SMG Studio wants you to play nice in Death Squared

The Australian studio's upcoming console game is a cooperative puzzle that makes players communicate with each other.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read
SMG Studio

SMG Studio went about things all backwards. Its first game, OTTTD (Over-the-Top Tower Defense) was a highly ambitious tower defence game for mobile and PC. From there, it shifted down a gear into smaller arcade titles One More Line and One More Dash.

According to game designer Patrick Cook, these two titles were a sort of mental break from the intensity of OTTTD. But now the studio is getting back on the horse, with its first game designed for consoles.

Death Squared is also designed to make people talk to each other.

"One thing I really love about the game is you can put two strangers in it, and by the end of 15 minutes, they will have just had a big conversation," Cook said. "You really can't pass a level without getting really verbal and communicative."

The gameplay is ingenious. A single-player mode is available, but it really is at its best with two or four players in a local game. Each levels consists of a board, with two or four coloured robotic blocks, depending on the number of players. Every block will have a corresponding coloured circle somewhere on the board, and players need to get their block on to their circle.

So far, so good. But when a player moves their block, other things happen on the board. Spikes might appear, or a block might move in such a way that it pushes another player's block over the edge. Players are each immune to effects of their own colour and can sometimes protect other blocks, but if you don't experiment, die a lot and then plan out how to finish the level, you're in for a terrible time.

"The very initial spark of an idea was four people stuck in this weird dungeon where you had switches and levers, and everything you do or press kills everybody, kind of like a puzzle room," Cook explained.

"From there, we scaled it back to more of an abstract, minimalist grid-based aesthetic with simple robots. That really lends itself to the readability of the mechanical contraptions and it's very primary colour focused and you can identify where things move within the grid. I want that to be like a big factor in just how you look at space and analyse it and understand a contraption and see the answer and help each other through it."

Enlarge Image

A two-player level in Death Squared.

SMG Studio

If you've played more than one of SMG's games, you'll notice a pattern. Although they can vary in scope, they're all very carefully thought out, balanced around a nexus of simple and difficult and addicting.

This is not by accident. The SMG team has deliberately sought to create experiences that make perfect sense to the player.

"There's always this kind of golden ratio of simple versus complex, but hard versus easy. You don't want to confuse people. You want to challenge them to improve in a very understandable, kind of straightforward sort of way. So, you practice, and you get better, and you keep beating your score, and at no point, ideally, should you ever fail due to something you couldn't comprehend," Cook said.

They also discovered with One More Line that people really gravitate towards that simplicity. If a game does one simple mechanic really well, that's a game that people will spend time trying to master. The challenge in developing such a game is finding that one thing and refining it.

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Death Squared originated in a game jam, where developers had 48 hours to create a playable experience, so this philosophy fit perfectly. The prototype that emerged from that jam turned out to be really fun to play, with players pretty much immediately knowing what to do.

"This is an abstract game, and at least at the start it's very simple. I just throw a controller at someone and say 'Just stand on your circle. Don't kill everybody.' Spiel over," said Cook.

"And people, they just have to stand on their circle. That never changes. It just gets harder and harder to accomplish that task and people just kind of find their way through it. And that's really fun to watch."

Death Squared is due for release on Steam and consoles in mid-2016.