The understated genius of the Spelunky Daily Challenge

Despite the fact that Derek Yu's Spelunky was released for Xbox 360 last year (while the original version has been available for PC many moons now), the game is seeing something of a resurgence of late.
Despite the fact that Derek Yu's Spelunky was released for Xbox 360 last year (while the original version has been available for PC many moons now), the game is seeing something of a resurgence of late. This is, of course, partially down to the fact that the exclusivity on the Xbox version has finally run out, and Yu has now fired out versions for both PC and PlayStation consoles. But there's a little more to it than that. The latest PC edition of the game comes with a new mode called the Daily Challenge. Each day a randomly-generated adeventure is offered to every player, and you're asked to see how far you can get. The twist is that every single player is carefully tumbling and whipping their way through the very same set of levels as everyone else. Oh, and if you die at any point, then you can't retry the adventure at all -- you get one chance to clock a score in on the game's online leaderboards, and that's your lot for the day. This seemingly simple addition to the main Spelunky offering appears to be a fun side-order of death and dungeoning -- but as it turns out, the Daily Challenge is an all-consuming beast that lives on long after the main action has played its last note.

Risk begets reward

Here's the thing about Spelunky's Daily Challenge mode -- despite the fact that you're essentially playing the very same game you've been playing for hours beforehand, it still feels like a very different experience. The idea that one small slip-up will cost you the entire day (and make you look silly on the online leaderboards) amplifies the risk involved. Treasure that I'd usually make a beeline for without a second thought suddenly feels trapped behind a series of enemies and obstacles that could potentially end my life. spelunky 1.jpgThis massive injection of risk causes the player to tackle the game in a very different way, with slow approaches and more calculated movements -- and as a result, teaches new methods for playing the game. Since playing the Daily Challenge for the last two weeks, I have become a notably better Spelunky player. Before the PC version of the game rolled along, I had never even managed to reach the Olmec encounter at the end of the game. Since playing the Daily Challenges, I've now reached the final level five times, and feel disappointed if I don't manage it. I have a new-found excitement for elements of the game that I hadn't really considered all that much before. When I spy a shop, my heart goes all aflutter with the possibilities. I love stocking up on dozens of bombs. I cannot wait to reach the Temple, since I now thrive on the fear of its highly dangerous enemies. A single additional game mode has made me enjoy Spelunky even more than I thought was possible. It's got to the point where I'm now treating the main game mode as a practice mode for the real game -- the real game being the Daily Challenge mode. I can't remember the last time I witnessed a year-old game being re-energised in the same way that the Daily Challenge has re-kickstarted Spelunky.

Competitive community streak

The risk versus reward nature of the Daily Challenge needs a catalyst, of course, and the competitive nature of the average video game player is more than enough to spur this on. It's not just the online leaderboards supplied with every single Daily Challenge that are keeping us coming back each day. Since everyone is playing an identical set of levels, some players began uploading videos of their playthroughs. Other players would watch to see the various tactics and methods that other players used to get past certain traps and problems, and then began uploading their own videos too.

Gunpoint developer Tom Francis decided to go a step further and start the Spelunky Explorers' Club, recording the scores of other players and bringing together the videos of their various runs. I took part myself, as evidenced by the above video. As such, communities of Spelunky players have begun popping up, all vying to beat their friends, co-workers and acquaintances. Players are swapping Steam friend details to get their daily leaderboards filled up, and subscribing to each other on YouTube. A very single player experience has suddenly erupted into one of the most exciting multiplayer games I've ever taken part in. I've never been the sort of person who watches videos of other people playing games before, yet here I am, checking out various tactics and deaths each day, building some sort of competitive narrative for when I'm attempting my own runs.

The evolution of the Daily Challenge

Of course, Spelunky is far from the first game to implement Daily Challenges -- but it's perhaps one of the first to really run with the concept from a real nerve-wracking angle. Take the Halo and Call of Duty multiplayer experiences, for example. In Halo 4 and Halo Reach, you're presented with such daily challenges as "Kill 20 Players" and "Win 15 Matches." Modern Warfare 3 featured similar challenges -- there are also weekly and monthly challenges involved, and players receive experience points if they manage to complete these tasks. These approaches are perfectly reasonable, but they aren't really as involved or exciting as Spelunky's Daily Challenge. In Halo and Call of Duty, the daily challenges are a neat little addition that you might decide to aim for alongside regular play. Unit 13 from Zipper Interactive has a more interesting approach, and one that resembles Spelunky's. Players of the PS Vita shooter are provided with a special mission each day, and if you die during it, you don't get another shot. Online leaderboards are provided for each specific day. And the recently released Rayman Legends has its own daily and weekly challenges too which, much like Spelunky, provide a new randomly-generated level and objective to blast through, and beat your friends at. The point is that in the majority of previous approaches there isn't such a risk element, as you can play the unique mission over and over as many times as you want -- nor will most players stick around for very long, given that it begins to feel quite repetitive and samey after just a week or so -- but given the Rayman Legends Challenges App that released for Wii U over the summer still has thousands of players booting it up every day, there's clearly an audience for the mode. olliolli.jpgThere are more opportunities for entertaining Daily Challenge modes on the horizon too. OlliOlli, for example, is an upcoming skateboarding game for the PS Vita that has a daily challenge, wonderfully named "The Daily Grind." Each day, players will be presented with a randomized skating spot that can be practiced over and over again until you've nailed the exact trick that will get you the most points. At this point you can choose to jump into the real attempt, and your score for this run will be recorded online. Mess it up, and all that practicing was for nothing. The prospect of implementing Daily Challenge modes in all of my favorite games makes me truly believe that it is potentially the silent video game innovation that no-one is really paying attention too -- "the next big thing" if you will, like Angry Birds, Oculus Rift and the endless runner genre before it. If you've been dodging the Spelunky Daily Challenge for whatever reason, please consider giving it a try. It's genuinely, and literally, a game-changer that you may want to implement in your own game.

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