on Jul 4, 2010
Zak McKracken comments on Dance Dance Revolution:
Somehow I don’t get these games: Guitar Hero and DDR and whatnot are just giant quicktime events, yet Shamus apparently likes them. (WTF? You spent so many words telling us how silly quicktime events were).
One of the stupid and mind-numbing things about quicktime events is that they’re strictly pass / fail. You either press the right button or you don’t, and one successful run will look exactly like any other. You’re not making any choices or contributing anything. You’re just pressing a really inconvenient “no” button when the game asks you if you would like to die now. Quicktime events are often constructed around the Do it Again, Stupid school of game design. They pop up suddenly when you aren’t expecting them and appear in a sequence designed to trip you up.
Game: Alpha, Beta, Alpha, Beta, Alpha... now what comes next! Quick!
Game: Wrong! It was "porcupine"! Muahahahaha!
Player: But, that’s not even…
Game: You are dead. Want to try again?
This isn’t the case with DDR. It’s not a binary pass / fail affair, because it’s grading you on your ratio of hits & misses, not bringing the whole show to an end if you miss one. The sequences also have a rhythm and flow to them, and you can see the notes coming a couple of seconds in advance. It’s about planning ahead, not about staring fixedly at the screen waiting for the next reflex test.
It would be nice if they came one directly after another with an overall time limit, so that acing one would give you more time for subsequent steps and hesitating wouldn’t be a guaranteed failure – it would just mean that you’d have to do the next couple of steps that much faster. This is pretty much how the Mass Effect lockpicking worked. It’s still a terrible and uninteresting stand-in for genuine gameplay, but at least the experience won’t be completely binary.
But the big draw for me in DDR is that you have quite a bit of freedom. You could give the same song to ten different people and get ten different performances, even if they all got the same score. Some people leap around wildly. Some seem to hover in the middle of the pad and their legs dart out from under them to hit the buttons. Some people barely lift their feet. Some (like me) are “stompers”. Some people memorize the performance and then showboat through the song, spinning around and not even looking at the screen. Others stare intently at the screen the entire time. Some people favor a dominant leg, others share the load equally between legs.
Even if you’re doing the same song again and again, you can mix things up to keep things interesting.
DDR usually isn’t trying to fool or confuse you, and spotting a pattern will help you instead of making you more susceptible to the next porcupine.
Up Up Right Pause
Right Right Down Pause
Down down Left pause
You can feel the next steps coming in this sequence without needing to look at the board. Just stay with the beat. (Okay, there are a few songs in there with gotcha-ish moments, but they aren’t as infuriating since missing a DDR step is a lot less infuriating than “you are dead, try again”.
And finally, there’s a lot of appeal to getting your body involved in a game. Air hockey is certainly more engaging than pong, despite them having basically the same mechanics.
I’m not suggesting that these games have depth to rival X-Com or Civilization, but I do think they’re more robust and interesting than a quicktime sequence.
For those of you curious how I’m coming along at this:
I’m still struggling to make the leap from 2nd tier difficulty to 3rd. I’ve scored an “A” on almost everything on 2nd, and I have yet to even complete a song on 3rd. I really, really wish there was another difficulty between these two. I’m probably going to have to make my own steps for a song so I can get a feel for eighth notes, because the game isn’t giving me a chance to learn them in isolation.
Also, I need more fitness. Now that I’m on 2nd tier, I’m burning a lot more energy and thus getting a lot more tired. I’m pretty much useless after half an hour, which is putting a limit on how much practice I can get in a single day.
And one final note on building muscle memory:
I’ve suspected for a long time that muscle memory develops even when you’re not directly practicing. I’ll do a song over and over on one day and get mostly “C” grades with the occasional “B”. Then the next day I’ll come back and try that song again, right off the bat, without even warming up, and end up scoring “AA”. Double A means you did the entire song without a single mis-step and is a lot harder than simply getting an A. Somehow I got better at the game overnight. Or at least at the songs I was practicing the day before.
At first I attributed this to being tired, but that doesn’t seem to fit with observation. If I had been physically rejuvenated the day before I still don’t think I would have been capable of scoring a “AA”, no matter how much energy I had in my legs. The problem was with my ability to anticipate the movements and be in the right position at the right time. Now I’m suspecting that stuff is going on in the brain during the time away from the game. This has interesting implications for game designers who are introducing gamers to something completely new. There is a limit to how much stuff a player can absorb in a given day or playing session, and even brute-force practice can’t jam too much learning into someone all at once. No matter how hard teacher and student may work, it takes time.
The brain is a funny thing, innit?
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.