The Super Gravitron is a skill-based game. Not only that, but it's solvable, meaning that with enough skill players can always find a solution to every challenge without using any luck or guesswork. How do I know this? The creator of the game Terry Cavanaugh taught me so. Yes, I met him at GDC 2012, but he didn't impart any Super Gravitron wisdom in our in-person conversation. Rather, Cavanaugh's level design is so well tuned and the feedback design is so informative that I was able to learn the intricacies of the system just from playing. The whole learning process starts with recognizing patterns.
Recognizing The Design
The first thing that I noticed is that the hazards spawn randomly. The second thing I noticed is the hazards are organized into specific groups, and that while a group is spawning onto the screen no other group will spawn. I'd expect all players to pick up on these patterns fairly quickly. Beyond these, there's a very particular kind of pattern that I noticed that gave me great insight on the intricate design of the Super Gravitron.
Like in Super Mario Brothers, when you die in the Super Gravitron the game state pauses giving you just a bit more feedback clarity on the conditions surrounding your death. And with this feedback I noticed that I was dying the same exact way every time for each particular hazard group. Despite the random sequence of hazard groups, I found this deadly repetition insightful. Sometimes in games repeated deaths just means that I'm making the same mistakes over and over. But in cases like this, after trying to change my fate by using different tactics and still dying in the same ways, I knew I was missing something. That's when my eyes were open to how intricately tuned the Super Gravitron is.
It turns out that the Super Gravitron is tuned like clockwork. Because I died in the same exact way (to the pixel) multiple times despite all of the random spawning, the constant vertical bouncing, and my attempts to change my strategies, I realized that the hazard spawn rate and the bouncing rate are synced. With this information, I knew that the game system had enough control to only spawn hazards with at least one escape route. From there, I kept my eyes open to search for escape routes I had never considered before.
That's when the entire design of the game clicked in my mind. Though avoiding hazards is pretty straightforward, I had to choose my paths wisely as to not put myself in danger of the next hazard. At times when it looked like I was pinned by an unfair combination of hazards, I mentally backtracked to see if I could have avoided the trap. So far, I been able to find an escape for just about every scenario. And I'm confident the others have escapes I haven't found yet.
While looking for escape paths, I really took notice of the little white marks that indicate incoming hazards. These marks are completely necessary for the Super Graviton to be a skill-based, solvable, and therefore excellent game. Knowing what we know about the reflex range and reflex skills, there had to be some kind of warning indicator to give players enough information and enough time to make informed decisions. Without the white warning marks, much of the gameplay would be a luck-based guessing game, especially warping between the left and right sides of the tube. To survive you have to have more than good reflexes. You have to have more than tactics. You need techniques and strategy.
After I understood how important planning for upcoming hazard groups was, I was able to better evaluate the relative risks and rewards of my tactical dodging options. That's when I was able to develop and implement effective techniques. Using the steady metronome like sound I sharpened my timing when maneuvering through tight gaps. Because of the high horizontal movement speed, I used rapid back and forth motions to stabilize my position. I learned to sharpen and soften my focus depending on the situation. A sharp focus is great for making precise dodges. A soft focus is great for seeing the entire screen including the white marks on both ends at once. I even made a technique to help me switch from hard to soft focus by staring into the background with the 3D stereoscopic effect turned on. These technqiues are helpful, but it's the strategies and knowledge skills that really make the difference.
Explaining the Strategy
I'm amaze at how simple and straightforward Super Gravitron gameplay is, yet at the same time it's incredibly challenging and varied. Yes, I'm just dodging around in an endless tube; yes the solution is always just some sequence of moving left, right, or not at all. But developing the skills to survive is nothing short of learning, which is work no matter how you look at it. Like with other challenging games I could feel my muscles tensing up as I played in the Super Gravitron. The only thing that got me through it all were my strategies that I listen to like a continual internal dialog. "Do this. Don't do that. Watch out for the side. Get ready to warp." Of course, my strategies are easier to explain with some visuals and specifics. The following descriptions refer to the image below.
- The sweeper: Because the hole in the middle is the only way through this group (notice the single line) and this hole can only be safely maneuvered when bouncing in the correct direction, this hazard group tends to push me far out of my normal center position, which can be very dangerous. Because sweepers are a small group, they can be peppered into other spawn sequences easily. Sweepers always lean in the direction they travel.
- Diamond (sweeper): This hazard group is a sweeper too, but it gives players 2 ways to get around it. The holes at the top and bottom are easy to maneuver through because I can dodge with the metronome-like beat technique. Because of the symmetrical diamond shape, it's possible to dodge this group with little to no horizontal movement no matter which direction the diamond spawns from.
- Freestyle: These hazards come in groups of about 7. The horizontal spacing of the hazards is always evenly spaced, but their vertical position is random allowing for for many combinations. You never know what formation this group will take, hence "freestyle." So these groups require some tactical maneuvering and hard focus to overcome. Being about 7 squares long, players can relax knowing that no other groups will spawn until the end.
- An example of one of the few combinations of hazards that can spawn simultaneously from the left and right side of the tube. Typically hazards spawn from either the left or the right simplifying where I need to look to get a heads up on incoming hazards. So if my gaze if not wide enough (perhaps because I need to hard focus to survive against the freestyle groups) this hazard formation can catch me by surprise.
- Back to back repeated groups are uncommon. Triple repeats are rare. It's good to know that they can happen.
- I have a lot of options to maneuver around these obstacles. Each is designed to softly influence movement unlike the sweepers. Notice how many more possible paths I can take. These groups are small and come shuffled with other formations.
- Some timing windows are extremely narrow. I think it's possible to pass through the right most group. I only use this option in emergencies.
- Full Sweeper: This sweeper is more intrusive than the other sweepers. Always being 6 "waves" long getting in and out of this hazard group reliably almost always requires some warping.
- Finally, this is a bread and butter hazard group. It consists of 12 squares that spawn at the same heights and at the same time on both sides. The order goes top, middle, center, center, middle, and top. (see here)
The Super Gravitron is an example of solid gameplay design. The controls are simple. The challenge is straightforward. Being a real-time game the entire skill spectrum is stressed and there's a surprising amount of knowledge needed to perform well. The continual challenge tests player's mental endurance and ability to adapt as their execution breaks down. The feedback is informative and the design is clean, though this tends to be the case with simpler games. Unlike games like Geometry Wars, there is no ramping up of difficulty. The moment you start, the game throws its worst at you.
The Super Gravitron demands mastery and perfection because with one hit, it's all over. Though you only have the option to move left or right, it's amazing how many different options you have and how these options open up once you have the strategy. Until I learned that there are only a handful of hazard groups, it felt like everything was completely random. When I first started playing, I couldn't see how someone could survive for longer that 20 seconds let alone a full minute. But like with all skill-based games, every bit of knowledge gained made me stronger. When I finally figured out how to "dodge without moving" thus turning inaction into a powerful strategy, I felt like a genius. From random chaos to choreographed ballet, this is what I love about gameplay; the learning, the squeeze, and of course the novelty.
Remember how I described the layers of of Super Mario Brothers gameplay? The layers of challenges are designed in a way that create a rich context for players to best learn and discover specific challenges, secrets, and possibilities. The reason this layered design works is because all the layers can be accessed simultaneously. The gameplay in the Super Gravitron takes a different approach to creating a rich, emergent context for players.
Instead of using layers of challenge the Super Gravitron presents different sequences of challenges through hazard groups and random spawning. Some sequences are very small and therefore can be mixed into unique combinations. Other sequences are long and create familiar obstacles. The Super Gravitron creates a richer context and more difficult challenges by spawning hazards back to back with no space in between. The moment one group is about to clear the screen another group is already spawning in. You don't have time to stop and breath; there is no reset. It's not exactly suspension, but the effect is similar. The positions you put yourself into to convercome one hazard group with can make overcoming the next group more difficult, or even impossible. And as you figure out your options for maneuvering through different groups, you'll begin to see that every move and option matters.
Random spawning drives the Super Gravitron, and there are pros and cons to this design. The pros are the player is presented with an unpredictable sequence of challenges. While there's no one solution to memorize to be successful, because there is some stability in terms of hazard groups, players can still anticipate and formulate very detailed strategies. One con of randomness is that it sort of scrambles and slows the learning process. Instead of mastering a few hazard groups at a time before moving on, players have to master all the groups evenly. After all, the randomness ensures that players are exposed to any possible hazard group and sequence at any time. For this reason, skill-based progress tends to jump by significant levels. This also means that you may feel like you're not getting any better for long periods of time before, all of a sudden, you're rocking.
The Super Gravitron is my favorite part of VVVVVV. But there's something awfully familiar about its design. It's almost as if I played a similar game before and wrote a similar article. Remember the game Bullet Time? Endless tube. Random spawning enemies. Few player mechanics. Fast game speed. The challenge is to just survive as long as possible. Also created by Terry Cavanaugh. What can I say, the man knows how to make some solid, straightforward, gameplay modes that are unlike anything else I've played. Bravo.