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Posted by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

That is a lenticular bunny
That is a lenticular bunny

I’m an avid Magic the Gathering player and I’ve been thinking recently about what lessons game designers could take away from the world’s number one TCG. The free-to-play community seems to be earning a doctorate studying MTG's lessons about habit formation, the benefits of random boosters, micro-transactions, and pay to win. However, there are lessons in MTG beyond its financial model. Mark Rosewater, the head designer of MTG, has a design term that I haven’t heard applied to any other context before that is really worth learning: lenticular design. This school of design takes its name from lenticular pictures, which are pictures that look different depending on what angle you look at them from. The crux of this design philosophy is that there are certain layers of strategic and mechanical depth that new players simply do not understand well enough to even detect their presence. As a result, there are types of strategic depth and complexity that you can hide in plain sight without impacting your new player’s perception of difficulty and complexity. Thus, good use of lenticular design results in a game that seems simple to new players and complex to experienced players at the same time.

An example of lenticular design in MTG is the difference between the cards Centaur Courser and Invasive Species. Both of these cards cost the same amount of mana and have the same power and toughness; however, Invasive Species also returns a permanent to your hand when it comes into play. That effect is hugely useful to an experienced player, to the point where an experienced player will almost always return a card that benefits from being replayed. But to a novice that ability just looks like a cost; it is just something that happens when you play Invasive Species. The new player doesn’t think about how invasive Species works in concert with other cards. The new player doesn’t build a deck around Invasive Species returning things to your hand. The new player is just happy to play a 3/3 for 3 mana. To a novice, Invasive Species looks like a slightly worse Centaur Courser. To an experience player the two cards actually look quite different and belong in slightly different decks. In effect, Invasive species looks functionally different to players of different experience levels: like a lenticular picture.

Gallery image 1Gallery image 2
That centaur and those bugs look functionally the same to a new player

In that MTG example it is pretty easy to see how the designers hid some strategic complexity in plain sight, but the real trick is applying this lesson to video game design. Games that use lenticular design should follow two simple rules. 1. The game that the new player sees should be fun in and of itself. If a new player feels like they are constantly at a disadvantage they won’t have fun and will quit more often than not. New players quitting from frustration is a great way to kill a game long term. 2. The complexity should always be there for the experienced player. Plenty of games ramp up slowly by not making the complex stuff available at all until hours in; that is not lenticular design. The advanced player should be able to take advantage of their experience whenever possible. Now the tough part is balancing rule 1 and rule 2 since the two can often be at odds.

The more random crap on the screen the easier it is for a novice to win
The more random crap on the screen the easier it is for a novice to win

Fighting games make great use of lenticular design in their best cases. Games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat do a great job of presenting players with relatively simple punches, kicks, and special moves that feature a ton of hidden depth in their use. In a single player context, most 2D fighting games are great examples of lenticular design since each character has tons of moves to learn and combos to master. But, a 2D fighter can be played without knowing any of that stuff. The biggest problem most fighting games have is that the gap between knowing that higher levels of complexity exist and being able to capitalize on that complexity is a Grand Canyon sized trench. Even executing a dragon punch or fireball as a new player is super difficult, let alone real combos. I haven’t even mentioned knowing when to do those things. The learning problems are exacerbated in competitive play since new players have a 0% chance of beating an experienced player. I can’t tell you how many people I have tried to play Street Fighter with that have never wanted to play me again after like 2 games, and I’m not even good. Playing most 2D fighters against a much better player is just not fun at all and that’s a problem for the growth of fighting games. The complexity issue killed fighting games once and it is liable to do it again if complexity creep continues as it has in more recent fighters.

Honestly, the fighting game series that has best used lenticular design is Super Smash. The moves in Super Smash are easy to pull off since they don’t require complex motions or combinations. The high-end play is there for experienced players, but the elements of sheer randomness and chaos that the game allows in its default setting (items on and 4 players) allow any player to win. There are also a bunch of levels that mitigate the effects of skilled play, like the infamous “PokeFloats.” You need to go out of your way to make Super Smash 100% skill based and (contrary to what people on the internet seem to think) that is actually to the game’s long term benefit. Random elements are hugely useful for allowing unskilled players to win every once and a while, while still being at a huge disadvantage. While an experienced Smash player can dance around the screen with ease performing infinite combos and devastating spikes, all of their efforts can be disrupted by an alliance or unfortunate bomb crate. So the experienced player has a huge advantage in most games, but not a free win. I know plenty of players who love Smash and don’t even know about wave dashing: that is the result of great lenticular design.

Those are a few uses of lenticualr design, but now that I have explained the basics I want to know what ya’ll think. What games have you played that make use of lenticular design? What games are particularly bad at this brand of design?

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#1 Posted by Justin258 (15431 posts) -

Doing your best to use and abuse the press-turn system in Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne and, to a lesser degree, Digital Devil Saga and SMT IV. If you can maximize the number of turns you have and minimize the number of turns your opponent has, you'll have mastered those games.

There are also times, especially in Nocturne, where skipping someone's turn can be the best move you'll make, something that I don't remember doing in any other JRPG. You would do so to try and get back around to someone else (as in, "do I have enough half-turns to get to my healer or to cast a buff?")

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#2 Posted by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

@believer258: So Is Nocturne a good example of lenticular design or not? Can you perceive the complexity of the press-turn system as soon as you start or does it unfold as you play the game? I haven't played the game so I'm not familiar with the system.

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#3 Posted by Justin258 (15431 posts) -

@believer258: So Is Nocturne a good example of lenticular design or not? Can you perceive the complexity of the press-turn system as soon as you start or does it unfold as you play the game? I haven't played the game so I'm not familiar with the system.

I guess I didn't expand on that too well, did I?

From what you've said of lenticular design, Nocturne does sound like a good example of that. The press turn system just seems like a small thing at first but the game expands so much on the concept. That, combined with the game's emphasis on keeping yourself buffed and/or your enemy debuffed, is what makes Nocturne so great. Some of it will feel familiar if you played Persona 4 on Hard or didn't do a lot of level grinding.

If you're interested in how a video game can take a small idea and expand on it in as many different ways as possible, then I'd say that Nocturne is a must. Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2 and SMT IV are also good games but Nocturne is better than all of them.

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#4 Edited by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

@believer258: Can you take advantage of the press-turn system from the start or is it something you unlock as the game goes on? Like the job system in FF5 isn't a great lenticular design example because it take hours to actually unlock all of the jobs. Same thing with the sphere grid in FF10. Even though you can go nuts in 10 once you get the teleport and friend spheres, getting those spheres takes so long that I would not say that the game makes great use of lenticular design.

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#5 Edited by Justin258 (15431 posts) -

@believer258: Can you take advantage of the press-turn system from the start or is it something you unlock as the game goes on? Like the job system in FF5 isn't a great lenticular design example because it take hours to actually unlock all of the jobs. Same thing with the sphere grid in FF10. Even though you can go nuts in 10 once you get the teleport and friend spheres, getting those spheres takes so long that I would not say that the game makes great use of lenticular design.

The press turn system isn't something you unlock or level up, it's there from the start.

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#6 Posted by SpunkyHePanda (2204 posts) -

I think Hearthstone does a particularly good job of this. So many of the cards don't really reveal their full potential until you figure out what other cards work well with them. Especially the new Naxxramas cards.

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#7 Posted by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

@spunkyhepanda: Well that's not that surprising considering that Hearthstone takes much of its inspiration from MTG. It just happens to move its randomness from things like mana screw and into random spells and a smaller deck size.

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#8 Posted by thomasnash (1103 posts) -

I think I get what you're driving at here, but can you clarify: In the example from MTG you gave us once the tactical advantage of Invasive Species has been mastered, it seems to be the obviously better choice, so you would always prefer it over Centaur Courser. Is this a necessary feature of Lenticular design? Am I just ignoring the fact that there might be an equally viable way of including Centaur Courser in a deck which is set up for a different strategy?

The game that springs to mind for me is the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The upgrade path for the sniper early on offers you a choice between firing after movement, and being able to fire at any enemy which an ally can see (and to which they have an unobstructed shot). For first time players, the inability to move and shoot might seem really prohibitive, and they might decide that the aiming penalty is worth it for being able to move their snipers along with the rest of the squad. However options later in the game reveal that the Line of Sight upgrade is far more powerful, especially as one of the final upgrades is the ability to shoot twice if the sniper doesn't move, allowing them to take out the toughest enemies in the game in one turn.

Likewise the Heavy Class had a choice between a skill which made targets easier to hit for allies when the heavy fired at them, or one that allowed them to shoot twice if they didn't move. The first skill again seems like an immediately attractive option, but I remember seeing someone point out that firing twice was the better option, as heavy weapons usually destroy cover in two hits, meaning you actually give your squad mates a 100% bonus to hit...

However the fact that this was obviously the best strategy is more a balance issue than a design feature. Certainly they rebalanced the sniper stuff in the expansion. But, if it isn't a feature of lenticular design for one strategy to be obviously better, then I think the "ideal" XCOM would still qualify - the idea that with the right tactics, either strategy could be viable, and it's just asking you to make those choices, and exhaust the ways you can look at things.

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#9 Edited by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

@thomasnash: In the MTG example Centaur Courser and Invasive Species are both good, but each benefits from being in a different deck. In decks without a lot of come into play effects the Courser is better because it does not slow you down by bouncing your own stuff, effectively undoing some forward momentum. In decks with a lot of comes into play effects Invasive Species is much better because it allows you to reuse those effects. However, even knowing that each of those cards can play very differently is beyond most new player's ability to perceive options. So new players see two simple cards where an experienced player sees a simple card in the Courser and a more complex card in the Invasive Species.

In terms of XCOM I would say that the basic gameplay of XCOM is a good example of lenticular design because things like waiting for the enemy to come to you and only moving small distances is not obvious at first. But, once you get those lessons the game really opens up to you and becomes easier. I think that how you learn which abilities are better is a function of learning what matters in XCOM and how best to play, so in that sense I think it works as a lenticular design example. Also an experienced XCOM player won't make the back breaking mistakes that new players make.

edit: Thinking about it a little more, I'm not sure if XCOM hides any of its complexity, which is the big win with lenticular design. I need to think about that example a little more.

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#10 Posted by ThePhantomStranger (569 posts) -

I think this is pretty useful design concept but one I always find hard to find in use. It's difficult to understand if a game mechanic was made with this in mind or if it's simply a balance issue.

For instance I wanted to say that hold ups in Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker and Ground Zeroes might be an example as most players would start out abusing the tranq headshots without really messing with the hold up mechanic at all. Yet when you do experiment with the hold ups and find it's usually the better option you tend to always use hold someone. In Ground Zeroes holding someone is so much more effective then any other method that I would wake up enemies initially put to sleep just so I could place them in a hold up.

To me that seems more like a lack of balance combined with the fact that that hold ups aren't immediately intuitive. Holding someone up means you get closer to them which is kinda the opposite of what you wanna do in a stealth game. It's possible that the game follows lenticular design in that initially you can see Ground Zeroes as a third person shooter, then as a stealth shooter mostly relying on slowly moving along using the tranq gun, and finally as a more dynamically involved stealth game in which the player is taking advantage of every element in their arsenal fluidly.

The more I type about MGSV the more it might actually be lenticular design. You might play through the game at first as a third person shooter but the same default silenced lethal weapon can be used during non-lethal stealth runs as a silent tool to disable lights. Then again maybe the developers just put together some mechanics without applying the design principle you're talking about.

Either way the hiding in plain sight school of thought when it comes to mechanical depth always seemed to me like the mantra big game developers should be moving towards when they feel the need to widen their consumer base. It makes sense for more indie like developers to just go straight to the "let's just make a visual novel" mentality considering their resources but bigger companies shouldn't feel the need to shy away from complex mechanical depth.

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#11 Posted by thomasnash (1103 posts) -

@thatpinguino: Hmm, I see. I think in terms of the skills XCOM does hide its complexity in a purely literal sense by not showing you what skills you'll be getting later on, but this obviously only really applies once.

But I suppose following the metaphor, it has to be something that is perceivable at all times, not simply a case of obfuscation.

I'm not sure I can think of any other possible examples. It is an interesting idea....

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#12 Posted by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

@thomasnash: I think Dota does a great job of lenticular design, it just doesn't seem that way because even playing Dota takes so much to even start. If you get to the point of actually playing Dota there are a bunch of advanced uses of basic skills. Like a bunch of movement skills also dodge certain attacks and some attacks disrupt certain abilities. The best concrete example I can think of is how IO appears to new players and experienced players. IO looks like a weird support character to a new player, but an experienced player sees IO as a sort of mobility boost to an Ursa or Chaos Knight. In general the metagame of Dota and all of the team composition stuff is above most new players. New players can still get by with wonky teams, but they really take it to the next level when they start mastering team composition.

@thephantomstranger: To my knowledge this design idea in this form was originated in that article I linked to in my post so it is a fairly new design idea, at least in the form I'm describing. People have always hid gameplay stuff in plain sight. The innovation is knowing that the background knowledge your player brings in can be a tool to hide complexity from newer players to keep them from being overwhelmed.

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#13 Edited by TobbRobb (6504 posts) -

Bayonetta? It's true that a lot of the complexity gets unlocked as you gain more weapons and moves, but at it's core it's still very much a game you could just mash through and have fun but also has a very deep layer of mechanical complexity to create huge combos and efficiently dispatch enemies for score.

EDIT: I suppose if you aren't too familliar with the game I'll throw in the usual dodge offset example. There is a technique where you can store up a chain of attacks like y,y,y or something similar by holding down the button while dodging. This lets you reposition and stay safe while still getting to use the most powerful finishing move of a chain, that otherwise would only be used if you stood still and did all button presses in a row. This technique is built into the system and you can do it from the start with any weapon. It's also not needed at all to finish the game on normal and enjoy the ridiculous story and flashy bossfights. But dodge offset is a key and basically needed tool for higher level of play, it changes the way you handle encounters dramatically and allows for wider array of moves to be used "safely".

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#14 Posted by Corevi (6796 posts) -
@tobbrobb said:

Bayonetta? It's true that a lot of the complexity gets unlocked as you gain more weapons and moves, but at it's core it's still very much a game you could just mash through and have fun but also has a very deep layer of mechanical complexity to create huge combos and efficiently dispatch enemies for score.

EDIT: I suppose if you aren't too familliar with the game I'll throw in the usual dodge offset example.

Metal Gear Rising has Dodge Offset as well as Blade Mode Cancelling. If used properly it can snap you out of post attacks animations and allow you to get insane damage out of the Pincer Blades. Same with God Hand and Duck Dodge Cancelling where the duck dodge can do the same thing (particularly useful for exploiting the Yes Man Kablaam).

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#15 Edited by TobbRobb (6504 posts) -

@corruptedevil: I know MGR has it. But I figured Bayo was the original example and is generally considered the deeper game anyways. (Debatable I suppose)

Didn't know God Hand had it, I've only ever seen it be played. That game looks kind of cool in its own clunky way.

Man MGR is really good. I wish they had more time to polish it and create content. That game could have been the literal best.

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#16 Posted by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

@corruptedevil: I had no idea that the Platinum action games shared some of their mechanics. I suppose if you have a good mechanic you should stick to it rather than inventing a new mechanic just for novelty's sake

@tobbrobb said:

Bayonetta? It's true that a lot of the complexity gets unlocked as you gain more weapons and moves, but at it's core it's still very much a game you could just mash through and have fun but also has a very deep layer of mechanical complexity to create huge combos and efficiently dispatch enemies for score.

EDIT: I suppose if you aren't too familliar with the game I'll throw in the usual dodge offset example. There is a technique where you can store up a chain of attacks like y,y,y or something similar by holding down the button while dodging. This lets you reposition and stay safe while still getting to use the most powerful finishing move of a chain, that otherwise would only be used if you stood still and did all button presses in a row. This technique is built into the system and you can do it from the start with any weapon. It's also not needed at all to finish the game on normal and enjoy the ridiculous story and flashy bossfights. But dodge offset is a key and basically needed tool for higher level of play, it changes the way you handle encounters dramatically and allows for wider array of moves to be used "safely".

That sounds like a perfect example! I never got far enough in Bayonetta to actually know that existed, but I definitely had a good time mashing buttons.

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#17 Edited by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

I think that RPGs might have some difficulty applying this type of design since the act of building up is such a huge component of those games. I think FF8 does a little bit of lenticular design with its junction system as you have access to a whole bunch of the game's tools right from the start. Other than that single, controversial system I can't really think of any other RPGs that use a lack of player knowledge to hide complexity. Most of the time an RPG's difficulty and exp curve prevents all players from accessing higher level skills and tactics until many hours have been invested. So by the time any player has access to those skills they are already an expert on the game's systems. The way to side-step this problem is usually with new game+ content, but that is really just restarting the game's story with the gameplay set to midgame.

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#18 Posted by TobbRobb (6504 posts) -

@thatpinguino: Dustforce might also be a decent example. There are "glitches" in the game that were intended by the developers to be used by speedrunners to carry and increase momentum. Something similar to wavedashing but not exactly. Those aren't neccessarily needed to finish a level, but it will let you do it a lot faster.

I'm sad that I only think of intended mechanics for this, strategic implementation is more interesting. I suppose dota has a lot of layers to its mechanics that it could take years to figure out for some people, but the barrier of entry is so high that game doesn't really bring anything to a new/bad player. The hidden depth just separates experienced players from even more experienced ones.

Yeah RPGs are harder, but there are probably some examples around. I would like to think of weird utility spells that can be used in odd ways, like casting reflect on a boss that heals itself so the heals bounce to your party in FFX or chaining odd materia in 7 "quadcast, kotr, counter-magic amirite"? Not sure if stuff like that would apply, the concept is a little fuzzy to me.

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#19 Posted by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

@tobbrobb: Yeah I can think of a ton of individual skills that apply, like the reflect example. In FF9 you can cast reflect on your own party and bounce spells at the enemy off of your own party members for a damage boost. Or in FF5 you can combine ninja dual wielding with classes with better weapons to make super attackers. Another good one is healing magic in most rpgs acting as an attack spell against undead enemies. I can't think of a whole system that uses that kind of design, but I suppose that a bunch of little examples come together to form a game full of lenticular design. I mean MTG only really uses this design technique on a card-by-card basis.

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#21 Posted by Slag (8109 posts) -

I never knew the name for this phenomenon, but this exactly the core mechanical I look for in games.

I think "lenticular design" is often what Nintendo's core design philosophy is. Smash as you mentioned being the perhaps the best example of this. At least that's what it seems to me

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#22 Edited by Aetheldod (3914 posts) -

the lack of the mentioning of Super Metroid scares me D: .... I mean there are people who can beat the game with so few upgrades and be able to go places with only the bare minimum, I wont say it is 100% lenticular as you say but how about a 10-20% ?

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#23 Posted by BeachThunder (15059 posts) -

Spelunky is a great example. All the gameplay is unlocked from the beginning...but there's incredible depth to be found in all the items. A good example is the ghost: for new players, the ghost is a sign to get out of the level ASAP; for experienced players, the ghost is a sign to start collecting gems.

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#24 Posted by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

@slag: Yep Nintendo is really good at this. From secret doors in Mario to like 10% runs in Metroid, Nintendo knows how to hide its complexity. Now if they only made the tutorials skippable.

@aetheldod: Yeah that is pretty darn lenticular. Experts can get way more out of the same skills than new players and the length of the game straight up changes if you know what you're doing.

@beachthunder: Good call. Spelunky just seems like a different game when an experienced player is playing. There are so many things in that game that seem to be superfluous that are super key for high score runs. The game seems like a race to the end if you are a new player, but it is a speed run and score run game for an experienced player.

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#25 Edited by Jesna (362 posts) -

My mind immediately went to Fighting games and everything made by Platinum, which have already been mentioned. Would more active puzzle games count? Something like Tetris or Minesweeper presents all of the player's tools immediately, but as one continue's to play them they will figure out more advanced techniques naturally.

The game Catherine works similarly, it continually shows you new techniques for manipulating blocks as you ascend the dream-world. However, by the end I was already aware of the new tricks before it revealed them to me. This seems like it would fit your definition of lenticular design pretty well.

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#26 Posted by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

@jesna: Yes I would say so, just as long as the "basic" understanding of the game is enough to get you through. Like you can play a lot of Tetris without knowing advanced strategies, but you will only get high scores by learning the ins and outs.

I think restarting Catherine shows how much the game changes depending on your knowledge. It is super easy to beat a second time because you already know all of the puzzle tricks, not because you have a higher "level" or something. You change, not the game.

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#27 Posted by robot21 (23 posts) -

SpaceChem is a puzzle game with amazing lenticular design. It introduces a few new tools over time but most of the building blocks are there from the start. The genius design of the game is almost every level starts out looking impossible and requires the player to invent new strategies they didn't think of before. My favorite aspect is this often means players can return to puzzles they have already solved much later and, with the exact same tools, create solutions that are substantially better than what they had done before. It's a great feeling when you can see exactly how far you've progressed.

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#28 Edited by thatpinguino (2827 posts) -

@robot21: SpaceChem looks like a great example from what I saw of the game on the GB wiki page. A lot of puzzle games are great at lenticular design. Just take any of the GB sessions of Tetris Battle Gaiden for example. The first few times a new person plays they play the game like Tetris, creating fat stacks and occasionally using magic just to see what happens. After a few games you begin to see the guys develop strategies like denying magic blocks and aiming for particular spells. You even start seeing character preferences (ninja kid OP). It is no surprise that Tetris Battle Gaiden is so accessible, yet deep at the same time. It effectively combines two genres that greatly benefit from lenticular design: fighting games and puzzle games.

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