WUP-N-BS6E_gameplay_1.jpgIntropy Games is a game development studio consisting of a husband and wife couple. Lisa Walkosz-Migliacio likes cute things, Michael Migliacio is heavily into eSports, and they wanted to make a game that lives at the intersection of those two interests. What they came up with is Astral Breakers, a matching game which has single player and co-op modes but was designed with competition in mind. It's been available for Wii U since last summer, but launched on Steam for Windows and Mac earlier this month. Before launching it anywhere, though, they put the game in front of professional fighting game players and asked them to test its balance. Today we have for you a Q&A with Lisa Walkosz-Migliacio about balancing a cute matching game for competitive gamers to enjoy.

When you say "balanced with eSports in mind", what exactly do you mean? I'm not really getting an eSports vibe when I play Astral Breakers.

When we say "eSports", we're not trying to evoke League of Legends or Street Fighter, but rather communicate to prospective players that the game was balanced with competition in mind.

My husband, who worked on the game with me, is actually a writer for a major eSports team (Evil Geniuses), and spends a lot of time working on competitive game analysis. This helped when working out how each constellation would play differently from a competitive angle and we spent a lot of time discussing various options and trying things out in the engine.

During the development of the game, we took it around to various competitive gaming events (mainly in the fighting game community), including Combo Breaker in Chicago, where we received additional feedback and balancing data prior to release from major figures in the arena including Adam "Keits" Heart (lead designer of Killer Instinct) and Dave Lang (head of Iron Galaxy Studios). The game was also featured as a competitive title at Red September, a fighting game tournament in the southern US, last year. If you want to see your competitive game-in-development's balance broken to bits in the span of a few seconds, no group does it better than the fighting game community. There's a reason why fighting games (and other competitive types of games) go through so many location tests.

keits.jpgWhat were some of the big "Oh, no!" moments you had, watching fighting game players try to leverage as much advantage as possible out of your games?

Someone found the need for a balance tweak almost immediately in the early build of the game we were showing off. When we took it to Combo Breaker, we had literal professional fighting game players who opened our eyes after a few minutes of higher-level, rapid-fire play. Players there raised on the likes of Puyo Puyo and Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo showed that a player could get into a state where they could limit the other player's input window by setting up large combos consecutively, halting the receiving player from setting up a counterattack. Adam "Keits" Heart of Iron Galaxy Studios mentioned after a few matches of play that he felt a lack of "satisfaction" when breaking large groups of spheres, as well. We took these suggestions and went back to the lab, and after a few tweaks, had a much better build of the game.

We made spheres shatter one-by-one instead of in large groups (in doing so we provided a precious few seconds for the player receiving the massive attack from their opponent to react) and eliminated the balancing issue that shortened the window for player input during large drops. These small changes not only made the game better balanced, but also made the gameplay more satisfying during tense matches.

Did you ever show Astral Breakers at more casual gaming events? Why or why not? If so, how did the feedback from those events differ from that at the competitive events?

Definitely! For example, casual players are far more comfortable with a mouse than a controller. We decided the game needed to use as few buttons as possible, and some players preferred using the stick over the directional pad (and vice-versa). The two buttons we selected were "face" buttons that are clearly easy to see if you looked at the controller, not hiding away on the edges like the RT or RZ buttons (I still sometimes can't remember which one is which myself)! The controller scheme is easy enough that when I went to Japan to show the game at Tokyo Game Show, I was able to relay in 5 seconds all the information they needed to know how to play despite knowing just a few phrases and random words in Japanese. Not a lot of games can claim such a simple control scheme -- so that makes me think that the easier to pick up and play, the better. Our Steam version does allow you map the controller and keyboard any way you want while playing the game, so you can go crazy based on your preferences!

How did you go about arranging to get feedback at gaming events? Did you arrange it officially or unofficially?

Both, actually. Some events, like Casual Connect, Tokyo Game Show, and Combo Breaker were arranged, but we also showed the game at local and regional events on an impromptu basis as well. Feedback is a tricky thing, because other developers want to tell you how to fix things (usually to be like other games they're already familiar with -- "Make it like Game X instead") instead of stepping back and seeing an issue for what it is. I agree with game design series Extra Credits that the best group from which to get honest and unfiltered feedback on a game in development is a bunch of kids that don't have preconceptions about gameplay elements, but they seem to be a hard group to track down at events! Either way, find the issues that makes the player frustrated, and think about solving those problems -- rather than listening to suggestions on how to fix your game while demonstrating at events.

What are some of the traits that vary from constellation to constellation?

Great question! It actually boils down to two traits: what you drop on your opponent, and how much you drop on them.
For example, Gemini has a very complex (four-color) garbage pattern but doesn't drop very many garbage spheres on an opponent, whereas Scorpio only has two colors, making them easier to counter... except when they drop a TON of garbage on you (which happens a lot)!

During development, we classified the different constellations into offensive (simple patterns, high drop rate), defensive (complex patterns, low drop rate), and balanced (relatively complex patterns, medium drop rate). These same traits apply to the custom constellations the player can create, too.

WUP-N-BS6E_gameplay_2.jpgWhat constellation-dependent mechanics did you consider but ultimately decide to cut?

Power-ups, comeback mechanics... well, that might be my partner talking. We had a lot of discussions about figuring out how far to go in terms of differentiating the different zodiac signs. I was a huge advocate for keeping things simpler so that you can play without even knowing the differences between the signs. We relied on tactics used by a bunch of games that have come before, such as added hints during story mode that you might want to try out a new constellation, giving tips in a tutorial video, and having the different traits for each constellation show up if you press a certain button while on the character select screen.

How does the game parse a player-made constellation to decide what traits it has?

Through the magic of HashMaps, which is the programmer in me saying that we used an algorithm that takes into account the complexity of the drawing and the name chosen by the player. What name combination you pick, plus how many stars you plot all go into giving you an unique drop pattern and intensity.

WUP-N-BS6E_gameplay_5.jpgIt sounds like eSports was and still is more your partner's thing rather than yours. What have you, personally, learned about eSports and competitive play over the course of developing the game that you didn't know or hadn't considered before?

I've been watching EVO and fighting game streams for several years now, and even attempted to get into playing BlazBlue a while ago (my character of choice was Rachel, in case you're curious). The problem with fighting games and many competitive games in general is that they require years of practice. If you don't have years of experience or tons of hours to burn learning all the different moves, counters, reversals, and other mechanics, it's basically impossible to catch up and enjoy playing with the group.

It's funny seeing the divisive conversation going around right now about the gameplay of Street Fighter V becoming more accessible to draw in new players that could have otherwise been easily overwhelmed. The high level play in any fighting game, however, is insanely fun to watch. You see massive audiences of people all jumping up and down, cheering, "getting hype", intensely focused on the ongoing match, moment by moment. I wanted to think of a way to be able to recreate this same feeling at more casual events, bringing in that feeling of "hype" so often found at fighting game events to a new audience who would never experience it otherwise. Puzzle games have rule sets that most people can figure out in a few minutes at most, as opposed to the years it often takes for the average fighting game, so it seemed like a fun thing to try out. A relatively recent experiment: last year's Red September fighting game event in the US played host to the first ever Astral Breakers tournament. Did the audience get hype? Oh yes. Yes. They did.

WUP-N-BS6E_gameplay_6.jpgWhat, if any, lessons did you learn over the course of developing a competitive game that you feel can apply more broadly to developing all kinds of games?

We want to take the feeling of attending a hype gaming event, bottle it up, and bring it with us. We've seen this happen with the growing popularity of the Games Done Quick charity events and the rise of Twitch and Let's Plays on YouTube, so it's no mistake that we're on to something here.

Is there anything else you think our readers would be interested in that I haven't touched on?

I feel like we are at an extremely important time in the gaming industry. Everything is changing and evolving, and I'm just glad I'm along for the ride.