Aligning Player Abilities with the Game's Core

MODSORK's system for abilities/power-ups has undergone some large changes recently. The objective is to have the system reflect and reinforce the core of the game as well as making activating those abilities more viscerally satisfying.

How it used to work:
Previously, the player activated power-ups by zapping them on the playing field in the same way they zap frenemies. Additionally they had one ability that they triggered with a special input action, by holding both fire buttons at the same time until a paralyzing blast was released. Activating this ability required sacrificing some of their multiplier. The idea was to turn the multiplier into a resource and allow weaker players to use the ability more often if they needed it, at the cost of getting a high score.

 

Why that wasn't ideal:
This trade-off of course incentivized NOT using this cool ability that I had designed. That's not very satisfying for me as a designer and, more importantly, makes for a less interesting experience for the players: The game should be balanced so the best players are those that can use all abilities the game has to offer, ideally in novel ways and combinations, not those that have learned how to make do without them.

Also, triggering the other abilities presented the players with a very similar challenge as dealing with the frenemies does. It was all about navigating the arena in any way that gets their avatars on either side of the power-up and pulling the trigger, while not bumping into anything dangerous.

 

How it works now and why:

Now players trigger all special powers by performing a special action with their game controllers, similarly to many fighting games of old. Pulling off these inputs represents a challenge, but is also rewarding on multiple levels:

  • In a game about mastery, pulling off a difficult move will be rewarding in itself for players, as long as the triggered effect is cool and powerful.
  • The required gestures are physically satisfying, they're not awkward finger breakers
Triggering the bomb with a full-circle orbit
Triggering the bomb with a full-circle orbit
  • Unlike the super moves of old fighting games, the input isn't stored in an invisible buffer until completed, but is instead directly reflected in the game state as visually pleasing movement. If your fingers are doing a full circle, so are your avatars.
Gotta keep spinning round n round
Gotta keep spinning round n round

The number of uses for these abilities are limited. Players still zap power-ups, but instead of triggering them immediately, they gain an ability charge that they can use at any time and anywhere in the arena.

 

Consequences, Compromises and Challenges:

Being able to trigger a bomb item in the arena by zapping it and causing AoE damage gave players an alternative way to revive one of their avatars when it was down. This came in particularly handy when the special frenemy you have to zap to revive was stuck in a cloud of other frenemies. Players didn't have to take the risk of navigating that cloud and could instead just wipe the screen. Players don't have that option anymore if they need to perform a gesture with both avatars to trigger the bomb.

There's two remedies for this: The reviver-frenemy's movement needs to be less random so it will never get stuck in a particular area for too long, I'll change that when I have a moment. More relevant to the abilities system, however, is allowing the players to trigger a weak version of that particular item when they zap it in that situation (i.e. with only one avatar alive).

Granted, this compromises the purity of the system: There's both gesture-activation AND zapping-activation again, although in a more consistent manner as before: now all abilities can be triggered both ways. However, it offers several neat advantages:

  • The game is difficult enough, allowing players to trigger abilities even when they only have one avatar left seems fair.
  • It creates a new interesting strategic choice: Do players pick up the power-ups in order to gain ability charges, or do they leave some in the arena as (weaker) fall-backs for a rainy day?
  • If power-ups are useful in near-death scenarios, they can provide satisfying moments of relief when they spawn just in time to help the player out of a seemingly hopeless situation.

 

Last, but not least, the new system comes with added challenges: Before, only the ability effects needed cool sounds and visuals. Now I need to tweak and polish the actions that trigger the abilities, as well, so the gestures themselves look, sound and feel cool. I'm pretty happy with what's already there, for now, but as an example, doing a full orbit around an avatar currently feels a little slow. Altering that speed affects normal player moves, too, so it's tricky.

Also, the new triggering gestures require a lot more space and time which needs to be taken into account during balancing, wave design and arena design.

Final Thoughts
All in all, however, I'm confident that this new system is a definite improvement on a visceral, but also on a strategic level. MODSORK is about mastery of its challenging controls. Enabling players to do cool stuff with complex gestures gives the core of the game more depth.

The new power-up system will be playable at Gamescom for the first time, I hope I'll see some of you there and we can chat about what you think of it! :)


Big thanks to Gerald Hiller and Benoît Faguet, with both of whom I had the pleasure to discuss the game in depth at AMaze and who've been a big influence on the new power-up system! 

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