Nine Dev Log #2: Design Research

In 2015, I attended a Boston Post Mortem talk by veteran developer Steve Meretzky. It was jam packed with great advice, but one bit that stood out to me was that a good designer strives to be an “overnight expert”.

The concept is fairly straightforward: game designers have to make countless decisions that impact the player experience. The more context a designer has, the more informed those decisions are. And one way to gain this context is to prioritize design research in the early stages of development. I have come to believe that good research can significantly increase your chances of designing a successful game.

NordicResearch
Members of the God of War team on a Nordic Research Trip (photo from “Raising Kratos”)

Designers at large studios may have great resources for doing design research during pre-production. For example, Sony Santa Monica funded a small portion of the God of War team to go on a “Nordic Research Trip”, to countries in the Scandanavian region.

But as an indie, my options look more like:

  1. Play reference games in the space.
  2. Research the subject matter.
  3. Learn from designers in the space.
  4. Learn from the potential audience.

Note that when I say “the space”, I’m referring to the “design space” surrounding the game. This can be very broad, but for the purposes of this post I am going to focus on learning about gameplay systems in the roguelite and platformer genres.

#1. Playing Reference Games

Much of the reason Nine has evolved into a roguelite platformer is because of my past influences. On the platformer side, I grew up playing classics like Sonic, Mario, and Donkey Kong series, and am familiar with some of the modern takes such as Celeste and Hollow Knight. On the roguelite side, I’m a big fan of some strategy games like Into the Breach and Card of Darkness, as well as some action games like Cadence of Hyrule and my primary reference: Spelunky.

But there’s so much more to learn!

In the coming weeks I hope to play:

  • Games that combine roguelite and action platforming elements. This is the core focus area and includes games like Dead Cells, Rogue Legacy, 30XX, Noita, and Catacomb Kids.
  • Popular games with roguelite elements (Crypt of the Necrodancer, Slay the Spire, Roundguard), which can teach me about procedural generation, progression systems, difficulty pacing, and more.
  • Popular action platformers (Ori and the Blind Forest, Cuphead, Guacamelee 2), which can help me make the player feel like an agile warrior cat.
  • Notable flops in the above genres (critically and commercially), so I can learn what mistakes to avoid!

It’s worth mentioning I don’t have the money or time to buy and play all of these games. But I can at least play through the early parts of the best ones, and watch streams and reviews of the rest.

In a future post I will round up some of the more interesting takeaways from my focused play research.

#2. Researching the Subject Matter

I did some research on cats and the “nine lives” concept, and went into a rabbit hole about the significance of cats in various cultures throughout history. It was a fun thematic exploration!

Bastet-MET
A statuette of Bastet at the MET Museum.

 

But I’ll save the details for a future dev log about theme. Let’s move on!

#3. Learning from Designers

There is a wealth of knowledge from game developers who have made roguelites and/or platformers in the past. This information has been dispensed through design blogs, youtube videos, GDC talks, interviews, podcasts, and more. Why should I reinvent the wheel?

SpelunkyBookCover

The biggest and best reference so far would have to be the Spelunky book by Derek Yu, which dives deep into both the personal story of creating Spelunky and the design challenges Derek faced. It surprised and inspired me to learn that relatively simple algorithms could create such rich emergent gameplay. It was also humanizing to see that even a legend like Derek had real struggles dealing with conflicts both personal (like parting ways with Alec) and professional (like dealing with varying player response to Spelunky’s difficulty and randomness).

There are also some great youtube videos on procedurally generated levels by authors like Extra Credits and Mark Brown, but they are mostly a higher level overview of what the Spelunky book covers. Still, it’s handy to see how these authors chunk complex ideas into accessible presentations.

Finally, the podcast The Spelunky Showlike has been a wonderful reference. The show is rooted in pure love for Spelunky, and they use roguelites as a lens to which to discuss game design. The result makes them feel like a team of allies in my quest to understand the design space. I trust that they “get” Spelunky, which means the discussion can focus on the challenges of making those games shine. They have also interviewed designers of notable roguelites like HoledownCard of Darkness, and Roundguard.

#4. Learning from the Potential Audience

The potential audience is the theoretical group of people who might enjoy the game.

A good place to start is with the audiences that already exist. These might include people who enjoy specific games on my reference list or love the loosely defined genres of roguelite or platformer. It makes sense to try and win them over, since there is clear overlap in gameplay systems. Such audiences may also include people who appreciate lighthearted cartoony aesthetics, themes that don’t take themselves too seriously, and action without excessive violence.

But an existing audience also comes with expectations. A roguelite fan might expect the deep progression systems of Dead Cells or the emergent physics of Spelunky. A platformer fan might expect the tightly designed rooms of Celeste or the big roller coaster moments of Sonic. I’d like to win these people over, but there’s also a part of me that needs to accept that Nine is its own unique game that doesn’t fit neatly into those boxes.

To learn from these audiences is to find them, talk to them, and most importantly listen to what they have to say. Even when they’re not articulate, their experiences are just as valid. And the good news is that their expressions of opinion can be found everywhere: in reviews, youtube comments, discords, and more.

Much harder to find is the theoretical person who wants something just like your game but:

  1. Doesn’t know it yet.
  2. Knows it, but doesn’t know how to ask for it.
  3. Asks for it, but is ignored. (<- Actually this is the story of some memorable crowdfunding successes).

I can’t talk to this nonexistent portion of the audience just yet. But I look forward to it very much.

Conclusion

It’s tricky to make time for design research. And it’s hard to prioritize in the early stages especially when you are still rapid prototyping. But I think that if you are trying to maximize the chances of making something great, you really want to immerse yourself in the space and strive to become an “overnight expert”.

I’d hardly call myself an expert of course, but the research I’ve done has already helped frame my iterative goals. I have a better idea of what kinds of problems I’m likely to run into, as well as a larger toolbox for solving this problems. And the immersion has reinforced that I love living in this design space.

I’ll be back soon to report what I’ve learned. Thanks for reading!

Nine Dev Log #1: How Nine became a Roguelike Platformer

I did not set out to create a roguelike platformer. Nor would I advise any indie to make one.

Nine¬†started with me pondering how the “cats have nine lives” myth could translate into a game.

I eventually came up with the following concept: “You have 9 lives to beat 9 levels in 9 minutes”. I liked the simplicity of it and that the “9” was universal across three properties. It also didn’t feel like anything groundbreaking, so I decided to shelve it in favor of other prototypes.

And yet… even as I explored other prototypes, I found myself coming back to Nine. With each revisit I’d come up with secondary features ideas like:

  • What if as you lost lives, you became stronger? This would create a rubberbanding effect that could make later lives more exciting.
  • What if you had a SUPER move that let you sacrifice a life to deal heavy damage? This could create interesting risk/reward tension and potentially satisfying payoff moments.

I started to think of lives as a dynamic resource. There was something here.

Becoming a 2D Platformer

I liked the concept, but I still didn’t know what kind of game it was going to be. I knew that the focus was action, and I knew that I wanted to make a 2D game, but wasn’t sure about the game’s perspective or moment-to-moment gameplay.

Then I remembered that it wasn’t just about “9” the number. It also mattered that you were a cat, as that was the reason you had 9 lives. This tiny bit of extra thematic information could help me narrow down the design space.

cat jumping
Cats are the ninjas of nature.

Cats are known for their agility and reflexes. Even my beloved fat cat Kit could suddenly switch into ninja mode on a dime and swat her “enemies” (read: toys and q-tips) with lightning speed. When I imagine a cat in an action experience, I imagine it jumping around and showing off its movement prowess.

And thus, Nine became a platformer.

Becoming a Roguelike

How did I get from platformer to roguelike? Honestly, I’m still in the process of deciding.

Nine had permadeath from the start. The concept of “9 lives, 9 levels, 9 minutes” sounds like a short term action thrill, and I didn’t think it would work broken up by save progress points. I imagined the player taking multiple attempts to learn the mechanics and finally complete all 9 levels.

But this led to an issue of repetition and rote memorization. Even when platformers have bite-sized challenges (like N Game or Super Meatboy), a very natural outcome is for players to grind through the same path over and over. Nine needed some dynamic elements to help players focus on building skills over grindy trial-and-error.

This issue was confirmed by an early prototype I dubbed “6 in 6” (6 lives, 6 challenges). The players who succeeded (including myself) did so through memorization. And many players found repeating early levels to be a chore, opting instead to skip to their current level using debug-cheats.

Spelunky solves this problem via procedural generation. Because the layout is different each time, you are forced to learn high level patterns, such as how enemies behave and how the physics system works. This systemic learning is informed by each run, and empowers you to perform better on average as you improve. It’s a very satisfying loop once you get the hang of it.

Spelunky Level
Procedural generation can break rote memorization.

But procedural generation is also a massive risk. On top of the heavy technical and production load, it’s a challenging design task to algorithmically generate layouts that feel unique, familiar, and fun all at the same time. Platformer fans are especially sensitive to the feeling of flow in level design thanks to decades of shared experience and built up genre expectations.

It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s a good starting point.

Moving Forward

My early playtests are promising, but I need a little more time before I can start getting external playtesters to try out the first draft of proc gen levels. I should have a clear answer by the end of the month on whether I need to start shifting direction.

One possible fall back could be a dynamic Mega Man style model: 8 hand-designed levels/bosses, but you can choose the order and the remaining levels get dynamically harder, followed by a 9th final boss.

megaman select screen
Megaman lets you play levels in any order.

One other thing I ditched along the way was the “9 minutes” hard constraint. The whole point of the rubberbanding lives system is to create meaningful tension throughout the run. But if the player is mid-run and realizes they will run out 9-minute clock, they are likely to just give up instead. So instead I will explore some softer time pressures, and maybe offer a bonus reward (like an alternate boss/ending) for players who can get to the final battle in under 9 minutes.

So that’s the story how Nine became a roguelike! Or at least, why it is currently a roguelike. Time and iteration will tell!