Friday, 20 August 2021

The Confidence of Hades

This week has been a bit of a write-off, blogwise, which is a bit of a pity because as far as the traditional Blaugust focuses of the week goes, 'Developer Appreciation Week' is the one that I actually feel like I have a little something to say about, for once.

It won't come as a surprise that along with pretty much everyone else in the world and the judging panels of something like fifty Game of the Year awards, I'm a big fan of Supergiant Games' Hades. It's a game that I finally got around to playing just a couple of months ago and that has been in very heavy rotation here at Leaflocker HQ ever since, in a period when I really haven't had the time to spend on videogames, a clear marker both of just how good it is, and also my persistent lack of an adequate dose of self-control. Hades does a great job of making me feel both clever and powerful as your progress through the underworld, which is no mean feat when we're talking about me (not the finest gamer in the land), so I add my voice of recommendation to the choir. Play it.

Apart from the the main attraction of the gameplay loop itself, there's a number of aspects of the design of the game that I wanted to touch on today that I think really speak to the confidence of Supergiant as a developer.

First, there's the seamless inclusion of the little things that are just expected in game with modern sensibilities. The whole game is set around the rivers of the underworld, so of course you can pause in your relentless killing spree to stop and do some fishing (complete with terribly fishy puns). Heck, the game wants you to, it will even pause the relentless timer to allow you to do so. And in a world where it's important for those launch-day metrics to be able to satisfy @canyoupetthedog, not only can you pat the terrifying hellbeast Cerberus, despite him being set-up as the penultimate boss of the game you give him treats instead of fighting him, because who could possibly want to fight such a good doggo? And of course, there's the romance subplots, Supergiant were happy enough with the core game that they had the time and the inclination to add a little of something for everyone, that just oozes confidence in what you're making.

Then there's the confidence of saying "yes, you're going to have to play this dozens of times to see all the story". That's pretty much a requirement of the roguelike genre, but the ability to ask the player to see the game through to the end over and over, seeing the same content again and again, and rely on the small changes of the systems between play-throughs to keep it interesting, and to double down by throwing in little jokes about it as you make them start again, that's true confidence. And players have definitely reponded. A quick look at the Steam Achievement stats as they sit now show that almost 50% of players finished the game once, 24% finish the story, and 7% reach the epilogue. Given that seeing the epilogue took me over 70 runs, those are excellent retention rates. Compare that to something with a similar campaign length, something like FTL, where only 17% of players ever defeat the boss on easy difficulty, and you'll see just how impressive those numbers are.

And finally, in my favourite example of showing confidence in your gameplay, there's the excellent way that Supergiant didn't tie the achievements in the game to the end of the things to do in the game. Now I love achievements and I love ticking them off, but I greatly enjoy that there's still a whole heap more for me to explore and discover in the game well after I ticked off "100%" according to Steam. The hardest Steam Achievement, the one for finishing the game with the Pact of Punishment set to level 16, is explicitly the second of three in-game bragging prizes. You can tick off all the achievements without perfecting your bonds with every character, without completing every fated path, without unlocking all the cosmetics, and without engaging at all with the Resource Director, the part of the game that the game itself explicitly tells the player is just there for nutters. Supergiant is happy to give you that coveted Platinum trophy, secure in the knowledge that you'll be back to find what you've missed in the game so far, just because the game feels so darn good. And they're right, almost 40 plays after I ticked off my last achievements, I'm still diving back into the depths of hells, for just

That's confidence.

No comments: