I don’t know if they’ve appeared in any of the screenshots yet, but one of the mechanics in the game is a system of power-ups. The leveling system provides numerical improvements: More speed, more shields, more damage, etc. The powerups provide functional improvements: bouncing laser shots, homing for your missiles, highlighting of obscured enemies, etc. The game is currently set to drop one on every level. If there’s a boss on this level, then the boss has it.
For a while you could only carry one of these at a time, but that wasn’t very interesting. When you picked one up you would drop the previous one. You could pick it up again if you didn’t like the new one, but I quickly found that I liked some better than others and once I had my favorite they were no longer useful as a reward. Since they were random, it was possible to get my favorite on level 1 and then never care about powerups again until I died. (Powerups last until death.) That’s like a first person shooter that gives you the best weapon in the game at the start. It’s just setting the player up for disappointment.
You might suggest ordering them so the “best” doesn’t drop early, but it’s not that there is a best powerup, it’s just that everyone is bound to form a little order of preference, and getting a less preferred powerup is a disappointment.
My rules in designing powerups are:
1) They shouldn’t duplicate or overlap with the improvements you get from leveling.
2) They should always be clear upgrades and not trade-offs. This means something like “Lasers go twice as fast but use more energy” wouldn’t work, since the extra energy drain could wind up being a huge handicap for low-energy builds.
3) They don’t need to be equivalent. (Not that there’s any way to objectively measure something like “homing missiles” versus “visible targeting laser”.) Some can be better than others, as long as there are a lot of them and they all do something interesting.
4) Nothing new mechanically. Powerups should alter the way existing systems behave, not add new ones. This means that powerups for mines, or pets, or sprinting are out of the question, because those add new things to the game or require new inputs.
I just really felt that allowing the player to carry more than one was the right thing to do. Now that I’ve done it, powerups have gone from “interesting feature for variety” to “central to the gameplay”. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Now we have all kinds of crazy synergy between powerups. Twin Shot fires an extra laser bolt behind you for no additional cost. It’s nice, but only useful when you’re getting swarmed. Depending on your playstyle, it might be useless to you. But if you ALSO get the bouncing laser powerup then twin shots suddenly becomes very powerful, because you can run into an enclosed space and fill it with bouncing death. Combine it with the large laser powerup and it will be hard for anything to get through. If you ALSO get the penetrating shots powerup then those huge, bouncing, numerous projectiles will keep going even when they strike an enemy, allowing them to go on and hit someone else.
|Twin shots with bouncy shots is cool.|
This solves one of my big problems with the game, which was that I just didn’t have a good penalty for player death. If you died, you respawned at the last waypoint, Diablo-style. Big deal. There’s no money in the game and no inventory, so there’s nothing I can “take” from the player. Sure, I could take away some of their XP or saddle them with XP debt, but I abhor games that mess with my XP income. I feel like there’s some sort of contract that’s being broken when it happens. Also, XP debt doesn’t sting the way it should. It’s never clear just how much the mistake just cost you, time-wise. Worse, it makes you start thinking about the game in terms of time. It’s a penalty that frames the gameplay itself as a punishment. That’s messed up.
But powerups? We can take those.
During playtesting, I got into the habit of making shields my dump stat. I mean, why invest in shields when it’s more fun to shoot moar boolitz? Upgrading damage gives a nice visceral reward, while shields just maybe cut down on the number of times you feel momentary shame. But now shields have an important purpose: They protect your precious, precious powerups.
The problem is that this unbalances the game in a big way. As I said above, powerups have synergy so that the more you have, the more useful they are. This means that if you find the game to be a little too easy, then you’re likely to live long enough for it to get even easier. If you’re struggling, then you’ll never have much in the way of powerups and the game will be even harder. It’s a system that pushes everyone away from the center, towards either boredom or frustration.
A good balancing feature is the health system in Half-Life 2. The lower your health, the more healing you get from items. This makes it harder to maintain full health (where you feel like you can be careless) while also enabling you to quickly pull yourself back from the brink after a mistake. It’s not an overpowering effect, but it gently nudges the challenge level towards the sweet spot in the center. Best of all, the player likely never notices this.
I have the opposite of this. And yet, it feels like this is the right way to go. I took some of the edge off of death by having it only destroy half of your powerups. The other half are scattered where you blew up, and you can recover them if you can get back to where you fell and solve whatever problem that led to to your death. (Spoiler: The problem was bad robots.) This also encourages players to get back on the horse right away after failure, rather than just quitting right then. This makes the unbalancing effect less extreme, but it’s still there.
The project is starting to slow down now. New features are taking more time and I no longer have half a dozen new things to show you every week. So ask some questions. Maybe you want to hear about some of the features I skipped? Or about the technical back end? Or whatever. I’ll look for common questions and use those to guide future entries.
The Best of 2014
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2014.
Trashing the Heap
What does it mean when a program crashes, and why does it happen?
Shamus Plays WOW
Ever wondered what's in all those quest boxes you've never bothered to read? Get ready: They're more insane than you might expect.
Best. Plot Twist. Ever.
Few people remember BioWare's Jade Empire, but it had a unique setting and a really well-executed plot twist.
The Disappointment Engine
No Man's Sky is a game seemingly engineered to create a cycle of anticipation and disappointment.