Friday, June 5, 2009

Side Saddle 2 Development Blog # 1

Back in January, I unleashed Side Saddle upon the unsuspecting internet. As I explained in the Making of Side Saddle post directly below this one, it was an experiment of sorts, my attempt to take several trends in shmups and turn them on their ear. It is, I think, the most successful of my experimental games to date-- the most playable, the most interesting, and the most fun. (My most recent game, the platformer Run Jump, while it attempts to add something new to the mix, is much less of an experiment and more of a full game.) Reasonably pleased with the end result but knowing there was room for some improvement and some other ways to deliver on the short-axis/side-shooting motif, I decided recently to do a sequel.

But, as I also said in that making-of post, the original is not perfect. Many have found particular fault with the ammo system.

To recap it briefly: the player has a stack limit of nine shots. When the player is not moving or shooting, your ammo recharges. Killing the enemies faster, then, gave you more time between waves to recharge your ammo safely; conversely, the longer a given enemy was onscreen, the more points it was worth. And as the auto-fire turret power-up, which sent out shots in all four cardinal directions, was awarded at certain score threshholds, getting a higher score was in the player's best interest. And so: desire for safety vs. desire for score, desire for ammo vs. desire for power-ups. Remove one feature (like the hated ammo system) and you remove it all.

And so, the ammo system was integral to Side Saddle yet also its most despised and weakest feature. Any sequel would have to improve upon it vastly or lose it altogether.

And, after a few days, I decided to drop it, as I think I've found a new power-up system that makes better use of the game's somewhat claustrophobic spatial motif. Your ship in this game is a small circle, which gradually becomes larger and larger. Each time you fire a shot(s)-- like the first game, pressing the fire button will release a shot on each side simultaneously-- the ship's size decreases. If you allow the ship to grow to its maximum size, however, you'll be able to place a power-up turret. As in the first game, these turrets fire up, down, left, and right, greatly increasing your control of space-- at least until it self-destructs after a given periodo f time. The moment you unleash that turret, you shrink down to your smallest size and the process starts anew.

Now, here's where it gets interesting: every time you destroy one of your enemy's orbs-- each of which has multiple hit points-- you grow two sizes. A skillfully placed turret will quickly give you the power to place another, and another. While a good player in the first game could get two or three turrets on the screen with a little skill and a little luck, I suspect that most players should be able to get that many on a semi-regular basis. The first game's ability to shoot diagonally is not present here, so being able to control space in four directions is paramount.

Of course, as you're gorging yourself on your way to turret-dom, you're making yourself a much bigger target for enemy fire. At your smallest, you're a few pixels in diameter; at your largest, over a dozen times that. The already narrower playing field-- remember, this is a vertical shmup in which you shoot sideways instead of up-- and the larger, multi-part enemies (did I mention this is to be a boss battle shmup?) should have players most anxious indeed.

I'm very excited about this project, about the new opportunities for both myself and the player that these new and revised mechanics allow us to explore. I hope you'll share my excitement when the game is complete.

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