Spelunky: a Study in Good Game Design

A while ago we’ve published the article Play Like a Game Designer. Now we’re going to use this material to illustrate how a game breakdown might look like.

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  • how that task was accomplished
  • examples and comments

Task: Teach the player the controls

Solution: A tutorial in the form of an introductory level.

Task: Leave room for independent discoveries

Solutions:

  • health points: why they are deducted and how much, how they are restored
  • characteristics and behavior of opponents and neutral characters
  • how obstacles and traps work
  • surface properties
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  • Pot: destructible object; can be thrown once or broken using a weapon, which will release either a reward or a small monster.
  • Arrow: indestructible object; appears only after a trap has been sprung.
  • Skull: destructible object; can be thrown once. Some skulls grow into a skeleton when you pass them.
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Task: Challenge the players

Solution:

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Subtask: Compensate for difficulty of dark levels

  • At the beginning of the level the player can take a torch to light the way (it can also be thrown at opponents). Here the player may have to choose: if the player entered the level armed, they will have to decide whether to hold on to the weapon or take a torch.
  • Hanging on the walls are unlit torches, which may be lit in order to partially light the surrounding area (earning a few coins).
  • Some stationary obstacles (heads that shoot darts, spiked statues) have glowing eyes. These shed no light, but they do warn of danger.
  • Dark levels generally have fewer opponents and obstacles (my personal impression; this may be an illusion, as nothing is visible).
  • Aside from ordinary opponents, fireflies may be encountered. These are harmless monsters, which like torches partially light up the surrounding area and help navigate.
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Task: Returning players to the game (increasing replay value)

Solution:

Subtask: Introducing variety into level contents

Procedural generation is responsible not just for the form of the levels. Its algorithm also configures content: what opponents you encounter, which traps, and so on. Here’re some examples.

  • (L1) snake: crawls, spits venom, deducts 1 HP upon contact, 1 HP when hit with venom
  • (L1) spider: jumps high and near, deducts 1 HP upon contact, can hide in pots or fall from a ceiling if passed under
  • (L2) fire frog: jumps high and far, deducts 1 HP upon contact, explodes after a couple of seconds when killed, becomes an ordinary frog upon entering water
  • (L2) snail: moves slowly, blows bubbles upward that are lethal to the touch
  • (L2) piranha: lives in water, deducts 1 HP upon contact

Task: Create conditions for player skill growth

Solution:

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  • Traps are equally hazardous for everyone. No double standards here: if you toss a monster onto spikes, it will die just like a player character would.

Task: Stimulate different game styles

This task consists of two subtasks, which at first glance appear to be contradictory: to stimulate more cautious and more aggressive playing styles. Simultaneous stimulation of different styles forces the player to make tactical decisions.

Subtask: Stimulate a more cautios playing style

The death of a character causes progress to be lost: the player returns to the first level with only basic equipment. Memories and log entries are all that remains of previous victories.

Subtask: Stimulate a faster, less cautious playing style

The game renews at the press of a button when a character dies. Even if the game only lasts one second, the next second it can begin anew.

What to do with all this

And so you’ve amassed a certain number of tasks that the developers were faced with, and examples of how those tasks were resolved. Now it’s time to categorize them. Separate the tasks into different folders, and as you make new choices these folders will gradually fill up.

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