Dev Diary #18: New weapons, and how to teach them

This week I added two more weapons to the Cosmonaut's arsenal. They're still using placeholder art, but let's have a look anyway!

Plasma Cannon

Those weapon effects are placeholder art!

Those weapon effects are placeholder art!

The plasma cannon works much like Mega Man's mega buster: tap the trigger repeatedly to fire small bullets, or hold it to charge up a big blast. The small bullets are nothing special – they're fine for taking out groups of popcorn enemies – but the big one tears through enemy bullets and can over-penetrate an entire row of targets.

The plasma cannon joins the rapid-firing dual blasters and the slow-but-punchy shotgun to round out the Cosmonaut's arsenal of primary weapons. (Those are fired with the left mouse button and have no ammo or cooldown restrictions.)

Star Mines

Those effects are placeholders too!

Those effects are placeholders too!

The star mines create some interesting and unusual tactical play. You tap the trigger to deploy a mine (you can have up to three out at once), and hold the trigger to detonate all your mines. They blow up in a Bomberman-like cross pattern, and those beams sustain as long as you continue to hold down the trigger (or until you run out of energy; whichever comes first).

Their damage is decent and with clever positioning you can either stack up to 3x damage in a single lane (great for killing bosses) or distribute it across a pretty big chunk of the screen (great for dealing with crowds). Where the star mines really shine, though, is when used defensively: the beams block enemy bullets, so if you get overwhelmed you can quickly pop out a couple mines and create a (temporary) safe spot between their beams.

The star mines join the star dash (slice directly through multiple enemies) and the swarm missile (tag multiple enemies, then shoot homing missiles at them) to round out the Cosmonaut's arsenal of secondary weapons. (Those are fired with the right mouse button, emphasize offensive movement, and are cooldown-restricted.)

Teaching without tutorials

Legacy of the Elder Star is a shmup – arguably the simplest of genres – controlled with only mouse movement and two buttons. Does it really need some long-winded pseudo-interactive tutorial? Have you ever played a shmup that actually had one?

But that said, we do have some unique mechanics for the genre. The click-and-drag behavior of the star dash, in particular, has always been challenging to communicate. It's amazing how many players will either move the mouse or press buttons, but never both at the same time, because... reasons, or something? And then when we could get players to click-and-drag, they'd move slowly and timidly instead of executing the broad, sweeping motions the star dash was designed for. When we took over and showed players how to do it, of course, they caught on immediately, because it's a really simple maneuver; it's just that it's a counterintuitive thing to do in a shmup. It's like, "Wait, you want me to run into the enemies? Are you insane?"

But we're not always going to be hovering over the player's shoulder, ready to grab the mouse at a moment's notice and show them the error of their ways, so... how to solve this?

I couldn't get past how undeniably effective it was to simply show the player some "model behavior" for the intended/proper use of each weapon, but at the same time I didn't want to force them to watch some boring-ass unskippable instructional video, so I went for the (to me) obvious middle ground: model each weapon's behavior in a video inset on the weapon select screen, which plays as you hover your cursor over each weapon:

You can't see the mouse cursor due to the way the GIF capture tool works, so just pretend it's hovering over each of the weapon buttons as the video inset changes. >_>

You can't see the mouse cursor due to the way the GIF capture tool works, so just pretend it's hovering over each of the weapon buttons as the video inset changes. >_>

Having implemented this, it seems like such an obvious solution that I'm kinda surprised I don't see it in more games! When I playtested this feature I got lots of really positive reactions and saw way less player confusion and mishandling of weapons. So hey, game devs! This works! Use it!

Now, I still see some players who are just allergic to instruction of any kind and will go well out of their way to cancel, click away from, or otherwise ignore it regardless of its form. It's a tiny, tiny minority now, but I do still see the occasional playtester click through the equip screen as fast as possible ("Graaaah, give me gameplay right freakin' nowwwww") and then get confused by their weapons' functions once they get into the game.

The most common case is still star dash users clicking in place instead of clicking and dragging. That weapon doesn't really have any visual feedback to help them understand what they did wrong there (and I haven't yet come up with anything in-world that would solve it) so I resorted to detecting this edge case and popping up an explicit tutorial dialogue if and only if they make this specific mistake. Previously that dialogue was just some text and a crudely-animated diagram, but now I embed an actual demonstration video:

This is a gameplay capture of a gameplay capture. ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED.

This is a gameplay capture of a gameplay capture. ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED.

This upgrade new dialogue hasn't been playtested yet, but I expect it will have a measurably positive effect.

Coming soon...

So that's new weapons, and how we teach them!

There's still a third special ability coming down the pipe (it's the very next thing on my to-do list, actually) and I've still got a few remaining game updates from November to post about over the next week or so. Stick around!