Working on Aeternum has been a constant eye-opener for me in terms of the true depths of difference gamers with varying exposure to established niche genres. When you’ve become very familiar with a particular style of game, it’s easy to forget the wide range of skills and knowledge of specific tropes you’ve picked up along the way. In a bullet hell shoot em up like this for example, things like hitbox size/location, “streaming”, “grazing” and tactical bombing are all important to understand, but take some experience to really get to know.

On the other hand, I think there’s also a certain level of hubris among experienced gamers. I’ve seen it a good number of times already that people I have asked to test the game seem to play it two or three times, and proclaim it “too hard.” On a broad level, this could be attributed to my feeling that success in playing a game such as this is very much a function of actually spending time practicing, learning the patterns and how to exploit them. But more specifically it has been my observation that people are generally unfamiliar with the idea of a “focus” button. In the case of Aeternum, the focus function alters your firing pattern, and slows your character down. In terms of a 2d shmup, it is very much a trope of the bullet hell sub-genre. However, in spite of pointing out the function, and explaining in no uncertain terms that moving slowly and focusing your fire is very much a desirable action, people continue to tend towards a burning need to move as fast as possible.

The default controls have the character moving at a constant speed that is relatively fast by default. Holding down a “trigger” button puts you in focus mode, moving you slower. But when I play, I actually almost always hold down trigger to stay focused, only releasing the button when I want a burst of speed. I find this methodology to be my preferred control style. But I also think these controls are contributing to the misconception among inexperienced players that speed is desirable over moving slowly. Which brings me to the actual dilemma: do I keep this control scheme, or do I invert it so that focus mode is default, and the triggers become a sort of “sprint” function? Or is this even really the problem? Should I focus instead on educating the player about the importance of the functionality?

I believe I have expressed it before from the visual side of things, but I think this also contributes to it; I have this fear that a majority of players will take one look at the game, or in this case one play attempt, and immediately dismiss it, when in actuality a little knowledge coupled with some perseverance would probably serve them sell enough to learn to enjoy the game. I’ve been considering an approach similar to Jamestown , in that they almost force new players into a tutorial level which shows off the available keys and explains what they do, although it’s pretty much just a cinematic with some onscreen text. The other alternative of just throwing up a pre-drawn image with a picture of a controller and pointing out things in writing just feels like a cop out to me. I haven’t even begun to get into the scoring mechanics with my regular play testers, that’s a a whole separate barrel of tropes.


WastedBrilliance is an independent video game development studio run by Brooks Bishop. With contributions by Nate Graves, Jesse Bishop and Geoff Schultz.