There was no one more excited at the first day of the Game Developers Conference than Piotr Iwanicki, designer and creative director of Superhot, an innovative shooter released just weeks ago to nearly universal critical acclaim. He was on hand to lay bare the game's core design principals in an energetic and entertaining 30-minute presentation.
Superhot, Iwanicki said, was the product of 10 people with little to no experience in game development coming together during the 7DFPS global game jam in 2013. The secret to their success he said was in sticking to their simple mechanic — "time moves only when you move" — from day one until release, more than two years later.
"We wanted to reinvent the first-person shooter," Iwanicki said while pacing madly across the stage, his long blond bangs flying. "You can treat this 'time moves only when you move' as a gimmick. You could use it in just some sections of the game, or make it a power-up. But we wanted to make this ... the core idea and let it resonate through all the other aspects of gameplay."
That focus led his team to make some daring design choices.
The most important of those choices was to craft the environment in stark black and white. The benefit was that the game world was instantly "readable" for players. Enemies are rendered as red crystalline figures and jump out of the scene while weapons, like guns or throwable items, are rendered in dark blues. That allows players to instantly get the measure of a space, to easily see their objectives and immediately understand what resources are available in the game world to achieve them.
"A black item is an interface of itself," Iwanicki said, which meant that a heads-up display or a traditional user interface was completely unnecessary in Superhot.
The almost bland design of the game, Iwanicki said, had another side effect in that it allowed players to fill in the blanks by using their imagination.
"We always focused on making these places look real," he said. "While our level design is mostly abstract, we have certain places in the game where there are very literal objects, like pool tables, [as a point of reference]."
Those references ground players in the space, while at the same time allowing them to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. Iwanicki compared Superhot to a classic roguelike game that might use colored letters to represent monsters. A brown letter "R" standing for a plague-ridden rat can be very frightening, he said, in the context of a deadly maze. So to can a nearly featureless red humanoid shape.
Superhot's level of abstraction also meant that animations didn't have to be elaborate to be effective at evoking a response from players.
"It always feels like you’re seeing what the character is doing in your mind's eye."
"What’s funny is that the player model in Superhot has this very rough movement," Iwanicki said. "It’s just a capsule basically, jumping over this pool table. But when you do it in the game you imagine things! You imagine this ninja-like, John Woo-like jump over the pool table, grabbing the gun mid-air and shooting the enemy!
"It always feels like you’re seeing what the character is doing in your mind's eye, even though from the game’s perspective this is just a jumping capsule with some collision detection."
Many people have called Superhot a puzzle game, Iwanicki said, but to do so is to fundamentally misunderstand how the game can be played at a high level.
"It's simply a shooter where you can have time to make your decisions," he said. "If you think about it, it’s not a puzzle at all. It’s more like a game of this 'pure flow,' and of playing as fast as you want. That’s the most important aspect of the game. It’s a very, very fast action game that waits for your input.
"It’s basically like making a turn-based game out of something that’s nominally very fast."
That variable speed also allows players to express themselves, and to play the game with a kind of personal style.
"You can play without shooting and it's almost like a fashion statement," Iwanicki said. "Dropping pistols when they're empty is almost like a mic drop."