Back to the Drawing Board

I was hoping that around this time of the month I'd be sharing the first public build of PARABOLA with the world. Instead, the opposite is taking place.

Having spent time working towards that release, several design flaws have made themselves very apparent. These were things I sort of saw coming, but  didn't want to jump the gun on - because there was no knowing until things started to get implemented.

To start, there will be no public alpha anytime soon. In order to make PARABOLA the game I want it to be, it will be necessary to take a few steps back and reexamine things.

I will use this post as an opportunity to elaborate on that and explore the next steps for the game's development. It also helps me compartmentalize a lot of the thoughts that are swarming in my head around this announcement.

What Went Wrong?

I'd like to highlight the design flaws that have manifested themselves at this early stage in development. These were issues I took early consideration of, but wanted to see implemented before making final judgements.

Speedy Platforming
During the early stages of PARABOLA's design I was focused largely on producing a methodically-paced game similar to Portal. This game would have a subdued narrative and feature very challenging puzzle mechanics based on physics.

When the ideas for narrative direction seemingly dried up, I was left wondering how else the game could hook players. The challenge of the puzzles was surely enough - but what if there was more to it? What if I added speedy platforming?

Originally, the design motivation behind this was to add urgency to the puzzles, forcing the player to learn by making decisions instead of trying to see the solution. However, it failed to address that and perhaps even exaggerated one of the more glaring issues with the game's pacing...

Resource Management
In PARABOLA, your only expendable resource is ammunition. My initial thought behind a majority of the game's challenge resided in the principle that ammo was limited. Certain puzzles needed to be done in a certain number of shots. Some of these puzzles would require more than 3 shots and I would account for that by providing players with ammo refills at strategic points in the level. This way, I figured, there was still an element of making shots count.

The first problem with this approach, is that it ultimately leads to frustration and puts a hamper on the trial and error process of learning the game. Unless these levels are to be completed in less than 10 or 20 seconds, the concept of having to restart a level over and over when you run out of ammo becomes irritating quickly.

Secondly, how was this going to work outside of level chambers - where the game's mechanics are still in play? Would the hub world feature unlimited ammo or some kind of strategic refills like individual levels have? The answer is still something I'm wrestling with.

In the original design I left a lot of room open for Player Upgrades. Mostly, because I initially wasn't really sure what kind of role I wanted them to play in the grand scheme of the game mechanics.

Were they going to be movement-based upgrades (such as double jump or dashing) that allowed the player to reach new heights or distances? Were they upgrades to the ARC, allowing the player to manipulate their shots in interesting ways?

I ended up settling on the latter approach. Movement upgrades put too much emphasis on platforming (and they're pretty lame in first-person, too). This was the death knell for platforming in this game - it just felt so lifeless.

The upgrades I have designed for the ARC are far too interesting to ignore - but almost every one of them puts a dagger into platforming and vindicates the methodical pacing the original design called for. PARABOLA really works best when players can be creative and learn by doing - and can take their time in doing that.

What's Changing?

Several solutions are being explored to address these design flaws. They primarily revolve around game flow and pacing, but also address challenge and progression.

Speedy platforming will be all but removed entirely from the game. Players will still have the ability to jump and will have opportunities to do so - just not in a platformy way, if that makes sense. Think of jumping as another way to move around the level. Crouching will also play a factor, as well.

Resource management will have to undergo a serious overhaul. I am not completely divorced from the concept of limited ammo adding necessary challenge, but I will have to find a more engaging way to do it. I am thinking of something that incentivizes taking less shots, while discouraging shooting like a madman. At first glance, this begins to look like a budget system, where left over shots can be used for some strategic purpose (but not essential to complete the game).

Upgrades will remain largely the same - but I want them to play more into the improved resource management system(s). I can't say if this is a 'store' system or something a little more linear like originally planned.

A narrative will be developed for the game. It will be a subtle, philosophical sci-fi story that helps pace the game out for those interested in exploring and learning more about the world the game takes place in. Several different narrative ideas were tried early on in the design process and some of them deserve a second look.

The idea behind these changes is to improve the flow of the game. I don't want players to get hung up on levels and have to reset and repeat themselves. I want the game to be challenging - but I do not want it to be frustratingly so. There should be a balance in the pacing and mechanics that allows people to learn from their mistakes and make immediate corrections.

There should also be other things to do not directly related to solving puzzle chambers. This is where story can pick up a lot of the slack, but also where the resource management systems can be made more engaging and rewarding to master.

It sucks that I have to write such a seemingly defeatist article. But that's not really the right perspective to have on this...

PARABOLA is in open development, meaning that every process is being shared. This is one of those processes - and it's much better for it to have occurred this early than in six months when we're staring down a late Spring launch window with much more content already developed. You're witnessing a prototype coming to fulfillment and these are the growing pains. We can't fully realize the implications of our ideas until they're manifest in the real world - this is something true to life, in general.

The core concept of PARABOLA as a physics-based shooting puzzler remains. When I distill my motivations for making this game down to its essential parts, there a few things missing and a few things that don't seem to belong. Within this are many lessons on game design that are worth highlighting in our journey to making this game!

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for updates on the game and the site (which I've reduced to just the landing page and a blog, for now).

Until then!

Michael DeLally