Interview: Jan Willem Nijman On Nuclear Throne’s “Feel”

By Graham Smith on October 21st, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

The character design is lovely.

Nuclear Throne is an “action roguelike-like”: a top-down shooter with permadeath, set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and starring a cast of mutants who need to hoover up radiation to gain in power. It’s fast, frantic, and made by Vlambeer, the two-man indie development studio behind similarly compulsive shooters Super Crate Box and LUFTRAUSER.

Nuclear Throne (formerly Wasteland Kings) is currently available in Steam Early Access, and like those other games, it already feels great. “Feel” is a poisonous word in games criticism though, and I was unsatisfied with the normal language used to describe games like this: “meaty”, “weighty” and “crunchy” only gets us so far.

I wrote to Vlambeer game designer Jan Willem Nijman about how you make pixels bullets feel powerful, and about finding a better language to talk about videogames. He was gracious enough to do the hard work of explaining why Nuclear Throne feels great for me.

RPS: [I put all of the above to Nijman in an email]

Nijman: “Feel” is a super vague term to game designers as well, and while you guys have things such as “crunchy” and “meaty”, we have things such as “add more bass to the sound effect” and “screen shake”. I guess “feel” is something super abstract we both have to work with in a non-abstract way.

The problem with (and cool thing about) games is that we need player input before our systems become of any value. Game enters player > player puts input into game > game reacts > reactions enter player > player thinks about reactions. That last bit is where it becomes valuable. What we do at Vlambeer is spend a lot of time working on the “reactions enter player” part.

RPS: What are the most important factors in making a gun feel good?

Nijman: There’s a couple of things, but the most important factor would probably be sound. On Nuclear Throne we’re working with a great audio designer called Joonas Turner, who manages to produce super realistic but over the top sound effects that really suit this game. A good, punchy, bassy gunshot does wonders.

Other than that we always make sure our projectiles move at relatively high speed, look huge (the bullets in most of our games are about the same size as the players), and communicate clearly (with some animated effects) when hitting something. There’s also screenshake. Just moving the screen around a bit randomly, and offsetting the camera away from where you’re aiming can be so powerful.

I have never reached this far in the game.

RPS: When you’re tweaking things like fire rates, audio, bullet travel time, etc., is it a purely intuitive and iterative process?

Nijman: We firmly believe that a game is only a game when you’re playing it. No pile of code/design document/list of values can really express anything as well as playing a game. That’s why we spend half our development time shooting monsters. Basically this is a highly iterative, partly intuitive business. That intuition comes from having spent years making games about shooting and running around. Obviously there is some logic involved. We like designing extremely powerful weapons, and then giving them a distinct downside. Super Crate Box is sort of an exercise in this, the best example being the disc gun.

The automatic shotgun in Nuclear Throne shoots at an insane rate of fire, but fires one less pellet than the normal shotgun. Tiny differences like that are important to making sure all guns have at least some value, and changing them around is fun!

RPS: Other than those fire rates and travel time, what other properties or settings does a weapon have? Could you be specific, and maybe provide those numbers for the basic pistol in Nuclear Throne and how they impact the way it feels? Apologies if this sounds crazy.

Nijman: Alright, let’s try this.

When you fire the pistol in Nuclear Throne, first of all the Pistol sound effect plays. Then a little shell is ejected at relatively low speed (2-4 pixels per frame, at 30fps and a 320×240 resolution) in the direction where you’re aiming + 100-150 degrees offset. The bullet flies out at 16 pixels per frame, with a 0-4 degree offset to either direction.

We then kick the camera back 6 pixels from where you are aiming, and “add 4 to the screenshake”. The screenshake degenerates quickly, the total being the amount of pixels the screen can shake up, down, left or right.

Weapon kick is then set to 2, which makes the gun sprite move back just a little bit after which it super quickly slides back into place. A really cool thing we do with that is when a shotgun reloads, (which is when the shell pops out) we add some reverse weapon kick. This makes it look as if the character is reloading manually.

The bullet is circular the first frame, after that it’s more of a bullet shape. This is a simple way to pretend we have muzzle flashes.

So now we have this projectile flying. It could either hit a wall, a prop or an enemy. The props are there to add some permanence to the battles. We’d rather have a loose bullet flying and hitting a cactus (to show you that there has been a battle there) than for it to hit a wall. Filling the levels with cacti might be weird though.

If the bullet hits something it creates a bullet hit effect and plays a nice impact sound.

Hitting an enemy also creates that hit effect, plays that enemies own specific impact sounds (which is a mix of a material – meat, plant, rock or metal – getting hit and that characters own hit sound), adds some motion to the enemy in the bullet’s direction (3 pixels per frame) and triggers their ‘get hit’ animation. The get hit animation always starts with a frame white, then two frames of the character looking hit with big eyes. The game also freezes for about 10-20 milliseconds whenever you hit something.

This is just the basic shooting. So much more systems come in to play here. Enemies dying send out flying corpses that can damage other enemies, radiation flies out at just the right satisfying speed, etc. We could keep going on and on. It’s that attention to details and the relationships of all those systems that matter. You might miss an enemy and hit a radiation canister, forcing you to run into danger to grab all that exp before it expires, etc. It’s the mix of things that matters, not the things themselves. I guess what our games have is our view on what makes those values feel and play good. That’s the Vlambeer “feel”.

When the bombs drop, I hope I mutate into a fish.

RPS: What lessons have you learnt from previous games like Super Crate Box that you’re carrying forward into Nuclear Throne?

Nijman: Everything! Super Crate Box was a super minimalist game, and Nuclear Throne isn’t, but it was great practice in action game design. It also got us comfortable working with people like Paul Veer, who animated for Super Crate Box and is now doing the art for Nuclear Throne. We just got better at making games in general.

One thing we’ve been working on hard lately is making the process of making games less painful and more fun for the entire team. We believe that fun we’re having while making this can also be “felt” (that word again, argh) when you play Nuclear Throne.

RPS: Do things like character movement speed, or enemy movement speed, change the way weapons feel to use? Do enemy reaction animations to being shot change the way a weapon feels?

Nijman: Simple answer: yes. Cactus once gave a great talk at the Independent Games Summit at GDC, where he demonstrated how doubling both the amount of enemies and your rate of fire makes games better. Things like these are funny, because system-wise you’re almost dealing with the same stuff. Somehow there’s a big difference between a gun that shoots 2 bullets that deal 10 damage and a gun that shoots 20 bullets that deal 1 damage.

RPS: How important is animation and visuals versus audio in general?

Nijman: Both audio and animation can really be used to fill in details. One of our characters, Fish, is playing guitar in the main menu, while Jukio’s theme song is playing. The animation and song aren’t tuned to each other, but it still feels like Fish is playing.

Whenever we see still images of Paul Veer’s art, we think “that’s cool!”, but when he starts animating stuff, it really comes alive. Things become real. He manages to cram so much personality into things. I’ll use this sentence to say how much we love working with these people (Paul Veer, Jukio Kallio, Joonas Turner, Justin Chan). No one gets upset by the amount of detail we want to cram in, everybody seems to only want to do more of that. It’s great.

RPS: Tangentially, what prompted the decision to launch on Steam Early Access for the game? Is that to garner player feedback, and do you worry about how first impressions will change people’s perception of the game?

Nijman: We hate working on games and not being able to talk about them! Early Access is awesome, because a large amount of people are out there already playing our game. It just allows us to have our thoughts out in the open. We also simply think experimenting with things like this is super fun.

The version that’s on Early Access right now is a game we’re proud of. We don’t worry about people’s perception of it, because we think it’s a good game. It’ll get better, and bigger, but we firmly believe what we have there is already something that can stand by itself.

Nuclear Throne is £10 / $13 in Steam Early Access and it feels meaty weighty crunchy great.

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28 Comments »

  1. Kobest says:

    Just played through GunGodz recently, and wow, these guys do nail the feeling in games. Ah, that word again…

    • Snidesworth says:

      Yeah, Gun Godz is amazing. As is the free demo for Luftrausers. Not sure if I’ll go in for early access on Nuclear Throne, but I’m definitely picking it up once it’s completed.

    • Michelle says:

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  2. FCA says:

    As an Dutchy myself (with a similar name, which is really hard to explain in these strange countries I now live) it makes me inordinately happy to see as Dutch a name as Jan Willem in an article title.

    Edit: To add something on topic (not just the title): just played the free demo/preview/concept version, and it’s brilliant (though understandably somewhat lacking in variety). It feels so right, never thought I’d be so happy with a top down shooter, after I bounced of the Binding of Isaac so hard….

  3. Niko says:

    That’s quite an interesting interview, and useful, too. Since I’ve started dabbling in Construct 2 not long ago, I’ve been figuring all those little details about weapon “feel” myself, so when Jan starts describing what happens when you shoot a pistol, it’s something quite familiar. Those small details are quite important, after all.

  4. JonasKyratzes says:

    Movement – especially screen movement – is a big part of why Nuclear Throne feels great. They’ve really done an amazing job there.

  5. AngusPrune says:

    Can we stop calling everything a roguelike this year? A roguelike is a turn-based, we-go, one action per turn dungeon crawler.

    We already have a name for games like this, they’re called arcade games.

    • airmikee99 says:

      Are you new to the gaming world?

      Roguelike isn’t a new term for this year, it’s been pretty standard for almost 30 years now.

      • AngusPrune says:

        Yes, but it’s only this year that the term has been abused.

        Nobody ever called Gauntlet or New Zealand Story roguelikes, because the only feature they have in common with Rogue is that when you die you have to start from the beginning.

        • Baines says:

          Sorry, the Roguelike debate itself has been going on for a few decades. It was just limited to within the Rogue community. Questions of whether Chunsoft games should be considered Roguelikes, or that Blizzard game that RPS’s comment system won’t let you name. Arguments over whether or not mouse control disqualified you, or not being turn-based disqualified you, or whether using graphics instead of ASCII disqualified you. (The last of those changed over time as more games offered options beyond ASCII, and as more games appeared that ditched ASCII entirely.)

          There was even that silly Berlin Interpretation, where some people decided that they’d get together and define “Roguelike” by making a piecemeal definition that excluded all the games that they didn’t want to consider roguelikes at the time. And ignored when others pointed out the flaws and problems in their newly created definition.

          • Philotic Symmetrist says:

            Something that may be helpful to point out is that the Berlin Interpretation has within it the clauses:

            “Missing some points does not mean the game is not a roguelike. Likewise, possessing some points does not mean the game is a roguelike.

            The purpose of the definition is for the roguelike community to better understand what the community is studying. It is not to place constraints on developers or games.”

            http://roguebasin.roguelikedevelopment.org/index.php?title=Berlin_Interpretation

            Edit: Also, defining a term based on what you want the term to include or exclude is a reasonable approach; the problem with defining a video game genre is that we’re trying to capture the “feel” of the game and the features we choose to require may be either unnecessary or insufficient to achieve this.

          • smb says:

            I find the counter opinion linked at the bottom of that page to be most insightful. Here’s a couple quotes:

            “The Interpretation comes with a disclaimer stating “The purpose of the definition is for the roguelike community to better understand what the community is studying. It is not to place constraints on developers or games.” However prefacing a definition with this line is as futile as saying “I’m not racist, but…” Of course it puts constraints on developers and games! Devs want their games to fit in, and so tweak their works to score highly on this system. Gamers want to be exclusive about their community, and so rail against anything that doesn’t fit the letter of their newfound law.”

            “Meanings and context change over time, and in the five years since the Interpretation was written there have been many changes in the roguelike scene, with novel 7DRLs and indie roguelikes stretching the genre into new and unforeseen areas. It’s out of date and out of touch with modern roguelikes. All definitions are doomed to end up like this. Those who insist on sticking to the rules are like annoying grammar pedants who spend more time arguing about English than having real social conversations. By analogy those who argue over the Berlin Interpretation aren’t playing enough modern roguelikes.”

            -

            In short, the problem with that list is that it assumes we already know the extent to which these games can be iterated upon. It also pushes preformed, arbitrary judgements about which mechanics best achieve “that feel.” That’s like being a dictator, in terms of game design and creative freedom. If developers hadn’t sought to challenge these boundaries and take a new approach to existing concepts… Well, the term “roguelike” would have never existed in the first place.

    • noodlecake says:

      except they have permadeath, random elements, cumulative upgrades and a high probability of failure. This is now what roguelike means. Get over yourself.

    • rargphlam says:

      Roguelike as a generic (that is, a term describing a genre) has evolved past literally describing a game that is Rogue with a variety of statistical and flavor tweaks. It now refers to a game that is like Rogue mechanically, or shares more loose ties such as permadeath, a moderate skill floor, player advancement per session, and a top down perspective. If you can come up with a similarly simple genre term that still manages to convey all that information, I’m sure people would be interested in using it.

    • Philotic Symmetrist says:

      First thing to note: the article did not actually call Nuclear Throne a Roguelike, it called it an Action Roguelike-like. There may be a lot of discussion about what Roguelike means and whether you can be allowed to use the term Action Roguelike but Roguelike-like is normally non-offensive even to the most pedantic stickler for the Berlin Interpretation.

      Secondly, we have the genre of adventure games. When we add in the extra term action to get action-adventure, we go from Tales of Monkey Island to The Legend of Zelda. Personally, I feel this is a much bigger jump than from say, Nethack to Nuclear Throne.

      So, even if we made Roguelike an even more restrictive term than was originally defined (the Berlin Interpretation doesn’t actually insist that every High Value Factor must be present for a game to be a Roguelike, in fact two of the games considered ‘canon’ for Roguelikes break one of the High Value Factors themselves) is there any reason why action-roguelike should not be an accepted genre?

  6. sabrage says:

    OK, but how do I turn OFF the screen shake? It’s turning extended sessions into migraine generators :/

    Oh! And it’s annoying when enemies shoot me from outside my field of vision, especially when I’m dodging curtains of bullets and firing off into the ether. At least let me zoom out if you’re going to do that.

    • smb says:

      There’s a big ol’ thread on Steam discussing this:
      http://steamcommunity.com/app/242680/discussions/0/792923683875195322/

      Here’s one quote from jwaap (page 7):
      “The issue here is that if the game will be even slightly easier to play without the shaking, that’ll be the default mode for speed-runners and pro players. This means that the most interesting footage of our game(pro players) won’t look as intense as the game WITH the intended, quite over the top level of shake.”

      I can somewhat sympathize from a creative standpoint, but I feel like they’re severely discrediting the countless other merits their game has by taking this stance.

      • sabrage says:

        I don’t sympathize one bit because the screen-shake gave me a fucking migraine o_o I closed the game because “Whoa, my eyes are starting to hurt…” and forty-five minutes later I was lying down, clutching my head in pain and cursing artistic integrity.

        Besides that, great game! I played about an hour before I had to stop.

      • Premium User Badge

        DantronLesotho says:

        I don’t see why they just won’t accept those speed runners or make a note in the game options.

        • Philotic Symmetrist says:

          The developers are actually listening and responding to peoples concerns over this; some of the later posts in the thread make this a lot clearer (there’s a post by the guy who actually designed the screen shake).

          Edit: I assume you meant to say something like “why don’t they just not accept those speed runners”, which I agree with; if there’s an option which makes speedrunning easier, I would have expected that for any game that would usually mean the speedrunning community wouldn’t accept such speed runs or would put them in a separate category.

  7. bitslap says:

    Registered to express my gratitude towards this interview. No meaning of life, only interesting stuff. Thanks alot
    /b

  8. Premium User Badge

    Anthile says:

    That title image reminds me of Plok.

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  10. Turkey says:

    The gameplay mechanics feel really good, but the randomization doesn’t really do anything for me. There’s no weird eco-system like in Spelunky so you don’t get any interesting random events. And because there’s no set exit to a level, you don’t really get any risk reward scenarios where you either risk getting the loot and xp or gun it for the exit and get nothing.

    • sven says:

      Thankfully, as you may notice, early access doesn’t mean it’s done and they are no longer working on it. It means the opposite! Pretty sure they would love to hear feedback like this if you commented on the game forums or tweeted at them.

      I would also note that not all randomly generated action games NEED to be just like spelunky to be any good. There is value in the differences, but whether you are looking for the spelunky-ness or enjoying what value there is outside of it – is also a factor.

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