Game Design Deep Dive: Rocking the Wii U GamePad with Runbow

13AM Games explains how it got the most out of the much-maligned GamePad with new Wii U-exclusive indie game Runbow -- and made the game more fun for everybody in the room.

Game Design Deep Dive is an ongoing Gamasutra series with the goal of shedding light on specific design features or mechanics within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.

Check out earlier installments on rocket jumping in Rocket League, the heredity system of Hero Generations, and the traffic systems of Cities: Skylines.

Also, dig into our ever-growing Deep Dive archive for developer-minded features on everything from Alien: Isolation's save system to the digging mechanic in SteamWorld Dig.

We're from 13AM Games, an upstart studio from Toronto working on our first game, Runbow, a nine-player platforming party game exclusive to Wii U. Runbow [trailer] began as a jam game at the Toronto Global Game Jam back in January 2014 and has since grown and evolved into its final colorful and action-packed form.

Today we want to talk to you about our Wii U GamePad-specific party mode, ColourMaster, and offer some insights on GamePad and asymmetrical game design.

What: Designing a meaningful asymmetrical play experience with the Wii U GamePad

The Wii U GamePad is a tempting piece of hardware, but it is criminally over/underused in many games. So many games simply use the GamePad for its second screen, mirroring the image between the screens. This isn't a bad thing -- after all we do it for 75 percent of Runbow -- but what separates those developers that manage to use the GamePad well? How do you add more game without shoehorning in features?

As a small team, we didn't have the resources to add tons of new content to Runbow mid-production, but we wanted to use the hardware in a way that complimented how people already enjoyed the game.

We came up with a game mode that modifies our core "Run" mode, which usually features as many as nine players in a foot race. In ColourMaster mode, the player holding the GamePad becomes an incredibly powerful being, capable of dropping obstacles, making platforms disappear, and messing around with the remaining eight runners. It is one of our most requested modes at playtests because of how it builds on the core game.

Why we did what we did

At the office, we get a lot of mileage out of our Wii U. We enjoy the local party games it offers, but as designers we also like analyzing examples of asymmetrical gameplay, good or bad. We realized that games that use the GamePad well use it to create a meaningful play experience for players. Our goal was to design an experience that:

  1. Has a simple, intuitive control scheme, especially suited for players who aren't good at the main game.
  2. Builds on core gameplay without requiring much explanation.
  3. The ability to alter the player dynamic in the real-world space. Whoever holds that GamePad needs to have a certain level of power over the other players.

Games like NintendoLand received a bevy of press for being the archetype of GamePad design, but for us the brilliant, yet underappreciated Game & Wario offers a lot of elegant uses of the hardware. At a party with four strangers, you can get Islands, Fruit or Sketch going with only the most basic of explanations. Another shining example of elegant GamePad use is Tank! Tank! Tank!'s "My Kong" mode, where the person with the GamePad is a giant gorilla terrorizing three little tanks played by everyone else in the room.

Designing an experience that builds on core gameplay, rather than one that adds a whole new type of game, enhances the round-by-round experience of the game. The physical passing of the GamePad turn-by-turn actually improves the strategies of both the GamePad player and the other players. For example, when you get to play as the menacing Kong in My Kong, you not only learn a whole new set of abilities, but also gain insights into how to better play as a tank based on what your friends (usually the more successful ones) are doing.

For Runbow, the design team sat in a room with pencils and paper and started drawing ideas that fit these themes. There were some wacky ideas thrown around, including a concept featuring Pinball and one called "Slippery Man, Strong Man." Trust us. It was hilarious. In the end the simplest idea came from noticing how the background color swipes looked suspiciously similar to someone swiping an object across a touch screen. ColourMaster was born. 

Simple, intuitive control scheme

The "asymmetrical" part came quite naturally. We would modify our standard "Run" mode and let the ColourMaster swipe colors in to stop the players from reaching their goal. This ended up creating seizure-worthy visuals and game-breaking play stoppages. In the end, the only background control the ColourMaster has is in the ability to change the direction of the swipes, but the simplicity of the touch screen swiping and dragging felt like something worth building on.

Builds on core gameplay

We sifted through the power-ups we had already programmed, such as Lightning (stuns all players), Control Swap (scrambles player controls), and Black & White (makes everything monochrome), and gave the ColourMaster direct control over when they occurred. Now, instead of having these occur randomly when players grab power-up boxes, they are attacks that players have to counterplay and survive. Building on this, we looked into creating powers that would combine with these to really give the ColourMaster a wide array of attacks. This is where we added Paint Blobs to erase colored platforms, Bombs to explode runners, and the Grey Man, a runner you can control for a short time.

Next, we took a cue from other touch screen games and how they offer their mechanics to new players: big icons, touch interface. Apart from some arrows to communicate the need to drag icons on to the screen, we've never had to explain much to players about what to do. The touch screen language has translated really well thanks to the last decade of phones and tablets.

We also learned a lot from MOBAs and MMORPGs about how to communicate spell cool downs: when the player uses an attack from their tool bar, it greys out and slowly refills to full color. Attacks that affect everyone take longer to cool down, whereas more targeted, skill-based attacks such as Paint Blobs are almost always at the ready. This was an easy way to give new players an initial advantage, but still allow them to grow in skill. Another concept we applied from these genres was the global cooldown, a much shorter cooldown that applies to every power once any power is used. The small time window this creates stops the runners from being overwhelmed.

A consistent UI and visual language ensures that players continue to learn about the core game even in ColourMaster. Repeat players can identify the incoming hazards played by the ColourMaster by the same power-up indicators that flash on the screen in Run. Lightning telegraphs the same no matter when it is going to strike.

Changes the dynamic in the room

The decision to put the Run Team together, and how both teams score points, helped us offer a new dynamic to the core experience. Every Run Team member gets a point for reaching the goal, while the ColourMaster must kill all the other players to get a half-point for each one. This scoring change alters the relationship between players from a free-for-all scramble against your friends to a co-operative, yet tense, race to the finish line.

Now the act of passing the GamePad from one person to the next brings new strategies for both the ColourMaster and the Run Team, and makes everyone focus their strategy (and hatred) at one person. The game takes place as much on the couch as it does on the TV. We added a particle effect that telegraphs when and where the ColourMaster will drop an attack, to heighten this tension and really emphasize the power the ColourMaster has over the other team. While the ColourMaster gets to toy with the other team, this in turn heightens the power of teamwork as players start helping one another strategize against the ColourMaster's plays.

Furthermore, we added the ability to pick the "advantage" for ColourMaster rounds as well, noticing that with new playtesters the ColourMaster was consistently dominating. Now, levels with fewer pits and spikes are offered as the default difficulty (Advantage: Run Team), so that both sides have the ability to learn the game at their own pace and increase the difficulty as their skill increases.

The Result

The result of all this work is a game mode that allows new players to jump in and join Runbow while offering a new twist on the formula for seasoned Runbow players. It has proven to be our most party-friendly mode because it helps make the game a little more about the people that play it.

Knowing that we're not going to always be there to explain to players why they should try every mode of our game, we feel that ColourMaster is a good opportunity to show them one of the many ways to have fun with our core mechanics.

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