Creating a game based on a classic arcade mechanic
You think you’re so smart
As a child I spent hours, and what felt like a fortune, playing Capcom’s Super Pang at the local arcade. During that time my mind would meld with the inner rhythm of the game, simultaneously calculating the motions of dozens of enemies, precisely picking them off one by one, and effortlessly dodging what to most must have appeared like impossible odds. It was one of those games that put its hooks in me. It made me feel like a total badass regardless of the fact I was really just fighting a bunch of floaty beach balls with a harpoon gun. At the time, I was sure the game would go through numerous iterations and seamlessly evolve alongside the progression of gaming technology. I couldn’t wait to see where it would go. To my dismay not much happened over the years to innovate on the old mechanics which was disheartening at first, but as time went by it began to feel like an opportunity for me to take the challenge upon myself. Intimidated by my lack of technical prowess to build a game from scratch it wasn’t until Unity crossed my path that I decided to take a stab at it.
So what, if I had never made a video game before, how difficult could it be? All the hard work has pretty much already been done…right? Unity will do all the difficult algorithms and I’ll just “borrow” ideas from the original, add a few things I’ve always wanted and voila! Videogame done! I’ll give it 6 months. Great! That half-baked pep talk happened about 4 years ago. After struggling to teach myself how to code at a grownups speed for several months and a few failed collaborations, I realized I needed a fulltime wingman to make this happen. I was working at Blizzard Entertainment at the time and I was fortunate enough to team up with my friend, coworker, and code guru Rainer Zoettl. Luckily for me, Rainer just so happened to be a huge fan of Pang as well.
Rebuilding the original
Full of ambition, the two of us started to piece together all of our favorite aspects of the original game. We used the hero I had already made and threw together a world around it.
It wasn’t long before we had our first working build, which was essentially a Pang clone, but that didn’t matter to us as we were finally ready to test all the “ingenious” ideas we had been conjuring up. Which of course were mainly guns… Lots of guns! Our version of Pang’s harpoon gun was a smoke grenade launcher and it was in desperate need of some friends.
First, we added the machine gun which was quickly dubbed “Ol’ Reliable” due to its average yet steady power. Next we brought retribution to the player with “The Judge” which was a thick laser beam that disintegrates anything it touches.
With reliability and satisfaction covered we needed to add some powerful punches so the rocket launcher, chain lighting and the gatling gun were born. We really wanted a diverse set of weapons that were exciting to pick up and changed the flow of combat for a brief moment. Amidst the frenzy of adding all these new weapons we slowly started to realize that our harpoon gun, one of the core mechanics upon which the original game was built, had become obsolete. To put that into perspective, Super Pang without the harpoon gun is like Mario without a jump. If we get rid of that what will we have left to hold on to? Too arrogant to acknowledge our own ignorance we decided to round house kick one of the biggest support structures from under our feet and replace the harpoon gun with the machine gun as the base weapon.
Reinventing the wheel
Although in retrospect the harpoon gun itself wasn’t the problem, the moment we got rid of it everything began to fall apart. Our new weapons quickly felt overpowered and much of the game’s tactical challenge was lost. We tried to compensate with more enemies, but that just turned the game into frenzied unpredictable chaos. Instead, we decided that we needed new enemy types that would put up more of a fight so we started looking to our favorite Shoot’em Ups like Ikaruga and R-Type for inspiration. We began building increasingly complex enemies with more hit points, cooler attack patterns and custom AI features that would dynamically adjust to the player’s behavior. We had enemies that would randomly vanish and attack from behind, ones that worked in groups, even ones that attacked from underground. We must have spent about 3-4 months prototyping each and everything we could think of!
Yet, no matter how much complexity we piled on top, the game was not becoming more fun. Worse yet, it felt like each addition was actually steering us further away from something that once had potential. With battered egos and deep self-doubt we stopped everything we were doing and decided to take a deeper look at why Pang, in all its simplicity, was so much more fun than the overworked mess we had before us. Ironically, the answer couldn’t have been more punishingly simple. What we failed to realize was the key component that makes Pang so exciting is its unwavering predictability. It would introduce an enemy with an extremely simple repetitive motion that would take the player no less than 10 seconds to predict. After that the game would simply crank up the amount of enemies transforming a simple task into something increasingly complex and fun. All the complexity we had been trying to add so desperately to the base behavior of our new enemies was actually countering this principle in every way. The moment we came to terms with this everything started falling into place.
Licking our wounds
We went back to the drawing board and reconstructed each of our enemies to adhere to a simple and predictable motion pattern, each slightly different from the next yet easy enough to understand within a short moment. We were excited to find that this was actually a place where a lot of exploration could still be done. A month later, we had come up with over a dozen new enemy patterns that all worked beautifully together with one another to create that controlled chaos we had been so desperately trying to find. Since then we have really been able to chart our own course with the game. We added a power up system to the hero’s repertoire, a combo system to chase higher scores, weapons enhancement that drop from slain enemies, levels with dynamic obstacles to fight around and we even added a scientist helper that needs to be protected from brain eating spiders.
We are now a little over 2 years into development and feel confident we have a game that has stepped out of the shadow of its inspiration and become its own entity. In this time, Rainer and I both quit our day jobs and founded Awfully Nice Studios to finish developing our beast named “The Bug Butcher.” The game is currently on Steam Early Access and we have been working closely with the community to add all their desired features.
Was it a good idea to use an old game as a foundation? 100%! Making games is insanely hard and our game isn’t even that complex! I’m pretty certain if we would have tried to tackle a more “original” idea we would still be lost in the woods somewhere. Developing off pre-existing ideas not only gave us a foundation from which we could build, but also provided a barometer which let us know when we were straying too far from a path that works. We also learned that games that are fun, aren’t fun by accident, and if you tinker with even the smallest component in its composition you also need to be prepared for the domino effect of issues that this will trigger. Nonetheless, for anyone who is planning on making their first game I would highly recommend sticking to something that already works and use that as a guiding light to help you trudge through the darkness of your own shitty ideas in order to reach good ones.