The ins and outs of bouncing balls in the joyful brick-breaker Holedown

We speak with Martin "grapefrukt" Jonasson, developer of the finely made Twofold Inc. and Rymdkapsel, about his latest mobile game--the highly-satisfying Holedown.

Holedown is a premium-priced mobile brick breaker built upon the joy found in a single moment in the genre: the time when the ball sneaks behind the blocks and just goes wild, bashing away at them as the player watches. It’s a game that encourages players get their ball bouncing between blocks as often as possible, savoring the chaos as the balls slam about.

Gamasutra spoke with Martin "grapefrukt" Jonasson, developer of Holedown as well as other finely-made indie games like Twofold Inc. and Rymdkapsel, to talk about how the appeal of this moment shaped the game’s play style, how the game's design helps the player find order and strategy within those wild bounces, and designing stages that would make this kind of moment happen often.

In Jonasson's own words...

On creating Holedown’s bouncy, chaotic play style

Per usual, it's a mishmash of ideas from all over, but the initial seed came from playing another game that uses a similar mechanic. Aim a stream of balls at a bunch of blocks, break them, do it again. That particular game felt like a missed opportunity, so I quickly threw together my own prototype to try out some ideas I had. 

There's this mysterious, universal appeal to watching a bunch of balls bounce around that just made it work really well. Basically, it became about distilling that bit in more traditional brick breakers (i.e. Breakout) where you sneak a ball in above all the bricks and it just goes wild. I can't claim to really understand it, but the bouncing is hypnotic. 

Keeping order in the bouncing 

With Holedown, it became a challenge to balance the inherent chaos of 50 or so balls bouncing around with some type of order and hierarchy to what was and was not important. There's a lot going on once the bouncing starts, so I was fairly restrictive with effects and such, mostly using them to convey important changes and events.

The shift to bouncing down instead of up

This is related to the layout of the generation of levels. I realized it would be a good incentive for "deep" shots if the blocks actually rested on each other, so removing blocks lower in the playfield would make sense. This basically required the game to have you shoot down. I did try upside down gravity along with shooting up, because that configuration is less prone to the common mobile issue of hiding the thing you're aiming at with your finger. However, that upside down mode was incredibly confusing, so firing down it was.

On creating stages built to capture the joys of bouncing balls

The stages are all procedurally generated, but somehow, I got quite lucky with the way they're generated and ended up with a setup that was easy to tweak to make levels that strike a good balance between difficulty and fun shots.

Early in prototyping, it became obvious that the most fun shots were when you managed to get your balls in a small pocket and they'd bounce around wildly. These types of setups were originally somewhat rare to happen upon, but once I realized I could do the rounded corners, it all fell into place. They open up the playfield much more, and in combination with the larger tetromino style blocks, it just works really well. Looks nice too.

Keeping it all balanced between fun and challenge

That balance is all down to tweaking the way the levels are generated. Luckily, I have many knobs I can tweak for that. I can adjust the how many blocks are filled, how big the blocks are, how many blocks are stuck in the wall, and perhaps most importantly, their hit points. All of these things were adjusted over months of testing along side working on the game.

How Holedown changed over development

Early on, I had an idea that the player would amass diamonds as they were digging, just like now, but instead of keeping them all as the round ends, you'd lose them unless you "bailed" early to save your work. I had these checkpoints every so often where you could opt to escape to the surface. But, no one ever did. They just wanted to keep digging. I tried adjusting things, but could never get it to really feel like an interesting choice. It either felt like digging was the best option or it just felt overly mean.

I did not like having to cut that idea, I somehow still really like it, but in the end, it didn't work no matter how much of a darling it was.

Useful constraints

This game was the first time I worked with a concept artist. The original plan was to try to take the visuals away from my comfortable old style and somewhere new. But, I guess time constraints and just regular old convenience brought me back to my usual style. That style is very much a function of being a one-person studio, it's a kind of minimalism forced by time constraints.

In most creative endeavors it seems to me that the more you cut, the better it gets. This gets extra important when you're a small studio. I can add all the features I want, but if I spread myself too thin it'll all be for nothing. Hence, I try to keep things as small and tight as I can and then polish them to look and feel as good as I possibly can. I'm sure that would be much different if I had a larger team.

Constraints are an excellent thing to have, as it's incredibly hard to try and do something when it can be *anything*. A couple of small limitations go a long way to get me inspired, for sure.

Iterating on Holedown’s play style

Early prototypes were just about playing a single, long game with unlimited shots and unlimited depth. This ended up creating very long, drawn-out rounds. I had testers who got really into it that could maintain a game for days. This is all great, until you lose. I wanted to encourage shorter sort of "additive" rounds of play, not those marathon runs. Hence, I added a few things that would keep the rounds from going on for too long.

Feelings about the upgrade system of Holedown

I'm of two minds about the upgrade system. I do enjoy a good upgrade, but I also feel that I didn't have time to take it quite as far as I would have liked to. I did consider having various single use items and other things, but it ended up adding too much complexity and that wasn't a trade off I liked.

The idea with the upgrades was to create a sense of progress. The way they unlock is also built so skilled players can unlock them at a regular pace, but even a less adept player will get them all given time.

I had ideas for a wider variety of upgrades, like single use bombs and others, but they were all cut due to disturbing the simplicity of the game's controls. I also considered damage upgrades for the balls, but that fell on the extra complexity to the math you sort of need to do in your head. So, what remained was a fairly restricted set of upgrades that allow the game to slowly build in intensity and duration.

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