[Game Design]An analysis on how 'Encore Mode' fails to replace the lifes system.

Discussion in 'General Sonic Discussion' started by BlueFrenzy, Jul 3, 2020.

  1. BlueFrenzy

    BlueFrenzy

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    First, let's define the context:

    One of the biggest changes in the industry was the savegame. Before, the home console industry inherited the systems from the Arcade machines, ones designed to offer some gameplay in exchange for a few coins. You basically purchased lives with coins and the games' difficulty were adjusted to make you invest your money on it. Home consoles used the premium model instead, where you purchased the whole package, making the lives system purpose to change from a monetization strategy to add replay value and game lenght. Games were short on content in a much less profitable market than today's and adding content was expensive due to the high costs of the cartridge format back then, so extending the game's lifetime through a die and retry system was pretty much appreciated by both players and the industry.

    But all of that changed when the savegame was introduced. It was almost a necessity in an industry with higher profits, budgets and cheaper formats (the CD rom) that allowed for more content. But once the savegame system is in place and became a standard in the industry, the lifes system became obsolete. Die and retry doesn't sinergice very well with long games and the new progression systems. Still, many games kept the lifes system during quit a long time. Why? The main reason is that, for classic franchises, the lifes system is heavily embedded in the reward systems, and changing it requires a redesign of the whole reward system to make the game work as similarly as possible to the original experience and meet the expectations. Games who doesn't ha a weaker reward system where the highest value reward is kind of pointless.​


    So, here is where Encore Mode from Sonic Mania enters:

    Encore mode is one of the first tries of the Sonic Franchise to replace the lifes systems. For those who didn't have the chances of playing it, the game offers up to 5 characters each with one different skill. By finding characters you add one to your party and through other paralell systems of dual characters and swapping mechanics. Being killed means losing the currently active character and losing characters means having limitations on where you can explore. If you lose all the characters, you get a game over and you reload from the last save point.

    You may like the idea or not, or you could also be indifferent, but regardless I want to analyze how this answer to the lifes' problem doesn't manage to resolve the reward system problems.

    The Encore Mode substitutes the 1UP reward by a new character reward. This is useful when you are missing one character from your deck, but it stops being rewarding when you have the complete rooster, so it is substituted by a swap monitor. On top of the 1UP reward, you have two other monitors: the first one, swaps your current character from one backup character and the other one shuffles all your characters. It may look like the reward system has been improved with two new reward types, but there's a problem: THEY ARE NOT REWARDS. Those two monitors are actually game mechanics, not rewards. They are the button of switching character that is missing from your gamepad, the switch button that opens a door or that changes your skill, but disguised as a reward using the shape of the monitor. You don't earn anything because those characters are already on your team, but on the contrary, in order for this feature to exist, it was imposed a limitation on how can you use your characters. You don't gain anything from this trade, you lose control and reaching those monitors only randomizes the output, it doesn't return back that control. You don't feel good when finding a question mark monitor after finding a secret tunnel, but you feel bad when you need a character and you cannot use it unless you find the proper monitor. And if you don't plan on switching characters, hitting by accident these monitors is a punishment.

    The switch mechanic does not offer by itself a meaningful reward, although the character rooster and swap system may actually replace the lifes system with something that makes sense in our times. Does it?
    To answer that question we need to analyze what the reward system of classic Sonic games, and, unluckily, the reward system was much more than just a 1UP monitor.


    The reward system in classic games:

    The reward system of Sonic the hedgehog was revolving around the RINGS. The game offered a unique defense system that consists in being immune to death as long as you keep one ring with you, but if you are hit, you lose them all. It's easy to notice that the hard thing to do is to accumulate rings. The more rings you have the better you played. A good reward system is proportional to the difficulty of the task, so the game rewards according to the number of rings you accumulated:

    - If you manage to reach the end of the level with 50 rings or more, you can go to the special stage
    - If you manage to accumulate 100 rings, you get 1UP

    The accumulation is very important. Unlike other games like mario, you need to do it in a sequence without getting hurt. While in Mario getting 1UP is obtained through grinding, in Sonic it requires skill.

    On top of that there are other minor reward but, I will place the focus in the important ones:

    - Invencibility: temporarily you are protected from damage, hence, protecting your rings.
    - Shield: protects your rings once, increasing your margin of error.

    And all of this combined creates a neat and intuitive reward system:
    - Progression rewards: rings / 10 rings
    - Defensive rewards: Shields, invencibility, others
    - Ultimate Rewards: lifes, giant rings.

    On Sonic 2 you also have Super Sonic, another reward that substitutes the special stages when you got all the chaos emeralds and that keeps improving the more rings you get. The more rings you accumulate the more sure you won't get out of time when transforming, but also, the more you lose on a hit if you get greedy.


    So, how all of this is related to the Encore Mode?


    Encore mode substitutes lifes, but lifes are the pinnacle of a chain of rewards that begins with one ring. If you remove lives, everything falls appart: you no longer have to obtain 100 rings to get 1UP, so accumulating rings is uninteresting. If accumulating rings is unninteresting, shields become uninteresting, and if shields are uninteresting, what can you give the player for reaching new heights?

    Encore mode aggravates the problems. There's no lifes anymore. If you die, you are replaced by another character, hence making the game even easier because it allows up to 5 hits with 0 rings, reducing even more the value of the rings. Even starposts are less valuable since now they only work when you fall on death pits, very uncommon in Sonic Mania (and as it should be).


    But Sonic 3 has a save system!
    Sonic 3 managed to provide new rewards: elemental shields provide new both active and passive skills, giant rings hidden in the levels had become their own reward and the ring accumulation has moved to the bonus stages in the starposts. Still, the rings, who are the base of the reward system are hurted the most: getting 50 rings doesn't provide you of anything unless you have the 7 chaos emeralds and the extra 1UP for getting the lives is less valuable since you can reload at anytime from the beginning of the zone, a much softer penalty than having to restart the game. So basically with 1 ring you are good enough to survive. The value of the shields is decreased, although compensated with the passive and active skills. But in the end, in this game, having more rings and more lifes is more of an achievement than a game reward, just like score is.

    One of the biggest problems are the bosses and minibosses. Once you reach the boss, the rings lose their value: if you didn't reach the 100 rings you probably won't do it anyway, so, what's the point of keeping them? No point, so you can basically blast through the boss defenses, getting hurt as much as necessary in order to take him down as soon as possible. Most bosses are easier and faster by abusing of your invulnerability time. When the best strategy is to lose, there's something wrong with the design. This also applies to previous sonic games and it's probably one of the biggest problems in the classic saga as a whole. Many critizise the bosses due to their simplicity, but this simplicity is, at least partially, because of the kamikaze tactic being in most cases the most efficient solution.

    In sonic adventure games the reward system is even more obsolete: you only replay the last level if you lose all your lifes, so gathering rings is actually not that interesting. Then, the shield becomes also uninteresting as a reward and the magnet shield ability is just magneting rings which are also useless. On top of that, there's no more bonus stages, no more hidden special stages, no shield powers... the reward system is completely broken. Sonic Adventure games and forward are games whose core is about traversal, losing this important layer of exploration. Yeah, there are 1UP boxes here and there, but they work more as an achievement than a real reward bonus to increase the chances of survival. Heck, if instead they were collectible cards it would have worked better. In future games a ranking system was added due to the obvious lack of secondary objectives due to a poor reward system.

    Right now, encore mode, while it adresses the problem of lifes, substituting it with a character swap mechanic, fails and aggravates the problem of the rest of the rewards of the game. The lifes were just the tip of the iceberg.
    In order for a life-less system in future sonic games to work at the same level as the Sonic 1 reward system certain CONSTRAINS must be met:
    - There should be consequences for dying. losing 20 seconds of gameplay is OK for die and retry games where you die a lot.
    - There should be rewards for accumulating rings. NOT FOR GETTING RINGS. In sonic rush you refill your boost by getting rings, which is OK, but getting rings is not hard: accumulating them is, and the big reward should be here.
    - The player should need to bring as much rings as possible to the end of the level while not overriding the, probably, best reward of the game: the hidden giant rings. In Sonic Adventure 2 the number of rings you have at the end of the level allows for puchases in the chao garden. That's OK, but it is completely unrelated to the rest of the game. A good design will have the feature integrated in the core game structure.


    Brainstorm:
    What could be an example of a good feature? Well, I have no real good one, but I think one starting point is recovering the rewards at the end of the level of Sonic 1 from Game Gear. This reward sign will appear after you defeated the boss. But in order to make it work the game progression needs to have a twist.
    The core idea would be inspired, surprisingly in a roguelike. Specifically in Spelunky:

    There's no savegame nor lifes: if you die, you return back to the main menu. You can quit and reload from the quit point, but your progress is lost on a Game Over. You can use the character you want and swapt between the ones you found without restriction. You can have in your team up to 3 characters.

    Once you have reached a new level, you can start the next game from that level or any previous one. You can start as any of the characters you previously had in your previous play.

    Just like with spelunky, you can play from the level you want and explore it at will, but, the only way to reach the true end of the game is by playing the game from the first level and get all the achievements in one go. Not in an artificial way but by being able to pass information between levels:

    The rings, shields and characters you got in the first act of the zone carries over to act 2.

    Once you reach the end of the level and defeat the boss, you will have a reward according to the number of rings you possess, just like in Sonic 1 8-bit. You could have an elemental shield, rings that will be carried on to the next level, robotnik's fart, or even a new character. There's many characters in the game, but you can have only 3 that are given to you according to the number of rings you have when reaching the end sign. By making each character reward to be given in a specific range of rings, the players can plan ahead who they want their team to be.

    There are no starpost respawn anymore. On crush or pits you will lose your shield or all your rings and return back to the last "safe point". If you have no more rings when you are hurt you get a game over and have to return to the main menu.

    Starpost still exists as a gambling machine: according to then number of rings you have you will be transfered to a bonus stage. The number of rings you require to enter will be removed but the bonus stage should allow to multiply that number, obtain shields or even some characters.

    Instead of lifes, the biggest reward is the golden shield. A golden shield will transform into a regular shield when receiving a hit, which means it protects your rings twice instead of once. if once you have a golden shield you take an elemental shield, you will get a golden version of the elemental shield: they behave like the regular elemental shields but they become an elemental shield when hit instead of disappearing. You cannot upgrade an elemental into gold (if you take a gold monitor when wearing an elemental shield it becomes a regular golden shield), but you can upgrade the gold into elemental. With this, you have a choice when wearing an elemental shield: safety or skill.

    On top of that you will meet the ring gate. If you have enough rings, the ring gate will suck your rings and keep them safe up to certain quantity. Your ring counter will decrease but those rings are safe. When defeating the boss, the ring gate will appear and give you all the rings you saved before the end of level reward. If you were to get a game over, the ring gate will appear an sacrifice itself instead of you.​

    If you manage to have more than, let's say, 150 rings at the end of act 2, you will have as end of level reward a secret bonus act named special act. In the special act is when you will really progress in the game. Name it super emeralds, name it hard boiled eggs' true hideout, name it whatever you want, but the objective of the game is to complete these acts. The special act shows a different color palette to distinct themselves from the other acts. You can still play without knowing the existance of these acts having a regular sonic 3 like experience, but here we reward the players with new content (hence, new levels) for being able to accumulate enough rings. On top of that, we reward the players with the true final zone and the true ending for being able to complete all the special acts in one go. This leads into the Spelunky type of progression: you can play the levels and practice them as much as you want, and once you know well the game, you have to make everything in one go.

    Once you have completed the true ending you have available the new game+ when starting a game, which means, you start the game with the progress of the previous game, so this way you can play supersonic from any act and have any combination of 3 characters. You can even start the game from any special act if desired.​
     
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  2. Palas

    Palas

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    You have a good analysis there of what I don't like about the Encore System and, most importantly, how it (fails to) create diversity within gameplay. The same analysis, however, would also make a good case for rings as a game system (not just as a matter of risk vs. reward), yet you threw it away to analyze rings and classic Sonic's life system as a matter of risk and reward, not as something that's integral to playing the game.

    I do believe the ring system is the responsible for Sonic being as fun to play as it is even if you're not speeding through the stages. Exactly because you don't have to be good in a very specific way in order to beat the stages, you can develop your own playstyle and try out new moves. Often, players can just throw themselves off a cliff just to see what happens and the game, because of its life system, won't make you feel exactly judged for it: if you die, you can always collect rings beforehand and try again. So all parts of a stage end up mattering in a way that's unique to your playthrough and that's what makes any exploration truly organic.

    So it's the life system, even if having only one ring makes you technically protected, that is teh core to the games' exploration and natural skill buildup. An exponential learning curve, maybe, but the anedoctal examples of bad behavior you bring here (kamikaze-ing through the bosses) are either exclusive to people who can assess the risk of doing so or outright impossible (S3&K has lots of bosses that force you to understand how to beat them, especially those that demand you to use their own force against them).

    As for ideas to keep the life system interesting, I'd love rings to open up paths in levels. It was only ever used in Scrap Brain Act 2?? I think?? and Sonic R. Maybe one of the Advance games did that too, I don't remember. But I'd like the paths to deplete your rings as well.

    Also, my absolute dream is to see a Sonic game that plays around with starposts. Starposts triggering traps (a true Indiana Jones-esque experience!), starposts that take you to the next save point when you die instead of the last one etc.
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2020
  3. Xiao Hayes

    Xiao Hayes

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    Your analysis started well, but the alternative you try to offer is just... no. Besides that, I think your point of views looks a lot towards gamification, but the elements from games gamification borrows aren't that important in real games which have mechanics, environments and plots to make them worthwhile.

    I myself don't have a problem with lives (and continues!) in 3K or Mania, I always used them as the real score, replaying a savegame until I have 99 lives and checking out how many continues I got to judge my performance and choose which savegame will I delete when I need a free slot (guess which? the one with less continues for that character, of course).

    It's true that character limit and randomizing monitors don't add a thing to the rewards system, but keeping an exact number of characters (the maximum) does as a gameplay goal, and I myself am the kind of guy that likes to break each and every one of those monitors to give some degree of unpredictability to a game I already have mastered and thus lacks surprises most of the time. In other words, is not a worse system, is just different one and you may or may not enjoy it.

    About the boss abuse, I'm tired of the people who wants bosses to be a challenge, I abuse the ringmunity because it allows me to spend the least time possible dealing with that nuisance. I like bosses to be there because they define the sections of the game (they separate levels), but I prefer an easy boss if that lets me keep playing. The only exception is the final boss, because that's the end of the game and it should be epic, and that could be the moment to use all those extra lives if you're not good enough. In this regard, Mania loses a lot of point with me thanks to many boring and not ignorable bosses.

    My real reward when playing Sonic games is exploring, reaching to every corner and knowing every secret hidden there. The greatness of elemental shields is expanding the exploration mechanics, and the quality of the level design should be centered in giving any kind of playstyle the flow it needs, be it the more exploratory one or the "gotta go fast!" that a lot of people seem to like even in the classic games.

    On a final note, I like games that feel quick to play and make me replay the whole of them as soon as I finish them, and I'm not talking just about Sonic games here. One issue of many modern games is they seem to be totally over when you finish the story, being replayed only by people who establish their own goals like speedrunners, or by artificial padding such as grinding levels and equipment that you didn't really need to beat the game. The main rewards should always be the fun and the interest of the game by itself that lead to replay it, something I find often in games with outdated rewards systems and not that much with the current kings of the market.
     
  4. As far as Rings go, what about a cross between Banjo-Kazooie's Notes, and the total Ring counter used in the Adventure games when the Rings doubled as Chao Garden currency?

    When beating a level, your total Ring score is increased by the number of Rings you collected. This total tally is used for unlockables. However, if you replay the level to earn more Rings, you lose your previous score and gain a new score if your new score is higher, or your new score is thrown out completely and your original score remains if it was higher.

    For example, Act 1 resulted in finishing with 120 Rings. Act 2 resulted in finishing with 50 Rings. My total is now 170 Rings. I need 200 Rings in order to unlock a reward. I replay Act 1, and only finish with 70 Rings, so those 70 are thrown out and my total is still 170. I try replaying Act 2 and finish with 80 Rings. My original 50 is thrown out, and my new total is now 200 Rings even, which is just barely enough to win my reward.

    My first time through the level, I'm encouraged to just play naturally, since any Rings I finish with are added to my total and I make progress anyways. I'm encouraged to be more careful and start learning more about the level's layout and threats on repeat playthroughs since losing my Rings will become a major setback, even if I still finish the level. However, if I just want to replay the level for the fun of it and not to make more progress, I lose nothing to replay the level and have fun playing naturally again.
     
  5. DigitalDuck

    DigitalDuck

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    What are you talking about? The Chao Garden is the core part of Sonic Adventure 2.
     
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  6. Xiao Hayes

    Xiao Hayes

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    Chao garden: the minigame that abducts the main game by making you replay it more than you'd ever want. Those little bastards keeping me away from my precious emblems and unlockables...
     
  7. Sonic Hachelle-Bee

    Sonic Hachelle-Bee

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    I agree with your point of view on the Sonic Mania Encore mode. This is what makes the Encore mode boring and disappointing: the reward system is broken, and there are too many random gameplay elements which makes you feel out of control of what's going on.

    However, I disagree with that. Why do you want to save your game in the first place? As you say, games come with more content nowadays, and playing all the game in one session is next to impossible. That's why you have to save your game at some point, to pick up and continue your game later.

    The lives system didn't became obsolete. It is what the industry made of the savegame feature that is wrong. You can save your game and pick up later, but you can also load your saved game an infinite amount of time and pick up your game right before you died. This is what makes the lives system obsolete.

    The issue is the current implementation in the industry of the savegame feature: all the saved games are permanently available. In my opinion, the savegame feature shall act only as a "freeze state", that is instantly deleted when you load it. And you can't save the game anywhere, anytime. You died? Too bad for you, you can't reload the game at the last saving point. Game over? You have to restart the game from scratch.
     
  8. Palas

    Palas

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    But that's just how it is. Regardless of the amount of content, the industry shifted towards allowing shorter, independent sessions, which suspend absolute failure. Lives are naturally antithetical to that because they, by definition, tie in parts of a game under a single session -- even if played far apart in time. It's not wrong, and lives aren't exactly obsolete because of it. It's another approach that Sonic could benefit from as well as any other game.
     
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  9. Zephyr

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    For a Better Encore Mode (or, more specifically, How I Would Add Encore Mode Elements to the Core Game), I agree that switching between your two active characters should be with a button press. As for what happens when you lose your dudes, I think it's important to first think of how you get your dudes in the first place (and, thus, how you get them back after losing them). To this end, I think the Monitor approach risks cluttering the level layouts too much, and I think Star Post Bonus Stage goodies are too easy to nab.

    The game at the outset should simply let you choose your character, between whoever all is playable. To recruit dudes onto your quest, you have to go to the Hidden Palace Zone and beat them in a game of Puyo Puyo. How that would play out mechanically:
    - all Giant Rings go to Hidden Palace Zone, just like 3K after Launch Base
    - there are [however many] platforms for Emeralds (whose Special Stages are standard racing fair, like in Sonic Mania)
    - there are [however many] platforms for potential party members (other Sonic characters) (Mean Bean Machine matches)
    - just like in 3K you jump on a platform to attempt, and you leave after one attempt, win or lose

    Naturally, this means that the player will want to find many more Giant Rings. To this end, maybe we can give the Basic Shield a glow-up, and make the game more like Sonic 1 when you have it equipped, in the specific sense that you get a freebie Giant Ring at the end of each Act, if you have it equipped and have 50 rings at the end (and once again we have good reason to have a lot of rings at end-of-Act).

    Now to losing dudes, and keeping the ring/life/continue system intact. I think the whole party should share the traditional life/continue count. For example:
    - if any dude dies, the party's life counter goes down by 1, no matter how many dudes are still in the party (Game Overs could then occur despite having a nearly full party)
    - said lost dude returns to the Hidden Palace Zone to play Puyo, even if it was Sonic
    - party keeps on trucking, despite the loss of an extra life and party member
    - if your only/last dude dies, fade to black and respawn at the last Star Post

    Maybe you can also store dudes (and thus reorder your party) in the Hidden Palace. Let's say there are more than 5 playable characters in the game. In such a case, let's say that you can only take out up to 4 other dudes with you. This will make cheese easier, but that cheese will come with a price: you'll have to spend Special Stage trips to challenge them at Puyo again to get them back. Risk and reward to both the solo approach and the party approach.

    (also a party system begs for co-op)

    Sonic Heroes' true failing was not making the Chao Garden its central focus. Start the game with only Sonic, who has access to a Chao Garden between stages. To unlock other characters you first have to raise Chao which resemble them in some way, and get them to lay an egg, out of which the playable character will hatch. Then you can add them to your party (party size max: 3; recommended but not mandatory that you have one of each type), and play as them. Sonic can't get past those "POWER FORMATION" obstacles at first, but wait till he breeds two Knuckles Chao together.

    To get around messy lore implications, just write that something happened to everyone's bodies, and now Tikal and Chaos are helping Sonic bring everyone back, by reincarnating them as hatchlings from Chao who resemble them. Team Dark can find out that Eggman's got a Run Type Dark Chao factory farm, trying to create the perfect replica of Shadow. Of course, it's actually Metal Sonic's Chao breeding ring, so it's naturally up to the real Sonic to breed a better army of Friends, and truly become Sonic Heroes!
     
  10. Xiao Hayes

    Xiao Hayes

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    That suggestion for heroes is really creepy, but a Sonic styled game where your available characters are chao breeds imitating their anthro heroes would be nice to merge both sides of the gameplay and have a cuter playtime, much better than automatic chao races where the only thing you can do is push a button sometimes for a little boost on a random chao.