Ubisoft Gets It: Why Red Steel Needs Canned Sword Moves

I suppose some good press about Ubisoft’s Red Steel demo did slip out after E3, but it was far overshadowed by complaints about the grainy graphics and less-than-impressive controls. In fact, the single most common complaint about the demo was the “canned” swordplay maneuvers: regardless of how emphatically the contoller is flailed, the game responds with simply horizontal, vertical, and diagonal slashes. “I want free sword control!” cried the masses.

Luckily for us, the masses aren’t game designers. The last time they were, Atari was on its way out the door because of the lack of software quality standards. I refrained from harshly criticizing the games controls (though even I felt they need improvement) because Ubisoft is a smart and successful company; if they felt the need to design the controls this way, there had to be a reason. It isn’t possible that the idea of free sword control simply hadn’t occurred to the development team.

I played through Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney again recently, and I decided to take Mia Fey’s advice. She urges, “Phoenix, think outside the box! Don’t ask yourself why Ubisoft would design the sword controls this way. Ask yourself why Ubisoft *HAD* to design the controls this way!” So I did. And I finally got it. I think it’s time some other people did too.

My argument makes some basic assumptions about the Red Steel which, from a quick search on the web, appear to be correct:

  1. The hero will wield a single sword that does not get upgraded throughout the course of the game. Why you would need to upgrade a sword anyway is beyond me.
  2. An integral part of the game’s development is sword training that takes place after reaching Japan.
  3. Sword training involves learning new swordfighting techniques.

Building a Gesture Vocabulary
First, given the complexity of any 3D control scheme, it may be better to start with a 2D example. Let’s assume that Red Steel were instead being developed for the Nintendo DS, as farfetched as that may sound. When you unsheath your sword, how should it behave? Should scribbling wildly translate into a flurry of sword strikes? If so, isn’t that the analog equivalent of mindless button mashing? More likely we, as the hero, are holding a sword seriously for the first time. Only the most basic lesson of “cut them with the sharp side” is pressing to us. With the stylus, drawing a line quickly from the left side of the screen to the right or vice-versa may be simple horizontal slice, and similar motions could cause vertical and diagonal slashes. These simple techniques form the basis of a gesture vocabulary through which we can express our gaming skill.

If any game of appreciable length were to progress with only these three techniques at our disposal, the game would not only be boring but also might lead to some repetitive stress injuries. Instead, as we progress through the game, we expect to learn new sword techniques that are executed with new, intuitive gestures. These gestures may be available at any time or could act as combo chains (imagine the ubiquitous hit counter pulsing away in the upper-right corner of the screen) or power attacks. With each new gesture representing a new, named technique, the size of the gesture vocabulary that we call to mind when fighting becomes the out-of-game analog to the amount of training we have received in-game.

In short, training leads to new techniques. Practicing new techniques leads to increased skill. This is done by expanding the gesture vocabulary available to the player.

Thinking Ahead

Anyone who sight reads music, plays Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, or practices a form of martial arts seriously knows that thinking only in the present can be a fatal mistake. The mind has a buffer of actions that can be performed from muscle memory alone while the conscious mind is thinking ahead. I imagine were I to engage in actual sword fighting, this would also be the case.

Circling my enemy or facing him/her head on, I may attack with light, tentative strikes aimed at catching my opponent off guard. In the even that I notice an opening, I may lash out with a series of attacks knowing that my opponent must parry each one of them until I either make a bad strike and leave myself unguarded or become sloppy in my attacks. If my opponent uses this opportunity to counterattack, then I must be on the defensive until (s)he ceases or I notice another opening. I imagine this to be the ebb and flow of sword battle.

As I am not even an amateur swordsman in real life, I don’t have a library of techniques in my head from which I can pull on the fly to execute a series of attacks. At best, I can think, “(S)he’s not blocking, so I’ll keep swinging.” On the other hand, if I know that moving my controller in a certain pattern produces a particular kind of attack combo, I may choose to employ this pattern to attack when my enemy is at a disadvantage. Instead of thinking, “Just keep swinging!” I would think, “Okay, now do this, that, this, that, and that!” This jibes with how I imagine the situation may evolve in real life; in essence, there wouldn’t be a ton of freeform improvisation on the fly. Instead, the swordsman would think about the options available at all times and may begin to execute a series of attacks almost mindlessly while watching for any sign of a sudden counterattack.

The structure of canned attack moves allows the player to focus on the tools at one’s disposal to achieve victory. Moreover, it allows each technique to be named, memorized, and recalled at will. Using the memory of these techniques, the player can enter “the zone” wherein multiple attacks are unleashed in a combination that continues to build as long as the player can continue to think through the attack.

Flailing Failure

What if you are already a master swordsman? Wouldn’t freeform sword control be the best way to proceed? Wouldn’t it be more fun to have freeform sword control even for novice swordfighters?

One thing that gamers should realize is that Red Steel makes no claims at being a sword fighting simulator. In fact, Red Steel is no more a sword fighting simulator than Guitar Hero is a guitar playing simulator (ask any guitarist!). That is to say, at times you may feel really engaged in the game, but in real life you are still pressing buttons that the game translates into a realistic fantasy experience. The actual act of wielding a sword (or wielding an axe) is far more complex than any game meant for a wide variety of players could possibly convey. There are intricacies and nuances and intricacies upon nuances that are only understood by the most talented in those disciplines.

Freeform sword control would for most players turn into a tiring, rampant arm flailing experience. Moreover, it would be difficult to convey the hero’s slow sword mastery because any attacks you will learn are available from the start. Since I have already stipulated that there are no sword upgrades, this leads to a lack of character power/skill progression and stands at odds with basic assumption #2 above: an integral part of the game’s development is sword training that takes place after reaching Japan. If you want to get better, you have to learn. After you learn, you have to train. And after that, you might one day get good.

And let’s not forget that Ubisoft’s development team is not composed by a clan of master swordsmen. Rather than asking themselves the question, “How can I make swordfighting realistic?” they should instead be asking themselves the question, “How can I make swordfighting really fun?”

They Get It

The more I think about this, the more I’m convinced that Ubisoft really gets it and we don’t. The Wii controller is new to just about everyone right now. We all expect new, immersive ways to play games. However, as most of us haven’t spent more than an hour with the controller yet, we don’t know what it should feel like to play a game from beginning to end. We want to feel that the controller is our gun. We want to feel that the controller is our sword. Yet at the same time we expect wielding a gun or sword in a game to be much easier than the real life counterpart and still be engaging. Let’s not begrudge Ubisoft the right to act on our behalf and create a game that is intuitive, fun, and involving in ways that we aren’t yet capable of understanding. Let’s not be too harsh on them for limiting their E3 demo to a handful of canned sword strikes. Instead, let’s trust that these designers have our best interest in mind — fun — and that they know what kind of experience will help us achieve it.

Edit: digg this post

Edit 2: Comment moderation enabled. If you’d like to comment, please come up with something better than “Dude, you sounds [sic] gay!”

24 Responses to Ubisoft Gets It: Why Red Steel Needs Canned Sword Moves

  1. Nick says:

    I do see you point, and have not actually played it, but let’s just say they took it the other way… Could they not have made it free range of movement, and if you acted like an idiot, and just did illogical flurries all the time, you would be punished? Couldn’t they have made a system where the AI will beat the crap out of you if you don’t use real techniques?

    While I agree that an extremely precise game would be unfun, games like Gran Turismo are successful. They could have put in two modes, or something.

    I don’t really know much about this game, but while the control scheme sounds fun, if it is getting as much bad press as you eluded to, then they aren’t going to make money from it’s sales, and that is the only reason they make games. If the people want free control, then maybe giving what they want is the best way to obtain the desired results.

  2. [...] Garden of WiiDS has an excellent examination of why the upcoming Nintendo Wii game Red Steel requires canned moves. Regardless of you interest in the Nintendo Wii, this is an well thought out article and I can only hope that my level of writing can approach this. Share and Enjoy:These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. [...]

  3. fakeapassion says:

    Excellent article. You’ve convinced me that Ubisoft made the right decision in going with canned moves.

  4. silentshadow900 says:

    I’ve always been skeptical about the whole free swordplay stuff anyway. Even if it were possible, the sword collision wouldn’t match up right. So I think Ubisoft is doing the right thing here (but they’re still bastards).

  5. [...] In this article on Garden Of WiiDS, the writer explains why Red Steel needs canned sword moves. His main argument is that having free form sword fighting would lead to people just slashing wildly with the sword, something a real swordsman would never do. His arguments are absolutely flawless, and I am actually glad Ubisoft went with canned sword moves. It is an excellent read, and I suggest you go check out Why Red Steel Needs Canned Sword Moves. Posted by snack Filed in [...]

  6. I see this is picking up some steam on digg. Thanks to everyone for the support.

    One thing I should point out is that this argument is for Red Steel in particular. Eliminate the need to train or change the weapon to one that is blunt or “sharp” on all sides (read: lightsaber), and freeform control seems like more of a viable option.

    However, I contend that lack of freeform control certainly isn’t a dealbreaker. Not only could pre-defined moves work for Red Steel, but they could work splendidly.

  7. rolandog says:

    This is a great and insightful article, and a nice read. I think gaming history also agrees with Ubisoft’s choice.

    In the days of yonder, there was this game for the PC called Die By The Sword, it had various control schemes. One was a preconfigured set of hacks and slashes. Another consisted of using the number pad to point the direction of the position of your sword. The last option consisted of using your mouse to move your sword.

    Though at first it seemed cool to use the last option, you soon found out that proved inefficient to slay the bad guys. You needed to spin your character as well as move your swords positioning to achieve a powerful blow, and that required a lot of hand-coordination.

    I don’t remember which of the other two combinations was better, but I guess I’ll later find out by trying to play it on linux.

  8. normalforce says:

    “Freeform sword control would for most players turn into a tiring, rampant arm flailing experience. Moreover, it would be difficult to convey the hero’s slow sword mastery because any attacks you will learn are available from the start.”

    I’d like to point out it would be possible to convery the hero’s slow sword mastery. Suppose during the course of the game, you learn a new technique where if you block, lunge, lunge the last lunge turns into some crazy powerful attack. Whereas before learning this technique, the last lunge would be a normal boring lunge. Knowing the sequence before learning the technique doesn’t give the player an advantage.

    However, I like this: “The more I think about this, the more I’m convinced that Ubisoft really gets it and we don’t. The Wii controller is new to just about everyone right now.”

    This controller is still new and some of us are lost in all the possiblities it will bring us. But these game developers has spent the good deal of time using it and maybe having to swing your arm for hours straight isn’t as much fun as we’d all like to think.

  9. Nathan says:

    You make some good points, but still… I like the idea of freeform sword control. It would be fun as hell. I want to grab my controller, move into a stereotypical samurai swordfighting stance, and with a mighty lunge thrust my mighty blade into the torso of my noobish opponent. Pulling the wiimote upward, I cut through his torso and head, and pull back my sword. Blood spouts everywhere as he splits into two halves from the waist up and collapses into a gruesome pile of gore. Onto the next opponent!

  10. Felix says:

    Decent article. I think you’re mistaken though. Realistic sword fighting wouldn’t be difficult to play as long as the AI is at the appropriate level.

    I suggest the reason Ubisoft didn’t use freeform sword fighting was because they couldn’t make a physics engine that would produce satisfactory results. Or if they could, they didn’t think the Wii was powerful enough to use it.

    There’s also one problem maybe they couldn’t solve: the role strength plays in sword fighting. Freeform swordfighting would have to be more like fighting with a lightsabre (where damage is done with the energy in the sabre rather than the force of a metal blade), which is cool for LucasArts I guess.

  11. Hans says:

    Well, lets be completely honest, the main reason Ubisoft isn’t doing freeform is because its really darn complicated for them to develop a game with a balanced experience, difficulty level, AI and progression.

    You cant blame the player. Maybe the player is already a good swordsman or maybe not; maybe many of them will want to have a quick, easy game while others will be happy to put the effort into learning very complicated intricate moves… and I’m willing to bet there are _LOTS_ of gamers who are more than willing to put that effort in and more. I think that is an observable fact.

    An therein lies the appeal for gamers. They _do_ want the gratifying feeling of learning and mastering, not simply the experience of winning. Person who has never done any sword fighting will simply flail their sword around in the beginning, but with the experience of repeatedly losing, will start to learn techniques and so forth. Perhaps an already experienced swordsman will already know how to pull off very difficult moves, but it will also be to his/her frustration that he/she will feel like they are forced to become an amateur again, simply because the game is limiting them. While the inexperienced one will not be able to pull off such difficult moves, even if the possibility is there, until he/she learns how to really do it anyways.

    I’m not blaming Ubisoft, as it would have been an amazing feat for them to pull off. It’s basically a simulator. There are valid reasons for their choice, but you can’t say because it is better for the gamer “trust them”… it’ll just be a different experience, albeit more on rails, and naturally this will disappoint many who had hopes of having a game in which they can learn swordfighting skills.

  12. No one of consequence says:

    By that logic, we shouldn’t be able to aim the guns where we want on the screen, either. After all, I’m not a marksman, nor is the character I’m playing.

    Nintendo’s big selling point with the Wii is that it’s for everyone – gamers and non-gamers alike. Just pick up the controller and play. If you hand someone this controller and tell them it’s a sword, but the on-screen character isn’t doing anything remotely similar to their moves, it’s going to be frustrating. Yes, they *should* be trying to make it fun, not realistic. But what I played it at E3 was neither fun nor intuitive, and I’m a gamer. Perhaps they can fix it in the final version. We shall see.

  13. David F says:

    There are some very good points in this article.

    Just to add my 2c – I have been involved in western style fencing (foil, epee and sabre) and Japanese sword based martial arts for many years now. The thing that people don’t really get about fencing and swordplay in general is that against someone who know what they’re doing, a rank amateur is going to get completely and utterly slaughtered. Becoming a good swordsman in any real style is HARD and takes years and years of practice.

    Take a trip down to your local fencing club, gear up and fence with one of the experienced fencers there. I’ll personally email you a nice cookie if you manage to score a single point.

  14. I’ve been owned in kendo; does that count? :-)

  15. eamonn says:

    Brilliant article. You’ve convinced me that Ubisoft are doing the right thing.

  16. bongo says:

    yeah ubisoft isnt up for the challenge of make a free form sword fighting system. They maybe an ok company but theres no way they can pull that off im hoping team ninja will become wii friendly and put out a nice sword game cause i bet they are up for it.

  17. Jeremy says:

    The answer is because the Wiimote is not precise enough to do it:

    http://www.xgaming.com/newsletter/Wii%20Dupe.shtml

  18. Ryan says:

    Excellent article, couldn’t agree more with your reasoning on canned moves. Even with Nintendos new controller they would need to have some really advanced programming to pull it off, aswell as a massive learning curve for the gamer.

    Lets not forget nintendos direction is about making games accessible to non-gamers and ubisoft are taking that direction by making it easy for non gamers to actually be able to pick up and play the game without having to sit there for 12 hours learning 101 on sword play.

  19. Mee says:

    Good try to justify RedSteel current Gameplay.

    But it makes no sense to me, if you ask the question “Why Ubi HAD to do …” I ask this question “What is the point of the wiimote if it is used to trigger canned moves ? A simple pad with buttons would seem a better choice for that type of action.”

    So Basically I think the current control scheme of RedSteel :
    -is NOT what players, you know, the “masses” wants, and the players are the buyers so…
    -is completly ignoring the innovative wiimote by using it to trigger canned moves…

    you can justify that the way you want, it will not make ppl buy the game in the form it was shown at E3

  20. Using buttons would certainly not have been a better course of action. Pressing a button to trigger an attack is hardly an immersive experience. Moreover, the number of buttons on the Wiimote is very limited while the number of gestures that could be executed with the controller is limitless.

    Giving players what they want is important but not terribly so. Nintendo in particular has often stated that they try not to give people what they want but rather something new and exciting that they would not have thought of themselves. Personally, I see more opportunity for complaints about freeform control in this game than anything else.

    Finally, the game was not in any form at E3 other than demo form. Ubisoft will certainly listen to the tide of complaints and make adjustments, but I doubt they will suddenly make everything freeform unless they find it to be fun.

  21. hobojo says:

    People also seem to overlook a key aspect about swordfighting that would not work well for the Wii controller: swords have metal blades, that when they hit most things, do not pass through. If your opponent blocks your strike with his sword, in the game your sword would have to stop abruptly midswing, but in real life you could still move your hand freely without any feedback besides perhaps a rumble. So if this was truely freeform where the game follows every action you make exactly, how does the game resolve this disconcurrence? Does the game just abruptly jump the position of your sword, which would be completely unrealistic? What would happen if your opponent not only blocked your strike, but pushed your sword away to the side?

    The fact of the matter is, your playing space is not accurate with what’s happening in the gamespace is, and as a result what the game does cannot mimick what you do in real life 100%

  22. Hutch says:

    You make a lot of good points, but let’s be realistic. Ubisoft released this game prior to the Wii making it’s market debut so they didn’t have a lot of time. They were thinking, “Crap, this controller is awesome, but the wii interface only gives us which way the gyro is moving and the orientation of the controller and where it’s pointing and when”. That doesn’t translate to “The top of the controler is at x,y,z in space, and the bottom of the controller is at x,y,z in space.” So, although we have general orientations of the controller and vague movements conveyed to the engine, that doesn’t translate into a concise set of instructions they can convey to the rendering softare. They had to work with what they had, to produce a quality piece of software.
    I think they did a great job.

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