Aligning Special Abilities with the Game's Core

A look at the design motivations and the reasoning behind the overhaul of MODSORK's power-up system. How the implementation of gesture-activated special abilities improves the game on visceral and strategic layers, as well as its conceptual coherence.

MODSORK's system for special abilities/power-ups has undergone some large changes recently. The objective is to have the system reflect and reinforce the core of the game as well as making activating those abilities more viscerally satisfying. Basic gameplay works like this: The player controls two avatars individually in an arena. they can be connected with a laser, and with that laser the player can zap  endlessly spawning geometric shapes for points while avoiding collision with them (c.f. trailer).

How it used to work:
Previously, the player activated power-ups by zapping them on the playing field in the same way they zap the shapes:

triggering bomb by zapping it with laser









Additionally they had one ability that they triggered with a special input action, by holding both fire buttons at the same time until a paralyzing blast was released. Activating this ability required sacrificing some of their multiplier. The idea was to turn the multiplier into a resource and allow weaker players to use the ability more often if they needed it, at the cost of getting a high score.

Why that wasn't ideal:
This trade-off incentivized NOT using this cool ability that I had designed. That's not very satisfying for me as a designer and, more importantly, makes for a less interesting experience for the players: This game should be balanced so the best performance can be produced by using all abilities the game has to offer, ideally in novel ways and combinations. Cool abilities should be more than a crutch for weaker players.

Also, triggering the other abilities presented the players with a very similar challenge as dealing with the shapes does. It was all about navigating the arena in any way that gets their avatars on either side of the power-up and pulling the trigger, while not bumping into anything dangerous.


How it works now and why:

Now players trigger all special powers by performing a special gesture with their game controllers, similarly to many fighting games of old. Pulling off these inputs represents a challenge, but is also rewarding on multiple levels:

  • In a game about mastery, pulling off a difficult move will be rewarding in itself for the target audience, as long as the triggered effect is cool and powerful.
  • The required gestures are physically satisfying, they're not awkward finger breakers.

spinning round and round









  • Unlike the super moves of old fighting games, the input isn't stored in an invisible buffer until completed, but is instead directly reflected in the game state as visually pleasing movement. If your fingers are doing a full circle, so are your avatars. In that sense the abilities are perhaps more like a combo.

triggering the bomb with input gesture









The number of uses for these abilities are limited. Players still zap power-ups that spawn in the arena, but instead of triggering them immediately, they pick up an ability charge that they can use at any time and anywhere in the arena.

On a conceptual level, MODSORK is all about mastery of its challenging controls. The controls are the game. Enabling players to do cool stuff with complex gestures gives this core of the game more depth.

Consequences, Compromises and Challenges:

In MODSORK, if one of your avatars dies, you can revive him by zapping a special reviver-shape with a short laser spark. That's a risky move, because you need to get very close without colliding with it. So being able do AoE damage instead by zapping a bomb power-up in the arena used to give players an alternative way to revive their avatar. This came in particularly handy when the reviver-shape was stuck in a cloud of other dangerous shapes. This safe revival option is gone if they need to perform a gesture with both avatars to trigger the bomb.

There's two remedies for this: The reviver-shape's movement needs to be less random so it will never get stuck in a particular area for too long. More relevant to the abilities system, however, is allowing players to trigger a weak version of abilities, even when one of their avatars is down, by zapping a power-up in the arena with their short spark.

Granted, this compromises the purity of the system: There's now both gesture-activation AND zapping-activation again. But it's much more consistent than before: now all abilities can be triggered both ways. It also offers several neat advantages:

  • The game is difficult enough, allowing players to trigger abilities even when they only have one avatar left seems fair.
  • It creates a new interesting strategic choice: Do players pick up the power-ups in order to gain ability charges, or do they leave some in the arena as (weaker) tools for an emergency (losing one avatar)?
  • If power-ups are useful in near-death one-avatar scenarios, they can provide satisfying moments of relief when they spawn just in time to help the player out of a seemingly hopeless situation.

The new system does come with added challenges: Before, only the ability effects needed cool sounds and visuals. Now I need to tweak and polish the actions that trigger the abilities, as well, so the gestures themselves look, sound and feel cool. I'm pretty happy with what's already there, for now, but as an example, doing a full orbit around an avatar currently feels a little slow. Altering that speed affects normal player moves, too, so it's tricky.

Also, the new triggering gestures require a lot more space and time which needs to be taken into account in balancing, in wave design and arena design.

Final Thoughts
So I'm confident that this new system is an improvement in three areas: Visceral experience, strategic depth and conceptual coherence. For this game, the latter matters to me quite a bit, as I explained in my blog post about the game's menus. I haven't tested this new system with players yet, though. It will be playable at Gamescom for the first time (Indie Arena Hall 10.1 stand A-031), I hope I'll see some of you there and we can chat about what you think of it! :)

MODSORK is currently on Steam Greenlight.
Also, big thanks to Gerald Hiller and
Benoît Faguet, with both of whom I had the pleasure to discuss the game in depth at AMaze and who've been a big influence on the new power-up system! 

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