Hardcore Mode: Time Trials and Tribulations

03 May / by: M&R / 1 comments / tags : ,,

Now that Ultimate Edition is out, it’s a great time to dig into the design and development of the new Hardcore game mode. Let’s go!

Wait a Second, N++ Gets HARDER?!
Well, yes — but don’t let that scare you! It’s really just the next level of ninja skill. Hardcore mode differs from the regular Solo mode in one pretty fundamental way: your time isn’t reset when you die. This means that, unlike in Solo mode, you can’t take as many attempts as you like trying to perfect your route — every death costs you. So, the pressure is always on, and the game becomes more about performing as well as possible under that tension, and recovering from mistakes rather than endlessly grinding out a frame-perfect run.

Hardcore Stories are like super-episodes, where a run is 25 levels long (as opposed to 5 levels for a regular Solo episode), with no breaks. This really lets you see the Solo levels in a new light, since your priorities shift when you play in Hardcore Mode. We want N++ to be a game that you can play a little bit each day for a lifetime, and adding this new layer gives you lots of new options in terms of the type of challenge you’re after.

A Brief History of Less Time
This game mode actually originates way back in 2010, when we made a special version of N (“N Arcade”) for the Torontron indie arcade cabinets (which were commissioned by the Hand Eye Society as part of the annual Nuit Blanche festival).

Our goal then was to make N a more arcade-like experience — N was originally designed as an attempt to present a “modern” sort of action game that eschewed the awkwardness of limited lives/continues which console platformers had (for no good reason) inherited from the arcades, but we were intrigued by the idea of bridging the gap a little further.

After some iteration and experimentation, eventually we discovered the keys:
1. not resetting the timer on death, and
2. drastically increasing the length of each set of levels (we forget exactly, but each set of levels in N Arcade was maybe 32 or 64 levels long).

This instantly made N feel a lot more like an arcade game, in that it became a “quarter-muncher” type of experience: death was inevitable, and the challenge was to make it as far as possible before you got a game over. Focusing on surviving and trying to progress through a marathon of levels, rather than perfecting each run, really changed the feel of the game — and made it even more stressful and intense.

We had always remembered N Arcade fondly, and when we were planning N++ we knew we wanted to include it. In fact, for a while we even considered making Hardcore the main singleplayer game mode! Eventually we realized that this would probably be a mistake, as it made what was already a pretty hard game even more challenging — and since one of our goals for N++ was to make it more accessible to more players, this would not be ideal. Also, Solo was a better fit for the “iterating towards perfection” theme that we’d noticed gradually emerging during development and really enjoyed.

Over the course of making N++, for a variety of reasons, we ended up having to cut Hardcore mode from the game completely. This was pretty disappointing for us, because we loved how different Hardcore and Solo felt — we thought that they complimented each other perfectly, like two sides of a coin that felt really great in your hand. So when we were planning the Ultimate Edition, we knew we had to make sure that Hardcore made the cut this time.

The Design Decisions Behind N++’s Most Daunting Challenges
Given that the Solo levels were already laid out in columns of 25, it seemed natural to use these as a single set of levels for each Hardcore “Story”, as it provided a slightly softened challenge compared to N Arcade’s longer sets — this way it’s less likely that your story ends in a disappointing Game Over, and maybe you’ll still have enough juice to try another.

Hardcore is speedrun-inspired, in that avoiding death is of the utmost importance. It’s not quite a pure speedrun mode, since collecting gold still contributes to your score — the level design in N++ is such that we didn’t want to ignore gold or else all our existing levels would be a bit lifeless — but we do think it captures that speedrunning feeling of taking on a marathon challenge where constant vigilance and perfection is required. We’re really hoping Hardcore mode appeals to speedrunners, because we love watching them play!

One of the issues with highscore competitions in Solo N++ is that there are an overwhelming number of different levels — almost too many to keep track of. Hardcore mode streamlines this a bit, providing a smaller set of leaderboards which are each more competitive and dynamic, so the battles for 0th in Hardcore will truly be epic!

We also really liked that Hardcore mode forces you to think more about the gold: often it’s simply not worth the risk of death, and you really need to weigh your options and play strategically. Of course, you can’t just skip gold completely or you’ll eventually run out of time — especially when you reach the harder levels near the end of the run where you’re bound to die a few times. This sets up a nice interplay of risk/reward which re-introduces the concept of a time limit you really need to care about — in contrast with the typical N++ Solo episode where the time limit is quite generous.

Finally, we think that Hardcore represents a true test of your ninja-controlling skills: it’s no longer enough to be able to eventually pull off that amazing maneuver — you have to be able to do it the first time, every time. Consistency throughout your run is of paramount importance — you can no longer suicide if something doesn’t work out the way you intended and try it all over again. So it’s quite the test of patience, dedication and determination — things all great ninjas share.

The Ultimate Addition
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed that little deep-dive into the design of Hardcore Mode and are excited to get your hands dirty!

Our favourite part of making N++ has been the opportunity to refresh the series’ tried-and-true game design (which has remained consistent since 2004!) with new twists that don’t feel gimmicky or played out — Hardcore Mode feels like it could have been there the whole time, and like it takes the solid Solo gameplay to the next level.

We really can’t wait to see the competition that Hardcore brings out in the community. Keep us posted, and good luck! 🙂

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