Aside from analyzing game mechanics and talking about ideas, one of my goals with this blog is to shine a spotlight on examples of great game design ideas. I was reading some game developer interviews over the weekend and I believe I found one such example. First, a little background.
Anyone who’s played Mario Kart is probably familiar with the dreaded blue shell. If not, its an item given to a trailing racer that they can send off to attack the player currently in first place. Despite what some people will tell you, this item is not a guaranteed hit anymore and can be guarded if your timing is right. The problem is that not everybody has perfect timing and getting hit with a blue shell usually happens at the worst possible moment (like seconds from the finish line). I understand the purpose of the item is to keep races unpredictable and give less-skilled players a fighting chance but ultimately, if you are a skilled Mario Kart racer, it usually just feels like you’re being punished.
Some recent kart racers have tried to remedy this type of problem by allowing their racers to have some form of defense; most notably Modnation Racers and it’s shield mechanic. This type of mechanic brings on a problem all of it’s own though. Any player who is good enough at building up power for their shield/boost meter (which isn’t that hard to do) can block just about anything that is thrown their way. Basically, it helps widen the gap between the player in first and the players behind them. Its almost on the opposite end of the blue shell spectrum because now the skilled players seem to have all of the advantage, making it harder for a casual player to feel competitive. So, what is the happy middle ground to fix this problem?
Well, it sounds like the team at Sumo Digital may have come up with a simple and intuitive sounding mechanic that falls somewhere in between. I was reading an article where one of the developers was answering fan questions about the new game and, like clockwork, someone asked about a blue shell type weapon being in the game. The developer answered with the following:
“As if we’d put in a Blue Shell. A little faith guys! What it does is drop things in front of first place, you can avoid them, but even doing that will slow you down. It doesn’t however hit you in an unstoppable way with (hardly any) means of defense.”
I read this and was almost immediately hit with a why-hasn’t-anyone-thought-of-this-before feeling (if they have, I apologize. I’ve never encountered it). Now, obviously I haven’t had a chance to try this for myself but, on paper, this sounds like a perfect way of bridging the gap between the two previous examples. Casual players will have a potentially game changing item at their disposal to help them get back into the action but not at the expense of a skilled player’s perfectly played race.
There are some questions that immediately come to mind about how well this method will actually work. How easy is it to avoid these items? If it’s too easy then there’s no point; too hard and we’re back where we started. How often will trailing players get the items? Just how much does it slow you down to avoid it? These are all balancing questions though. Things I fully expect the guys/gals at Sumo Digital to figure out before release. But amidst all of the silly “copycat” talk that is surrounding Sonic & All-Stars Racing: Transformed, I wanted to single out just one of the simple, yet inventive, ways Sumo Digital is tackling the kart genre and one of its’ annoyances that has plagued it for well over a decade.