to to achieve a perfect Vlambeer Scale score. However, with a little creativity “gun based” elements of game feel can be applied to just about any action. Just look at what Death Note does to the action of writing down names on a piece of paper.
  • Player Knockback is only in Vlambeer’s first game Super Crate Box. In general, player knockback makes platforming gameplay more difficult. Most players want to push ahead when they get hurt like in Mario, rather than worry about how they will be pushed back like in Mega Man. Likewise, they want their gunshots to not affect their positioning.
  • Nuclear Throne is the only game with 3 distinct levels of permanence: bodies, bullet casings, and level destruction.
  • The element of “meaning” is in every Vlambeer game but the first two. Perhaps this is a lesson they picked up as they continued to create games. Whether from thematic setting or bits of story, a little meaning goes a long way.
  • Luftrausers embraces common tropes of flying combat games, which weakens its score.
    • With the most complex movement out of all the games, Luftrausers is about balancing moving with dodging and aiming.
    • To match the style of shmups, the bullets travel the slowest compared to the other Vlambeer games. Also, there is no random player bullet spread.
    • Luftrausers does not feature a heavy bass component. Keeping the soundscape in a higher register makes Luftrausers sound more like old arcade games.
  • The three avatar-based shooting games scored higher.
  • Serious Sam is the only game with “random” explosions. The random explosions come from firing into a large mob of enemies and hitting the “bomb” guy.
  • The three games with strafing achieve it in three different ways.
    • Strafing in the only MOVE mechanic in Serious Sam as the player characters are always running on their heels up and down the right side of the screen.
    • Strafing in Nuclear Throne is possible because the aiming is independent of a character’s movement.
    • Strafing in Luftrausers happens due to the inertial systems when the nose goes one way and the tail the other.

Richard says: back in 2010, I wrote a blog post on Super Crate Box on Critical-Gaming. Here are three points I made. Key words are bolded and Vlambeer terms are added in brackets where appropriate:

  • …because of the high game speed, it’s more difficult to judge the hitboxes and other interactions in the game. Sometimes I thought that I dodged an enemy, but I died. Other times I survived without being able to see how. And because the game doesn’t pause [sleep] (even slightly) when you die (like in Super Mario Bros or DKCR), sometimes the exact cause of your death is mysterious. Or my difficulty in understanding the interactions could be due to the way the hitboxes are designed. Either way, I feel that something should be tweaked.
  • [Super Crate Box has] excellently tuned weapons with an excellent coverage of the design space. Nice sound effects and unique feel created by screen shaking and other visual effects.
  • The 3 enemies and their speed upgrades [faster enemies] create just enough contrary motion that layers together nicely to create varied challenges.

Looks like the game feel of Super Crate Box is an important part of the experience and an important talking point. After all, I wrote this 5 years before we started the Vlambeer Scale of Quality here at Design Oriented.

Reblog: Camera Design in Wario Land 4 by Daniel Johnson


In this video extension of Daniel’s book, Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4, Daniel breaks down the various types of cameras used in the game.

Richard says: I read that book! Daniel is a good friend of ours. We fought in the games criticism trenches with our blogs back in 2008. His book is comprehensive and organized, listing every mechanic, level element, enemy element, level challenge, boss, and secret in the entire game. Best of all, he frames it in a game design context. A great example of how to study and reverse engineer a video game.

Marcus says: Like Itay’s feature Scroll Back that we reblogged previously, Daniel takes a look at the specific 2D camera techniques used in Wario Land 4. Even though Daniel’s work focuses on one game, his terms and definitions for describing what actions the camera takes and how those actions affect gameplay falls in line with Itay’s more comprehensive look of camera across many games. The biggest difference in their presentations is their delivery of the material, namely Daniel’s video vs Itay’s animated gifs. As I’ve said before, I think the bite size repetition of an animated gif lends itself well for quickly communicating, sharing, and referencing visual information (e.g. camera techniques). So, I took an animated gif approach to Daniel’s video.

Position-Locking (Horizontal, Vertical) Edge Snap Region-Based-Anchors Position-Locking (Horizontal, Vertical) Edge Snap Region-Based-Anchors Position-Locking (Horizontal) Position-Locking (Horizontal) Region-Based-Anchor Forward Focus Region-Based-Anchor Forward Focus  Forward-Focus *Threshold Triggered

Now freed from the confines of youtube, these bite sized pieces of Daniel’s work can now move at the speed of social media. They’re so quick and effective that you might even find something like it in future Design Oriented tweets.

Terms used above are from Itay’s glossary:

  • Position Locking – Camera is locking to the player’s position.
  • Edge Snap    – Set hard edge for camera positioning
  • Region-Based-Anchors – Different regions (even within levels) set different anchors for position and focus
  • Forward-Focus – Player direction changes switch camera focus to enable wide forward view

Reblog: Perfect Dark Retrospective by Mark Johnson


[Perfect Dark Retrospective] is a post by Mark R. Johnson that addresses critical claims about Perfect Dark.  He takes a detailed look at several levels in Perfect Dark and concludes by considering the validity of the critics’ claims. Topics include level design, difficulty design, tutorial design, and modern FPS trends.

Richard says: Let’s go Perfect Dark! Still my favorite single-player FPS campaign. Mark R Johnson does a great job setting up the conversation with quotes from reviewers. Mark picks a few of the most interesting levels in the game due to their differences between difficulty and their use, and re-use, of space. His descriptions are accurate, though I imagine the screenshots are hard to follow if you’re not familiar with Perfect Dark.

Mark analyzes Perfect Dark levels for “completeness” to counter the claims made by many reviewers that the game is filled with dead ends. Mark illustrates how interconnected the areas, missions, and optional sub-missions are across the level and across the three different difficulty modes. Perfect Dark, after all, is a rare FPS that adds objectives, alters objectives, and changes the path of a level to create distinct experiences.

Mark addresses Perfect Dark’s unique “complete” level design to counter part of the critic’s claims, and then agrees with them regarding the game’s feedback issues. The environment design of the game makes it fairly easy for players to get lost at times. Coupled with the non-linear level design (players can take many paths and accomplish mission objectives in different orders) getting lost is more likely and more frustrating than in linear games. Mark explains the problems of Perfect Dark’s level design, and ends by arguing that “contemporary FPS games” have gone too far in the other design direction to remedy this problem by designing levels where the path to take is more obvious and the level design is more linear. 

Perfect Dark is a complex game to analyze in terms of how it teaches, guides, and challenges players. Mark has only scratched the surface by highlighting the coherent details with Perfect Dark’s level design.

Mike Says: It’s interesting how players, even those who have been playing games for more than a decade, have come to rely on the linearity of modern shooter level design on a subconscious level; how it’s far from certain–in fact it is becoming less common by the day–that a player will pick up on the more advanced or subtle level design concepts that could clarify the seemingly arbitrary locked door here or samey-looking room there. A game like Perfect Dark ends up suffering not because of some inherent objective weakness in its level design, but because the kind of headspace required to enjoy it as it was enjoyed shortly after release just isn’t practiced and available to players like it used to be, either because those players never had to practice it, or because they’ve long since been retrained by the zeitgeist of shooter level design.

Reblog: Scroll Back by Itay Keren


in Scroll Back Itay Keren goes on a journey through the history of 2D game cameras to help him understand and ultimately solve camera design problems he had developing his own game, Mushroom 11.

Marcus Says: As Itay notes in the introduction, it is surprising that the common and long standing topic of 2d camera design has so little literature. I thought I had a good grasp of 2D camera design. But reading through Itay’s post, I experienced numerous Oprah “aha” moments.  The camera types outlined in the glossary are simple, yet their application varies greatly from game to game especially when combined with with other camera techniques. And Itay backs everything up with examples, which include animated diagrams. The lines he overlaid on each gif to show tracking, position, panning, ect. is a simple and effective way to see the nuances of the camera design. It’s a great trick for his gifs and a handy tool for critics; all we have to do is hold our thumb up to a screen of game footage to get a sense of how the camera is designed. The whole post is slick. I’m convinced that animated loops might be the best way to show camera movement techniques, not just in games but movies and shows as well.

Reblog: Assault Android Cactus – Official Trailer

Assault Android Cactus is an arcade style twin-stick shooter set in a vivid scifi universe. Currently on Steam Early Access, Assault Android Cactus will be released on PC, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita and WiiU later this year.

Richard says: I got a chance to play Assault Android Cactus about a year and a half ago at GDC2014. It was one of those experiences where I kinda got a feel for the basics and then struggled to stay alive as the game got progressively harder. I’m not sure if playing it co-op made the game easier. Enemy chase AI and aiming has subtle complexity when there are more players on the field. Instead of the Geometry Wars style cone of enemies following the player, new enemies patterns are created as they switch back and forth between co-op players. Just having more “present bodies” on the field is a big deal.

Mike says: I’m curious to see how this game will rate on the Vlambeer Scale. Looks like it could do pretty well. Lots of big shiny bullets and explosions with a relatively minimal but effective amount of screenshake. I’m concerned a little about feedback clarity, because it looks like there can be a lot going on at once. Perhaps 3D graphics add to the clutter here, as well, since they’re more complex to interpret than the 2D sprites typically used in bullet hell shooters. The bullet count in Assault Android Cactus looks like it’s much lower than your typical bullet hell shooter, so maybe there won’t be a such a feedback issue. I sure hope feedback works out well, because this looks like a game I’ll enjoy.

Guest Jonathan says: The dynamic shifting arenas and enemy variety make it stand out from other twin-stick shooters that I played from the PSN store. The glowing blue bullets are great and as long as enemies and particle effects don’t obscure that, the game should be good with visual clarity.

Look forward to our Design Oriented Chat with the developers of Assault Android Cactus next week.