Sunday, April 6, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - No More Heroes

Another week, another design lesson. For those of you who are just joining this blog, the challenge is to play a game a week for ten straight weeks and post one game design lesson I learned from playing the game each week. No, I'm not late on this post, even though the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare post went up last Saturday. I beat that game before the week was through, and waited a day before starting No More Heroes for the Wii. On to this week's design lesson!

Design Lesson: An open-world design must have a set of interesting interactions in the world itself in order to be meaningful to the player.

What the hell does that mean? Well, in order to explain, I must first briefly discuss the mechanics of No More Heroes. A crazy, over-the-top 3rd person action game, No More Heroes pits you as the #11 ranked assassin in the US. Your goal? Become #1. The game has two primary modes. The first are the linear, story-progression levels. At the end of each level, you are pitted with a boss fight against the assassin you are trying to overtake. These levels play like traditional action games, with one path.

However, in-between these levels is where No More Heroes gets interesting. Since these assassin fights are officially sanctioned events, they require a fee to enter. Here we begin the game's "open-world gameplay" segment. In this portion of the game, you take on odd-jobs (mini-games) and assassinations (mini-fights) to earn enough money to enter the next fight. Additionally, you can train your character to become stronger, buy a new beam katana (the game's primary weapon is essentially a lightsaber), customize your character's clothes, and drive around the city on your motorcycle.

The problem with the open-world segment is that the world itself has nothing interesting to do. You literally drive from locale to locale, enter a menu or mini-game, do what you need to do, and then drive to the next locale. The reason Grand Theft Auto III succeeds in open-world design is that there is a set of meaningful interactions to perform in the city. You can engage in shooting sprees, jump your vehicle over buildings, take on taxi-cab style missions, and more. All of these things happen in Liberty City itself. In No More Heroes, all you can do is drive to a new place and take on a specialized gameplay built in that area. You cannot just do that on the fly, however. You must first accept the mission, then drive to the mission point, and enter the mission. If you fail, go all the way back to the mission giver, re-accept, and drive back.

In other words, the open-world of Santa Destroy (the name of the city in the game) is literally a glorified 3D menu. One of the few times the game takes advantage of its open-world portion is the last job in the game. Here you engage in a bike jump contest. You drive through the city, go off of a ramp that leads into the ocean, and see how far you can go. The further you go the more money you win. There are a couple of other jobs that do a good job of using the actual city in their design as well. One is cleaning up graffiti off of walls, the other is collecting trash. These sound far more boring than they actually are, but again that's three things to do in the city out of the dozens of options that are offered, that are actually meaningful interactions. The reason they are meaningful, is they use the city itself as the space to perform the mission in.

Everything else in the game happens outside of the city itself, in mini-levels (which are often re-used and just portions of levels you've already played through, thus saving the cost of creating new levels). The city is just a means to get to the new activities. In order for No More Heroes to truly succeed in its open-world portion, it would need to have assassinations that took place in the city itself. Maybe you have to track down the target and kill him in the streets. There could be more events like street races and bike jumps. Everything the game has you do for money could be done in the city itself. Even better would be if you could do many of these things out of order, without having to activate them in a mission accept screen somewhere. This would then play up the dynamic city aspect and make you feel like you are truly interacting with an open-world.

Alas, the set of interactions in the open-world segment of No More Heroes are not that interesting, and there-in lies the game's flaw. Since the open-world segment is so disparate from the linear levels, they need to stand firmly on their own. They do not. They stand as a flimsy excuse to lengthen the game and offer little unique gameplay. The mini-games were fun, but not amazing. They certainly weren't of the same caliber as the boss fights in the game, or even the fantastic ending. Luckily, the rest of the game is good enough to overcome these flaws.

Bonus Lesson #1: Boss fights alone can make your game great.

The style and combat is a lot of fun in the game, but No More Heroes truly shines with its boss fights at the end of each mission. I do not wish to spoil the game, but there are some genuinely hilarious and fantastic bosses, many of which make fun of the normal gaming conventions. Shadows of the Colossus is the game that truly taught me this lesson, but No More Heroes just reinforces it. I really enjoyed the game, but when I break it down to its individual parts, it's the boss fights that really carry the game (along with the humor and style).

Bonus Lesson #2: Lack of identifable landmarks in your open-world leads to navigation through the mini-map.

I literally naviagted Santa Destroy through the mini-map, as I would never know where to go otherwise. The only exception was the handful of locales right next to my starting motel that I learned exact directions to rather fast. Other than that, if it wasn't for the mini-map, I would never have known where the beach was. What this means is, all the work that Grasshopper Manufacture put into building Santa Destroy was mostly missed by myself, as I stared in the lower left corner to see when I needed to make a turn to get to my next area. This isn't helped by the fact that just driving around the city without any goals isn't any fun (Conversely, just climbing the city in Assassin's Creed was fun, and I did that without doing any mission gameplay for quite some time).

Bonus Lesson #3: No More Heroes has the best usage of the Wiimote I have played.

I haven't played all that many Wii games, in fairness, but during the game you get cell phone calls from a girl who plays a major part in the story. When the phone call goes off the Wiimote vibrates and then the sound of the phone conversation comes through the speaker of the Wiimote itself, not the TV or home theater speakers. Holding the Wiimote to my ear like a phone is, by far, the best usage of a Wiimote I have played yet. Sure, it only happens a dozen or so times in the entire game, but it is so worth it. I want to see more games steal this idea.

On to the next game!


  1. Nice lesson write-up! I also kept my eyes affixed on the mini-map while driving through Santa Destroy. I can't imagine how frustrating the game would be without it.

    Not to detract from Bonus Lesson #2 but, the first Wii game I know of that simulated a phone via the Wiimote was actually WarioWare: Smooth Moves, one of the most criminally underrated Wii games (at least in my skewed little world). Obviously WarioWare doesn't keep you on the line for five minutes straight, but I got the same amount of glee from its phone usage as No More Heroes.

  2. Whatever game first figured it out - great call. I haven't played WarioWare... in fact the only Wii games to date I own are...

    Resident Evil 4
    Super Smash Bros. Browl
    No More Heroes
    Super Mario Galaxy
    Wii Sports

    I've played a handful of other titles, but many are party-games, and I live alone so they don't work so well for me (I'd check out Rayman Raving Rabbids otherwise).

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