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E3 2017 trend: Indie devs are courting speed runners

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Independent game developers are taking notice of the growing speed-running community, showcasing a few games designed specifically for speed runs at this year’s Indie Megabooth at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. It’s a bid to try to harness the power of a fully engaged community, which can serve as a loyal fan base that will spread word of mouth about a game.

The Indie Megabooth is the center of this phenomenon. This year, it was part of publisher Devolver Digital’s parking lot expo across the street from E3 proper, where it acts of a foil for the big triple-A booths inside the convention center. Megabooth, founded by Kelly Wallick, is a collection of booths — or “Megapods” as they’re referred to — that showcase a curated selection of indie games. Of all the developers featured at this year’s Megabooth, here are two who designed their games specifically for speed runs.

And with speed-running on the rise thanks to events such as Awesome Games Done Quick, a week-long marathon of speed runners that donates proceeds to charity, the Wizard Fu and Serenity Forge studios are hoping to tap into its popularity. More than 100,000 concurrent viewers watched AGDQ on Twitch in 2016, gaming news site Destructoid reported, and it raised $1,216,309 in 2016 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

Here’s what Wizard Fu and Serenity Forge have in store:

Songbringer: Wizard Fu

Procedural generation has been trendy for a while. Hello Games, the studio behind space exploration game No Man’s Sky, even started up a fund for developers who are experimenting with procedural generation, and Wizard Fu is using it to create a Zelda-esque role-playing game.

Songbringer is a fantasy-meets-sci fi RPG that focuses on exploration. When you start, it asks you to enter an alphabetical code, and an algorithm creates a procedurally generated world. This code is your “world seed,” and you can share it with friends to show them the world that you’re exploring. After you finish your first run in a world, you can also re-use it to play through that specific world once more.

Procedural generation can be thought of as a way to randomize content in a game. When a game is procedurally generated, certain aspects of it are generated algorithmically by the program so that each time the items, enemies, or landmarks may appear in different places on the game map. Procedurally generated games have a lot of parameters, though, so that the developer can maintain control over the quality of the players’ experiences. “There’s a lot of bespoke elements that go into it all, like it always puts dungeon 1 a certain distance from the starting point. So it kind of orders things — the difficulty of the dungeons, stuff like that — based on how you should kind of go through it,” says Nathanael Weiss of Wizard Fu.

Being able to generate a new world but to also revisit it after you complete it the first time lends itself to speed runs. Each map can create a different kind of challenge, and Weiss said that he wants players to use those to get creative with the way they approach their speed runs.

“There are so many little secret walls and everything everywhere, so I’m sure speed runners are going to find a way to like play the entire game in reverse, for example, or get to dungeon 7 before they go to dungeon 1,” Weiss says. “So there are a lot of tricks that speed runners will be able to exploit to get really fast times, and I’m really excited to see what they do with it.”

The protagonist, Roq Epimetheos, explores alongside a drone, Jib, which can also be controlled by a second player for cooperative play. The two live in a desolate world full of mysterious high-tech and magical remnants, some of which are items that Roq can use as tools or as elements for crafting other objects. For instance, the blink orb enables you to teleport forward, but elemental abilities like ice, fire, lightning, poison, and fear can also enable you to interact with the world in different ways.

“There’s a lot of crossover between the items too, and that’s another aspect that will go really well for speed runners,” Weiss says. “Once you get ice, you can freeze all the water and walk over it. But you can also get the blink orb and then get that upgraded to be able to cross over certain water. So there’s a lot of crossover between the items so that players have a choice of how to solve the problems and get past the world.”


The King’s Bird: Serenity Forge

Serenity Forge’s The King’s Bird is designed to make speed-running more accessible. Marketing director Kevin Zhang said that the studio drew inspiration from platformer games like the fiendishly difficult Super Meat Boy or Dust Force, both of which have captured the interest of speed-running communities.

Zhang says that The King’s Bird’s core DNA is that of a precision platformer, which rewards exact technique (something speed runners adore), but the studio saw an opportunity to draw in an audience that might may find speed runs intimidating. The King’s Bird started as a quick prototype, but when its art style garnered positive response, the studio decided to build it out into a full game.

“We realized that our original intention was working, which is: Draw people in with the beauty of the game and then kind of encourage people who otherwise might be intimidated by precision platformers to give this genre a try,” Zhang says, “and to slowly teach them that hey, precision platformers are hard but it’s still worth learning how to speed run these things.”

The King’s Bird features a flat design with a monochromatic color scheme for each level. It also prioritizes story and character more than its forerunners, which Zhang said are more focused on purely level design and fast gameplay. Short in-game cutscenes unfold as you play, telling the story of a girl who wants desperately to leave her kingdom, but is prevented by a series of magical pillars as well as a mysterious figure who stands in her way.

The mechanics borrow somewhat from games like Dust Force, with wall dashes, but also innovate on a mid-air gliding action that is momentum-driven.

“We built this entire physics system where everything is basically momentum-driven,” Zhang said. He adds that some people have compared the mechanic to Sonic the Hedgehog games, which also featured gameplay that involved building up speed to execute certain moves.

Serenity Forge is aiming for an early 2018 launch for PC, and it’s also considering some console platforms. It soft-announced a Switch version at E3, but it hasn’t locked in exactly which other consoles it will be releasing on. The studio is aiming for 35 to 60 levels in its main story mode, as well as additional challenge levels. In the future, it also plans on implementing local and global leaderboards to show players how they compare to the current record-holder.

“Once the game is more complete, we’re definitely going to be reaching out to a lot speed runners and show them what this game is about,” Zhang says. “And also probably have a lot of speed runners play test our game as well.”

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