This Isn’t Your Aunt’s Soulcalibur

Or, Emergent Gameplay and You

By now most people who play games have at least heard of emergent gameplay as an idea, even if they haven’t looked for the effects themselves.

Not that I require anyone to read an entire wikipedia page before moving into the second paragraph of an article. I’ll lay out the basics here as well.

The term emergent gameplay is used to describe either planned or unplanned complexity that results from smaller elements that build upon each other and form deeper gameplay and strategies, with examples in every genre of competitive games.

As Defence of the Ancients is my go-to subject for this sort of thing I don’t see any point stopping that trend now when it’s most appropriate: As a mod, DotA borrowed systems from Warcraft 3 and warped them in ways that eventually made it so distinct it spawned its own genre.

Here’s an example that most people should be familiar with: last hitting and denying. This actually came directly from ladder Warcraft 3, where players had already learned that killing off their own units in fights would prevent their opponents from getting the experience, starting a sort of cat-and-mouse gameplay where players rarely engaged in direct battles. In DotA this concept was as applicable, so that while fighting against the other players, especially early in the the games, it was obvious that one player could kill their own team’s creeps before their opponent could, preventing them from getting experience (at least partially) and gold.

But there’s another half to this equation, one that depends on a subtler manipulation of Warcraft 3’s mechanics. That is, not every hero in DotA attacks the same way, either differing in range, projectile speed, and even their initial swinging animations. From this emerged better support heroes, ones who could stay in a lane and deny creeps from their opponents while their partner got creep kills, and an entire metagame around mid-lane dominance as heroes with better attack animations (and damage) had huge advantages, allowing good players to effectively shut their opponents down and stop them from gaining gold and experience, which negates the purpose of putting them in the solo lane to begin with. It became a balance mechanic, where heroes with bad animations have a much harder time getting gold early game, keeping them in check.

These mechanics became so important that when DotA was moved to a new, stand-alone engine and finally had the chance to divorce itself from all of Warcraft 3’s mechanics, every aspect of last hitting, denying, and attack animations were ported over faithfully.

What we end up with are integral parts of one of the biggest competitive games on the planet coming about because that was the way Warcraft 3’s engine worked when they were introduced. Through refinement and evolution they grew from restrictions to the building blocks of a much larger and deeper metagame.

There are dozens of other examples, from strafe jumping in Quake to the most basic 2-in-1s from Street Fighter that began the roll toward combos in fighting games. The point is that a competitive game is rarely the sum of its parts.

Soulcalibur 5

What does this mean for Soulcalibur 5? It means that what we think we see isn’t what we’ll get. This became increasingly obvious when I saw gameplay from the Japanese Project Soul stream and compared it to the many French gameplay videos that had come before. The approaches to the game had huge differences, and I think it’s worth repeating that the single biggest change to the game is also the most significant.

The Critical Gauge matters, and it’s time to start thinking with that. But it matters in ways that are more than the immediacy of Critical Edges and Brave Edges. The subtler repercussions are as important and interesting as the big ones.

Let’s take a simple example, one that should make the inclusion of the previous section about emergent gameplay actually seem sensible: teching (ukemi) builds meter. In fact, it builds a lot of meter.

Why is that particularly important? For the same reason that people spent hours in Soulcalibur 4’s training mode trying to figure out how long it takes each move to cause a Soul Break when blocked. A new system demands that we look at the game from a new angle.

Soulcalibur has had tech traps for a while now, but outside of those what were the benefits of teching? For laying on the ground? How automatic was it for most players to tech in most situations? What was the real loss for a character who had very poor tech trap options? How much worse off would Soulcalibur 4 Mina be with this new system?

If you’re playing against a Nightmare or a Siegfried, when do you tech? How badly do you need that meter? If you’re using a character with negligible options for preventing teching then how much free meter is your opponent going to get every round, and how well can they use it?

What has been obvious to everyone is that the way players will use meter 4 weeks after Soulcalibur 5’s release will be markedly different than how they use it when they first get their hands on it, but what about building that meter in the first place? If a particularly meter-hungry character goes up against someone who can’t even stop them from teching whenever they want, then how will that match be skewed? In fact, how much will the entire oki game be changed when every player knows that teching might get them that extra section of meter they need to activate their Critical Edge.

Suddenly the risk vs. rewards computations have a new factor to consider, and it isn’t a small one. Think about the supposedly 50/50 guessing game that takes place every time a character lands a normal throw. Why is the decision for which throw to break more than which button your finger is closest to? Because every throw has additional effects on top of the damage they do, be it a ring out to one side, or a position change, or just slightly more damage. When those are added to the process things aren’t as simple as they appear on the surface.

Tangentially, this may be the positive and negative reinforcement that is required to get players to pay attention to the game at a basic mechanical level. It will also become even more important to learn when and where it’s safe to tech, which direction to do it in, and how not to get relaunched.

This example represents only the first few degrees of angling toward the heights of complexity, and since I enjoy brutalizing metaphors, depth. I’m sure other people have already noticed mechanical changes that will effect the game as much or more than the one I described here, and I’m just as sure that more will be discovered before and after Soulcalibur 5 is released. For the players, for people who enjoy digging through mechanics and discovering these intricacies, the drastic changes being made in Soulcalibur 5 should be approached with an open mind, because the ones who stubbornly cling to old methods will be left at base camp. And since I actually don’t partake in any form of mountain climbing myself, that’s the summit of the metaphor, and I’m done.

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