Joust is Not Coming Back

One hard lesson that new developers have to learn is that not all game difficulty is equally fun. Some types of difficulty are perceived as fair, but other types are perceived as unfair… or worse, buggy.

The classics can teach us a lot about this. Many of the classic arcade games have survived for over 30 years and are still thriving in modern gaming. Robotron has been re-imagined as everything from Smash TV to Geometry Wars. Space Invaders is the grandfather of a million shoot-em-ups. Pac-Man never spawned derivative games, but the new versions of Pac-Man on the Xbox 360 are great, popular, accessible games.

But there are plenty of other arcade games which never managed a popular sequel, and whose game mechanics have died completely. Take, for instance, Asteroids and Joust. What’s wrong with these classics? Why can’t they be reborn?

The problem with these two is that their difficulty comes purely from the controls. In Asteroids you must painstakingly orient your ship and provide just the right amount of thrust. In Joust you must flap just the right number of times to overcome gravity, but not TOO high. Both games are about mastering the tricky controls of the on-screen avatar. If the controls were easier, there’d be no game there.

These games don’t work with modern audiences. If players have trouble controlling their avatar, they don’t go “Wow, this game is hard!” They say, “This game is unresponsive”. Often they don’t even perceive it as difficulty! They just perceive it as poor design.

Contrast these to Mario games. In the original Super Mario Bros, Mario was a little sluggish, but he’s gotten easier and easier to control over the years. That doesn’t mean Mario games are “dumbed down”, either… they always have some very difficult levels. (The bonus levels in Super Mario Sunshine are among the most difficult 3D platform levels I’ve ever done.) But the difficulty feels “fair” because the player feels in control. When Mario dies, it’s because you did the wrong thing, not because “the stupid controls don’t work right!”

To repeat, I’m not saying players can’t handle hard games. LOTS of gamers want hard games, at least occasionally. But don’t make the mistake of thinking all kinds of difficulty are equally viable. Even when players are asking for “old-school hardcore games”, they really mean they want a game that is difficult within the confines of what they now consider fair… not what they considered fair 15 years ago.

We’re never going to go back to the days when you had to sit down for three or four minutes between combats (EQ1), or use trial and error to find the spell components needed for each of your spells (Asheron’s Call), or calculate the angle of your enemy in your head (classic Star Trek). Those kinds of “difficulty” are perceived as design flaws now.

On the other hand, MMOs where you have to use your abilities perfectly, in tandem with a large group, and where the death penalty is high? That’s all acceptable for a hard game.

Players Are Maturing, Not Devolving

As the art of video games matures, players are slowly figuring out what is fun for them and what isn’t.  Their expectations are based around that. When they want to play a difficult game, they expect it to be difficult in “fair” ways… not “unfair” ones.

Players aren’t “too stupid to understand” these discarded concepts; they are simply unwilling to tolerate outmoded designs, much as you are not likely to pay $15 to watch a silent black and white movie in theaters.

You can wish that wasn’t true, and you can decry the “sorry state of gaming today” if you like. (I don’t.) But whatever you do, you aren’t bringing these mechanics back into vogue. Plan accordingly.

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16 Responses to Joust is Not Coming Back

  1. Pingback: Deserve vs. Earn « Random Ogre Thoughts

  2. Eric says:

    Somehow I disabled comments unintentionally… oops! Comments are back on now.

  3. kriss says:

    The “this camera sucks” problems come from the fact that giving players controls relative to the actor rather than the camera is something that a large number of people simply can not get their head around.

    So movement relative to the camera becomes the norm and stupid shitty camera becomes the complaint. A regular complaint.

    This is a problem that is caused by “fixing” the actor relative control, which is the main asteroids control problem, not the thrust issues which are minor in comparison.

    When your solution causes other problems, its not a solution its a design choice, neither of which is right.

    Controls relative to your actors position and orientation in a 3rd person environment is now extinct as a sizeable chunk of the audience cannot comprehend the question and alienated this part of the audience is not good business.

    Sure sounds like dumbing down to me, homogenized design to fit the lowest level of audience comprehension.

    I think it is generally the right choice, but it is a perfect example of “too stupid to understand” some people really have trouble with that sort of spatial mental gymnastics.

  4. af says:

    just had to mention that there’s a joust inspired series of quests in one of the new zones in WoW’s latest expansion, cataclysm.

  5. Chess says:

    Ironically a few years ago when Xbox Live was just coming out with their downloadable arcade games Joust was one of the original titles (along with Robotron and others). My 8 year old (at the time) and I would play it all the time.

    Joust does inspire :

  6. Cat says:

    Came here just to say what af said!

    I don’t know of anyone who liked the Joust-inspired quest where you had to mount a vehicle (in this case a flying bird) and then hit the “flap” button just the right number of times without overshooting your target. The WoW version of Joust is 3D, so you are trying to hit targets along the x, y, and z axes and it can be very frustrating to keep missing a target because you were a little too high or a little too far to the left.

    Not to mention, once you flap, inertia keeps you sailing in that direction even if you change your camera direction — which is how you would turn around or steer on a normal flying mount. The only “steering” in the WoW version of Joust is to turn your camera a different direction and hit “flap” again. It felt very wrong and awkward and I felt like I was fighting the controls.

    After a while, I learned it was easiest to hover near the bottom and flap frantically from below when they passed over me. Trying to hit the targets while being above them or on the same plane was just too difficult.

  7. Sandra says:

    I wasn’t going to say anything because I didn’t think to ask Eric about this, but I do wonder if his using Joust as an example is related to the time I spent cursing at the top of my lungs while doing that quest series the other night. :)

    It was definitely the inertia that killed me. Inertia that doesn’t immediately feel like real-world inertia, and especially in a game that otherwise doesn’t use it, comes across as really sloppy controls – even if those controls are camera-relative.

  8. My comment is going to echo what a lot of other people have said. There have been a ton of Pac-Man derivative games, just not as many in recent history. Lock’n'Chase, Mouse Trap, and Lady Bug are three classic arcade games. I suspect the reason we don’t see more derivative of this game is because Namco is good at exploiting the franchise and keeping it evergreen.

    But Asteroids? You mean the one game that is cloned on pretty much every platform ever? I also don’t think you can point to a lack of cloning as a reliable measure of the lack of popularity or quality of games. Centipede is a great classic game, but it has been cloned a lot less than Asteroids, for example.

    I think the amount of cloning depends on how “complete” a game is. On one hand, Robotron had a lot more ways to “upgrade” it, especially given how shooter games developed. More enemy types, more gun types, etc. On the other had, you have Centipede, where adding or removing any elements seems to detract from the game. The “sequel” to Centipede, Millipede, is not quite as classic. A lot of game designers think that is because it tried to add too much to the game and disrupted the balance the original had. I expect the same thing with Joust, where the inventively named sequel Joust 2 just didn’t have the same pull for whatever reason, despite adding more to it. So, a developer has to ask what they could add to the game to give it their own unique stamp.

    As for the issue of difficulty, I’m not sure that’s really a motivation here. The proliferation of “physics” type games on Flash show that something frustrating and hard to control precisely isn’t necessarily a turnoff for a lot of players. I expect the real reason you don’t see people necessarily cloning some of the forgotten classics is simply because they’re old and considered not worthy of attention by the newest crop of developers.

    And, yes, those damn kids do need to get off my lawn. ;)

  9. Eric says:

    @Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green: You’re just being pedantic about sequels. Of course there are millions of games of all types. I mean successful ones… ones with enough of a crowd of gamers to have meaningful leaderboards, for a start. I love classic arcade games and play the hell out of Xbox Arcade and PS3 downloadable titles, and I can say without fear of inaccuracy that the Asteroids games on modern consoles were dismal failures.

    Games can flop for a lot of reasons, and there have certainly been enough Robotron-clone flops on Arcade to prove that game design isn’t the only reason a game will succeed or fail. But come on, there’s been NO popular Asteroids-style games for decades!

    My expectation is that Joust 2 failed because Joust 1 wasn’t really fun in the first place; it was just in the right place at the right time. (There’s really no reason to think that all classic arcade games are as fun as all the others.)

    Physics games nicely circumvent the “avatar controls are bad” problem by removing avatar control entirely so that players perceive it as an “amazing machine” puzzle instead. The problem boils down to a psychology issue, and it turns out to be pretty easy to work around it when you know it exists. But new designers don’t know it exists, and they make games (yes, including physics games) that flop because of it.

    I’m also in a bit of a privileged position because I get to see the thousands of arcade-style games that developers upload to One of the most common reasons an arcade-style Flash game gets lower “fun” ratings is because it has unresponsive or difficult avatar controls… it’s what gave me the idea for the blog post.

  10. Eric says:

    kriss – Who are you calling “stupid”? :) Of course we can play games with poor camera controls. We played the living crap out of Mario 64 and other N64 games with abysmal camera controls. But that doesn’t mean we liked it! And I for one won’t put up with it today, now that there are choices that don’t have this failing.

    I’m not too stupid, I’m just not going to do un-fun things in the name of difficulty.

    (PS – Asteroids is hard mainly because of the inertia IMO)

  11. mike says:

    There were a lot of really poor shooting and running games before Mario and Robotron, too. I’d say the reason that Joust and Asteroids didn’t evolve as much is that the things they’re simulating are really pretty narrow: space flight with thrust and inertia and winged flight are less generally applicable than people standing on the ground, jumping and shooting things; jumping and shooting are common enough that people are going to keep trying until they get it right.

    But Asteroids controls did wind up in xpilot and Subspace and (the excellent) Star Control 2. Its day might be over, though. Even in situations where space dogfighting is called for, it’s hard to justify doing it in 2d when it’s so easy to do in 3d.

  12. Jezebeau says:

    The aspect of Asteroids which made it difficult for some added to the complexity of other games. Subspace (now Continuum) went beyond inertia and added the ship’s velocity to the projectile velocities. Elite demonstrated ship inertia in 3D, though much of its success was based on other merits. Independance War did the same. More recently, Shattered Horizon is a zero-G, zero drag FPS which, while the controls can feel a bit resistant, owes its difficulty to adapting to a shifting frame of reference. Rolling on the longitudinal axis is a fairly nonintuitive control.

    Lastly, the emergence of the masocore genre (The apple falls upwards and kills you in ‘I Wanna Be The Guy’) shows that there are still people who want hardcore games when they say they want hardcore games.

  13. kriss says:

    I don’t think you understand, I’m pointing at a very specific form of mental gymnastics.

    Understanding relative movement to an actor on screen rather than to the camera view.

    Something which asteroids requires.

    Some people do not have this skill. Its missing, they don’t want to learn it, it hurts their heads, etc etc. If you canvas your friends you will find someone who has this attitude.

    Your willingness to cope with the problems of controls relative to the camera combined with their unwillingness to deal with actor relative controls is why camera relative controls have won.

    Maybe you believe asteroids is hard due to the inertia for the simple reason that you do not understand how anyone could fail to grasp actor relative controls. Something you do not have any problem with. For some, that is the real deal breaker.

    If you go back to the 90s you will find 3rd person games with controls relative to the actor. This is something that you no longer see.

    Anyway only reason I’m posting again is so I can link to this :)
    “I have a confession… I hate Asteroids. I always wanted to love it, but just never got on with the controls. I would have loved asteroids with these controls.”

    Inertia is still there although dampened by friction.

    Guess what the main change is.

    Point proved :)

  14. Eric says:

    @kriss: two things. First, people who have problems with 3D spatial relations do not in general have the same problems from a top-down 2D view. I know it seems logically like they should, but no. This is why it’s so critical for designers to take psychology courses: you cannot logically deduce how the human mind works, because it isn’t very logical.

    Second, most people, myself included, do have trouble with poor 3D camera controls, such as the ones you describe where the movement has too many degrees of relativity. Those are “bad camera controls” and the vast majority of gamers agree with this sentiment. However, we can play them if we have to; these games were quite common in earlier generations of 3D games, and we played them just fine. We just didn’t like it very much and when there’s better alternatives, woohoo. Bye-bye bad mechanics.

    It is true that a few savants are good at it, but suggesting that games that don’t cater to those people are “dumbed down for the lowest common denominator” is both insulting and misguided. It’s misguided because it’s giving the mainstream gaming industry WAY more credit than it deserves.

    Designers simply don’t “cater to stupid players” (aka people with mental limitations that make certain game mechanics difficult). Most designers use THEMSELVES as their target audience, and they make a game they personally find fun. They don’t find crappy camera controls fun, so out they go.

    Sandra gets motion-sick when playing most FPSes. This is pretty common, and the sad thing is that some simple adjustments to turn rates and the amount of camera sway would fix this, but designers almost never bother. Why don’t they? Because they don’t have the problem.

    I have a very hard time telling direction in 3D spaces — without a compass, I get turned around constantly. About 25% of human beings are like this! Yet very few FPSes have a compass on-screen. Why didn’t they cater to my lowest common denominatorhood? Because the designers didn’t have the problem.

    Hell, most games don’t even cater to colorblindness, and that’s probably the best-documented minor disability in existence.

    Yet in spite of ignoring all these things that would make their audience larger, the designers have nevertheless settled on 3D over-the-shoulder camera controls, and controls that in general directly map to the direction you want to go. Did the designers finally dumb it down for the stupid people? No. I regret to inform you that this is not because designers suddenly got better at thinking about people besides themselves. The much saner interpretation of the facts is that YOU are the outlier, not everybody else who thinks bad camera controls are bad.

    Everybody has strengths and weaknesses in gaming, but it’s a major design mistake to assume that your strengths are the normative strengths. (Designers do it anyway, in droves, but it’s still a mistake.) In fact games would be a hell of a lot more successful if designers DID cater a LITTLE BIT to the average user. But instead of scientifically approaching the problem, they just make games for themselves, so the amount of improvement is very slow.

  15. Eric says:

    @Jezebeau: You’ve named a lot of genres that aren’t arcade games here. Subspace did have a modest following and it is kind of arcadey, so I’ll give you that one. The space-sim games, though, don’t even approach the same audience expectations. (It’s also fine for flight-sims to have difficult controls: it’s genre expectation for simulations.)

    The “masocore” games I’ve played are puzzle games, not arcade games. IWBTG looks like a platformer, but it’s completely a puzzle game. Very few people would play these games over and over to get higher scores. That’s the easiest way you can tell an arcade game from others. Also, I tend to consider revenue potential when making games, because I’m not rich. We have yet to license a SINGLE Flash game of this type on FlashGameLicense as far as I know. And we license games for as low as $50. These games have very little commercial value. (Related, but much easier, genres such as “guess how to get all 1000 achievements in the game” sell poorly, but at least sell somewhat.)

    And that was my point, really: tiny audiences. You can certainly prove me wrong by pointing to a tiny audience that likes ANYTHING. There’s always a few. There are people who still love Joust, too, and the one I’ve met did in fact think everybody else was just “too dumb” to handle it.

    And there are indie designers who make games for all sorts of uber-niches. These are exceptionally poor revenue generators, but hey, if it’s your thing, that’s fine. I want to make a text-based MMO full of old school adventure-game puzzles. And I will some day, but not while I’m trying to make money, because that game will never make a dime.

    “Plan accordingly” is how I ended the blog post, because lots of people make the mistake of assuming there are actually millions of people who like these sub-par game mechanics, just because they and a few friends happen to. If you’re using an outmoded game mechanic, I’m sure you can find a few people who are all gung-ho about it. But that doesn’t mean your game is actually going to be successful in finding an adequate player base.

    If you want to make a Joust MMO (or anything else) on your own dime, I do not begrudge you that at all! But if you try to make a commercially successful Joust MMO, and it fails, and you complain that everybody was just too stupid to understand it, I will not have any sympathy.

  16. J Osborne says:

    Interesting, I liked the original Joust, and when I ran into the WoW Joust quest I liked it, but it was a pale shadow of how much I liked the original (my wife by contrast HATED the Joust quest, and had never played the original). I had chalked it up to the WoW version not being as good, much like the WoW plants v. zombies quests are not as fun as playing the “real” plants v. zombies (which I attributed to the controls not being as nice as they are on the iPad, and the game balance being somewhat different from what I think of as “the real one”, but I admit if I played the WoW one first I might think the iPad version had the wrong costs for things).

    If you’re using an outmoded game mechanic, I’m sure you can find a few people who are all gung-ho about it. But that doesn’t mean your game is actually going to be successful in finding an adequate player base.

    Hrm, I have always thought that underserved markets tend to be overlooked. People think “oh 100 million people want FOO, and only a million want BAR, so I’ll make FOO and get super rich doing it”. The real thing to think through is if there are 100 solutions to FOO on the market right now, and only one solution to BAR on the market there is more money to be made attempting to get a chunk of the BAR market. At least assuming you don’t manage to take better then average market share…if you can take better the average market share the bigger market could be better, but that still depends on “how much better then average” and how many solutions are in the ring…

    So you might be able to do an updated (say) missle command even though it will have a lower demand then doing a FPS because while fewer folks buy missle command-like games, the FPS buyers only have a one out of six hundrad chance of seeing your game while looking for FPSes, but missle command-like buyers have more like a one from four chance…