Combat, co-op, and proc gen: Inside the design of Remnant: From the Ashes

Remnant: From the Ashes design director John Pearl breaks down what makes Gunfire Games' Souls-like shooter stand out from the crowd.

If the pitch "Dark Souls with guns" sounds a little too "X meets Y" to you, that's probably fair. But Gunfire Games' Remnant: From the Ashes is more than Dark Souls with guns. It's Dark Souls with guns but also co-op, a spooky post-apocalyptic setting, and a unique take on loot that helps it stand out in 2019's crowded game market and become a commercial success.

Remnant: From the Ashes design director John Pearl recently dropped by the GDC Twitch channel for a chat about the process of making Remnant: from the Ashes, and shared insight into why the team relied on procedural tilesets and unique loot to make a unique co-op experience. 

Frame-by-frame game feel adjustments

When discussing Remnant: From the Ashes' gun-focused combat, Pearl freely admitted the first thing the team did was look at successful games and study, second by second, how those games' combat worked. How many frames were in the roll? How fast does it take to aim down the sights? 

"I think you can make a shooter pretty easily but making a shooter that feels good definitely takes a lot of time," Pearl said. "I guess we thought over frame counts like pretty meticulously like throughout the course of the development, going like ‘ah this is just a little too long here.’ or ‘this is quick, this feels good.’"

"I think that’s the biggest thing from a player standpoint, like making sure that the player is feeling that their character is doing what they want them to do at any given point, because you don’t want them to feel like ‘well I told them to do this and they didn’t do this so it’s the game’s fault.’ I think a lot of people, when they make a responsive game, they realize ‘oh I died cause it’s something I did. The game did what I told it to do and I died.’"

Pearl also dug into the need to make sure enemies were responsive to how players chose to attack them, and that the game (which would be frequently running over a network) properly registered where and how players were hitting them.

"If you’re going through a shooting gallery and guys aren’t responding when you shoot them, it just doesn’t feel good," Pearl explained. "You want to see that they’re taking hits and they’re kind of snapping, the shots have an impact to them. A lot of the characters will have specific directional impacts so if you shoot them in the shoulder they kind of flail back. It’s getting that moment to moment...responsiveness on the enemies to make it feel like 'hey that felt good.'"

"It feels like a little reward every time you shoot them. I think giving players that constant feedback is key to making shooters stay fresh and keep them interested."

Balancing for 1-3 player co-op

Another big hook for Remnant: From the Ashes is a three-player co-op system that allows three players to team up against the game's fearsome monsters. When asked if designing for co-op just meant diving into the game's .json files and multiplying all the numbers by 3, Pearl laughed and explained it's a bit more complicated than that.

"We have an AI director that will come into play, so it will spawn specific creatures. [It'll say] ‘hey there’s three players, so this has more of a likelihood to spawn this type of creature'...because this guy is gonna be tougher than the guys that would spawn if it were just one player."

There are other ways that scaling the game from one to three players proves to be not a simple linear equation. For instance in boss fights, increasing the difficulty means more than just increasing the boss's health -- it means creating roles for players to take in the fight, similar to how MMO bosses function. "It forces players to -- especially in multiplayer games -- to kind of come up with jobs and or a focus," Pearl explained.

"[For example], ‘hey I’ll handle these guys, you focus on the boss,'" he said. "It adds a lot of strategy to coordination with your team to be able to say, ‘hey I’m going to do this over here, you do this.’ That was another major reason for doing that during multiplayer."

Those extra enemies also serve another purpose -- ensuring players can, during a play session, properly maintain their supply of ammo. More monsters means more things to shoot, and especially if those monsters have weak spots, there'll be plenty of wasted shots. To keep all players swimming in lead, Pearl explained the extra monsters serve as resource delivery tools for larger encounters. 

"Definitely one of the challenges we ran into over time of how do you get ammo in the player’s hands. I’d say that’s one of the things that changed the most in the last six months is we playtested more and more of just figuring out like, how [do players] get ammo in a locked in fight?"

Fine-tuning procedurally-generated levels

Gunfire Games has gone out of its way to make sure Remnant stands apart from the Dark Souls games it's often compared to. The biggest distinction is how its levels and "runs" are built. Instead of the game having a fixed set of levels players can master, the game instead generates unique levels with different events and enemies based on an algorithm and pre-set tiles. 

Those tiles were a particular point of focus for Pearl and his colleagues, since they were the foundation for making sure every run felt unique, but not confusing. Avoiding player confusion became a watchword while iterating on these tiles, as Pearl said the preset buildings and locations could sometimes loop players back in on themselves with some regularity. 

"When we were lying down tiles sometimes they were almost too complicated, where you would come into a building, go downstairs, go up three flights of stairs, come out high above an area and then backtrack around to the bottom of the building again," he said.

"There are actually some buildings like that and they work really well. There’s other ones where it just felt like you were lost in this space cause there wasn’t a good visual indicator. A lot of that was kind of just playing through it and saying ‘this isn’t really feeling right’ or that the visual flow isn’t working."

Player rewards, and how easy or hard it was to find them, became an obvious way to help tailor movement through these spaces. "[We needed to make] sure the system had enough to pull from to make it interesting," he said. "So there’s tons of rings and trinkets you can put on so it really encourages players to do that as well as picking up the scrap which is what they use to craft." 

"I think that was the key thing too, finding ways that encourage players to move through the tiles, that they knew where they were going, but also explore all the nooks and crannies."

For more insights on what makes the world of Remnant: From the Ashes so particularly unique, you can watch the full conversation with Pearl in the video below: 

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