Helvetii Dev Blog #2: “Forever games”

Hello everyone !

I hope you enjoyed the first dev blog from two weeks ago !

After polling some of you on potential subjects for today on twitter, it seems the majority wanted to know more about the direction of the actual game design and some of the mechanics ! So now, let’s dive into what’s the plan to make Helvetii’s wheels turn ! Bare in mind this will not go into the fine details of combos/invul frames and a full moveset list (That’ll be later, my darlings !), but rather the inspirations behind my choices.

(Sidenote: Since there were also a lot of people interested in the mythology behind the game, the next dev blog in two weeks will touch upon that, so take heed!)

airstuff

Test for air strikes in the early prototype

Around 2011, Edmund McMillen released a new game called “The Binding of Isaac”, a biblical-themed (with a lot more scat) top-down game where you play as a little boy running from his mother, in a series of randomly generated rooms with randomly generated items and against randomly generated bosses. Each playthrough is somewhat new but always with a set of consistent rules. It went on to sell gangbusters, got an expansion, a remake, and said remake got a bunch of expansions. Legends say Edmund can now afford even more extravagant beards.

This game, among others like Rogue Legacy, Spelunky, Crypt of the Necrodancer, or even recent variants like Darkest Dungeon  and many others have spearheaded the resurgence of a style of gameplay called Roguelite (inspired by the 1980’s game Rogue, sharing some similarity in terms of gameplay).

I became enamored by games like Binding of Isaac or Spelunky which I have been playing almost religiously for a very long time, completing them to the brim (at least BoI on Vita, and Spelunky as well, even putting some extra challenges on myself).

I also like the term “Forever games” to qualify them, as they’re effectively games you could continuously come back to and have a go without it feeling exactly the same (at least, in theory). In essence, they’re also pretty close to old arcade games: they’re made for quick plays, bursts of gameplay in short sittings.

But with a lot of playtime comes a problem. The better I got at it, the more frustrated I was with the mechanics. For example, Binding of Isaac’s inherent mechanics reward the player less and less the better he gets (there are “angel rooms” for instance which, while harder to get to and require you to pass on better items, do not reward you as much most of the time). The randomness of it also can completely ruin a play through, as some items are clearly not in your favour if you have an aggressive play style. Other games like Rogue Legacy also had similar failings the more you played it. Spelunky, while almost perfect in its design also became old after a while as there wasn’t a lot of flexibility in how you would traverse the game.

All in all, the feeling I had mastered past what the game had to offer was incredibly frustrating. I felt I could do more if only it allowed me, but also I knew that the inherent design would never really fit this kind of play style, or rather it would be entirely dictated by the randomly generated attributes I would get during a game, rather than by my very own skill. Even with the knowledge that extra expansions came out, what I saw of them basically just added more to the core game but without fixing that issue I was fighting with. The play style was just not matching.

On the other hand, there are character action games.

muramasa_rebirth

Oboro Muramasa Rebirth (PS VITA)

“Even in shooting or action games, if you know that you can just kill this guy this way, but maybe if I could try to do it a little bit cooler, or a little more interesting. Maybe there’s a bit of, ‘hey, I’ve got the gallery behind me and I’m going to show off some play that you’ve never thought of,’ but there’s also the element of showing off to yourself and creating your own play style. I think that had a lot to do with the games I played when I was younger, and that really came to the forefront in DMC.”

-Hideki Kamiya (From his IGN interview)

While maybe not the most profound thing ever said by a game designer, this quote by Kamiya resonates a lot with me and how I perceive action games.

Games like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Odin Sphere, Ninja Gaiden, Bloodborne or Nier. The beauty they communicate to me, apart from their respective art style and the tightness of their mechanics, is how they represent almost what’s “purest” in terms of video game interaction. You can play through an action game like Metal Gear Rising knowing the levels by hand but it’s your skill and play style that really dictates the flow. In return, the feedback of that flow will push you to be more creative. For someone who works better with implicit rather than explicit narratives, this concept has always been very attractive to me. If the pace is well done, your own psyche will start to meld with the actions of your character (a more visual metaphor would be like the “linking” process that happens in Pacific Rim, for instance) In turn, the game rewards you with a variety things: flashy effects and sounds, maybe stronger attacks to keep your momentum going or simply a scoreboard going up and up. In a sense, there are also “forever games”. You can go back to them at any point and see how you can improvise your way through a level one way or another, despite their more rigid set of rules and levels. However, they do take some more involvement.

By this point, you probably get the idea: “Well you’re probably talking about meshing the core concept of a roguelite game with action game mechanics ? Is that it ? And wouldn’t that be messy with all this RNG bullshit ?”

Let’s break this down quickly !

Meshing between genres: The balance of skill and RNG

The first thing to take into account is that Helvetii’s goal is to push you to improvise with what you have, but never outright punish you. At heart, it will be an action game. What control you have over your character is ultimately what will make you succeed (or fail), regardless of what upgrades you picked up.

However, what interested me in the rogue lite aspect, particularly in the style of Binding of Isaac, is the randomization of rooms and challenges. Making conscious decisions as to how much risk you want to take. Hoarding or spending some of the limited resource you have and taking that extra risk for that extra reward. Plus the pleasure of never quite knowing what’s ahead of you (without it being unfair), so you must rely on your skills and knowledge to get by.

There is also the added incentive of a roguelite’s faster pace. Helvetii will be a hard game and will take some time beating in full (hopefully !). Your tries are limited, the bosses are challenging and the levels full of danger. But that also means it will have the advantages of being fast to pick up. Eliminating a lot of the faffing to get straight to the point (with some fluff for those who want it, but never really obstructing)

Most of the upgrades and items planned for Helvetii offer a net benefit in most case. If there is ever an item with a price, it will also come with a major boost. And all of them serve to give the player more flexibility over a moveset which already allows a good deal of actions.

moveset

Diagram of Divico’s moveset in the early prototype

The point of all this blabber: To have the variety and uncompromised skill-driven mechanics of an action game, with the added content, pace and replayability of a roguelite. The key to all this of course will be a careful balance of items (there assuredly won’t be as many items as BoI for instance, but the work will go towards all of them being useful), movesets and a lot, LOT of playtesting.

In addition to that, there will be extra things (as in, unrevealed characters and power types) which should bring some nice spice to the formula…


There is still a lot to be said of the actual details on the gameplay. How certain items will work, powers, hidden stats and moveset. But I must keep a bit for future blogs and surprises for the public ! Although I keep feeling of having missed some crucial points

If you have any specific questions, to not hesitate to ask them on twitter at @kpeclet ! I will answer them in a future blog

In any case, you might already have caught a glimpse of things to come on twitter recently. I hope you all enjoyed this read, and see you next time for a glimpse at the mythology behind Helvetii !

-Kevin

 

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