Analyzing Action Games

When I was making an action RPG in the winter break, the prototype I made just doesn’t feel right. I then started researching bunch of action game, played some of them. Though I haven’t came up with a solution to my project, but I start getting a sense of why some action game feel in certain way, and why some just magically feel great, even their mechanic is fairly simple.

To make things simple, I made a bold assumption here. There are three major factors that affect how action games feel: Pacing, Scale, and Choices.

1. Pacing

Factors that affect a game’s Pacing:

  • How fluid the control is.
  • How is the Blocking / Dodging system. If you can easily dodge enemy’s attack, the pacing will become slower.
  • How many HP the enemies have. (How long is a fight / How long is an action that require the same skill)

A great example of this is Soul Calibur. A lot of mechanic was tuned to make the pace of the game faster. The moving speed is slower than most game so it’s hard to disengage the fight. Players can’t jump too high so the fight is mainly limited in 2-dimension. In recent series it has penalty for players who block too much. Finally, the simplified control made players feel everything happens even faster.

2. Scale

Factors that affect a game’s Scale:

  • Attack Range
  • How big is the map
  • How fast can players travel
  • How exaggerative the visual effect is.
  • The moment of high “Scale Gradient”

A big “Scale Gradient” is when the game wow the players. It is when the interest curve goes high. It is when you first saw a dragon in Monster Hunter that is 100 times bigger than you, and be able to breath fire across the map. It’s why QTE is so successful in God of War: Some actions are too exaggerative which is hard to made it part of the normal attacks. QTE is the solution that they can implement moves  having high scale gradient while still interactive.

3. Choices

The choices in an action game determine how strategic a game should be. Noted that a fast-pace game might not allow for large number of choice because players can’t handle it.

Factors that affect a game’s Choices

  • Does the game allow different high level strategies? (Defensive/offensive/illusive…etc)
  • How many action can players perform?
  • Do those actions have specific functions, or can be used in different ways?
  • Are those choices meaningful?

I had a great example of a game that is famous but lack of Choices: Dynastic Warrior. This is a first game that I can play when sleeping. The game is famous for having hundreds of army in a same map, but the action of the players is just smashing the same button over and over again. The game actually have a lot of moves but most of time only one move is useful. Also, the game doesn’t support different strategy. Therefore the Choices for players is very few.

Part of me think it is repetitive and boring. But I also think that it wouldn’t had been so successful without its extremely low difficulty. Very few game critic favor this game but it attract a huge amount of casual gamers.


Use PSC in Game Design

I was trying to use the system in my game design. To apply the PSC system, you first have to decide the theme of a game, or a feeling you want to achieve, a inspiration you want to recreate.

Then start imagining the Pacing, Scale, and Choice in the experience. Let’s say I want to make a 2D platformer where players have ability to control the wind. The game use wasd to move and mouse to control the wind. You can move the cursor around an enemy to make the wind attack it.

In this case, I shouldn’t make the pacing too fast because the players might not familiar with the control . But I also can’t do something slow-paced as extremely as Monster Hunter, because “control the wind” is the most important experience. Moving with a lot of constrain may distract from the core experience.

It may be hard to represent a large scale level in a 2D platformer, but it would be nice if we make some high scale gradient in certain situation. For example, if I kill enemies in a row, I might be able to create a big tornado that swipe out all enemies in the screen.

Finally, in order to add some choice in the game, I’ll made the wind have different function. In addition to use wind to attack, I can also called the wind to protects me when I mouse-over my character.


11 thoughts on “Analyzing Action Games

  1. The factors by which you break down your analysis are interesting and actually pretty insightful. Maybe it is because I haven’t thought about a game in specifically these terms before, or because I don’t have much experience trying to design action games, or tailoring design to a specific genre, but I’d like to spend some time thinking over a game expressed in these factors (PSC). I noticed that except for scale, there was no mention of visual effect or aesthetics. I feel that for some action games (e.g. Viewtiful Joe) the ‘style’ of the game, as comprised by visual and aesthetic, is an important element. Where do you think that would fit into the PSC spectrum?

    • Hi Christian,

      This system is designed to find out what affect the feeling in an action game. And I summarized 3 factors which are Pace, Scale, and Choices. The art of course affects these factors in different ways. For example, in DMC 4 it actually takes you a lot of time if you are knock down, but it has a cool animation that Dante rolling on the ground and jump up, which make the pacing feel much faster. I don’t have a example of aesthetic affect the Choice factor right now.

      The camera control in Viewtiful Joe is a good example of how enhance the “Scale” factor in 2D games. When you jump up high, the camera shoot you from the bottom, which is a classic way in film of making characters looks taller.

  2. Besides pace, scale, and choices, I think that the user feedback is extremely important for action games. Players need to know without thinking that whether they hit the enemy or whether they hit the sweet spot. For example, in Dynasty Warriors, each move of the champions can cause an effect, which creates a very smooth experience for players.

    • I didn’t mention feedback because I feel like it’s a question of “right” or “wrong”. Take Dynasty Warriors as example, I always feel its feedback is too “smooth”, therefore I can’t consider it as “good feedback” when comparing to other action games like Devil May Cry. However, for PSC there is no right answer, maybe they can try to make Dynasty Warriors have more choices, but it’ll probably feel like other game.

  3. This is a very interesting post. I spent some time thinking about my favorite action games in terms of PSC. Breaking it down into these three categories is actually really useful for seeing where flaws might be in a game. The “Choices” category is particularly interesting to me; in a lot of RPGs I play I end up just picking the most convenient attack and spamming that one over and over again because the benefits of using a different attack aren’t worth the effort it would take to pick out a new action. This really does result in stale gameplay, but it’s something I’m so used to that I never really thought about it.

    How important do you think it is to balance all three categories? Do you think a game that’s strong in P and S can make up for a weak C, for example? Or do you think that all three are necessary in equal amounts?

    • You don’t balance it! You tune it until it meet your expected experience. PSC has no perfect portion, and I believe many developer intentionally make their games have fewer choices to be more “casual”.

      • Think about Monster Hunter, every detail support the experience they try to made: fighting monsters much more powerful than you.

        They make lots of the animations look clumsy, and the control is also not very fluid. It may be the lowest paced action game, but they did it intentionally. Increase the pacing may ruin the theme.

  4. Interesting initial thoughts.
    About the pace, or to say timing, you mentioned the height of a jump. I remember when I was learning 3D animation, my teacher said that you should definitely lift your character higher than you think it will be. This is a question about the degree of exaggeration. When I was animating my mecha for BVW round 5, I had the same problem. The mecha is supposed to be heavy and not moving so fast. While I want to make players to feel it powerful. I found it kinda hard to define the best extent the movements should go.
    Scale. The relative scale between the avatar and the map is also a question that we discussed in my round 5. Well my suggestion is, just put the character in the scene and see what scale is comfortable, which should meet the requirements such as good resolution, aesthetics and whether it’s good to navigate around. There’s another helpful thing I learn’t from the Visual Story in my undergrad. Which is a comparison between new action movies and old ones. In old action movies, it’s hard to feel the intensity of the plot because they cameramen tended to use full views, while we stress details more and use more close-ups in late action movies. About the exaggeration, I think it depends on the art style of each game. For instance, Diablo III is very realistic, designers are trying to capture the true experience of fighting and exploring in dungeons, while some fantasy works such as World of Warcraft are achieve relatively exaggerated animations. Right, QTE is the biggest difference between film animations and game animations. Personally I like the games in which boss’ animations have attack points while avatar animations should achieve perfect QTE.
    When it comes to choices, I think about Devil May Cry 4, in which Dante has 80+ skills of combinations of various keys. Dynastic Warrior series are really famous for the cutting-grass manipulations.

    • I wish I could play your game. From the video I think you did a great job making the realistic feel of impacts between heavy objects. For the pacing you chose to be slower, I think that’s perfect for the theme. I do wish there was something to increase the “scale” factor.

      • Thank you! I do wish to play my game(s) too. I think all programmers should send a keyboard+mouse controlled version to artists and sound man at the end of a project!

  5. It always feels really interesting to me how the game genres we played again and again suddenly becomes too difficult to design. I never tried to design an action game and I believe it is also difficult because there are many action games out there which are really good and our expectations are very high. I think the way you broke down the factors for a good action games are a very good way to start.

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