Welcome to the
October November blog post! As promised, it has been five months since the last blog post, and I have a ton of new and important content to share.
In the past five months, I have of course continued work on the editor. But, more importantly, in late September we finally handed over some (very) early builds of the game and levels to a closed group of playtesters. Since then we have been working to address their feedback and continue trucking along making levels and feeling out content and features.
Today we're going to go over quite a bit of stuff, ranging from major mechanical overhauls, to small quality-of-life improvements, and everything in between.
Let's get into it!
In late September, we brought in a handful of individuals from the Hotline community to try out some early builds of the mod. We had a good mix of hardened veterans, and those much less experienced with the game. They played several of the levels from the first half of the game, and experienced both the Journalist and Crusader characters and their playstyles.
We are happy to say that, the feedback we received was majority positive. High skilled players in particular loved the changes we had made to the Hotline formula and greatly enjoyed the experience. Returning but less skilled players also enjoyed what we had to offer, particularly liking the mechanical ideas presented.
However, the level design itself earned a mixed set of reviews. And one particularly negative critique really threw us for a loop. For about a week or so after, the dev team was confused, frustrated, divided, and so on. Rob Salmon even attempted to hire an assassin to murder me in my sleep due to our disagreements. It was a bad look.
Essentially, what we realized from our playtesting was this: We were outright overlooking the new-player experience. We had assumed overall in our level design that players would be comfortable with and enjoy fighting in larger, more open levels-- such as have become very common in the Hotline Miami 2 workshop. These levels are very movement and combo oriented. The reality was that we had put the skill floor for The Miami Horror at the middle of Hotline Miami 2 hard mode. And because the lot of us were very familiar with the levels we had made, we'd become blind to the difficulty of them.
Now, it has always been my plan that The Miami Horror would be a very challenging, envelope pushing mod. My goal is to create a mod that genuinely teaches the player how to play Hotline Miami 2, in a fast-paced, risk-taking kind of way. I want to rectify the (sometimes serious) design flaws of how Hotline 2 mechanically works. To this end, I have introduced mechanics like the "anti-bait" behavior, new enemies that demand the player's attention and require them to approach them, constructed playstyles and weapons that allow the player to be more aggressive.
It is common knowledge that the vast majority of players who pick up Hotline Miami 2 play it by 'baiting', attracting enemies to them from around corners where they can kill them without ever giving the enemy a chance to attack them. This play style results in frustration and tedium. It takes a ton of extra time as players carefully try to pick off each individual enemy in any given level, because they are too scared to die and risk starting a difficult floor again from the top.
This playstyle flies in the face of everything that the Hotline Miami series claims to be about. It is blatantly not the intended way to play Hotline Miami, or Hotline Miami 2. However, the truth is this:
The game never actually rewards the player for playing more aggressively, for taking more risks, and engaging enemies outside of their safe zone.
Hotline Miami 2 in particular suffers from this problem. It's the primary reason players tend not to enjoy Hotline 2 as much as the first. They don't know they're doing something wrong by playing in this manner, they don't know how they're supposed to engage with levels that are larger, more open, and contain more difficult enemies. The game does not encourage momentum.
Why is that?
It's because players correlate killing enemies and staying alive with success. Clearing a floor of all enemies, regardless of how long it takes, is the ultimate goal. For every second a player stays, for every enemy they manage to kill, the player feels more and more like they are playing the game correctly-- or at least optimally. Baiting is a dominant strategy that Hotline Miami 2 offers no alternative to.
Consider the combo meter, what does it actually do? Well... nothing. It does nothing. You can't tell exactly how long you have a combo for, you only get points for it, and they are only added to your total if they expire. A good combo only serves to improve your grade at the end of a level, and when levels are large and difficult, absolutely no one is going to replay for a better grade unless they're hunting for achievements.
So: What is the solution?
Well, from a level design perspective, the important thing is steadily increasing the size of levels. Getting players used to using the shift look. Most normal Hotline players use the shift look as a situational way to gauge upcoming threats. They stop and look. We, the dev team, have our pinkies permanently glued to shift key. It's a big difference.
The smaller levels are, the less need people feel for stopping and looking. The more they will continue moving through a level regardless of how difficult it is. For instance, we observed that Kungflu (a very difficult bonus level) was perceived to be more bearable than Old Wounds (a medium difficulty large level), entirely because in Kungflu you can see enemies before they attack you-- even if they are off screen when they do it. If an enemy position is telegraphed, players will know it is there and approach without fear.
Players also cling to walls. They like being able to see the wall opposite to where they are moving to. If they move up, they want to see a wall above them, if they move left or right-- same deal.
Players favour horizontal space over vertical space. The reason is obvious-- you can see further (without shift looking) in a horizontal space. We can expand length horizontally in early levels, and then later expand vertical distance. Keeping players comfortable as they learn critical lessons in how to play and contend with challenging level layouts.
These are observations, that we as level designers can use to improve the difficulty curve of our game. To better teach the language of our level design, and how to deal difficult enemy solutions, without changing anything mechanically. Eventually, a player who is familiar enough with how to deal with certain layouts will be comfortable dealing with them even if they can't see an opposite wall, even if an enemy isn't telegraphed before it attacks them. They will have learned the patterns in the design enough to predict what is coming next-- and that's very important.
On top of changing our level design philosophy to better account for how players learn, I have also added some new mechanics and features to facilitate player growth and engagement with our levels.
Combo & Health Overhaul
The first major change to the mechanics is that of the new 'combo reward system'. If you read that titanic wall of text above, you will have noticed me winging on about how the combo system in Hotline 2 sucks and isn't facilitating player desire to play quickly and recklessly. The Hotline 2 levels and scoring system blatantly favours combos over anything else, including speed of completion. But, it has no in-game, in-combat value. It does nothing for the player and is entirely optional, and mostly totally disregarded.
While considering this problem, I started playing Downwell again. In that game, combos are difficult to achieve, but give extremely good rewards for excellent play. That's when the problem with Hotline 2's combo system struck me.
I have developed a system that adds value to the combo meter, and also brings about transparency to player health.
In The Miami Horror, earning large combos will gave you sometimes totally game changing rewards. In the current version of the system, which is of course subject to change, the player gains an additional health for every 10 kills they get in combo. Some characters earn extra ammo, and special abilities for reaching milestones.
Some may be aware that in Hotline 1 and 2 (particularly 2) the player actually has more than 1 hp. In Hotline 2 every character has 2 hp, they can survive one bullet before dying. This health is invisible, and can only be replenished by executing an enemy. I tend to believe that this healing ability is actually an oversight by Dennaton, and not intentional.
However, I have removed health regeneration from executions, applied it to the combo meter, and made the health bar of the player clearly visible. The art for that health bar will almost certainly change in the future, but for now every additional bullet the player can survive is shown as a heart in the top left. You start with two, just like in Hotline 2. The health cap is 8.
We have not given playtesters an opportunity to try this system yet, but I suspect that giving the player power and actual positive feedback for playing well will encourage them to push themselves to play even better.
Here's a general idea of what combo rewards look like, using Crusader as an example:
15x: Ammo pickup size increased by 20%
20x: Killing doors, +1hp
30x: Ammo pickup size increased by 20%, +1hp
Big plays mean big rewards, and ability buffs only last so long as you hold on to your combo, while HP is permanent. Everyone should get something out of it, even if you're only getting individual 10x combos at a time.
Heavy Melee & New Weapons
In Hotline Miami (1 and 2) melee weapons are practically identical. There are some slight differences in swing speed and reach, but for the most part they all do the same thing. The big differences come in with executions. In Hotline 2, they are varied per character, and generally take significantly longer than in 1. In The Miami Horror, we've taken a more mixed approach. We like giving characters more personality by using different kinds of executions and execution speeds. Executions are generally faster in The Miami Horror than in Hotline 2, they are somewhat less discouraged.
However, these changes didn't really affect the differences between a pipe and a bat. And something I pride myself on, particularly in the firearms category, is actual distinctions between individual weapons. Where one gun does one thing and one gun does another, there is little to no outright redundancy in weapon variety (that's why we have fewer unique guns than most other Hotline mods that have existed). I want every gun to feel and play uniquely. It's important to me.
So, this is why I've added in a new class of weapon called the 'heavy melee'. We describe fats and high HP enemies as 'heavy' enemies. So, the weapons that are particularly designed to deal with them are called a similar name.
Please don't mind the placeholder sprites. Heavy melee weapons are capable of stunning Fats and other enemies you normally can't hit with melee weapons. They can then be used to execute the stunned heavy enemy, at which point they will break. This new weapon type allows more melee oriented characters (like Journo) to combat heavy enemies without needing to pick up a gun. It adds more variety to the melee weapon pool, and gives more incentive to try out melee weapons.
In addition to this brand new mechanic and new class of weapon, I've added in a few more new guns to round out our roster. From left to right in the above image:
- The FA-MAS: 3 round burst assault rifle primarily used by hiders
- The FA-MAS TAC: An alternative of the FA-MAS used by a different faction
- The Henry: A 10 shot lever action rifle whose high caliber bullets can penetrate multiple enemies and deal additional damage to heavies.
- The S&W Special: A 5 shot revolver which serves as a low ammo alternative to the 9mm Pistol.
- The Carbine: A 10 shot semi-automatic rifle which serves as a low ammo alternative to the M16.
The last three weapons will be used in level design to ease players into the gun based combat and encourage them to explore both melee and firearms. In addition to these weapons, I've added others like the M79 grenade launcher (shown in a previous update) and reworked the Magnum Revolver, and our caliber system as a whole.
Quickly about Caliber
The Miami Horror's caliber system has been present in the game for quite a while-- although previous to yesterday it was working incorrectly (oops). But, I have yet to explain it or it's intended purpose, if I recall correctly. So here goes.
In the original series, guns could be either low caliber or high caliber. High caliber bullets penetrate all enemies (except for fats) and are capable of killing several enemies in one shot.
In the Miami Horror, guns can have a wide variety of calibers. Caliber indicates exactly how much damage a bullet does, and how many enemies and doors it can pass through. For instance, in the above video, I fire the Rifle (which has a caliber of 9(!)) at two fats, who each have 5 hp. It hits the first, dealing 5 damage and killing him instantly, then penetrates through him and hits the second. The second fat takes four damage, absorbing the bullet but bleeding out extremely quickly.
Each time a bullet hits an enemy, it's caliber is reduced by either 1 or the enemy's remaining health before applying bullet damage, whichever is greater. If the new caliber of the bullet would be less than zero, it is deleted. Otherwise, it passes through the enemy.
Bullets can also pass through doors if they have a caliber greater than zero. This deals damage to the door-- which if shot enough times, will be destroyed.
Caliber for Shotguns
Shotguns now have a special projectile type called a pellet. In the original Hotline series, they shoot regular bullets with infinite range. Essentially, shotguns in the Hotline series are the best long range weapon- nay, the best weapon in the game. In the Miami Horror, we have challenged that position and made them a bit more situational.
The pellet projectile is a much smaller bullet, which has a designated survival time. This survival time is determined based on what caliber the firearm is set to. So, the Super Shorty has very low caliber and range, the Shotgun has a standard caliber and range, and the TOZ has a large caliber and long range.
Shotguns remain extremely effective, but also require more tactics to use properly. Particularly the Super Shorty, with it's low range and pellet count, getting close is extremely necessary. Great when combined with Journo's dive tackle.
Because there are a few types of heavy enemy in the Miami Horror, this is a fun feature which lets the player pick and choose what ground weapons they want to use to deal with certain enemies. It also allows a lot more variety in how weapons can play and feel.
Various improvements have been made. I'll try not to bore you with the details because they're fairly basic.
- More Editor Features: Including improved transition tool, per floor background color and more selection options for enemies
- Directional Audio: Sound effects play in stereo now, allowing for more comprehensive audio alert sounds and better enemy awareness. Audio position is based on the center of the view, but player sounds and UI sounds always play at the center, helping reduce confusion while shift looking.
- New Level: Apocrypha, added to the first half of the game due to playtester feedback.
- Countless Bug Fixes and QoL Changes: Seriously... I've lost track.
Huge blog post today, I know. Hopefully it wasn't too much whining and minutia for you guys. Wanted to write a lot today I guess.
We're working hard.
Jaydon recently released his fan game, Hotline Berzerk, which is free and features a track by me and several others by community artists Beasuce and Lapuaa. Give it a shot, I can assure you it's good.
Now that he's done with that, and we all have a bit more free time, we'll be spending even more time on level design.
I have also updated the itch.io page, and am working on this MODDB entry.
We're talking about when and how we're going to put together a possible steam page, perusing music, looking at reference material, and constantly discussing the game and what's going in it.
The project is going quite well and we're all pretty content and excited with what we have to offer you guys in the future!
Happy Halloween, Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, etc.
See ya'll in another five months.