Note: The following article is written in regards to a pre-release build of Willful. Some or all of this article’s feedback may no longer apply.
At the core of every high quality game, there’s a consistent logical structure. By that, I mean that all (or almost all) of the pieces of the game fit together in a way that anyone can understand. An easy way to see these structures is to take any rule in your game and ask “Why?” For example, in Mario games, jumping is the central mechanic. So when you ask “Why do you jump on enemies to kill them?” The answer is obvious. But you may have noticed that I had to pre-establish that jumping was the central mechanic to answer that question.
When looking at the logical structure of games, you also have to look for arbitrary connections. There’s not really an exact reason why Mario is about jumping instead of being about anything else. It’s likely that jumping is so important merely because someone thought it would be fun (or because of technical constraints). If you think of the logical structure of games as big jigsaw puzzles, then arbitrary connections are the corner pieces. They’re the starting points from which all the other logic in your game springs. You can identify your corner pieces by looking for things you have to explain to your players before they start playing.
Whenever you make a game, you should aim to have the fewest possible number of these “corner pieces”. In fact, I would say that a game with many arbitrary connections is doomed to failure. Even if you look at difficult to understand games such as Mobas or 4x games, you’ll find that despite their complexity, the rules aren’t arbitrary. Many of their rules may seem arbitrary at first, but that’s because the game mechanics are so tightly interweaved that it’s difficult for you to understand all the connections when you’re new to the game.
With these thoughts in mind, let’s talk about Willful.
Willful is metroidvania action platformer where you go from world to world collecting powerups, shooting bad guys, and jumping on platforms. The core gameplay (as well as the art) strongly evokes Cave Story. In the end, Willful is a surprisingly difficult game to explain. It’s a mish-mash of different ideas that draws from Mario, Metroid, Cave Story, and even Banjo-Kazooie. In the end, I think the largest problem is that there are too many arbitrary connections.
When you start your play-through of Willful, you’re greeted by a little star wars style text scroll to set up the plot. It’s a few paragraphs long, easy to parse, and it gets out of the way fast enough that it won’t bother anyone. It’s pretty good as far as introductions go. The short text blurb tells us we’re playing as a rabbit named Will that was captured by cultists who are going to sacrifice him to an eldritch god. We’re then dropped into the first level where we escape from the spaceship where we’re being held.
Everything makes sense so far, but then stuff gets weird. The space ship level involves fighting absolutely no cultists. You fight… this thing.
When I first encountered this enemy, I wasn’t sure what to think. I thought maybe this was just what the cultists looked like. Maybe the game would be about fighting these crazy looking alien things. But that’s not actually right. Later in the game you meet the cultists. They look the way you’d expect cultists to look. But every cultist you meet is an npc that just talks to you. You don’t fight a single cultist throughout the entire game.
This strange situation with the cultists is an example of a problem that seems to plague every aspect of Willful. Why did the developer make this decision? Why take the time to set up these cultists as the antagonists if they’re almost entirely irrelevant to the game outside of a few shops? What’s the point? What does your game gain outside of some needless confusion?
If I sound aggravated by this, it’s because I am. It disappoints me to see so many missed opportunities in a game. When you decide your game is going to be about cultists, commit to it. They don’t have to be every enemy in the game, but they should be the primary ones. They should appear throughout the game as a consistent threat that the player clashes with several times before their final battle with the old god they’re trying to resurrect.
My whole point here is that your player can’t follow the rules of your game if you don’t make your game consistent. When you start by saying “Here’s a game about escaping cultists and foiling their plans.” You have to actually make the game be about that or else the player will say “Oh okay. That part of the game must not really matter.” It’s fine if your player only says that about two or three parts of your game, but in Willful, I ended up thinking that most of the game didn’t matter.
Some Other Examples
In Willful, you travel to several different worlds with different environments before you reach the final level. It’s a pretty classic scenario. The only problem is that the differences between levels couldn’t be more minor. Some of the levels have minor gimmicks, I admit. One of them has a little toggle switch that makes blocks appear and disappear. Another level has the mega-man style blocks that appear in sequence. The problem is that besides these minor gimmicks and simple palette swaps, the levels fail to feel very different from each other.
I think an excellent example of this is the turrets. Throughout the game, there are 4 or 5 different turret style enemies. They’re attached to a wall or the floor and they shoot at you. These turrets appear throughout the game with 4 or 5 different skins, but they all act the same. This begs the question: What’s the point of having so many different turrets if they’re all going to act the same? What’s the point of having so many levels if they’re all going to be basically the same? Imagine what it would be like if every single Mario Level consisted of just goombas and koopas. Even if the core gameplay is fun, it’s going to wear thin after a few levels of the same thing over and over.
Where Can Variety Come From?
In order to keep Willful feeling fresh, the gameplay has to change over time. The game has to develop in complexity as you progress through it. The player has to be faced with challenges that force them to use their character’s abilities in new ways to overcome them. Unfortunately, due to the way Willful is currently constructed, this is slightly difficult.
Every game has certain ways that it can be changed based on its design. For example, in order to shake up a Mario level, you can change the enemies, the powerups, the block types, the layout, etc. In a shooter like Call of Duty, you can change which weapons the player has, which weapons the enemies have, the position of cover, the layout of who has the high ground, etc. These features are like knobs that the developer can play with to make each level feel different and exciting without having to invent something new for every level.
In Willful, these knobs are a little bit difficult to pin down. In my experience with the game, I noticed it had two main types of content: combat and exploration. Each of these individual types of content need their own knobs to tweak because of the way they’re mixed together in each level. I think each of these types of gameplay is faulty for different reasons, so I’ll go through each one.
In Willful, you spend a lot of time in combat. In fact, I’d say it’s the primary style of gameplay in the entire game. Unfortunately, the combat suffers from an incredibly constraining design that makes it difficult to get anything interesting out of it. The primary culprit here is the player’s gun.
There is only one gun that you use throughout the entirety of Willful. You can only fire it in a straight line either up, down, left, or right. Over the course of the game, you get power upgrades for the gun that improve it linearly, making it deal more damage. (Once you have a lot of upgrades, the gun starts shooting extra bullets that ricochet outward, but those are impossible to control so they don’t really add any choice.) This isn’t a gun that gives you any room for creativity. If you see an enemy, you have to be lined up with it either horizontally or vertically, and then you shoot it until it dies. This severely limits the amount you can play around with the gunplay that you can have in your game. Think about it:
- The player must be able to line up with every enemy on a plane, so any fast moving or flying enemies are incredibly difficult to hit.
- You can’t have any enemies that attack you at an angle because they’re literally impossible to hit without some fancy jumping.
- Because the player has to be lined up with enemies to shoot them, most of your enemies are going to just shoot in a straight horizontal or vertical line because that’s where the player will be relative to them.
I’m wracking my brains trying to figure out some sort of interesting combat encounter you can have with the provided rules, but I can’t think of anything. If you were to look at games with comparable combat, for example Cave Story, you would see they make different choices at key points. If Willful had different weapons that were effective in different situations or more firing angles or a more unique basic gun , the developer would be free to make more complex encounters with enemies that really excite the player. In its current state, I don’t think anyone would have much fun with the combat after the first 30 minutes to an hour of gameplay.
Willful’s exploration is kind of strange. On the one hand, you’re let loose in these somewhat open levels to find your own path through them. Each level has a boss, but defeating the boss doesn’t unlock the future levels. In order to progress through the game, you need to collect golden carrots in each level. These carrots aren’t marked on the map and they really force you to explore. I thought it was a cool change from the usual way games feed the player all the information they need.
This all falls apart as soon as you get a compass. In each level, you can get a compass, usually from a merchant. Once you have this compass, it points you towards every golden carrot, therefore turning exploration into a fetch quest. It’s sort of silly. 90% of the carrots aren’t difficult to acquire. Some of them require you to pass a platforming section or defeat a boss, but most of them are just lying around the level. This is a perfectly fine decision in a world where players are taught to think for themselves and dig around the level for the carrots, but the compass just makes the whole thing laughably easy. If the game is going to be about collection and exploration, let the player do those things. It’s okay if there’s no compass. Your game will be better for it.
One other thing that can be improved with exploration is the sense of exploration. This goes back to my point about the arbitrary connections. What are the golden carrots? Why are they important? Why am I collecting them? In their current state, the golden carrots are just kind of scattered around at random. It’s like walking down a side alley and finding some treasure just lying on the ground. What’s the context? Why is it there?
Considering the golden carrots are the primary goal of the player in this game, they open up all sorts of opportunities for world-building and storytelling. I don’t mean the story of the golden carrots exactly, but the story of whatever surrounds them. If I were building Willful, I would try to give each Carrot an interesting context. One of them would be a piece of a monster’s treasure hoard. Another would be an idol of an ancient, long-forgotten culture. This is all stuff that doesn’t have to be super complex either. All you need is a monster that guards a room with some money as well as a golden carrot and the meaning is clear. Or a temple door that you have to solve a simple puzzle to implement. (Bonus points if you add some sort of skeleton or zomebie enemy inside surrounding the carrot.
The key here is that Willful doesn’t go far enough with anything. The forests aren’t forests, they’re green versions of the other levels with one or two unique enemies that barely appear throughout the level. The ruins aren’t ruins, they’re rocky versions of every other level with one or two unique enemies that barely appear throughout the level. This goes on and on with everything. Make it matter. Give the levels context. Give the enemies context. It doesn’t necessarily have to be story either. If you give every enemy in a single level a new mechanic to play with then that’s enough.
Willful is a tough game to just “fix.” Its problems aren’t the kind of problems where I can just say “Make it faster” and you’ll have a good game. The framework of the game is mostly fine. The jumping feels good, the shooting is okay. Willful isn’t in desperate need of basic mechanical fixes, which is a great accomplishment. But it needs to be tied together and made cohesive. The player needs to be given a reason to keep playing.
At this point, I think that developer Luke Vincent would be best served to sit down and connect all the pieces of his game. In its current state, the game is like a half finished sculpture. Anyone can tell by looking at it that it’s supposed to look like a rabbit. But nobody is going to be impressed by it until the creator sits down and really smooths out all of the imperfections.
Here are some other observations I made that don’t really fit into the big idea of the rest of the article:
- The game does a good job of teaching its controls through gameplay. I don’t think the text on the save select screen that tells the players all the controls is necessary. I think the only control you have to explain is shooting, but I would probably make a pop-up when the player first gets the gun instead of putting it on the menu. It looks kind of ugly right now.
- The floating rock enemies are hard to hit, but non-threatening. They’re really just minor nuisances that aren’t any fun to fight. They’re also pretty lame as far as enemies go.
- The reload bar goes up to signify your gun is overloading. Right now the bar looks like it’s going to power up your gun when it’s full. Try to figure out a better way to communicate to the player what that bar means.
- Craig, the rock golem boss, has a roll move that comes out of nowhere. It feels pretty cheap when there’s absolutely no telegraph that he’s about to get way faster and hit you. Try to communicate that the ability is coming clearly to the player so it feels more fair. (I’d probably just give him some acceleration time before he goes to full speed.)
- Why does the blue switch that looks like a face change the white blocks that look like dice? How are they related? This is another arbitrary connection.
- Why do the white blocks that look like dice only have two settings when dice have 6 sides? Why did you choose dice if you’re only going to use two sides? This is another arbitrary rule.
- In some places, there are thin platforms that other games would allow you to jump through but this game doesn’t. I think you should probably give them more depth to avoid confusing the player.
- There’s a sign at one point that tells the player to use the rabbit jump. I think you can get away with not telling the player this and letting them figure it out themselves. This will also make them feel smart and make them like your game more.
- The purple key icon in an early level that only activates when you go to garbage land and get the proper key is weird. I thought it was actual key you were supposed to grab and spent a good 15 minutes trying to get it before I gave up. Consider changing the icon. I’d consider a purple lock.
- The allusion to garbage land is pretty confusing because garbage land isn’t the name of a level on the map. If you tell the players to go somewhere but they have no good way of knowing where that place is supposed to be, they’ll think they missed something. Maybe say “It’s in garbage land in blah blah blah level.” instead.
- Losing your money when you die is a good mechanic, but using the Will face as the icon for it is totally unclear. It looks like you’re collecting an extra life. I would change that.
- I didn’t realize until Beelzebub that the gray blocks disappear when you kill the level boss. More can be done to communicate this early on to prevent confusion. You want really visually distinct blocks that players will remember.
- Items in the shop are so cheap that I never had to worry about money throughout the entire game. Work on rebalancing the amount of money you get or the cost of things.
- If the omnistar is the anti-behemoth weapon, why is it completely ineffective against Behemoth Jr? It’s inconsistent and arbitrary and not very fun.
- Also, the omnistar gets talked up throughout the entire game. When you get it, it’s this incredibly lame item that’s only situationally useful. I would make it a million times more impressive both visually and mechanically.
- You do a really good job of teaching your players the mechanic of a level at the beginning of a level. Stuff like pushing the block into the fire in Orchid Cave or teaching the switches to your player at the beginning of Dagmar Ruins is all done without text or anything like that. That’s great game design. Good job.