Sunday, September 2, 2007

Knytt time at the end of the genre lifecycle.

The lovely exploration/platformer Knytt Stories by that Swedish genius Nicklas Nygren is available. Download it, play it and spread word of its greatness throughout the land. Knytt is the epitome of accessible indie game design and one of the few titles that I've fallen deeply, passionately and madly in love with.

Raised in the Scandinavian traditions of Linus and kindly gnomes, Nicklas is giving his entire life's work away for free. This blatant socialism shall not stand. Do you believe in human goodness? Do you believe in justice? Do you believe in fair pay for honest labor? If you enjoy the game, the crotchety shareware old timer thinks that you are morally obligated to to donate a solid chunk of cash into the Nifflas paypal account. Quality pickled herring and lingon berries don't come cheap and starvation means a fewer such amazing games in the future.

Alright. Enough promotion. Knytt Stories and its prequel the original Knytt turns my crank because they are a wonderful example of how to create a landmark game in a dying genre.

2D platformers in the niche stage

2D Platform games are past their prime. The numbers, though inevitably incomplete, do not lie.

Other than some handheld holdouts, the publishers have moved on. Much of the audience has as well. It is my belief that if an original game that was identical in competence to Sonic or Super Mario Brothers was released on the market today, it would sink without much of a trace. "Ah, a platform game" gamers would say. "I remember playing those."

I'm in the group that never fell in love in the first place. Most popular platform games just make me irritable. I just don't have the skill. I still haven't completed Super Mario Brothers and my voice turns high and giggly just looking at Contra. The legends of the platform genre are mature stage games that are intended to challenge that rarefied population of gamers who have been double jumping before they started walked.

The vast majority of the level design is usually focused on solving bizarre little timing puzzles. These have evolved over the decades. At first static platforms provided enough challenge. Then came moving platforms. And rotating platforms festooned with enemies. That shot timed patterns of spikes. That were as large your head.

The core platformer audience adores repeatedly bashing themselves against such puzzles until they can fire off symphonic jump sequences with microsecond accuracy. I, on the other hand, feel like I have mittens, the bulky leather-type they wear in harsh Northern climates, permanently welded to my misshapen paw-like appendages. I remember vaguely enjoying some of the earlier platform games. I've certainly jumped over the occasional barrel in my time for mild chuckles. However as a skills of the dedicated platformer genre addicts grew and the developer merrily upped the ante, mitten wielding folks like myself were left far, far behind.

Yet I love Knytt and am very much enjoying Knytt Stories. How do a few guys in Sweden single handedly ignite my love for a genre that I had believed long overrun and corrupted by the elite gamers of the world?

Focus on accessibility
I sent Nicklas an email a while back and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions. One response about skill level stood out.
"I wanted everyone (particularly people who usually don't play computer games) to be able to play and enjoy Knytt, that's why I didn't make it very hard. Many gamers who play a lot naturally didn't like that, but to me the game is all about the atmosphere, rather than the gameplay."
With Knytt, Nicklas focused on a broader audience by creating a game that had accessible delights. He risked the wrath of the skilled platform players and intensionally broke many of the essential conventions of the genre.

Exploration, not traditional skill-based rewards
The obvious thing that everyone notices playing Knytt is just how wonderful it is to wander from room to room seeing new sights. Many of the creatures in the original game were unique and harmless.

This is a great use of readily accessible red herring skill atoms. You don't need to be a skilled player to gain joy from seeing a wild animal grazing or discovering a cute village for the first time. These are pleasures available to even the most inexperienced of players.

As such, must of the game is structured around seeing the world. Quests for items are often not resolved by hard jumps or boss battles, but instead by wandering and being curious.

Minimize the traditional UI
"I don't really like the health bar (I avoid displaying indicators on the screen, since real life doesn't have them)."
The user interface for games in a genre evolves over time, typically becoming more complex. A user interface is much like a language. It uses symbols to convey meaning in a compact efficient form. Problems arise when users have no experience with those symbols. A health bar is the most obvious thing in the world to an experienced gamer. Yet it is confusing and meaningless to those who have not seen it.

By removing the typical UI trappings, you make the game more accessible. There are fewer things to learn at first and few things to get frustrated by. Instead, Knytt Stories goes the route of incorporating learning into the game itself. Instead of tutorial screens, you have a tutorial level. Difficulty is a switch inside the game itself.

Allow for low cost experimentation
Knytt has no lives. Save points are very liberally sprinkled about so that when you do fail a jump, you are seconds away from trying it again. Most jumps aren't fatal. Due to the lovely addition of wall climbing, you can recover from most clumsily timed jumps. Pits become opportunities for exploration, not death traps.

All of this contributes to a warm feeling of safety for the player. The game isn't out to punish them for playing and exploring. Instead, it is balanced so that the player is encouraged to try new things and see what happens. They can climb to the tallest peak and jump off to see where they land. In Mario, this is suicide. In Knytt, it is a joyful act of play that has very few negative consequences and a large potential reward. What if an adorable little village lay at the end of that epic jump?

This is perhaps one of the failings of Knytt's sequel, Knytt Stories. Enemies, ineffective as they might be, litter the landscape with much great frequency. The result is you play with a bit more paranoia and dab less experimentation. By increasing the immediate challenge, the player is less likely to engage in the more unique and accessible pleasures of exploration.

Layer difficulty
Perhaps paradoxically, Knytt Stories can be a brutally hard game. You can spend hours searching out the last secrets or grinding through a seemingly infinite set of new levels. Yet even a casual gamer can complete the main scenario in an evening or two without swearing once.

You don't need to sacrifice the hardcore audience in order to make your game accessible. Instead, you can layer the difficulty levels in the game. Here are some of the techniques that Knytt Stories uses to great effect.
  • Keys: Hidden in very secret places throughout the maps are keys. You can play through the game without noticing them at all. The expert player makes it their mission to find all of them.
  • Optional jumps: There are multiple paths through a level. The main paths are very low skill. The optional paths require higher skills to reach.
  • User created levels: By including a level editor, Nicklas encourages folks to make levels to their liking. The result is a slew of 'hard' and 'very hard' levels that skilled players can load at their leisure.
By designing all high difficulty challenges to be optional, Knytt Stories still maintains its accessibility to the new user without alienating the more advanced player. In fact, I'd recommend taking someone off the street that has never played a game in your genre and seeing if they can play through your title and reach the end. If they can't, try turning the difficult portions into optional expert challenges.

Accessibility issues
As accessible as Knytt is, it does have some issues that may hold it back from broader adoption. For one, the art style relies on a deep appreciation of old school pixel art aesthetics that may be difficult to grok for many game virgins. As someone from that culture, the game is gorgeous and highly evocative. I'm curious how it might appeal to people outside the gaming culture. I'd like to imagine that retro is cool these days, but I have no data to support such hopeful musings.

Secondly, the game lacks any sort of marketing or awareness. Nintendo and Microsoft can force a new game into the public consciousness with their lavish marketing campaigns. Knytt is a simple little game on an unassuming website. Its fans are a tiny community with few ties to the larger world.

It unfortunately doesn't matter how accessible you make your game play if people don't know about the game and fail to trial it.

I could go on and on about Knytt and Knytt Stories since they are rife with some truly great design decisions. This is the game that opened my eyes to the immense design possibilities still present in 2D platformer game mechanics. More generally, the design of Knytt points to one formula for resurrecting a dying genre.
  • Focus on accessibility: Serve the needs and skills of the broader audience, not the existing genre addicts.
  • Exploration, not traditional skill-based rewards: Build the game around broadly enjoyable activities like exploration and discovery of evocative places, not those that results from grokking advanced skills.
  • Minimize the traditional UI: Don't assume the standards are necessary or even desirable.
  • Allow for low cost experimentation: Build an atmosphere of safety and experimentation
  • Layer difficulty: Make the hardcore game play optional.
What would happen if you applied this formula to an RTS title? Or an adventure game? Or a FPS? I suspect you'd end up with a fascinating title that quite a few people would want to play.

As an experiment, tell your spouse about this game. Tell her (or him!) it is like reading a great children's story and will make her life better. If she enjoys it, ask her to tell all her friends about the game. Record those things about the game that she dislikes. This is great fodder for your future designs.

If I were Sony, Nintendo or the folks over at Xbox Live, I would be pounding on Nicklas' door with a juicy downloadable contract in hand. Add a spare programmer or two and a dash or marketing, and this game could easily turn into a breakthrough brand. That route may not embody the Nifflas philosophy, but at least he should have the opportunity.

take care


Evolving platform mechanics: It seems that there is a burbling of interest in the platform-esque game mechanics.
  • Braid: More traditional puzzle focused fare, albeit with quite original time-based mechanics.
  • Aquaria: Another upcoming 2d scroller that seems to have a bit of an exploration element. Perhaps not a traditional platformer, but I'm flexible.
  • Tree Story: A design sketch of my own that is a mix between Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon and a platform game. The movement technique need not determine the focus of the game.
Nifflas Games: Home of Knytt and Knytt Stories. Yes, both of them are completely free and provide a more memorable experience than easily 90% of the drek sold at Gamestop.
You can show your appreciation by donating directly to Nifflas using the link below. He runs an Open Kimono business, so you can see exactly how he spends his well earned gains. I think the word is 'frugally'