2016’s iteration of Doom was a visceral and thrilling experience, centering around a combat loop that had me on edge from start to finish. Despite all the differences such as double jumping (or jumping at all), weapon and character upgrades and the addition of an actual story, Doom 2016 still felt like classic Doom, reimagined. This poses several questions, Doom 2016 and classic Doom aren’t poles apart but they’re still very different mechanically. So how mechanically similar does a game have to be for it to feel the same? And also Does a games feeling come from its mechanics, or can we trace it right down to the thought process of the player? Lastly, can it benefit us to know what we want our games to feel like?
Downwell is a downward scrolling platformer/shooter, designed by Ojiro Fumoto and published by Devolver Digital in 2015. You could probably list a million differences between Doom and Downwell, but the striking similarity between them is (no it’s not the first two letters) the way they feel to play. I found this particularly perplexing at first, as Downwell was far more mechanically similar to Spelunky, but in terms of raw feeling Spelunky and Downwell very different. So let’s take a deeper look at Doom (the 2016 version, but most concepts will probably apply to both Dooms) and Downwell to see where the similarities lie.
Push Forward Combat
If you were following Id software around the time of Doom’s development, then you may have heard the phrase “push forward combat” being knocked about. It effectively means that they want to pull you towards enemies, rather than have you sit behind walls waiting for your health to comeback. A large part of the way they achieve this is through level design (that’s for another article written by someone a little more qualified than me), another part of this is enemy AI (which I feel I can talk about so I’ll get into it later), but both of these wouldn’t be nearly as effective without an actual incentive. As you can imagine, getting close and personal with something that’s going to kill you will probably take some persuasion. Id’s solution to this was to introduce the glory kill mechanic, an animated take down (the good type) that not only gives you a massive ego boost but also replenishes your health. Combine this mechanic with mostly close range encounters and you’ll find that you’re never too far away from rearranging the body parts of a Demon.
Downwell does a similar thing of drawing you towards enemies, but the incentives and mechanics used to do so aren’t so similar. For starters, doing the Mario stomp on most enemies will insta-kill them (I suppose that’s sorta similar to glory kills), which, in most cases, is far more efficient than shooting and will replenish your ammo without having to touch the ground. Another incentive is provided by the Gem High mechanic, which grants you more damage as long as you keep collecting gems, which are mostly harvested from enemies. Wait around too long and you lose the gem high, encouraging you to keep pushing
forward downwards. If that’s not enough incentive, then the laws of physics will always be there to pull you down towards more enemies with little provocation. This is a good example of how very different mechanics are used to achieve similar results. Now as promised, let’s talk about how enemies come into this.
The enemies in a game can drastically alter the combat loop in a game. Bland enemies that simply pop out from cover or stay in a single location can make for a repetitive combat loop, where the player imitates their behaviour by sitting behind walls, waiting for the enemy to show themselves. Both Doom and Downwell ditch that approach to enemy design, by throwing back to the days of relatively simple enemies with distinct behaviours. Enemies are often very easy to manipulate in isolation, but will pose more of a challenge in large groups due to complimentary behaviours. An example of this in Doom is the Hell Knight and Imp combination, a combo first found in the Foundry (an early stage of the game). The Hell Knight will chase players down forcing you to run away, due to its powerful melee attacks, while the Imps lob fireballs at you. This deadly combination is most effective on the higher difficulties, where imps use prediction to throw projectiles into your path, putting the emphasis on your footwork as well as your aim. Combinations like this can be seen in Downwell, bats will attack you from above, and as you can’t shoot upwards (without the use of a powerup), running away is probably the best option, while the red orb blocks your path, encouraging you to either find a new one or use alternative solutions. These combinations, as well as countless others is what makes these games so similar to play, players constantly have to be creating priorities and strategies to succeed as well as taking full advantage of the movement mechanics.
Strategic Thinking vs Impulsive Reactions
All action oriented games have a ratio. A ratio of demand on your impulsive reactions and fine motor skills, to demand on your strategic thinking. Games like 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront rely more on your reaction times, with games like Piano Tiles being based entirely on impulses. Strategy games, as the name implies put the bulk of their demand on your strategic thinking, with games like Starcraft mixing in reaction times and the ability to rapidly execute plans. The key to recreating the way something feels is to know what your brain is doing at the time. Is it creating long term plans or short term plans? does it have to rely on impulses or does it have time to think through each situation? perhaps communication with other players is a factor? Doom and Downwell both sit in a similar position, where the impulses are important, however, they will only get you so far. As mentioned earlier, prioritisation, strategy and thinking ahead are the key to success in both of these games. The strategies you make are rarely as complex the strategies you’ll devise in Age of Empires or Chess, but they’re still an important part of the experience. I believe that a game with longevity will always encourage strategy, no matter how primitive (another topic for another article), Doom and Downwell both achieve this through good enemy design and combat that moves at a blistering pace.
Don’t Stand Still
All of this culminates into two experience that have you constantly on the move, all while you’re planning your next one. With all the different components of the game, such as the enemies, the weapons and the incentives, working in harmony to keep the player from standing still. The result is two combat loops that look different on the surface, but revolve around a similar core.
Why is this Important
So why focus on a games feeling anyway? For consistency, to make sure your game feels right from start to finish, but that’s a given. Thinking of games like this is important because feelings are the most flexible source of inspiration. Downwell is an excellent example of how you’d put a game that feels like Doom onto a mobile device, in the same way that Pikmin is a good example of how you put a strategy game on a console with a motion controller. One of our next steps as designers should be applying this to our most recent platforms, such as VR and AR. Replicating feelings through innovative mechanics that feel natural on a particular platform can only improve our experience on these platforms. But the phrase “feelings are a more flexible source of inspiration” has another meaning, the second and arguably most important meaning is that feelings can come from anywhere and inspiration can come from our life experiences. You go can for an instinctive feeling, like the feeling of falling in Luftrausers, inspired by skydiving according to Rami Ismail. Or a more complex feeling, like the feeling of shock and guilt in Spec Ops the line, inspired by the stories told by soldiers. What you go for is up to you. But making games in this way, by replicating feelings and emotions that we can experience ourselves, is just one of the ways we can reach the full potential of Videogames as an Art form.
Thanks For Reading
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