Why Pocket Dungeon?
Hey, Pocketeers! Today we wanted to talk a little bit about...well, why we made Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. More specifically, we want to dive into why we wanted to develop a falling block puzzle game with our friends at VINE.
Today we wanted to talk a little bit about...well, why we made Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. More specifically, we want to dive into why we wanted to develop a falling block puzzle game with our friends at VINE. One might say it isn’t the most glamorous genre…they aren’t super popular right now on consoles (and maybe never were outside of Tetris), they rarely get critical acclaim, there aren’t a ton of them to take inspiration from (outside the early 90s Tetris gold rush), you wouldn’t ever expect to win a game of the year award with one, and they don’t often lead to millions of dollars...so you might ask...why bother?!
Welp...although all that stuff is great (and we definitely appreciate the money and fame), what we’re really passionate about here at Yacht Club is to make everyone love games. And we love falling block puzzle games. We want to share that love, and show the world why they are special. We want to display what elements about them are cool to us, and delight and inspire others to see how they still resonate even with all the bells and whistles that come from fancy schmancy modern games. Hopefully, Pocket Dungeon can be a gateway to so many classic puzzle action games.
So with that said...let’s dive into some of the bits we were most inspired by to make Pocket Dungeon.
Before making any game, you’ve got to consider how to present it. In the case of a puzzle game, should it be abstract shapes and sounds like Tetris, or something more recognizable? The history of puzzle games is just full of titles featuring popular game characters!
In the late 80s and early 90s, Tetris became a phenomenon. Players had never seen a game of that nature before: a well with blocks falling from the top, where you clear them by arranging the blocks into a pattern. The game would progress endlessly, until the speed became too fast to handle and the well would fill up, ending the game. It was addicting to say the least!
Once Tetris took the world by storm, there was immediately a gold rush to be the next big puzzle game. Many of these games like Columns or Klax featured abstract shapes and themes, but pretty quickly the bigger game companies started using their own IP to create falling block puzzle games with recognizable brands: Dr Mario, Kirby’s Star Stacker, Wario’s Woods, Yoshi, Yoshi’s Cookie, Puzzle Bobble, Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Pokemon Puzzle League, Pac Attack, Puzzle Fighter...the list goes on and on. We relished the idea of adding Shovel Knight to this pantheon!
It may be obvious from Plague of Shadows, King of Cards, Specter of Torment, Shovel Knight Showdown, Joustus, and Shovel Knight Dig... but we sure love spinoffs! They make it easier for players to more immediately understand and engage with the world, while creating room to focus on new, unique gameplay mechanics. In building a falling block puzzle game, we were excited to use Shovel Knight as the foundation. It seemed like an obvious first major spinoff of Treasure Trove- not only would we be drawing upon a long lineage of games doing the same, calling attention to those games we love, but puzzle games being abstract can make them hard to get into.
It’s easier to understand a game’s abstractions when there’s context. Plus, a game is easier to love when there’s a story, characters, art, music, and a compelling world.
Part of the fun of spinoffs is seeing how gameplay translates to an entirely different context. For example, check out how Goldarmor shield antics naturally translate to Pocket Dungeon. When hit, he blocks you, just like in Shovel of Hope!
In addition, it’s a delight to see how spinoffs add to a universe in unexpected ways. How did Mario become a doctor? What adventures might Yoshi go on when Mario isn’t around? We had fun keeping Pocket Dungeon focused on the timeline around Shovel of Hope, while teasing future games, characters, and more.
Since a lot of the Tetris fever came at the tail end of the NES era and were popular on 16 and 32 bit systems as well, we wanted to aim for an art style and presentation more similar to the SNES ports of many puzzle games. We had to capture common characteristics, like these cool ever-scrolling BGs on menus:
We loved how they allowed for big representations of characters...capturing that improved detail you got of an old IP through SNES’s new extra power.
We’re always fans of unique styles that appeal to young and old.
Of course, clear readable graphics to emphasize gameplay are paramount:
We were drawn to how a lot of the games' crazy soundscapes, seemingly inspired by arcade or pachinko style gambling games that demanded your attention aurally. Notice how the music of Pocket Dungeon’s title screen is almost reminiscent of something you might hear in a slot machine alley:
And the high frequencies try to grab you above other similar sounding gambling machines- the gems really sound like you racked up some big winnings:
Naming “Pocket Dungeon”
You might be wondering…why name the game Pocket Dungeon? Of course, there’s the obvious connection with the pocket sized characters and the tiny dungeons you could fit in your pocket. We wanted a name to help players understand why the world looked different. And who doesn’t love a game emphasizing its cutely sized characters like Pocket Monsters?! More importantly though, we thought it would be best to show the link to those old 90s IP puzzlers. So many of them were linked strongly with portable gaming like the Game Boy Pocket.
Puzzle games have had a ton of variety over the years, and we thought the title would help be more clear as to what mechanics to expect from the game. Speaking of…
Okay...enough about the presentation. Let’s dive into what makes Pocket Dungeon tick! As we said earlier, we wanted to help players connect to the game by playing as a character, and going on an adventure!
Lots of puzzle games tried to give that sensation of playing as someone… Dr Mario after all is tossing those pills. Games like Tetris Attack let you move a cursor...that’s a character right?! Magical Drop and Palamedes gives that sense of moving a character around the space..but not where the action is happening. None of them really felt like controlling a character.
Wario’s Woods stood out to us as a game that captured this feeling best. In that game, you play as Toad, running around and stacking blocks to make them disappear. It worked well, but you didn’t really feel like a character on an adventure, just a character stuck in a puzzle well. It felt like a gameplay space waiting to be explored further.
To draw in players and present an old genre in a different way, we found a natural partner in the resurgence of roguelikes!
There are lots of obvious similarities between puzzle games and Roguelikes like Nethack, Mystery Dungeon, or Crypt of the Necrodancer. Both genres operate on grids, have simple control schemes, involve a high degree of randomness, feature long runs that start from scratch, and require lots of strategic thinking. A Roguelike puzzle game seemed like a great combo for bringing in all types of fans, while simultaneously featuring classic mechanics. Plus, we could infuse a lot of new ideas into the genre! A Roguelike structure would provide a thick adventuring layer over our puzzle core.
In drawing out the puzzle aspect of the genre to combine with Roguelikes, there were 3 things that stood out to us as important to capture:
1) Simple to play
Most puzzle games only require simple navigation with the directional pad and at most an additional button press. We tried to do the same with Pocket Dungeon. Some of the more complex characters require a secondary button press...but you could still play the majority of the game with only a d-pad for most characters.
This simple control scheme makes it easy for anyone to pick up, and it also allows the player to focus on learning by doing (since the controls aren’t the tricky part). This constant feeling of learning can be quite enjoyable!
2) Pattern recognition under pressure.
The core of most puzzle games is you’re finding some kind of pattern in the blocks. In Tetris you’re forming line patterns, in Tetris Attack you’re matching 3 in a row or column, in Puyo you’re grouping 4 blocks that connect, etc...this pattern-finding is satisfying, but it becomes even more rewarding (and harrowing!) when you’re forced to do it under some kind of pressure.
The constant rising or falling of blocks leads to making these pattern associations in a quick manner, resulting in you feeling clever over and over again. The pressure also leads to mistakes that require you to think creatively to get out of a bind. It’s fun to consistently be saving yourself in new and inventive ways.
But where should that pressure come from? From below, from above, from a timer? At one point in development, we were considering everything rising similar to Tetris Attack. But we stuck with the most classic - enemies would fall from above. This emphasized the trickiest part of the game- making sure your character wasn’t surrounded by enemies.
One of the biggest benefits of the mashup was using the turn-based nature of roguelikes. When you move your character, everything also takes a step along with you. This provides more pressure and adds a fun new twist to falling-block games.
3) A little work leading to a lot of free work
All we want in life is to not do work, right?! Well rather...we want to set up a little work that pays off big dividends. Falling block games are the master of this; since a small action of pattern matching can result in further cascading actions...planning ahead can result in a small maneuver having great payoffs:
We actually struggled with this part of the puzzle fun the most. The game’s strategy had natural occurrences like small chains that could easily lead to big chains:
But that’s not quite as rewarding. We tried to take it further with cascading chains, but since we were fusing the gameplay with dungeon crawlers, the free work that resulted in cascades typically resulted in too easily emptying the grid, or not having enough gameplay pressure. So instead, we leaned heavily into mechanisms of free work found in dungeon crawlers- items in chests:
Having the temporary power to clear out a stage by planning your item usage led to the same satisfying result...while providing the added benefit of forcing the player to cross the stage, resulting in more turns and riskier situations due to enemy build up. It’s always best when all the mechanics play off each other!
Of course the fusion of the genres led to lots of easy, but interesting sharing of ideas. What would determine the end of the stage...how about a simple door from a Roguelike:
What would add pressure to the end of a stage, how about a ceiling crusher from a puzzle game:
How do we incentivize different playstyles and multiple playthroughs? Well, Roguelikes tackle this problem with character builds and multiple character classes! Both fit perfectly!
Uh oh...where do we look for character playstyle ideas ...how about we add block-swapping characters like Tetris Attack:
The combinations were satisfying to put together...see how many connections you can find in Pocket Dungeon between both genres!
Difficulty vs Accessibility
Difficulty is always a huge topic of discussion in designing our games. We like to make games for everyone, but we want them to be challenging, rewarding experiences. In Shovel of Hope, we went to great lengths to make sure the game could be more challenging for those who needed it, or provide avenues to cheat or make the game possible to play! Puzzle games have generally always had lots of options in this regard:
Almost all 80s/90s era puzzle games have game overs that result in losing all current progress and starting over from ground zero. You lose once and you’re done- pretty brutal! That build up of pressure is exhilarating though...we wanted to keep it, and the Roguelike genre mashup made it a natural fit. Roguelikes are also known for their unyielding difficulty. But as you can see above, it’s rare to find a puzzle game from then that didn’t provide a large set of options to manage the difficulty. We decided it was important to keep that range of options in Pocket Dungeon:
It was apparent to us that people are accustomed to finding the difficulty that is appropriate for them in this kind of playspace. We believe this is in part due to the nature of the gameplay:
When you can so easily put yourself in a situation that’s challenging by screwing up or speeding up your gameplay, you essentially are controlling the difficulty in which you play the game at every moment. The game then trains you to more clearly understand the bounds of the difficulty, putting you in a better situation to moderate it for yourself. This is ideal for finding what barriers are satisfying for you to overcome.
In contrast, Roguelikes lean on the strict high difficulty to make their rules (which can be wildly ranging and complex) more understandable. Since Pocket Dungeon’s ruleset is not quite as vast, we felt the accessibility worked best with more options. Sometimes just adjusting difficulty in a ‘sideways’ way (picking a new character that matches your playstyle or adjusting settings to be harder in one way but easier in another) did the trick to make the game more enjoyable. Playtesting confirmed it...it was fun to see someone not click entirely with the game after 30 minutes, toggle their options, then be hopelessly addicted for 25 hours straight
Every piece in its place
Hopefully this gives you an idea of why we were excited to make Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, and why we can’t wait for everyone to play it soon. It’s been an honor to contribute to this impactful and informative genre of games. While games like Tetris 99 and Tetris Effect still carry the puzzle torch, it’s been a while since there has been a big resurgence of the genre, where new types of puzzle action were created. Almost 16 years- you might say Meteos/Lumines/Bejeweled/etc (the touch screen era) was the last time a mainstream, new type of falling block puzzle game really took hold. We hope we can help point people back to what was exciting in those games, while simultaneously demonstrating how they can be innovative. We wish everyone the best of times playing Pocket Dungeon when it releases on December 13th.