My adventures in game design are largely experimental in nature; I like to take weird ideas and ask weird questions and see if the end result is playable or interesting. The only one of my explicitly experimental games that I'm not embarrassed by is Side Saddle.
(You can play it at Yo Yo Games using their instant play plug-in or you can download it right to your desktop.)
Action games are about controlling space, but in non-arena shmups, both vertical and horizontal, I find the control of space to be too easy. Yes, in bullet hell games, it's difficult to dodge-and-shoot, but in many games you can basically just strafe back-and-forth along one axis-- the horizontal axis in a vertical game and the vertical one in a horizontal-- and rapidly press or hold the fire button to destroy whatever legions of enemies are coming at you.
The player can hang back at either the bottom or left of the screen and fire from there; their shots stretch out over wider axis of the game's orientation.
There are some shmups, of course, that don't allow the player to fall into this trap. Enemies with heat-seeking missiles and arcing bullets prevent the player from getting too comfy. Cactus's great game Clean Asia requires you to ram through an enemy in order to gather the shots used to defeat them. And you don't want to move along one axis in a bullet hell game.
But I was wondering to myself, is there another way to do this? The big problem for me was, again, the way the bullets dominate the longer axis. I considered using "funny" bullets that spin around and I thought about using bullets that peter out after so many seconds. But I couldn't really get either to implement particularly well.
That's when the thought occured to me of flipping the axis; of having the bullets control the short axis rather than the long one.
In such a game, the player would have to get right next to an enemy in order to shoot them, putting a renewed focus on how the player moves through and controls space. And that's when I started working on Side Saddle, a side-shooting vertical shmup. But there was still a problem; I found that my playtesters were moving along the vertical axis, up-and-down, shooting willy-nilly. Shorter axis or not, it was still the same trap.
And that's where the ammo idea came from; players would now have to conserve their ammo and aim carefully. Accuracy became important. And the reloading motif-- the ammo only reloads when the player isn't moving-- would require the player to think more deeply about the way they moved through space, to consider if they should stop here and for how long.
It also introduced a dynamic tension into the way the player dealt with enemies. If you kill an enemy quickly, you'll have more time to recharge ammo for the next wave; if you wait longer, the enemy will be worth more points but you'll have less time to recharge. And since every 10,000 points gave the player a turret power-up, thus increasing their ability to control space and avoid dying, scoring more points is ideal.
So that, in a nutshell, is the decision-making process that resulted in this game. It's a difficult game, but it's perfectly winnable if the player (1) conserves ammo, (2) fires accurately, (3) stops moving to recharge his ammo, (4) strikes a balance between his ammo-needs and his power-up wants, and (5) uses the entire playfield.
The problem with all that is, it's pretty much hard-wired to support one style of play (the style enumerated above) and to dismiss all others (such as the move-along-one-axis and firing-willy-nilly-at-everything school of shmupping). I stand by the decisions I've made and I think there's a lot of good, challenging, and strategic play in it, that it has a fair amount of replay value.
At the same time, I'm dubious about any game that doesn't allow the player to use their own play style and strategies. While I still think, at least at this stage when it is admittedly still very fresh in my heart and my mind, Side Saddle is a good game, it should have supported more varied styles of play.
Part of the problem is, admittedly, by design-- the whole point of the game, from the start, was to "correct" "lazy" play habits in shmup game play by removing the strategy of moving along one axis while controlling the other with your bullets. But, y'know-- some people like that style of play. (Heck, sometimes I do.) So maybe the whole time I was operating from a false premise.
I'm certainly not trying to dissuade anyone from playing my game--please dear God play my game-- and in fact I hope that the preceding prods some people into giving it a look.