As we’ve had a great number of readers proclaiming their wishes to create their own action games, I’ve been speaking with some true craftsmen of the action genre to find out how they make their own titles. Our second installment features Takumi Naramura, creator of the La-Mulana series. Be sure to check out the previous installment, featuring Samu Wosada (1001 Spikes), here.
Takumi Naramura acts as end boss of indie dev team NIGORO, whose uniquely crafted games answer the question, “What would games look like if they had continued to evolve in 2D?” While he originally had zero experience in the video game industry, that didn’t stop him from becoming the man driving Japan’s indie game community. His most famous work, the ruins exploration-action title La-Mulana, continues to ensnare and torture gamers around the globe to this day. This year, he plans to release the sequel, La-Mulana 2, to home consoles worldwide.
La-Mulana 2 is, to employ the parlance of our time, a “Metroidvania-style” action game. The players runs and jumps through their exploration of epic, sprawling ruins. While technically an action game, it’s also chock full of adventure elements, presenting players with various riddles and mysteries to solve – as well as the information needed to solve them, in the form of changing stone tablets and backgrounds, audible clues, traps, and more. It goes without saying that the series has been extremely finely tuned in regard to its action game design. The ruins are filled with all sorts of enemies waiting to straight-up murder you, such as the huge monsters known as “Guardians”. Work out their behavioral patterns through careful observation, avoid their attacks, and then lay on the smackdown. This is a hardcore game that truly tests both your brains and your brawn. There really is no way to leave action-exploration games out of the conversation when discussing the indie action genre. So just how tight was Naramura’s grip on this metaphorical udder when squeezing his brains for the concepts that would coagulate into La-Mulana 2?
■Requirements for Building the Foundation for an Action Game
The first requirement is the completion of the player-character. This will affect a wide variety of other elements. The most basic actions such as jumping, the time required between pressing a button and the moment an attack is registered, walking speed, etc. There are also factors such as attack method: will the character use a sword? A gun? Will they jump on top of enemies to attack? What sort of power-up elements will be available? Will any of this affect changes on a system level? Of course, the actual creation of all of these things involves mainly trial and error: make something, try it out, make it as fun and comfortable as you can, and keep tweaking it till you feel you’ve nailed it. Since the player-character will usually be constantly visible onscreen, what really makes or breaks an action game is how well the things receiving the player-character’s behaviors and actions take them and how well they mesh. To take this a bit further: without having set abilities for the player-character, you shouldn’t be able to create the map.
This sort of thing has an especially large impact when it comes to action-exploration games like La-Mulana, so if you were to, for example, make an adjustment to the player-character’s jumping distance while in the middle of development, then you could wind up with areas that you can no longer reach via jumping, and you may even have to redesign the entire map. And that’s if you’re lucky; you may end up leaving bugs and fatal flaws in the game that aren’t even noticeable until the entire thing is finished.
Ideally, it’s best to think up all the fundamental basics and features of your action game, and then work out what sort of stages you want to create at the very beginning of the development process. If you’re going to have an ice stage, you’ll need to implement sliding mechanics for the player-character, and if you can manage to reallocate these processes and systems to enemy characters as well, then you can work much more efficiently. When I say “think up everything at the beginning”, I don’t mean to stick in every idea you come up with right away; I mean I do away with features that don’t mesh well with the game I’ve decided to make, and polish up the “action game” aspects and whatnot.
■Where to Begin
As I mentioned earlier, I start off creating the player-character. At the same time, I also whip up a map for testing. Before I started working together with programmers, I would simply come up with ideas for games, and never bothered to think up actual specs. By teaming up with a programmer, I learned that in order to create a game, you can’t just come up with ideas alone – you need to formulate proper specs as well. To give a specific example, for jumping, you have to set a starting speed, actual movements, the amount of time spent in the air, rate of deceleration, etc. If you don’t know how to work stuff like this out, then you can even just go through a process of trial and error at the player-character implementation stage, trying out different specs until you get the same jump action you’ve been picturing in your head. Furthermore, things like how it will be processed if the character bumps into a wall while jumping are also really crucial. Are they going to drop like a rock? Or will they continue ascending? And can you move them left and right while descending? Stuff like this. Player-character specs affect not only the “feel” of an action game, but map creation as well.
A test map is really simple: it’s one screen, with just walls and a floor, where you can test out the player-character’s movements and tentative implementation of objects, etc. It’s simply used to check things like required height/level differences and to prepare objects and whatnot. But even though it’s so simple, if you can manage to work out map specs here, then you can also work out later map specs as well. If later stages include elements like slopes or ice or whatever, then it’s ideal to work out just how you’re going to implement them at this stage. When it comes to in-game objects, the most complicated thing to make is definitely the player-character. It gets super difficult to make even small changes later on once it’s already been created and implementation has begun.
■Designing the General Map
Personally, regardless whether I’m making an action game or something else, the first thing I decide on is the general vibe of the in-game world. The next thing I work out is the location of the final boss and the final dungeon. Since La-Mulana is an action-exploration game, I first decide on the starting point and goal locations within a large full map. Not only that, I also like to think about how I can surprise the player with the location and configurations of the final dungeon, too. That’s the kind of stuff I think about as I create the map. Action-exploration games generally take longer to play than straight-up action games. Because of this, I have to think about things like where – along the timeline between the starting point and the ending – I’ll put the climaxes, how many I’ll have, etc. I try to come up with a wide variety of these climaxes. Then I work out the timing between said climaxes, and where on the map to place them. When contemplating this stuff, you’ll begin to realize that there are places on the map that you pass through over and over, and places you’ll only pass through once.
The term “climaxes” could refer to a wide variety of different things: events, important items, boss fights, etc. When creating the map for an action-exploration game, what’s most important is making sure that these climaxes aren’t completely “hidden”; the player should be made to think “At some point, I’m gonna get the chance to go there”. To provide a more specific example, the ideal is having a place that you can sort of catch a glimpse of but are – at least at the time – completely unable to reach. How many variations of this “tease” you can come up with will directly affect whether or not you’ll be able to keep the player excited for them.
■Deciding Enemy Strength
While La-Mulana is an “action-exploration” game, it is also a “puzzle-adventure” game as well. Therefore, I sort of predicted that players would be spending a lot more time “wandering around in the same places” in comparison to other action-exploration titles. With that in mind, I decided to configure the lower-tier enemies in such a way that they could be relatively easily taken down in order to keep progressing. I made sure that, for places they will be passing through again and again, the player wouldn’t have to deal with the sort of enemies for whom you’d have to work out set behavioral patterns or behave in a certain way to defeat them. I feel that while this kind of enemy character can be fun when first encountered, having to deal with this stuff over and over can get repetitive at best, and straight-up boring and off-putting at worst.
That doesn’t mean that I’ll just slap in a whole roster of enemies that can be taken down effortlessly, of course. It’s also important to put real rough and dirty bad guys in places the player will only visit once, for example. In places like this, you’re able to give the player the idea that “this area looks hard to beat” = “once I clear it, there’s gonna be something special waiting”. Additionally, while I hadn’t really given it much deep consideration in the previous title, in La-Mulana 2 I put a lot of thought into the placement of retry points for boss fights.
■Tips for Placing Tiles
As a designer, I did my best to avoid making it look like it was “a bunch of tiles put together”. There isn’t really much you can do about things like walls, but when you make the decorative items and stuff like that a square 32x32 block of pixels, then to the player, it just looks like, well, a 32x32 grid of pixels. I always make sure to set up large, curvy, smooth objects with a few extra dots sticking out – even if it means wasting pixels – so that this can be avoided. I hate having it look like a bunch of tiles are lined up on a wide space. Even if I’ve already made wall tiles, I always make sure to stick in a few with varying styles and shapes of marks, scratches, etc.
So I put a lot of thought and work into those parts of La-Mulana, but even if I didn’t go that hard at it, the map creator’s sensibilities always end up coming out in the way tiles are lined up in wide spaces, the type of variations employed, and the way different things are accentuated. If speaking specifically about La-Mulana, the game takes place in an “ancient ruins” setting, so in order to avoid making the various buildings and structures feel unnatural, I always make sure to add support pillars and stuff to elements such as “floating floors” and “big, jutting pieces of stone that seem like they’d break off”. I doubt there are many people out there who actually notice this kind of thing, but when this stuff is done down to the finest detail, then even if you don’t consciously notice it I feel it helps create the kind of atmosphere that really makes a lasting impression on the player. Also, using building/coloring techniques on walls and backgrounds that are instantly recognizable is pretty much Game Design 101.
■Avoiding Player Confusion
Up to this point, I’ve only ever created the kinds of games that purposely confuse players, but I feel that the basic ideas behind game design are pretty universal. Guiding the player’s line of sight and the direction they should head in are basically some of the fundamental points of design. Recently, a lot of people feel that “being able to play without reading the manual” makes a game “good”, so I feel like there’s a lot more games that have things like control guides in the very first stage, or elements that pop up and explain how to use a certain function when you reach a place where you’ll need it. In La-Mulana, that would pretty much kill the vibe, so I don’t use that sort of guidance. Instead, I do stuff like make sure to include places where you’ll have to use basic control functions like breaking or jumping over a wall to proceed in the very first stage, placing objects that stand out onscreen, and using objects that move to get the player’s attention. By placing more or less emphasis on elements like this, it’s possible to provide similar “guidance” in an effective order.
This may be because of the widespread popularity of Super Mario Bros., but most players tend to automatically try to proceed to the right, so this kind of gameplay habit can also be taken advantage of to guide players. In most action-exploration games, such as Castlevania, for example, you start off at the far-left side of the entire map. By having the player start off in the center of the map, however, you are able to guide the player into thinking, “After I go right, I’ll try going left”. If you want to flip this, you can simply add something to the right side that would make the player feel like going in that direction would be too dangerous.
La-Mulana contains about two crucial routes for which there is absolutely no guidance whatsoever. These were purposely placed in such a way that you would have no idea which way to go and would find them by wandering around the whole map. “Positioning something in such a way that after getting lost and confused, the player coincidentally happens upon it”... I feel that this, too, is also a certain type of guidance.
■Games I’d Like to Make in the Future
Although I just got done saying “Don’t force in too much stuff; keep the subtle parts subtle” and whatnot, I gotta admit: with NIGORO, I pretty much exclusively make games with stuff forced in till it’s bursting at the seams. While it’s really fun to make large-scale games with all kinds of stuff tossed in, I do start to worry about how many more games I’ll actually be able to make in my lifetime if I keep this up. There’s still a lot of stuff I’d like to make, so I want to try using Pixel Game Maker MV to create some smaller-scale games that I could make on my own.
There you have it: NIGORO’s Takumi Naramura own explanation of the stuff you need to think about when creating an action game.
We hope this helps you out, even just a little, in developing your own games.
In the future, while we’ll obviously coming back to this “artist” well, we’ll also be speaking with some developers who have just recently begun game development to provide you with some information and ideas on game creation from a few different viewpoints.