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An Impromptu Q&A with Jason Rohrer


Following my review of Inside a Star-filled Sky, I had a chance to talk with the developer, Jason Rohrer about some aspects of the game. He answered some of the questions I had and was able to provide some insights into the game's design. The following are some excerpts of the chat that I had with him, edited into Q&A format.

Q: Any survival tips?

A: The general idea (at least how I approach playing the game---there are many ways) is to "bootstrap" your next power up with your current one.

Yeah, entering power-ups from level 118 is really hard if you're carrying a pea-shooter (because of the difficulty modifier). So, you want to enter your NEXT power-up pick up before you get down to a pea-shooter. I.e., start working on an even better weapon while you still have a pretty good one.

And when you enter enemies, everything is inverted in terms of the kinds of power-ups you see. High powers are likely to be found, while weak powers are rare (when you enter yourself, high powers are rare). There should be no "quick fix" for an enemy. You need to think about the best trade-off for that enemy given its position. If it's down a long corridor with distance and bounce (hard!), give it spread. Even high spread isn't so bad if an enemy is down a long corridor.

Of course, you can also enter power-ups inside enemies to weaken them before picking them up, but there's also a difficulty modifier increase when you do that.

Bottom line: there's supposed to be no "trick" to grind you way through the game. It's not like, "Oh, all you have to do is _____ and _____, and you'll easily get to level 300." There WERE those grinding exploits in the past, but this is version 16, and I've fixed all of those by adjusting the design.The only way to get to level 300, really, is to be really good at the game. Current record is 349, by the way... :)

Q: The game has a very unique concept, but I had some trouble in later levels.

A: the other unfortunate truth about an infinite game that never ends is this: you stop playing EVERY game eventually, right? Well, why would you ever stop playing this game except when you're finally sick of it? So as great as it might be at first, it will always end up leaving a bad taste in your mouth. That's where art (a truly infinite game!) meets engineering and design. My job as the designer was to extend the time it takes for you to get sick of it.

Level 118 is a pretty long session.

Q: I really do like the idea of it, but it is indeed more of an "art game" than something you can just play indefinitely like Geometry Wars or something.

A: Ah, yeah, but Geometry Wars kills you eventually in every game. And then you start over. Over and over. That is indeed an addictive game design that you can play over and over for the rest of your life! There's something about "a chance to start fresh and do EVEN BETTER next time" that is like interactive heroin. (Tetris, Pac Man, even Spelunky).

I was intentionally trying to design an endless game that DIDN'T use that pattern. What happens, it turns out, is that you get up to your current failure point (level 118 or whatever) and then just hover there.... maybe forever.

Though it is less addicting, maybe it also wastes a lot less of your time? Because in Geometry Wars, you basically "hover" at that same failure point forever, but it's interspersed with playing the easy parts (that you've already mastered) over and over in between visits to your current failure point. It was definitely something that I thought about a lot as I designed this game.

Q: Ever consider something like a shield power up, or maybe a bullet effect that makes your bullets block enemies', within reason so you're not using a rapid fire spreadshot of invincibility?

A: I tried to avoid power-ups that would really permit skill-free play over the long haul. It's possible to build up some over-powered combos of 3, but the powers always decay eventually. The moments that REQUIRE skill, where you actually pull it off, are the main sources of drama in the game.

While this doesn't change my opinion that the game gets somewhat "imbalanced" towards the higher levels, it's nice to get some insight into what went into developing it. It's not meant to be the next Tetris or whatnot that will keep you hooked forever, but more an interesting idea put into game form by a very creative developer.


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