3D Platformers – How Game Design Contributed to their Downfall (and hopeful revival)

Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Tooie, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Spyro the Dragon, Mario Sunshine, Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, Sly Cooper, Psychonauts. After these games in the 5th and early 6th console generation, the 3D platformer as we knew it died off significantly. Games that continued their legacy ended up being wildly different. Some went into a first person view like Mirror’s Edge. Some went into Action-Adventure (Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, Skylanders, Knack). Some tried staying as 3D platformers but made levels more linear, hindering exploration (Mario Galaxy and 3D Land/World). These games ended up being unable to satisfy the crowds of gamers that loved exploring 3D platformers like myself.

Let’s explore reasons for why the genre died to understand what new 3D platformers games need to do in order to bring the genre back. The way I see it, the 3D platformer died because of social changes in the early 2000’s, technology reasons, and problems with the game design that narrowed the possible player types.

Social and Technological Changes

With the move into 3D, more types of games were made possible. 2D platformers dominated the 3rd and 4th console generations because of the limitations of technology at the time. There really weren’t many possibilities they could do in 2D. New technology, especially in the 6th generation enabled genres like first-person shooters, open-world sandboxes, RPGs, Action-Adventure, etc. to spawn. This gave people more options in what to play.

3D platformers failed to make as much money as their 2D counterparts and other new genres were becoming more popular. 3D platformers were also hard to make. They were usually more open-world and required a camera that would allow for decent platforming than an FPS or even 3rd person action-adventure game. So, why would developers keep making games that weren’t as popular and harder to make? You may wonder, why were they not making as much money?

The audience that enjoyed gaming, kids born in the late 80s and early 90s, was aging. They were becoming teens. As such, they were craving more realistic games and it was now possible to make these realistic games. The colorful mascot platformers of the past had little place in the world. Jak and Daxter decided to follow Grand Theft Auto by going into the action-sandbox genre. Ratchet and Clank slowly lowered a number of platforming sections and replaced it with more gunplay.

This social change heavily contributed to why 3D platformers made less money but weren’t there still kids growing up and playing games? Why weren’t they playing 3D platformers? Much of the reasons are related to those above: they are harder to make. If you are just going to make a game for kids, why not make it like Skylanders or Knack? This simplifies the camera, controls, and level design making it easier to make and easier for kids to play. This leads us into talking about the game design of 3D platformers.

Game Design Limiting Player Types

2D platformers were popular. Kids could play them and adults could even join in sometimes. When you play Donkey Kong Country or a 2D Mario, there’s really things here for every type of player. If you aren’t very familiar with games, they are easy enough to get you going. You can beat some levels and feel good. If you are more skilled, you will be looking for secrets along the way and naturally progress through the levels more quickly. These are natural ways to balance flow control for a wide range of players, from low-skilled to high-skilled. This is why the 2D platformer is one of the most popular genres ever created.

3D platformers lose both of these advantages. It’s much harder for low-skilled players to get in flow compared to other genres. And there are fewer challenges to keep high-skilled players in flow compared to other genres. Thus fewer people will find 3D platformers enjoyable and purchase them. Let’s see how these types of games narrow down the player-base.

Controls

In 3D there are several more pieces of input you can provide creating more complicated move sets than 2D games. Just think of how much more Mario can do in 3D than 2D. The analog stick adds between 6 and infinite more directions to move. Many games have backflipping, long jumps, double jumping, hovering. This means that in order to play a 3D platformer, you need to be a lot more coordinated, narrowing the low-skilled cap. I explore how the abilities in Banjo-Kazooie impact flow and difficulty in a positive way by allowing more types of gameplay, but it’s still true that it requires more initial skill to be able to perform those abilities.

Many of the abilities being added were just to make the game more reasonable in a 3D world due to depth perception, camera, and analog stick limitations. These limitations are native to 3D games in general but are mostly pronounced when you need to do precise movements, which is mostly limited to platforming sections of games. This is why other genres, like RPGs, can get by with more clunky controls. The player should never need to do any platforming that requires precise distance measuring or directional precision that a 2D screen and analog stick can’t give you. (Except for FFXV’s Pitioss Ruins. Why did they put a platforming dungeon in an RPG???)

The camera systems were not good enough to provide appropriately challenging gameplay. Developers needed to worry about if players could see what they were doing. They didn’t want players getting too frustrated by unfair challenges. This caused them to focus less on challenging platforming than 2D platformers could allow. This limits the cap on high-skilled players being able to enjoy the game while not becoming bored, narrowing down the possible players that will find these games fun.

Over Abundance of Mini-Games

Because of the camera systems, platforming could barely be used to add challenge. Many 3D platformers still tried to add challenges, but without platforming to rely on, they resorted to mini-games. These mini-games break up the games unnaturally and often doesn’t provide natural progression in the game. Mini-games tended to be one-time experiences you would have to learn the mechanics for just to never see them again. If they did show up again (DK 64’s bonus barrels), they would be harder, but it’s not very exciting to see.

Compare the platforming challenges of Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3’s bonus barrels to the mini-games in bonus barrels in DK64. The former are definitely more exciting and relate to the main game more. Bonus challenges in DKC games were often harder platforming challenges you could complete if you were more skilled than a normal player at that time. If you found it hard, you could just move on and come back later when you were more skilled at platforming and you would probably be able to beat it. This was a great way of balancing flow for both high and low-skilled player types.

In DK64, this is not true. If you can’t beat a mini-game the first time through, you are unlikely to find challenges later in the game to help you practice to be able to come back later and beat it, upsetting low-skilled players. It also doesn’t provide extra challenge related to platforming to reward high-skilled players for being better, so they get more bored or even annoyed.

Even worse is when these mini-games seep into the linear game. Jak 2 and 3 were trying hard to be both 3D platformers and action adventure sandbox games. Their main story had a linear structure, yet they felt they needed to put some mini-games into their missions to follow what 3D platformers had become. Thus, you have an unreasonable mini-game stuck in the middle of the main story that will prevent you from progressing if you don’t have the skills to beat it (Onin’s Game being the top example of this).

Open-world experiences

The design of early 3D platformers tended to be more open experiences. I have a post about how amazing the open level design is in Banjo-Kazooie. Games like Banjo would give the player control of where they wanted to go and what challenges they wanted to do. While this is great for exploration, it means the player was left to control their own flow by themselves. This contributes to the low-skill threshold required to be able to play the game higher than 2D platformers and several other linear genres because they would get lost and stuck more often. In 2D platformers, if you wanted to just play the game, you would usually only need to go from left to right and you would make progress eventually. In more open-world games, players can get lost trying to continue the game.

You can see that Nintendo realized this because they have been gradually making their 3D Mario games more and more linear experiences letting more skilled players attempt more challenging, optional goals within the levels to achieve flow, just like their 2D counterparts. The first Mario Galaxy started it. The hub world was greatly reduced in size until being removed in Galaxy 2. The level themselves are linear experiences, but you can choose levels in various orders, which is a way to choose challenges you want to do, giving the player options. By the time we get to Mario 3D World, levels must be done in order and are smaller in scale (at least it feels that way). Extra challenges are done by attempting to get star coins in levels. These changes lead Mario 3D World to feel more like a 2D platformer than a 3D platformer, upsetting the open-exploration 3D platformer fan, while also having many of the limitations in controls that 3D platformers have.

In Zelda Breath of the Wild, rather than make the world more linear, they allowed the player to complete challenges using different types of strategies. This allowed them to have an open-world environment but also gave low-skilled players more ways that they can do well, improving the player’s flow. Perhaps modern 3D platformers can use a similar strategy to make the game interesting in an open-world setting for both low and high-skilled players.

Collection Mania

Some games in the genre had an overabundance of collecting things that harmed their game design. While I personally love collectathons, I do get annoyed when I have to backtrack over a whole world just to collect one thing I missed and I have no idea where it is. Some Spyro games had a cheat that would give you a few buttons you could press to know the direction of the nearest gem. I find this feature largely mitigates the problem and should be included in most 3D platformers.

One notable example that takes collecting things to the extreme is Donkey Kong 64. Each world has 25 Golden Bananas to collect and 500 smaller bananas. The real problem wasn’t that it had so many collectibles, but was with the way you had to collect them. It made you backtrack over the world multiple times with different characters in order to collect everything. This ended up just being repetitive and lacking any real challenge. It doesn’t even really make sense. Why can Diddy collect this banana but Donkey can’t? The game would’ve benefited by letting the player choose which Kong they wanted to use for each particular challenge. This way, they could use their favorite Kong to go around the world and see what there is, but then change characters when they needed a particular character’s ability.

This led people to see the term “collectathon” as a negative experience. This leads to more modern “3D platformers”, like Knack, Skylanders, or even Ratchet and Clank and recent 3D Mario games trying to put the emphasis on action and following linear paths rather than collecting things. This has the unfortunate side effect of losing expansive environments meant to be explored, which was the whole point of the genre.

An overabundance collectibles can narrow the player-base in both directions if not done carefully. High-skilled players will get annoyed and bored at collecting silly things that are easy to get but out of their way. Low-skilled players will get frustrated when they don’t have enough collectibles to continue through the game because of various gates on the number of collectibles required to move to the next world.

Perhaps there is a way to limit collectibles while also giving players the expansive worlds they craved? For example, Mario 64 and Sunshine had relatively few collectibles compared to most 3D platformers and those worked just fine. Rather than just lower the number of collectibles, I’d like to see a system where collectibles are more meaningful. The Honeycombs in Banjo-Kazooie are usually nicely hidden and don’t block progression. Finding these is always a treat because you’re one step closer to getting more health, but you don’t need it to complete the game. It rewards good players nicely without punishing those who don’t find them too much.

The 3D Platformer Revival?

In more recent times, fans of 3D platformers have been clamoring for something new. Just like the late 2000’s revival of the 2D platformers with LittleBigPlanet and New Super Mario Bros Wii, we were hoping for a revival, too.

Some gamers who loved the genre decided to create games themselves. One promising example is A Hat In Time, due out this year. Meanwhile, these indie developers are likely to be overshadowed by ex-Rare developers coming back to make Banjo-Thre… I mean Yooka-Laylee. Super Mario Odyssey also looks like a return to the open-world 3D platforming that people are craving.

With these three games, it feels like 2017 is the return of the 3D platformer. But nostalgia alone won’t be enough to bring this genre back for good. What will it take for these games to touch more than just the nostalgia buttons?

  • The controls must be easy to pick up for everyone. Can this be done in a more modern time?
  • The camera must not be annoying and allow for challenging platforming. Has technology and game design patterns improved enough to make a camera that successfully works in a 3D platformer? (Personally, I would say yes, but I never had many problems with cameras anyway)
  • Levels must be designed in a way to challenge high-skilled players but allow low-skilled players to get through the game.
  • We want open exploration, at least as much as the N64 could give us. Let us choose where to go within a level and find secrets on our own. But, allow low-skilled players to get through the game without getting stuck. (Personally, I’m against completely open-world. I prefer the open-hub → next open-hub → etc.)
  • Minimize the use of mini-games. If they are used, pick one or two and gradually increase its challenge throughout the game.
  • Collecting things must be meaningful. Don’t just throw collectibles and make us pick them up in random places. Some should be challenging and optional, but give us good rewards. It should be fun collecting them, don’t force us to backtrack.

At the end of the day, the ultimate thing stopping 3D platformers from being revived is money. So, go out and buy these games to pressure more companies to make more. Yooka Laylee is out this week, so get excited! If you just want to go back to the past for games we know are good, pick up Rare Replay instead. Tip: Amazon Prime members get 20% off all preorders and newly released games. If you’re not a member, sign up and use the discount!