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Channeling calm and creating new ways to play in Rain World: Downpour

"In the end, you're still just a little creature wandering around in a world that was never made for you."

Joel Couture, Contributor

April 13, 2023

13 Min Read
A sepia-toned piece of art from the game Rain World: Downpour, depicting a city of dead machinery against a cloudy sky.

Rain World: Downpour returns to a harsh, beautiful world, giving players an array of soft, cute creatures called slugcats and tasking them with trying to survive in a world that’s extremely hostile to them.

Game Developer spoke with the team at VIDEOCULT to talk about how they designed the abilities of their new playable slugcats (and how they changed over six years of development), what thoughts went into the world design to incorporate those new powers, and the ideas that went into creating a calming mode so you can appreciate the flora and fauna of a game that is usually fraught with danger.

It's been almost six years since the original Rain World came out. What got you interested in creating DLC for the game after so much time?

Andrew Marrero, lead programmer: Development of Downpour’s content actually started only months after the release of the original Rain World, and it was clear that there was a lot of eagerness from the community to see the world, story, and ideas that Rain World presented be expanded upon. This DLC adds a tremendous amount of new content, more than doubling the size of the original game’s world, so its development cycle was quite a long and involved ordeal. So, in the end, it’s not surprising that it wound up taking close to as long to develop as the original game took to make.

What thoughts were going through your head when you set out to create this DLC? How did you want to build upon the ruthless world of the original game?

Marrero: A big goal of this DLC was to explore the passage of time. The original game’s world covered a lot of ground and felt sufficiently “complete,” so a big worry was that expanding upon it too much would cause it to feel bloated or disorganized or cause it to lose its recognizable structure. However, the nature of the events happening in the game’s storyline makes it clear that it is a very volatile world that has already gone through many catastrophic upheavals and will continue to be subjected to major environmental deterioration moving into the future.

Thus, the core concept became to introduce new characters that existed in iterations of the world far in the past or far in the future. So, instead of merely expanding the world in space, we created a transformative world that explores how many of these shared spaces evolved over time.

Outside of that, the DLC also introduces many new game modes like Co-op, Expedition, and Safari, and our goals there were to introduce many new ways to interface with the game and offer novel methods to re-explore these environments in new gameplay contexts.

Rain World Downpour Screenshot

The original game's world was already fairly expansive, yet this one is somehow larger. What thoughts went into creating new, compelling places to explore and into making them fit with the feel and themes of the original game?

Willburd, lead level designer: Beneath the skin of Rain World's regions is always the idea of being a small clueless creature lost in an expanse of machinery and structures from a long-dead era. So, the core inspiration for much of the game's regions is pretty flexible. You can see a lot of that when it comes to region mod content.

Much of what we did involved asking questions that came from various story implications. Earlier in the timeline, the world is different in some critical ways, mostly because a major story event hadn't happened yet. So, things that would have been destroyed are now intact. As well, we had to ask the question of where the world itself was going. Once every story was over and the world itself was breathing its final breaths, what would it all look like? These were some of the core feelings we wanted to explore as we expanded things already present in the game.

We certainly had a lot of fun with things the community had speculated on for years as well—places we've seen in the background and things we knew were inevitable. Things like visiting the city you see in the background of a certain other region, or how time would drastically change another region in both a narrative and gameplay way.

One region, in particular, creates more questions for the world instead of sticking purely to Rain World's foundations, and that's because it explores beyond the borders of the world we've come to understand. There's one particular screen where you look back toward well... everything, and realize just how far you've gone from it all. But the sheer presence of the world still towers over you.

In the end, you're still just a little creature wandering around in a world that was never made for you. I think that's the core of the game's setting: making you feel small, regardless of if that means scale, understanding, or even relevance to any larger story.

Rain World Downpour Co-op Screenshot

What appealed to you about adding co-op? What challenges did this add to the development of the DLC? What did you have to do to make it fit well with the original world and game?

Garrakx, creator of Jolly Co-op: The co-op was planned but never finished in the base game. I really wanted my friends to play the game, but I knew they wouldn't enjoy it alone due to how harsh Rain World could be. I was inspired by New Super Mario Bros since it has one-screen 2D platform co-op. The most difficult task was the "easy difficulty" mode, funnily enough. The game was programmed to expect the first player always to exist, and in this mode, players 2-4 can continue playing and saving in the next checkpoint even when the main player dies. So, this is what gave me the most headaches.

You have also added many different types of slugcats that significantly change the gameplay. What ideas went into their design? Can you walk us through how you designed some of their powers, or tell us what thought process led to their abilities?

Marrero: I think the original base ideas for the five new slugcats were an aquatic slugcat, a slugcat specializing in spears, a slugcat with a high mobility jumping ability, a pacifist slugcat, and a slugcat focused around food. How these evolved into their current versions was an iterative process that went through many changes over the course of development and playtesting.

To give some examples, Spearmaster’s original set of abilities was that they could hold three spears (one in each hand, plus one in their stomach), dislodge spears from walls, and only gain food by stabbing things with spears. They could not create their own spears at this point; they gained food somehow by stabbing something with any random ordinary spear they picked up off the ground.

Some months later, the Hunter slugcat was added to the game, which led to us re-evaluating the design of Spearmaster’s abilities. Hunter had the ability to hold three spears as well (one in each hand and one on their back), so the Spearmaster’s set of abilities was feeling especially redundant. To differentiate them from Hunter, we moved Spearmaster’s concept away from just some slugcat which specializes in spears, and instead honed in on the “using spears to eat” concept. Thus, their three-spear limit was removed and they gained the ability to create their own spears with the new restriction that they could only feed using the spears they created. This sufficiently altered their playstyle to feel unique from Hunter’s.

Gourmand started out as basically a Gacha game slugcat. Besides being able to weaponize their body weight, their only notable ability in their original implementation was the ability to pull randomly-selected objects from their stomach. During playtesting, however, this ability wound up rarely being utilized by players. The lack of control over the item pulled meant rarely receiving an item that was applicable to the player’s current situation. Additionally, trying to brute force getting an item you needed was tedious and detrimental with the time limit placed on the player by the rain.

This led to the introduction of Gourmand’s crafting mechanic. With crafting, even if the random item ability gave bad pulls, those useless items could still be salvaged by clever use of crafting to repurpose the items into something better or more applicable. This also put the focus of Gourmand’s skill set on crafting and demoted the random item ability to a secondary or tertiary priority, which in practice gave a much more enjoyable playstyle over random item pulls being their core mechanic.

Rain World Downpour Screenshot

How did you design the game world to suit so many different slugcat abilities and give players various ways of overcoming an obstacle?

Marrero: To ease the complication of this, all of the new slugcats are equally or more mobile than the slugcats from the original game so that we could have a baseline assurance that if the original slugcats could traverse a certain terrain, the new ones would be able to as well. However, there is one exception with Artificer, who has the restriction that they explode while submerged underwater. This makes underwater sections that are normally traversable by any of the other slugcats impossible to traverse with the Artificer without lethal consequences.

This lead to some interesting decisions for world changes with Artificer, like placing them earlier in the timeline when water was less prevalent in the world, and implementing “water fluxing” machinery in the Drainage System region, which gradually breaks down and stops working as the timeline progresses.

Many of the new regions added in the DLC are designed with a specific slugcat’s abilities in mind and normally require heavy use of their abilities to be able to traverse it. Interestingly though, there are a few of these regions that we still left open to be explored by some other slugcats as a challenge for adventurous players. For example, the Submerged Superstructure region largely requires Rivulet’s underwater breathing abilities to traverse. However, a skilled player can navigate through it with other slugcats by making precise and strategic use of Jetfish and Bubble Weed plants throughout the region. Similarly, areas normally requiring Artificer’s explosion jump ability can be navigated instead with the skillful use of grapple worm creatures sprinkled throughout the area.

You continue to balance a feeling of terrifying danger, calming tranquility, ever-impending doom, and overwhelming cuteness. How do you dance across so many emotions with Rain World: Downpour?

Marrero: This was a core philosophy of the original game and one that we wanted to maintain when creating the new content in Downpour. The slugcat’s day-to-day routine is one expected of a wild animal: hunt and track down food sources, avoid predators, and search out places of shelter for protection from the elements. The world the slugcat inhabits, however, is anything but typical. Unlike many other video games where the level design feels like it was specially constructed to cater to the main character’s abilities perfectly, everything in Rain World’s design eschews this entirely. Nothing in this world was made for you; it is larger than life, difficult to navigate and understand, hostile, unforgiving, endlessly mysterious, and constantly reminds you that you’re in a place you probably shouldn’t be.

Rain World’s designer has mentioned a metaphor of “a rat in Manhattan”, imagining what daily life might be like for a rat living in a busy city subway station. It’s a dangerous and unnatural environment, and the rat can’t even hope to grasp the bigger purpose of it. However, with exposure, endurance, and experimentation, it’s still an environment in which the rat can adapt and learn to thrive. Rain World seeks to replicate that vibe closely, and the mixed emotions elicited come naturally from this.

An image depicting the selection screen of the new Expedition Mode in Rain World: Downpour.

Rain World is already quite hard, but you have developed some things that are even harder, like Expedition Mode and Challenge Mode. How did you design elements that pushed players even harder than ever before?

Marrero: While there are certainly challenges in Challenge Mode that are designed for the sake of just being challenging, many of them are actually designed more to help adjust the players to the many difficulties of the game. Each challenge is a small pre-constructed arena that always uses the same starting configuration and has some objective for the player to complete within it. There is a lot of variety across the challenges, requiring the mastery of many different game mechanics, as well as gaining a good understanding of the creatures and items within the game in order to complete them.

With the confined and fixed nature of these areas, challenging the players in these controlled environments better prepares them for the more spontaneous challenges they’ll be pitted against throughout the story modes. In this way, Challenge Mode actually serves similar training and practice capabilities to what is offered by the rest of the arena game modes.

Lee Moriya, the creator of Expedition Mode: The goal with Expedition was to give players more reasons to do things they wouldn't otherwise go out of their way to do and to explore areas they may have missed whilst providing a new kind of challenging experience that rewards knowledge of the game and each player's own skill.

A big aspect of the mode is planning—compiling a list of challenges that complete multiple quest objectives at once, working out where you will need to go, finding where certain creatures or items can be found, and sorting out the routes you might take. It’s all as if you're really setting out on an Expedition.

A screenshot of the menu selection for Safari Mode in Rain World: Downpour.

You've likewise designed a calmer way to play: Safari Mode. What thoughts went into making something that goes a fair bit easier on the player while preserving the mood and feel of the game?

Marrero: Rain World’s “simulated ecosystem” has always been a big fascination for a lot of players, but it can be challenging to sit back and observe it while constantly under the pressure of survival, the threat of predators, and the looming time limit of the impending rain. After being captured in the jaws of a lizard, I always found a lot of fascination in just watching the “Game Over” sequence, with the lizard traveling halfway across the region to carry my corpse back to its home while other creatures joined in the fray to fight over my corpse and try to get their free meal. It was a moment of interaction removed, where I could just sit back and observe the ongoing lives of all the other creatures in this world.

Safari Mode largely started out this way: as purely a spectator mode. There was very limited interaction, and the mode was basically just a “screensaver” where you could safely teleport around the region, but beyond that, your only purpose was to observe the creatures wandering around and doing their thing.

On paper, this seemed to achieve the goal Safari Mode was setting out for. In execution, the game mode did feel very underwhelming and hollow. Thus, we went the ambitious extra step to allow the ability to take control over any of the creatures and play as them to add a lot more interactivity to the mode. This still removes the pressure and threat felt in story mode, as there is really no death penalty in Safari Mode. If the creature you are controlling dies, you merely switch back into observation mode and then can take over some other creature instead and continue with your safari experience.

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