Photo by Katie McKiernan
Andrew Williams and Andy Ray took a few minutes to talk about their team’s entry to the PAX 10: Impulse. It’s a physics game in the same vein as Strange Attractors 2 where the player navigates a magnetic avatar from point to point in complex levels loaded with positive and negative surfaces. Adding a wrinkle to the play model, players can give their avatars a little explosive boost to circumvent the tyranny of magnetism. It’s somewhere between playing with magnets and rocket jumping.
In addition to their game, read on for the design challenges of attraction and repulsion, and how to use a game’s camera to focus exploration gameplay and avoid tedious meandering.
Pixelsocks: So, where did you guys get the idea?
Andrew: Actually, we did the game for a class, we did it in 10 weeks, and I asked our professor what type of things he likes most about games. He’s like “I love stuff that blows up. I like explosions.”
Pixelsocks: That’s a fine and very common feeling.
Andrew: So we were like, “Sweet, let’s go do stuff around explosions.” So that kind of evolved into something more general along the lines of forces. So we based the game around various kinds of forces, like black holes that kind of suck you in, or explosions that bounce you around, or the magnetism that lets you pull or push off of platforms.
Andy: I agree.
Pixelsocks: So, you’re not the only magnetism and attraction game at PAX this year. What do you feel sets you apart from the other two?
Andy: Strange Attractors is probably the most similar to ours. Ours has the whole thing where you can explode and move around the level. When you stick to a magnetic wall, you can roll around on it. Strange Attractors is just, they only have one kind of wall. It’s negative, and you can stick to it or repel. Ours, we have both positive and negative. So you can use that to your advantage in the level as well.
Pixelsocks: Since your game is at it’s heart a physics game, how closely did you stick to the laws of magnetism?
Andrew: We originally built each platform to have its magnetic circle, if you will, but we found that people sometimes would get stuck between objects. We had to bend the rules a little bit to make the game feel better, and generally play the way people would expect it to. So, we did stick to them, I’d say 80%-85%. But we did change it up a little bit for gameplay.
Pixelsocks: So when everything got integrated together, it was tricky to control?
Andrew: In the initial version of it, it was cool and fun, but it was a little frustrating for some people. We tweaked it out a little bit, and it ended up really fun.
Pixelsocks: So could you explain the tweaks in a little more detail?
Andrew: Each equal length mini-platform can be connected to make a long platform, and each one has its own magnetism. So if you’re between two platforms, you might get stuck between them [because] multiple forces were acting on you. We made it so only one platform would act on you at the same time. That way, you didn’t get weird shifts as you were moving along.
Pixelsocks: One of the things I noticed watching the game is that you have a switch-opening access gameplay model. When you were incorporating that into the design, was the point of it to lead the player to interesting places, or to add challenges? What do they do for you?
Andy: It’s a Point-A to Point-B game, so half of the challenge of the game is using the forces at hand. We wanted to introduce more puzzle elements, like triggers and unlockable doors. That was the basic thing we were going for. We have grand schemes to add elements to make it more of a puzzle game, but originally it was just to add a challenge while you were moving along the whole way.
Pixelsocks: One thing that I noticed is that if you move close to a few new switches, it will shift the camera view over to give you a preview of where those are going to be. Did you have that in mind from the beginning, or did you add that as people were having trouble?
Andrew: Originally when we built the game, you could move around and the camera would follow. That was something that we had from the beginning that was good. But the actual previewing where things were was something we did in usability testing. I thought it would be cool to let people explore and find stuff, but people were just getting frustrated with it. They were like, “Just show me where the hell it is.” So we implemented that as part of our camera system. Any compartment gives you a preview of where you’re supposed to go. It sort of gives you an idea of where you are in relation to everything else. We also give you the directional indicators on the screen, for where the triggers are. It makes players less angry while playing the game.
Pixelsocks: Which is better, because you really shouldn’t be punished for gameplay.
Andy: It’s simplicity. We ultimately learned that simplicity was a lot better than complexity for this game. Complex gameplay can be fun if you do it correctly. But with our game, we stuck with simplicity.
Pixelsocks: Anther thing I noticed about the design is the out of bounds system. The levels don’t actually have strictly invisible walls that you can’t pass. Instead, if you lose control, your little avatar is sent back to the beginning. What made you guys go with that design?
Andy: Initially we had the idea of having black holes in the level. When we originally thought of them, we thought, okay, they’ll suck you into the middle, if you hit the middle then you go back to the beginning of the level. That never really panned out so well. So we had them, what they’ll do instead is suck you out into space. So, we asked what happens here. We had a lot of users fly around infinitely and never get back to the level. So we said, we’ll give them a little timer, and when that runs out, as a small punishment, we’ll send them back to the beginning of the compartment they started in.
Andrew: It’s basically part of the challenge. If you use the forces wrong, you’ll get knocked out of the level, and you’ll go back to the beginning. But if you can use black holes correctly, you can sling shot or use them to gain speed.
Pixelsocks: Is there is a limited stock of lives?
Andrew: You don’t die in our game. The worst thing that happens is you get slingshotted out and it will put you back at the beginning of that compartment. It won’t but you back at the beginning of the game. That would just be mean. But that’s the little repercussion you get for going out of bounds.
Pixelsocks: So why did you decide to include the out of bounds?
Andrew: You don’t die in our game, so we had to put something in there to kind of like, not so much punish the player, but help to tell them where to avoid. We’re looking at doing a few things to make that more intuitive. But some people go out of bounds and don’t even realize it, while some people do get it.
Pixelsocks: Are you still working on the development of the game, or are you pretty much done with it?
Andrew: We spent ten weeks building the game, over this past winter. We stopped at that point and started working on another game. I submitted this to the PAX 10, and then we found out that we won. We’ve talked to a couple different distribution groups, and we’re looking at definitely getting it out to the public. We’re not really sure exactly what we’re going to do at that point, but we are now continuing with the development. We haven’t decided how we’re going to distribute it or when it’s going to be out, but it’s definitely going to be out sometime in the next six months.
Pixelsocks: So do you think you’ll go with digital distribution, or a more traditional method?
Dude: You may see one, or both. We’re talking to various groups like I said, and that’s about all we can say.
Pixelsocks: That’s understandable. One thing I’ve heard a lot, both at the PAX 10 panel and from game developers in general, is the idea of changing game “because that’s what the player expected.” Is that a concept they emphasize in your education?
Andrew: Our professor said, “You have 10 weeks to make a game. It has to be fun to other people. Good luck.” He gave a lot of good guidance, and it was overall a great class. But the decisions we made for the game were up to whether people found it fun or not. We wanted a game that was fun, when we play it, but we did definitely go around and ask, “What do you think about this game? What are you having issues with?” That’s why we did cool things like the camera, and the arrows that we added. Those are all from usability testing, having other people play our game, and ask, “What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it?” We had a cool core concept to build on to, but ultimately need to see what people like. Building something for you is a lot different from building something for someone else.
Pixelsocks: So, If you had to pick one design decision or one design element that makes Impulse fun, that really holds it together, what would it be.
Andrew: I think the the overall forces and how it all works together. Everyone says, “wow this really feels great. It feels like natural physics.” The pseudo-natural physics makes the game fun for people.
Andy: I would say the intuitiveness of the gameplay. I had some guys pick up the game controller, and he said, “Okay, I get the magnets, I get the gravity. It seems like it’s simple to learn and hard to master.” We start with the strong core game element of the elements controlling your player. And that’s what really holds the game together.
Pixelsocks: Thank you very much for your time.
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