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Elegance, not simplicity: Devs weigh in on Downwell's irresistible charm

October 27, 2015 | By Chris Kerr

October 27, 2015 | By Chris Kerr
More: Indie, Design, Video

Downwell, a new indie game from developer Ojiro Fumoto, has been kicking up a fuss recently. 

The game features a beautifully spare retro aesthetic and addictive gameplay that has players falling endlessly downwards through a chasm full of randomly generated obstacles, enemies and powerups.

As a quick Twitter search will tell you, Downwell is earning raves from other game developers as well as from consumers.

Why is Fumoto's unexpected hit causing such a stir? We reached out to several devs to find out.

"For me, it's the thoughtful design that makes it stand out," says Android Assault Cactus creator Santana Mishra. 

"On the surface it might appear quite simple," notes Mishra. "But you quickly realize that it's a case of elegance rather than simplicity. Downwell is a rare thing, a dynamic procedural game that doesn't ever feel unfair or cruel in how it treats you, and I love it."

"I adore the way you're constantly prompted to swap weapons in search of more health or charge ups in spite of any preferences you might have that would lead to stagnation in your experience," he adds. "Plus elements like the side areas being accessed via time voids so you can continue to combo without ever technically hitting the ground."

Vlambeer's Rami Ismail also sings the game's praises. "Downwell is fast, it's lovingly crafted, and its design is pure," he says. "The combo mechanics are amazingly well-developed, and the flow and tactility of everything is perfect. It's a roguelike-like distilled down to its core: fast runs that take about 5 to 20 minutes, fast responses with minimal choices but maximum expression for those choices, and an interesting and strong metagame."

"You can tell, even from a video, that a lot of care has gone into making sure all of that communicates to both players and spectators through the pixel-art, which we know is a major challenge," says Ismail.

Finji founder Adam Saltsman became infatuated with the game before he'd even played it. After seeing Downwell for the first time on Cara Ellison's Embed With video series, the Canabalt creator knew Fumoto had something special. 

"As a systemic game designer, I could immediately see how all of its pieces fitted together in a way that's really harmonious," says Saltsman.

"The animation is so much fun, the effects are so juicy, and the generated levels complement the gameplay perfectly," he adds. "Like a lot of my favorite action games, there's at least one or two 'deeper' levels of play. The combo system especially, where it counts consecutive kills before touching the ground, is such a perfect addition and a great systematic hook."

 It's that combo system that holds the key to Downwell's success, according to Firewatch developer Chris Remo. He gushed about the game on a recent episode of his Idle Thumbs podcast.

"Downwell has a huge amount of intrinsic reward, and a lot of that has to do with the combo system and the way you reload," offers Remo, on Idle Thumbs.

"Anytime your feet touch the ground or you bounce of an enemy, you reload. To get more ammo, you have to jump on the ground or kill an enemy, and once you kill five enemies in a row without touching the ground, you start a combo counter.

"The more enemies you kill, the higher the counter goes. If you get high enough, you get a reward. I've had combos in the 40s at this point which earned me extra hearts, gems, and shards."

"You can basically create bonuses and power-ups out of nothing. Doug Wilson made an excellent point in saying that what that does is make the early levels of Downwell really rewarding even if you've already mastered them -- because you can use them as your combo proving ground."

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