GDR#1: Into The Breach-Designing Replayable Game

Hi, there!
My name’s Raynhard. I’m a game developer.
Welcome to Game Design Review #1 🎉

Just a few weeks ago I played a game that made me addicted for a week full. Last time I checked, Into The Breach has managed to steal 21 hours of my life. Thanks to the developers, Subset Games. 🙂

I’m not really a true gamer, let alone a veteran gamer who is able to discern a good game with a bad one. However, given my nature to quit playing a game in just an hour, but not on this game, I think I have some credibility to say what I think about this game. So, let’s dissect it!

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Reading duration: ±10 minutes (250 wpm)
Video duration: ±6 minutes (two videos)

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Table of Contents:

  1. About Into The Breach ℹ️
  2. Designing Replayability 🚀
    a. Optimal risk variations
    b. Microscale match
    c. Unified theme
    d. Achievements
  3. Things to Improve 🧐
  4. Closing & References 📚

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1. About Into The Breach ℹ️

“In Into the Breach the remnants of human civilization are threatened by gigantic creatures breeding beneath the earth. You must control powerful mechs from the future to hold off this alien threat. Each attempt to save the world presents a new randomly generated challenge in this turn-based strategy game.”

In other words, it’s a micro strategy game that is comparable to chess-like games. If you have ever played chess, then you’re just one step away from understanding how to play this game. Yet, instead of playing for hours in a 8x8 board, Into The Breach introduces a short game that ends in just 4 turns. It’s brief. It’s compact.

Also, if in chess, there are unique chess pieces, in ITB, there are unique mechs that you can control to maneuver through the game board. Each mech has its own attack moves and properties that the other mechs don’t have.

To make it crystal clear, here’s a clip of me playing the game while explaining it. Don’t try to understand everything, but just pay attention to how I won the game and what’s the enemy is targeting on each turn.

As you have watched (if you did), the goal of the game is not to terminate every enemy pawn, but rather to protect the infrastructures and to survive the combat. This is where ITB differs with conventional chess, ITB pushes the player to be more defensive just like how the narrative of the game unfolds. ITB is about time-travelling mech pilots whose job is to prevent collateral damage. See how the story and the gameplay ties quite nicely?

Now that you have understood at least the basics of the game, I recommend you to play it if you haven’t. If you have, I would also suggest you to watch a talk given by Matthew Davis (Subset Games) at Game Developers Conference.

Well now, let’s now dive in on how the developers managed to make a very seamless replayable game that is very addictive to gamers like me.

🔗Link to: Steam, EPIC
🔗Link to: GDC Talk

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2. Designing Replayabilty 🚀

Replayabilty means that a same game can be played multiple times while maintaining the player’s engagement at a high level for a long period of time. Every football game plays with the same rules to keep the balance of the game, but on each match there are some variations that keep the show interesting, such as the contestants, the weather, the political tension, etc. The same things apply in games like Into The Breach.

Of course there are many replayable games that can compete with ITB, but what makes ITB has more appeal to me from its competitors? Also, how do you design a balanced game anyway?

2. a. Optimal Risk Variations

There are many professional chess players out there who play with the same chess piece over and over for years. I would play a chess game once a week, but every day!? I think I need some variations to make the game fresh again just like when I first played it.

With that in mind, Subset Games introduces a catalog of mechs that you can play to keep the engagement. However, presenting some new pieces may disrupt the balance of the game, and may or may not cause the difficulty of the game to go wild. That’s why traditional chess players are reluctant to change the chess piece they’re already accustomed to. And that’s also why highly competitive games like Overwatch, Hearthstone, or Mortal Kombat cannot produce new characters in huge numbers without considering it deeply.

Not with ITB though, this game doesn’t focus to make a competitive game, but rather a dynamic puzzle game. Simply put, each mech is a unique tool for the player to solve the problem that appears on every game. Players can freely combine these tools/mechs in a squad in any way they like.

In addition to that, unlike playing a new character in Overwatch that requires a set of skills which might be a little daunting for some players, in ITB, substituting a mech with another mech doesn’t come with a great risk. Any mech can actually solve the same puzzle, but in a different style. There are exceptions, of course, and hard to control mechs do exist, but it’s literally up to the player’s skill to save the world.

Then you might think, FPS games also have different types of weapon to add small risk variations, how does it differ with ITB’s mechs? Well, in some degree they are similar. ITB’s default squads offers a balanced team, each with its own taste. Steel Judoka is mainly used to manipulize kaijus to move to safer tiles, while Hazardous Mechs is commonly utilized to rapidly kill kaijus in exchange with their health. In FPS games, It’s like switching AK47 with M4A1, though ITB’s mech has a more unique flavor when played.

However, if you’re holding a sniper when encountering a close range combat, you might have greater risk of losing. That won’t be the case in ITB, since each default squads have already been balanced and curated to succeed. Of course, you can mess up the balance of the team by assembling your own custom squad. It doesn’t mean you cannot win the game with an unbalanced squad, it just makes the game harder (or even easier in some cases 😎).

To summarize, compared with mainstream games, ITB offers tons of variation into the game without changing the difficulty, causing the player to keep playing with various play styles without fear of losing.

2. b. Microscale Match

The first video I attached above shows a 4-minutes game that lasts in 4 effective turns (the first turn is for positioning). The difficulty is in easy mode, and I have played the game for hours now, so that may affect my play duration, but I believe you can already picture the scale of the game.

Unlike Dota, CS:GO, or PUBG, Into The Breach doesn’t hold the player’s attention long enough to make them tired. The match ends precisely when the player wants to play more. Executing a combo attack, surviving a horde of monsters, or pulling off a brilliant move that saves the buildings as well as completing a task, are the enjoyment of playing this game. Yet, the greatest design that’s made for this game is that all of that enjoyment starts just around one turn before the match ends.

Most games force you to watch your downfall, or they elongate your winning sensation for far too long, these games accidentally prevents you to score another win. Also, since the span of the game is short, the game can refresh the variation to keep the level of engagement. I mean, imagine you’re playing with a new player in a high profile CS:GO match. There’s a chance you’ll get frustrated for 30 minutes straight, and then lose interest. Well, I believe the same thing won’t happen in a 5-minutes game like ITB.

This is exactly the genius of Matthew Davis and Justin Ma (Subset Games developers), they managed to construct a short game that is addictive. Remember, to make someone addicted to something, you must expose that something to that person in a long period of time, but Into The Breach has broken that premise.

In his GDC talk, Davis described ITB’s gameplay as deep, but not complex. The way I understand it, the game is easy enough to be understood at the first glance, but once you think about how to improve the effectiveness of your move, the game can get pretty deep. In other words, it’s like a riddle your friend told you which makes your day stops for a minute. You’ve fully known the rules, but you have to work for the answer.

2. c. Unified Theme

Any game developer will tell you that unifying game mechanics and the story of the game is not as easy as turning your palm upside down. More often than not, the mechanic is where the fun lies, while the story is where the goal is put. The combat makes the player happy, the plot makes the player stay. Both are important, but how do you reconcile them if they have a very distinct nature?

Into The Breach tells a story about mech pilots who travel through different timelines with the help of the power grids to save cities from monsters. In that sentence alone, you can find the main mechanics of the game:
➜ How to win: saving cities
➜ How to lose: losing the power grids
➜ What do you do: fighting monsters
➜ When the game is over: you travel through time

Most games cannot explain how your character can be resurrected after they die. In ITB though, there’s a reason why you’ve failed, a reason why you can play the game again after you lose, and some reasons why you should play the game again after you win. The game’s story continues seamlessly regardless of the result of the match.

These explanations may not affect how fun the game is, but they give reasons to keep on playing, they close the gap for the players to quit when they think the game is already done, and thus maintain the momentum going.

2. d. Achievements

I can’t really say much here since every gamer has already known pursuing trophies is pretty fun. The thing about ITB is that those achievements you got are not only there to challenge you, but it’s also the currency of the game. As you can see in Figure 2, to purchase a new squad of mechs, you must have some coins which you can get from completing tasks.

By designing the achievement system this way, the player is literally got paid for doing a job, and the job is fun and challenging enough to make them want to do it. So, it has a double effects. Contrary with conventional achievement system where you complete a quest for an arbitrary badge you can show off, here in ITB, you receive some new mechs for you to use when you start a new game. Did you see the cycle? ITB rewards you with fun for continuing to play, it also rewards you with new toys for completing the mission.

Recap ✔️

In case you are a game developer like me who probably wants to make a replayable game, then here are the main points that you can get from the design of Into The Breach:

  1. Optimal risk variations: add variations to the mechanic without dramatically changing the difficulty of your game.
    2. Micro scale match: keep your game short, but deep before refreshing the game.
    3. Unified theme: make sure your story connects with the mechanics, and encourage replaying the game through the story.
    4. Achievements: provide fun and challenging tasks that worth completed by giving in-game rewards.

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3. Things to Improve 🧐

Into The Breach is simply my game of the year in 2020 (since I don’t play games that much). I would love to spend my whole day just thinkering how to make my moves with my squad. Though it’s filled with years of excellent design choice by Subset Games, but still I found the game lacks a little polish.

First of all, the story works well with the mechanic, but it doesn’t work on its own. This “criticism” is understandable because the developers decided to focus more on the mechanic rather than the moral or the message of the story. The story explains why some mechanics exist, but then that explanation has no explanation for itself. It begs questions. The overall story also lacks the power to push the player’s imagination to its fictional world. This is evident when the player enter the one of the islands that is supposed to look unique from the story angle, but sadly not. In addition to that, each character that appears on those islands doesn’t add anything to the overall story.

To solve this problem, I think the only solution that is feasible is to use the approach of a story-oriented game. In a certain scenario, let these characters dictate the quest of the game, and bring some exceptions to the game board in order to produce a new tension. Every match in ITB is 100% predictable, and so I think by introducing linear progressive stories across the game would be a nice idea.

To put it more concrete, let’s have a mech vs mech battle in a certain ocassion, or make a mini campaign in a certain timeline where the mechs must destroy an evil building protected by the kaijus, or let players collects some artifacts that can unlock a island from the past that can explain the story even deeper. There are so many possibilities that haven’t been reaped yet.

Well, again, budget is budget and we cannot do nothing about it. ☹️

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4. Closing & References 📚

Into The Breach from Subset Games is 9.5/10 stars in my humble opinion, and I encourage you to at least give it a try. For game developers out there, this game is a must play.

For more information about Into The Breach:
🔗 Link to: Steam, EPIC
🔗 Link to: Into The Breach Site
🔗 Link to: GDC Talk
🔗 Link to: Noclip Interview

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Thank you for reading!

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This is Game Design Review #1: Into The Breach — Designing Replayable Game
By RayOfIdeas

Developing ideas within games. 🔗Also on minds.com/rayofideas