Focus, variety and a blue hedgehog.

Creating multiple gameplay experiences shouldn’t turn the game as a whole into something forgettable. There is a fine line between variety and chaos. Having each distinct experience feel as being a part of a cohesive whole is my goal with Bombs Away.

The best example of how hard it can be to add variety is the Sonic series of games. Sega has routinely tried to add variety through different gameplay styles. What generally is considered the focus of most Sonic games is speed and momentum based gameplay. This focus however creates a problem for developers, as it requires developers to create lots of content which see relatively little actual play. The first attempt by Sega to add variety to Sonic was to create multiple levels of play in a given stage, often having slower and easier routes lower thus allowing players to drop to a lower difficulty within the same stage.

Scale of 2D sonic levels

Creating increasingly bigger stages however isn’t a very efficient use of resources, due to this Sega decided to add more variety though movement options rather than volume of content in later games, with Tails’ flying ability and later Knuckle’s gliding and climbing ability at the cost of some speed. This allowed Sega to reuse all or most of a created level for Sonic and allowed the player to traverse a stage in a different method, in essence multiplying the amount of gameplay experience a player can have without the need to multiply the amount of levels without giving up the feeling of a Sonic game.

How did Sega translate this into the move to 3D? Sonic’s first jump into 3D with Sonic Adventure give players access to 6 different characters: Sonic with it’s speed platforming based gameplay, Tails similar to Sonic but retain his ability to fly, Knuckles trading in speed based gameplay for a treasure hunt in large open stages, Amy having slower platforming, E-102 was based on a shooting gallery and Big’s gameplay being a fishing game… Over the years one of the most controversial elements of Sonic Adventure was these multiple characters as Sega tried to use the same levels for all these characters. Using multiple characters in the same levels allows developers to reuse art and design assets, but if it’s not done carefully it can water down the game. You can’t assume that a level created for fast platforming also works for slow platforming, a treasure hunt, a shooting gallery and fishing. It also didn’t help that players where forced to play all these characters to complete the game.

A level created to facilitate a slow shooting gallery and fast platforming gameplay

This is a problem earlier 2D Sonic games avoided as they treated their different characters as different variants rather than as completely different games. The levels still felt intended for the character, where as with Sonic Adventure this wasn’t the case. Furthermore creating levels that are required to work for both speed based gameplay, a treasure hunt and a shooting gallery limits the design space for all of them. This is however resolved in later 3D sonic games as each gameplay style is given it’s own level, but that didn’t help Sonic games in their focus and all suffered similar problems up until Sonic Colors a decade after Sonic Adventure.

Sonic Colors keeps the focus of it’s gameplay on speed an mobility by giving Sonic multiple movement options. To add variety Sega added the Whisps, which are context sensitive power-ups that give sonic added mobility options he normally doesn’t have. These whisps are rarely needed to complete a stage or the game but add a level of replayability, backtracking and depth as they can open alternative routes and alternative ways of tackling a stage. Which is different to how the 2D sonic games add variety, but with the same core idea of giving players more movement options.

The big difference between these 2 ways of adding variety is that one builds on top of it’s core focus while the other treats each form of variety of gameplay more as a separate game than part of one cohesive whole. Of course the Sonic series isn’t the only game series with variety, both good and bad. The question I have to ask myself as a developer when adding variety in any of my games is:

“Does adding this form of variety build on top of the core focus or does it water it down?”

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