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Clusterfuck Action Games

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For some reason, there is a tendency in action game design to gravitate towards the ‘clusterfuck’.  The clusterfuck is a situation where game difficulty has ramped up to complete, mindless chaos.

Perhaps what needs to be called out is; action games are not mindless!

If an action game is to be successful, it must be tactical.  Compelling gameplay comes from compelling decisions.  If the only decision is how fast are you willing to push the ‘punch’ button, the gameplay isn’t compelling.
Successful action games play out as a rapid-fire series of situational decisions.  In God of War, you string together different combos to deal with unique arrangements of enemies.  In Halo, you’re constantly attempting to out-smart clever AI that uses cover and attempts to flank.  With fighting games, like Streetfighter, button mashing may entertain some users for a limited amount of time, but the gamers that made Streetfighter successful were drawn by it’s depth of anticipating, reacting and countering.

Progress of skill
The most important feature of a good action game is that the user progress in skill.  If the gameplay is as simple as rapidly hitting a button, there is no room for improvement; nobody needs hours of practice to know how to best hit a button rapidly.
So where does the skill come from?  Understanding the ‘rules’ behind the gameplay and learning when to do what.  For this to be compelling, there must be multiple ways of playing, so that the user can experiment and optimize until a powerful strategy is discovered.  Part of this can be physical (mastering game-timing or finely granular input combos) but the rest needs to be mental (when to take advantage of these openings and when not to). 
In the end, the design supporting an action game doesn’t have to complicated, but it does have to be thought-out; good action gameplay is only as deep as you make it.