Thursday, May 29, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - LostWinds

lostwinds.jpgOriginal IP is always a tough sell in this industry. According to the NPD, in 2007 the only original IP to break the top ten in sales in the United States were Wii Play and Assassin's Creed. It's debatable whether or not Wii Play even classifies as original IP. The launch of services such as Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and WiiWare have been heralded as the impetus for the gaming revolution, with lower budgets allowing for more experimentation in gameplay.

While this may not be the great revolution many predicted or would like, it is hard to ignore that there are some genuinely unique titles available on these services. One such title is LostWinds, for the Nintendo Wii. By utilizing the Wiimote's motion capabilities to move the player character, Frontier Developments is able to offer a unique gameplay experience in the familiar setting of a 2D platformer.

Design Lesson: Changing the method of input can make a familiar genre feel like a unique experience

LostWinds strength is in its usage of the Wiimote. The game places you as a young boy named Toku. Early in the game, you gain an ally Enril; oh, and Enril is the disembodied Wind Spirit. That's right, Enril (and the player) can control the wind, which become the major mechanic of the game. Toku may be the main character of the game, but the star is the wind.

Instead of just pressing a button to jump, LostWinds has you make a motion with the Wiimote to create a gust of wind. This gust will push the player, objects, and enemies in the world in any direction. Gusts will often affect even the backgrounds of the world. While there is no gameplay behind making bushes and trees sway and rustle from gusts of wind, it makes the player feel in control and like he is directly affecting the world.
I've never felt like I'm really directly affecting the world in Super Mario Bros. Instead, I directly affect the other inhabitants of the world, but not the world itself (Only some of the bricks are breakable in the game and never the critical path, so that doesn't feel like affecting the world enough to me).

In LostWinds this changes the entire way of traversing and interacting with the world. No longer is checking out the entire village as simple as just pressing a button to jump every now and again. Instead, the player constantly is physically moving to make Toku jump on screen. Every gust affects trees, enemies, fire, water, and even NPCs. The player truly feels as if he is directly affecting the world around him, something that is isn't found in the standard 2D platform game.

This motion input also creates mechanics that defy genre conventions. There is no way to directly attack enemies. Jumping on their heads, a wildly accepted convention, will lead to death. Rather, the player must use gusts of wind to slam the enemies into the ground.

This means you can defeat enemies as long as they are on screen, even if Toku isn't near them. This creates a puzzle-centric game, over a combat-centric game, which isn't always found in platformers. It reminded me of the original Prince of Persia where the environment was your real enemy, not the guards. Combat is always secondary in the game.

lostwinds.jpg (Side design note: I do question the need for any combat in the game, but maybe we need some opportunity for failure to truly feel success. Or maybe I've just been trained to think that way from genre conventions and life. I have a feeling this warrants deeper pondering and discussion, but I'd love to hear any thoughts if you have them).

Later in the game, you get the power to channel other elements to solve puzzles. By using the Wiimote to draw on the screen, you can make fire, water, and wind follow the path you've drawn. This allows you to burn down barriers that would be otherwise impassable, by connecting the barrier with the source of fire.

Again, the game is making a more direct correlation with the player's physical movement with the Wiimote and the movement of fire and water on the screen. This interface could be replicated with a mouse, so it's not some major innovation. However, it's still so different than how most platformers behave that it helps the game feel more novel and unique than it may actually be (I promise that's a compliment).

These simple changes in the input method of LostWinds help the game standout as something that feels unique and different. The player experience is altered just by wagging around a Wiimote in the air, instead of holding an Xbox 360 controller in their hands.

Had the game had you jump by pressing a button, solve puzzles by maneuvering your in-game character to push items around, it wouldn't have the same charm and feel.

The game is defined by its input, something that is usually avoided by designers. Usually designers try to make the player forget that they have to use a controller for input, concentrating on immersing the player through graphics, sound, and gameplay.

This isn't the case with LostWinds. The developers are all too happy to remind you that you are playing a game by forcing physical movement to progress.

LostWinds is not necessarily innovative, but it's different thanks to its usage of the Wiimote. Sometimes, that's all it takes to get noticed. I only hope more developers are able to take a chance on “something different” on the WiiWare in the future.

3 comments:

  1. "Something different" doesn't necessarily equate to "something good". The game is right to get you to think about its controls, but its controls aren't, y'know, good. It doesn't feel like you're controlling the wind, and if it doesn't do that then what's the whole point? Just because you try to do things differently, doesn't mean you succeed. This game did not succeed. You point out the combat, which is a waste of time. I would also point out the puzzles, which are almost never, over the course of the game, entertaining. They're just random obstacles, because we all know games have to have obstacles! The world design isn't appealing, either- a bunch of caves and repeating houses, which you're led back and forth through to pad out the game. To summarize: bad controls, bad puzzles, bad enemies, bad world. It does look pretty. Anyway, just because they "tried" doesn't mean this is a good game, and it's not. (I've got a more detailed review on my blog.)

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