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Updates in a popular Early Access Game

We made an update to SpeedRunners which made new players feel much more welcomed in the game, and ticked off a group of loyal players. What now?

The latest SpeedRunners update introduced a major game changer -- spikes no longer being lethal. We also reworked 5 maps to make them friendlier for casual (newer) players. This post dives deeper into dilemmas of developing a game during Early Access, and how having a loyal community can spawn some very confronting discussions and opinions. We have to deal with keeping a super competitive multiplayer game interesting, accessible, and deep enough. SpeedRunners is one of the few indie games that has a strong online community, and we are working really hard to make sure it keeps growing. The non-lethal spikes game changer seems trivial, but it kept us awake for several nights.

SpeedRunners is a cut-throat multiplayer running game that pits 4 players against each other – locally and/or online. The objective is knock players off-screen, or (in the previous iteration of the game) to get them into spikes. 

After a weekend of the update being live, there are numerous discussions about how we're dumbing down SpeedRunners for casual players and that we should make it an option to make spikes lethal, to revert maps back to being harder.

To give an idea of how the spikes worked:

  • If you touch them, you're out
  • People had to memorize maps in order to know where the spikes were
  • The maps have subtle hints that spikes are about to come up

We found a huge issue with this while playing many of the user created levels. Namely - we didn't know where the spikes were going to be (didn't play those levels before), and got infuriated (I kept on throwing the controller against the table) at how frustrating it is.

We quickly realized that most new players have the same experience with our own, in-house designed maps. So Casper (lead designer on SpeedRunners of DoubleDutch Games) started iterating on the spikes. It felt like making them non-lethal was the way to go - so you would get stunned or lose control for a little while.

End result was spikes stunning you for a few seconds, while throwing you forward.

Current version of spikes:

  • You get thrown forward
  • If you hit another spike, you keep on being thrown backwards
  • Once you hit the ground, you're stunned for 3 seconds

A gif to illustrate:

SRs_new_Spikes2 characters run into spikes and get stunned

This works because if you're in the lead and hit a spike - you will definitely lose said lead. Meanwhile, if you're in the back - odds are you're dead after hitting a spike.

Frustration part - solved. A different issue arises.

When the spikes were lethal, there was obvious tension leading up to spike sections. You knew you'd die if you mess it up. That tension made the gameplay very intense, and now -- even though the result is almost the same (you die most of the time) -- there is a slim chance of saving yourself. The tension comes when you have hit the spikes - and are trying to recover.

Now users aren't afraid of spikes as much and tend to risk more when in front - going for riskier paths, since there is less tension built up.

Even though in practice -- 90% of the time -- the spikes do the same thing, the way they do it gives a different feeling to the game.

We are now thinking of how to solve it, because lethal spikes in general alienate new players. I understand it might sound super discriminatory towards experienced players - but without new players getting into SpeedRunners, the community slowly shrinks, making it harder to find people to play against.

With these types of gameplay changes we get stuck in interesting dilemmas. How the hell do we keep the game interesting to our super dedicated "PRO" players and not alienate the new ones? New players make sure our community keeps on growing, and that we have enough money to continue developing the game.

The same dilemma applies to map design. The latest update introduced changes to 5 official maps. Most notably the Theme Park level was redesigned to make it more clear what's going on with a huge swinging section. The issue was that you need to make a big jump off a ledge and do a large swing. The first time you play you might not know there is a big jump there. So during many Quick Look/Lets Play videos the players would get confused, drop down to the bottom level of the map, and think it's the way you're supposed to play it.

What happens is complete confusion. Players are confused, viewers are confused. Is this map broken? Is this a bug? Did we do something wrong?

So we fixed that specific issue with a cannon that boosts you up towards the swing, and a little pocket that "catches" you if you didn't make the jump. The pocket boosts you up back on track.

Again, on one side it makes the super dedicated players completely frustrated - that there is less skill required to make that glorious jump.  But now Lets Players and new comers get a better experience with SpeedRunners, and draw more people to the game. The community grows. More people keep on playing. Hardcore players are unhappy.

It's an interesting dilemma.

We used to get away with breaking the game every Thursday with "What If" events. "What if you ran super fast?", "What if it rained rockets?", and so on. Some of these "What If"-s made it into the final game in the form of SpeedRoulette. Every third match or so the games rules change with a random roulette wheel, you can disable it for non-ranked matches. Or force-enable specific game changers.

We did the events to congregate people around specific dates, so that you'd know there is always someone to play against on a Thursday -- and to test out completely whacky game mechanics. It was fine when the game was small, but now we have thousands of players per day that would also (probably) get upset if we broke the game for a day for them.

There is no magic solution to this problem. I believe part of it will be giving more spotlight to user created levels, where people will be able to create playlists of specific levels. Or simply create hardcore versions of their favorite maps.

Meanwhile mechanic-wise I do believe we need to listen to both sides of the story - experience of new and loyal players. Ultimately our goal though is to create a large community of players that wouldn't just buy SpeedRunners and never play it. We will have to make sure the game is deep enough if you want to go pro, and easy enough to enjoy during a SpeedDrinking game (you drink when you're out during a local match).

This post is based on daily conversations we're having during working on SpeedRunners. The full-time team behind SpeedRunners consists of me, Casper van Est, Gert-Jan Stolk, Tom Brien, and Matthijs Verkuijlen. The original was posted on the tinyBuild blog


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