Developer Of Monster-Possessing Roguelike MidBoss Talks About Making Deaths Collectible

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MidBoss, the roguelike action game where the player controls a monster-possessing imp, is releasing this month, letting players slowly control a crew of varied beasts with unique abilities.


Siliconera caught up with its developer, Emma ‘Eniko’ Maassen, to learn more about what it was like to create so many monsters and abilities for players to control and use, and also learned of a new system being implemented. Called Death Cards, these are designed to take some of the sting out of failure, as well as add an air of collectability to getting killed.



What prompted the idea for Midboss? For taking control of foes?


Emma ‘Eniko’ Maassen, Developer of MidBoss – The short version is that the Ludum Dare theme when I made the first prototype was "you are the villain", so I came up with the idea for a lowly monster trying to become the dungeon boss. The possession mechanic came from my experience playing Final Fantasy and its blue magic, where you learn monster abilities, which I always thought was really cool and had a lot of potential for a game where every ability used against you, you could learn and use yourself.


The long version is that I was living in Japan at the time, studying at a Japanese university for half a year. I didn’t even know Ludum Dare was on that weekend until someone asked me if I was entering. I figured I didn’t have anything to do, so I said sure, why not? I came up with the idea after the theme was announced and worked on it for one day, but one of my Japanese friends asked me to come hang out the next day for sushi and all-night karaoke until 6am. So I did that and almost didn’t finish the game for Ludum Dare at all.


The next day I looked at it and felt like it had potential, so I pulled an all-nighter trying to get it done, and somehow managed. Then, right after submitting, I had a class where I had to do a short presentation in Japanese, but I was so sleep deprived that I just went up there and said "sorry, I haven’t slept and can’t brain" then sat back down. Fortunately the Japanese professor forgave me. This was all the way back in December 2012.


What was it about the prototype that made you want to keep going?

I guess it was when I fired it back up after that first day, not because I was gonna work on it more, but because I just wanted to play it for a bit. It just felt good possessing things and trying to beat this hard-as-nails game.


What thoughts went into creating that need to switch monsters? How did you make the player continually need to switch bodies?

Pretty early on, I decided to lampoon a couple of gaming tropes with the mechanics. One of those is that, in a lot of games, the hero regenerates health slowly over time, but the monsters never do. Sure there’s some games where that isn’t true, but it is true in a lot of games so you can whittle down powerful monsters over time.


Since, in this game, you were playing a monster, I felt it’d be interesting to say that’s the reason you don’t regenerate health naturally, which would force you to keep jumping into new bodies in order to keep your health up. That worked out great because it means it’s a totally different playstyle from most games where if you’re in danger you back off and play more conservatively, whereas in MidBoss you actually almost want to be more aggressive.




Are there other benefits to switching bodies?


The main reason to switch bodies is to heal yourself. The other is that when you kill things while you’re in a certain body (or form as it’s called in the game), you earn a form of experience that lets you unlock that monster’s abilities for yourself, and you can keep using those abilities later.


Do these abilities persist to later runs?


Just inside that run. You always get the abilities of the form you’re in at the moment, but you can equip one or more (depending on circumstance) other forms you’ve learned to have access to those abilities as well. For the most part in MidBoss you start from scratch every game, though there is a plan for release to have something carry over from game to game.


What will be carrying over to future playthroughs?


There’s a system in the game called death cards, where when you die a card is generated that has some information about your run and a screencap of your death. You can share those PNGs and they have data embedded in them, which the game can then load to let you try your hand at a game with the same seed and settings. It also gives you detailed stats on the run, including showing your inventory at the time of your death.


The idea is when you start a new game you can select death cards and receive one of the items you had in that game you died in, and start the new game with it. These items would be called grave goods and get a special mention on the next card if you died again. Cards could be used like this once, afterwards they’re just informational.


So, for example, if you had a really rad two-handed sword when you died, you could start one new game, select that card, and then select the sword, and you’d start the new game with that sword.




What made you implement this kind of system? Why have something carry over to the next run?


People have come to expect something like that, but I didn’t want to have a system where you grind up over the course of multiple games with some kind of currency that persists between them like a lot of roguelites have now. For the most part, I want MidBoss runs to start from scratch, but this is throwing a bone to people who aren’t as keen on that. It also helps to get back to where you were more quickly, to ease the pain of permadeath. And finally, it gives death cards a little bit more flavor than to have them just as a gallery of unfortunate ended runs.


This idea is new, so all the details haven’t been hammered out but one thing I’m considering is to let a player use multiple death cards in this way at the same time. That way you could farm certain items you need for a build you’d wanna try over multiple games, then start one game with all of them already available. Also, while they’re called death cards, it is planned that you’ll get one if you beat the game, and those cards would give you what’s basically a new game+ option.


What would the New Game + mode entail?


It’d just let you replay from the start, except with all items and ability unlocks you had before. Kinda like the way Chrono Trigger does it. A victory lap, basically.


What thoughts go into creating the monsters players will run into? In continually giving them stronger monsters as they play?


One thing I tried to do with that is to carefully design monsters in a way where their abilities gradually introduce the player to new concepts and teach them how to play the game. I made sure that a new monster would always have some counter to it within the set that came before it. Then, there’s the aspect of making sure that new abilities combo well with older ones so more and more interesting options open up over time, but also being vigilant about certain combinations not being utterly broken. There’s a lot of ways to combine abilities in the game, and the player base has already come up with some very creative combinations that surprised me!




Can you talk about some of those surprising combinations?


One that happened really early on was a combination between the zombie’s ability Infection, which creates friendly zombie minions if you kill something with it, and the bat’s ability Life Leech, which is a magic attack, but part of the damage is converted into life healed for you. You can attack your own minions, including life leeching them, and they won’t fight back. This doesn’t get you experience, but it does let you slowly heal yourself.


Players would kill rats with Infection, creating zombie minions, then leave them sitting around for when the body they were leveling up would get low on health. Then they’d backtrack, switch out whatever additional form they were using for the bat’s so they could use Life Leech, and leech themselves back up to full health on the minion, then switch back.


That actually killed the pacing of the game even though it was a pretty optimal strategy, so to fix that I added a concept called Soul Fatigue to the game. Every time you change which other form you have access to, it drains you and debuffs all your stats a little. It doesn’t get in the way of regular play, but it does stop that kind of tactic from being effective because you’re switching way more than you would normally.


So, for example, if you’re in a zombie body and have access to rat skills, if you then switch rat to bat you get a small debuff. If you then switch back again, you get hit with the debuff again.


Do you run into any difficulties in balancing the game due to its procedural nature? With the game putting together surprising scenarios?

MidBoss‘ procedural generation is structured pretty well, so that doesn’t happen so often, and most of what’s left has been smoothed out with additional constraints, like when I added guaranteed spawns to the game because sometimes you were forced to skip a form because the monster in question just didn’t spawn in quick play. There’s still outliers with item drops and such of course, but I think that’s part of the fun of the genre.


Was it fun to design a game from the perspective of the ‘bad guys’? What did you enjoy about working with monsters?


It actually was a lot of fun coming up with the abilities for the monsters. I wanted a pretty stereotypical set of monsters, so I had to come up with abilities that were in-character for those monsters. The really interesting part was balancing the abilities, because you want the abilities to both pose a challenge if used against the player, but not be completely overpowered when used by the player, because the player can use every ability any monster in the game can use eventually. That required a lot of creative thinking and that was definitely the most fun.




MidBoss features a great deal of customization in many of its aspects. What drew you to give players so much control over their play experience? Was it difficult to do so?


I guess I’ve played a lot of games in my day where the devs had a specific vision for how the game was supposed to be enjoyed, and when the playerbase disagreed they fought with their players about it. In the end I don’t think it should be up to me to dictate how people should have fun with MidBoss, so long as there’s nothing game-breaking involved.


Occasionally, it’s a lot of work, maybe even too much work, like when I had an option to disable animations for that oldschool roguelike feel, which I eventually removed cause it doubled my QA workload and wasn’t very interesting. For the most part, though, giving players more options requires just a couple of minutes of work, and the ability to trust your players to be able to handle those options.

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Alistair Wong
Very avid gamer with writing tendencies. Fan of Rockman and Pokémon and lots more!