Sakurai, Part 4: Designing Immortal Games

Overwatch, Anthem, Destiny, Fortnite, Call of Duty…

In the short time I’ve been back into gaming, I’ve seen several publishers push their games into being subscriptions, trying to get their players to keep paying for content for extended periods of time, whether that’s a schedule of DLCs, events, updates, season passes, or lootboxes. One of the biggest questions AAA developers now ask themselves is, “How can we get gamers to keep playing our game for months, if not years?”

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That’s a hard question to answer, because what makes a game fun to play for that long will depend entirely on the person. The games that I see with active fanbases on reddit are incredibly different — the casual game Stardew Valley has a thriving community years after release, as does the competitive Rocket League. Some may never like playing a game for that long. There will never be one answer to that question. What’s interesting to me, though, is that Sakurai got a head start asking himself that question back in the early 2000s with the advent of Super Smash Bros. Melee, and has developed a solid method for making his games “immortal” without feeling manipulative.

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Now, it’s important to note that as I describe Sakurai’s evolving philosophy, you personally may not find that particular mechanic engaging, and that’s okay. On one hand, it’s easy to see Sakurai’s way of extending a game’s life as repetitive and grindy (although most long-term games are guilty of that). On the other hand, you may find the core game experience so good that you would’ve played for months anyway, and the life-extending mechanics wouldn’t have been necessary. Your mileage will vary.

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All of my previous articles mention mechanics that already help extend the life of a video game. A game that’s easy to learn means (for multiplayer games) that you can always find new players to interact with. A game that’s hard to master means that you can always hone your skills. A game with variety will help ease the repetitiveness and keep the gameplay fresh.

But starting with Melee and Kirby Air Ride, Sakurai included other elements so that the player never ran out of things to do. He added in collecting, unlocking, and challenge mechanics that give players who love the game something to keep working for.

Beginning with Melee, Sakurai expanded upon the standard fighter/stage unlocking method by having the player win trophies, little 3D figures with a brief description of what game they’re referencing. Some trophies are only won after finishing certain criteria. For example, playing through one of the single-player modes earns a trophy of that fighter. Completing Multiplayer and Single Player matches awards the player with coins, which they can use on a gachapon-like machine to earn other new trophies at random as well. Classic mode also has a minigame of hitting falling trophies into a basket. The player can see all the trophies they’ve collected either in a list or displayed in a virtual room. I liked the trophies, as each one felt like a respectful nod to dozens of games that didn’t make the cut to be a fighter or a stage.

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This kind of mechanic worked well for people who like collecting, but it came with the price of a large amount of repetition. Getting all the fighter trophies meant playing through Classic Mode, Adventure Mode, and All-Star Mode with every fighter. Some would enjoy that, others would not.

Kirby Air Ride lacked a trophy mechanic, but instead Sakurai came up with The Checklist, a grid of challenges to complete that showed the player what to do in order to get the next unlockable. The grid would gradually open up Minesweeper-style, allowing the player to tackle the challenges in any order they wished. Unlockables in Air Ride included characters, vehicles, tracks, music, and minigames in the City Trial mode.

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Super Smash Bros. Brawl used both the trophy mechanic as well as its own version of The Checklist. Sakurai added in a small number of hammers that the player could use to “skip” certain challenges, a welcome addition. Replacing the gachapon machine this time around was a Galaga-style arcade game where the player used the coins they earned to “shoot down” the trophies. Back in the day I found this minigame a significant improvement from Melee’s gachapon machine, though it was beyond frustrating to miss a trophy that you’ve had your eyes on for a long time.

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Kid Icarus Uprising essentially copied the same mechanics from Brawl into its own game, replacing trophies with little figurines called Idols, which were fully animated when you looked at them. The gachapon returned as well, meaning Idols could be unlocked either randomly or through finishing challenges. It’s also worth noting the game used a “heart currency” that the player earned when defeating enemies to unlock better weapons. The player could slide up the difficulty before starting a level for the ability to earn more hearts and unlock the weapons even faster, adding in some risk vs. reward.

Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U added in one of the best unlockables Sakurai has ever made: Mii fighter costumes. This was a wise addition for all the characters loved by the Smash community that couldn’t reasonably make it in as fighters. I may not have played Smash 4, but thankfully this mechanic found its way into Ultimate where I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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I’m still mourning over Isaac. Someday, Golden Sun, you will get the attention you deserve.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was the first to leave the trophies behind, opting instead for Spirits. On one hand, it was disappointing to see the trophies go, as there was something special about unlocking a full 3D model of the object instead of a 2D image. Ultimate commonly gets criticized as a “jpeg collector” for just that reason. On the other hand, losing the trophies allowed for Sakurai to make over 1,200 Spirits for the player to collect (without losing his sanity), with references for video games across hundreds of titles and dozens of franchises. At first that may seem repetitive and unnecessary, until you find that character from that obscure game that you really love. And I think that was the point – getting all 1,303 spirits was likely not his aim, but instead to make sure that there would be something fun to unlock for everyone.

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And of course, he made sure to include his own version of the Checklist from Air Ride as well as the Difficulty Cauldron from Uprising with the Mural in Classic mode, where the higher difficulty meant more currency rewards to spend in the shop (an option for unlocking even more spirits, music, and Mii fighter costumes).

For many players, having the collecting, unlockables and challenges will significantly increase the time they will engage with the game when not on multiplayer; and for certain players, Sakurai’s mechanics offer an almost limitless gold mine of content lasting hundreds of hours. As a kid who grew up with only a few games and a large love for Smash Bros., I loved spending my summers getting all the trophies, fighters, and stages for his games. I know I should leave the Spirits mode alone and actually become a better fighter, but Ultimate’s 1,303 spirits have been calling to me and I just need to finish the collection.

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