Some of my favourite moments from the James Bond franchise come from his tech rundowns with Q. It just seems fitting that secret agents have access to wonky gadgets and that there would be a full team of scientists and researchers behind them.
With Double Cross being centered around an agent, of the interdimensional sort no less, we knew we wanted to tap into this trope and create an upgrade system that made players feel like they were getting new tools and gadgets of their own. We wanted them to feel a sense of progression throughout the game, and agency around how they approached challenges.
With that as our starting point, we began listing out what we thought were the most important goals of the system, eventually landing on the following.
Create a feeling of progression and growth
Nothing new here, games have been using upgrades to create growth and progression for a long time.
Allow players to customize their experience
We wanted players to be able to dictate how their upgrades affected them. Did they want to enhance elements of the game they enjoying or shore up their gameplay by taking out weaknesses.
Create a replayability loop
Part of the fun of upgrades is experimenting with them to figure out what feels the best to you. Therefore, we needed to ensure players had several reasons to go back and play levels again.
Give something for speedrunners and completionists to work towards
Both of these communities are looking to maximize their engagement with a game and really push it to its limits. We wanted to make sure the system accounted for their needs and really hook them into caring about it.
Once the goals were laid out, we also started thinking of challenges that may present themselves throughout the development of the upgrade system. The major ones were:
Has to be level and story agnostic due to non-linearity
The game structure was already established at this point, forcing us to design around the player choosing any level at any time. For example, we couldn’t use a metroidvania style system where upgrades and level progression are tied together.
Upgrades have to meaningful and fun
As someone who plays a lot of ‘end-game’ oriented titles and MMOs - I was adamant that upgrades had to be more than stat bumps leading to bigger numbers. It's a small pet-peeve of mine when game do this, as it feels hollow and rarely changes the actual experience. I wanted upgrades to change the player’s decisions and really encourage experimentation.
They can’t trivialize levels or encounters
Again, because of non-linearity, we couldn’t control what upgrades the player had at a given time and had to be careful to not provide game-breaking tools (at least early on).
The Key Iterations
With the goals and challenges listed out, we began working through iterations of the system, trying to find something that satisfied most, if not all, of the conditions. I can’t recall every step or the exact timeline, game development feels like a void in time sometimes, but I’ll try to highlight some key decisions that were made during the process.
Equippables and Permanents
One thing we sorted out early was that we wanted upgrades to be equippable as it satisfies the customization aspect we were aiming for. By making the player choose a limited number from a larger pool of upgrades, we force them to think about exactly what they’re looking for. We also knew that combat was going to have several moves and that we wanted to use the more advanced ones as potential unlocks. However, after playing around like this for a while, we realized that having to choose between something like the shield or having a dive kick, felt bad, and that combat was always more enjoyable with the more advanced moves.
As a result, we split the upgrades into two categories, equippables and permanents. Doing so allowed us to give things we wanted the player to always have without having to make more customization sacrifices. We could also use this permanent space to give more reliable progression. For example, if someone was very happy with their already equipped upgrades, new ones that they have no interest in won’t really feel that engaging. We still wanted these players to feel like they were getting stronger, so the combat moves and health upgrades were moved over to permanent unlocks.
To Change or not to Change
Another key decision that I can remember being a hot topic for a while, was when and how the player would be able to change their loadout. Originally, we had it so that they could only swap their upgrades at Sgt. Sprout, who would also serve as a sort of trainer. You would go to him with upgradium and turn it in to choose new upgrades that you wanted.
Ultimately this worked well and gave Sprout a real purpose, but after a while, it became a bit tedious to always have to go to him and change your loadout. It began feeling like a chore and tended to make people want to just roll with what they had, instead of experimenting with other upgrades.
The next idea was to make it so they could do it from the pause menu while in RIFT. This new iteration removed the need to walk over to Sprout and allowed more quick experimentation. However, as we were playing it out, we began to realize that, due to our levels being a bit longer, players felt like the opportunity to experiment with upgrades was few and far between. We took this feedback in and began thinking of different ways to let them change more often.
This lead us to our third iteration, where the player could change their upgrades everytime they reached a checkpoint. This change allowed players to customize on the fly, and tailor their upgrades to the given challenge. Also, if they died in the game, they would respawn at the last checkpoint and immediately be able to change their upgrades to suite what had just defeated them. We really liked this last iteration, which is why we settled on it for the final release.
We are also hoping that this, on-the-fly style system creates some meaningful strategy for the speedrunning community. Being able to swap out upgrades may open up some really interesting approaches to levels and we hope to see speedrunners run away with the system… pun intended.
I’m sure there are many more examples of iteration steps buried deep in the back of my brain, but for now, I think those two examples offer a glimpse into the decision making and process we attempted while developing this game. I’m going to summarize the system below and show how it lines up with our original goals and challenges.
The player collects upgradium, found throughout levels, and cashes them in at the end of the level in order to level up.
The player will have to search for the hidden upgradium, encouraging them to return to levels if they miss any in their initial playthrough. Also gives something for completionists to hunt down.
Levelling up unlocks new permanent and equippable upgrades.
Touched on earlier, but allows the player to grow and feel powerful, while also being able to choose which upgrades they want to use.
Permanents are always available to the player once unlocked and consist of new combat abilities and health increases.
Always provides steady power increase for players who are happy with their current load out.
pchanges the players abilities or gives them new tools to get through levels. The player can choose to have 3 equipped at a time, out of the 17 total available.
Allows players to customize their loadout and create some wonky combinations. For example, Shield (prevents one instance of damage) and Glass Cannon (increase to damage but you die in one hit) compliment each other well and reward skilled players with faster enemy defeat times.
The player can change their upgrades at any checkpoint in the game.
Allows players to adjust their playstyle mid-level, adapting to the challenges being presented. May also lead to some interesting speed running strategies, we hope.
There you have it, a small glance into many hours of work and testing. I hope you enjoyed reading this, and hope that the system functions as well in practice, as I think it does on paper.
Tom McCall worked as the Lead Designer on both Runbow and Double Cross.
He enjoys board games, terrible puns, and anything competitive.