Thursday, 12 Dec 2019

How did Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order get so unusual?

When Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order finally fell into our hands, nobody expected to play a lightsaber-Crash Bandicoot-Tomb Raider-style game, but here we are. Jedi: Fallen Order is an intriguing tincture of genres, borrowing from a number of influences.

But how did it get there? I thought it might be fun to try to reverse-engineer the fantasy of the game for you, as a game designer.

The fantasy of a video game is the core statement, the core idea behind the experience and what players are supposed to feel like while playing.

Warframe may be the fantasy of space ninjas, God of War’s fantasy is being a god among men, and so on. You can use core fantasies to describe the overall flavor of the game, or you can go as granular as describing the fantasy behind a single combat encounter.

It’s a process that rarely sees the light of day once a game ships. There’s no wrong way to do it, and I might have gotten Respawn’s process incredibly wrong — this is meant to illustrate what might have happened, not to share what did happen — but hopefully you’ll learn something about what goes into the early stages of game development as I try to figure out how something this strange and unexpected was planned at all.

Let’s dive in!

The process

Every game you play delivers on something we call a core fantasy. Some places might have different names for this, as well as the process of getting there, but just about every studio goes through something like this as standard practice. How are you supposed to know what to make if you don’t know how you want the player to feel, and what you want them to do?

The most common system to figure out a fantasy that I’ve seen used, and used myself, is a waterfall technique: going from bottom to top, with the bottom being the least flexible element to the top being the most flexible one. It looks something like this:

Sam Kirk

This is roughly what we mean by each term:

Fantasy: The feel of the game. Who or what does the player get to be? It’s the emotional contract we make with the player; it’s why they play our game.

Action: What does the player get to do? These actions reinforce the fantasy.

Economy: What larger systems facilitate actions and fantasy? This goes for currencies, progression, items, and even skill points and resource economies.

World: What’s the world our economy, actions, and fantasy can exist within? This is a flexible parameter.

Story: What’s the story we want to tell within this world? It must reinforce the fantasy, actions, and economy within the world. The story is the most flexible aspect.

The fantasy at the very bottom is at the center of everything. Once decided and defined, it can’t be changed without significant discussion. Going up the chain, the elements become less rigid, with story as the most fluid element.

Who doesn’t want to feel like a Jedi?
Respawn Entertainment/Electronic Arts

This may surprise some readers, given that story is what usually stands out most to players. The reason why story is the least rigid element is because it can be written around mechanics and economy. And while teams sometimes have a general idea of the story they want to tell, mechanics and interaction come first.

Think of it this way: If I’m making a flying game, and the fantasy is “fly and travel like a bird,” after a few years of work it would be very possible to adjust the story, and maybe even the economy, but changing the fantasy to “become the best race car driver in the world” would be all but impossible.

The fantasy of Jedi: Fallen Order

Working on a game for one of the longest-standing franchises across multiple media is incredibly exciting, as well as intimidating. Getting the tone right for a Star Wars game is very challenging despite lots of material to draw from. It means that some elements of the game are already fixed — such as lightsaber combat and the use of the Force.

So what happened along the way to ensure that Jedi: Fallen Order turned into a game about exploration and discovery? How does a game like this feel so much more like Tomb Raider than Knights of the Old Republic, or Star Wars Jedi Knight?

Related

The long, hard road of creating Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Without a doubt, at the core of the discussion would have to be lightsaber combat as the most significant piece of the puzzle. You are a Jedi, or at least a padawan. But for the fantasy, we can skip the specifics and just say “Jedi,” and Jedi use lightsabers and the Force. Any combat would have to be built around that fantasy.

It is clear that the game takes a lot of influence from the Dark Souls franchise, which is actually really sensible if you think about lightsaber combat from a design point of view.

Lightsabers are literal laser swords: They’re very powerful, and are designed to deliver killing blows. If a lightsaber hits you, it is supposed to slice through you, no matter the armor. So, combat could not revolve around an armor economy, but instead had to draw depth from a parry and riposte influence — which the Souls games excel at. Your enemies need to be able to block your blade with something, or dive out of the way.

Essentially, the only valid direction for the fantasy revolving around lightsaber combat had to be a combination of parry, riposte, and easily accessible combo play for the cinematic delivery that any Star Wars game has to abide by. We’ve seen how Jedi fight in the movies, and how choreographed and dancelike it appears, and that’s what we need at this point to live that fantasy.

This is why I believe Jedi: Fallen Order takes a lot of influence from Dark Souls: It’s one of the best, most well-known, and successful starting formulas for this form of combat. Mix in some Force powers, and you get the sort of cinematic, seemingly choreographed action that you see in the tweet here.

This might have led to some other, more curious decisions, though. The death mechanic of Dark Souls, where your experience and upgrade points are lost until you can find and attack the enemy that last killed you, doesn’t make much sense in a Star Wars game. It’s not part of the core fantasy of being a Jedi, nor does it underscore any themes of Jedi life, but maybe someone on the development team was just a fan. It is possible to overthink these things when you weren’t there, after all.

But let’s move on. The team at Respawn clearly put a lot of thought and care into realizing this particular aspect of the fantasy — the way parrying works is accessible, scalable through difficulty, and predictable in a way that makes using the parry mechanic essential to the fantasy. That’s good design!

In story mode, the “easiest” difficulty setting — although that’s a bad way to think of it — the parry window is very generous, over one second long. On Grandmaster difficulty, which is the closest to a Dark Souls experience, that window is reduced to 0.13 seconds.

It becomes clear early that this game is meant to incorporate parry, block, and riposte as a core aspect of each encounter. If you want to really dig into the combat as it was designed, you’re going to need to learn timing and when to use each of your abilities. Jason de Heras, who was the lead combat designer on the game, has stated that this pillar of Jedi: Fallen Order’s design was called “thoughtful combat.”

The combat is just one piece of the game

But this is not the whole answer to what the fantasy of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order entails.

We have not analyzed why the game has this much exploration and puzzle-solving to it, and this is where things get more speculative.

My theory here is that the values of creating a Jedi-centered game are in conflict with design that revolves entirely around lightsaber combat, which would likely require justifying how a Jedi killed thousands of enemies for a game with a certain target of gameplay hours.

And while the game still requires players as Cal to slaughter many more enemies than what would be reasonable for a Jedi, it clearly wanted to find a way to limit this aspect of the action genre. This would reduce the tension between the idea that Jedi are good and the gameplay focus on how they kill their enemies.

Subsequently, Respawn had to think of a way to create an action game that features less combat but still delivers on the Jedi fantasy. And leaning into the ladder shown above likely provided just the answer needed: action-based, Force-using environmental puzzles that make up the bulk of the game.

Focusing on exploration and environmental puzzles allowed Respawn to break up the combat with long sections of solitude.
Respawn Entertainment/Electronic Arts

I believe that the Force-using aspect had a large influence on the fantasy of traversal and exploration in the game — usually for better, but sometimes for worse. Jedi: Fallen Order makes excessive use of environmental gates in the form of yet-to-be-learned Force abilities to give players reasons to revisit certain areas. Its use of shortcuts to backtrack is once more influenced by the Dark Souls approach, even though I experienced its execution as punishing whenever I didn’t pay close attention to exploring every single aspect of a map as I traversed it.

Other games have solved these issues in other ways, and in some cases they might have just given up and leaned into the killing in first-person or third-person action games from the past. But it’s also important to remember what the studio that’s making the game is good at. What does it do well? What does it do better than just about any other developer out there?

If you’ve played Titanfall 2, you know that Respawn knows how to make fluid movement feel really good. So this approach fit Jedi: Fallen Order, as well as the core competencies of the folks making it. It also has the benefit of feeling new, of putting an updated twist on what a Star Wars game can be. The novelty of an exploration-based Star Wars title was certainly a selling point, but Respawn likely arrived there through a pretty organic process as it worked through what the game should be, and how it would stand out.

The end result: It worked! The fantasy of exploration through use of the Force — connecting the way a Jedi would interface with the world around them through the Force — is pretty spot-on. The world is my playground as Cal, and in many ways, I am one with my environment.

The more Cal connects with the Force over time in the game, the more fluid and seamless my interaction with the environment becomes, which is a wonderful vehicle to intertwine the player’s experience in a playful manner with that of the protagonist. Mastery feels good, to both the character and the player, and Jedi: Fallen Order’s progression system does a great job of delivering that sense of mastery in both the combat and the exploration.

Conclusion

With this, we have triangulated what I think the core fantasy of Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order entails:

“The journey of rebuilding a lost Jedi order.”

To break this fantasy down into its gameplay aspects, these are the subsequent fantasies:

combat: challenging lightsaber combat

Realized through the use of a parry and riposte system paired with accessible combos. It’s a system based on timing.

journey: the Force is the key to the environment

Realized through action-based traversal and a Force ability-based puzzle system within the environment.

These, paired with the cinematic quality Respawn delivered in the game, create an unusual, unexpected experience that still suits the Star Wars universe and fantasy. It may be a little surprising when you first play it, but the design makes pretty good sense when you work through the process!

Making a game for one of the most beloved and long-standing movie franchises in the world is a challenging experience. The developers had to capture both the nature of what it means to see a Star Wars story, with all its grand cinematic aspects, while finding a way to translate it into a suitable action game that caters to the fantasies that fans have harbored for decades.

This unusual approach, despite some of the flaws in some of the execution, makes Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order a unique Star Wars game and a lot of fun to play. In the future, if you’re ever confused about why a game is focusing on certain things in a way that surprises, and hopefully delights, you, think back to that flow chart and ask yourself: What fantasy did they want me to have?

It’s very possible you’ll see how they got there. All it takes is thinking like a game designer.

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