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Designing for death and difficulty in Disc Room

"People usually do a lot of dying in games like this, so you might as well make it a part of the core gameplay," says J.W. Nijman, one of the developers behind the Independent Games Festival finalist Disc Room.

Joel Couture, Contributor

May 19, 2021

5 Min Read

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Independent Games Festival finalist Disc Room sees players dodging deadly blades in a strange ship, finding out bits of the ship's mysteries through surviving and dying. The game, published by Devolver Digital, is up for IGF's Excellence in Design award.

Developers Jan Willem Nijman and Kitty Calis spoke with Gamasutra about the cheesy sci-fi inspirations for Disc Room, making varied use of spinning blade traps, and making constant death into a means of progress.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Disc Room?

Jan Willem Nijman: I’m Jan Willem Nijman. Disc Room is a collaboration between Terri Vellmann, Doseone, Kitty Calis, and myself. We don’t really have clearly defined roles. It’s just the four of us and making games is such an interconnected thing, we kinda all made plans and decisions together.

As for my background, I co-founded and co-closed indie studio Vlambeer (we made games like Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing), and then I also worked on Minit together with Kitty (and Dom and Jukio) and now Disc Room!

Kitty Calis: I have worked on titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, indie game Minit, and most recently Disc Room. Each project has been so different which is really fun! 

How did you come up with the concept for Disc Room

Nijman: The premise in short: you step into the shoes of a brave scientist and explore a giant disc that appeared in orbit around Jupiter. Obviously, this poses one big question: Why? And then following up: Why is this disc filled with deadly sawblades? No spoilers, but there’s a deeper layer and larger mystery for the player to figure out. 

Calis: For the longest time, we wanted to put a spin on classic and cheesy sci-fi movies. Some are just too good...everything from Cube to Sphere to Logan’s Run to Silent Running - you name it, we love it! You know when you're watching a sci-fi movie, and the protagonist enters an alien environment with no idea what's going on, we kind of wanted to put that into a video game.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Calis: All the classics from Game Maker to MS Paint, and Photoshop to Maya, including Ableton and muffled mouth sounds. It’s all there. Not to forget: lots of notepad and pen and paper, too.

What drew you to the concept of Disc Room after working on Minit? Do you feel it was a big shift, or that there were similarities you liked between the two?

Calis: In Minit, the timer counts down instead of up. That’s kind of a difference! Just kidding, they’re actually kinda similar. Both Minit and Disc Room are made with restrictions and only use a few buttons. All of those things are big factors, including more minimalist game design. 

What thoughts go into creating complex rooms filled with discs for players to avoid? How do you keep creating new challenges with these spinning blades?

Calis: I think it’s important to keep the experience fresh throughout. Disc Room isn’t a linear game; it’s more of an open map you get to explore. By giving players multiple paths to take, you also give them multiple options. If it’s too challenging, they can always explore in a different direction and with that, coming from sci-fi, there’s a lot to say for adding a bit of mystery in the mix too. 

With death happening so easily and frequently, how do you keep the player from getting frustrated? What do you do to keep them engaged despite constant failure?

Calis: Disc Room is not a game about survival, it’s a game about dying. You usually want to avoid death, but in Disc Room it’s the only way to progress, and that sometimes requires dying in really unique and mysterious ways.

Nijman: Once we figured out that death wasn’t a bad thing in our game, that just opened up all the possibilities. Dying is how you navigate the rooms, how you unlock new abilities, how you fill in your discovery log. It was a really powerful realization. People usually do a lot of dying in games like this, so you might as well make it a part of the core gameplay.

What ideas went into creating the extra tasks and mysteries within the game? What drew you to add these? 

Nijman: It’s inherent to the genre. You can’t put a giant disc in orbit around Jupiter without spicing it up! We definitely didn’t want to make a game that only challenged your reflexes; it should also really capture the experience of being an explorer, a brave scientist, and slowly losing your hope and sanity.

What thoughts went into making the visuals stand out when you're one character dealing with (arguably) one trap type?

Calis: Since it’s such high-adrenaline gameplay, being super legible and clear to the player was the number one priority. Having two golden rules definitely helped:

1 - Backgrounds can be fun, but should never distract.
2 - Dying always (and with that I mean ALWAYS) needs to feel fair.

Nijman: It helped a lot that the fixed camera setup makes everything so clear. One thing we love is the death screen: you see exactly how hard it got (the current amount of discs) and what killed you (the bloody disc). No need for interface; we reserve that for the overarching goals and your friends’ leaderboards.

This and Minit are, arguably, high-pressure games that demand speed and skill. What is it about designing games like this that appeals to you as developers?

Nijman: Both games are about being in exciting, high-stakes situations! While Minit was more about learning to deal with pressure and accepting that sometimes it’s fine to smell the flowers and say tomorrow is another day, Disc Room is more about grit and curiosity. What they also have in common is that they both feel more intimidating than they actually are: stress in a game should never equal real life stress, it should be exciting and invigorating!

Disc Room also has highly detailed accessibility settings, allowing players to customize everything from goal difficulty to disc speed to the color of their blood. We want everyone to be able to get a disc to the face at their own pace!

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