Compassion / Design

Given the games I write it likely sounds odd but I try to be as kind and compassionate in my design as possible. Well, you know, as possible as it is to be in brutally hard twin stick arena shooters that flash lights at people. Which believe it or not is plenty.

Finding and exploring different aspects of this is one of the more fun things for me. Trimming down rough and abusive design edges so that even when the game is hideously unfair, it’s difficult to get angry at the game itself.

In theory, of course.

Absurdity helps. With War Twat, my first proper jaunt into arena shooters – I turned the volume up to eleven, Mike’s music teetered on the ridiculous, the sound effects were set to “probable nuclear war” as were the visual effects. It is a loud game in a lot of respects and lasting 30 seconds is an art unto itself.

The player is also likely to find the cause of their death was either a bus, a silly alien or a balloon or a yellow digger. Or, just as likely, something they weren’t able to either see or avoid in any way whatsoever. It is a difficult game to be angry at precisely because nobody has a chance with it. Unlike, say, Super Hexagon which tries to teach you possibilities through practice, there are none in War Twat.

The entire screen is just noise in seconds. Bullets, sound effects, the music, the screen shaking in a way even Vlambeer would be all like “no way, steady” to.

It’s absurd, of course it is. There is a logic to it though – the player is permitted, by design, to know that death is inevitable and the only real way to play the game is to pretty much set their own goals to see how long they can last. If they want to. No matter how many times the player plays the game they will not learn any techniques to survive, they will not hit a difficulty wall because the entire game is the difficulty wall. It just keeps on going until they stop, are stopped, or somehow survive long enough to get bored and turn it off

And so in my experience, for a lot of players, this becomes just a silly thing. Killed by a bus or cleared the screen to the sound of Bruce Forsyth only for the entire screen to fill again in seconds. It is pointless. It is punishing. It’s the video game as ‘how far is too far?” and if I’ve done my job right, this should be so far over the line as to be baffling as to why anyone would make such a stupid thing – never mind call it *that* name.

Playing about with the SYNSO games and I don’t know, I don’t feel I ever got the first one in order – when porting the game to the Xbox 360, Andy (Noble) exposed *a lot” of design problems. Putting the SE version together at some point afterwards, I tried to correct a few but I tend to think of it as tentative steps towards a thing but very broken.

However, I digress! With the SYNSO games I tried to work on some simple principles.

The game would always be nice to the player – there would be a game over but it would still be somewhat celebratory. Not at any point would the game disparage the player, not even so much as a game over (I used the still final but a lot more ambiguous “Squidageddon has occurred” instead) and the death sequence would be as much a fireworks show as failure.

Any messages at all would have to be either surreal, pleasant or ambiguous. All to add a severe air of unreality and disconnection to things but also to try, wherever possible, to reduce frustration. All my games in recent years have asked the player to survive with just one life and no health bars and so designing against frustration is, for me, 99% of the job.

I am unapologetically happy for players to break my games. I’m not a great believer in my design as so precious and unfuckwithable. Whilst I didn’t have the time (twice!) to build options into Death Ray Manta, there is a near final-ish copy of the source code that ships with every Steam copy. I’m happy for players to do whatever they want with those – even release their own Death Ray Manta games if they so desire. If they wanted to hack in lives, remove the flashy stuff, tweak the stages, rejig the entire level set, remove the mines, I don’t care.

I don’t care because my work ended when I put the game into the world (if you exclude maintenance, obviously) – my ‘canon’ version of the game is the one that you buy on Steam with my name on it. I have no reason to care whilst that exists. And to be frank, if someone makes more money off it with tweaks than I do, I probably should have thought of what they did first. Mind, if anyone does this, I’d like to remind them that I am skint and I do have a Patreon and a donate button there to help me be less skint. I would like to be less skint one day.

With previous games, where time allowed, I’ve put options in to turn certain enemies on and off, to turn collisions on and off entirely, I’ve opened up all the stages from the start, I’ve measured time and score and let folks pick which one displays. Whilst a lot is certainly done for accessibility purposes, I am equally motivated by finding avenues for games to be kind, to be accommodating.

It is, of course, an avenue that essentially leaves money on the table at times. I get a few complaints that the stages in DRM are the same every time, that there is no reason to come back to the game because there is no persistence. This is a series of very deliberate decisions on my part.

The game is “learnable” so with practice, any player can hopefully get from stage 1 to 32 in time. There is an expectation though that twin stick shooters play a certain way – DRM is an extension of the work I put in on the challenge mode of Waves though so it sort of often brushes up against those expectations visually and then doesn’t really touch them much during play. Originally I set out to see if I could make this work with a single stick or easy keyboard controls and then with the more recent version, to play about with setting up a series of boards in a dual stick shooter.

DRM is an obstacle course, if you will. Every screen I will try to kill the player as fast as I can and every screen, I ask the player to find the best way for me not to do that whilst avoiding what I throw at them.

I also have no persistence. When the player hits game over, nothing gets added to a tally, nothing unlocks. I do not want to keep the player. Ten years ago this would not be the world’s most unusual thought but these days engagement is where it’s at. Which is fine but in a world where games are increasingly keeping the player, I want them to walk away. Enough is enough and fine, move on.

Trying to do this and keeping a game ‘fun’ enough to let people enjoy their time with it is, well, it’s an interesting challenge in 2017 and certainly, I get my fair share of complaints because I eschew addiction as a mechanism if and where I can. Again, this comes down to wanting my games to be kind and a challenge and this is just one route towards that.

It also, I hope, manifests in how I put the games together – clarity is important to me as I know the screen will get busy and so I try to add as many cues as I can think of whilst also trying not to overload the player with information. I overload the amount of things on-screen but I try (and don’t always succeed) to make sure I don’t obscure anything.

There is a caveat here that with certain folk, unless I strip the entire effects layer back it will still present them with visibility issues and I do regret not having the time to build the option to do exactly this into Death Ray Manta in both its incarnations. Luckily I have no such time pressures with the sequel, so fingers crossed.

So sound cues, visual cues and all that jazz. All messages again stay silly or ambiguous at best, nothing hurtful, nothing to ever say the player is not playing it well or rightly enough – that’s for the player to decide and not me.

It also means ensuring that I’m keeping screenshake and rumble to what I feel is necessary rather than anything that’s hurtful.

When I started messing around with this stuff I sort of felt like trying to mix difficult games with kindness made me an outlier – in the casual space there seemed to be a race to remove complexity over time and in the more traditional game space, to add ever increasing layers. I’m thankful that the industry has moved on and this no longer seems to be the case.

After all the years of presenting videogame design as antagonism, it’s nicer to see folk move towards balancing difficulty and complexity with a kindness. Loot Rascals and Graceful Explosion Machine are two recent examples of mixing fairly deep and traditionally nerdily obfuscated genres and making them friendlier to startlingly good effect.

It’s good to feel not so alone.

And yes, there is a reason I’m jotting this down now. It seems like a good time to remind myself of what I aim for whilst making games, yeah? *Cough* It’s been too long. And from the design of the game rules to the amount of rumble and screenshake to the way a game addresses the player, there are so many ways that kindnesses and difficulty can be bedfellows in game design.

Whilst I’m scarcely going to advocate for every game to be as kind as it can (unkindness in design has its own strengths), I personally find it enjoyable prodding at all the different ways I can toy with these aspects of games.

Now I’ve just got to hope I’ve still got the knack for making games, right?