v0.3.0 - Major Change: Unlimited Lives

Now that the core of the game is solidified and we have some stage variety to keep things fresh, I wanted to spend time focusing on some game design and balance issues—particularly character balance.

Interestingly, character impressions have been pretty evenly split across the general playtesting audience. I've heard "Cid's too OP", "Lola needs to be nerfed", "Frore's range and freeze time is insane"—there doesn't seem to be a clear winner, at least among the more casual players.

Among more competitive players, though, there was a pretty consistent message. I spent some time talking to some Lethal League players (believe it or not, but Lethal League is one of my sources of inspiration for Jumpala) about their thoughts on the game.  

The first person I talked to, Luka, went above and beyond and provided me with a lot of useful feedback and even drew some diagrams for some interesting stage control setups. Definitely an optimizer (she even asked me for frame data), she was able to consistently win with the following strategy:

But yeah most stages have been boiling down to this
Immediately get 1 bar at all costs [as Lola]
then kill, use the respawn time to get 1 more bar
then repeat that twice more

Now, this was against the AI, and playing against another human opponent would likely require some further strategizing, but still this embodied one of the fears I've had from the beginning: Will everyone choose Lola and just focus on killing? Jumpala is a game about point collecting, not killing your opponent, so if high competitive play means just picking Lola and seeing who gets 3 kills first...that's a totally different game. 

Following this conversation with Luka, I talked with another person, Nick, who encouraged me to write down exactly what Death means in Jumpala. Here's what happens when you die:

  • you lose a life
  • you lose 3 points
  • you waste time respawning
  • your opponent builds special
  • your opponent gains stage control
  • your opponent gains points

On top of all that, if you're out of lives, you're out for the round. The other player then has free rein to collect as many points as they can.

Then Nick threw this question at me: "Why do you even have lives?" 

The question actually threw me for a loop. I didn't really have a good answer. Lives had been in Jumpala since the very beginning—both of my main sources of inspiration had lives, so they were one of the first things I added when starting development. And while I made an option to adjust the number of lives per round, I never really considered what the game would look like without the concept of permadeath.

After talking with Nick, I created a build that allowed for unlimited lives and tried it out. Here's a video of the team playing around with it. 

Here are the main takeaways that we found just from that first initial run:

No more runaway games

How many times has this happened to you: you miss your timing and fall, jump to a dead end, and have Lola kill you within the first 30 seconds of a round? After this, you're basically sitting around watching the other player gain a huge lead—one that, if your opponent is good, will probably be impossible to overcome.

Without a life limit, there's no more thumb-twiddling—you stay engaged the whole round. There's always hope of turning things around. This also makes it a lot more friendlier to new players.

Death has less consequence

The downside to unlimited lives was that death had no sting. Games of chicken were no longer necessary—you could just camp out on a high-value platform and likely come out positive. Platforms in dangerous areas lost their risk/reward properties, since their values usually greatly exceed the death penalty.

Lola and Bommer are also directly affected. Lola's skills are now effectively time wasters—they're still effective, but Frore may do a better job of wasting others' time. Bommer's abilities are almost completely neutered, especially since players can ForceFall to get right back in the action.

Making death matter

To make this system work, death needs to have consequences. There were two obvious ways to make death more punishing: increasing the number of points lost (death penalty) and increasing the amount of respawn time. 

We decided to try the first one, increasing the death penalty. The number of points lost should be enough that going to hard-to-reach areas is a risk. Bumping it up from 3 to 5 still felt too low, especially since these areas often have 5+ platforms or groups of 2+. I ended up with a 10-point death penalty—quite the increase.

In addition to the pros we talked about before (increased engagement, no runaway games, more beginner-friendly), we also noticed the following outcomes:

  • The average number of points per round is lower, resulting in more rounds. It's also much more possible to score 0 in a round. If you're way ahead, other players can work to prevent you from scoring anything at all.
  • CPUs remain a constant threat—no more getting rid of them early and cashing out on points. 
  • Deaths are punishing, but not the end of the world. Bommer remains viable—in fact, it felt as if she were more of a threat, since she could potentially decrease your score to 0. Lola's role and goal changed slightly—instead of an eliminator, she's more of a "subtractor", focusing on constantly bringing others down.

In the end, it seems like removing lives will be a definite change for the better! There's still some tweaks that will need to be made, but overall I'm happy with what we're seeing. 

Looking at it now, it seems obvious, but I would probably never have arrived at this on my own.  This is a good example of why playtesting early and often is extremely beneficial, and why it's important to seek out feedback from members of your target audience, not just gamers as a whole.

Thanks, Nick and Luka!

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