Frontier of Freedom Postmortem: What I Learned from Making Pongg

Pongg is the game that I designed for the “Frontier of Freedom” assignment in Jesse Schell’s game design class. The title is a portmanteau of “Pong” and “GG,” where “GG” is an abbreviation for “Good Game.” It’s essentially Pong, with a bullet hell component added. Here is a video demo of the final product:

The initial idea of the game was actually a mix between Pong and breakout, since I thought that adding breakout blocks would be a cool way of altering the Pong field to create interesting gameplay. However, after a quick prototype, it just wasn’t really that much more interesting than regular Pong. I mean, there were bricks in the middle of the screen… but it just felt like playing Pong with bricks.

After a bit more brainstorming, I came up with an Undertale-inspired Pong where you have to dodge bullets. The difference between “Pong with bullets” and “Pong with bricks” is that it’s a lot easier to make bullets more exciting than it is to make bricks exciting.

So yeah, that’s how that happened. And rather than re-documenting the playtesting process, I’ll use the rest of this blog post to list a few things that I learned from making Pongg.

Some of the Things that I Learned

1. Getting People to Understand a Game can be Really Hard

One of the major problems that I had with the game is that very few people could actually play the game without me having to explain it to them. A lot of feedback that I got throughout the process is that the point of the game wasn’t clear, which is surprising given how simple the game is. Just play Pong, while dodging bullets at the same time. How complicated could it be?

What I didn’t realize is that I designed my game based on my experience playing various bullet hell games. In particular, in bullet hell games, there is a concept of a “hitbox,” a small area within your sprite that can get hit by bullets. The hitbox is usually just a few pixels in the center of your sprite, and the rest of your sprite is just decoration. In my game, I had a paddle with a heart-shaped hitbox in the middle, but for someone who has little experience with bullet hells, this concept can be a bit hard to explain.

But what really made the problem worse was that the paddle had an actual function. It wasn’t just a decoration like you would see in other bullet hells; you have to hit the moving ball with your paddle in addition to dodging the bullets with your heart. In a way, it’s like having two separate hitboxes, a tiny one for bullets, and a large one for the ball.

At this point, the game is already slightly complicated, and I haven’t even started to explain any of the fighting system yet. Yes, there is a fighting system with HP and energy meters, basic, special, and ultimate attacks, and you can also change the size of your paddle and movement speed. You probably guessed where this is going… a lot of my players didn’t realize that these mechanics existed without me having to explain each of those mechanics.

For the assignment, I addressed this problem by creating a lengthy help screen that explained all the mechanics as clearly as I could. But to be honest, this is a pretty bad solution. What I ended up with was a lengthy series of instruction screens with quite a bit of text, and a lot of people skipped through it. Given enough time, I would have created a set of single player “feature tutorials,” which introduce each of the mechanics one by one. It would go somewhat like this:

  • Phase 1: Just have a regular Pong game with regular paddles, where you’re up against an AI. No hitboxes or bullets or anything else. Since most people have heard of Pong before, this should be a good introduction to the game.
  • Phase 2: After you score a few goals in the previous phase, introduce the heart hitboxes and bullets. The AI controlled enemy would “get upset that you scored so many goals” and start shooting bullets at you.
  • Phase 3: You are introduced to normal attacks, so now you can fight back.
  • Phase 4: After the AI gets hit by one of your bullets, it will “get angrier” and use a special attack.
  • Etc, etc, until all the mechanics are explained.

Having a series of tutorials like this would be much more interesting for the player than reading some help screens, and the dialogue is a good way of introducing characters, if I ever want to go in that direction.

2. Sound is Super Important

This is a really obvious point, and everyone knows that it’s true. But still, sound is often overlooked in the design process for some reason. I was guilty of doing this when I was making Pongg.

I knew I needed to add some background music early on, so I went to Kevin MacLeod’s free music site and picked out something that sounded good. But what I hadn’t thought about was what it felt like to play my game, and how well the music fit the feeling of my game. It turns out that the music I picked was a terrible match for my game. The music is very calm, but my game has a lot of action, and this mismatch makes the game feel weird to play.

Near one of the last playtesting sessions, a player made a comment about the music, and I realized that my the music that I selected was a poor choice for the game. I quickly switched to a more energetic piece of music, and the results were astonishing. Before, most people would only play one or two games before asking me when they could stop. But in the playtests conducted after I changed the music, none of the players asked me when they could stop.

So the important thing here is that just adding music to your game isn’t enough. You have to consider how well the music fits your the style of your game; otherwise, the game won’t feel good to play.

3. Balancing Asymmetric Games is Hard

This is also a bit obvious, but I never really thought about the work that goes into balancing until I actually had to do it for this game. In the last few playtests, I got feedback that one player was a lot more powerful than the other player. More precisely, it was that the pink player’s ultimate attack was too random and impossible to dodge. After tweaking it just a bit, all of a sudden, the blue player was now too powerful – but that’s because the blue player’s special (not ultimate) attack was better than the pink player’s special attack.

In the end, I decided to add an “auto-balancing” mechanic: if one player wins too much, he will unlock “hard mode,” which is essentially a handicap for the other player. This isn’t a great solution, since the handicapped games are perceived as unimportant. Given more time, I would have liked to balance the two characters better, but there wasn’t enough time to playtest at that point.

In retrospect, what I should have done is make multiple versions of the game, each with a different balance, and test them all at a single playtesting session – rather than balancing a bit, then playtesting, then balancing a bit more, then playtesting again, etc. After having a hard time balancing just two characters, I’m really amazed at how games like League of Legends manage to balance over 100 different characters.

So What Now?

I do think this is a fun game, and a lot of my playtesters enjoyed playing it. In the future, I’d like to make a fighting game like this – one where you play Pong and shoot bullets at each other. It would be an online game, so two players can play against each other on different computers, and there would be more than two characters to choose from. I also want to replace the paddles with actual animated characters, so that it feels less like Pong and more like a novel fighting game. But for now, here’s the Unity project for anyone who’s interested.

One thought on “Frontier of Freedom Postmortem: What I Learned from Making Pongg

  1. This game looks intense! Great insights too. Did you consider video as a way of “explaining” the bullet hell hitbox? I recall that was essentially how I was introduced to bullet hells. I was already familiar with top-down shooters like Space Invaders (which I reckon most people are) and it only took me a few seconds of observing someone else play a bullet hell to realize, “Oh, your hitbox is smaller than your avatar. That’s pretty cool.” I might be misunderstanding the number of functions available to the player though. Are standard bullets, paddle size, and movespeed all controlled explicitly by the player? That seems…very overwhelming, though not that that’s a bad thing. However, the way you introduced it (as a fusion of bullet hells and Pong) I imagined that you would just retain simpler Pong’s 2 button movement, but would have to keep track of approaching bullets. I suppose that’s basically what your Phase 2 tutorial would be though. Perhaps game modes might be something to implement. I think Phase 2 could serve as its own mode.

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