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Designing Sasuke

May 13, 2012

Beautiful Mt. Midoriyama, the final stage.

Since my last few posts about head trauma have a bit of a downer, I thought it would be fun to post about something a bit lighter for a change of pace. If you aren’t familiar with it, Sasuke is a Japanese…well, game show may not be quite the right word, but it’s a televised obstacle course, and airs in the U.S. on G4 as Ninja Warrior.

Japan seems pretty fond of these kind of obstacle course spectacles as TV shows, some people may remember Takeshi’s Castle, which was sillier, but not an entirely different concept. Takeshi’s Castle was translated to American television in the form of shows like Wipeout and Hole-In-The-Wall, revealing a kind of universal appeal. However, while those shows are more about ordinary people navigating a silly, but entirely complete-able course, Sasuke is more like of fitness challenge that people train for years to be able to be competitive. The stages in the obstacle course run a gamut of physical challenges, testing primarily grip and upper body strength, but the only real common factor being that all require an exemplary degree of strength and agility. A sampling of challenge names includes “Jump Hang”, “Salmon Ladder”, and “Descending Lamp Grasper”.

Is Sasuke a sport? I’m not sure. It’s certainly physically demanding, and one could make the case that it’s as much a sport as gymnastics or weightlifting. Hedging slightly, I’d say it’s just a particular event in the “sport” of fitness, so make of that what you will. I’m not aware of the extent of it’s popularity in Japan, although it’s run for 27 years, so I’d expect that there’s some level of general popular awareness, possibly sufficient for whatever cultural standard we’re setting for “sport” status.

However, measuring Japanese awareness of the show isn’t what I’m interested in talking about today. What I actually want to discuss is the wikipedia page for Sasuke’s challenges. Sasuke makes modifications to their courses every year, to keep it interesting and to balance the difficulty. The fans on wikipedia have logged the challenges for each year, and display them in a handy table format.

One of the core fundamentals of any game design process is iteration. The old saw that “no plan survives contact with the enemy” is truer nowhere than in game design, where the entire goal is to create a system that players can interact with. There isn’t a game designer alive that hasn’t experienced players acting completely contrarily to the game design in playtests. It’s the designer’s job to either prevent that from happening, or to make sure the system is robust enough to survive whatever alternate behaviors the players decide to throw at it. Sports have had hundreds of years and thousands of games to develop, but most players aren’t playing with refining the game itself in mind. Besides, with so much experience behind them, they’re mostly in a stable state by this now. So, it’s rare to see the iteration process play out for a sport or other athletic game.

But that’s exactly what the history of the Sasuke obstacle courses gives us. We basically have a record of each of iteration that the course design in Sasuke went through. And, because each season was televised, we can also get a sense of why each change was made. I don’t know exactly what the Sasuke course designers’ design goals are, but we can make some assumptions based on the our own good sense:

  1. Obstacles should be very hard
  2. But not so hard that they’re impossible
  3. Because it’s also designed for spectators, there should be moments of tension for the audience

With these goals in mind, we can see some of the logic behind many of the changes made. Easy tasks are modified to be harder. Some hard tasks are toned down or removed. Early entries, including things like “Log Grip” and “Rolling Escargot” require the contestant to try to hang onto a cylinder rolling down an incline. This is good, silly fun for the less serious contestants, and seeing them get launched spinning into the water (below the obstacle course) is good for a laugh. Some later challenges, such as the “Doorknob Grasper” were found to be so difficult that nobody could pass them, and so they were removed after 2 years of being undefeated. Some challenges, such as the “Cliff Hanger” evolved to become more difficult over time while maintaining the same general format. And some, like the warped wall never change.

The warped wall is probably the most iconic Sasuke / Ninja Warrior obstacle.

The warped wall usually serves as a barrier between the serious competitors and silly pseudo-celebrity entries. It culls the field down from the entertainment stage to the real physical achievement stages. The wikipedia entry informs us that approximately 10-15 competitors make it to the second stage per year, while a competitor makes it to the 3rd stage on average only every other year. This seems to be approximately the difficulty level that the designers are comfortable maintaining.

There’s another aspect that I want to touch on briefly. Sasuke provides an interesting model for video game designers because they essentially design 4 levels every year. It’s very rare that you get a chance to do level design in a sports environment (golf, and to a lesser extent baseball are among the few notable examples in popular sport). So, it’s interesting to approach the courses from a level design perspective. The designers have goals (difficulty, watch-ability, abilities they want to test) and constraints (materials, human endurance). Most video game level design is about providing entertainment, via mechanics or story. Sasuke throws a couple of curve balls into this. As noted above, the Warped Wall is specifically designed to eliminate most contestants, a concept anathema to the more inclusive philosophy of modern game design. But there are still questions of pacing that are eerily familiar. How much punishment can we give the contestants’ arms before we need to give them a break between challenges, also known as pacing? What are the effects of a timed vs. an un-timed course? And how much challenge do we need to provide to the player for the achievement of conquering the level to be deemed a worthwhile pursuit?

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2 Comments
  1. Austin W permalink

    Have you seen the recent ads on NBC? American Ninja Warrior coming to Primetime network TV. Good to know more about it!

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  1. Comparative Analysis: Ninja Warrior « The Rules on the Field

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