Thoughts on Clean Gameplay in Game Design

Posted on November 25, 2014 by Shibusuke

For nearly 5 years, I lived and breathed making video games in Japan, spending the vast majority of that time at Capcom. While there, it was my great privilege to work with and become friends with people who had helped create some of my favorite franchises - including, my personal favorite, Mega Man. One day, I was discussing the evolution of the Mega Man series with one of the major team members from 9 and 10 (among others), a 30+ year design veteran of the industry, and he shared a personal opinion that has stuck with me ever since: “I don’t think the wall jump and dash that were added in Mega Man X are very clean gameplay” (my translation).

I didn’t really pursue the meaning behind the comment further at the time, but it has popped into my head every now and again since, and I've found myself thinking on it even more now, as we work on the development of two fantastic (and very different!) games at Abyssal Arts. What was the point he was ultimately trying to make?

For those not familiar with the series (obligatory link to the Sequelitis video), the gameplay of the original Mega Man had two main aspects: jumping and shooting. Everything was built and tuned around those two elements. Later, the slide and charge shot were introduced, and while my friend had some words to say about those mechanics, too, it was the new mechanics in X that he felt muddied the gameplay.

If no one had enjoyed Mega Man X, this blog post would not exist. Clean gameplay = good, end of story. But people did enjoy Mega Man X, including young me, who was probably wiser than current me. It brought something new to the series, making the interplay between precision of the original formula and the new elements all the more interesting. The gameplay in the original series was so fundamental and precise that it arguably couldn’t be distilled any further, while the new elements eliminated some of the precision required to make such a minimalist experience entertaining, creating more breathing room. On the one hand, this allowed the player more leeway before being punished for making poor decisions (in itself an interesting metric to aim for), but it also made room for new ways to make mistakes as well as inelegant strategies.

Examples of “unclean” gameplay include continuously wall jumping to stay out a boss’ attack range, instead of neatly dodging its attacks (Chill Penguin, anyone?), or dash-jumping over sections of a level. This also meant that the game did not need to be as fine-tuned, since the design assumed that players had these abilities and thus the design team had a wider set of boundaries available. The game certainly works very well, and as a player I enjoyed the new mechanics, but I can understand thinking that those sorts of tactics aren’t exactly tidy compared to the stricter structure of the earlier games.

Mega Man earned its reputation at least partially thanks to its rock-and-roll flow - the ups and downs of the pacing, tuned with almost fanatical precision for every enemy and jump. Even then, a core experience like Mega Man can only hold appeal for so long before needing a break from the formula; adding new elements to jazz things up is a great way to expand the lifetime of something while also exploring new ideas.

The conversation we had about Mega Man X was not negative - it was full of praise, actually. It continued on to cover the best aspects of the Mega Man Zero series and the fun of searching for the armor capsules in X. The smallest tweaks to a formula can have dramatic effects!

What I think he was saying is that, once the gameplay became looser, the level of tuning required to make the game feel good changed, and it diluted the fundamental requirements for making jump and shoot gameplay as pristine as possible. It wasn’t a bad thing - it just wasn’t as elegant as the predecessor.

Ultimately, the chief lesson I’ve taken from my friend’s comment is that having polished, underlying basic mechanics establishes the necessary fundamentals and quality to allow for emergent (even if it’s less-clean!) gameplay to emerge when new elements are added on top of them. As we work to fine-tune Zombie Playground and bring Shroud to life, we’re trying to polish our core mechanics as much as possible while blurring lines to ensure players can experiment and play how they want.

Really, I should probably just ask what the original thinking behind the comment was, but sometimes it’s more fun to dive down the rabbit hole. Even if there wasn’t a deeper meaning behind it, if we’re lucky, we’ll find something valuable by digging into it anyway.

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