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Game Design In Theory

Bullets Per Minute and Control

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Bullets Per Minute is a fun game.

In the vein of Crypt of the NecroDancer, it’s a mixture of a rhythm game and another genre–in this case, it’s a rhythm FPS. Your actions must occur on the beat–shooting, reloading, dashing, jumping, everything (except maybe your ultimate ability, if you find one). It feels fun as hell. The soundtrack is, fittingly, metal as fuck. The gun designs are visually appealing–but more than that, each gun has its own unique feel, because of how their firing and reloading styles differ.

There’s just one problem.

Some people really didn’t like that they had to fire to the beat.

Why is this such a dealbreaker?

So, the thing about games is that they are interactive by nature. As a result, things that take control away tend to be very frustrating. Anybody who’s been stunlocked for 3 whole seconds in League will tell you that it don’t feel good. However, this effect is worse for first person games.

I’m not 100% sure why, but a first-person perspective makes a lack of control feel worse. It’s probably because you put yourself in the player’s shoes a bit more–the gun’s not in Soap McTavish’s hands, it’s in your hands (and what the hell kind of name is Soap, anyway?). As a result, when you press the fire button and the gun doesn’t fire, it doesn’t feel like Soap’s gun is jammed, it feels like your gun is jammed. It’s personal.

It also doesn’t help that reloading is a multi-input process, something that’s a contentious enough mechanic in regular first person shooters. For some games, complex reload inputs make a lot of sense, but they’re an early roadblock in a game like BPM, where you’re facing off against small hordes of arcade-style monsters in arenas that can quickly feel a bit claustrophobic when your gun’s empty and your back’s to the wall. Add in the rhythm requirements, and a brand-new player who’s not used to rhythm games will likely run out of bullets, hit reload, get caught completely off-guard when their gun isn’t reloaded, fumble with the reload key and miss repeatedly, and end up dead (with a piddly 1x multiplier because they broke their streak).

BPM takes away just enough control to frustrate boomer-shooter fans.

It’s really unfortunate, because it’s a damn fun game when it comes together. I wasn’t hit as hard, maybe because I’ve played a few rhythm games, maybe because I’d heard people complain about the rhythm game elements before. I still had to learn–the hard way–that when the crosshair suggests that you should dodge, it’s less a suggestion and more like Piccolo screaming at you from across a canyon.

Now, I want to make it absolutely clear:

This doesn’t mean BPM is a bad game.

This is one of those cases where the players and the devs are just disagreeing on what the game should be. But it’s important to understand WHY that disconnect is there, so that you can try to smooth it over. Maybe you can spend extra effort on the tutorial to cover that pain point. Maybe you can tweak the design so that missed inputs aren’t non-inputs and are instead weaker versions of the normal input. Maybe you can tweak your encounter design in early stages to make panic less likely. Some players will still be unhappy, and that’s okay. You can’t please everyone, but you can make things less painful.

See, I like the concept of what’s commonly referred to as “crowd control”. I like the idea of combat abilities that push other players around, slow them down, or limit their options. But I only like it when I can do it to other people, which probably says something about me, but I’m gonna leave that for therapy. The important part is that it doesn’t feel good to have control taken entirely away from you, but there’s some forms of crowd control that feel way better than others.

For instance, blinding effects are less of a problem than total control loss. Take, for instance, the flashbang in Counter-Strike. You can still do everything you normally could–shooting, running, jumping, screaming into your mic. You just can’t see what you’re doing. You can still act on the information that you had up until the flashbang went off; if you know you were aiming at an enemy in the moment you got flashbang’d, you can still pull the trigger. You just have limited information, which is an effective form of crowd control for human players.

On that note, mitigating crowd control by quick reactions also makes it feel nicer. You can avoid a flashbang by looking away from it! You might think that this would reduce the value of the crowd control, but–and this is important–you can now play around predicting the action the other player will take to avoid that CC effect. Another great example of this is Tryndamere, from League of Legends, who has an ability that applies a harsh slowing effect to anybody who dares run away from him. Gameplay-wise, if your character is facing away from Tryndamere, they get the worse slow effect. A good Tryndamere will use this to catch a target who’s trying to escape him. A great Tryndamere will trick an opponent into walking closer to avoid the slow–which puts them in the same position of having Tryndamere right next to them.

Finally, I think there’s a lot of potential for effects that force a player to choose a tradeoff. This is more common in roguelikes, particularly turn-based ones, where a player might be faced with a debuff that hits them with a small amount of damage if they do certain things–for instance, in Dicey Dungeons, the Burn status effect causes you to lose 2 HP for each of your burning dice…IF you touch them. You also have the option of simply not using those dice, which may cost you in terms of damage output.

The key to all three of these is that they don’t necessarily take control away; they instead change how you use it. You have the option of firing blindly, turning to avoid being blinded, or taking the safe option and avoiding damage. At no point are you, as the player, forced to react. Strictly speaking, not reacting is bad in most of these situations, but players tend to prefer failing on their own terms to failing because the game said so.

Update: 2021-08-17

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