Recently got around to [finally] writing the starter gun for Elements of Magic. The friendly, nice gun that the player starts out with, to introduce them to the game. It had some design challenges, and since the whole process was kind of interesting, I figure I’ll document it, and see if I can’t provide some insight into exactly what sorts of things I think about when putting together a shmup weapon.
So, here we go!
First off, let’s talk a little about what needs to go into any shmup weapon. In general, a shmup weapon should:
- Be distinct from other weapons in some interesting, gameplay-related way. Preferably through some unique property or advantage.
- Involve some tradeoff. Work well in some situations, while less well in others. Should have at least one easily identifiable situation where it shines.
- Conversely, have at least one general situation where it is actually a sub-optimal choice.
- Never be completely useless, even in sub-optional situations. (I like to go with the metric “it should never be at worse than 50% efficiency.) The player should never feel “stuck” because they hit a situation that the gun is just bad for.
- Have some form of risk/reward built into the weapon, where there is a constant, interesting choice for the player to make, where they can consciously assume some form of risk, in exchange for some form of payoff.
Attempt one: Basic vanilla homing.
So I knew off the bat that this was going to be a homing gun. This is intended as the “starter gun” that you have when you start the game. It needs to therefore be both newbie friendly and effective, while still not being so overpowering that you never switch to other guns when you earn them. Homing is a good match for this, since it is a concept most people are very familiar with, and can understand quickly. (And as a bonus, it is effective even if they don’t do anything to make use of it – it just happens.)
- Shots tend to blur together into a solid stream. (This is purely aesthetic, but I think I’d like it to be more distinct. I want it to be more of homing shots, not one long homing laser.)
- Homing greatly reduces the importance of player positioning. Shots go after the nearest enemy, so it occasionally matters where you are, but for the most part, it doesn’t matter where you are on screen.
- There is no risk/reward anywhere. Nothing you do can make the gun perform better or worse.
Attempt two: Slowing things down, splitting things up.
So thoughts at this point about how to fix these things: The first one is easier. Make fewer, higher damage bullets, and maybe give them more distinct trajectories. The second one is harder.
- First and foremost, position matters again! Since half the damage comes from the direct shots, you can can do better by actually positioning under the thing you are aiming at.
- There is a risk/reward tradeoff now. You can do better by staying directly under your target, but it is not required.
- Unlike the first idea, it still works fine at long range. Position matters, but not to the extent that it forces you to get up close and personal with dangerous enemies.
- You have more control over your shots. One problem before was that sometimes the shots would lock onto things you didn’t want, and you would have to wait for them to get to the thing you actually wanted to destroy. With this change you can guarantee that at least half of your damage will go towards the target of your choosing.
Attempt three: The importance of concentration
I’ve been glossing over at least one issue so far. While I’ve been talking about it as if I were designing a gun, what I actually need are effectively two guns. One normal, and one when the user is “concentrating their fire”. (i. e. holding down the shift key and moving slowly.) Normally guns change their properties slightly when the player is concentrating their shots.
- Sitting under a single enemy, with concentrated shots: 100 dps
- Sitting under a single enemy, with unconcentrated shots: 105 dps
- Hitting a single enemy with just the homing shots while concentrated: 30 dps
- Hitting a single enemy with just the homing shots while unconcentrated: 50 dps
- Be distinct from other weapons in some interesting, gameplay-related way. Preferably through some unique property or advantage. Check! Unique property is homing, and the ability to deal respectable long-range damage, even if not directly lined up with the enemy.
- Involve some tradeoff. Work well in some situations, while less well in others. Should have at least one easily identifiable situation where it shines. Check! Homing again. Shines in situations where the enemy is moving around rapidly or otherwise hard to track. Also shines when there are lots of small enemies moving around quickly and spread out.
- Conversely, have at least one general situation where it is actually a sub-optimal choice. Check! Sub-optimal in situations where there are a lot of smaller enemies around, drawing off your shots.
- Never be completely useless, even in sub-optional situations. Check! Even if the homing shots are flying off to random places, the concentration-mode of the gun meaks you can still hit with over half your damage.
- Have some form of risk/reward built into the weapon, where there is a constant, interesting choice for the player to make, where they can consciously assume some form of risk, in exchange for some form of payoff. Check! Although a little fuzzier on this one. Staying directly under the enemy to hit with your entire damage counts a little here. But also, staying under the enemy while unconcentrated gives you slightly more damage than concentrated, while also being more dangerous. (Because your movements are less precise.)