Game Design: Taxonomy of Fishing Mini-games

Fishing is probably the most common mini-game in gaming history. Before I started working on this article,  I never realized how many games include a fishing as mini-game. The list is huge. Fishing is everywhere. It seems that it is not possible to have a game without the possibility for character to have a relaxing time fishing in a pond.

Everybody loves fishing! At least in games. We can imagine a deep reason for that. There must be something that attract designers, gamers and human in general to the ancient art of fishing. However, for the time being, we are not interested in this question. Instead, we want to explore the huge design space of “fishing games”.

In fact, the action of fishing has been dissected for decades by game designer. It is fascinating to see how many implementations exist for the same real-life action. So, it is time to see what they produced, what are the possibilities and how we can do something new in this domain.

Fishing Emotional Chart

First step of our game design effort is to find the experience we want to reproduce in our game. In particular, which emotions the original experience can give us and how we can transfer such emotions into our game.

The experience here is fishing. Fishing is associated with three basic emotions:

  • Serenity / Relaxation: The feeling of no fear. Just waiting along a river for a fish to bite.
  • Surprise: The feeling we have when we don’t know what we may get from fishing. We will get a great fish or an old boot?
  • Excitement: Sometime fishing provide excitement. When the fish bite and we need to fight to catch him.

These are the three main emotional axes for the fishing experience. As we can see, we can use different game mechanics to pump any of these 3 axes. Obviously, in a fishing simulation game we want to capture all three emotions, but in a fishing mini-game, we may want to focus on just two emotions, or even one.

Basic Structure of Fishing Mini-games

Every fishing mini-game can be divided in three phases:

  1. Approach-Lure: the phase in which the player looks for the right spot and wait for the fish to bite. This is where the game build up the serenity axis.
  2. Bite: the transition phase between approach and catch. The player understands that the fish bite and need to do an action to start the next phase. This is where the game can build up the surprise and excitement axis.
  3. Catch: the phase in which the player fights with the fish to actually grab it. This is where the game build up the challenge and the excitement of fishing.

Different fishing mini-games implement these phases in different way. There an infinite number of variations, however we can find some macro-categories for each phase.

Approach/Luring

  1. Hidden: everything is hidden. There is no specific spot fishing. There is no visible fish to interact with. You just get a sudden notification on Bate phase.
  2. Visible: There is a clear indicator of the fish approaching the bait. We can have visibility in different intensity. We can see the real fish, we can see just the outline of the fish underwater, or just some abstract indicator (e.g., a circle approaching a bait symbol).

Bite

There is only one variation of this. Every bite mechanic is a timed event kind of action.

Catch

  1. Automatic: often, once we get the bite in time, there is only the character animation and then the fish is caught. No more user interaction needed.
  2. Button mashing: to have a simplified challenge mimicking the struggle of catching a baited fish, many games add a simplified “button mashing” step. Press very fast a button. Move the mouse in a certain way. Things like this.
  3. Threshold Fight: the more “simulative” approach is to have the player engage in a battle with the fish. You increase the tension of the fishing line, you release tension, you tire the fish and you try to not break the line. As usual, this can be done in different intensities, from more arcade solution to more authentic experiences.

Fishing Mini-game Classification Examples

The above description identifies several potential fish mini-game macro-categories. In fact, we have a macro-category for each combination of different implementation for Approach, Bite and Catch.

It is time now to see real games with real fishing mini-games and see how they fit in this categorization.

Hidden-Auto

This category is the easiest thing you can do with fishing. This is the way to go if you want a very simple fishing mechanic that provides a bit of relaxation and a full burst of surprise.

Pokémon

Pokemon is a great example of this. You use your rod, then, when the exclamation point pop up, you press a button and you catch something.

Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight also has a fishing mechanic. It is the same as Pokémon, as you can see.

(video source)

Minecraft

Minecraft has fishing too. Throw your bait, wait for the lure to wobble and click with your mouse. Straightforwardly boring.

(video source)

Visible Auto

This is a slightly more complex implementation, but still very easy and accessible. It is similar to Hidden-Auto, but the fact that it is possible to see the fishes and there is more “nature” pump a bit the relaxing feeling of fishing.

Another aspect. Because fishes are usually visible, such games may implement also additional “luring” mechanic in which the player need to move the bait in a certain way to attract the desired fish.

In the cases in which the actual fish is visible, obviously, we sacrifice a bit the “surprise” emotion.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Animal Crossing has a very relaxing fishing mechanic. It is not exciting but it is perfect for the game mood. You can see the shadow of the fish underwater. You aim your lure (aiming is something only games in the “visible” category can achieve) and, with the right time, you can get your fish.

(video source)

Torchlight 2

Torchlight 2 fishing mechanic is borderline. I put it in visible just because we have an abstract indicator of the fish (the circle around the bait) and you can fish only in specific spots. However, this is actually in between hidden and visible.

(video source)

Visible/Hidden Button Mashing

Button Mashing mini-games (both visible and hidden) are a simple way to make your mini-game harder. It is similar to automatic category but, to catch the fish, the player must perform a brief endurance test. Press a button as fast as possible, move quickly a motion controller, or some other simple action.

This is a less relaxing experience. It allow also the designer to have different difficulties for difference fishes by requiring more rapidly repeated actions.

Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter is a simple example of this. The implementation is very frustrating due to an horrible luring phase, but the button mashing step is well done and make the player sharing the struggle of catching.

(video source)

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

In the Wii version, fishing in Twilight Princess is a fun experience. The luring part is well done and, to catch, the player need to wave the wiimote to keep tension in the line.

(video source)

Visible/Hidden Threshold Fight

This is the most complex mechanic. However, the difficulty range goes from “minimal complexity” to “fishing simulator”. In order to catch something in these games, the player need to keep focus in all the phases. Catching a fish is no mindless activity and you need to fight with your prey.

Stardew Valley

Fishing in Stardew Valley is hard.  Baiting is hidden (so no luring problems), but to catch the fish you need to keep it in the green bar. Green bar goes up when pressing a button, and goes down when you press nothing. It is challenging and not very fun until you get better tools.

(video source)

Fable

Another hidden variant. However, this is much simpler than Stardew Valley. You just need to press A and release it when the fish is snapping the line.

(video source)

Black Desert Online

This is another hidden variant. However, the threshold fight is very original. Instead of a classic “press and release” input fight, the player need to perform some keyboard combo. If they fail, the fish get closer to escape, otherwise get closer to player inventory.

(video source)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Finally, as a visible example, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I’ll be honest. I totally forgot that there is a fishing section in Ocarina of Time. But there is, and it is magnificent.

The baiting step is visible, so you need to carefully move your bait to lure the fish. Then, you need to fight with a fish that is constantly trying to escape. It is an amazing implementation of a fishing mini-game.

(video source)

Conclusion and Next Step

Now that we know the current state of fishing we can start asking ourselves the important questions. What we can do next? How can we improve this sub-genre. What we can do better? What works? Can we procedurally generate fishing mini-game rules?

I will try to answer these question in the next part. In the meanwhile, I have question for you. What is your best fishing mini-game? There are fishing mini-games that are not caught by this categorization? Let me know.

3 Replies to “Game Design: Taxonomy of Fishing Mini-games”

  1. I am so intrigued that there are people who found the fishing in Stardew Valley “too hard” or “not fun” or even “frustrating”. I’m not saying that boastfully at all, but while the fishing in Stardew does pose some degree of challenge, there are people (and yes that includes me) who actually find it very relaxing and not too difficult or frustrating in the least. (With a rare few exceptions, such as the legendary fish, which are intentionally very challenging.) Moreover, I find it a very fun addition! It is one of my favorite things about the game!

    And yet others feel exactly directly the opposite! Interesting!

    In my experience from talking to other players and streamers, the jury seems pretty evenly divided on love/hate of the fishing. At least one factor seems to be the device they are playing on. People who have to fish by clicking the mouse seem to hate the fishing at a much higher rate than people pressing a button on a controller. But even considering only players from a single device, I do wonder why this particular type of timing/balancing mini-game is so frustrating for so many people but perfectly fine and even relaxing to others.

    To me it feels very similar to the sort of gameplay you’d experience while flying a blue winged yoshi through a treacherous cavern of spikes and enemies in Super Mario World, pressing B fast enough to keep him off the floor spikes, but not so fast that you hit the ceiling spikes, and occasionally dodging sudden enemy attacks. It is a very similar sort of gameplay action at its heart, so what exactly does Stardew do with it that makes it so divisive?

    I think part of it is that, on top of however difficult it might be, it also feels “more difficult than is appropriate” in this context. Stardew is very zen, calm, relaxing, peaceful. Maybe the kind of intense-focused tension introduced by the fishing is just unwanted in this context, which may exacerbate any bitterness felt about it. Especially by the types of players that Stardew would specially attract.

    Otherwise, I would guess it all comes down to the way that a lot of the fish move very erratically on the fishing meter, which flusters and bamboozles the player. The player may feel anxiety depending on what they feel/perceive they can do in response to that (how am I supposed to deal with this?!). The game doesn’t actually give any real tips or advice beyond telling you how the fishing works, nor does it gently slope the difficulty upward. You could end up hooking the final boss of fish on your first cast in the game, and that’s going to feel discouraging for sure! As far as advice goes, there are some useful pointers I feel the game could share with you (perhaps from Willy?). For example, if you catch a fish that is moving very rapidly or jumping very far distances, don’t freak out if it suddenly jumps far up the meter. Sometimes you can just stay put and, given how erratic and dumb the fish is, the fish will jump right back into your hands without you needing to respond very much at all. If you stay zen and don’t despair, the fishing is perhaps not as impossible-feeling as it can seem. Maybe some more guidance and reassurance from the game itself, or a more sloped difficulty curve, would help eliminate certain frustrations some players are experiencing.

    Well… except people who are playing it on a mouse. I think Stardew’s fishing may unfortunately just feel less enjoyable on a mouse. ;-)

    1. Wow. Such a comment. :) Thank you very much.

      My very personal opinion is that fishing in Stardew Valley is quite enjoyable (everything in that game is weirdly enjoyable). But I remember a lot of complaints just after SV release; I remember also a mod to make fishing easier.
      However, this was early on the SV release. At the time fishing was a bit harder (they balanced it a bit a month after) and the mouse was the only way to play. As you said, this may have played a role in the “global consensus” around SV fishing.

      It is also interesting your explanation: “Stardew is very zen, calm, relaxing, peaceful. Maybe the kind of intense-focused tension introduced by the fishing is just unwanted in this context, which may exacerbate any bitterness felt about it.” I really agree with that. Even if in this article I focused on the minigames in isolation, we cannot forget about the contexts in which such games are put into. Just like colors, they may appear lighter or darker depending on the surroundings.

      Thank you again for such passionate comment.

  2. Sorry, I know that was all about Stardew, but I appreciate the attempt to create a hierarchy! I love fishing mini-games!

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