The Game Design Holy Grail

How Magic The Gathering & Nintendo Utilize Lenticular Design

Commentary - The Game Design Holy Grail

Gino Grieco is an aspiring game designer and freelance writer. His central focus is how games communicate meaning through mechanics. He’s also an aspiring gaming literature teacher (assuming that will be a real job some day).

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Two of my favorite pastimes are playing videogames and Magic: The Gathering (MTG). I’ve been playing videogames since I was eight and I picked up MTG at the tender age of eleven. After more than a decade of playing and loving MTG, I can firmly say that the world’s number one trading card game has had a profound effect on how I think about games.  Furthermore, MTG taught me many valuable lessons about game design.  There are a host of lessons and philosophies I could translate from MTG to videogames and back again, but the philosophy that I find the most interesting at the moment is lenticular design.

Lenticular Design

Lenticular design is a game design philosophy that was coined by Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of MTG, who refers to Magic cards that “appear on their surface to be very simple, but once you understand more about how to use them, they become more complex.” Common wisdom dictates that most, if not all, cards become simpler as a player becomes more experienced, since experienced players have internalized mechanics that new players have to painstakingly process. However, Rosewater finds that this assumption does not hold true in practice. He points out, “some complexity is hidden, because it requires certain knowledge to even be aware of it.” For MTG cards, the type of complexity that is often hidden to new players on lenticular cards is strategic complexity (this complexity revolves around how different cards can be strategically employed in the concert with other cards).  Rosewater writes that “The real ghost of complexities for less-experienced players is strategic complexity. Because it requires a lot of knowledge to understand context, strategic complexity can take players quite a while to start seeing.” New MTG players are often unaware of huge swaths of cards and interactions, so they are not burdened with some of the decisions that experienced players can easily see.

For example, the cards Centaur Courser and Invasive Species both look functionally identical to a new player. Both cards cost the exact same amount of mana, have the same power and toughness, and are in the same MTG set. The one difference between the two cards is that Invasive Species requires its owner to return a card to their hand when they cast it. To a new player this difference looks small and irrelevant; the new player largely cares about the fact that both of these cards are 3/3s for 3 mana. However, an experienced player will use Invasive Species because of its ability to return a card to your hand.  Invasive Species combines well with cards that benefit from being cast multiple times, so experienced players will focus on that interaction. While both cards look simple and almost identical to a new player, one (Invasive Species) offers an experienced player room to play and explore. For MTG, lenticular cards are the Holy Grail of accessibility and depth: they are cards where the complexity and depth scales with a player’s experience level. Consequently, lenticular cards appear accessible and simple to new players who need simplicity, and also offer complex choices to experienced players who crave depth, thereby fulfilling the desires of one group without trampling on the needs of the other.  While I have never heard this design concept used in a videogame context before (save for the last time I wrote about it), I do believe that there is a company that has mastered this form of design: Nintendo.

invasive species

Nintendo is regarded by many as the Disney of videogames for plenty of reasons, from its family friendly image to its gaggle of reliable and constantly reused franchises. However, the biggest similarity that I see between the two companies is their ability to make content that simultaneously appeals to kids and adults. Disney maintains this balance through a mix of clever writing, music, and nostalgia, and Nintendo liberally skims from the same playbook. While it is easy to fall into the trap of dismissing Nintendo’s success as purely the result of pandering to nostalgic fans, Nintendo’s core design philosophies are as responsible for its fan acquisition and retention as its mustachioed superstar and his green dinosaur.  I believe that one of the secrets to Nintendo’s masterful blend of accessibility and depth is its de facto use of lenticular design. Though I doubt that many Nintendo developers are familiar with this heretofore MTG specific design concept, many of Nintendo’s core franchises have mechanics and ideas that make a lot of sense when viewed through the lens of lenticular design. From Mario to Kirby to Super Smash Brothers to Captain Toad, each of these franchises makes tremendous use of lenticular design to keep themselves accessible to newcomers and engaging to experienced players.

Lenticular design was discovered by Mark Rosewater during one of MTG’s biggest financial scares. After some especially complex sets were released in 2006 and 2007, Wizards of the Coast found that MTG was losing new players.  Rosewater believed that the cause of this player drop-off was dangerously high levels of complexity. Rosewater writes, “We decided to cap the level of complexity at common because beginning players on average buy fewer boosters and thus a great percentage of cards that are relevant to them are common. By making the threshold for complexity at common lower, we were simplifying the game for beginners, and thus lowering the barrier to entry, while still keeping the more advanced cards in the game.” One of the key drivers of lenticular design is the fact that MTG’s designers cannot fully control which cards users see and when, and instead have to design cards with multiple audiences in mind at all times. Therefore, one of the key factors to using lenticular design is hiding complexity in organic ways rather than using artificial restraints, since those artificial restraints largely do not exist in MTG. Gating complex abilities or levels behind constructs like leveling systems or story progression is not an option, so lenticular design is another attempt at solving the complexity issue.

Secrets & Collectibles

In keeping with the principles I’ve described, Nintendo tends to be a bit subtler when it hides complexity. For example, Nintendo platformers utilize features like hidden level exits to hide complex mechanical interactions or unintuitive level design from new players. For a new player, the main objective of almost any level in a Nintendo platformer is to run to the right until she/he reaches an exit. It is entirely possible to beat a Mario or Kirby game by sticking to the main path, and there is no penalty for missing any secret content. Instead, there is a bonus reward for players that are clever enough to perceive the secrets hidden in plain sight in Mario and Kirby levels. A new player often has little ability to recognize potential hidden exits or secret rooms. Yet, those rooms lurk in unexplored pipes, behind breakable blocks, and high in the clouds. Nintendo allows experienced players to immediately pursue the increased challenge of finding every Warp Whistle and Secret Switch without beating new players over the head with the fact that there are challenges they cannot yet overcome. Rather than forcing every player down one difficult and confusing path, Nintendo platformers hide many of their best challenges far enough away from the main path that players (that do not use game guides or walkthroughs) naturally stumble across them as they replay old games and improve their skills. When a new Mario game comes out, experienced players know to be on the lookout for secret exits and other obscure content, while new players enjoy a platformer that is challenging but not daunting. This element of Mario and Kirby level design falls in line with one of the six basic rules that Rosewater outlines for lenticular design: “Rule#6 – Let the Players Play the Game They Want to Play.” Mario games are beloved by people of all ages and experience levels because their complexity and difficulty scale with the player’s experience with the franchise, no difficulty slider required.

Secret exits and hidden switches are a subtle way for Nintendo platformers to hide complexity, but there is also a more direct complexity masker in Nintendo’s game development arsenal: the collectable. It’s important to mention that I am not talking about the average, everyday coins that fill many Nintendo games. Ordinary coins and their equivalents (gems in Kirby’s Epic Yarn or rupees in The Legend of Zelda) act as shiny bread crumbs that guide players through Nintendo platformers and action games.  When I talk about collectables in this case I am talking about the big coins, flowers, and gems that populate games like New Super Mario Bros, Yoshi’s Island, and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Since the SNES era, the Mario series has employed special collectables that are hidden in the margins of every level, rather than on the critical path. These special collectables are often hidden behind the types of tricky jumps, warp pipes, and secret triggers that a new player might not even recognize. While big coins and gems are often simple to find in the first few levels of every Nintendo platformer, they quickly become harder and harder to find until collecting them is a hefty challenge. The developers give new players a quick taste of collecting these bonus items before ratcheting up the difficulty of attaining these digital trinkets. Furthermore, these games tell the player how many collectables exist in each level so that every player knows how many secret collectables they may have missed. By including secret collectables, the developers of these games effectively add an additional level of depth and challenge  without hugely impacting new players’ experiences. A new player can focus entirely on getting to the end of levels without interacting with collectables at all, since every found collectable is a reward or a bonus for a new player, rather than something to actively seek out. However, for an experienced player the main challenge in a Mario or Donkey Kong game is collecting all of the hidden stuff; beating the level and collecting stars is a matter of course. Consequently, experienced players and new players actually play quite different games when they approach a Nintendo game with special collectables. A new player plays a straightforward platformer that is about getting from the start to the finish of every level necessary to reach the final boss.  Experienced players play a game full of exploration and subtle cues, scouring for the treasures that fuel the game within the game.

‘Let Players Play the Game They Want to Play’

Though I’ve focused primarily on platformers until now, Nintendo does not confine its use of lenticular design to one genre. Nintendo also utilizes lenticular design in its flagship fighting franchise, Super Smash Bros. (SSB). SSB remains one of the most accessible fighting games on the market, and that is not due to a lack of complexity or exceptionally intuitive controls. Rather, SSB expertly employs lenticular design in its modes and mechanics; Super Smash Bros. actually follows most of Rosewater’s six basic rules for lenticular design. The first rule of lenticular design is “Some Complexities are Invisible to Inexperienced Players,” and Super Smash Bros. actually manages to hide a bunch of complexities that most ordinary fighting games force players to learn. For example, special moves do not require complex inputs in SSB.

In other 2D fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, every special move requires a combination of joystick and button presses to execute.  SSB almost completely removes this layer of execution complexity. Every move in SSB is done by holding a direction and pressing a button, with smash moves requiring some additional joystick and button timing (though even that is mitigated because smash attacks are mapped to a secondary joystick on most Nintendo controllers). SSB’s developers are able to include more diverse attacks and wacky behaviors because executing those moves is simple and universal.  Rule number two of lenticular design is that “Cards Have to Have a Surface Value,” and SSB follows this rule with its attacks for the most part. Most attacks in SSB have an immediate and clear damage effect that new players can understand. The only attacks that can be confusing are deliberate counter attacks (because they do nothing if they are not properly timed) and attacks that simply push or reposition characters (because they do no damage).  Compare this to games like BlazBlue, where there are entire mechanics that seem to do nothing at first glance; a new player has little to no chance to understand how Tager’s magnetism mechanic works or why you would want to blow people around with Rachel’s wind move. This is because new players don’t understand the strategic depth behind positioning as readily as they understand attacks that do damage.

While SSB obeys rules three through five of lenticular design in some ways, its adherence to rule six is what makes it so much more accessible than other fighting games. Rule six is about letting players play the game they want to play, and Rosewater explains its importance by writing,

The key to good game design is creating a game that maximizes the players doing what they want to do…  For beginners, that means you want them to cast as many cards as possible and have things happen that they understand and enjoy.

For advanced players, you are trying to give them the tools to win, but you do not need to be nearly as blunt. In fact, the more experienced players want to feel as if the designer is giving them the resources to create their own experience. They don’t want to feel led down a path, but rather, given a giant map to explore.

The trick to lenticular cards is making cards that fill both roles. Make cards that don’t get in the way of the beginner playing them but enable the advanced player to have options.

All of the Super Smash Bros. games are multiplayer, arena-based fighting games, and their primary mode of play in non-tournament situations is a four to eight player free-for-all. While the multiplayer aspects of the game lend some amount of chaos to the gameplay, the default multiplayer mode amplifies that chaos so that every player can have fun regardless of skill level. The game’s default item setting is to have all items turned on, and its default scoring setting is a three minute timed battle. Those settings allow for maximum randomness and maximum fun for a new player who has no idea what she/he is doing.  Many of the items in Super Smash Bros. are incredibly strong and hit large areas of the screen, thereby allowing players to get kills and score points without playing especially well. Things like assist trophies and pokéballs have random effects that are capable of racking up multiple kills all by themselves. These items allow new players to have fun and compete to some extent, without understanding mechanics that experienced players focus on. Mechanics like edgeguarding, recovering, spiking, and wavedashing are beyond most new players, but knowledge of that hidden complexity and depth does not give the average Super Smash Bros. player an insurmountable advantage in the default mode.

The default settings in SSB are specifically set up to maximize the fun for players across the broadest range of experience levels. A player who is fluent in SSB can coax more fluid movement and impenetrable defense out of any SSB character using dodges and proper shielding, but a new player does not have to understand any of that to have fun knocking their friends into the stratosphere. When you compare SSB to other fighting games the difference becomes even more apparent.  A new Street Fighter player has a zero percent chance of winning or even enjoying a game against an expert in the default game mode, whereas a multiplayer game of SSB in the default mode is a chaotic flurry that almost anyone can enjoy. While SSB becomes a sort of fighting game jazz full of fluid movement and improvised combos when played at a high level, it is still a ball of wonderful, fun chaos for new players, and that is thanks to its use of lenticular design.

Conclusion

One of Nintendo’s biggest accomplishments as a company is in its ability to appeal to the sensibilities of multiple demographics simultaneously, and its de facto use of lenticular design is a big contributor to this success. Nintendo has demonstrated an ability to teach without handholding and to challenge without alienating. With this in mind, it is a bit disconcerting when Nintendo games go out of their way to force tutorials and remove challenges. Things like the autopilot mode in New Super Mario Bros Wii and the Invincibility Leaf in Super Mario 3D Land cater to newer players by removing the need for new players to adapt to the game. These mechanics aid newer players, not by teaching players how to overcome a difficult challenge, but by removing the challenge entirely. Measures like this feel condescending to experienced players that have hit a difficult spot in the game and only serve to increase the divide between experienced and new players. Nintendo does not need to invent such overt mechanics to lessen the difficulty and complexity of their games. Lenticular design offers an alternative that the company is already quite familiar with. It turns out that the world’s most successful trading card game and some of the most beloved videogames of all time share some game design secret sauce. It just so happens that this secret sauce changes its flavor depending on who tastes it.