GDC: Five Things We Learned About ‘Downwell’

Matthew Hadick

If you haven’t tried Downwell, Japanese indie wunderkind Moppin’s excellent roguelike shmup for PC and mobile, you should do yourself a favor and remedy that immediately. The game tasks players with venturing deep into the Earth’s core, taking out enemies with a pair of gun-boots, which also conveniently happen to slow the player’s descent. The game is much deeper than its deceptively simple premise suggests, with an amazing combo system and a timed mechanic that takes minutes to learn but countless hours to master.

Downwell in motion, with gun-boots on full display.

Moppin, real name Ojiro Fumoto, gave a talk at GDC this year detailing his influences and design process. Here are five of the most interesting things we learned about Downwell.

Spelunky Influence

Moppin is a huge Spelunky fan, which is obvious, so it makes sense that the game started out as an attempt at recreating the groundbreaking roguelike for mobile platforms. Inspired by the game’s replayability and subterranean setting, Downwell was originally an attempt at a Spelunky clone with simplified mechanics. This is long before he formulated the gun-boots idea.

The Best of Both Worlds

When asked why he thinks he is one of Japan’s few successful indie developers, Fumoto revealed that he spent a few years of his childhood in New Zealand, where he played a lot of western games and worked on his English. He says this time was critical to his development as a game designer — his sensibilities were forever impacted by his experience with popular American titles and he believes it armed him with “the best of both worlds” when it came to developing Downwell.

In terms of why he chooses to go the indie route, Fumoto explained that he realized the potential behind indie and mobile game development after playing Vlambeer’s Ridiculous Fishing, and he cites the Dutch studio as a major influence.

Super Metroid Wall Jump

When a fan asked about his inspiration behind Downwell’s wall jump — an expert skill that is surprisingly difficult to pull off — he revealed that it was a nod to Super Metroid, one of his favorite games. The influence of Nintendo’s sci-fi masterpiece is apparent throughout Downwell, from its murky setting to its haunting score.

Permanent Placeholder

When asked about the game’s ever-so-satisfying reload animation — a flash of white that consumes the character for a split second — Moppin revealed that he implemented it in a hurry, meaning for it to serve as a placeholder until he thought up something better. The animation worked so well, however, that he decided to leave it as-is.

Iterative Design Process

Moppin centered his talk on the game’s development process. He said that things really started to shape up when he came up with the idea for gun-boots, which solved multiple design problems. It made way for the combo system, allowed him to make the environment destructible, and helped him think up the game’s limited-ammo system, which he says strikes a compelling, Dark Souls-like balance between the bullet-hell of Ikaruga and the conservation-mindedness of Resident Evil.

When asked about his process, he said it was all about experimentation. If he implemented a mechanic or feature and it wasn’t fun or interesting, he would retool it or remove in until the experience felt just right.

It’s always fascinating to get a peek into how some of our favorite games are conceived and developed. Hopefully, the success of Downwell provides Moppin with even more freedom to allow for experimentation, and resources to realize his vision. We can’t wait to play the result, whatever that may be.

Matthew Hadick
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