Hey everyone! I’m Trent Steen, and for the past eight months or so I’ve been working on bringing my game Shapes of Gray to the Wii U. As the game nears completion, I’ll be writing a series of features on the game’s development to shed a bit of light on what my behind-the-scenes design process has been like. Last week, I shared the long design process behind how the first five minutes of the game came to be. This week, I’d like to talk about another aspect of the game which has progressively evolved since the release of the PC version: Arcade Mode.
Ever since I first released the PC version of Shapes of Gray nearly a year and a half ago, I’ve been calling it a “stripped-down, fast-paced arcade game.” In my mind, “arcade” meant small and easy to get into—I had been playing a lot of Super Crate Box and Super Hexagon at the time, and the scope of those two games seeped into Shapes of Gray’s design towards the very beginning of development.
What I had completely missed, though, was that simplicity—though very important—isn’t what defines an arcade game. What defines an arcade game, obviously, is replayability! Having a high score to chase! This is something that the original PC version of Shapes of Gray lacked, and it was most people’s biggest problem with that version of the game. As one critic put it:
“I had a fun time playing Shapes of Gray and become so engrossed in it that I found myself yelling at my monitor while trying to dodge the various attacks. However, while the game is certainly fun to play, there isn’t much replayability. […] That’s not to say that I wouldn’t go back and play the game just for the fun of it, which I did a couple of times, but there is no reason to really do so without a previous score or time record to beat. For an arcade-style game such as Shapes of Gray, I feel it is an essential feature that keeps people playing.”
And he was absolutely right! Though players may have had a lot of fun with the game, they didn’t have anything to measure their skill against for them to observe how they were improving. To me, the fun of playing an arcade game comes from getting better at it—but without some sort of metric by which they can track that progress, players will end up floundering around without any sense of direction. The power of the written goal is strong!
Realizing that I had to create an arcade mode if I wanted the Wii U version of the game to be as great as it could be, I needed to go about designing it. The most basic possible implementation for this was also the idea that most often was suggested to me: make it so that defeating enemies gives you points!
But there was a problem with this. In Shapes of Gray, the player progresses through the game by defeating all the enemies on a floor within a time limit, progressing to the next floor, and repeating this until they’ve reached the final floor. Knowing this, most of you can probably already see why that first idea was no good.
There’s no room for improvement! Every player is going to end up defeating the same number of enemies every single time they play through the game. There would be no point in displaying a score showing how many they’ve defeated—it would just be an arbitrary number representing an aspect of the game they can’t change. You might as well have a counter in the corner showing the game’s framerate! If we were to plot the scores of a hundred different players on a graph, we’d only get a single point.
Remember: the relationship between the designer and the playtester is like that of a doctor and her patient. The patient tells his symptoms to the doctor, and the doctor comes up with the solution, ignoring whatever amateur ideas the patient might have about how to fix himself. Players who criticized Shapes of Gray’s lack of an arcade mode were correct at identifying the problem, and that feedback was valuable—their solution, on the other hand, could be disregarded.
A good arcade mode needs to allow the player to demonstrate their skill—this requirement is the bare minimum for crafting one. So how could I give players a metric to measure their skill level? Easy! Award the player more points for clearing levels faster. However many seconds are left on the timer at the end of a level would be added to their score.
If we say that the first idea for arcade mode didn’t do anything to measure the player’s skill, we could say that this idea acts as a single dimension to measure the player’s skill. The game isn’t any more complex than it was before, and the player still has only one goal, but now they have a way to tell how well they’re performing this task. This solution is sufficient—but it doesn’t make the game any more interesting.
In order to do that, I would need to add a second dimension. For Shapes of Gray, this second dimension came in the form of collectable coins.
I don’t remember where I got the idea for coins (probably from one of the other hundreds of games that has coins in it), but I’m glad I did, because they were what really made arcade mode finally click. Implementing them into the game was simple: in each level, there are two coins for the player to collect. The player’s coin total then acts as a multiplier for the points they get at the end of each level.
This gives the players two conflicting goals to chase, suddenly creating a huge possibility space for different arcade strategies. When is it better to take the extra time to collect the coins versus completing the level as quickly as possible? With proper planning, could players clear the levels just as quickly as they had before and still manage to pick up the coins? These are the sorts of questions I found myself asking, and I hope dedicated players find themselves asking them too.
It seems like anytime a community of hardcore players forms around a game, they manage to “solve” it within a couple weeks, calculating the best strategies and figuring out how to get the maximum score every time. Some games ignore this, but the best games embrace it by adding in additional systems of complexity which allow these savants to break the game even further and soar above all other players, whether it be ghosting in Spelunky or wavedashing in Super Smash Bros. Melee. This is something that I really wanted to do with Shapes of Gray, and as luck would have it, I accidentally did when designing one of the Wii U version’s new enemies.
While programming an enemy that would gravitate back towards the player after being hit, I accidentally made it both immortal and persistent throughout all levels—meaning that the player could be batting this enemy away for the entire game. At first, I thought of having this act as a strange sort of pseudo-boss that would stalk the player throughout the back half of the game, but when presented as a threat, this enemy felt more unfair than anything.
Presented as a bonus, though, it felt like a really nice extra challenge—so I opted to keep the enemy in as an arcade mode exclusive foe who would give the player one coin every time they attacked it. After attacking the enemy, it flies away, only to accelerate back towards the player. If the player misses, the enemy will hit them and explode, depriving them of their precious coin source.
Shapes of Gray experts will be able to milk this enemy for as many coins as possible, raising the ceiling for mastery even higher than before—especially since, at every tenth level, another one of these enemies appears, meaning that a really great player could potentially be juggling five of these coin-farms by the time they reach the final level.
This enemy serves as the third “dimension” to Shapes of Gray’s arcade mode. What’s great about these dimensions, though, is that they don’t only make the game more fun for the best of the best—they also give intermediate and beginner players more options to try out, allowing them to get better at the game by practicing different techniques. Having trouble getting past the halfway mark of arcade mode? Try collecting more coins in the earlier levels instead. Getting burnt out on playing the game traditionally? Try juggling the coin enemy for as long as you can and play that way.
Keep in mind, though, that more dimensions isn’t necessarily better. A truly beautiful design will appear simple on the surface so that new players will easily be able to begin playing, and then gradually reveal new layers of itself as the game goes on. While not quite as complex, Shapes of Gray took a lot of inspiration from simple-yet-deep games like Spelunky and NES Zelda which have a ton of systems to explore if you choose to peek beneath the surface. To me, the real reward of mastering games like these comes from understanding their systems—or dimensions—and eventually learning to manipulate them to your will. Like Neo controlling the Matrix, your players will gain such an intimate understanding of your game that their very methods of perception will have changed—and they’ll never play your game the same way again.
The reward of designing a game like this is the hope that someday someone will show up and master your game on a level that even you haven’t reached. As good as I am at the game—probably the best person in the world, at this point in time—I am not a Shapes of Gray master.
Maybe you will be.
If you have any questions about Shapes of Gray or game development, you can hit me up on Twitter @Secret_Tunnel or leave a comment below. See you next week!