Design Thought: Why Towerfall's Grab Arrow Dash is One of its Most Important Mechanics

4/22/2015 - C.J. Kimberlin

The project I’ve been working on the past few months has been my most successful project yet, in terms of fun. People genuinely enjoy playing it, at least at first, but it doesn’t really seem to have that draw that makes people want to play it again. This is a problem and a problem that I was at a bit of a loss as to why it was occurring. So when I can’t think of the answer, I try to see how somebody else has answered it.

My game is a local competitive multiplayer game so I looked at one of my favorite similar games, Towerfall: Ascension. Why do people want to keep coming back to play Towerfall? Why did my friends and I want to come back to play Towerfall again? After thinking about it, I came to one main conclusion; it was the grab arrow dash mechanic.

For those who are unfamiliar with Towerfall, here’s a (very) brief description. It’s primarily a local multiplayer game where each player has one life and limited set of arrows. You run around, you shoot arrows, you kill your opponents. The grab arrow mechanic is when a player dashes into a arrow they grab it instead of being killed by it.

Why is this specific mechanic one of the most important? It causes a major change in how players play the game.

The initial set of heuristics that the players use is pretty straight forward. It’s a platforming game and most people (familiar with the genre) will understand your basic platforming elements such as movement, jumping, and even dashes. And the goal of taking out your opponents is also straight forward. Shoot an arrow in the direction of your enemy.

Those mechanics alone make up a game. It could have ended there and would be a game by any definition. I’d suspect it would still be a fun game, at first, but would run into the problem that my game currently has. There would be no (obvious) growth in heuristics and people would lose interest quickly.

Allowing a player who dashes to grab arrows out of the air changes everything. When I first started playing with my friends we all were comfortable enough with platformers that we grokked moving around, walls jumps, corners, and dashes. Playing was fun and we were refining our reflexes and heuristics. And then one of us discovered that you can grab an arrow out of the air and everything changed. All the heuristics that we have built up had been turned upside down as we all immediately started using the mechanic to improve our game. This led to further heuristic development as we also had to figure out how to deal with each other using it. All of a sudden the game became immediately more interesting again. This is key.

I specifically focus on the arrow grab mechanic because it’s positioned so well in the player’s growth in the game. There are other mechanics that allow the player to update their heuristics and play new ways, such as super jumping and dodge canceling. But these are difficult to use for even the intermediate player and far less obvious to how applicable the mechanics are. They are great for allowing an advanced player to update their heuristic tree but less so for the beginner player.

A feature that so amazingly changes how my players play the game is something my project is lacking. Players make micro adjustments to their heuristics as they get better but nothing causes that eye opening effect that breathes a breath of fresh air into the game.

This is super obvious right? Let me know at @cjkimberlin.

C.J. Kimberlin is a Seattleite professional programmer, aspiring game designer, amateur artist, and the most awesome guy ever, just saying.

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