Bosses take health bars for granted.

Seemingly immortal opponents have diminished far too many game-ending fights. While your character could only survive a few glancing blows, the giant menace before you can uncharacteristically absorb buckets of bullets, spells, and sword swipes. The makers of the indie action (single-arrow) shooter Titan Souls — released April 14 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, PC, and Mac — kept that challenge but ditched the frustration. Both you and your foes take only one hit before death, meaning the only barrier to your victory is strategy. I recently spoke with Mark Foster, the lead designer at Acid Nerve, to find out how this dramatically even playing field affected the game’s design.

The game jam theme that created Titan Souls


Above: Most of what we known as Titan Souls originated as part of a game jam design challenge.

The Titan Souls now available grew relatively intact from the team’s initial game jam prototype, becoming the team’s first commercial release. The single-hit deaths and the player’s singular arrow both spawned from this first iteration. All that the full release needed, it turned out, were more bosses to go up against.

“We originally made the game for a 72 hour jam called Ludum Dare, and the theme of the jam was ‘You only get one,’” Mark Foster wrote. “That theme gave rise to the one-arrow, one-hit point for the player and then one hit point for the boss, we tried it out and liked it a lot at the start of the jam and carried it on for all the bosses. This idea was the core of the entire game. Before the jam we knew we wanted to do something with boss fights, but this one hit mechanic really seemed cool to us so when we went onto the full game we just wanted to expand on it.”

While Ludum Dare is the biggest jam Acid Nerve participated in up until that point, it was by no means the first (or last) for Foster. Leaf Me Alone, a minimalist adventure-role playing game hybrid, grew out of a previous Ludum Dare jam between Foster and fellow developer David Fenn, essentially becoming the first substantial title from what would later grow into Acid Nerve.

“Ludum Dare is the only bigger organised jam we’ve ever done, but I tend to try and occasionally jam out small ideas I have in a couple of hours,” said Foster. “Me and David often go to local jams in Manchester when they happen and churn out small fun ideas there, though those jams are usually at the same time as ludum dare so we’re usually jamming for that too.”

The player’s capability to mentally draw their arrow back to them after firing it was also present from Titan Souls’ game jam prototype phase. But the idea came more from circumstance than anything else. The retail version just needed to give that returning arrow some power.

“Pulling back the arrow was always part of the design. Initially, it was in the jam game just [so] that button … [had] purpose when not holding the arrow, also if it got stuck anywhere you could drag it back,” Foster wrote. “… this mechanic was expanded upon [in the full game], giving it power and purpose in the world. The arrow would accelerate when dragged and could do damage.”

Keeping things challenging with only one hit

Without health bars to whittle down, defeating bosses in Titan Souls became about strategy.

Above: Without health bars to whittle down, defeating bosses in Titan Souls became about strategy.

Acid Nerve’s refinement of Titan Souls revolved around keeping a heady challenge. The final game is respectably difficult, but it wouldn’t be if bosses were made of the same fleshy meat sacks as the player. Designing each encounter became a matter of armor and behavior.

“Because the bosses didn’t have health in a traditional sense with a healthier, their ‘health’ or survivability had to be in their actions and behavior,” wrote Foster. “They would defend themselves or attack to prevent the player form getting the chance to kill them, rather than taking hits and soaking them up.”

Survivability came in many forms with the bosses of Titan Souls. A magical yeti had several icicle and snowball projection attacks that covered both close and long range, along with an extremely fast roll that could quickly cover the distance between it and the player. What kept the challenge fair, according to Foster, was keeping a thin window of opportunity open to the player and a bright weak spot always in focus.

“This structure was an interesting design challenge, where we had to balance fights around single weak spots, and the timings required to make those spots hard to hit but give the player a fair chance,” Foster wrote.

Participating in a game jam can often be a grueling, unforgiving trial-of-fire for designers. Unforgiving time restrictions and often esoteric themes combine for a grueling experience that often yields very little beyond an amusing, but ultimately useless, prototype. But the team at Acid Nerve relished the challenge that led to Titan Souls, and it feels even the final version of the game stands as testimony to potential of game jams as inspiration.

“It was certainly challenging to design around the restrictions the game had, but that was fun,” wrote Foster. “I feel that restriction breeds innovation, forcing you to think outside the box and do different and interesting things with the tools you have, that’s something that you see a lot in game jams – the restriction of a theme forces people to make something they might not usually have considered.”

And with game jams, unlike the bosses of Titan Souls, you really only do get one shot.