The new "Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2" for the Xbox 360, the latest obsession for high-score-obsessed gamers who own Microsoft's system, repairs two problems its creators had with its predecessor. And it is setting the stage for a half a dozen more games.
During a 20-minute interview with Multiplayer last week, a pair of the game's developers at Bizarre Creations revealed some of the secrets of "Retro Evolved 2"'s creation, answered complaints about the game's Pacifism mode and revealed at least some of what was cut from the game -- and why.
The new game had been development for a while, they told me. That wasn't the plan.
"When we sat down, we realized we didn't really know what we wanted to do with it."
Almost three years ago, flush off the success of "Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved," the game's programmer, Stephen Cakebread, assumed it was time to start cranking a sequel out. "We were initially like, "Ooh let's get a 'Geometry Wars' out next year," he told me during our phone interview last week. "When we sat down, we realized we didn't really know what we wanted to do with it." A couple of ideas came up early, but development proceeded more slowly and thoughtfully.
There was one big problem and one small one in "Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved" that the Bizarre team "fixed" for the new game. "The main problem from the original was that people tended to fall into a circular emotion around the arena which was the most efficient way to shoot things, but wasn't particularly a fun way to play the game," Cakebread said. Every video captured of top-score runs in "GWRE" backs Cakebread's analysis. The sequel's solution? "To counteract that we added the Geoms [the collectible score multipliers left by defeated enemies] into the game. And that made people start dodging through the enemies. It made them get more aggressive." The other correction from "the original" was to fix a bug that incorrectly made the tail of the snake enemies deadly when they spawned in the game.
The player's guns were simplified for the new game, an improvement, as far as the developers are concerned. The previous "Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved," which Cakebread refers to as "the original," started players with a weak gun that evolved into the alternating armament of a narrow machine-gun and a slower broad-fire weapon. "The original reason for putting those in was because the narrow beam forced you to play offensively," he said. "The wide beam forced you to play defensively. It was the game itself trying to force you to play differently. But with the addition of the Geoms we didn't really need that in there." Granting the player just one weapon in "GWRE2," Cakebread said, makes the gameplay more pure and gives players more control over the game.
"[We're] tying to gauge how good the player is and trying to speed the game up if they're doing really well. Or slow the game down [if they're not]."
A subtler change for the new game is its dynamic difficulty. The game will react to the player's level of skill. "[We're] tying to gauge how good the player is and trying to speed the game up if they're doing really well. Or slow the game down [if they're not]." I had played a lot of "GWRE2" but hadn't noticed this. "It's all very balanced and not exploitable in any way," he said, surely tempting the game's fans to prove otherwise.
One other difficulty-tweaking trick, Cakebread revealed, was the introduction of a new slow-moving, relatively un-threatening enemy comprised of two purple squares. That addition, he said, "allows us to put many more enemies on the screen at the start but keep the difficulty very low -- because these things are … easy to dodge and easy to shoot. It makes the game feel busier at the start, even though it's not actually that much more difficult." Swiftly shooting down the purple squares down helps the game and the player progress more briskly to a more challenging tempo. It's a signal that the player is good enough for a more trying challenge, and the game is programmed to oblige.
I asked Cakebread ... about Pacifism and whether that mode is at all broken.
I asked Cakebread and two of his Bizarre colleagues about Pacifism and whether that mode is at all broken, as at least one game critic has charged. In that mode, the player can't shoot but can destroy trailing enemies by flying through slowly-rotating gates that spawn in the playing field and detonate after being passed through. The complaint had been that the edges of those gates are fatal to the touch, possibly unbalancing the mode.
Cakebread expressed confidence in his design and said earlier iterations were far tougher. "In the first iteration of the gates, the ends killed you -- they would get bigger and smaller so they actually touched." He said the developers tried making the gates non-fatal and tried a mode that only made the gate-ends push the player around. But he said those designs made the gates "cheesy." He said "there was no real skill involved in getting through a gate." The deadliness of gates, in his mind, gives Pacifism "the extra thing it needs."
Cakebread and I couldn't talk about Pacifism without also talking about my favorite Achievements of the new game, Wax-On/Wax-Off. The Achievements require the player to scrape their ship along the perimeter of the Pacifism playing field twice. They weren't always set for that mode. "We tried it in Waves, but that was a bit insane."
There was a soccer/football-style mode that locked players onto opposite sides of the screen.
There were many experiments conducted during the game's development, of course. Many modes were left on the cutting-room floor. Cakebread didn't want to mention most, because he said the creators at Bizarre might "use them in the future for god knows what." His colleague Craig Howard, a Bizarre games manager, said the goal for "Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2" was to present to players only the modes with the most "pure" elements.
Special multiplayer modes that the team tested were cut because they felt gimmicky. For example, there was a soccer/football-style mode that locked players onto opposite sides of the screen and let the player shoot an object back and forth, trying to get it into gravity wells that served as goals. Cakebread deemed such modes fun only in the "cheap throwaway way." The developers only wanted modes in the game that people would come back to for weeks and months.
A few days after the game was released, a contributor to the Giant Bomb games site discovered an Easter Egg that pauses the game and activates a 3D view of the action. Cakebread assured me there were no other Easter Eggs to be found. And that one? He said: "Bizarre really wanted me to leave a cheat in there so people could see the game was actually in 3D. But there was always a worry that people were going to exploit it in some way." Supposedly they took it out. "But then somehow we accidentally left the de-bug cam[era] fly cheat in," he said.
"We don't think it's exploitable," Howard add.
"If it was," said Cakebread, "We would patch it."
A small team at Bizarre is now focused on working on the future of "Geometry Wars," though future plans are secret. Sequels appear to be guaranteed. "Geometry Wars is definitely a franchise," Howard said. "It's not going to stop."
Added Cakebread: "We have enough game ideas to do 'Geometry Wars' for probably about 10 games. It depends on what will work."
(Just as our interview was concluding, the Bizarre guys mentioned to me that positive feedback regarding the game's soundtrack was leading them to "offer something in relation to the soundtrack sometime soon." I asked them if the soundtrack would work in "Guitar Hero." "How cool would that be?" Cakebread said. They laughed, I think because my idea was absurd. That's how I took it.)