I played a lot of Diablo II back in the day.
I actually didn’t get that deep into vanilla Diablo II, though. Beat the game on normal with a Conversion/Thorns Paladin, found myself woefully underpowered for Nightmare, and put it down until Lord of Destruction came out. That’s when I got addicted. Six months later, I had four high-level Assassins of various builds, a magic find Sorceress, and a Lightning Fury Amazon specced specifically for Cow Level runs. Yes, I made a character whose sole purpose was to mow down cows with alarming efficiency.
One decade later, I would reflect with some of my friends on our shared addiction to Diablo II. “Man, that game was addictive,” we said. Pause. Then I said:
“But, you know, it wasn’t really that much fun.”
Seems to be that a lot of what people call “game design” these days is closer to designing Amazon.com than designing something like Stratego. (Go to Amazon.com, add something to your cart, and click Proceed to Checkout, and look at how the UI changes. They make it really easy to charge your credit card, and really hard to leave the site or browse or do just about anything else.)
Diablo II isn’t really fun when you actually play it. You feel good when you level up, you feel good when you pick up shiny rare items, you feel good when you click a monster and it dies and you hear the gold hit the floor, but the actual playing-of-the-game is surprisingly not-fun.
Lately I’ve been playing Bastion and The Binding of Isaac and come to a similar conclusion. Bastion has an engrossing audiovisual motif that kept me playing to the end despite the fact that none of the weapons felt satisfying in the slightest. The Binding of Isaac is delightfully creepy, and once you get into the rhythm of the game, you’re able to plan your runs around big-picture strategies that try to take the advantage of roguelike randomness–but the actual combat is boring and slippery. In all three of these games, the “fun” is basically around building a character that lets you coast through as much of the game as possible with minimal resistance. It’s like the game is getting in the way of seeing your numbers go up/listening to that breathy narrator/etc.
With that, let’s talk about ZiGGURAT.
If you’re reading this, you most likely know that ZiGGURAT is Tim Rogers’s thought-baby (as well as a bunch of other folks, since he didn’t make the game himself), and Tim is a Friend of Insert Credit. Tim has a Reality Distortion Field of sorts. It’s not like Steve Jobs’s–that was an RDF that made a thousand people buy an iPod Shuffle right after the Macworld Expo keynote and not think “Wait, why did I buy this? I already have an iPod” until after they swiped their credit cards and the deed was done. Tim’s is more insidious. If you don’t respond to him with pure white-hot hatred–and judging from some of the Kotaku commenters, that’s not uncommon–he’ll talk your ear off about “sticky friction” for years until finally he releases a game and you think it’s brilliant but you’re not really sure if that’s you speaking, or if he primed you to think it was brilliant years ago. Give Tim a second of your attention, and you’ll end up buying his $0.99 games for the rest of your life.
In other words: I think ZiGGURAT is excellent, mostly because it doesn’t start with a shitty game and add crap to it to make it “better”. There are things I would change about it, though I’m not positive that those changes would actually make a better game. (The first change I would make would be to change the gun to a guitar.) So rather than backseat-game-design, I’m just going to talk about some stuff I find really neat about ZiGGURAT. Specifically, how it has one really good central mechanic that gives rise to a whole bunch of complex systems.
To begin: ZiGGURAT is about the gun. You have one button–the touchscreen–and you use it to fire the gun. You can do all kinds of things with the gun–bounce shots down a hill, or charge up into a really satisfying ball, or use it as a shield of sorts. But that’s pretty much all you got.
The gun feels great. (It better.) Sit down and play the game for five minutes and you’ll start to feel it slowly become an extension of your body. That’s exactly how every weapon should feel in any video game ever. Honestly, the last time I played a game that felt that good was Quake III: Arena, which is a work of genius only because each weapon feels just as good as the ZiGGURAT gun. That’s why most Q3A players tended to focus on mods like Rocket Arena 3, which gave you access to the entire arsenal from the very beginning–you simply feel incomplete if you don’t have every weapon at your disposal.
So you have this gun, and you have bad guys swarming in on your position. Some are big, some small. Some jump at you, some walk towards you, some just kind of bounce in your general direction and shoot purple stuff at you. If anything hits you, you die. Simple, yes. Also so good that it is pretty much the only game I’ve played in the past week, forgoing mega-super-blockbuster-rereleases like Final Fantasy Tactics for iPad (which I paid eighteen goddamn dollars for), not to mention my backlog of Steam games. I’ve liked it enough to give a shit about the Game Center scoreboard (currently #9 on the only board that matters–total kills in a single game–booyah).
Cool thing the first: You can’t hold down a maximum charge. Your gun can charge to several different power levels, but it doesn’t stay at the most powerful when you hold it down. If you want to hit with a full charge (and you want to more often than not) you’ll need to time it perfectly. It’s like someone played any Mega Man after 3 and realized that there’s really no good fucking reason you should be holding down the B button for 98% of the game. That by itself is kind of cool. More “thoughtful”. The cool part is that the bad guys’ weak spots (their eyeballs) gradually grow and shrink. Hit them in the eyeball at their largest, and they’ll explode and take out their neighboring bad guys. Hit them with a small charge when their eyes are biggest, and they’ll make a decently-sized explosion. Hit them with a big charge when their eyeballs aren’t so big, and they’ll make a similarly decent explosion. Hit them with a full charge when their eyes are biggest, and they’ll damn near clear the whole screen. So it’s not just “charge, fire, charge, fire, charge, fire”. You need to time your charged shots with the bad guys perfectly, or else you will suck. (Bastion also does this, but it never really feels like it matters. You just get a marginal damage boost on your ranged weapons.)
If we transplanted that mechanic back into Mega Man, well, imagine taking on a Met (those little helmet guys) if you needed a fully charged shot to kill them, and you couldn’t hold on to a full charge for longer than a second. You could just do a level with five of those guys back-to-back and people would hate you/love you. (Someone, get on this.)
When there are two blue aliens on the screen, this is easy. When there are 30 aliens of different color on the screen, this gets significantly harder. Considering how powerful a fully-charged shot is when you hit a big-eyed bad guy, however, this is really your priority during most of the game. If you can consistently pick out the optimal alien to hit with a full-charged blast and execute it properly, you should have no problem at least breaking 150 on a regular basis. This is ZiGGURAT Skill #1.
Cool thing the second: Parabolas. Charging your gun doesn’t just make it hit harder, it also makes it shoot straight. Your shots are affected by gravity, and weaker shots will fall faster. You basically have a parabola gun. Since most of the aliens are more vulnerable in their eyeballs (which is in the top of their hitbox), this is actually kind of a good thing.
See, hitting perfectly-timed full-charge shots is great, but it’s not the only move in your arsenal. In the time it takes to charge and release a full-powered blast, you could have shot four small bullets that, if aimed perfectly, could clear the screen even better. This gets particularly important as the game goes on, because once you have a dozen bad guys up in your grill you won’t have the luxury of waiting for a full charge. If you were to think of your gun’s output in terms of Damage Per Second, you’ll get better results with perfectly-aimed dinky shots than you will with full-charged shots. Ideally, you want to hit the aliens (except for the giant ones) with the weakest shot possible and move on to the next target. If you hit them when they’re weakest, they’ll still blow up and create a chain reaction. So you can fire a bunch of weak shots up in the air, they’ll come down and land on the alien freaks, and since the alien freaks’ weak spots are at the top of their body, the arcing-shot actually makes it easier for you to hit them.
The downside (for you, anyway) is that since your weapon fires in an arc and is affected by gravity, some areas will be easier to cover than others.
After the first 10 minutes of playing the game, you should almost never die because a yellow alien walked up to you. It’s hard to not hit them. If anything, you can think of them as opportunities to serve up a nice full-charge shot at your leisure, since it gets easier to hit them with it the closer they get to you.
After the first half an hour, you should be pretty good at keeping the green sections more or less clear, since you can cover those with low-charge arcing shots. Just spam a few of them here or there and you’ll clear ’em out pretty quickly.
After the first hour or so, the only time you should be dying is if there are lots of bad guys in the red zone. The red zone is the hardest to cover because you can’t rely on gravity to make your low-powered shots work–you need to charge just to hit anything up here. Clear this area out as soon as possible. (This is one reason why the alien ship is so disruptive–it basically covers a large portion of your weak spot, which makes it harder to keep that area clear.) When aliens are coming in at you from 10 to 2 o’clock, you’re in some serious trouble.
Interestingly enough, the alien freaks don’t explicitly target this area: Yellow guys can’t get there, red guys don’t really jump at that angle (and they start in the light-green area so you can usually deal with them early on), and orange guys come to you so you don’t need to worry about charging the shot. Only blue aliens (large and small) and the later purple ones can get there, and it usually only happens if they build up a sufficiently critical mass that they can hop on top of each other to get out of the light-green zone, or if a giant blue freak is coming, in which case they all kind of bounce on top of him.
So ZiGGURAT Skill #2 is: Parabolas. Focusing exclusively on full-charged shots is kind of like using only special moves in Street Fighter 2. If you know how to do a fireball and a dragon punch, you can probably beat someone who doesn’t know how to do either, but if you’re playing against someone who knows what they’re doing, it’s more about using your normal moves well. In ZiGGURAT, your light arcing shots are your normal moves.
Cool thing the third: The gun acts as a shield. Charge your gun and point it at a bad guy. When they run into it, they will most likely die (the exceptions being the Giant Alien Freaks). Enemy shots will disappear. As long as you’re pointing the gun at the right target and holding the button down, you can’t really die. Try playing a game where you don’t fire any shots, and just use the gun as a shield. I just did, and got 44 kills before a Giant Alien Freak stomped me.
This is your block button, your safe zone, your ZiGGURAT Skill #3. If you take a typical shoot-’em-up–Gradius, or R-Type, or Ikaruga, you will find yourself in situations where you cannot help but die. Decisions you made five steps earlier–move here, shoot this, move there, shoot that–backed you into a corner. You get good at those games by recognizing which decisions will back you into a corner, and which decisions won’t. When you’re new at these games, they feel “impossible”, because you haven’t played the game long enough to know how you ended up in a guaranteed-death situation. ZiGGURAT doesn’t do that (well, not as much, anyway). There are very few situations where the reason you lost was because of something you didn’t do 10 seconds earlier. For the most part, if you are making the correct decision in any given snapshot of a ZiGGURAT game, you will not die. (That doesn’t mean that your decisions don’t have effects that come cascading down upon you later–take the wrong shots and you can be buried in shit that makes your life harder. But you won’t find many guaranteed-death scenarios.)
This gives ZiGGURAT a certain calm to it–something unexpected in a game about the last stand of the human race, to be sure. As long as you are blocking correctly, you can keep yourself alive almost indefinitely. You can take a breath, ponder a plan of action, wait for the exact right moment to blow up the exact right alien and reset the screen. It’s not a “twitch” game. It’s about making decisions. Once you’ve mastered the three ZiGGURAT Skills--the weapon/enemy charge dynamic, parabolas, and the gun-as-shield, you’re ready to to figure out your Decision Tree.
See, each enemy taxes your decision-making capabilities in different ways. Small blue guys are rarely a threat on their own, but you’ll need to keep their numbers under control. Leave them alive long enough, and they’ll be able to hop on each other to get into your danger zone, pressure you with purple shit, and get in the way when you’re trying to soften up the blue giants. Large blue guys force you to charge up your shots to take ’em out (they go down much quicker to stronger shots than weaker shots–I think it’s something like 3 maxed out shots to kill, or 20 slightly weaker shots, and they’re invincible to light shots), so even though they probably won’t kill you outright, they’re still plenty dangerous since they’ll push you out of your comfort zone. Red and yellow aren’t too dangerous on their own, but if you let them get close (which they usually can, when they’re covered by hordes of big and little blue guys) they’ll kill you. The orange guys will kill you if you take your eye off of them at the right time, which makes it easy to miss a window for a fully-charged shot. And so on.
Once you have a basic handle on your three ZiGGURAT Skills, you can make it to the End of the World (and beyond) by using those skills at the right time, on the right enemy. It’s less about blasting bad guys and more about juggling the order in which the bad guys will kill you, using the shield to not die, taking charged shots when you can, and popping off the odd small shot when you can’t.
All that stuff comes from a person with a gun and a bunch of aliens. A simple mechanic that is built for the device you play it on and polished to excellence, yields a game that is elegant, deep, and rewarding.
There are, of course, a few other cool things about ZiGGURAT. I like how the first orange alien always comes out at a certain point in the game (with its own musical cue). I like that the game is set at the End of the World, since the setting makes things like in-app purchases seem trivial and stupid (you’ve made a game about the last human on Earth, and you’re going to nickel-and-dime your player for better guns?). I also like that the game doesn’t explicitly reward Big Combos, because who really cares how good you are at billiards when it’s the End of the fucking World and the fact that clearing the screen lets you live an extra give seconds should be reward enough. I like that there are multiple leaderboards and lots of statistics, because I always tried to get Most Deadly/Most Accurate whenever I played Goldeneye 64 multiplayer. But all of that is icing on the giant purple alien freak cake. This is the game that keeps me playing it because I want to keep playing it, not because I feel like I have to keep playing it. It’s addictive because it’s good, not because it was designed to be addictive. It feels like our generation of gamers is getting a new Centipede or Missile Command, and you know what? That’s pretty cool.
patrick miller will be damned if he’s gonna get knocked out of the top ten by the likes of you, kid