Nobody Saves the World sees players take on the role of the titular Nobody, a featureless sprite with the uncanny ability to change their shape at will. That inherent skill gives players the freedom to take on a variety of forms as they see fit and change between them at any given point, presenting the team at Guacamelee! developer Drinkbox Studios the rather daunting task of designing a game that both comfortably allows for and rewards that level of on-the-fly freedom and creativity.
According to Drinkbox Studios lead designer Ian Campbell, fine tuning the wide range of forms and abilities players can use throughout Nobody Saves the World took a careful level of attention and its own fair share of iteration. Sitting down with Game Developer, Campbell shared a look at how those core mechanics evolved from first pitch to to the game's eventual release and how the team at Drinkbox approached designing for many potential combinations of abilities and forms without overwhelming themselves or their players.
Game Developer: Can you explain Nobody Saves The World's form mechanic in a nutshell? What was the elevator pitch, and what sold you on the idea?
Ian Campbell: In Nobody Saves the World, the player has access to a large roster of forms (eventually over 15), each with their own abilities (around 80 total). Forms can be customized to use the abilities from other forms, and players can swap between forms at any time.
It’s exciting because it means we have tons of meaningful rewards to constantly hand out, and players have plenty of freedom to create their own powerful, customized forms. As a designer it was a fun challenge to not only create those possibilities, but also the conditions that would encourage players to actually use them.
How did you conceptualize the mechanic and iterate on it throughout development? How did it morph and crystallize as production marched forward?
At first we thought changing forms and swapping abilities would be a rare, deliberate event, so we only allowed it at save points. The idea was, players would arrive at a dungeon (or other large challenge), decide on the loadout they needed to complete it, and then be committed to their choice until they won or died -- discrete phases of planning and execution.
We soon found a number of problems with that for our game. For one, it made things slower and more frustrating -- players were locked into bad choices for a long time, and it could take several long iterations of playing and dying to find the perfect build. It also made our rewards less exciting -- in a game where new forms and abilities are constantly handed out, it was annoying to wait until a save point to try out freshly-earned rewards. By that point, many players forgot they even had something new to try, and entire abilities or forms would languish, unused.
Over the course of production, we steadily relaxed the restrictions around form swapping and customization. First it could be done anywhere outside of dungeons. Then anywhere at all, but with a cooldown. Eventually it could be done anywhere, freely and endlessly. We even increased the number of abilities that could be equipped at once to maximize the customization possibilities.
It was a process of moving away from that aspect of the original vision, to arrive at something that better suited the game’s strengths of constant rewards and free experimentation. There are still a few places that make the player commit to a build, but they’re a rare special challenge and not the default state of the game.
What challenges did you face implementing and balancing that tapestry of forms and abilities? Was there a specific form that proved particularly fiddly?
The first challenge was developing a system where forms could use each others’ abilities, in a way that didn’t explode the budget by requiring new animations for every form whenever we created a new move. Ultimately, we decided every ability would be conveyed by three distinct poses that are common to every form. When an ability is used, art and effects are layered on top of the forms as they play one of these key poses.
The three poses being used in attacks
Another challenge was communicating the behaviors of abilities. Players can’t be expected to remember how all 80 work, so we did our best to make the abilities and their descriptions as straightforward as possible. A lot of effort also went into making the icons communicate their ability at a glance -- or if that wasn’t possible, to be distinct and memorable instead.
While balancing so many forms and abilities was a challenge, status effects were even more difficult to balance due to how we initially implemented them. For a long time, status-building abilities would add a flat build to the player’s attacks -- for instance, an ability that adds +15 poison build to all attacks. This made it almost impossible to tune status effects so they felt good -- strong attacks would kill enemies before the status was applied, and forms whose playstyle was built around statuses would have to be extremely weak, to make sure the status had time to build properly. Eventually we added a multiplier to each ability that gave them a bonus or penalty to how quickly they build status effects. With that, we gained much more freedom in tuning both status effects and abilities.
As they level up, players can unlock new forms and abilities, allowing them to step into the shoes of everything from Rats, Rangers and Bodybuilders to Slugs and even an Egg. It's fair to say the system has plenty of variety and depth, but how did you ensure players wouldn't feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of pathways and upgrades available to them?
With so many forms and abilities, overwhelming players was a major concern. We focused on keeping things simple (like the ability descriptions and icons), as well as limiting choices to a small number of options and teaching every new element slowly as they are introduced.
For example: most forms have four abilities total, but they only start with access to two. To unlock the third and fourth abilities, the player has to complete simple form "quests" -- little challenges that teach the basics of the abilities. Once the player’s comfortable using the limited version of the form, we unlock a new ability for that form with its own quests, and the cycle repeats. We also make sure not to give the player more than 1-2 form quests when starting to use a form, and try to have no more than 3-4 form quests at any one time.
F-Rank Rat with only one quest, vs B-Rank Rat with 4 quests
The rest of the game works broadly the same way -- players have a while to get used to simply playing with forms and quests before we introduce customization. After that, players have a decent amount of time to freely explore customization before we start challenging them to use it in demanding ways. Past versions of the game introduced concepts at a much faster pace, but generally overwhelmed playtesters (and ourselves!)
What did you knock out of the park where forms are concerned? Let's hear a rousing success story from your time in the development trenches.
From the very beginning I think we had a great handle on making the different forms feel unique, and maintaining their identity despite them being so customizable.
Even though most of a form’s abilities can be swapped out, every form has one passive and one active ‘signature’ attack that can’t be removed. Signature attacks are unique to the form, which let us create custom animations and specialized behaviors that sell the form’s identity, and thankfully don’t need to be supported on other forms. The locked passive ability, while shareable, acts like a rule that’s always enabled while using that form, which helps associate the behavior to the form’s identity.
We adjusted many other knobs in this regard. A form’s speed, size, stats, and attack types are all important factors that help them feel distinct. Importantly, we made sure the values of these stats were kept far apart -- for instance, a form’s speed might be 60, 90 or 110, but we don’t have forms with speed 63, 66 and 69 -- so changes are felt when they’re present.
World collision sizes kept to distinct values
Finally, we added special characteristics that are only used by a few forms each, to further create elements that make them distinct. Only the Slug has a slime trail that slows enemies, only the Turtle and Mermaid can swim, only the Horse is blinding fast, only the Zombie is constantly losing health, only the Ghost and Dragon can fly, only a fraction of the forms are small enough to fit inside tiny spaces, and so on.
There are over 15 forms and 80 abilities that can be mixed and matched on-screen together thanks to the magic of online co-op. What design and animation philosophies did you use to help players easily keep track of their character amid the chaos?
Our approach here was pretty straightforward! The player is usually in the center of the screen, and the player’s attacks render on top of almost everything, which ideally lets the player know where they are most of the time.
In cases where that fails (for example, when the screen is just filled with enemies), a player indicator appears to make the player’s position very clear. The number of enemies necessary to show the indicator is quite high in single player, but it’s much lower in co-op, since players are no longer locked to the center of the screen.