I designed three Godzilla games for Atari between 2001 and 2007. The team sizes varied between ~12 and ~45, and I was not the only person on the team with the title of designer, nor were the designers the only ones contributing significantly to the design. But I think of all three games as very much "my" games, in a way most of the other projects I have worked on are not. A few conditions probably contribute to this feeling:
1 - I had an entirely free hand when designing the combat mechanics, controls, and monster styles.
2 - I used that authority to really push some boundaries in terms of "fighting games".
3 - All three projects really succeeded or failed in direct proportion to how well I succeeded or failed at completing my portion of the development.
(Point #3 is a bit of a feedback loop - if I don't make the game fun to play, people working on the game with me don't enjoy playing it, and consequently don't put the polish time into the project that it needs to really be fantastic.)
What happened today:
Today, I had a chance to sit down and play some Godzilla: Unleashed for about 90 minutes. I haven't touched the game in more than a year. I started up a three-player brawl with a couple friends, and we played 3 full rounds to completion (first monster to finish first in 2 rounds wins). Then one player left, and I played about eight "versus" matches (best of three) with my remaining friend.
I was reminded about how many awesome things are in the game. I was also reminded about the game's shortcomings, both real and imaginary. When Godzilla fans talk about their complaints with Godzilla: Unleashed they tend to have three major gripes: the story, the speed, and the features "lost" from the previous games. Almost nobody talks about the energy system as a problem - but tonight I feel that the energy system is the biggest problem of all, and is indicative of some design weaknesses of mine in general.
Explaining the Energy System
The energy system in Godzilla: Unleashed is actually very simple: Firing your ranged weapon(s) drains your energy. You may charge your energy back up at any time, but doing so stops your natural health regeneration.
This system creates lots of interesting strategic depth, because both health regeneration and energy regeneration are critical elements to victory. I want to charge my energy at the beginning of the match, because my health starts full. I can get in close and mix it up without fear of losing health, because I know I can always run away and regain health as necessary. But running away opens me up to heavy damage from ranged weapons from my opponent! I can counter that to some extent with my own energy-fueled attacks, but only if I have more energy than my opponent. Which means I need to change my energy more, which means I have less initial health...
This system is strategically interesting because each option becomes less attractive over time - so you need to switch strategies frequently to keep your monster at peak combat effectiveness. In design terms I would say that each type of regeneration creates negative feedback with itself - and creates a situation in which the other type becomes more and more important.
The best time to charge your weapon is actually while you are fighting toe-to-toe with your opponent, so that your energy is available when you need it later. If you want to play a run-away game, you can probably avoid taking damage long enough to regain significant health. But your opponent can use that same time to change their weapon - which means they can hit you without chasing you down.
So many interesting choices! So many options! What a great piece of work!
So what's the problem?
The problem is that both health regeneration and energy regeneration are too slow to provide good feedback to the players. Fights in Godzilla: Unleashed require lots of split-second decisions, but over the course of 2-3 seconds neither type of regeneration is visible enough to educate players. This problem was further compounded by the fact that we supported 4-monster battles, so each monster had only 1/4 of the screen for their Health and Energy bars, unlike 1-on-1 fighting games in which each character has fully 1/2 the screen.
As a result, most players (and certainly all first-time players) didn't understand that they should be constantly weighing the strategic importance of health regeneration vs energy regeneration. New players simply don't fire their weapons, because after their initial blast the weapons just stopped working! Godzilla's Atomic Breath is not only a strategically essential part of his combat style - it also looks awesome. So slogging through a monster battle without any weapons play is a double-wammy of aesthetic and tactical deprivation.
Now I don't mean to imply that the only problem here was that players didn't understand how to change up their energy. Our UI had been pretty well refined over the previous 5 years of Godzilla games, and the visuals of the energy model didn't change between versions. But in the first two versions energy charged automatically - without player input. Godzilla: Unleashed changed that into a deliberate action for players, which I hoped would give them more strategic options. But unfortunately it was just one thing too many to keep in mind. A fighting game keeps you thinking about timing, combos, movement - and the Godzilla games add power-ups, military attacks & significant environmental hazards into the mix. Will all those systems fighting for player attention, my change to the energy model just slipped between the moment-to-moment combat.
Without energy, fights degenerate into 100% close-combat. This gives melee-focused monsters a huge advantage - and broke the balance between characters. When I play a fighting game and see that monster A consistently beats monster B I think in my head "What am I missing? These monsters must be well-balanced, so I must be playing them wrong." I'm inclined to assume that the game is cohesive. But less generous players just assume that the game is poorly balanced. And if their opponent doesn't know any better - that becomes true.
But in this case a failure to understand the energy system didn't just mean a lack of weapons - it also meant constant health regeneration which made the close-combat battles drag.
Health regeneration makes it more important to maximize your damage per second than to maximize your damage per attack. The best DPS attacks in the game were quick jabs - just mashing the A button. But those weren't good at hitting unless your opponent was standing relatively still - so most players relied upon heavy-hitting single attacks like uppercuts and jump kicks. But those attacks were not good at reducing a regenerating health bar.
So who did best in these no-energy matchups? It was the players who mashed the A button more. Players were rewarded if they avoided complex attacks - unless they understood the energy system. (Once you knew how to choose range combat, experienced players could wipe the floor with button-mashers every time.)
Instead of a smooth difficulty curve, the broken energy system created a clump of players near the lowest tier of skill. It discouraged players from investigating the mechanics of the game, and it prevented players from moving - exploring the environmental interactions which really made the game stand out from sparse fighters like Soul Calibur, Tekken, or DOA.
I'm a big math geek - and I love creating systems which leverage other systems. That means that if you lose one element of a game - the entire structure of the game falls apart. And in the case of the energy system in Godzilla: Unleashed, it was easy to pull out that first piece. As a result the entire game suffered, and my ego suffered along with it.
This isn't a sob story - Godzilla: Unleashed sold around 800,000 units over its lifetime (exact numbers are hard to find, and Atari went out of business once or twice during this time, but I believe that number is accurate) and made a pretty good profit for everyone involved. Specifically, it sold better than some of the previous Godzilla fighters, which were more mechanically stable. But today it really stands out to me as a huge error in my design career.