The Pillars of Rokar: Finding the Core Identity of Until You Fall
Hello, sword fans. I’m Dave Bennett, the Project Director for Until You Fall, and it’s been my absolute pleasure to help bring this weird, neon fantasy world to life for you all to enjoy in VR.
As Project Director, my role sort of falls in between Creative Director and Project Manager. I like to describe it as a job where I do everything, nothing, and whatever comes in between to make sure the game gets finished. High level creative and production decisions? Sure! Updating studio management about the state of the project? Totally. Tweaking enemy positions and text verbiage in the tutorial because nobody else has the bandwidth to do it? You bet. Nothing is too big or too small.
At Schell Games, we tend to work on a lot of different projects, with each one teaching us something new along the way. When beginning a new project, we start in a period of pre-production where we explore different ideas and make high-level decisions about what the experience should look and feel like.
Part of this process involves creating something we call “Project Pillars” – generally 2 or 3 pithy slogans or ideals that can be used to help guide future decisions about what to add or change about the game. What makes these difficult to define is that they need to be concise, support the other pillars, and not be so general as to just be “make a fun game.” So, it can take a bit of doing to really find Pillars that resonate.
Until You Fall went through this same process, so I thought it would be interesting to share what three pillars we decided on and how we arrived at those decisions.
Pillar 1: Become a Sword God
Before Until You Fall was even…well, Until You Fall, we knew that we wanted to build a melee combat experience that could be fast, frenetic, and challenging. We developed our choreographed system of attacking and blocking pretty early, which meant we had our innermost game loop sorted. However, it was less clear as to what the rest of the game should look and feel like to support this combat.
Very early prototyping had us adding a variety of extra systems: weapon durability, holsters, looting, weapon throwing – things that, at the time, seemed obvious to include for a melee combat game in VR. But, we quickly discovered that the inclusion of these extra mechanics didn’t always enhance the experience. In many cases, it undermined our core gameplay by confusing and overwhelming players.
For example, throughout early playtests we noticed that players would consistently drop their sword, leading to a comedy of errors where they would fumble around looking for their weapon as enemies ganged up and killed them. After the playtest, players would come out of the experience generally positive about it, saying that it was cool and novel, but would then follow up with comments like “this game probably isn’t for me, I mean I was really bad at it.” That didn’t feel right.
With these notes fresh in our minds, we tried to refocus on what was actually important to our experience. Something we knew early on was that, when our combat was in full swing, the player would feel incredibly heroic. The combination of wide swings and blocking choreography encourages the player to stand (or sit) up straighter, completely losing any sense of VR-shyness we saw in some of our early playtests. So…why not lean into that feeling of power?
It was this line of thinking that led to our first pillar: Become a Sword God. Until You Fall isn’t a game where you start as a bumbling zero and become the hero. Instead, it is a game where you already start off feeling strong and reach superhuman heights. From the moment you put on the headset, you should start feeling awesome.
Any interaction that didn’t directly support this feeling of power (or, worse, subverted it and made you feel silly) was cut or entirely reimagined. This pillar was in no small part responsible for features like our weapon summoning, crushing-to-interact, and turning our dash mechanic into something to be used in combat.
Once this pillar was defined, the others began to take shape pretty quickly.
Pillar 2: Supercharged VR Interactions
Confident in the power fantasy we were establishing, this next pillar was created to help define the types of actions the player will be taking during the experience. In a lot of ways, this pillar actually has a lot of overlap with Pillar #1. When we say Supercharged VR Interactions, there are a variety of layers to peel back.
By virtue of our first pillar, our games interactions are (and should be) larger than life and bombastic. Not only does it enhance the player fantasy we’re trying to achieve, in a lot of ways it plays to the platform’s strengths. Big, wider motions tend to be easier to track for VR cameras, feel better as a player, and look more exciting to folks outside of the headset.
Further, this pillar encourages us to build something that can only be done in VR. Yes, technically using motion controllers means it can only be done in VR, but for every interaction we wanted to look for ways to really highlight and enhance the platform’s strengths.
Examples include our player avatar enhancing the player’s sense of presence in VR, the way players interact with objects in the world, as well as our movement scheme. When in the headset for the first time, players tend to test the boundaries of their new virtual world, and we do what we can to reward and incentivize the right kind of interactions.
This process of teaching the player the “right” way to play the game was incredibly important to us, and informed the type of feedback we provided the player when swinging their weapon at different velocities. Because wider/bigger swings deal more damage in our game, we needed to encourage players to take larger swings (and teach players the amount of effort required). To achieve this, we clearly delineated three levels of feedback – small, standard and big. These thresholds of effort ensured players would play in a way that not only encouraged them to lean into the fantasy, but it also helped prevent players from potentially injuring themselves by swinging too hard or fast.
Lastly, the “supercharged” nature of the pillar also serves as a guidepost for the in-game feedback and visuals. Again, Until You Fall is a bombastic experience, and the game should do everything in its power to reinforce that. For example, all of the juicy feedback you get from crushing a crystal in your gauntleted fist was carefully considered: the visuals, haptics, sound effects – all combined to once again reinforce the power fantasy we were trying to establish.
Pillar 3: Power through Persistence
For our final pillar, we wanted to take a more macro view of the game and its structure. We have our core mechanics, we have our tone target, but what scaffolding do we want to support with these mechanics?
Early on, one of the goals was to make something that was not only replayable but had the opportunity to expand in a variety of ways. Partly because of this desire (and likely because of my own affinity for these types of games), we started exploring with the idea of a roguelike / roguelite structure.
At a micro level, players gained power through knowledge of enemies and mechanics, eventually mastering the combat and conquering all foes. Paired with a roguelite structuring, it seemed like a perfect match: randomized runs and rewards that encourage replayability and clear goals for the player to overcome. Further, while the player has some loss of progress when they fall in combat, their effort is converted into currency that can be used to bolster and enhance their collection of weapons.
So, with this concept, we agreed on our third pillar: Power through Persistence. With each attempt players gain new knowledge, new resources to work with and increase their power both in skill and straight mechanical power. While players will fall in combat, they will always return stronger than they were before. It was this pillar in particular that led to the name of the game, too.
In some ways, this pillar also encouraged us to try and make death in the game something to accept and not be angry about. While I don’t know if we were entirely successful here, it did give us a great point for the player to take a break, try out new weapons, rethink their strategy, and reflect on the previous run.
So, there you have it – the three core pillars of Until You Fall. As you can see, some were almost immediately clear from the start, while others required a bit of a journey to discover. Regardless, once established, they were incredibly helpful throughout the game’s development.
I hope this glimpse into the early stages of the game’s development was entertaining. The entire team that built the game is incredibly passionate about Until You Fall, so having the opportunity to share some stories about the making of the game is incredibly rewarding for us.
If you haven’t already, be sure to drop by the Discord and say hello – we’re always creeping in there, listening to your feedback and ideas.