The lineage of Pyre

Supergiant Games knocked it out of the park once again with Pyre.  Pyre builds upon Bastion and Transistor perfectly and shows that proper work done by a small team can help immensely in future projects.  Using mechanics and systems built for previous games can afford small teams time to create completely new systems.  All three of Supergiant’s games have design elements in common, such as using music, song, and voices to enhance story and gameplay, but the beauty of the Supergiant trilogy is the shared mechanics.  There is a clear lineage from Bastion through to Pyre that I’d like to explore.

The 5 main mechanics/systems used in Supergiant’s three games that I’d like to talk about are:

  • Third person isometric control
  • A 3D, 2D visual style
  • Enemy AI
  • Changing play field
  • Stat-based gameplay changes

Third person isometric and 3D, 2D visual style

The third person isometric control and 3D models in a 2D visual style go hand in hand and are the easiest to spot.  All 3 games have the characters moving on an isometric plane and are controlled in similar ways by the player.  There isn’t too much new in Pyre to the character control though, Supergiant got it more or less right in Bastion.  Comparing Pyre to Bastion I’d say the controls are much smoother and more responsive in the newest game.  The biggest difference is the ability to control multiple characters during gameplay.

Enemy AI

Enemy AI is the system where the improvement is most noticeable game to game.  Bastion’s AI is very simple, lots of seeking, fleeing, and wandering steering algorithms.  There are small enemies that go to you or run away from you when not wandering around.  They have larger enemies that are a little more complex because of their attack patterns, but in terms of movement and decision making are just as simple as the smaller enemies.  All enemies have at least one attack that they perform if your character is close enough, once in their attacking animation, their motion is locked, in that way the enemies telegraph their attacks very clearly.

Transistor’s AI kicks it up a notch with more complex attack patterns and more strategic enemies, such as enemies that will shoot lasers from a distance or fast enemies that will attack from behind.  But Transistor’s big leap comes in the form of the final boss.  Transistor’s final boss uses strategy as well as the same move set as you the player.  This was clearly something that Supergiant worked hard to add to their game and it is rather complex so I can see why it only appears in one part of the game.  Probably because of the time it took to get it right.  The hard work paid off because of the great final boss, but also because strategic AI was then heavily used in Pyre.

In Pyre not only is there a strategic enemy AI, but it also controls up to 3 enemy characters.  I’ve had matches in Pyre where the enemy team played me like a fool, it was great.  Without the previous work done by Supergiant Games, they would have built the AI ground up for Pyre, while not impossible it would have been time-consuming.

Changing play field

While very subtle in Pyre the changing playing field/level geometry is a really cool thing that has been in every Supergiant project since Bastion.  In Bastion it was adding and removing parts of the level, in Transistor it was blocks that appeared on the playing field that could be destroyed.  As I said, in Pyre it is much more subtle since the playing field has to be more or less intact and at the same dimensions, but some maps have obstacles that are added and removed during gameplay.  In Pyre the effect appears to be added to levels because the technology was already in Supergiant’s engine from previous games.  Pretty neat.

Stat-based gameplay changes

Finally, the stat-based gameplay changes.  This, to me, gives the most insight to Supergiant’s engine.  All three of Supergiant’s games have gameplay that can be modified by using in game modifiers (in Pyre, invoking Titan Stars).  These modifiers make enemies faster, take less damage, recharge faster, etc.  There are also modifiers that help the player by increasing the main character’s stats.  What these mechanics show me is that behind the scene almost all playable and non-playable characters are based on the same character system, where each character has the same stats, movement, and controllable properties, but all tuned differently to make distinct characters.

The stat-based system in indicative of the overall strategy of Supergiant Games’ design philosophy which I sum up with the 3 Rs (borrowing it from the waste collection industry), reduce, reuse, and recycle.  Reduce the amount of work necessary by reusing existing systems and mechanics.  Recycle is when upgrades are needed ( 😛 ).  Similarly to how characters are remixes and modifications of properties, Supergiant’s games are remixes and modifications of game mechanics and system to make distinct games.

Reusing code and systems is something I’m still learning to do.  I tend to remake things over and over again whenever I need it.  True, I do make improvements and it gets easier every time, but ideally, I would like to have a library that I build on and update that I could use to make my games.  The lesson in Supergiant Games still stands, making solid reusable systems affords smaller teams the opportunity to make new systems (such as the conversation system and the multiplayer mode in Pyre) and thus larger and more impressive games can be made without using up effort to reinvent the wheel. 😎

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