This week, I thought it would be fun to do a little post about the design of the different ships in PARTICLE MACE. Because of my dedication to creating a very pure, very pick up and play arcade experience, the ships are the closest the game comes to power ups, and are really the only way for the player to customize their experience beyond personal play style. Quite a bit of thought went into the design of each one, and well over a year of testing both in person and with my testers remotely went into fine tuning them to the point where they are all roughly equal in power.
I'm also going to include little pro tips for using each ship in game, because I miss my old GamePro subscription.
Without further ado, the 9 ships of PARTICLE MACE:
For much of the game's development, this was the only ship. Although I had no interest in introducing power ups into the game, it was feeling like it needed some spice. Having multiple ships meant I could introduce some variation without adding mechanics or requiring players to press a button or spend more time learning in game. And because it was a decision made before the round started, players could chose to ignore it if they just wanted to button mash back into the game. Initially, ship customization took the form of being able to select different ship components, but the build-your-own mechanic just proved too easy to break.
Part of the challenge in designing new ships was that I did not want to make the Normal Ship weak. I had tweaked it to be fun for the game and didn't want to sacrifice that. Likewise, I did not like the idea of a crappy first ship that only acts as a stepping stone to better ships. I never like when I start non-rpg games with weapons that I will never use once I find the better ones, and I know it's possible to create new ships/abilities/weapons that are exciting and allow a further exploration of the possibility space of the game without automatically ramping up the power level. There are many strong examples of this, but the one that always comes to my mind is the original Halo, which by and large made getting new weapons fun without ever making the previous arsenal obsolete.
While I didn't need the Normal Ship to be as strong as the infamous Halo pistol, I did want it to be balanced, and a strong contender both in the single player leaderboards and the deathmatch arena. And after a lot of tweaking, I believe it is. The Normal Ship represents the most balanced, middle of the road ship in the game.
Chances are, after playing a bit of PARTICLE MACE, you'll have a fairly good sense of flying the Normal Ship. It's probably not the easiest ship in the roster to use, but it doesn't throw too many curve balls. No big tips here. Just fly the thing. You'll get the hang of it.
The Heavy Ship is the second slowest ship in the roster and lives up to its name, acting as the tank of the game. The slow speed and huge particles make it attractive to new players, as it can be a little easier to control, and the large hit area of the particles make them a little easier to aim for new players. The trade off, of course, is a reduced maneuverability thanks to the sluggish speed. Still, though, the particles are huge, and the ship is still a popular choice even for more advanced players. It took a lot of balancing to get it to a point where it was a little more forgiving for new players but not either worthless or far too powerful for more advanced players. A lot of the tweaking came down to just how much the particles repel each other (influencing the overall spread). The process wound up feeling a lot like the evolution of the muzzle speed velocity of the plasma rifle in Halo 1, a game that obviously had a pretty big impact on my appreciation for balance.
Be a bit of a camper. You're not going to be able to rush anywhere, but once folks get close, you can probably pick em off pretty quick. Also, against faster ships or ones with longer tethers, getting close to them can make things very easy for you.
Just about the most obvious thing to do, I believe the Fast Ship was the first ship I designed after giving up on the build-your-own-ship mechanic. As the name implies, it's fast-- quite a bit faster than the normal ship, actually. To balance this out, I made the tethers super long, which made it a bit unwieldily, especially in single player. However, it quickly became obvious that the long tethers were not much of a hindrance win death match, and could be an advantage. There was a period where this was hands down the strongest ship in the game, which was not great. Subsequent builds saw its power chipped away at until it finally sat as a strong ship, but one that was tricky to maneuver. For experienced players, it is probably still one of the better ships, but definitely not a shoe in.
One of the things I did that really helped limit its power was to reduce the number of particles it has. This became a pretty easy way to make up for the increased power offered by the speed as it required players to swing the particles more precisely to hit anything.
The "shot-gunning" technique that works so well with many of the ships (flying into your own particles to burst them apart) is almost impossible here. Instead, just try to hit things before they get close to you. And if you don't, you know, fly away. You're fast.
Probably the ship that causes the most head scratching in the roster, the Jelly Ship is the one that was closest to being cut from the game. A handful of vocal supporters in my test group caused it to be kept around, though. The main strength and weakness of the ship is the increased friction on the particles. One of the challenges about designing ships that feel significantly different in a game with no buttons is that there can be no activated abilities. Any special effect needs to be static, and this is most easily expressed by altering the speed, tether length and number of particles. However, these are not the only attributes that effect the ships in PARTICLE MACE. In this case, I chose to tweak how quickly the particles lose their velocity. Most of the ships have a low level of friction because this is a game about swinging the particles around; low friction means it's easy to keep them moving, and overall, that is the right call for the game. The Jelly ship messes with that, putting the particles under very high friction, which tends to keep them fairly stuck in place around the ship. The result is that swinging the particles becomes difficult, but they can be moved with more precision. Also the shotgunning-strategy that was showing up a lot with testers became very effective since the particles tended to be close and could be easily manipulated immediately after the attack. So the Jelly Ship is the little weirdo that stuck around, even if many players don't know what to do with it right away.
A few other fun design notes about this one:
-It was originally a slower than average ship because it made sense thematically (high friction=slow movement), but it was incredibly weak. As it is now, it's a fairly fast ship in order to make it easier for the pilot to nudge their particles to where they want.
-This ship used to be the first ship unlocked in the game. This was terrible as fresh players were excited to unlock their first ship, only to get a new ship that was hard to use, and seemed terribly weak when they tried to pilot it like they did the Normal Ship, which they were only just starting to get the hang of. The Heavy Ship became a much better first unlock as it is easy to control and feels significantly different from the Normal Ship but can still be piloted in a similar way.
This is probably the most difficult to use ship in the game, requiring a significantly different play style than most others. Swinging simply won't work, so relying on the shot-gunning strategy as well as simply trying to place the particles in the paths of ships that will have to move much more to get an arc going is key. It's a weird little ship, and maybe not for you, but one of your friends is going to get good with it you're going to hate them.
Side note: I'm usually not a huge fan of death-match rounds where everybody plays as the same ship (I think dealing with the different strength and weaknesses of each one makes for a richer game), but I highly recommend the occasional all Jelly Ship game. Because of the much more deliberate movements that come from the jelly ship, the already ballerina-esque flying will become even more of a dance.
This is the only ship in the game deliberately designed to be weaker than average. The Hardy ship offers the extremely impressive ability of being able to take one hit without dying, a very powerful effect in a one hit kill game. It pays for this privilege dearly by being slightly slower than the already slow Heavy Ship without having any of the advantages. In fact, when it is not dying, it is almost strictly worse than all other ships, although it has a few more particles than either of the fast ships. An extra life is really that good.
The ship mostly exists for new players who may not have the hang of the game yet, and an extra life will allow them to put up a better fight in single player or deathmatch until they get a bit better at flying. As such, it is an early unlock, and probably the only one that will most likely be cast aside in favor of other ships once a player becomes more skilled at piloting the ships in PARTICLE MACE.
The ability is obviously good, but why make it so much weaker than the others on purpose? Because the strength of the ship is only in the moment of death, it means that actually flying it--when you are doing well--is just less interesting than the other ships. When not actively dying, it's just a sluggish ship, and as such I want to direct players away from it for the sake of their own enjoyment. It's a nice set of training wheels for new players, and it can keep the fourth friend who's never played before alive a little longer in deathmatch, but there is a danger in it being truly viable at a competitive level. There was a time when this ship was dominating the leaderboards I had setup for testers. The problem was that these players were not having fun. The thrill of skillfully ducking and weaving through the rocks and foes was replaced with the security of a safe bet, and that was not at all what I wanted. I could have removed it, but as I mentioned, it has value for new players, so it remains as the one ship that is appreciably worse than the others.
Don't use this ship. Your friends will snicker at you. Also, there is also a certain exploit that you'll think you figured out in a score based deathmatch round. It won't work. I once won money from Robin Arnott because of this.
The caffein frenzied brother of the Fast Ship, the Hyper Ship also plays with some of the less obvious physics qualities of the game. The ship does a few unique things to achieve it's jittery state: The particles are under much less friction, the tethers are extra springy and the ship cannot slow down, always traveling at max speed. On top of that, it is faster than average. The particle/tether interaction means that it takes very little motion to get the particles swinging out very far, and it takes a long time for them to settle. The benefit, of course, is that it can attack ships from fairly far away without too much spinning on the part of the player, but the particles can be very unruly and difficult to manage. The lack of any speed modulation can also make it very easy to crash into a wall or asteroid.
Even with this unruliness, the Hyper Ship was distinctly overpowered for some time. Speed is really the strongest attribute in the game, and all of the faster ships spent some time as the obvious king of the game, which is why I'm glad to have spent as much time testing as I did for the game. What ultimately weakend the ship to an acceptable level was to greatly reduce the number of particles (it has the least in the game at 4) as well as making them less repelled from each other and more likely to clump. With this ship, it is very easy to have the particles merge into a single tightly packed mace which can be very tricky to use.
This is pretty much the only ship where you can move back and forth between two spots quickly and have the particles simply shoot back and forth past your ship in a line instead of the usual arc.
Another weirdo ship, the Robot's primary strength lies in single player arcade mode where in enjoys an extended multikill window. It pays for this by having it's flight locked to 30 degree angles as opposed to the usual free range of motion that the other ships have while flying. Probably the most gimmicky of any of the ships, it has otherwise pretty standard stats, moving just slightly faster than the normal ship and using as many particles. Some players get really thrown by the locked angles thing; others deal with it no problem. Amusingly, the ship has a strong deathmatch following, with Ben Serviss probably being its biggest cheerleader. He swears that he does better in multiplayer with it than he does with any other ship despite it losing its primary advantage in a mode that does not feature multikills. He won the first Particle Mace tournament with it, so maybe he knows something I don't
You can rack up a pretty serious score in single player if you can get over the controls. It's also the only ship with a speed boost but no drawbacks on the particles.
The last real ship to be included (new as of the last released alpha build!) The Cascade ship was mostly introduced because I didn't like the hole in the roster that was left when I removed the Homing Ship. It was one of two new ships that played with tether length, and the only one of the two that was actually interesting to play with. The Cascade ship has tethers at all different lengths. I wasn't sure exactly what effect this would have when I did it, but the end result was a very graceful sort of wave that would happen as the shorter tethered particles inevitably moved first. The effect was lost when the particles separated, so I greatly increased the range of attraction they had to each other while decreasing the force of that attraction to prevent them from clumping.
I really enjoy the visual effect that is created, and it has an interesting strategy effect as well. The trail of movement from the particles winds up creating more of a lateral space of attack as opposed to the ball that most ships' particles form. The different sort of attack also makes it fun to play against, which is always an important thing when designing for completive play. I wound up having to compromise a bit of the visual appeal, because it was just too strong, and removing a few of the particles helped balance it to where the other ships were.
Try to form a radial shield around yourself.
This is the joke ship of the game. Upon finishing the last mission, the player is given the Show-Off Ship, a simultaneous badge of honor and handicap. The Show-Off behaves identically to the Normal Ship except that it has only one particle, making it very difficult to use. As the name implies, you can also use it to show off when playing deathmatch with those who you consider to be your lesser.
Be good at the game if you're going to pick this one.
Although there were a lot of potential ships that didn't make the cut, there were only a few that spent any significant time in the game before being removed.
The Homing Ship caused enemies to move at double speed and spawn at a faster rate. The idea was that players would be able to score more points by having more enemies to kill (which also made it easier to maintain a multikill bonus), but would have to deal with the added difficulty of faster foes. The problem was that there were already different difficulties, so this was not something that needed to be modulated by ships. On top of this, the Homing Ship had no use in multiplayer. All of this was compounded by the fact that many players had no idea what it even did in the first place. Overall, it spent way too much time in the game before finally being removed.
Created at the same time as Cascade, the Sniper ship was a slow moving ship with very long, fairly rigid tethers. The idea was that players would try to stay away from the action, spinning or pushing their long tethers in to kill other players before they got close. The downside was going to be that the ship was very vulnerable when other players were nearby. The reality was that the best strategy for the ship was to sit still and wiggle the controller a bit to fan out the particles. It was incredibly uninteresting to play with or against.
This was intended as an easter egg unlock, and behaved very much like the normal ship except for the fact that it would mess with how the game rendered such that new frames were simply drawn over old frames. Since the game has a lot of unused space each frame, this would cause a confusing after image. The effect itself was inspired by the WTF mode in Sophie Houlden's amazing Swift Stitch. Although kind of interesting, the ship was very confusing and some of the code to handle it would cause nasty tears on windows machines, even when it wasn't in use. Ultimately, it was a neat toy that was not worth the hassle.
And those are the ships that make up PARTICLE MACE! If you want to try them out yourself, you can still join the alpha over at particlemace.com!