This summer I have been interning at Rooster Teeth Games, and for most of that time the team has been focused on one thing – launching Vicious Circle. Now that the release date (August 13th!) is nearly upon us, I thought it was finally time to share with all of you the story of how this game came to be, and some game design lessons that were learned along the way.
My involvement with this game was pretty minor, and most of the development of this game was completed before I arrived on the scene. Because of this I decided to sit down with the lead game designer for the project, Casey Donnellan, to learn the full story.
A Vicious Summary
Before I talk about the design of the game, some of you may be wondering “What is Vicious Circle”? The short answer, according to Donnellan, is that it is “the world’s first, and best, uncooperative shooter”. More specifically, Vicious Circle is an asymmetric First-Person Shooter game that pits a group of four space mercenaries against a giant, gross alien chicken (named Peggy Sue) in a frantic race for nuggets and glory.
Each game of Vicious Circle consists of five players competing in five short rounds. At the beginning of each round you will randomly be chosen to play as either a mercenary or Peggy Sue. If you are Peggy Sue your goal is very simple – use your weapon-like tongue and eggs full of boiling acid to eliminate the mercenaries intruding into your territory. If you are able to take out all four players, you win!
As a mercenary your job is a little bit more complicated. You begin by choosing from four different mercenary classes, each of which has their own stats and abilities. These abilities change how you play, but no matter which character you choose your goal remains the same.
Your primary objective is to collect 75 “nuggets”, which can be gathered by shooting objects known as “zits” that are placed throughout the map. Once you have obtained enough nuggets you can make your way to the evac-zone. First player to evacuate with 75 nuggets wins!
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Aside from the monstrous chicken creature chasing you down, you also have to compete with the other mercenaries, because only one of you will be able to escape. While you cannot shoot the other mercenaries, the game provides a number of methods for screwing over your opponents, from locking a door to trap them with Peggy Sue to simply using a vacuum to suck away some of their nuggets.
If Peggy Sue does catch up with you, or you fall into a pit of lava, do not despair! This game allows you to respawn as many times as you need. The catch is, you don’t come back as the mercenary you once were. Instead, you respawn as a little tentacle creature called a Lil Dipper.
As a Lil Dipper you can’t collect nuggets, or use any of the normal powers and abilities of a mercenary. What you can do, however, is attack and possess the surviving players. If you are able to deal enough damage to a mercenary you will actually take over their body, including any nuggets they may have collected.
The result of these various mechanics – the Lil Dippers, the gadgets, the fact that only one player can win in the end – is a very cutthroat game where every player is out for themselves. This is perhaps summarized best by Starsky, the mercenary leader who explains various aspects of the game through in-game dialogue – “work together if it’s helpful, but don’t be afraid to double-cross the others”.
Back to the Beginning
The complete version of the game is a thoroughly enjoyable thrill-ride full of fast-paced action, exciting turnarounds, and friendship-destroying betrayals. However, this wasn’t always the case. The game has changed significantly throughout its development, and many lessons were learned along the way.
The story of Vicious Circle began in late 2016. Rooster Teeth had just released their first game project, RWBY: Grimm Eclipse, and was looking for proposals for their next project. The project that was eventually chosen was the one that would become Vicious Circle, and was originally proposed by Casey Donnellan.
The original pitch for this game was an asymmetric shooter with 6 humans fighting against 2 aliens, while struggling to survive and escape. Any human killed by the aliens would join the alien team, and the surviving humans had to collect oxygen and fuel for their spaceship in order to escape.
While this original pitch shared many similarities with the finished games, it also had a number of key differences. First, it was a true cooperative game, as opposed to the “uncooperative” game that it would become. All of the surviving humans were able to escape, not just one, and killing all the humans would be considered a victory for all aliens.
The second major difference was the change in tone. While the finished game has a tone that is inherently comedic, the original pitch for the game was much darker. The game was originally intended to feel more like a survival horror game than a collectible shooter, with the vulnerable humans struggling to escape the horrifying alien menace.
As development went on the game slowly evolved to the form that it is today. These changes were all driven by game design lessons that were learned throughout the development process, and helped lead to a stronger game overall.
Winning Should Feel Good
There are few feelings in games more satisfying than victory. But what about a victory that comes at the cost of killing off the rest of your friends?
Early in the design of Vicious Circle when a player was killed by an alien they would join the alien’s team. If the aliens eliminate all the remaining humans, the entire alien team would win.
While this system may initially sound fine on paper, it had a number of issues in practice. The first was a problem of snowballing – since the aliens were designed to be outnumbered by the survivors, the more humans they killed the easier it was for them to quickly defeat the rest.
Donnellan describes the team spending a long time trying to balance the snowballing issue, through methods such as providing more powerful weapons to humans as the alien team gets stronger. However, it wasn’t until a meeting with Matthew Armstrong, creator of the Borderlands series, that the deeper issues with this system were discovered.
Picture this – you start out on a team of humans, desperately trying to survive long enough to fuel up your ship and escape. All of a sudden an alien appears, and despite your best efforts you are overwhelmed. You have failed at your original mission, and before long the rest of the remaining humans are slaughtered by the growing might of the alien army. Congratulations, you win!
Because you would be considered part of the alien team at that point, the game would consider this a victory for you. However, it wouldn’t necessarily feel that way to the player. Since the player must be killed by an alien in order to join the aliens, they are not only required to completely shift their playstyle and mindset in the middle of the match but any victory after that point would almost feel sarcastic.
To combat these issues, the Lil Dippers were introduced. Now, when players died they still had a chance for victory by possessing another mercenary. Dying still changes the gameplay, but it doesn’t force players to completely change their mindset. This also helped reduce snowballing (since the alien side is no longer constantly growing in strength) and made victories feel more genuine.
Don’t Over-complicate Things
Sometimes the things you take out of a game can be just as important as what you put in. This is clearly the case with Vicious Circle, where the removal of various components from the game has helped focus the design on its most important features.
One of the most important features in any First-Person Shooter is…the guns! In Vicious Circle players use their guns for almost everything, from collecting nuggets to shooting down Lil Dippers that try to steal back their bodies. However, this was not always the case.
In earlier versions of the game the player had to actually put their guns away to do almost anything. Collecting nuggets (or their various precursors) was done by holding a button to open a box, which left the player vulnerable. Using gadgets required players to holster their weapons, and even some player abilities prevented them from using their guns at the same time.
At this point in development every new interaction – opening boxes, locking and unlocking doors, switching items – would require their own systems. These extra systems not only complicated the game, but they slowed down gameplay as well. By removing these extra systems and simply using your gun for everything the designers were able to simplify the game and make it more exciting at the same time.
Similarly, the characters have also been simplified over time. In earlier versions of the game each character had additional abilities that could be used for everything from information gathering to area control.
However, over time it was found that these abilities tended to lock players of a certain character into a particular playstyle. The number of abilities for each character was reduced to encourage flexibility, while still making each mercenary feel unique.
A Dash of Flavor
Making an enjoyable game is important, but it’s only half the battle. Equally important is marketing your game – if nobody buys it, then all of your hard work making the game is for naught. Having an existing audience, like the Rooster Teeth family of channels, is a huge benefit, but it also requires consciously designing the game to take full advantage of this existing market.
Rooster Teeth is home to shows like Red Vs. Blue, RWBY, Achievement Hunter, and Death Battle, and is known for its unique mix of action and irreverent comedy. Even the name Rooster Teeth is a joke, being a euphemism for the insulting term “cockbite”.
According to Donnellan it was Michael Hadwin, Head of Game Development, who initially suggested moving away from the sci-fi horror feel of the early game towards a more humorous tone. This decision to make a game that fits within the established Rooster Teeth brand of comedy then drove much of the evolution of the game.
A large part of playing Vicious Circle is the joy of messing with the other players, and most of this came directly out of the tone the designers were trying to create. Several of the gadgets were designed with the goal of allowing players to screw each-other over, and mechanics such as the ability to possess other players or lock doors grew from this central idea.
While a hard sci-fi art style may have fit a more horror influenced approach to the game, it no longer fit with the new direction of the game. The art team began to explore different visual styles, and after several iterations arrived at the current version. The new art style made use of brighter colors and more exaggerated designs to better match the comedic tone of the game.
Similarly, the voice acting and writing also helps reinforce comic atmosphere of the game. Several voice lines within the game directly encourage players to backstab and double-cross the other players, and the game provides humorous, tongue-in-cheek awards to players at the end of each match.
The end result of these various design choices is a game that clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously. The entire game feels like it is sharing one big joke with the player, from the fast food jingle that plays when you walk into a mine to a hilarious moment in the tutorial that you will simply have to see for yourselves.
Joining the Vicious Circle
If you are reading this article when it first comes out Vicious Circle will not be out yet, but it releases in only a few days! If you are interested in learning more about the world’s first uncooperative shooter you can check out it’s Steam page, and make sure to add it to your wishlist so you can jump in when it goes on sale August 13th!
And stay tuned, because August 13th is only the beginning for this game. There is so much more on it’s way from the Rooster Teeth Games team, from skins to playable characters to new game modes. Future updates will be announced on the Rooster Teeth twitter account, so make sure to follow them so you don’t miss out!
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Twitter, Youtube, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. Since next week is my last week at Rooster Teeth I will not have a new article. The week after next, however, will be a big announcement for this site, so stay tuned!