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Design Interview: Crafting Gonner's modular abilities

October 17, 2017 | By Alex Wiltshire

October 17, 2017 | By Alex Wiltshire
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video



Raw Fury's late 2016 release Gonner is beautiful-ugly, violent-cute, hard-as-nails platformer in which you run and shoot your way through generated levels. Along the way, you meet Death, a maternal whale and a host of bizarre enemies, all against an abstract soundscape of intestinal gurgles and splattering. The game was warmly received when it debuted on PC, and it found a whole new audience this summer when a Switch version appeared.

"It's the least planned thing that I've ever done," says programmer and designer Mattias ‘Ditto' Dittrich. As distinctive and coherent as the final game is, it's fitting that something so weird should have grown so organically.

But it's still surprising to learn that its key feature was almost completely accidental. Namely, the modular way it defines your character's abilities through three wearable items. The head relates to your health and gives passive abilities. The gun shoots projectiles, and the backpack performs a specific action when you hit a button.

Together they comprise a build you'll be playing for your run. Gonner has strong roots in Rogue-likes, especially Spleunky's take on the form, but it veers away from them in one important way. If the Rogue template is to build your character with skills and items that you find as you play, in Gonner you fundamentally choose your build at the start of your run.

But they're not fixed. The important thing about Gonner 's items is that you can drop them. Lose your gun or backpack and you can't use them. Lose your head and you'll die from the next hit. From this simple rule Gonner finds challenge, surprising strategy, and a lot of its individual character. 


After dying in Gonner, players must reassemble their component parts before returning to the fray.

"I thought, what if the head is an item that you can pick up and use for stuff? And that naturally became having different kinds of heads, and obviously, they would give you different abilities."

And it all came from an art mistake. Ditto draws every asset in white for the game, using code to colorize them, and he wanted the character's head, a skull, to be a different color from its body. But while testing it, he moved the character and saw the skull falling off the top of the body because he'd forgotten to connect them properly.

"I was like, oh shit, that's really cool," he says. "What if the head is an item that you can pick up and use for stuff? And that naturally came into having different kinds of heads, and obviously, they would give you different abilities. And then it just evolved. The gun should be replaceable as well. It had this snowball effect."

The function of the guns was obvious. They'd shoot projectiles in different ways. But the heads were more difficult to plan. At first they granted stat bonuses, allowing bigger jumps, faster running, more health, shooting faster. "That turned out to be super boring. You just end up picking the highest stat, and no matter how much you try to balance, there's always going to be the best one and you never look back."

So he and his collaborators, sound designer Martin Mathiesen Kvale and composer Joar Renolen, began to discuss abilities they’d like in the game. They felt that, even if they found a favorite, players would find it far more interesting to experiment with heads if they had very different abilities, just to see if they had a benefit. But more than that, the ideas they came up with also transform the way the game plays.

"Headless, gunless and backpack-less, your character devolves into a blob with a few seconds of invulnerability until it turns humanoid again. Until you get your head back, it’s game over if you get hit, and until you get your gun, you can only jump on enemies’ heads to defeat them."

There’s Gun Head, for example, which shoots bullets as you fire your actual gun, and grants you just one hit point. "It’s a super glass cannon, but it does a bunch more damage so it’s more interesting for someone who’s played the game a lot and is aggressive and going for score. That balance is cool, it gives the game a difficulty level, even though it doesn’t have one."

Flame Head causes enemies to explode when they die, and makes you immune to explosions, and gives you two hit points.

The teddy bear-esque Flip Head gives you a triple jump, spinning the character 360 degrees on the third jump, so you can fire at angles other than horizontally. "It just made us laugh, because we started doing backflips and shooting enemies below and it felt badass."

On your first play of Gonner, you have the Skull Head, which at five hit points has the most health of all the heads in the game. Skull Head’s reservoir of health gives a new player a chance to get through the first level while also teaching them one of the game’s core rules, which is that whenever you get hit, you drop all your items. 

This is where the modular nature of Gonner’s abilities comes into focus. Headless, gunless and backpack-less, your character devolves into a blob with a few seconds of invulnerability until it turns humanoid again. Until you get your head back, it’s game over if you get hit, and until you get your gun, you can only jump on enemies’ heads to defeat them.

These panicky few moments of powerlessness can lead to both hard luck and hard decisions. If it’s too dangerous to get to your head, or if it falls off a platform and into the void, you’ll have to play on until you find it located somewhere on the next level.

"That is definitely a trope I love from other Rogue-likes that I blatantly stole. If you can't lose an object, it's not going to feel valuable to you."

"I've seen so many people jump after their head because they think they can pick it up again, but it teaches you," Ditto says, laughing. "That is definitely a trope I love from other Rogue-likes that I blatantly stole. If you can't lose an object, it's not going to feel valuable to you."

Still, he feels the way items respawn is a bit ‘shoehorned', because it can leave players in no-win situations and can also be exploited. If you're low on health, you can intentionally lose your head and get a new fully stocked up one on the next level. "But I think that's also fine because of the nature of Rogue-likes. If you feel you can break the game it feels like a good Rogue-like."

The Skull Head can be a hard introduction to Gonner , which never directly explains how to play or what items do. "I want you to learn immediately that you lose your items when you get hurt, but then you get the Brick Head in the second level or so," Ditto says. Brick Head is the key to players' ongoing education, because it prevents you from dropping your items when you're hit, smoothening out the learning curve even if it only gives you three hit points. "From that point on, we just came up with a bunch of fun ideas that made us laugh."

"Despite the variety in all the items, Ditto felt pressure to encourage players to experiment outside their comfort zones. Having played a great deal of Spelunky's Daily Challenge mode, he wanted one in Gonner."

The backpack abilities were harder to design. Each one is active, mapped to a button and put on a short cooldown when used. "Since nothing is ever explained in the game, everything has to be very obvious for it to work," says Ditto. The first backpack you have is the Ammo Bag, which reloads your gun, which is normally only reloaded when you collect yellow pickups dropped by enemies when they're defeated.

Since reloading is a simple and familiar concept to most experienced players, the team's intention was for it to help them get used to using the backpack's ability, ready for when they equip the next one, Shark Fin, which lets loose a barrage from the gun.

The other backpack abilities match the wide dynamic range that the heads have. Ball launches you high in the air, Oxygen Tank freezes all enemies for a moment. Some are as dangerous to you as the enemies, like Lil Chicky, which encircles you with explosions. And, together with the heads and guns, each can become part of a strong build that can take them through the game.

Still, despite the variety in all the items, Ditto felt pressure to encourage players to experiment outside their comfort zones. Having played a great deal of Spelunky's Daily Challenge mode, Ditto wanted one in Gonner and team realized that it was the perfect place to show off randomized builds, often with items that haven't been unlocked in the main game. 

"Balance is a matter of engineering diversity, making every item viable (more or less, given Poop Head, which turns everything brown and gives you no hit points)."

That means, of course, that some builds require a lot of experience and skill, or are simply terrible. But just like the item dropping mechanic, it only supports what Ditto was going for.

"One of my favorite parts about Rogue-likes is that each game is half an hour and it doesn't really matter if the game hurts you badly. Imagine playing a regular game and four hours in you realize you dropped your sword or whatever and you can't get it back again. It just feels so plastic in games where you don't have that risk."

"You don't value items because you know the game isn't going to fuck you over. It's like they're scared you're not going to like their game, or that if people get upset at your game it means your design is bad. But it feels like Rogue-likes get away from that because you can restart your game and not lose any progress."

Gonner is a hard game and it's perhaps sometimes not fair, but it's balanced. Ditto took the StarCraft approach, where balance is a matter of engineering diversity, making every item viable (more or less, given Poop Head, which turns everything brown and gives you no hit points). Some of this balance had to be made after its Steam launch, when the team discovered that every top place on the leaderboard was taken by builds using the lightning gun and Brick Head.

And it's also still strange, warm and silly where it counts. You start out a run in the main game by visiting a gramophone-listening Death and having him pluck your choice of unlocked head from his tree before grabbing a gun and backpack from hatstands on the way to the exit.

"The tree itself is inspired by this Norwegian comic Martin sent me, Stand Still Stay Silent, where Vikings walk into a graveyard and in the middle there's a huge tree and from every branch there's a skull from a different species of animal and it looks completely grotesque and so fucking cool. He was like, we need to have this in the game." 

And naturally, you can walk right through Death's place and never pick up a thing, and play, unable to shoot, take a hit or do anything special. "A lot of the decisions in this game are from weird conversations that make us laugh."



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