Downwell: Feedback and Pacing

Introduction —

Downwell is the first major release by developer Moppin published by the ever fantastic Devolver Digital. Downwell is a roguelike where you are constantly descending down a well while shooting a host of enemies with your gunboots. Downwell is clearly inspired by Spelunky and other modern roguelikes but it manages to become it’s own thing.

Previously I wrote on the 7 elements of Game Design, two of which were Feedback and Pacing. Downwell is a fantastic example of excellent implementation of those two elements. And for anyone who didn’t read my previous article then here is a refresher on Feedback and Pacing.

Feedback —
Any event which happens in response to a change in the game space’s state. For example, when shooting a gun the screen may shake or a sound effect may be played.
Pacing —
The intentional arc in which the game space changes and progresses as designed by the designer. For example, as you play through Mario the levels are more and more difficult as more and more mechanics are introduced.

Feedback in Downwell —

In action games Feedback is extremely important, but in a different way than how feedback is important to UI/UX(user-interface/user-experience). For UX feedback is important in that it relates information back to the player when they interact with the interface(interface is another element of game design that I previously described). When it comes to feedback that is more a part of the actual game space the use of feedback is two-fold. Feedback is used to both relay information to the player and in addition create an implied “feeling”. This “feeling” is aptly named Game Feel by many game developers and Designers in the industry. So the feedback both alerts the player of the important information and makes the experience of playing more enjoyable.

In Downwell the player character alone has over 10 different feedback events that all contribute to making the character feel alive as well as informing the player of important information:

  1. character wobbles when on the very tip of a platform
  2. dust appears when jumping or landing
  3. dust kicks up when you first start moving from being still
  4. bullets start as a big circle when first shot(like a muzzle flash)
  5. a bullet casing flies out for each bullet you fire
  6. bullets make dust when they hit a wall etc.
  7. an big animation plays when your gunboots recharge
  8. a normal animation plays when you jump while still and a somersault animation plays when you jump while moving in a direction
  9. player flashes red when at 1 health
  10. player changes animation while shooting

I could continue to go on and on, but it’s clear to see that simply in the player character alone that a lot of time has been put in to give the player the best feedback possible so that playing the game feels natural and not confusing.

The biggest pitfall in new developers/designers is that they don’t include enough feedback to accurately inform the player of important information. This is a big difference between physical and digital games, while feedback is still very important in physical games, digital games are played in real-time and have so much more potential to automatically give you feedback. A good game could be unplayable without proper feedback and sometimes good games fail because information is not properly being given to the player. If you’re having issues such as players being confused while playing your game try playing any game(perhaps Downwell) and pay attention to what happens whenever you perform an action. When you shoot a bullet does something happen when it hits a wall? What happens differently if it hits an enemy instead? A good lense in which to analyze feedback in your own game is asking “what happens” when you perform an action. The answer should almost never be “nothing”.

Downwell is oozing with effective Feedback and the game feels wonderful to play because of this and furthermore, Moppin gets away with not even including a tutorial because of his excellent feedback. He uses Feedback as a learning tool for the player. For example, in World 3 you are underwater and a new number has appeared on the screen and is descending down from 100. You have a bubble around yourself and when you touch certain objects they open and little bubbles that you can collect pop out and those bubble increase the new number that appeared. In addition the bubble around your character gets smaller as the new number decreases. So with all of this information it’s simple to realize that you need to keep that number from getting to zero or you’ll drown. Now imagine if the bubble around the player was taken out or if the number was increasing rather than decreasing or if the bubble existed but didn’t shrink with the number. It may seem like small stuff, but everything is there for a reason and it helps immensely in educating the player on what is happening in the game space.

Pacing in Downwell —

Pacing in Downwell is a fantastic feat of game design and while the pacing can be analyzed by looking at the Difficulty Curve(the curve in which the game’s difficulty progresses) we will be looking at the mechanical curve specifically(the curve in which the game mechanics progress).

The Pacing in Downwell is reductionist in nature. To understand this concept you need to know that they core philosophy of Downwell is Falling down, shooting, and never touching the ground and when you’re playing by that core idea is when the game is most exhilarating.

Downwell is divided into 4 different Areas/Worlds/Etc. and each one strips out more and more unnecessary elements until the game forces you to either die or play by its core philosophy. The Areas are as follows:

  1. Area 1 in filled with ledges, passive enemies, and enemies that can be stomped on with you getting hurt. Some parts of this area even has blocks that completely block your descent which reinforces the slower and less adept players that will be starting out here.
  2. Area 2 has some ledges that are spiked, but only after standing on them for a short while. So here we are starting to discourage standing around to catch your breathe and starting to encourage a constant descent. This area has more actively aggressive enemies as well, but this has more to do with difficulty rather than the mechanical pacing.
  3. Area 3 is way more open and has some permanent spikes on certain ledges, although area 3 is underwater so you fall a tiny bit slower as to not throw you into the deep end(ha ha) right away. In addition you only have a certain amount of air in this area and you have to constantly get more air by descending to find chest full of air bubbles so that you don’t drown and this encourages Downwells core tenant yet again.
  4. Area 4 strips it all away. None of the enemies can be stomped on and the only ledges here are spiked. The only way to recharge your gunboots and gain a second of rest is by stomping on random objects floating around: cars, bricks, etc. and at this final area the game finally reaches that do or die sensibility.

Downwell is very interesting in it’s Pacing and not all games have to be like this, most games are additive in it’s Pacing where more and more mechanics are added as the game goes on or categorical in Pacing like most Puzzle games where mechanics are swapped in and out depending on the section of game. But, Downwell’s approach to Pacing works perfectly and honestly it is an extremely amazing way to approach an action game’s pacing. I think games such as Call of Duty could do very well by looking at Downwell’s Pacing and trying it out themselves. The idea of creating purer and purer gameplay as the game progresses creates an incredibly adrenaline inducing experience. I implore anyone reading this to give Downwell a try for yourselves to really see what I’m trying to describe because it’s not just because it’s a game that I’m getting this feeling, but it’s clearly a result of design that Downwell is so effective.

Conclusion —

So hopefully this proved to be a more in depth look at Feedback and Pacing and how you can improve those elements of your own games. I will be trying to go more in depth with some of the other elements that I have described previously, but for now I should probably work on my own games. If you have any questions just tweet at me ❤ @dolle_rama

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