A stealth puzzle game that lets you rewire its levels to trick people.

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By Tom Francis. Uses Adaptive Images by Matt Wilcox.

Gunpoint Is Delayed, Level Design Is Hard, Choice Is Weird

With a comical inevitability, I have to admit I can’t see Gunpoint being ready for Christmas. Lots of elements I think of as ‘done’ aren’t really ready, and finishing each of those seems to take about as long as coding them in the first place. Then there’s level design.

Level Design

I’ve been mentally filing levels under ‘content’, stuff I already know how to produce and which just needs a little grunt work to churn it out. I’m now discovering that it’s really more like the game systems: something that shapes the experience so fundamentally that you need to get it in early and keep tweaking and revising it as you go along.

I’ve also learnt a lot about the difference between a puzzle game and something more open ended like Deus Ex, and some of it really surprised me.

In the first prototype that included the Crosslink device, you could literally link any device to any other. It was fun to mess around with, but there was no game there really – as I think all testers noticed, you could stand by one light switch and just wire it to everything else you wanted to change.

It was never going to stay that way, I knew how to shape it: I put some devices on different coloured circuits, ones you can’t rewire until you reach the right circuit box and tap into it. That let me design puzzles: proper obstacles to your progress that you have to think your way around, tapping into the right circuit and finding ways to get to the next one.

I guess I just assumed that was level design, because when I sent out the last build I realised I’d pretty much ended up with a straight puzzle game. Sometimes it works, other times it feels like it’s just keeping you busy: you have to get to this circuit box to progress, and there’s really only one way to do it. If figuring out that method isn’t interesting, the only fun is in the basic interactions: pouncing, punching, executing chain reactions, knocking people off rooftops and through windows.

Alternate Routes

I should probably be happy with that. I asked testers what they’d give the game if they were reviewing it, and the overwhelming majority said 8/10. Even accounting for a large positive bias in the selection process, that’s way better than I was hoping for.

But I still want it to be more than a puzzle game with punching. The point of the Crosslink mechanic is to let the player be creative, and I feel like I must be able to do a better job of that.

So I tried designing a new level with a completely different philosophy: make a building, not a level. Just make sure there are at least two routes to every objective and sub-objective.

It was terrible. It might be the worst level I’ve ever made. It felt like the game was just broken – you keep asking yourself “What’s this room for? Why would I want to go there? Wait, I’ve completed it? Did I cheat?” It wasn’t easier than the other levels, it just felt like most of it was misleading or irrelevant.

The Problem

I tried it a few other ways and kept running into the same problem:

If a puzzle has one solution, it’s only really fun to solve once.
If a puzzle has more than one solution, one of those solutions will be easier or more obvious to the player.

So, you just do that one. Even if you notice the others, they add nothing: it feels pointless to take a longer or harder route, even if it involves some interesting tricks.

This really surprised me. I’ve always thought the opposite: that alternate routes are always valuable, even if you don’t take them, because you appreciate having options. Nope! Sometimes alternate routes are just noise. Sometimes having a lot of options just makes it feel like there isn’t really an obstacle at all, so getting past it feels more like a commute than a challenge.

So why do I enjoy taking alternate routes in Deus Ex? Why don’t I always go for the first or easiest one?

Honestly: because it sucks. In Deus Ex the shooting is intentionally bad, and even in Human Revolution, the cover shooting is nothing like as cool as the stealth. Deus Ex doesn’t offer you choice by presenting you with door A and door B. It presents you with a really difficult and awkward door A, then says “Oh no! I can’t believe you found a vent!”


Choice, I think, needs to be a fuck-you from the player to the designer.

You have to see and understand what you’re expected to do, and make a personal decision to reject it. Either because you just don’t like it, or because it doesn’t fit with the play style you’ve chosen.

In Gunpoint, that means I actually do want one clear solution to each puzzle. I just need to give you the power to override it and do things your own way if you want to.

I haven’t finished figuring out my full solution to that yet, but here’s what’s working well so far:

1. Reworking levels at least twice

All my favourites are old ones that I’ve changed bit by bit, adding sneakier possibilities as they occur to me, and encouraging fun situations I found myself in when testing. Pretty much by accident, these have one clear solution and a bunch of ways to bypass it.

2. Play style incentives

I’d already planned for clients to have optional requests – “There’s an extra $200 in it for you if you don’t hurt anyone.” Now that I’ve put these in, they add complex, tricky and ever-changing routes through the levels that I don’t even have to design. Avoiding guards is almost always possible just because you’re so mobile, but it’s much harder than taking them out. It’s not a fuck-you to the client, but it’s a fuck-you to the conventional design of the level.

3. Gadgets

I’ve added some tools you can buy which can let you shortcut certain types of puzzles, and set up more elaborate chain reactions and traps. The Transfuser, for example, lets you connect two things that are on different circuits, with a pretty blended wire that shades between their different colours.

4. Persistent consumables

These gadgets have charges, and your total carries over to future missions. So sometimes the shorter route has a cost associated with it, and it’s up to you when you think it’s worth it.

5. Upgrades

You can upgrade lots of different aspects of your kit to suit different playstyles. If you go for one heavily, you can sometimes get past obstacles with the method they’re designed to stop. The Deathfluke, for example, repels a percentage of the least accurate shots fired at you. Upgrade that and your jumping speed enough and enemies have a hard time hitting you, letting you get past them in some situations you’re not meant to.

So that’s partly why it’s taking longer. I’ve got five or six levels that need designing from the ground up, and six or seven more that need a few more iterations to make them more flexible and fun. Then there’s the little stuff, like creating a scripting engine for story events and writing the entire game.

Truthfully, I have no idea how long that stuff will take me. Lyingly, let’s say March and I’ll let you know when that seems impossible too. If you’ve mailed me about testing, I should have a version for you in December.


FuzzYspo0N: at least you are taking these into consideration and not just finishing for finishing sake. Can't wait to play the next build. It sounds much deeper!

Another Gamer Says: Looking Great! For some reason Delaying is always great news for me, because I know that it should be getting better throughout those days.


Colthor: "If a puzzle has more than one solution, one of those solutions will be easier or more obvious to the player."

But not necessarily the same one for all players, no?

Anyway, this sounds brilliant, and the amount of thought and effort going into it is genuinely impressive.

Fin C: Speaking of delays, you could always ask IV to help you finish it, I hear they may be looking for a new project soon.

The Cheshire Cat: I once read an interesting point on choice in games in an article about Starcraft (which is far too ancient for me to remember where it was or what it was called now). It was more about unit balance than level design but you might find it relevant in more general terms for your current issue.

Essentially the point was that choices are only meaningful if they actually add something to the game. You can give the player a hundred different routes to overwhelm them with options, but if only one of those is really "correct", then good players will quickly find them and exclusively pick that from that point on. It was especially relevant to Starcraft since the competitive scene is so active, so nobody who plays at a high level does anything sub-optimally. In a badly balanced game, that ends up meaning that huge swaths of the game are ignored simply because players have already filtered them out as noise.

I think you've hit on a good idea with the optional objectives, since it gives players incentive for taking normally sub-optimal routes, since while route A might be the best route to the main objective, taking it cuts you off from accomplishing some optional objective. An issue I find with a lot of games though is that they never give you a compelling reason to actually choose NOT to do something optional (the best possible example of that idea is this: How many games are there where running away from the enemy is actually a better option than fighting them, when you aren't actually prevented from fighting?) - it's "more difficult", but not so much so that the cost ends up being greater than the reward. That might be a nice wrench to throw into the works - something that a skilled player would recognize as a bad decision, but that someone blinded by the overzealous need to 100% everything will end up being punished by.

I had more to say here but I've already written quite a bunch, so I just wanted to add in one last note that when considering choices for the player to make in levels, you should try to avoid binary "Save character A or B, other one dies" style choices. I always feel those are really cheap shots by games that take real choices AWAY from me rather than offering me a realistic choice. Why can't I try to save both, but doing so is impractical and has a high chance of me just losing both? It's a bad choice, but it's a bad choice I made MYSELF. In the context of Gunpoint that specific example probably won't come up, but you know what I mean.

535: The delay is certainly disappointing, but it sounds like you've got some really great tweaks/enhancements in mind. I suspect just about everyone following Gunpoint's development would rather have a good game which lives up to its potential in 3+ months than an okay game by Christmas.

Johnkillzyou: Its great that you are actually taking your time and making it even better before allowing the general public access to it! Keep up the good work!

Devenger: If you can randomly avoid shots, a player can theoretically keep attempting the same poor, bullet-inducing strategy over and over again until it works. Even worse, they might think their choice to select many points in the Deathfluke upgrade instead of something else forces them to do this, even when that surely won't be the case.

My gut feeling is that an ability of that type should allow you to avoid a certain number of shots per level, or have guards take a very short while more to shoot you (though I guess that'd need a different name), or something similarly deterministic and slightly useful.

Eagle0600: @Devenger:
My feelings about this is that the shooting shouldn't be random at all, but that doesn't rule out an accuracy rating. A particular shot could need a certain accuracy rating to hit you, which is increased by Deathfluke. Multiple shots at the same time could also reduce the accuracy required for a very short time (within the span of a second, maybe less?).

Jason L:

You can upgrade lots of different aspects of your kit to suit different playstyles. If you go for one heavily, you can sometimes get past obstacles with the method they’re designed to stop. The Deathfluke, for example, repels a percentage of the least accurate shots fired at you. Upgrade that and your jumping speed enough and enemies have a hard time hitting you, letting you get past them in some situations you’re not meant to.

This bit frightens me, because you've given the impression early on, in interviews, and in the title that Gunpoint is supposed to be roughly half about giving guns the respect they lack in most popular media - that the world is supposed to be such that if an enemy points a gun at you and pulls the trigger, you [i]die[/i]. 'Less accurate' shots now? Literal bullet repellant/regenerating shields? Hmm.

I see just a bit of a contradiction between your thesis on Deus Ex' choices and optional objectives. I admit you're the Deus Expert here, but I still feel like you-the-second and The Cheshire Cat may be more correct - that the magic Deus Ex has, which nobody but Alpha Protocol (and sort of Mass Effect) has tried to steal, is having characters acknowledge your use of alternate methods. At its best, they actually acknowledge the results of an alternate method, leading the player partway to replayability.

Otherwise, I'm glad to hear you're still doing right by the game. It's looking great. Good luck.

nemryn: A good thing about the 'one obvious solution and several tricky ones' model is that it lets you do some neat stuff by blocking the obvious path. So you can have a Hard Mode that's more than just 'guards have better AI and gadgets are more expensive', or have a mission where you return to a building you've already infiltrated once, except now they've beefed up the security.

Jonn: Chesire, there's an interesting mechanic in Saints Row 3 where the player has a choice of two actions. There's never any moral value to either (given that The Boss is basically a sociopath), just two different types of gain, usually long-term vs. short-term. And no, there's never a third option.

Noc: One thing I've observed in myself about the 'multiple paths' thing is that it's quite equitable to the presence of Easter Eggs or secret areas or hidden goodies: if you present me with one obvious 'easy' path and hint at the presence of a harder, trickier option, I'll tend to take you up on the challenge and look for the hard way.

I think you tend to see this a lot in games with both a combat and a stealth component: yeah, you can usually just bust your way in, guns blazing. But that's the clumsy, inelegant way -- the easy way. The hard way -- what feels like the 'real' way to play the game -- is to sneak in without anyone noticing you. I'm sure you could also go through the game without finding any of the secret paths or hidden weapons, but you know they're there so you're going to try and take a stab at finding them.

(Note that there's also a bit of a difference between what is essentially an Easter Egg -- a neat little hidden something that players can feel accomplished about stumbling upon -- and hidden-object collection quests, where you're told "There are fifty golden widgets hidden throughout the game!" with some reward for finding all of them or something. The latter often feels like a chore, like a sidequest tossed in to 'spice things up' without adding all that much to the game. But when you stumble upon a Secret, it feels like you've accomplished something beyond the game's expectations. Sure, 90% of other players might find the same secret, but the game doesn't act like it expected you to do it. It's all "Pffft, I bet you won't even OH MAN YOU DID, that was awesome! Here, have some points and a health pack.")

Jim Offerman: Darn. It would seem that you have cracked our code! ;) By the sound of it, you have a nice mix of things to add player choice. Good luck with the level designs (hardest part of any game, IMHO) and do try to make that March deadline -- really looking forward to playing your game!

Rei Onryou: While reading that, I began thinking about Thief and how the harder difficulty levels involved stealing more things, hurting less people and escaping. Then I read Choice #2 - I hope you'll look to Thief and other games that encourage ghosting (http://forums.eidosg... ...hp?t=47701). I think one of the key things is that these are optional ways to play the game. The casual player may go for the more straightforward (and perhaps relatively easier) route, but your hardcore fanbase (those who mess around in Deus Ex) would be drawn to the extended challenges.

Have you had the opportunity to speak to any Indie developers? I suspect many will have gone through the same challenges as you are now and they'd be able to give a great insight into their methodologies.

Iddan: You can always try letting the testers design levels, and have people up-vote the best ones.

Anonymous: Congratulations, you've discovered the difference between making a game and making a simulation, and just how difficult it can be to compromise between the two.

Most game designers never reach this point.

Achievement is you!

Crane: This is looking increasingly impressive. It's a shame it won't be ready for Christmas, but by damn it's just like the first rule of cooking:
Make sure they're good and hungry.

cookieheadjenkins: I blame Skyrim. Personally speaking, I'm happy to wait for something that looks this promising. Keep going!

TooNu: It's not a REAL PC game without delays :) and as ever, more time invested means more reaping of awesome later.

pete: Looking forward to December. Take all the time you need. This is a spare time game, and the love shows. So just keep doing your thing, and release it when it's ready.

Chris: Without your delaying we wouldn't get these interesting thoughts on game design. Are you still taking on new testers?

Rubix: I felt like the choice-options of games like DX:HR were insincere, at best. The game heavily favors stealth (and rewards you for it), and yet taking other routes (such as attacking enemies head on) will oftentimes get you killed in seconds. As a result, the game becomes linear through natural selection: A game of stealth with optional sidequests that yield rewards we may or may not need.

If a player is going to take on additional difficulty, the rewards need to be obviously worth it. All too often, in DX: HR, I felt like rewards were useless. Why do I care about a laser upgrade to a weaker weapon if I'm going to find a better weapon later on, nestled in a random locker somewhere? Why care about weapon upgrades if I'm not using weapons at all? That being said, I will absolutely go out of my way to fulfill sidequests like the Golden Chocobo or Battle Square challenges of FF7 because the resulting prizes are well worth it, and I have a lot of fun in the process.

I think there is a good point to be made in defying the developer. It's fun, but we rarely do it because oftentimes it comes with punishment or lack of payout.

Choices should be interesting. In The Last Express, you board a train to meet a friend only to find that he's been left for dead in his compartment. Do you toss the body out the window and deal with the police investigation later, or do you keep the body hidden in the room and deal with the risks of people finding out? Examples like these are good ways to handle choice because both options are interesting and result in consequences which make sense and come with their own difficulties. No one path is the obvious "easy/right" solution.

what about Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny? Do you befriend the people of the Huline fortress and fulfill their objectives to get access to Ancient Magic stones, or do you happen to notice that you have Spark magic and that there's an oil well leading right into their village...?

Being able to flip the bird to the developer is a hugely satisfying feeling, but only if it's an actual, viable choice, and only if it's something I can easily stumble upon. If I take the easy way out, I want it to be hugely obvious what I'm missing out on.

Bret: I just looked at the dialog in the one screenshot.

I have a sinking suspicion that I'm going to like this game even more in the future than I do now.

Pat: Hi there:

some thoughts from physical board games. Use SCARCITY put limits on every thing.

1) have really strong upgrades make player more vulnerable in other areas (think Achilles heel effect).
2) limit number of upgrades that can be in effect - player can only care 2 items and really good upgrades require 2 slots. This would mean player would have to chose the right tool for the level.
3) Some upgrades are only available by taking the challenging route.
4) Some upgrades are completely inaccessible the first time through the level ( the player is too weak, doesn't have the right tool to follow the path to the upgrade.
5) Put a switch on the fifith level that opens a secret door on the third level. (on first pass through the third level, there is an obviously inaccessible area.)

On other notes .... it sucks that I run a mac nd can test out the program :-( I got a copy and haven't been able to test it out.

verendus: This raises an interesting issue - apparently the secure circuit hijacker is going to be purchasable. Now, you could simply force players to buy it to progress - as, thus far, most of the test levels have required it - or, you could somehow give every level a (really, really hard-to-find) solution that doesn't involve hijacking alternate circuits.

goosnargh: I think you just summed up why some people love Crysis (pre-alien) and others go as far as calling it a tech demo.

If played the easy way (typically sniping dudes from afar) and with the sole objective of "winning", it is quite a dull experience. When played with a little creativity and maybe imposing challenges on yourself (say, completing objectives without being seen) it's great. And, strangely, very replayable for me.

Now the game could have done more for the easy route players but it could be commended for the no nonsense, nagless freedom to do what you want with the provided systems. At least until the aliens show up and undermine the whole thing.

P.S. Whatever's handling the type rendering in those screenshots is spewing out some really bad kerning.

Space Ace: You should totally release a public beta to everyone :D

Gray: I've given this some thought, and come to one general conclusion. The inclusion of choice exists to maintain the player's immersion. Essentially, a player is immersed when he forgets he's playing a game, and when the player is presented with linear content he becomes more aware of the game.

I define linear content as two separate elements: linear gameplay and linear story.

Linear gameplay is whenever a player has only a binary form of participating in the game, such as in point and click puzzlers or 'decision makers' like Masq.

Linear story is much more common, whenever a player has no power to influence elements of the story (setting, characters, plot), such as Half-Life 2.

Masq has a very involving story that the player feels immersed in because he or she is an active participant in it, however any immersion the player experiences will be shattered when he realizes he's just selecting from a menu.

Half-Life 2 has incredibly immersive gameplay, but again the player experiences the jarring shock back to reality when he realizes he is following a script he has no ability to change.

The problem here is that the player wants the game experience to resemble reality, and in reality a person interacts with his environment in an infinite number of ways for an infinite number of results. Obviously, this degree of freedom can't be accomplished in a game, but the illusion of it can be created. As others above me have said, games maintain the illusion of freedom best when they react to our decisions in unpredictable or intelligent ways. But giving the player a story response to each story choice and a gameplay response to each gameplay choice introduces the problem of making the player aware of the separation of story and gameplay, again breaking immersion. The answer is, to me at least, simple.

TL;DR: Gameplay choices should effect the story and story choices should effect the gameplay.

Dan: The first thing that came to mind would be to reward players who complete a level by the most difficult means.

You could give them more points to spend on upgrades, or reward them with a new locked upgrade item which they can only obtain this way.

You could also make something like the number of crosslinks a player has finite or deduct or add points depending on the amount they use in a level.

Perhaps completing the level without harming any guards.

Non of these are new ideas so I'm sure they've already been thought of.

The game looks awesome and you are either crazy or extremely generous to give it away for free. I would pay for it. Can't wait to play it.

Plumberduck: This is a great discussion on player choice (and the new additions to the game look fantastic).

One thing that makes me leery: the bullet point for Persistent Consumables. I totally understand the logic behind it, but I find that these sort of things PARALYZE me when playing games. The thought that runs in my head is always "Should I use this here? No, what if I need it more later?" And then the game ends and I've got an inventory full of things I was too afraid to use.

At the same time, when developers implement items like this, they tend to make them really powerful to make up for the scarcity. So not only do I feel wasteful for using it, I also feel like I've cheated my way through a challenge.

Michael Broeders: Watched this video of Gunpoint : ...a0WR2-tLg#!

Just to reply on a question you asked: Yes, this game is worth money. First because there are not enough stealth games out there and second the gameplay is refreshing (rewiring) and new.

Couldn't find a poll so I guess this is how we should let you know that it is worth buying?

Chris: It's definetely worth some money! Don't shortchange yourself.

Redklaw: Your dilemma about choice in a game brings up some interesting things about what makes a good.

The preference of a player to chose one action above an other, say preferring stealth and gadgetry or just killing everything in sight has very little impact in most games besides possible plot factors and an occasional yellow sticky of achievement (whether it be a power-up or just bragging rights).

One possible way to incorporate the action of choice is to make a consequence for each choice in how the game itself plays. People have brought that up here, but they haven’t connected it fully with actual game mechanics because there are not many examples of this used in games (none come to mind directly).

What if, a player who decides to knock out guards consistently suddenly finds himself in a situation where there is a guards are more dangerous or in a level with a guard who is wired to destroy whatever objective that you are after if alerted at all? How does this force an aggressive player to change his game-style while trying to one up the designer and stay aggressive?

Conversely what if a player who uses cross-link consistently finds that there is a security system installed that limits the amount of links he can change simultaneously? What if the linking system begins to tie into the objective so that a clumsy link sets off a countdown timer to complete the mission?

The mechanics I suggested are just there for illustration, but the real answer to choice in a game is to have the game itself acknowledge a player’s choice by adapting as a real adversary would. This has been promised in a lot of titles, but I’ve never seen it actually delivered. Is it possible and if it is, would we actually enjoy this game? I think I would. A lot.

Seb_^: There are lots of things I'd like to comment on to give some advice, but the main thing would be the option for choice:

You gave Deus Ex as an example - where option A would be more annoying then option B, implicitly telling the player option B is best.

However, I'd like to refer to the Assassin's Creed series on that point: for lots of missions (or even sub-missions), they tell you to "Kill your target without alerting guards" as an optional objective. Upon completion of this optional objective, you would be "100% synchronized" (fully completed the mission) and in the AC series, gaining a certain percentage of synchronization (during the entire game) allows you to unlock several hidden missions.

Letting people unlock extra upgrades/missions and/or letting them gain extra money will let people seriously consider taking the other (longer, but more rewarding) option.

As for the "bullet dodging" I read about (I didn't read too much though, it's 6am where I live), I would suggest not only using a "per bullet"-percentage (percentage of chance per bullet to dodge), but also a "per enemy"-percentage (amount of bullets already performed, with a maximum amount of bullets you can possible dodge OR use this as a multiplier for the "per bullet"-percentage, to decrease the chance to dodge a bullet the more bullets you've dodged (but this will never reach 0%).

Aside from "per enemy"-percentage, you could also use a "per group"-percentage for levels/rooms with multiple enemies in it - if the player has dodged enemy A's bullets way too far, let enemy B hit (but that's just a smaller suggestion).

Anyway, I wouldn't mind paying for the game if it has a lot more levels, maybe use a 'point' system aside from the money system, give more points if you complete the level with more advanced solutions and have an online leaderboard - this will encourage people to tell their friends to buy it as well + create a somewhat more competitive environment + increase replayability (people would replay missions just to get that high score).

And maybe adjust the stat/gadget system a bit, it looks a bit 'naked' at the moment - having only the necessary gadgets and only 1 single stat that increases chance of dodging bullets.. Maybe add a more advanced stat system? Anyway, I'm just saying the first few things I think about here, to give the game a bit more complete feeling.

Good job though.

Luke Perkin: I think the best example of choice and puzzle is SpaceChem, if you haven't played it... play it.
There are always multiple ways of solving each puzzle, some long winded but at the end you get added to an online scoreboard which shows where you lie from the average:

http://www.mobygames... ...pleted.jpg

You get people trying to have the most efficient solution and people trying the most inefficient for fun.

D.J. Coulton: What about a 3 possible choices?

A simple but repetitive annoying solution.

Solution that require skill and timing.

Solution that's clever, inventive but needs to spend sometime thinking about it for it to work.

whatsisface: I'm glad to see that nearly everyone here agrees that a good game that was delayed is better than a bad one on time. Lots of video game companies make the mistake of thinking that it's better to release on time, but all of the best video games were delayed. Those are all good points that definitely need fixing and I'm glad to see it's on it's way!

C2: If you want people who played the game to revisit old levels and to solve it differently, what I suggest are "medals", which awards the player for doing certain things. Get all the medals and maybe the player gets some sort of reward? Btw, I would pay like $10-$20 american dollars for the game. Hope this helps!