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Raw Game Design pt.4

Spelunky Deathmatch


 "WTF is going on here? Utter madness." IGNEntertainment

"Wait I won?... You usually can't tell what's going on." ~youtubers


Spelunky Deathmatch is raw. I've played it as a 1v1, 3-for-all, and a 4-for-all. And I'm confident that the deathmatch design has too many raw elements to be taken seriously as a competitive game. It's not that I'm looking for Spelunky Deathmatch to be the next big e-sport. I simply understand that if a multiplayer game isn't designed seriously with a strong balance of interesting choices, then the experience will be one where victors are decided by a roll of the dice or where players cannot exert enough skill to make their participation meaningful in the context of the game.

If the multiplayer design is raw, most of the effort I put into the game will not be returned. In other words, I'll dive in head first and injure myself in its shallows. As I mentioned at the start of this series, whether or not you're a dedicated, casual, or critical gamer, you know when a game is missing that something that makes engaging the systems and learning the rules worth discovering

Many of the design problems with Spelunky Deathmatch stem from the fact that the design is derived from Spelunky's single player. In Spelunky's single play Adventure mode, there are many complexities (rules) that aren't a problem because they give the player advantages in a gameplay experience that's very challenging where the potential for permadeath is everywhere. In the adventure mode, players need all the help they can get. And by taking things slowly, players can overcome the obstacle that is surviving the rougelike. By amassing supplies and powerups through a series of conservative strategies, players can overcome the Adventure mode challenges with relative ease.

Notice that Spelunky's single player gameplay features many of the kinds of elements and trappings that don't work well for multiplayer, as I described in part 3. Collecting items and upgrades just doesn't work the same in multiplayer. Building up power against level obstacles is not the same kind of experience as fighting other equally capable humans. By taking the single player design (controls, mechanics, level dynamics, power ups, etc.) and simply pitting players against each other in a single screen Deathmatch box, where the single player design falls short becomes clear. The following are a list of raw Deathmatch features. 


High player movement speed. The characters in Spelunky move too fast in the air and on the round with the RUN button held. With such low momentum in the air and such slippery friction on the round, players move somewhat erratically on the screen. With such a fast falling speed and such little hang time, acclimating to the controls takes time. In the single player gameplay, players mostly aim and maneuver around slow, predictable, and simple targets. But in Deathmatch, this high speed makes carefully moving, avoiding, and aiming at other players much more difficult. It's like fighting an angry shopkeeper with a brain!

High Action Frequency. Players can whip fairly continuously, throw ropes rapidly, and toss bombs incredibly fast. Witness the spamity calamity here. Yes, bombs and ropes are limited in supply, so there's a limit to how much players can spam these actions. However, the ability to spam these actions is another indie feel design decision that does more harm than good. When actions and animations are less frequent, more deliberate, and don't feature extreme cancels, gameplay becomes punctuated with distinct actions and pauses. These pauses are key in supporting the push-pull interplay of spacing (dodging, aiming, attacking). With out it, panicked, unconscious, spammy tactics dominate. 

Lack of Interplay. It's great that players can use their whip to stop incoming rocks and bombs from hurting them. It's great that the shield item blocks shotgun bullets and laser blasts. But these interplay examples are few and they're rare because of their execution difficulty (due to the high player/action speed) and because items spawn randomly into the game. Aside from item and powerup interplay, there is simply too much hitstun in to the core Spelunky's design. So much hit stun in fact that there are plenty of infinite combos in the game. You don't even have to be creative; just whip your opponents over and over until the psychic blast appears and bail at the last moment (see video below). 

Matches can end very quickly. With so much speed and dynamic chaos that can happen, some matches end very quickly.  With bombs being so powerful, thrown so quickly, and delivering so much hit stun, sometimes matches end within seconds because players open with a few tossed bombs. I don't consider short matches to be a serious issue considering all of the decay going on in the gameplay. With the level literally being blown away, so few ropes to use, and few items to pick up, it's better that matches end quickly rather than drag on too long. For when players run out of ropes, bombs, and useful items, the gameplay stalls a bit. 

Based on the way Spelunky's single player Adventure mode is designed, there's no quick fix to remove the rawness from the multiplayer mode. 



BaraBariBall footage @ 8:40.



In the indie game BaraBariBall, which I'm currently working on, it's diffuclt to understand the risk-reward balance of many player actions. Players can earn points by dunking the ball into the water or by dunking each other. Often times hitting an opponent who chases the ball down will put him/her in a better position to recover the ball. I've been playing the game for over 15 hours and I still don't know how to pressure my opponent so that their situation is less advantageous than mine. 

Then there are ground moves and air moves, but the ground moves are difficult to land because most players spend their time in the air, using their many jumps and higher maneuverability. Even the air dodge is more effective than the ground roll. With such effective air moves, the ground mechanics are a practically useless area of the design space. Because many attacks are so hard to land on nimbly moving opponents, there's a lot of attempted pushing, some successful pulling, but little push-pull that moves in the gameplay in a clear direction. The game often doesn't feel like opponents out maneuver or out think me. It just feels like I never had enough control to begin with. 

As I suspected in my initial review of BaraBariBall, Noah, the game's creator, made several design decisions in order to make the game more engaging and interesting. He recognized something missing from the design and attempted to fix it. Unfortunately, one of these decisions was increasing the speed of character movement. This design choice in turn made simply hitting other players very difficult. To compensate Noah exaggerated many of the hitboxes for attacks. The problem is, the fast movement makes it hard to simply track and react to character positions. The larger hitboxes don't actually fix the fact that the character speed is too fast for most players to react to. To further help, Noah added lunging animations to the air attacks, which removed much of the fine tune spacing players could control in the air.  

In my article on BaraBariBall, I said that the combat works. While this is true on many design levels, it's not exactly clear what works or how it's working. The basic tactics of push the ball around and hit the opponents is clear enough. But from there, it's very unclear how each mechanic or player option fits within the design space in a way that allows different risks and reward in pursuing victory. 

I can say without a doubt that we've been working on fixing the rawness of BaraBariBall's design so that the best parts of the gameplay are clean and clear to all players and spectators alike. So far we've reduced the speed, taken the lunges out of attacks, and are tweaking hitboxes. The game looks and feels much better now (see video), but we still have a long way to go. After all, rawness is a term for gameplay experiences that have a lot of good in them that could benefit from some serious tweaks to their core design. So, it's good to recognize rawness in the development phase. 


In the end, there's always some potential for a game to emerge through its rawness and turn out to be well designed, balanced, and quite enjoyable. Just like working with raw ingredients in the culinary world, time will make the differnece; whether that's time in the over or time chewing on the results.  

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