My Favorite Design Word: VisceralBy Danny Nissenfeld
So I’m playing Android games again.
I wanted an RPG so I downloaded “HIT” from Nexon. I’ve always been a fan of Nexon’s designs from a mechanical perspective. Like most Korean and Chinese games, they devolve into pay to win PvP or pay to avoid the grind PvE systems with the emphasis on the “pay” part, but I knew what I was getting into.
It took a bit of a turn almost immediately. While I was expecting the endless amounts of nag screens and a lengthy tutorial mode with its “spend your money” narrative when I got through the initial controls stage something oddly familiar happened. I was given a login reward (actually 2 of them) and immediately handed an “immortal” class weapon. Think standard MMORPG item classes (common, uncommon, rare, epic, legendary) with one extra on top.
My ~35 damage common newbie scythe was replaced by a ~100,000 damage immortal weapon. I also obtained a legendary class chest piece which similarly was exponentially stronger giving me tens of thousands of hit points. This broke the game. It broke the game in so many ways.
The tutorial continued trying to teach me about equipment “enhancement” and rankings. It tried to get me to use the rare scythe it granted me saying it was an upgrade to my common scythe when in fact it was 99,500 points worse than what I was wielding.
Storymode is also a bit of a joke right now. The game has an “auto mode” where it plays itself—and the game plays itself so much more efficiently than I can. It is dealing 1000x more damage per hit than it needs to, even on chapter bosses. It forces me to pause and reflect.
Why should I continue playing this game?
The game is literally playing itself. I feel like I am hours of watching a game play itself from a point where my mechanical skill might mean anything at all. By then I’ll have no idea how my class skills function or what the real difference between a faster versus a stronger weapon might be. There are plenty of autoplaying games in the clicker genre (like A Girl Adrift, which is a brilliant auto-mode game).
Principally, it also reminded me of something that happened with Vindictus. Vindictus is a brilliant system; or at least it was, because I can’t tell what it is now.
When Vindictus was first localized I immediately jumped on it. It is an instanced action RPG built in the Source game engine (originally)—so, a full physics ARPG. The gameplay at the time of launch was quite unique. Attacks felt like they mattered and carried weight. It was an extraordinarily visceral game, much like the Diablo series. My chosen main at the time was the sword and shield woman, and she had a charge attack that was a forward kick that felt like a wrecking ball. Enemies would go flying across the stage. She had shield bashes, and could stand ground by defending. It felt amazing to play. The primary reason I stopped was you eventually get into content that is grouping-required, and I could not run the game in a group. My machine just fell apart trying to render that in real time.
Sometime later on, I re-tried Vindictus. Immediately upon recovering my account I was granted tons of free upgraded gear and a 30-day trial of subscription based legendary weapons.
The game was no longer Visceral.
All the new gear made the content I was on pointless. I could spin attack entire rooms of enemies to death in one shot. Goblins and whatever other things are in the game now ragdolled everywhere like King Kong playing with Kewpie dolls. I uninstalled immediately. If I’m being honest, I was saddened by the experience.
What makes a game visceral?
There’s a lot of design that goes into “viscerality.” Quite a bit of it can be sound and visual design. Diablo has classically had an extremely visceral feel due to its gory nature. Gore is not just the sight of bodies being cleaved in two, or heads being chopped off, though. It’s that solid wet sound your sword or axe makes when it hits a zombie. That burning noise of the spreading flames of a wall of fire, or the harsh light of a holy smite. The metallic clang and fleshy thud of a hammer hitting something.
Visceral is more than visual and auditory design. It is experiential design; and that’s what HIT and Vindictus were getting wrong. This is what we have to work with in text. When combat is too easy or too predictable, it becomes less visceral.
Surviving a fight by 1 hit point might not even be a visceral experience. It might be frustrating. Think about how you describe what’s happening in a fight. If your system is described purely as “hit” or “miss,” it isn’t going to be visceral.
Missing feels really, really bad. It is self-depreciative .
They didn’t dodge, or parry, or shield block. You specifically did not hit the target. What if you always hit the target, but something else happened? What if you were hitting their armor? What if, instead of full misses, you were only barely missing, and managed to shave off 1 HP instead of 20 with a glancing blow?
Surviving a fight with all your hit points probably also isn’t a visceral experience—unless you’re playing a horde massacre game like Diablo. Combat should be designed to take a bit of time, unless you’re wildly overpowered compared to your enemy or you’ve taken loads of preparation time.
Your descriptions of how the fight is progressing should convey the weight of what’s going on. Use visceral adjectives and adverbs like SMASH , CRUSH , and GUT. Use auditory sting words like CLANG when attacks are parried. Try to limit attacks per round, except in extraordinary circumstances like flurry skills/triggers.
Most of all, make choices meaningful in the overall design. If someone chooses to punch instead of kick, or use a sword instead of a knife, make that mean something to what’s going on. Coding in a dozen clone spells or attacks with one or two word differences in their output makes combat boring.
Making everything meaningful should be the goal in all design.