Game Design

The Difficulty of Game Difficulties

Video games are the only medium that require a skill check to reach the end of a work. You can always skip to the end of a book, or skip scenes in a movie, or the annoying guitar solo of a song. In games, there is rarely a way to actually skip the bad parts or the parts you are just not able to finish. This is the gist of a comparison comedian Dara O’Briain made a long time ago and that people in games have not stopped referencing ever since.

The decision to let players skip content or enjoy an easier difficulty is not as clear-cut or as easy to implement as people might hope. It’s a mix of design, marketing, target audience, time and general purchasing attitudes. I had the weird fortune of working on games that let players pay money to effectively skip content, that let players who bought full games skip content for free and am now working in the AAA space where neither is that common.

The games I worked on that let players skip any challenge they didn’t like were Hidden Object games. For those unfamiliar, it’s a genre of point-and-click adventure games where you find items across pretty 2D scenes and try to figure out their use like you would in the old LucasArts adventure games. Occasionally, you would find a “hidden object scene”, where you would rummage through a very cluttered screen trying to find several very specific objects. Finally, there were “minigames”, or puzzles as we called them internally. These could be anything, but are generally most comparable to old survial horror game puzzles in terms of complexity and input.

The Skip/Hint feature in these games had two roles: tell you where the next item was, or if there was no item, which of your current ones you needed to use or combine. If you were in a hidden object scene, it would show you something from the list you hadn’t found yet. If you were in a puzzle, it would skip it entirely. You’re probably thinking the main reason for this is the casual target audience of the games, which were all but officially referred to as middle-aged women (alhtough all sorts of people play HO games). This is only partially true. If someone bought your HO game, you wanted to be sure they could finish it. The culture surrounding these games is its own and shares very little with the mainstream gaming audience (even though there are thousands upon thousands of HO games on the Big Fish store). One of the attitudes is genuinely “if I bought this, I should be able to see this to the end”.

Now, the Skip/Hint function is really only a band-aid solution. In an ideal world, your item interactions would slowly build up a way of thinking for the player. Then the puzzles would capitalize on that way of thinking into a seamless experience that blends with the narrative. Sadly, HO games have a development cycle of 5-8 months and I have worked on 10 of them in the span of 6 months. It is impossible to design that many games at such a high quality. That means that there will be item interactions that might not be obvious. There will be puzzles that just block the player’s progress and force them to use the hint system. Especially with something as hard to gauge the difficulty of as logic puzzles.

However, even with the Skip/Hint ability, you did not get a freebie in how you designed the game. It was there in case of an oversight or edge cases where a particular player had a bad day or just missed something. Whenever you clicked on a possible in-game interaction, there was flavor text with a hint of what you should do. For example, if you tried to open a door, instead of saying “This door is stuck” you could say “This door is rusted shut” and the immediate response from the player would be “It’s rusty, I need to oil it up”. Little subtle sparkles would indicate items you could pick up in a busy screen, while puzzles were not allowed to require fast reflexes or arcade-like elements. You also weren’t allowed to clutter the inventory with too many items at any time in the game. On top of all of this, we also made an effort to make our game color-blind friendly, avoiding to rely on colors alone in puzzles. Another thing HO games did were custom difficulties, which always impressed me. You could turn off the skip functions, the object sparkles, add penalties to just randomly clicking everywhere on a hidden object scene, all sorts of individual settings were there outside of the standard “Easy/Medium/Hard” modes.

Did the Skip function harm our games? Not really. Looking at YouTube and stream playthroughs of our games showed that people avoided using them unless they really had no other choice. People bought the game and tried to play them as we intended. When they couldn’t, they bypassed the content blocking them.

Now, how can this be applied to our standard-issue mainstream AAA/Indie Dark Souls game? It’s actually very difficult and nowhere near a universal solution. First off, you have to keep in mind that HO games are very linear and there is a very specific order of things. As soon as you were to try this in an open world game, it would get more complicated. Let’s say you are playing a GTA-styled sandbox game with RPG progression. If the player were to click the “Hint” button to see where to go, good design would dictate you considered this:

  • Does the player have a main quest?
  • What stage of the main quest are they on?
  • Are they high enough level for the next stage?
  • Do they have particular items?
  • How far is the next stage of the quest?
  • Are there any side-quests nearby?
  • Same qualification questions for the side-quest
  • Are there any points of interest nearby?
  • Same qualification questions for the points of interest
  • Tell the player where to go

This is why most open world games rely on proximity markers, but if you’re not equipped to deal with whatever you encounter, you’ll only learn by failing that you have to go back and level/gear up.

Difficulty settings also get really janky with many games for the simple reason that not every game scales well with difficulty. If a game has a timer, at some point, scaling that timer down and up will break. Scaling it up past a certain point will stop having any impact, because the difference between 20 and 30 minutes in a 10 minute level doesn’t mean anything. We like to associate difficulty with numbers: more or less enemies, more or less damage, more or less health, more or less time. If you’ve ever played a Souls game, just ask yourself what you’d rather have: one big boss or two medium bosses at the same time? There is a reason the two big breaking points for many people in the first Dark Souls game are both boss fights with two simultaneous bosses. And let’s not get into resource management, like ammo scarcity, how many heals the player has access to and so on.

You are already focusing on shipping a game that is fine-tuned for that one difficulty that you label as “Recommended” when a player selects New Game. That is the difficulty the most work went into, because every additional difficulty setting requires a design pass and thorough testing to make it feel right. And then you also have to make sure that if a player changes this difficulty at any point in the game, it scales well with whatever their current unlocks/stats are.

Of course, balancing difficulty and having many different and well-made options for it aren’t a universal requirement. Some games simply don’t focus on difficulty or don’t use it as a selling point. This isn’t really the difference between whether it’s a narrative-focused or action-focused game. Action games can be easy and narrative games can have mind-bending puzzles. Really, the only person who gets to decide how important difficulty is in the game is the person who made it. Then it’s their job to decide whether their high difficulty is scalable or locked into a single setting. This doesn’t make a game immune to criticism, everyone should be able to review, comment on or criticize a title based on whatever standards they choose. That is the consumer-driven world we live in.

But video games are like many things: they are like books, like movies, like music, like sports, like activities, like therapy, like food, like cars. They are also like none of those things either. A book will never physically stop you from reading its words, but it will be technical and archaic enough for you to not be able to parse together the meaning of those words (like, not interpretation, but actual meaning). Movies won’t stop you from skipping certain scenes, but you might not understand later scenes because of it. Music won’t stop you from skipping the chorus, but you won’t always be able to turn off the vocals or drums or any other instrument you don’t like. Sports won’t stop you from participating, but you won’t get a medal for losing (usually). Signing up for mountain-climbing won’t stop you from getting tired mid-way, but they don’t guarantee an elevator to the top either. I hope my dislike for these analogies is coming across.

If we accept that a focus of a game can be the narrative, the characters and all these other aspects that don’t require physical skill, we need to accept that there are games that have a different focus and a barrier to entry. Interpreting the motivations of characters and motifs of a story are important parts of enjoying certain games, and make no mistake, doing this effectively is a skill in its own right. So is being able to beat Hotline Miami or being good at Quake. Yes, if you can’t interpret a game, you can read up on it after finishing the game, but the same way if you can’t finish a game, you can watch someone finish it for you.

At the end of the day, skipping content or being able to make it easier is not necessary. Yes, it makes your game available to more players, but if it’s not an experience you want your players to have, then letting them finish the game like that and disliking it might be harmful to your game as well. What parts of a game you bought you own or are entitled to is a massive question with no clear answer, especially in the age of the Internet. One thing that isn’t as nebulous though is that not every game is made for you, and if the new hotness isn’t something you can enjoy, eventually something will come up that you will be able to enjoy. Or heck, there probably already is.


The 100 YEN Life – Casual Observations of Japanese Arcades


The following article is based on a two week trip to Japan and contains only casual observations. None of this should be taken as a deep or in some instances even accurate depiction of any part of Japanese life.

Fighting games are my favorite genre. Not the mainstream Mortal Kombats and Street Fighters, but the painfully flashy and anime ones. If you follow that scene, you know that the best players are usually from Japan. You know that the games are released in Japanese arcades a year in advance, where all the professional players gather and play on a level someone like you can only dream of. It’s simply outside of the grasp of someone who plays games at home or online.

But it only takes half an hour of wandering through one of those arcades to actually understand what a Japanese arcade is. It’s not a romanticized gathering of a competitive scene, it’s an after-work activity.

Going head-first into an arcade to just check out the fancy and exclusive cabinets would probably be a disillusioning experience, but the way the gaming philosophy is interwoven with other, seemingly unrelated daily life designs makes the purpose and atmosphere of the arcade much clearer.


The main currency of Japan is the 100 YEN coin. The YEN may be the official currency, but everything is based on the actual coin. Japan’s cash culture means that you will have plenty of those coins on you at any given time and, of course, many business are designed to take them off of you. This is mostly apparent when you realize just how many damn vending machines Japan has. And while I tend to ignore them anywhere else as overpriced snacks and cold drinks, they are quite useful in Japan. The prices are competitive and the drinks come both ice cold and smouldering hot.

Of course, because vending machines aren’t enough, there are capsule machines (gashapon) everywhere too. They are essentially Kinder Surprise Eggs without the chocolate and with actual quality figures. And their price is, of course, in increments of 100 YEN (with the most expensive I’ve encountered being 500, which is, surprise, also a single coin you can get). To put it simply, there are a lot of things meant to rid you of your change on the way to and from work.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

The “to and from work” is another aspect that ties into the arcade experience. While it was normal for us as tourists to go out every afternoon and evening for food and drinks, it was a bit odd to always see restaurants and bars packed with other Japanese people. We quickly realized that these people in suits were going out with their colleagues for the best team-building exercise: drinking. This also put into context why arcades I visited were packed on a random Tuesday. A lot of people just don’t seem to go home right away after a long day of work. If you think about it though, housing space is a known problem in Japan, so it’s not far-fetched to assume people would rather play video games in a social environment than their cramped home.

While arcades in the West kind of died out when consoles became as strong as arcade cabinets, that wasn’t really a factor in Japan. Arcades were “where you go to play exclusive stuff” for us, but for Japan it became another social space. Something that also reinforces this is the complexity of arcade games I’ve seen. I’m not talking about actual gameplay-complexity as much as a focus on persistence. Almost every cabinet will ask you for some card or account (I’ve noticed Nesica cards primarily, but there might be more). For fighting games, this will primarily let you keep track of your stats, rank, costume unlocks and other similar vanity things. But for other games, it can be your actual progress. I’ve also noticed plenty of card games, where I assume you either use real-world cards that are scanned or digital cards that you collect to your account.

What cemented the fact of how little people cared for playing at home versus at arcades was when I was told that Japan’s main Street Fighter game was still Ultra Street Fighter IV, simply because SFV didn’t have an arcade release.

Arcades also become cheaper the more you play them, or rather, the better you get at a game. For example, a single coin lasted me 2 minutes for shoot ‘em ups I was bad at, 20 minutes for fighting games and 40 minutes for Left 4 Dead (which I ended up quitting instead of game over-ing). If you’re smart about it, your entertainment for half an hour will cost you less than a can of coffee.

There is another aspect I’d like to touch upon that reinforces the very game-y philosophy of Japan: the borderline gambling. Much like the rest of the World, Japan is really good at pushing the limits of the law. When merchants in Kyoto were taxed based on how wide their store’s front was, they simply made extremely narrow and long houses in order to pay less. Keeping this little factoid in mind, you can imagine how far people will push the no gambling law of the country.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Let’s go over the obligatory pachinko parlors. The extremely simple explanation is that it’s a cross between pinball and slot machines that you probably know as Peggle. The more complex explanation is that it’s the only thing people will call gambling in Japan despite it technically not being gambling. You see, you pay money for tiny metal balls. These balls are what you feed the machine in order to win more balls. When you’re satisfied with the amount of balls you’ve earned, you trade them for something material, like a lump of gold. What you do with that lump of gold is your decision, but why not sell it to one of many stores for actual money?

Pachinko is the most blatant example, but there are many less-obvious ones, too. UFO catchers (or “those rigged claw machines” as you may know them) are also everywhere. The prizes in them are pretty damn absurd. From some very expensive figures and giant plushies, to actual real life oysters that may or may not contain pearls. And they can be yours. It’s just 100 YEN to try and win. Why hold on to that change when you can just spend it for something worth so much more?

You’re surely thinking how all these examples are quite clearly obvious ploys to take your money, but the gamey gambling design is also in things you wouldn’t expect. We visited the CapBar (Capcom’s gimmicky bar which we really loved despite all the negative reviews it has online) and there was a special Halloween menu. If you ordered anything off the Halloween menu, you got one of four random exclusive postcards. It sounds innocent, but it works. We quickly wanted the whole small set, but the employees weren’t allowed to just give us the cards we asked for. It was all purely random. So we ordered more drinks. Because those postcards would never be released again. And we wanted them. We really like Leon, OK?

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

And it’s this primal urge to have shiny things that a lot of the “not gambling” games take advantage of. The capsule machines I mentioned earlier? There’s hundreds of them. Each one has a different set of figures. There was one with glowing ice cream bears in cups. The other one had Pikachus dressed as other Pokemon. I had to have these things because they were just a few 100 YEN coins.

All of this contributed to why I was so disillusioned by finally visiting a Japanese arcade. After two or three visits, I was bored and it took me a while to understand why. It was my lack of social involvement in them. I did go with my friends there, but we were all strangers. It was that Wild West bar you dropped by and everyone looked at you suspiciously because you ordered a drink they didn’t have. If I lived there, I’d have a card, I’d go out with other regulars, I’d understand the culture of it. Maybe the 100 YEN life is more appealing when the YEN is from your paycheck.


Patreon Post (August 2016) – The Ring of Void: Embers

For August’s Patreon game, I wanted to do an interactive fiction game. Reasons were twofold: I know how to write, so it would at least be presentable; I wanted to try Inkle. Inkle was used for some great games, most notably 80 Days. It can be used both as a standalone tool or be integrated into existing games or engines (for example, with its official Unity plug-in). I used the web version, which also lets you share your stories with other people easily, without needing to host the files anywhere in particular. Probably the most common comparison has been with Twine. Twine feels like it’s more manageable for stories with a lot of branching, while Inkle’s strength seems to be adding different variations of a similar path.

For the game’s story, I wanted to use my novella, The Ring of Void, but rather than just port an existing story, I had another one in mind. The “Embers” story was initially meant to be in a PC98-styled adventure game I had planned but never been able to do. The premise was simple: you go to investigate a haunting, and you have the choice to find out as much as you want about it. There was no good or bad way of going about it, since you play a character who banishes spirits for a living, so whether he hears yet another sordid tale doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

Or it does, if the player decides so.


Because Inkle generates a map on its own, unless you neatly structure your paragraphs, you end up with my nightmare above. My story is structured in the following way:

Inkle Map

As you can see, the idea is that you can just go through the meat, but there’s optional content that does affect the outcome and does affect how you perceive the story. How Inkle does this is by letting you mark every paragraph you want with a “marker”. Then, you can make any dialog option or any other paragraph a conditional of said marker. So, you can say “Only display this if player reached this marker.” You can also remove markers the player has reached or add counters. This works well if your player has something in his inventory that he loses, or if you want them to have a certain number of things. I used the latter function in one section to show that the player has exhausted all questions. Each question asked adds a +1 to the question counter, and when it’s at max, you won’t say “I have more questions” > “That is all”. Markers also help to avoid you repeating the same questions over and over and being stuck in a loop.

In general, Inkle was easy to use and get into. I think it’s more powerful if you try to make a story with it in mind, rather than having an already planned story and trying to adapt it to Inkle. Having a pre-existing story will still work, but Inkle won’t really shine.

You can play “The Ring of Void: Embers” on the following link:

Please let me know of any issues or comments you may have on Twitter.

This also concludes my two-month Patreon project. Since I now have a full-time job, I will be focusing on that. Thank you all who contributed or spread the word on it.


Patreon Post (July 2016) – Fish Em Up

While being between jobs, I had to do the adult thing and find a source of income. To supplement freelance work I’ve been doing, I setup a Patreon. Luckily for me, it seems the Patreon was necessary for only July and August. The premise of the Patreon was simple: I did a rough estimate of how much a day of work would cost and depending on how the Patreon did, I’d set aside that many days to play with game prototype ideas. I would then put together an article detailing the thought process and how the entire project went.

With July’s Patreon, I basically had around 4 days at my disposal to play with a project. The theme patrons voted for was “shoot em up where you can combine weapons”. Higher tier patrons added in some limitations, giving the entire game an aquatic theme. The idea of combining power-ups to get a new weapon is mostly inspired by Inside a Star-filled Sky, where the three power-ups you pick up would combine into one weapon for the next stage. I wanted to go a bit in a different route. Essentially, a ship would have 3 weapon slots and what the ship shot depended on the combination of everything equipped. To avoid the system conflicting with itself, I broke the three slots into three separate types: pattern, projectile, special.

Patterns dictated the pattern of the projectiles shot, and included standard shmup types like forward, back + forward, sides + forward, and so on. Projectile type determined damage, size and rate of fire of each individual projectile. Special was for special qualities, like chain shots, damage over time, homing, and so on. This meant that instead of having linear progression, each power-up had its advantages and drawbacks, so in turn each combination had its own. This was to avoid one of my least-liked shmup aspects – linear power progression. In most shmups, even if there were different types of weapons, you could keep upgrading them to create devastating weapons. However, if you died, you’d be back at square one, so dying late in a level would make it obscenely difficult. With this method, you could end up with a weapon you don’t like, but rarely with a weapon that’s too weak.

With the weapon aspect of the game defined, there was also the matter of the “ship” (or in this case, the pink whale). It’s nice to be able to manipulate aspects like health and speed, so I decided to use options for that (the little assistant ships that fly with you in other shmups). They would come in three varieties: health boost, speed boost and shooter. Health would let you survive an additional hit and, while not implemented, would probably function on an internal cooldown rather than being one-time. Speed boost is self-explanatory, while shooter would shoot the simplest type of projectiles, but would still increase your overall damage input. The player would be able to mix and match any combination of these three options to supplement their playstyle.

The prototype is pretty bare-bones, as I spent a lot of time trying to learn GameMaker (I’m not really proficient with it). The graphics used the ZX Spectrum palette to save time. You can find a prototype and more information on it by reading the associated Patreon post.

The prototype’s main goal was to see if this concept could be fun, and I feel there’s something there, but it would definitely need more time dedicated to it first. Maybe one day.


Designing VIPER Sniper (DooM SnapMap)

SnapMap’s three most notorious limitations at the time of writing are the demon limit (you can have around 12 in your level at a time), the player limit (only 4 players) and the equipment limit (two equipped weapons at a time). Only the developers know why these and other minor limitations are in place, but like I mentioned in my previous article, I like designing within constraints.

Back in the day, I played a lot of Champions Online (Steam shows 3321 hours total clocked). When the game introduced map-wide Team Duels, I started brainstorming a bit over what could be done with it. After re-arranging some powers, getting some very expensive legacy gear and finding a group, I had my first opportunity to try VIPER Sniper. Five super heroes search for a sniper that’s stealthed and try and take him down. The stealthed sniper, a one-man team, would try and take out the heroes one by one, which was possible because the build was so broken it could one-shot tanks. The general rhythm was, hide, wait for a hero, take him out, run away and hide again. The mode was really fun, we added a bunch of rules to make it more interesting, and it lasted until Stealth was revamped so that it made the mode no longer possible.


Fast forward today, I wanted to make this mode in SnapMap.

Before opening the editor, my plan was as follows:

  • 3 VS 1 gameplay
  • The Sniper can turn invisible
  • The Sniper turns visible for a limited time when shooting
  • The Sniper’s shot is a one-hit-kill
  • The Sniper turns visible for a limited time when trying to achieve his capture point objective

The first deviation from the original idea was already there in the “SnapMap concept” phase. There were no capture points in the Champions version, but when brainstorming how to port this idea over to a new system, I realized that the Sniper needed some goal to keep him moving and forcing him to expose himself. The main inspiration for this comes from the board game “Scotland Yard”, in which two or more players chased Mr. X across London, who was hidden and revealed himself only on certain turns.


Now, we come to the first hurdle of the design. There’s no invisibility. I assumed there would be a power-up like in the multiplayer mode or at least some sort of toggle for when a player was visible and when not. Obviously, this could have been the point where I scrapped the idea, but I tried to experiment with other options. Speed was something you could modify, so I experimented with making the Sniper’s speed 300% (the maximum possible speed and also the equivalent of a Haste powerup). I then expanded the original size of the map, which meant that the Sniper was practically invisible compared to his slower opponents.

Since the Sniper was “practically” and not “actually” invisible, there needed to be a way to make him “practically visible”. Slowing him down wouldn’t do much in that regard, so instead I made it so that a marker visible to all players (”Point of Interest” in SnapMap) would be visible whenever the Sniper was capturing an objective or shooting. All of a sudden, I was achieving the same gameplay effect of my original idea without a core feature (the invisibility).

After that was settled, it was time to look into the actual nature of the capture points. SnapMap has a built-in capture point node, but it works similarly to Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch; if you leave the point, it slowly resets its progress. This wasn’t good for me, since I wanted the Sniper to never lose progress and I wanted the Sniper to stay where he was when he committed to capturing a point. After all, if he could just bail whenever he wanted to, the opposing team could never catch up to him. I solved this by placing a node that could be harvested four times before it completely vanished. Each “harvest” would take 10 seconds, during which the Sniper was unable to move. What effectively happens is that the Sniper’s speed becomes 0%, so he can still crouch, jump and shoot, but not actually move away. This worked for me, though, since I did want the Sniper to be able to defend himself. During the entirety of the harvest, the opposing team would see a marker directing them to the Sniper’s location, so the Sniper had to be smart about when and where he was going to harvest a point.


One issue I predicted might happen was players eventually learning the points’ locations by heart. This also meant that each point had to be carefully balanced, to not put either team at a severe disadvantage. This kind of balancing would require much more testing than I had the luxury of, so my slightly dirty solution was adding multiple points for each section of the map and having the game select one at random for each section. This meant that there were points both advantageous and disadvantageous to the Sniper that could come up, and that players couldn’t effectively camp a specific point as soon as the map started.

Finally, the points needed an audio-visual makeover, since they were just big white cylinders. I made the cylinders invisible (but kept them to determine harvesting range), added a source of non-damaging plasma energy (the logic was that the Sniper was harvesting demonic leylines or something like that) and added a combination of three VEGA lines that notified the other team that an intruder was detected. Initially, there were 5 areas that had one capture point each, but the points were removed from one area because it was too close to the enemy team spawn. So, the Sniper would get 50 points per harvest, 200 total per point before depleted, 800 total in a map. After reaching 800, the Sniper wins. Since this was a multiplayer mode, I was less concerned with scoring than I was with Hot Potato’s, so I just used it to keep track of progress. Another change that happened pretty early on was marking the location of the energy points for the Sniper at all times. Due to the random nature of the points and since there was no on-screen indicator how close a point was to being depleted, this was information the Sniper needed at all times. I opted not to mark it for the opposing team, because I didn’t want to clutter their screen.


The Sniper couldn’t rely on his speed alone, and I still wanted him to have a super-powered weapon. To emulate Champions Online’s sniping, I wanted to put a cooldown between shots. The Sniper uses the game’s Vortex Rifle, but only with one bullet. After shooting, the Sniper needs 2 seconds before he gets his ammo back (this was initially 8 seconds, but I realized it was too long after testing). However, if the sniper kills an enemy, he gets his ammo back immediately (allowing for consecutive shots for skilled players). Because of the absolutely mad damage boost the Sniper had, the Vortex Rifle essentially became a Quake railgun. Another weapon the Sniper had in his arsenal was a Tesla Grenade. It was meant as a back-up weapon to punish the opposing team if they try and rush the sniper together. However, since it’s on cooldown, the Sniper can’t spam it. An unforeseen side-effect was the Sniper’s melee attack. Since damage modifiers are player-specific and not weapon specific, the Sniper’s melee attack was way too powerful. To counter this, I eventually fiddled with some of the nodes and made the Sniper’s damage change back to 100% for half a second whenever using a melee attack, then change back half a second later (how long it takes for the animation to end). You can imagine my surprise when this actually worked on the first try.

The Sniper’s survivability was also a big concern. Since the Sniper only had one life, I set his starting life to 999. With no healing items on the map, this meant that the game became an endurance match for the Sniper. However, I wanted to avoid the obvious tactic of “rush in, damage the sniper, die, repeat” for the opposing team. To counter this, I put regenerating armor in place. The sniper has 150 armor, and if he takes no damage for 6 seconds, it replenishes completely. This meant that the enemy team was forced to use different strategies to tear down the Sniper’s defenses and keep them from coming back up if they wanted to win. It also made the Sniper feel more like a force of nature at the start of a match and a panicked animal near the end of it. After all, if you have a thousand health protected by armor, you’ll be a tad reckless; if you have only 20 health and you are solely relying on your armor, you’ll be more frightened.

The enemy team, which I call “Security” in-game, is slightly more down to earth in terms of abilities, but they still have some very interesting options. Their equipment slot is reserved for a grenade that turns into a wall. The wall is strong enough to block one sniper shot or to even limit the Sniper’s movement. While its use in matches was limited to making an approach the Sniper was covering safer, I feel it has a high skill ceiling and that co-ordinated use of it would be a nightmare for the Sniper. The Security team also had the advantage of using the built-in teleporters on the map to help them reach the other end of the complex quickly, but still leaving enough time for the Sniper to recover after a team-wipe.

In terms of weapons security used, this was probably the most difficult thing to get right. To put it simply, the DPS of three people in DOOM is really, really high. You also always have to ask yourself “what if all three players used this weapon together?” This immediately eliminated weapons like the Super Shotgun and the Chaingun. After a bit more advanced testing, the same thing happened to the Rocket Launcher and the Micro-Missiles mod for the Assault Rifle. In the end, the four weapons we ended up with were the Combat Shotgun (burst mod), Plasma Rifle (stun mod), Hellshot and Assault Rifle (scope mod).


The Combat Shotgun offered close range burst damage that was still within reason. The burst shot from it would require some charge-up, which made it risky to use when approaching the Sniper. The Plasma Rifle probably has the highest DPS on full auto, but requires taking advantage of the Sniper’s mistake to make use of it, while the stun alt-fire is difficult to land, but does 50 damage. The Assault Rifle is good for long range and its main use is to keep chipping down at the Sniper from far away to stop his armor from refreshing. The most interesting weapon was, ironically, the most boring one for me in regular Multiplayer – the Hellshot. Its ability to do damage-over-time after hitting the Sniper proved to be extremely useful as a support weapon.

In the end, I was left with two issues I was unable to fix for the map. The first one was the inability to turn off Glory Kills. It’s a major issue because the Glory Kill window is % based, so the Sniper may have 200+ health but still be Glory Killable. It also generally doesn’t fit with how I want the mode to play, but I’m stuck with it sadly. The second issue was environmental death. It is very anti-climatic when the Sniper dies to lava or falls in a pit. Almost every map section I used had one or the other, because their layout was otherwise good. This a design issue though, not a SnapMap issue. One of the ideas that I considered was teleporting the Sniper if he dies to environmental hazards. It wouldn’t be difficult to make such an exception and just store the Sniper’s last known health before respawning them, but it’s also prone to abuse. If a sniper is in a pinch, or needs to get somewhere fast, they essentially get a free teleport. So, in the end, I decided to go with “maybe an anti-climatic ending” instead of an unfair mechanic. Actually, what I’ve learned is that this kind of game mode relies heavily on the big bad, aka the Sniper. The mode only shines if the Sniper is playing somewhat well.

Below is a video with gameplay footage from both perspectives. I’d like to thank Lolo De Puzlo, RoryTCH, Noko, Festivore and Pullahoko for helping me test and balance the map.

If VIPER Sniper sounds fun to you, grab three friends and try it out. The code is R62TDLNG.


Designing Hot Potato: Thy Spud Consumed (DOOM SnapMap)

One of the main reasons I decided to get DOOM on release was the SnapMap tool. I enjoy level creation tools and I missed out on the Mario Maker craze, so this was gonna be my Mario Maker (with guns). One of the maps I created got a bit of traction and was featured on sites like RockPaperShotgun, YouTube channels like GamesRadar+, the actual game’s Community Picks and even Bethesda’s SnapMap stream. The feedback has been overwhelming, so I wanted to talk a bit about the thought process and design of the map itself.

After playing a good chunk of the DOOM campaign and not really enjoying the multiplayer, I went ahead and streamed SnapMaps a bit. I played other maps while waiting for inspiration on what to make. Considering this was release week, the maps only touched upon the surface of what the tools could do. One map, which I don’t remember the name of, just had very long hallways with a ledge you could double jump to. While the map wasn’t really exciting, it reminded me how fun moving around in DOOM actually was. This was the basis for “Hot Potato”, a map I wanted to make during that same stream.

The pre-made room modules SnapMap uses had some choices that caught my eye. Namely, a module with at least two exits often had vastly different ways to get from one door to the other. There was an obvious path and a dirty shortcut in almost every instance. The fact that a double jump can be executed at any point of a jump or fall also meant plenty of air control. With all this in mind, I assumed that a parkour-styled mode would be fun. Now, there were some parkour maps that shipped with SnapMap, but I personally did not like them. They focused on precision-based parkour which is not something I think DOOM’s movement is good for. So I decided to go for “optimized route” parkour, focusing more on timing and figuring out a route, rather than actually trying to hit a platform.

Adding a sense of urgency was also important. Why would the player be in a rush? A time limit felt a bit passive to me, so instead I opted in for a gradual health decrease (explained in-game as carrying a radioactive core, hence “hot potato”). That also meant I could guide the player with health drops and use it to optimize the map’s difficulty. And so, the first Hot Potato (which I now consider a prototype) was born.

Looking back at it now, there are a lot of things I’d change, but for a first map attempt, I thought it was good. I later spent some time making a multiplayer mode, but since I needed to do playtesting for it and it was a bit hard to organize a 4-person group, I decided to do another single-player map. Since I had familiarized myself with the tools far better, I wanted to expand on Hot Potato and make it bigger and meaner. Thus began work on “Hot Potato: Thy Spud Consumed”.

My main design goal for this iteration was to always give players interesting choices. However, when you are under time pressure in a level, it is easy to not even notice a shortcut or alternate path. Another major problem was that certain modules were massive or confusing; they had an interesting layout that I wanted to use, but players unfamiliar with them would need to search for exits. To solve this, I went with the tried and true platformer method of using “coins” to guide the player. This also meant I could better balance the health gain vs damage in a section. Whereas the players relied on rare big heals in the prototype, here it would be frequent smaller heals.


I thought about what the “coins” (they’re more like containers, but lets call them coins) could also do. I decided to have them actually give the player a currency they would use in a shop. An official horde mode SnapMap I played had a shop, hence the idea, but I didn’t like the way it was laid out, so I wanted to try and make it more classy and snazzy. I think shops without a good shopkeeper are generally a waste, because it’s always a good opportunity to have a character that makes you feel welcomed or entertained. Think about Resident Evil 4, Wonder Boy the Dragon’s Trap, or Killing Floor? However, given DOOM’s aesthetics, the closest I could come to a likable person was the Cacodemon, so that’s what I went with. He’s surprisingly nice when he’s not trying to murder you! This is also why I added the ability to talk to the Cacodemon. I added a few random lines and he picks one whenever you talk to him. Apparently, the phrase “YOU LOOK LOVELY TODAY, MORTAL” was the most popular one (it’s my favorite, too).

Shops that sell upgrades are generally scaled with a rising challenge, however, Hot Potato’s works differently. The shop’s primary function is to make the game easier for players that are struggling. The map was tested and is beatable with one try and one shop visit per checkpoint, but it requires memorizing the map and having flawless execution. Since you keep your coins when you die and since coins respawn after 10 seconds, it means that the more you die, the more coins you have. This means you will be able to buy more expensive upgrades and make a section easier for you. However, since coins don’t give you points, players who die less will have a higher score. The upgrades the player can buy are broken down into health, speed and radiation resistance. The first two go up to rank 10 (health caps at 200 and speed at 300%), while the more expensive radiation resistance goes to rank 5. Rad resistance affects how much each tick of radiation damages you, and it goes from 10 to 5 damage at max rank. Initially, it worked like the other two stats, but it was too powerful during testing. This second variant ended up being a nice middle-ground.

In addition to the coins, the player can pick-up “donuts”. They are unique pick-ups that don’t respawn, don’t give you health, but give you more coins and points. To be honest, I just saw that there was a rotating donut model and I really wanted to use it. However, this ended up helping with the more “interesting choices” approach of the map design. Namely, each donut gives the player 70 points. This might not seem like much, but it’s the equivalent of 7 seconds on your time bonus. Each donut is placed so that you need to risk time and health to get it, but if you pull it off properly, it never actually takes more than 7 seconds. While the player isn’t meant to collect every donut, getting the best score on the leaderboard requires planning which donuts you’ll pick-up.

I should probably cover scoring now in more detail. There are three factors that determine score: completion, time, donuts. Completion is a fixed score you get for reaching the end of each section. The later the section, the more points (1000, 2000, 3000 respectively). This was in order to avoid the hypothetical scenario of players finishing a section with no time or donut bonus and having nothing to show for it. The time bonus starts at 3000 and is decreased by 10 every second, meaning if a player takes more than 5 minutes to complete a section, they get no bonus. The timer starts the moment the player picks up a core for the first time and ends when it is put in its slot. That means that between sections, players can take all the time they need to shop and rest, but once they initiate a section, they need to be quick about any upgrades. Finally, as mentioned before, each donut gives the player 70 points at the end of the completed section. This kind of scoring system was more versatile than relying on SnapMap’s built-in Par Time. It also means that a second of difference is clearly displayed on the leaderboards.

The actual level introduces new elements with each section, to give them a unique flavor. The first section is just vanilla running through various rooms. The second introduces lasers that shave off your health when in contact with them. The final section combines the lasers with plasma hazards on the floor which do massive damage. The lasers aren’t always meant to be avoided. While finding a route without lasers is quite possible, some of the best routes involve taking damage to save time. The plasma floors don’t adhere to this though and they are meant to always be avoided.

There are a few things I wish I could change about the map or that I wish SnapMap had let me done. One bug stopped me from spawning lasers after a certain point, so I had to be more stingy with my placement than I had wanted to be. The object/network limit stopped me from adding another section (the actual map grid had space for one more). I also wanted to include a give-up panel that let players quit the map in defeat. This would have let me keep track of the leaderboards to see how far players had gotten. I also wish I had added a few more Cacodemon lines and adjusted some checkpoint teleporters a tad (speficifally Checkpoint #1’s destination is on a confusing angle). However, despite being possible to do those changes right now, they are just tweaks, and SnapMap resets leaderboards apparently when you update the map, so I don’t think it’s worth it because the map is score-oriented.

One mistake I almost made was lock the shop behind the first checkpoint. Literally a few hours before people picked up on the map, I decided to make the shop accessible right away (I realized the first section was actually very difficult and the shop was meant to help with that). This ended up being a very good decision, since the Cacodemon became the face of the map and is what made people want to try the map in the first place.

All in all, I enjoyed working on the map and I enjoy SnapMap despite its limitations (I’m one of those people who prefer silly limitations). If you want to try out another map I made, here is a video on VIPER Sniper. It is a 3v1 multiplayer mode where one powerful sniper has to control points while security tries to kill them. It’s like Scotland Yard (the boardgame) with guns. Sadly, it’s hard to get exposure for multiplayer-only SnapMaps, let alone 4-player ones, but I enjoyed developing it and playing it with friends.

If you own DOOM, you can find Hot Potato: Thy Spud Consumed by searching either for #hotpotato or ZGLRZC92 in the game.


Steve Ince Interview – Gamescom 2012

(This interview was first published on Default Prime back in 2012. As the site isn’t online anymore, I decided to republish the interview I held with Steve Ince on my personal website.)

Away from the dubstep-infused entertainment floors and between the business halls of Gamescom, we met up with industry veteran Steve Ince at the juice bar to talk about his work and thoughts on video game storytelling.

Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

I’m Steve Ince. I’m a games writer and designer and I’ve been working in the industry for 20 years. I’ve worked on various projects for various companies.

Can you tell us some of the titles you’ve worked on?

I started at a company called Revolution Software and did some background art and sprite animation for Beneath a Steel Sky. Then I was producer on the first two Broken Sword games and co-wrote and co-designed the third Broken Sword game. I worked on In Cold Blood, So Blonde and various casual titles. I also script-edited both Witcher games and I wrote a book on writing for video games.

You started with sprite-work, but how did the transition to producer and writer go from there?

The transition to producer came as a bit of a surprise to be honest, because I started doing some organization within the office just because no-one else was doing it. And suddenly I was asked if I would be the producer, purely to expand on that role. Because I was producer, I got to interact with the programmers, the artists, the designers, everyone involved, basically. I started sitting in on design meetings and so forth. So when we started working on In Cold Blood, I started getting involved more and more in design and in the writing. And it just seemed to be a very natural transition, because I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I just seemed to side-step into it.


These days, modern AAA games approach writing for most part as if they’re writing for a movie. People quote “cinematic experiences” and stuff like that. What’s your general approach to writing for games and narration in games? What do you think sets games apart from movies that should be emphasized?

Any game writer should be writing for a game. And it’s my view that game writers should have a knowledge of how game design works. It’s not necessarily that they should be game designers, just know how game design works and how a game is player-led. Even if you’re dealing with a very linear story, that story, I believe, should be triggered by the actions of the player. And so any writer should be mindful of the gameplay and the role of the player within the game. And I don’t see how you can write a game story without that, because a game is primarily about gameplay. And regardless how valuable I think the story is, and I think that stories are very important in games (not all games, obviously. Simple puzzle games don’t need stories), but in games that do need them, it’s important. But nothing is more important than the gameplay, because without gameplay, it would not be a game. So I think game writers need to bear that in mind at all times. And that’s the biggest distinction between game writing and writing for film: the fact that you really need to be mindful of the interactive nature of a game, the fact that you don’t really know what the player is going to be doing. You can’t control the pacing like you can in a film, where you know how long things are going to last on screen. You can’t do that with a game, because the player may pause at any time, or just get stuck. “How do I get past this obstacle?” So you can’t rely on definite pacings and so on.


Sometimes, while designing a game, developers decide to slap on a certain element. For example, they start with the gameplay, they focus on graphics, then on story, but in the end sound design gets the shaft. And sometimes that happens for the story, sometimes for other elements. Do you think that, at least in regards to story, developers are making enough of an effort to intertwine it with actual gameplay? Or are we not seeing enough of it?

I think for those developers that want to have a story that’s important, I think they really need to intertwine it very much. So, the gameplay objectives are linked to the story objectives. And so the way the character moves through the game, it needs to tie in with the way that character moves through the story. The more they are intertwined, the better, because then you have a seamless experience. You’re delivering the story as part of the whole gaming experience, it is not running parallel or anything like that – it is very much an integral part of the whole experience. And I think that is vital, really. And I don’t think that developers particularly are against it being integrated. I think that part of the trouble is that no-one has as fully worked out the best procedure. And possibly because there are different procedures for different games. Some games need an awful lot of prototyping and it’s difficult to establish a story when you’re prototyping the mechanics. So, you can’t really bring a writer in for that, but once you start thinking of the structure of the game, then I think you need to think of the structure of the story and how to get it interlaced with the gameplay. In other games, it can work if you add it down the line, because the story is perhaps a little more superficial. It doesn’t matter where the characters are or what they’re doing during a level in regards to the story, because the story is only ever going to get in between the levels. And so it’s less necessary to think in those terms. It does really depend on the type of game: what the developer wants from the story and how best the writer can integrate with the team to maximize both character development and story development and the dialog and whatever else they’ve been meaning to do.

Can you name some recent titles that impressed you either with the whole process of integrating narration or handling narration, or maybe just by using specific solutions in parts of the game that you thought were important or noteworthy?

It’s not very recent, but one of the things that struck me about Half-Life 2 were some of the little things in the background and things that kind of weren’t contributing directly to the story, but were contributing to the impression the player got, the setting up. Right at the beginning of Half-Life 2, there is one point where the player passes this couple sitting on a couch. They’re cuddling together and they have this really scared and worried look on their faces. You knew at that point that it’s a kind of oppressive regime and these people are worried for their lives and worried for their freedoms. And so much is put over it and you have this one little glimpse at this couple. And that, to me, is brilliant. There’s no dialog needed at all. But somebody had to come and think “Alright, we need that”. It’s a very specific type of storytelling. It’s like saying “We’re not going to go into a lot of backstory exposition, we’re just going to have this couple here.” And really, that is very, very good storytelling.


But it’s difficult. With big titles like Half-Life 2, it’s obviously produced huge and you can get really good stuff in like that. But sometimes with a smaller budget, where the writing often comes out is in the dialog. Storytelling comes out in the dialog. That’s the only opportunity they have, because they don’t have the facial expression, the body language… So you’ll just get a really good line. I think Mass Effect does that very well. I mean, yeah, they also do the facial expressions, but the dialog is not just well written, but also well acted. That’s one of the things I think is key, because when the writers are writing, they’re writing for the performance of the actors. And because if you look at dialogs in a novel, it’s very different from dialog in, say, a film script, or a radio play, or something like this. Because you need different lines when they are spoken. So you’ve got to write for that performance and that’s where the good writing really shows, because when it’s recorded, it sounds natural and you get a natural flow. And I think Mass Effect did that really well, particularly with the way they created the interface for that. It just felt more fluid and I’m a firm believer that the more fluid we can make dialog, the better all of our games will become. But as I said, because you can’t rely necessarily on facial expressions and body language and so on, you have to make the lines count.

And it’s actually how I approached my writing for the So Blonde game. When I was writing the characters, I wanted something that would not only summarize the characters themselves, but give the humor and give the emotion in a strong way. The bad guy in So Blonde was a pirate with only one eye and one leg and it would be quite easy to just go down the traditional “Yarrr, matey!” voice, but I didn’t want that. I wanted him to be menacing, but a little kind of understated in his menace. So I talked with the actor about this and he said “What if I do a kind of Richard Burton-type voice?” And he did this voice and it was just perfect. It was exactly what I wanted. And sometimes, you kind of know what you want, but you have to work with the actor to find it. When you do, then that’s quite rewarding, but again it’s about performance, about delivery, getting those characters playing against each other in the right way. When you get good lines and get the characters working, it sort of stands out.

When I went to work on the first Broken Sword game as producer, the guy who was writing, Dave Cummins, who I learned so much from, the way he wrote the lines for George and Nico and the way they kind of played off each other was perfect. And of course, Rolf Saxon played George brilliantly and created such an iconic voice for the character.

Something that is brought up now and then in this generation is that the developers are using the high production values they have to, so to speak, force-feed the story to players. And then there are many players who don’t care about the story and just go through the game. Do you think that you should make an effort to tell the story to the player in the sense that, even if he doesn’t want to, you should interest him in it, or you should give the player the freedom to completely ignore the story if he so chooses?

Even if you try to force the story on a player, there’s no guarantee they will take any notice. They can just blank it out. I don’t think you ever have control of that. Writers need to take into account the fact that the player is in control, basically. Even in adventure games, which are pretty much all about the story, you’ll find people who will just click through all the dialog. But they’re in control: they’ve paid their money, they can play how they want. And I don’t think the story should ever be foced upon the player. If a player wants to skip a cutscene, let them skip it. It’s their choice, isn’t it? But personally, writers and designers should look for ways to avoid cutscenes. Anything that can be portrayed in the game should be done so. Let’s deliver this story as dialog, as some sort of interaction, something you discover when you’re hacking into a computer, something that keeps tying into the gameplay. Like in Bioshock, when you picked up those tape recordings. I mean, there’s no guarantee you’ll pick them up or even play them, but the game still works. They weren’t vital, but they added. I’m not a fan of that approach – it’s a bit too random, almost. But it was left to the player to choose whether to play these recordings or not. And that to me is fine. I mean, why not give more control to the player? The more that is put into the player’s hands, the better. Even in something like a linear adventure. There’s nothing worse than getting to a certain point and triggering a two-minute cutscene that you can’t skip.


One final question. If you are familiar with Japanese games, what do you think about the Japanese approach to storytelling in games?

Steve Ince: I don’t play as many as I used to, but one of my favorite games is Final Fantasy IX. Which I think has a sort of fantastic set of characters and I love the fantastic locations. And that was a PSOne game, which was a fabulous game. And yet I think they dragged it out too much. It was a four-disc game and it just felt you could have taken one of those discs away and it would have been a better game, because it finally got to a point where you’re just kind of marking time. And I do think there is an element of that with a lot of Japanese games. They can drip-feed the story in small bits and you have an RPG that’s a hundred hours long. They have got to effectively stretch a story that you could probably get into a movie, into something that is as fifty times as long. And I think that works against it in long-term. But having said that, Final Fantasy IX did handle that very well up to a certain point and then it got a little repetitive. And it’s a shame really, beacuse it’s such a good game in many ways. Obviously, their approach to stories is very different and we can’t tell them how to make stories, but it’s difficult to appreciate their stories in the quite same way they do. I suppose many of us are focused on the Hollywood approach to storytelling, where it’s much more dynamic and faster-paced and so on, and I think that we expect something similar from other cultures. I think longer games need to think about how TV series approach their longer stories to match something like 24, which has a sort of longer story spread over 20 episodes. So if you were taking a long RPG, you might split that up into 15 or 20 chapters, or something like this. And each chapter could be treated like an episode of a TV series, so you’d have a little kind of story within that, that’s pieced into a larger story. I think there’s all sorts of potential along those lines.

Thank you for your time.

You can learn more about Steve Ince and his work by visiting his personal website.