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TowerFall dev Matt Thorson talks about his approach to game design -- how to make a game intuitive yet communicate the depth of its design to players, so they learn it naturally.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

April 28, 2015

16 Min Read

This May, Matt Thorson will release TowerFall: Dark World, an expansion pack for his popular local multiplayer fighting game TowerFall: Ascension (itself an update of TowerFall, which originally shipped on the Ouya.)

The game is extremely simple and exceptionally fun; it's also surprisingly deep, and that's part of what makes it so popular. In this interview, Thorson talks about his approach to game design -- how to make a game intuitive yet communicate the depth of its design to players, so they learn it naturally.

He also touches on his approach to community, how he stays interested in making his game, and why he's not sure he'd want to ever create an online version -- even if lag weren't a problem.

What gave you the idea to do an expansion? Obviously, you think it's viable.

Matt Thorson: I'm pretty involved in the TowerFall community. I can see what players want from the game -- and I can see it from a player's perspective. I just thought of all the things that, if I was a TowerFall player, I would want in it.

And then all of those things were all over the game -- it wasn't a thing where I could just make a character pack and sell it for three bucks, and be happy with that. It was like, "No, I want to add to every part of the game." Games don't really do that anymore, but when they did, they called them "expansions." [laughs] So it just made sense to do it that way.

Is your ability to see it from the player perspective just because you made the kind of game you wanted to make, or because you stay tight with the community, also?

MT: I think it's a combination of those. It is definitely the game I wanted to make, and I still enjoy playing it with people. When we did the World Championships at GDC, I was a competitor, too. I think staying tight with the community helps with that, too. I think I have a good sense of what TowerFall needs.

I would expect you to, but at the same time, you often hear developers speak about losing that perspective.

MT: Right.

Because they're so far on the other side that it becomes inevitable.

MT: I think it's different for TowerFall. It's maybe easier because it's local multiplayer -- because I play with so many other people. It's not like a story game where you just put it out there and read people's impressions. No, I actually play with other people, and really see and feel how they play, and how they react to things.

You said you had championships at GDC. Is it important to you, and for the game, to continue to do that kind of stuff?
MT: Yeah, definitely. It was always the goal for TowerFall to have a competitive community. I wanted the game to be fun casually, but also be very well balanced and support competitive play at a really high level.

Do you have to rebalance and change it to maintain that?

MT: Yeah. I have done a lot of that. Especially with Dark World, there are a lot of changes with the physics, and to make it more spectator-friendly. Because I found that people were playing it so fast that spectators couldn't follow it anymore, so I had to add new particle effects on stuff -- like trails to make it more readable.

What kind of ramifications does that have on your player-base?

MT: It seems all positive to me. Because people see that -- whenever I put out an update, or put out a blog post of coming updates, people see that it's supported. I've had a couple of people message me and just be like, "Well, I'm starting up a competitive scene locally, because I can see this game has a future." It doesn't have a huge community; it's pretty modest. But I think a lot of it is just because I've shown I'm serious about helping them.

I think it's the kind of game that can grow naturally. Basically, if you come to my house and hang out for a while, you'll end up being forced to play TowerFall. I imagine that is not atypical.

MT: Right. That's awesome!

I'm guessing that's really how it spreads. Because I'm also guessing you do not have a huge marketing machine behind this game.

MT: Right. There's zero marketing. And it is all organic, and it's funny, because the meta-game took forever, it felt to me. When I was making it, there was a core group of other indie developers and my friends, we were all really good at the game. And whenever we went to events, no one could even compete. Like, we'd have a tournament, and it would always be the same people, just because we were so much better.

That's changing now, like a year after release -- and I think it's because everything has to spread organically like that. There's no online play, so everything has to spread through people talking on online forums and then playing with their friends.

It's a very simple game to get into, at first -- simpler than your average fighting game, especially a lot of franchises that are on really late iterations. How do you design for that -- the simplicity but the depth?

MT: I think a lot of the depth is hidden. I designed it to be layered. There's the dodge mechanic, and at first the dodge mechanic is just for platforming -- you're just trying to get around the level. And then you realize you can use it to catch arrows, and it then becomes sort of a parry. And then you realize you can cancel a dodge, and you can zip around the levels, so it's all the layering things in that way. Whereas if you needed to do dodge cancel right from the start, most players would cancel right there.

So is it about players uncovering technique as they keep playing the game?

MT: Right. I wanted players to discover things on their own, or be taught them from their friends. I designed the experience of TowerFall for being played with a group of friends. You design these mechanics to be uncovered in a certain order, so that as a group plays they discover them, and it can blow their minds one at a time.

Using that example, of course I use the dash to get around, and I catch arrows, and I've found out about canceling. I'm not a great fighting game player, but I like the genre a lot. I was playing a lot of BlazBlue for awhile, and I was spending a lot of time looking at command lists and figuring out how I could incorporate things. This is quite different.

MT: This is something I learned from Smash, as well. It's to try and make everything intuitive. And instead of it being an arbitrary, "You have to learn how to do the quarter circle, and then..." Instead, you have to learn to navigate space. You have to learn how the arrows seek.

That's a more intuitive thing to learn; you don't really need a tutorial, you just need to do it a lot. You just need to play it and feel it. And that's pretty much what I strive for with all of my game designs at this point, I guess -- getting players to that point where they're just reacting creatively, rather than going through a chess opening, like, "Here's the things I'm supposed to do in order to win."

What are the design ramifications of having all that be on the same button, or in the same action? You talked about how the action grows as you discover what it's capable of -- but it's all just the shoulder button. It's not the same as learning three different moves.

MT: Hmm. That's an interesting question. I think one thing is that they're all similar actions; they're all tied to the same system, so it makes sense to put them on the same button. And then the player has a chance to organically find them. If you know how the dodge works and you realize you cancel a dodge, and you know how the system works -- where a dodge starts fast and then gets slow -- you can extrapolate from that dodge canceling. You can be like, "Well, if I cancel it sooner, I'll be going really fast." It's a natural extension. I think that helps make it more intuitive.

Does that affect how you design it? What direction did you come at it from -- did you design these mechanics and then figure out how to tie them together?

MT: It felt kind of like a happy accident. It feels like the exact order the players learn it in. In that, at first I was like, "Well, the dodge. You'll have some invincibility frames, and you'll be able to get around." Then it was like, "Well, what if you just caught the arrow?" Because players weren't dodging enough, it wasn't important enough. "Well, if you catch the arrow, that completely changes everything, and it ties it in with the inventory system." So that worked well.

And then it was, "Well, if you can cancel a dodge, you can get more expressive play, because you mess with when the cooldown is happening, so then it begins to add to the yomi." And then when you cancel the dodge, the default was to halve your speed, and I saw that, and it was like, "Woah, you can do some crazy stuff with this!" And so I kept it, and polished that more. So I guess it just grew out of trying to make the dodge a useful part of the system.

You talked about Smash a little bit. In a Street Fighter II lineage fighting game, the characters play completely differently. With Smash, all of the characters play differently but they have the same inputs. With your game, all the characters are essentially cosmetically different and nothing else.

Why did you do it that way? Because it's such a fundamental part of the way people think about fighting games?

MT: Right, yeah. Basically, the reason we did the cosmetic characters is because people think of fighting games that way. Because they like having their mains, and it's cool having that identity.

Yeah, it's stupid! I pick the same one every time.

MT: It feels silly, but then it's silly in a fun way. There's something fun about it. But the game was always -- when I had the core gameplay in, I thought about having different character classes. But it just doesn't make sense, because everything is tuned so specifically, and there's really no room in TowerFall for different abilities -- for different weird special attacks or that kind of thing. Everything I tried just felt like it was diluting the design in a way that didn't make sense. But then it was like, "We lose the identity thing," so it became, "Why not just have the characters anwyays? Why not just do that, and get the best of both worlds?"

[Ed. note: For thoughts that arose from the discussion above, read my blog post on TowerFall's approach to characters.]

Did you prototype special moves and stuff like that?

MT: I prototyped a few things, yeah. There was one character that could shoot like three arrows at once, type thing. There were a couple others. There was one where you could dodge into people to kill them -- he would light on fire as he dodged. It just all felt like it wasn't going to make sense. They would never be balanced in a way where it would feel fun to pick characters and play in a casual setting or a hardcore setting.

Well, you added variety back with the variants. Again, in some ways, it's similar to a Smash thing, where you can turn things on and off.

MT: It's really inspired by Smash and by the cheats menu in GoldenEye -- you could toggle things.

We end up playing with the same kind of match all the time; we don't get tired of it. If the game is tuned well, it doesn't actually require that much variation to be satisfying.

MT: Honestly, when I play with my friends, we never use variants. I wanted the default, vanilla game to be the standard, and then there's a second standard for competitive play. I think it worked out pretty well. The variants are cool, in the way of when you're with friends and you're just being silly. I think that's where they shine, when you're like, "Well, let's just try this," and it ends up being terrible and you all just laugh.

And that's good.

MT: Yeah. There's something to be said for just letting players play a bad version of your game. [laughs] There are good versions to be found in the variants, too, but it's really easy to ruin the game with them.

There's a lot heat and light around eSports now, and it's starting to filter down to smaller developers. You said you want TowerFall to be competitive. Do you have that kind of aspirations?

MT: I'm happy with it being pretty much what it is now -- just having a small, dedicated community. I don't have any illusions that it's going to be a League of Legends or Dota thing [laughs], definitely not. Or even to the point of Street Fighter or Smash. I just love having that community that cares about the game.

Like, right now, there's this crew of people -- the first TowerFall crew that's ever existed, actually here in San Francisco, and their whole goal is to destroy Kyle Pulver. Kyle Pulver is the world champion now, and he's pretty much undefeated. And so they're just practicing, and streaming. And they all have characters that they play, and crew names, and stuff.

I just love that. That's the kind of thing I want to have in TowerFall. TowerFall is, to me, about that competitive spirit -- but in a really silly, friendly way, where you're self-aware and laughing about it the whole time, but you're still trying your best and fighting each other.

I was a big fan of Bomberman, back when that was an active franchise. I know there are differences between TowerFall and Bomberman, but in a way they serve the same purpose, to me. Back in the day, Hudson would do Super Bomberman 1, then 2, then 3, then 4 for the Super Nintendo, and then you'd move onto the Saturn with Saturn Bomberman. But you have an opportunity to keep this same game going indefinitely. How indefinite is indefinite?

MT: I kinda said the same thing after Ascension, but I feel like Dark World is the last big update. I feel like I've taken it almost as far as I can at this point. There are still some things I could do: I could do a level editor. I could do maybe a couple more map packs, if I wanted to. But it feels like it's nearing the end of where I want to take it.

You could do a Nintendo thing and do one every generation. We're so early on in this indie thing that, to a certain extent, nobody knows what that's going to look like.

MT: That's true. The thing with doing the Nintendo thing is that it takes me so long, and I'm only one person. I guess it took about two years to get to TowerFall: Dark World, which is pretty short by game development standards. But when you're a company of one person...

Is that from starting development on the original version?

MT: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, it'll be about two years. It'll be almost exactly two years, actually.

How do you retain focus? Of course games are developed for two years all the time, but you're developing it primarily on your own.

MT: The graphics, sound effects, and music aren't me. I'm doing design, programming, and direction, I guess.

Focus -- it's an interesting question. Because I'm only now starting to find that it's hard to keep focus on TowerFall. It's been really easy, especially for Ascension. I never got burnt out till I had to do paperwork at the end.

I think a big part of that is because it's local multiplayer. When you're constantly playing your game and seeing it from fresh perspectives, not just replaying the same levels, even though they are the same levels -- but playing it with new people and seeing what they love about it, it just makes it really easy to stay excited about your game.

I think that's easier with local multiplayer, is my theory. Because I've actually had a lot of developer friends ask me about how I kept working on TowerFall after the Ouya release, and then after Ascension, and then until now. And that's my best theory.

When the game came out, I don't know how significant this was, but there was a lot of pushback on "Why doesn't this have online?" And Bennett Foddy wrote a thing for Polygon where he came to your defense. But in the end, how did that shake out? Did it end up mattering?

MT: I don't think it did, personally. It probably would have sold a bit better, at least at launch. When it's on the front page of Steam, it would probably sell better with online, because that's when people care about bullet points. But I think the community is pretty much unaffected by it -- the core TowerFall community. I don't think it matters either way.

Because the online wouldn't be that great -- I think that's just a given. It's a fighting game, let alone an indie fighting game by a small team. Fighting games can't get online right, let alone just me trying to do online. So it wouldn't be that great. It would just be to ship more copies, I guess.

I don't think it really matters that much. Because I made enough money to support myself. So as long as I can get over that threshold without online play, I'm happy to not do it. Because in my eyes it would make the game worse. It would just be a feature in the game that's bad.

Yeah. You either design a game around online, which affects the design of the game, as Bennett wrote about. Or you play Arc System Works' games, and they just turn into a slideshow. Or it's not a fighting game, but Radiant Silvergun for Xbox Live, it just stutters to death.

MT: I would rather be guaranteed that everyone playing my game is playing it locally than sell more copies, pretty much, if that's the choice. Even if there was no lag, it would still be a tough choice for me to put online in. Even if we, as a society, somehow got rid of lag. [laughs]

Just envision!

MT: Just envision that utopia. I would still feel weird about online in TowerFall because the whole game was designed from day-one for four people in a room. It's weird to me to think -- playing it with strangers makes me uncomfortable, playing with strangers you'll never see.

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