Guacamelee! has been an amazing project to be a part of, easily the brightest highlight of my career so far.
For the game's initial release, I aided with some level design and designed and implemented the game's side-quests. Designing the DLC level for Guacamelee! was my first chance at creating a significant amount of content for the game from scratch. Creating DLC content for a Metroidvania game proved to be an interesting challenge, while also keeping in mind what the essence of Guacamelee! was, and how to best expand on its established mechanics and design ideals.
The first issue that had to be addressed, before planning and content creation could even begin, was figuring out exactly what DLC for a Metroidvania game could possibly be! I spent quite a lot of time during the pre-production phase of El Diablo's Domain thinking of how gameplay content could be added to such a meticulously crafted world.
A great Metroidvania game is so carefully put together with inter-connected areas filled with secrets and a carefully planned progression path, it would be irresponsible (and likely completely disastrous) to simply drop-in an additional level right into the middle of the world. You also have to be aware of the implications of adding additional collectible items to this extra level. Putting extra health and stamina pick-ups in a DLC area could throw the overall player growth out of line: having too many could make later parts of the game easier, and having none could make the area seem inconsequential and not worth the effort.
Ultimately, it was decided that the DLC level must not disrupt the game's overall progression path. We came to the conclusion that it would be best to present the new level as a "side area". With that much figured out, I very quickly came up with the concept that the new DLC level should provide the player with an opportunity to use and experiment with all of their abilities. Because, at its core, a Metroidvania game is about the character growing in power and expanding their abilities, I felt that it was important that the player be given a chance to let loose and put their personified "Swiss Army knife" to use.
Each of the challenge rooms of El Infierno features a focus on a very specific aspect of the character's abilities. Each one tests the player's familiarity of a specific ability and sometimes requires the player to think of new ways of using their abilities in ways that are never explored in the main game.
So... let's go ahead and drop in a new level right there, next to the windmill
Simply having El Diablo's Domain accessible as a selectable menu item on the title screen was unacceptable, as it was important that the level have some narrative element and should feel like it is a believable and appropriate location in the world.
The question then becomes, are there any more stories still worth telling in the world of Guacamelee?
Luckily, the answer was an obvious yes. Guacamelee's world and lore is rich with interesting characters and stories, so there was plenty to start with. Guacamelee's Lead Animator, Augusto Quijano (who is responsible for the game's initial concept and storyline) suggested to me that the Diablo character's background and current predicament would be a great premise for the DLC chapter. I wholeheartedly agreed and we worked on fleshing out El Diablo and his domain, El Infierno (the Inferno, or Hell). The concept of interpreting El Infierno as a bureaucratic hell was quickly cemented as the premise for the area.
Figuring out where the entrance to the new level could be was easy. As if by divine foresight, a doorway had already been built into the game! Throughout the game, there are entrances that lead into Chac Mool, a mystical area based on Mesoamerican statuary. In these areas, the player finds special orbs that unlock the best ending of the game when they are all found. There are six orbs in total, five are found at Chac Mool locations and the sixth is held by the villain, Calaca.
Eagle-eyed players may have noticed that there was a sixth Chac Mool doorway in the Desierto Caliente that had been blocked off by a cave-in. This would serve as a perfect way to tie the Infierno area to the rest of the game.
As is true for the rest of the game, the visuals play a strong role in telling the story of El Diablo's Domain. There are some characters that the player can interact with, but the player can learn so much by paying attention to the little details found in paintings and signs throughout the Devil's Advocates law firm. The entire art team deserves credit for making the level truly come to life (in fact, direct that credit and adoration in these directions: Steph Goulet, Ben Thomas, and Gary Ye). The best example of this kind of visual storytelling is waiting for players who win enough gold medals and make their way up to the top of the tower.
The environmental art not only makes the level appealing, but it subtly tells a story as well
Because El Infierno requires the player to use all of the game's abilities to complete, it quickly became apparent that it was a microcosm for the game as a whole. The player's progress is often blocked and requires specific abilities to overcome. This quickly became a necessity, as a player will not able to complete a challenge that requires an ability that they have not yet earned in the game. This meant that the placement of the challenge rooms had to be carefully planned out.
I didn't want to simply give the player every ability upon entering the new area, and take them away when they left. For one, the player would instantly have access to abilities that they are unfamiliar with, and wouldn't be able to effectively make use of them. When the player earns an ability in the game, the level design immediately makes smart use of it, teaching the player how to use the ability. The player needs to have that initial exposure to the abilities in order to be able to take on the new challenges of El Infierno. Basically, the main game is the primer, and El Infierno is the final exam.
Keeping with Guacamelee's gameplay structure, challenges are separated into two types: Platforming challenges and Combat challenges.
As a huge fan of platformers (easily my favourite genre), I was most eager to begin creating interesting platforming scenarios for the player to interact with. I especially love using mechanics and abilities in new and unique ways. For example, requiring the player to have to perform a combat move not to attack an enemy but to stall themselves in the air for just enough time to allow a hazard to pass. This methodology informed many of the decisions I made when designing the challenge room levels. The platforming challenges require the player to completely understand the extents of their abilities (to achieve the gold medals). Knowing just how far the jump can carry them, how high that uppercut can reach, and so on, is the key to achieving the highest ranks in the challenge rooms.
The combat challenges were designed to make the player think differently and employ new strategies in combat situations. Often, this was reinforced by limiting the player's abilities: taking away the dodge ability, or taking away the player's special moves. In these situations, the player is presented with enemies that cause the player to rethink their usual strategies and come up with new ways of dealing with these enemies, on the fly.
In addition, there are a few challenge rooms that put the player into completely new and unique situations. These take familiar elements (platforming, combat) but give the player different objectives and goals. These situations include: a combat arena where the goal is not to simply defeat all of the enemies, or a platforming section that is not just about player traversal. Both of these elements, actually, were created by David Rusak, who created and implemented some of the most truly unique parts of the level. These unique elements, however, still obey the established design rule that the challenges build upon the character's abilities and require an advanced understanding of them.
As mentioned earlier, a lot of thought had to go into deciding what would be appropriate to have as a reward for the player for completing the DLC area. Having power-ups such as health and stamina items could cause a dangerous ripple effect on the main game's progression. Of course, I wanted to offer something to the player.
Guacamelee's previous DLC gave players new costumes that offered new and interesting gameplay modifiers to the character. Each costume had a positive effect (greater damage output, regenerating life) and a negative effect (unable to restore health, weaker throw attacks). The intention is that they offered a unique type of strategy to the gameplay. What is important about these costumes, is that they offered a very over-arching enhancement to the player that could exist in tandem with the main game's character and level progression.
As the player plays through El Diablo's Domain, they will earn medals for completing challenges. There are three costumes to obtain, each one gated by earning specific medals. The first is earned when the player earns 10 bronze medals, the next for earning 10 silver medals, and finally, the last costume is earned when the player obtains 10 gold medals.
Additionally, El Infierno's storyline is wrapped up when the player passes the 10 gold medal threshold and reaches the top of the tower. For completionists, there are PSN Trophies to unlock for earning all of the available medals and using the unlocked costumes.
Designing trophies is a lot of fun! I love it.
I believe that trophies/achievements are a good way of encouraging the player to experience all of a game's content. Good trophies subtly nudge the player towards better strategies and makes them want to try out all of a game's modes and settings. This approach was used as a basis for El Diablo's Domain's trophies. This is why there are three trophies dedicated to earning medals: a bronze trophy for earning all bronze medals, a silver trophy for earning all silver medals and a gold trophy for earning all gold medals. However, the remaining trophies are a lot more interesting.
The GOOOOOOOAL! trophy has players utilize the El Portero costume to clear two of the challenge rooms (10 and 15). El Protero is modeled after a well-known soccer goalie and has an advantage when throwing enemies (throws are more powerful and thrown enemies travel faster). The two challenges in question both revolve around the throw ability. Challenge 15 requires the player to continuously throw a chicken through an obstacle course and challenge 10 has players completing a combat arena without the use of the throw ability. This dual requirement exposes the player to both the advantages and disadvantages of the costume. Additionally, challenge 10 is enhanced by the fact that the player is without their strongest ability (El Portero's normal attacks are weaker than normal), requiring them to be even more crafty (and careful) with their approach to this challenge room.
The Devil wears Revenge! is a trophy that serves a narrative purpose. The devil's suit is obtained when players complete the Infierno tower, resolving the storyline. As one final bit of resolution, the player will defeat Calaca, the final boss, in the devil's suit, finishing Diablo's revenge against Calaca. This is an example of a trophy that provides an incentive for the player to experience and carry out part of the story themselves. This is much better than simple having an alternate cutscene play if the player finishes the game with that costume. Instead, the trophy subconsciously drives the player to finding an alternate narrative resolution.
Finally, The Old-Fashioned Way is probably my favourite trophy in the entire game. It tasks the player with completing challenge room 14 in a creative way. It requires the player to really know their character's abilities and the limits of those abilities. I won't go into any details here, but I'm sure some video walkthroughs will be appear online soon enough.
Difficulty is a tricky issue to tackle. Some players have commented that Guacamelee! was too difficult to begin with, so the idea of including extra content that is even more challenging would not be appealing at all.
A couple of things were done to address this: awarding bronze trophies for completing rooms, and having a reasonable threshold for acquiring the costumes.
When the player enters a challenge room, they are shown the requirements to earn each medal. The bronze requirement is almost always (with very few exceptions) "Finish", meaning that player need only complete the challenge to be awarded the bronze medal. While some challenges are more difficult than others, this makes the barrier to completion much lower and allows the player to focus on the task at hand and not worry about secondary requirements such as a time constraint or a combo score.
Secondly, the player is not required to earn medals in every challenge to earn the costumes. There are 17 challenge rooms and the player needs to collect 10 of each medal type. When the player earns a gold medal, they have earned a bronze and silver one as well. This gives the player the freedom to choose in which challenges they wish to go for gold. The player can focus on their strengths (platforming vs. combat, etc.) and can return to challenges they skipped over later.
Most importantly, is the fact that the area never outright blocks player progression. Unlike other parts of the game, the player is given a choice of room and can complete the rooms in any order, or even outright skip a room. If the player is unable to overcome a challenge in another area of the game, such as the Tule Tree level, then they have reached a wall, and will be stuck until they overcome the challenge (or, unfortunately, will outright quit). In El Diablo's Domain, the player is free to abandon any challenge at any time and can explore other areas of the tower if they become stuck on a specific challenge room.
The requirements for gold medals was set very high. This stems from a belief of mine that the player should attain a certain level of control mastery (not just pure reflexes, but knowing and understanding the nuances of the character's abilities) to earn the gold medal rankings. I will likely do an entire write-up on control mastery in the near future, as it is a topic that is near and dear to me.
With the design for El Diablo's Domain being focused on understanding and mastering the character's abilities, having something that was exclusionary was not the goal. In fact, the purpose was to achieve the exact opposite. There are so many cool moves that you can pull off in Guacamelee!, and executing those moves feels so good! The DLC was designed to give the player the opportunity to use these moves, and have them use these moves outside of the DLC. If players emerge from El Infierno with a few new techniques and tricks at their disposal, then it'll be a huge success.
Overall, I'm very happy with how everything in the DLC turned out. El Diablo's Domain is a successful and (hopefully) fun addition to Guacamelee! that tries to challenge advanced players and gives the opportunity for all players to learn and appreciate the game's nuances and intricacies.
Also, as a final note, I believe that Guacamelee! is the first Metroidvania game to have DLC content (I haven't been able to think of, or find another example, maybe Cave Story? but I can't remember if that was actually released?). Figuring out how to approach DLC for a Metroidvania game, that was well integrated and narrative enhancing, was one of the best parts of the project.