A Pre-Release Design and Product Audit
20XX, the roguelike action-platformer by Batterystaple Games and Fire Hose Games, brings together many appealing qualities to construct a well-rounded and ultimately enjoyable experience. Deceptively complex, 20XX is easy to pick up and provides great replay value thanks to all systems running behind the scenes. At the time of writing, 20XX is still under very active development. This audit describes beta version 0.961b in late September 2016. All elements of the game are subject to change at any given time, and based on how active development is, we expect significant changes between now and release day.
20XX initially came to the public as Echoes of Eridu (EoE), which ran a successful Kickstarter in April-May 2014. Despite nearly missing their goal of $20,000, EoE was well received by fans and industry members alike. 20XX is currently on Steam as an Early Access game for $14.99, which was raised from an original $11.99 on August 31, 2016. The current Early Access version of 20XX is being met with almost entirely positive reviews, with only 4.5% of reviews being negative. Ultimately, we believe 20XX’s success will hinge on how effectively the developers address a handful of minor design and creative improvements as well as the game’s marketing. Due to its unique appeal between modern roguelike design and Megaman X nostalgia (and current popular opinion that it is a superior alternative to its modern competition), we believe the right strategies during beta development could have massive impact on release day.
At its core, 20XX is a well-executed modern homage to classic futuristic action platformers, most notably Megaman X. While 20XX offers a minor backstory to the game, the characters you encounter (and play as) are hollow, providing little more than dialogue or brief cameos. During every playthrough, the player navigates through a variety of unique environments that feature enemies and natural hazards such as pitfalls, damaging surfaces, and projectiles. While there is no introductory or tutorial sequence, enemy and environment behavior is designed to be predictable yet challenging, allowing the player to freely progress without feeling stuck or confused.
Alongside a regular playthrough, 20XX offers casual (start by choosing free power-ups) and challenging (start by choosing stackable difficulty modifiers) modes that can significantly alter gameplay. Additionally, there are daily and weekly challenges that give experienced players a chance to stand out against their friends and the entire Steam community. Lastly, players are able to pre-purchase items for their next game (or unlock items to spawn in-game) based on the credits received from their most recent playthrough, which encourages players to stick around, as they’re given an extra boost to help surpass their previous performance.
Gameplay is 20XX’s double edged sword. The complexity that goes into roguelike gameplay paired with the nostalgic simplicity of combat creates a very modern and appealing experience, but the technical and design issues in that system introduce a lot of points of frustration. For instance, the random level generation for Arctic Datacore creates small icy platforms that are frustratingly easy to fall off of, and there have been observed sequences in Jungle Station that set the player up for unavoidable damage. While defeating enemies is satisfying, the randomized placement sometimes leads to surprisingly frustrating or dull areas, which can break play flow and even increase likelihood of ending the play session early.
The boss battles are varied and have fun retro feel to them, enhanced by the introductory splash screen and the slow build-up to the encounter, but ultimately suffer due to the lack of difficulty or sophistication before the player makes significant progress in the game. While bosses get noticeably more difficult later on (and by no means are they easy enough to cruise through the entire game), early battles consist entirely of getting to the boss as quickly as possible and dealing as much damage as you can with complete disregard for strategy or avoiding damage.
Accessibility is handled well in 20XX, as gameplay works well with either a controller or mouse and keyboard, and controls can be customized uniquely for all local players. The game is currently only in English, but because none of the characters require voice acting, support for future language packs is a definite possibility. Currently there is only a Windows build, which slightly reduces potential audience size but to a negligible degree.
Polish is one of the main issues we’ve found in our time with 20XX so far. While there are subtle animations, special effects and aesthetically pleasing backgrounds, there’s a decent oversight in the composition department: comparing 20XX’s graphics and aesthetics against Megaman X’s for any given level demonstrates just how difficult it can be to differentiate foreground from background, or just different foreground objects. In many familiar chunks, there are platforms that match the surrounding area too closely, making it difficult to smoothly progress through the level. Additionally, in several levels there are square platforms that spawn and disappear, requiring the player to jump strategically from block to block in order to avoid falling off the map. While this mechanic works well horizontally, it’s rarely successful vertically: if a player enters the block area as it’s spawning they get instantly pushed to the top or side once it appears. This inconsistent behavior makes the mechanic look unfinished and can detract from the player experience.
Visibility is important for any game in active development, and 20XX is no exception. Thankfully, 20XX does quite well in this regard: other than ranking well for explicit Google searches (20XX, 20XX game, etc), it ranks well with more distanced search terms as well (Megaman X homage, modern Megaman X, etc). 20XX is easy to find on major social networks and has a dedicated subreddit, which is a large plus for Sociability as well. Active developer input on social media lets fans feel better connected during development, and will greatly benefit the game in the long run, both in game quality and established audience size.
Sociability is one of 20XX’s particularly strong suits. From the main menu, players can easily access the Steam community, see the leaderboards (of which there are many, building more diverse competition instead of a single list that’s nearly impossible to top), and find out how to contact the team or find additional online resources. The multiplayer support is also a great addition, as it allows opportunity to connect with others through the game. While there are minor design issues worth investigating with co-op, the fact that it exists is a big selling point and a great addition to the product. 20XX also has a dedicated Facebook page and subreddit to promote discussions, sharing thoughts and achievements, and more. Almost 500 Reddit subscribers, about 250 Facebook page likes. There is clear developer interaction on the subreddit, which is great for more detail playtesting feedback, positive discussions, and a stronger fanbase.
Monetization should be an easy task for 20XX, thanks to their pre-announced dynamic pricing throughout development. The game is currently available on Steam for $14.99 (what we believe to be the perfect price for any moderately developed indie game), which was raised from $11.99 prior to August 31, 2016. Over time, there could easily be support for paid DLC that features new levels, playable characters, items, and more. Paid DLC/expansions in a roguelike is a delicate undertaking, but definitely worth it when players feel like they’re getting their money’s worth (looking at The Binding of Isaac as an example).
We had two of our playtesters run through the regular 20XX mode five times each. They were free to choose their character and had no limitations with play style except that they had to choose the first available level following a successful boss fight (in order to avoid freely picking familiar levels and avoid new challenges). Playtesters were encouraged to take notes on their experience following the conclusion of a run.
While none of the playthroughs went particularly far, our playtesters definitely felt a challenge once they got through at least two levels. Note: a “level complete” includes defeating the boss and continuing on. Levels ended prematurely are not included on this, regardless of whether the player died during the level or boss fight.
Even as first-time players, the bosses were seen as exceptionally easy to defeat in the early game. However, once a few levels were cleared, they got noticeably harder. While the progression makes the player feel challenged, it was seen as too sudden and came off as frustrating, especially if powerups haven’t been impressive that run (playtesters were certain they had missed something significant in the level). Additionally, the speed bonuses were awarded nearly every time a boss was defeated, which led us to believe the threshold for the rewards was set far too low. The rewards were also frequently underwhelming, which was disappointing on many occasions.
Level distribution was luckily quite balanced for our playtesters. To their enjoyment, their least favorite area was also the least common.
Playtesters expressed excitement when finding core power-ups, as they enjoyed the unique combat and mobility effects as well as the visual changes to the character. While stat modifiers were by far the most common, playtesters were mostly bothered by seeing the same modifiers over and over, like Ninja Sash. While there’s no hard data to support this, both playtesters agreed that Ace felt far superior to Nina, due to the reach of his default sword and Nina’s unimpressive basic attacks. They also agreed that the main menu layout was confusing at first, since the main gameplay is in the middle tier of an ambiguous shelf-like room.
Here we distinguish between powerup types: core powerups are armor and weapons, stat modifiers simply increase a stat with no added effects, and chance effect powerups are bonuses based on conditions.
For such a complicated game, there are several ways of approaching any given problem. While we know our suggestions are not the only solution, we believe they’re either the most cost effective approach or will result in the greatest player response. We’ve streamlined our thoughts into three core areas.
We believe more Core and weapon upgrades will increase new player attention and enjoyment, and create more late-game strategies for the experienced fans. Right now the vast majority of power-ups do little to nothing in regards to player appearance or abilities, which can be discouraging for a fresh audience. Defeating more significant enemies should have a weighted item pool, encouraging new players to work for items that immediately make their character look and act in new ways.
The biggest improvement to power-ups would be to include more (and more significant) damage modifiers, in a similar vein to The Binding of Isaac. While 20XX online communities have been sharing unique late-game builds for some time now, it’s very rare to have people with drastically different builds by the time they beat their third or fourth boss. It would also be a positive influence for sharing screenshots and clips of the game, which wouldn’t only promote sociability in general, but also show how unique and fun this randomly-generated experience can be.
The platforms that fall down after a player comes in contact with them need a “respawning” animation. Frequently during playtesting a player would be trying to advance through an area and get damaged and knocked back by a respawning platform they didn’t realize was coming back. In some cases this has caused frustrating deaths, especially following a Twin Astrals fight.
Additionally, Arctic Datacore maps should get rid of any icy surface shorter than 3 “units” wide. While icy surfaces are a familiar mechanic, there’s little fun in having to break the pace of the game to slowly hop on one small surface to another, lest you fall to your death. At very least, the physics of icy surfaces should be tested and refined, since there are still areas where normal movement is completely inhibited (slanted surfaces will sometimes stop the player completely, instead of slowing them).
There have been some chunks generated in Stonetemple Skycity that have points of unavoidable damage, and the “Don’t Attack” Glory Zone has spawned when the player doesn’t have an available power to use. There are more specific instances of randomly-generated issues, but these stood out the most from our playtesting reports.
When a player goes through the red doors to pre-boss and boss areas, there is a slow pause and the player is shifted over to the next area. This strange transition would make sense in the Metroidvania genre, but stands out in an unpleasant way in its current implementation. We believe the player should be set to a preset stand-walk-stand animation sequence if this transition is being used to cover up background loading and is unavoidable.
Most significantly, the graphics and aesthetics would greatly benefit from a facelift. While the game has come a long way since its EoE days, the style is still reminiscent of in-browser Flash games, adding an unfortunate “cheapness” to the experience (which will have a negative impact on marketing efforts). Other than the previously mentioned issues with foreground vs background clarity, there is simply a lack of contrast between foreground elements that can make navigation unpleasant and difficult. Many times the screen is just too busy in a way that feels claustrophobic and cluttered. While random generation can only be controlled so much, there are enough familiar sequences that we believe the chunks can be better designed to require players to master different mechanics and combat strategies, not just put together to introduce constant variety.
Possibly the most significant improvement to the game is a conceptual one: better integrate the characters and backstory into the game in order to give the player a feeling of progression. In any roguelike, the player is travelling with a purpose. In 20XX, the player is simply checking off bosses on a list. There’s no uniqueness between Stonetemple Skycity as level 1 or level 8, and that makes the experience feel incredibly disappointing late-game.
Ultimately, the gameplay is too shallow for a successful roguelike experience. The game lacks real progression, and while bosses and enemies may get more difficult, the player doesn’t feel like they’re working towards a concrete, story-driven goal. A stronger story integration would be a good first step in making the game more compelling, but visual changes based on an increasing difficulty modifier would be the bare minimum for a v1 release (dynamic music would be a very strong accompaniment to this). Why are these locations randomized? Perhaps the robots are destroying and rebuilding society to fit their needs? Maybe the robots’ goals differ between playthroughs, affecting a global chunk generation variable? Just food for thought.
In it’s current state, 20XX is extremely promising. Between good market timing, great design, and a strong community presence, it has all the makings of a significant success. Even outside the core gameplay, there is a great sense of humor, enjoyable music, and a simply fun atmosphere. However, like any game in active development, there are several unresolved issues that will undoubtedly cause a fuss once the game is out. We’re confident that addressing the aforementioned issues will improve likelihood of unwaveringly positive feedback and increased financial success. With declining interest in Megaman and the ultimate failure of Mighty №9, 20XX is in a perfect position to be the “real” modern Megaman. Take note below, Mighty №9 released between the last two point on the graph, scoring 100 for Google Trends during that time. Interest is dwindling, and with a strong marketing strategy timed with continued public interaction, 20XX will surely take over that audience completely. Thanks to the random generation, live streaming has a high potential for long term interest, but we would advise against marketing too heavily to that niche until progression and polish are addressed, as per our proposed improvements.
Thank you for taking the time to read our first abridged demo audit. If you want to share your thoughts or have any questions, feel free to reach out to us for questions, comments, and business inquiries. If you found this interesting and informative, please share it with your friends and colleagues. We plan on releasing more audits like this on a variety of games to show how no two projects are alike and that for the highest quality service you need to hire an expert, like Pilone Consulting.