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Designing for Challenge & Simplicity (Or why there are no powerups in PARTICLE MACE)
by Andy Wallace on 08/06/14 09:02:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This has been cross-posted from my personal blog]

One of the most common pieces of feedback that I get about PARTICLE MACE right after people play it for the first time is that I should include powerups: things that give you more particles, or a temporary speed boost, or the ability to press a button and shoot your particles out really far, etc. It's a reasonable enough suggestion, as we're all used to seeing these kinds of temporary abilities in arcade games, but I deliberately decided not to include any sort of power up in PARTICLE MACE. From the outset, my goal was to have a game that was extremely difficult and also extremely simple. As a personal preference, I like simple, pared-down games, but I also wanted to make a masocore arcade experience that my mom could play.

As a designer, elegance is very attractive to me. I always find systems intriguing, and wanted the physics system that drives PARTICLE MACE to warrant exploration for its own sake. This does not require it to be especially complex (and it really isn't: the springs that account for 99% of the game's physics only take up about 60 lines of code), but it does require it to be engaging. Learning how to best control the unruly particles while not crashing yourself into an asteroid is the meat of the game, and it's that interaction that I want to have spotlighted. Adding powerups would simply divert attention from that experience, and I don't believe it would add much. At best, a power up would prevent you from dying for a bit or kill a few extra foes and asteroids, but dying is normal in the game, and you were going to smash those foes anyway.

So instead of adding elements that sit on top of the system and encourage a surface level exploration of the game (as in, "how can I use these abilities that exist outside of the basic interaction?") I opted to force players to delve into and master the flying and particle physics. This core interaction is where I spent my the vast bulk time developing the game, and it offers far more depth than whatever effect powerups would have. By not offering any powerups, I communicate this early to my players. If they want to survive, they will have to get better at piloting and swinging their weapons. There's no shield, no bombs, just them and their particles.

Of course, I am not the first developer to opt for this sort of pared down design. Many of my favorite games in the past few years have operated on the same principle, giving the player very few choices and allowing the depth of a strong system to expand from them. Threes, Hokra, Super Hexagon, and N+ all come to mind. It is worth noting that almost all of these titles do not sacrifice challenge for simplicity. Hexagon and N+ in particular are both brutally hard largely because of how simple they are. More on this in a bit.

So that's why I, as a designer, like simple, elegant systems--but there is something in this for the player as well. As I mentioned, my goal was to create a super-hard game that my parents would still be able to pick up and have fun with (and coincidentally, my dad has gotten shockingly good at it for a guy who I remember getting sick from trying to play Mario Kart). I know for sure that this is the case as I have watched many self described "non-gamers" pick up a controller, fly around, die instantly, hit restart and do a bit better. They usually don't hand the controller right back to me after dying. Although the game is still very hard, it is not confusing, and this makes all the difference. Even though they died quickly, they knew why they died, and that made the idea of hitting restart approachable.

And this isn't just a useful concept for getting people who wouldn't usually play arcade games to try them: it also helps immensely with getting average gamers to play. Even people who are not frightened by complex systems still have to learn them before the game starts being fun. The more this learning period can be cut down, the more likely they are to stick around and keep trying. PARTICLE MACE has become a hit at conferences and in party settings largely because all a player has to do is move around one joystick and they get it. There are not other buttons, no special abilities, just one joystick controlling a spaceship.

If I were to introduce any sort of powerups or status effects or meters to fill, the game would suddenly lose that pick-up-and-play ease. As it it exists now, handing a player a controller is often the extent of the instruction I give, and it is often all they need. Within seconds, the learning period ends, and the time spent really playing the game starts. Of course, the player is still learning the game and they dive deeper and deeper into the underlying system, but it is not taxing or even conscious learning. As Anna Anthropy points out in her excellent article about the first level of Mario, this sort of learning while playing is essential because it rewards players for interacting with the system (which is what your game already encourages) instead of rewarding them for reading text (which they only do if you're lucky in the first place).

Finally, and this is the biggest thing I want to say on this topic: a simple game is not automatically an easy one, and a complex game is not automatically challenging. Most people know this, but I often see complaints about how simple games have gotten as a result of smart phones. Ignoring the hugely important point that those simple mobile games have made many many gamers of people who had never picked up a game controller in their lives, the idea that these games are easy or seemingly uninteresting because of a lack of complexity is wrong. They may be easy or uninteresting because of deliberate or poor design, but simplicity has nothing to do with it. Part of the reason I don't want to clutter the design of PARTICLE MACE with powerups is because I want to keep it hard. If there were extra healths floating by, you could blame your death on the game not giving you one. That isn't the case in PARTICLE MACE. The game does not throw curve balls. If you die, it was your own fault, and the only way to redeem yourself is to hit restart.

PARTICLE MACE will be out soon, but if you're interested in exploring its simple yet elegant systems before then, you can join the alpha at

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Curtiss Murphy
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Is it possible they don't have the right words? Maybe when they asked for power ups, they were asking for something to do. To achieve Flow, you need: 1) clear goals, 2) immediate feedback, 3) no distractions, and 4) a balanced goal. It's possible players are struggling to understand what the GOALS are, and the only words they know is ... powerup. Staying alive is a STARTING point in Minecraft, not the end-goal.

Kevin Fishburne
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I like the idea of having power-ups that simply augment existing capabilities (speed increase, weapon damage increase, etc.), that you acquire early during play and that are removed after death or by being damaged. This punishes you for becoming near death or for dying and reduces the "cheap factor" of being able to continue, as you are weaker after having restarted. Some games that did this are The Legend of Zelda (loss of sword throwing after injury), SMB (shrinking), and Castlevania (loss of whip length upgrades and hearts after death). These kinds of power-ups allow the player to assume that being powered up is the normal state of their avatar and create a meta-game where the goal is the prevention of power-up loss. Another possible dimension is using the power-ups as extra health/life (in SMB being large gives you an extra hit before death), giving the player one or more "last chances" being being 86'ed from the menu.

There are cases where power-ups are unnecessary and potentially damaging to an otherwise well-balanced game. Imagine chess with power-ups. Other than the initial novelty, it would probably be a much poorer game. Thanks for the article. It's nice to see an uncommon perspective like that.