Katamari Damacy is a game built around a brilliant core concept, but its overarching goal structure nearly ruins the experience for me. Here’s the brilliant part: you push around a growing ball which can grab literally any object in the game world if it grows large enough. Here’s the annoying part: in each of the main “Make a Star” levels of the game, if you don’t grow your Katamari big enough within a given amount of time, you have to start the level over again from the beginning.
It’s easy to turn a fun, sandboxy pastime into a game by adding a time-pressure to it, but that’s almost always the least interesting way to do it, and it usually has negative side-effects. For instance, Katamari’s final level is 25 minutes long, and most players will need to play through it multiple times in order to win. At the end of my first 25-minute attempt, my Katamari wasn’t even close to the goal of 300 meters. That was okay—at least I’d gotten the lay of the land, and had a better idea of what I needed to do. When the timer ran out at the end of my second attempt, my Katamari was 298 meters large, and rolling at high speed toward a juicy island full of skyscrapers. Oof. Now all I have to do is spend another 25 minutes doing the exact same thing I just did for the last 25 minutes, but a tiny bit faster. This is not good game design.
There’s a more emergent negative consequence of this goal-structure: if you get off to a bad start in a level, you can know before you’re even halfway through that you can’t succeed. In such a case, playing out the rest of the level feels like a waste of time. This is analogous to playing through the last painful stretch of Monopoly when it’s obvious that you’re going to lose. Since Katamari Damacy is a single-player game, I can at least quit and restart without annoying a bunch of other players. But if I’m doing this on almost every level, there’s something wrong with the game design.
The designers of Peggle were faced with a similar design challenge. In Peggle, you’ve got a pachinko-machine screen full of pegs, and you’ve got ten shots to try to hit all of the orange ones. On the surface, this feels nothing like Katamari Damacy, but in fact, the two games bear a deep structural similarity. In Katamari Damacy, you’re trying to collect a given amount of stuff in a given amount of time, and in Peggle, you’re trying to hit a given number of pegs with a given number of shots. The games share a pair of design problems: how do we make it fun to replay levels after failing, and how do we keep players from sometimes feeling hopeless halfway through a level? Peggle’s designers actually managed to solve these problems.
They solved the first problem by randomly distributing the orange, blue, and green pegs at the beginning of each level. The physical layout of the pegs is the same each time—that’s what defines the level—but the distribution of peg-colors within that layout is different each time you play it. You never really play the same level twice, because each replay presents you with a unique situation that you’ve never seen before. Studying the initial layout of a Peggle level is fun in the same way that studying the initial layout of a Settlers of Catan island is fun.
And then there’s the Free Ball Bucket—a steely well that sweeps back and forth across the bottom of every level. The first time I played Peggle, I wondered what it was. After a ball fell into it, I understood, and thought “I wonder why the designers did that?” A few turns later, I realized that it was a brilliant solution to a serious design problem, and is in fact the key to making the whole game work. No matter how badly you’re doing in a level—no matter how many shots you’ve wasted on poorly-aimed or ill-conceived plans—it’s always possible, in principle, that the Free Ball Bucket will save your ass and keep you going long enough to mop up the remaining stragglers. In fact, the more dire your situation, the more glorious your comeback will be if you manage to pull it off. That’s top-notch game design, and like all non-band-aidy design solutions, it doesn’t just solve the immediate problem at hand, but ends up adding strategic depth to the entire game.
There’s no easy way to apply Peggle’s design solutions to Katamari Damacy. I don’t think that randomizing the item layout at the beginning of each Katamari level would improve the game, and while it might be nice to have some way to increase your timer in the middle of a level, it’s still hard to think of a way to do this that’s always capable of providing hope and that improves the fundamental gameplay. I don’t have a good solution to offer for Katamari’s design problem, but my design experience tells me that there there must be a solution—in fact, multiple solutions—out there. The key is to insist on looking for them.
I don’t mean to argue that Peggle is an objectively better game than Katamari Damacy. Katamari Damacy is brilliant. I love the music, I love the art, I love the writing, and I love the gameplay. I just wish the designers had found some way of avoiding the “do it within X minutes” paradigm.