September 21, 2015 6:00 AM | Joel Couture
Ten seconds is not a lot of time to get a player's attention. It's not a lot of time to set up a challenge that doesn't make the player feel like they're just being thrown into the middle of chaos. It's not a lot of time to play some music and make it catchy enough to enjoy. It certainly isn't enough time to change up shooting mechanics and gameplay, too. So why did Neon Deity Games try to do all of that in their silly shmup Shutshimi: Seriously Swole? More importantly, how did they get it to work?
"Iterative design. Tweaking the formula constantly. We began with the basic bare-bones concept of a shmup: groups of enemies spawn at specified intervals. From there, we had to figure out the size and frequency of those intervals." says Garrett Varrin, programmer for Neon Deity Games.
It's no secret that making it all work together took many attempts as the developers played around with various aspects to see what worked and what didn't. The developers knew they wanted to create a shmup, but with a single concept driving all of the gameplay and design: the ten second time limit. This meant taking a look at every aspect of typical shmup design and asking if it would work within a short time limit. More importantly, they asked how to make it work best within that time limit.
"In a stage that only lasts ten seconds, you can't really afford a lot of dead space, since it has a much bigger impact on the excitement of a ten second stage than it does a 200 second stage." said Varrin. You cannot wade into the action when you only have a handful of seconds to play. This meant combat had to start right up with little delay in order to keep the player engaged throughout the entire ten seconds. Any lull within these ten seconds would be immediately noticeable and risk making the player feel like they didn't accomplish anything with the wave.
Bull rushing the player with enemies in ten second bursts may have been enough to entertain some people, but it made things difficult when it came to power-ups. How do you learn a new power-up with no lull in the action to play around with it? Where do you place them in-game to grab them in all the chaos? The game could have chosen to go without them, but this may have made the base gameplay grow stale over time. Part of a solid shmup is the spectacle of new weapons and combat against wild bosses, two things which prompted even more thought and work on the core concept.
"We wanted to keep the idea of a shmup giving you powerups in the game, but couldn't really do that in-round, like most shmups do, so we conceptualized the shop." said Anthony Swinnich, sound designer on Shutshimi. The shop solved a few issues. It meant that anything moving during the shmup sections was an enemy to shoot, so players wouldn't have to look at targets and assess whether they were friendly or not. They also wouldn't have to think about whether their current power-up was better than the one floating toward them, or try desperately to figure out what their newly-acquired weapon did in the middle of a dogfight.
Doling powerups out in the controlled environment of the shop allowed players some time to think about what they wanted outside of combat. It also let the developers set up a tiny dead zone at the beginning of each stage so that they could try out the new power they just gained before using it during the main fight.
The shop also provided a useful transition between stages as the shmup sections always end the moment those ten seconds are up. "The rounds stop abruptly, so something had to break up the action, right?" says Swinnich. The game could have felt disjointed if it hurled players directly into a new stage right as the time limit passed, but the shop gave players a moment to take in the change of stages.
While useful to make powerup choice more player-friendly and to also make the game flow, work had to be done to make sure the shop was in keeping with the game's pace. This meant that the shop wasn't just a moment to relax, but yet another way for the game to challenge its players with the short time limit.
"We wanted to keep the shop in the theme of ten seconds, giving the player this give-and-take flow between shooting and shopping." says Swinnich. "It dawned on us that we could use the ten seconds against the player in a hilarious way, by giving them obscenely long text descriptions that hide what item they'd be picking. This sense of panic helps keep the player engaged and the game's intensity up in what would otherwise be a pretty ho-hum item selection round."
During the shop round, players are given a choice of three powerups. These each come with a wall of text to describe them, except that this text has nothing to do with the powerup. It's often just silly sentences and nonsense, but with a keyword or phrase hidden within that gives an idea on what the powerup does. This keeps up the fast pace of the shmup rounds, but changes up gameplay into a game of quick reading comprehension in order to add some variety.
"To add to the sense of panic we also added a centralized countdown clock so the whole time you're trying to read through the lengthy descriptions you're reminded that you're almost out of time perhaps even causing you to accidentally pick the wrong powerup." says Wayne Kubiak, artist for Neon Deity Games. A timer further complicated the player's life by adding a distraction (drawing the player's eye from the descriptions) and increasing intensity during the time spent choosing what to pick.
Power-downs were also thrown into the mix to increase the repercussions of choosing incorrectly. These added a bit more pressure during the shop stages, but also increased the challenge during the regular stages. The developers felt free to create some downright nasty power downs, too, as the player would only have to survive with them for a single ten second gauntlet. "It allowed us to add more challenging powerups like inverted controls that could easily end a run but gives you the chance to just hang on for those ten seconds." says Kubiak.
Power downs added variety to what might otherwise be a straightforward run, but the developers also used a sense of humor to keep things interesting. "Short levels allowed us to create interesting difficulty fluctuations or unique player interactions. For instance, there are fun free waves of action where you could obtain an admittedly overpowered, silly one-wave weapon, or instead of fighting you're placed in a bouncy castle to just 'flop around like a fish'." says Kubiak.
The kind of thinking that tied a goldfish's memory span into the game's ten-second shmup action opened the game up for some humorous powers and stages, which worked well. A lighthearted player could appreciate the break, and more serious ones would only have to endure the goofiness for a few seconds.
The gameplay itself would need variety to stay compelling across hundreds of ten-second stages, though, which is what got the developers working with procedural generation. "Since we were making our stages ten seconds long, we had to make a lot of them. Hand-crafting thousands of ten-second stages isn't feasible, so we procedurally generated them, and constantly tinkered with the input parameters until they felt right." says Varrin.
By generating the stages, they ensured that every run would be interesting for its players while also keeping them from guessing what was coming next. It also made sure the developers wouldn't have had to create hundreds of stages, and would keep players from memorizing them over time or preparing strategies. It would ensure a wild ten seconds with every new stage, and all while keeping the difficulty steadily climbing to stay appropriate to how long the player had been playing.
"There's actually quite a robust amount of input variables going into the formula that generates the levels: the number of players in-game, the number of bosses killed, the wave number, the enemy types available, the powerups in play - all that and more factor into what spawns and how often." says Varrin.
That could have all been undermined by some irritating music, and when you only have ten seconds to play, it's easy to create repetitive loops. "I focused on trying to keep the songs interesting for active listeners, but unintrusive for those who pay less attention. Most of the songs are sectioned into three parts in the tracker, so the most important part to make catchy was the start of the song." says Swinnich. The results were songs that were quite catchy from the moment the player started a stage, but then change up to keep from getting dull.
Tying shmup gameplay to the concept of ten seconds was a complex process, but ideas soon flowed into one another. By keeping their concept firmly in mind, Neon Deity Games were able to examine every aspect of the genre and see how best to tune it to their needs, creating a game that is both familiar and yet wildly unique.
Shutshimi: Seriously Swole is available for $9.99 on Steam and PS4/Vita. For more information on the game and Neon Deity Games, you can head to the developer's site or follow them on Google +, YouTube, and Twitter.