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Making Shadow Complex: Donald Mustard Speaks
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Making Shadow Complex: Donald Mustard Speaks

August 28, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

I find that a lot of times that when I play 2D games that are made now, they fail to learn the design lessons that should be elementary, because I think the people who are working on them are probably not as versed in classic games as they should be. 

DM: No, I agree. We had so much of the work... I mean, we're standing on the shoulders of giants, right? So much of that fundamental design work has been done. I agree, if you're going to attempt to be a game designer, you need to be a student of all the work that's gong on before you -- one, just so you don't have to make the same mistakes.

Why make the same mistakes? Learn not only from what people have done correctly, but more importantly learn what people have tried and failed, and see where you can extrapolate knowledge. Why not? It's just smart.

That's how all the knowledge of the human population works, right? We don't expect our children to just... "Good luck figuring it all out!" We let them go to school, and we let them read. We teach them how to learn from the collective knowledge of the universe. If you're a game designer, become knowledgeable about the collective knowledge and build off of it.

A lot of game designers are so busy. Like you said when we were talking before the interview, you haven't really played Gears of War 2 yet, even though you technically work for Epic, because you were too busy making Shadow Complex

DM: Sure. It's true, I don't have a ton of time to play games. But certainly, when we said we're going to make a game that builds off the open world adventure side-scroller design, we made every single person on the team -- because a lot of guys, they maybe played Metroid or Super Metroid, but they hadn't played Metroid Fusion or they hadn't played Zero Mission or they hadn't played Symphony of the Night -- we made every single person on the team play through each of those games multiple times.

The first month of development on the game was no development. It was just playing those games to get the language of those games just solid in everyone's head. I think that was critical to the knowledge base of the company. That's what I mean. I don't think you have to be running out to the store every time a new game is coming out to digest it, but just like any kind of learning, you've got to focus you're learning where you need it.

You have to identify what your target is and what you need to know.

DM: Exactly.

It seems obvious, but I guess it's tough to actually get...

DM: And of course, there are always different kinds of constraints. Who knows with whatever game, what constraints the people are under, what budgets they're constrained by, or budgets or team size, or... who knows?

Something in a game like Super Metroid -- not to harp on it -- is the identifiability of 2D objects in a game that has that precision. Black-bounded outlines -- they pop. You have the flashlight in Shadow Complex that keeps the world looking good, but it lets you identify the colors of the interactive objects. How did you handle the fact that the camera, in the game, more generally won't let you get too close to objects, and make them as easily visually identifiable?

DM: That was tough. There are lots of tricks, but probably the core techniques that we used were... We decreased the depth of field of the camera just across the board for the game or actually the kind of lens ratio. A lot of first-person shooters use a pretty wide field of view for their camera. We narrowed it so a lot of the perspective is squished a little bit. So, even though you have a lot of depth in the game, it's not as drawn out perspective.

Kind of like when you're popping into the roadie run in Gears.

DM: Yes. How it comes in low -- exactly. And so the whole game, we brought in a little bit so that even though there's a lot of perspective, it still flattens out some of the edges. It's a lot easier to see, especially when you're making one jump to another, you're not getting such a wide perspective, which helps with the jumps.

The other big thing was lighting. We tried very, very hard to light the areas that are the main gameplay areas in the game. And then, yeah, using the flashlight was a huge thing. Because it wasn't tile-based, where it's not like Metroid where you could literally bomb every square of the game to find out what's going on. We had to just like abandon that language.

You're talking about things you have to abandon not just because of the visuals but because that's the kind of thing that I think people who grew up on more contemporary games are not going to want to do -- bomb every square of the game to find missiles hidden in every nook and cranny. This seemed fun to us at the time, but is going to seem like padding, I think, to more contemporary gamers. That's my instinct, anyway.

DM: Yeah. That was exactly our instinct as well. We thought not only are people not going to want to do it, but also it's not going to translate to 3D. And so that's where the idea of the flashlight was born. We think it provided the solution that we were looking for. There are those techniques, and there are a few other things that we did as well.

And a lot of it is just trial and error, like, "Oh, you know what? That ledge isn't reading for some reason, so we need to remodel it or retexture it or relight it." That was probably the main thing. Shadow Complex, every pixel of that game has been combed over and massaged and noodled to hopefully be balanced and fun and readable.

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Tom Newman
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Shadow Complex is on my GOTY list for sure!!! I hope this game will set a new paradigm for 2D game design, and hopefully many core developers will pay attention (hint hint Konami) and use this as a model for new games. It does just as they intended - an all new game with an old-school feel. I will be reccommending this game to everyone I know.

...not that this had an impact on my experience playing, like some other readers, but the story was very generic (which is what I want for this type of game - an overly complex narrative would take away from this type of game experience) and did not need to be associated with a political douchebag like Card. I'd like to scrape Card and all his neo-con religious-wrong followers off the bottom of my shoe because even though I love the game tremendously, the association with a moron like Card makes me feel like I stepped on a dog turd while walking through a beautiful garden.

Christopher Braithwaite
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Speaking of games with right-stick aiming, there's a game called Abuse that has mouselook aiming and is the most similar game to Shadow Complex I can think of. It was even made by some ex Doom devs if I'm not mistaken. It has great action, animation and a fantastic atmosphere which is one thing that Shadow Complex lacks. I hope a sequel would have more varied enemies and locations to give the player extra motivation to play through the game.

Rob Bergstrom
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Case in point: Why all the crap 3-D Sonic games when Sega could make a seriously cranking, beautiful, bad-ass Sonic next-gen sidescroller? Back to basics. Hell, just update Sonic 1 or 2 with next gen, hi-def graphics and make it downloadable. Either way, I would totally take that ride and pay to do it.

Maurício Gomes
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I agree with Rob :P

And I disagree with Tom.

and I agree with Christopher (btw: Abuse is really awesome o/ In fact, I don't expected someone to have the same idea as I... I am too making myself alone a game that is a mix of Metroid, G.I.Joe and Abuse... But yay! Like that guy said, it is better when someone else do it, because you can explore and whatnot, and when you do it yourself, you know everything, so it is not that cool... Now... back to work... I have much work to do :P

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Regarding the bombing of walls and flashlight game mechanic:

There is a big difference psychologically between discovering something through bombing of a seemingly normal wall, and shining a flashlight at a wall seeing that it is green and remembering that you have to go back to it later when you get grenades. To me the discovery seems a lot more rewarding when, I, the player found the discovery on my own instead of it deliberately being pointed out to me as long as I had my flashlight on.

I'm not saying it wasn't the right move, today's players might very well not care much for doing that, but they also might care to do that in the right context. All I'm saying is that I think our industry has to get over this idea of game mechanics becoming obsolete. The two game mechanics stated, Metroid's, and Shadow Complex's are totally different and usable at different times. Just because Shadow Complex is newer and does it this way doesn't mean a game to come should do it Shadow Complex's way.

It also doesn't mean a game can't use both mechanics, although if it does that it should teach the player early on that both mechanics will be used. Maybe flashlight color coding for most items (health boosts, ammo, weapon upgrades), but bombing of seemingly normal walls for special unique items which would in-turn even provide access to areas with even more flashlight color coded secrets (idea for Shadow Complex 2, please!). These super secret hidden walls wouldn't be crucial to the completion of the game, but they would add a lot of extra content to those that worked to find them. I mean if Fallout 3 can create a game that 95% of it has the potential to never be discovered I think a 2D game can as well.

Shadow Complex was great, but there was never that moment of discovery like there was in a Metroid game because everything felt - designed - due to the color coded environment and flashlight mechanic. Great game Mr. Mustard, but you just can't beat the feeling of discovery you get from bomb hopping up a wall only to find a breakable tile (on your own) a few feet up leading to a mysterious room with character upgrades like in Metroid with a game mechanic that tells the player exactly where all the secrets are. Very nice first attempt though, and I hope Shadow Complex 2 includes some of the ideas I've talked about.

Nick Kinsman
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A rather interesting read as the entire time I've been playing Shadow Complex I've been thinking, "Was this a good design idea?"

For the most part, the answer is a resounding "Yes", but there are a few times going through I felt genuinely defeated by the game for reasons beyond my own control. They absolutely nailed the level design and progression, but of all things, the combat element tends to let me down.

The best parallel I can draw is with Mirror's Edge - I love the game, but the control's inconsistency, and the forced battles in a game about flow REALLY broke the experience. Shadow Complex, similarly, almost cheats players in several locations when they are killed by something they could not possibly have known ahead of time. One of the better examples are the 'ninja-like' enemies who will grapple to the ceiling while shooting and throwing grenades. They have a tendency to kill the player in seconds, though you won't know that the first time, and they look virtually identical to the normal enemies. This is made worse when a group of 3 foes could have 1 of these characters - the player shoots the wrong one without knowing and are subsequently destroyed by the lone 'ninja'.

Aiming in 3 dimensions with 2 axis also has some issues, but I feel this was REALLY well handled all things in, and the number of times it was an issue were minimal. It's still really annoying when it happens, but mot games do much worse these days.

Additionally, I would very much agree with B N's comments about exploration. I might give the game more of a half and half flow though. Most of the 'breakables' are very straightforward, but there are a number of crates requiring the speed boots which are not at all obvious. Yet as you said, figuring these out tends to be the most rewarding aspect of exploration.

Overall, it's another breakthrough game for the Live arcade. I'm sorry that it HAS lost sales because of Card's involvement, because this game, and the people involved in its creation, deserve high praise for proper prototyping and follow-through.

Marc Sanders
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Overall this was a good game that could have been great.

The biggest negative is the story, which is easily the weakest aspect of the game. The boss design needed some more work, too; the easiest and safest way to bring down every boss was grenades and missiles. I was surprised that I never really had to combine sub-weapons in order to hit the bosses' weak points, etc.

The platforming was good overall, but with a few "Why didn't he grab that?" moments. That's difficult to avoid in this sort of game, but I don't recall ever thinking that while playing BC Rearmed (the simpler graphic style of that game was probably the difference). The 3d aiming concept is very innovative but needed some more polish- I often found myself skipping enemies because I didn't want the hassle of trying to aim into the background. This could be solved with a button that changes the aiming mode. The only other complaint I had is that you would occasionally take damage while you had no control over your character- that's a minor concern, but it's also a pet peeve of mine.

The game's strongest point was the combat, especially at the end when the player has her or his full arsenal. Just simply excellent. The balancing of some of the enemies could use some work, but nothing too major. The exploration mechanics were well done, and they would have been even more fun with a different setting. The progression was controlled really well. I talked a lot more about the negatives than the positives, but that's because the gameplay is just FUN. There really isn't much else to say about it.

If this system was polished a bit and applied to better source material, it would be outstanding (maybe even perfect). For example, if Chair took the reins of the GI Joe franchise and combined the system behind Shadow Complex with a multi-character, team-based system (NES style GI Joe), the minds of old school gamers everywhere would explode. I'm a huge fan of what Chair did with Shadow Complex; now I want to see them up the ante. I think they can solve all of this game's little problems and make something really special.

Alexander Bruce
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I haven't played Shadow Complex, but from reading what Blake said about shining the flashlight around to find secrets, why is that being compared to randomly bombing things in Super Metroid, as opposed to using the XRay visor to look around? Unless I've misunderstood how the flashlight works, it sounds more like the XRay visor in Super Metroid than revealing squares randomly with bombs.

Dantron Lesotho
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I know I mention it a lot, but Bangai-O is a 2-d sidescroller with a dual-stick inspired control scheme. The only difference between that and Shadow Complex, is that there aren't dedicated jump and shoot buttons.

Dantron Lesotho
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@ Alexander Bruce: I think people are annoyed at the flashlight just because you get it at the very beginning of the game, whereas in SM you get the x-ray visor about halfway through, thereby giving you a good chance of discovering secrets on your own, then giving you the option of going back through to scour the landscape for items...

raigan burns
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I don't know, I really prefer being able to see where secrets are rather than having to shoot every block of every room with every weapon just to make sure I haven't missed something.

The flashlight's battery, on the other hand, is stupid: it recharges so quickly, I don't really see why they wouldn't just give it infinite duration. As it is I just leave it on and every couple minutes it turns off for 1-2sec.. basically a constant annoyance. If the battery recharged more slowly I might have to ration its use, but as-is it should just be constant.

Tyler Glaiel
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My biggest issue with shadow complex is that getting weapon and armor upgrades never opened up any shortcuts. Point being, at the end of the game going from the east side of the map to the west side required taking the most convoluted route possible, due to the lake triggering the end sequence.

I agree with raigan about the flashlight recharging too. On the subject of the flashlight itself, it was convenient, but was it done right? It brought my attention to rocks and such that wouldn't have even noticed were there. No hint or anything, and shrouded in darkness, so light OMFG ITS SO RED. I think, hovering the flashlight for a couple seconds could gradually light up what you're pointing at. That would have had the same effect, but it would reduce the effect of "bringing major attention to everything passively". A lot of times I never felt like I discovered anything, more like the game told me it was there. The scan visor in metroid prime was a good example of that. I still felt like I discovered stuff, even though the visor basically tells me what I need to get through.

And the bosses never required strategy. Just bombardments of missiles.

The game was a good first try, but I'm not ready to label it GOTY or a classic yet. I'm definitely looking forward to a sequel though, and hopefully they could attain classic status with it. I mean, it took 3 metroid games to really hit it right.

Adam Flutie
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@Dantron - Exactly. The flashlight was like having the x-ray visor right off the bat.

I think the flashlight mechanic was good in the sense of making it better for casuals, or people that just haven't been conditioned to play games in such a 'bomb everything' way. It would have been nice to have an option to turn off the big hint highlighting though... or make a power-up that combines with the flashlight power some how later in the game.

For example: Super Metroid. Sure you can bomb every wall, but eventually you find the X-ray visor and now you can scan everything. So the first few times you play and are trying to get 100% it is easy to get the x-visor and just scan away. After a few plays you don't even need it...

A 'moving' edition of the x-ray visor from Metroid, found later in the game, would have been better than color highlighting IMO.

Devin Monnens
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We're a big fan of Shadow Complex at the Metroid Database - I'm glad to see such a renewed interest in the genre, and especially the high sales the game received, which we hope will lead to more games like it!

Actually, my biggest complaint was the game didn't feel like it had as many 'wow' moments early on (aside from the tank). I wanted to see jaw-dropping 'wow' moments like the Speed Boots throughout the whole game. Perhaps I'm jaded, but I also subscribe that there should be something memorable to each major area, if not each room. Maybe it also has to do with the pacing. I also think a big lack of memorability had to do with how similar most of the areas looked and a lack of defining background music for each area. This isn't to say that silence or ambience should not have been used - it was used quite effectively in Metroid 2 - but I think it tends to have this effect if 80% of the game is ambience (incidentally, also play Metroid 2 to discover the negative impact of designing areas that look much too similar).

Regarding the Flashlight, I think there is another alternative to this: why not create breakable walls that actually look like they can be broken? Zelda does this with the cracked wall. Show walls with cracks, show debris that's fallen from a weak spot in the ceiling, steam or noises coming from a hole in the wall, and demonstrate that you can blow up vents similar to forcing you to use grenades on the doors. This way you're not just blindly blowing up every wall. Of course, Metroid Prime also has an 'item detector' that plays a thrumming noise you are close to a powerup, so that's another way of doing it (but I will say I liked the benefit of easily seeing large colored objects).

Similarly, I have to wonder if there was so much focus on the blue line rather than on cleverly using maps and target points to indicate that you can travel to this location. I know they're catering to a less experienced audience, but placing a blinking star in a room somewhere off the map shows the player where he has to go without being explicit. Finding a map that shows a new area to explore means you go out there and explore it. You know where to go, just not quite how to get there. A combination of clear objectives and unknown territory lets you keep that exploration while maintaining the sense of discovery. Maybe there are better ways of showing people how to read a map (take another look at Portal?), but it seems to work just fine in Zelda and Castlevania.

I also have to say I am very surprised that somebody would not pick up a game this good simply because it is associated with somebody they don't like. I like some of Card's books, but was disappointed to hear about his politics. But it's not like these beliefs are expressed in Shadow Complex. If you're not playing the game because you don't like somebody who had absolutely nothing to do with its design, then you're just living inside a box and aren't going to get as much fun out of life.

celine sanderson
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These dimensional ideas are so cool! Where can I learn more about them? Where in the world does he get all of his ideas?
Celine |