The Two Conflicting Halves of SSX

SSX has two games inside it – an original, single-player design and a much more interesting score-chasing multiplayer game that I suspect was added later. Unfortunately, some key, seemingly-minor decisions made to make the single-player game work led to some really bad choices that hurt the multiplayer.

The game was rolled out as SSX: Deadly Descents. The focus of the game, as communicated in the title and the game’s presentation, was on courses that were, well, deadly. That is, courses where the primary challenge is successfully completing the – made difficult via things like bottomless pits, or low-oxygen, or attack helicopters – rather than on speed or trick-score as in a traditional SSX game. This is an inherently a single-player design – it’s you versus the environment. Note that the longevity of the game comes from making the courses hard; the idea is to make the player try and try again to finish the courses, because once they’ve beat them all, there’s not much to come back to.

Later on (following the success of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, I suspect) the focus shifted away from the Deadly Descents and onto score-chasing multiplayer. Now, what makes a good score-chasing game? First of all, you want as many people contributing scores as often as possible. That way, whenever someone completes a new run, they’ll have lots of friends who have completed it to compare their scores to. You also want there to be lots of opportunities for small, incremental refinements to runs. That way, there’s a feeling of learning and improving and getting better. It also means that people are more likely to just beat or fall short of their friend’s scores by a little beat, leading to the sort of one-upmanship and rivalry that makes the best score-chasing memorable. Note that in this case, the longevity comes from finishing the same courses again and again; your friend beats your time in a race, so you go back to that race to try to get him back.

So here’s where things go off the rails for the game, because the decisions that were locked in to support the single-player game hurt the multiplayer. The oddest decision is not to have single-player times count for score-chasing. It’s the same tracks with the same equipment. The only hiccup I can see is that sometimes in single-player there are other AI snowboarders, and so if a player collided with one of them, it would be technically challenging to relay that information in the ghost that would be used for score-chasing. But the benefit to uploading single-player runs is so obviously overwhelming that it’s baffling that they didn’t push to make it work. If single-player scores counted, it would seed all the runs that the single-player covers with basic benchmark scores. It would serve as a bridge to the multiplayer. You’d finish the run and see how you did compared to your friends, and then and even if you wanted to focus on the single-player for now, you’d be constantly reminded that there’s this world of score-chasing out there waiting for you if you want to engage with it.

Almost as absurd is the rewind mechanic. Previous SSX games used a reset mechanic – when you went off-course you’d quickly reset back onto the course. You’d lose some boost meter, and your combo score, so there’s still a punishment, but it feels relatively minor because you get back on your way so fast. But a reset mechanic wouldn’t work for Deadly Descent mode. The whole point is that the run is hazardous, so it’s against the game’s interest to quickly let you get on your way. So, instead, we get rewind. Now, rewinding is cool; in real life, we have to live with the consequences of our choices, but a rewind mechanic gives us the joy of a do-over, of fixing a mistake. And in the Deadly Descents, that’s actually how it works. There’s a limited number of rewinds available in each run – they essentially function as extra lives that help you complete a challenging and dangerous run, and save you from the frustration of having to start from the beginning.

But what about in the other modes – the races and tricking competitions? I suspect the designers felt trapped and tied to the rewind mechanic – it would have been hard to communicate to the player why some runs have resets and some have rewinds. But I suspect that someone else made the point that if the rewind mechanic worked like it did for Deadly Descents – that is, as a true tack-back and do-over – that players would abuse the mechanic; they’d use it strategically to fix minor mistakes rather than only so save themselves from catastrophe. Also, I can understand wanting to punish mistakes in general; should a run that didn’t have to rewind rank higher than one that did? This line of reasoning led them to make rewinding punitive. If you rewind in a race, not only does time not flow backwards as you rewind, it actually continues to flow forwards, meaning that if you rewind for 8 second (which is about what’s needed if you unexpectedly end up in a bottomless pit off of a jump) you get a 16 second punishment. An average run is 2 minutes, which means that 16 seconds might as well be an eternity. The punishment is so great that it turns even a great run into one that won’t even hit the bronze-medal time. In a trick-run, for rewinding, you lose your combo, and also take an additional point-penalty that increases with the length of time you rewind and the size of your combo multiplier. Again, it’s doubly punitive. It sucks all the fun out of the rewind mechanic. Instead of watching your mistakes be erased, you’re left watching as the mistakes keep hurting you. Also, since longer rewinds are punished more severely, there’s an incentive to cut the rewind as short as possible, which often leads to the additional frustration of not having rewound far enough and find that inputs or momentum are already locked in, and having to watch helplessly as the run-ruining mistake gets repeated. Maybe it’s more fair to do it this way, but it’s not more fun.

The rewind mechanic wouldn’t be so problematic if it weren’t for the course design. Only about 20% of the courses are actually Deadly Descent drops, where the primary goal is survival, but even the others feel designed to be punishing. There are caves with low ceilings, so if you take a jump too well, you’ll get knocked out of your combo. There are blind jumps where if you go off them the wrong way, you’ll end up down a bottomless pit. There are also less obvious but equally run-ending hazards like awkward clumps of trees that you can get trapped in. I’d spend an hour and only complete a couple of runs, since I’d be restarting so often. Even in runs that don’t have a lot of inherently run-ending hazards, there tend to be features like narrow canyons where, if you take them wrong, you’ll bounce off the sides and lose a ton of time. This all runs completely counter to what the designers should want out of a score-chasing game. Instead of me feeling compelled to reset, I should be incentivized to finish the run, so that I post times that my friends can compare with – so that I see that if I came close to my friend’s score, and that if I hadn’t made that stupid little mistake I would have beaten it, and so that my friends see the reports that their scores stood up to my challenge. Having me retry again and again without finishing the run isn’t fun for me, and it gums up the flow of the score-chasing system.

I want to play some more of the game – I’m only halfway through the single-player, and have posted a multiplayer time on maybe a third of the racing courses and a score on only a handful of the trick courses. I loved SSX 3, and the new game, in its best moments, does manage to recapture some of that magic, even though the control scheme is a bit awkward and it’s missing things like the long runs and great, dynamic soundtrack. The score-chasing is a great idea in theory, but it’s a real bummer how it’s dragged down by these low-level design decisions.

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