How Bayonetta’s developers think about action games

After Atsushi Inaba, producer at PlatinumGames, finished his presentation about action game design at GDC this year, I felt as if my brains had just been sucked out my ear, thrown in a tumble-dryer, and stuffed back inside in a completely different order. “I am never thinking about action games the same way ever again,” I told a friend. “Holy shit. I dunno. It’s like a whole new world.”

With stuff like Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101 in its back catalog, PlatinumGames has always felt to me like a studio that thinks differently about its work. Inaba’s talk was less about “how to design a good action game,” and more “how to think about action games so that you design them good.”

And the first observation he made, within literally the first two minutes of his talk, was this: PlatinumGames thinks that action games are inherently passive games. They’re not about taking action, they’re about responding to events. “Something happens in front of you and you react to it during a window of time. That is the basic structure,” he said. Even though they have the word “action” in the title, action games are all about putting the player into a passive position.

Adventure games and horror games are active games, he said, because “the input from the player happens first. So as I mentioned earlier, action games sound like a game where you are proactively and aggressively making the moves,” while horror games sound more passive. “In fact, they are the opposite.”

The art of making action games, Inaba insisted, was the art of creating situations for a player to respond to. “The most important thing is the design of these situations you’re going to be facing,” he said. “What kinds of situations do I want the players to face, and what do I want them to do? …in order to be able to design those situations, you must be able to imagine them visually in your head.”

Bayonetta deals with A Situation.

Bayonetta deals with A Situation.

He popped that line about visually imagining the battles in there because PlatinumGames actually doesn’t use traditional game developer design processes, like written-out design documents. They feel that the written word is not good at expressing the experience of actually playing an action game. “I can almost say that it’s not possible” to accurately describe an action game with words, he said.

“Because of that, [the game design team] do not usually decide on everything design related,” he explained. They might delegate certain design tasks to other groups in the studio, like VFX artists. They ask the different groups for ideas, and enjoy being surprised.

Inaba also talked about how PlatinumGames breaks down their philosophy for designing action games into six different “elements,” which he labelled A-G. A, B, and C are the “unique selling points” of the game. This is stuff like Witch Time in Bayonetta– “an element that can define the game.” Good games, he said, have at least three of these.

Second, he said, are elements which provide “expandability,” like new weapon or character unlocks. They’re elements which allow the player “to experience a different reaction if the situation is exactly the same,” and encourage them to try different things and play in different ways.

Finally, he said, there are elements which encourage depth. “It’s not as easy to give an example, but a combo system is definitely one,” he said. “By mastering their skills and being able to see how deep the system actually goes, players are able to develop their own style of play.”

Inaba used the following image to demonstrate how casual, mid-level, and hardcore players would engage with these different features. If a player fully experiences all of the game’s selling points, expandability features, and depth elements, they’ll probably be really good– the kind of player who thinks of themselves as a “god among mortals” when they play the game.

Inaba’s seven-point system had me thinking about my favorite action games, trying to identify the “unique selling points” of games like Dark Souls. (The Humanity mechanic? The ‘Souls’ economy? Its unique PVP system?) Inaba talked about how it was particularly difficult to design these selling points when working on a series game, because systems can get ingrained, and players can grow to expect them to return with each entry in the series. It’s tempting, he said, to build a game around systems like these when you’re working on a series title. “However that’s not how it works. The priority should really be on designing the situations first,” he insisted. He seemed to be insisting that you should be willing to toss core features out of a series title if they don’t fit the “situations” you’re imagining for your player. I doubt many action game designers– even the designers of really good ones, like the Souls games– think about their artistic process this way.

Inaba had a few things to say about game stories, too. Game stories, he said, aren’t really all that important. “What’s important isn’t the story, but the motivation. That’s all you need,” he said. Game levels, he insisted, must be designed first, and the story must be applied later. Stories exist mostly as “a pocket or filler that encourages the player to jump into the next situation.” That, and rest their hands a little bit! (Frankly, if this is the way story works at PlatinumGames, I am no longer surprised by how bizarre the first hour of Bayonetta is.)

Inaba finished his talk with some really complicated diagrams and formulas showing the weird math that underpins how PlatinumGames thinks about level difficulty in games. The greatest risk, he said, is that the player becomes “numb” and worn out by the challenge of the stuff they’re doing. The player perception of a level’s challenge and difficulty is actually different than its actual difficulty– their impression of it is affected by the learning they’ve done and the challenges they’ve already completed. He said that increasing difficulty linearly makes players barely notice the increases, but dropping and raising difficulty in unusual ways can help them rest between challenges and feel better about all the ass they’re kicking. At the end of the talk, his presentation looked like this:

Listening to Inaba talk about action games like this was honestly pretty mindblowing. When his talk goes up on the Game Developers’ Conference ‘vault’– a site dedicated to hosting certain talks from old GDCs– I’m going to be recommending it to a lot of really intense action game players I know. It’s important for developers to listen to this kind of stuff, but for fans of the genre, talks like this can give a really enlightening, rewarding glimpse into the brains of the people who come up with the stuff they love.