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Witchfire Design: Deep Dive into the Calamity

When I say deep, I mean deep...

When I say deep, I mean deep...

Heh, I probably should not be writing this post.

You’re not here by accident, so most likely you know we are a small team who made Witchfire (now in Early Access). A small team means each day of work matters a lot. One of my jobs – apart from management, finances, business, marketing, outsourcing and production– is designing the game.

It’s also obviously the job I love the most.

Writing a blog post takes me a day. The idea, the structure, the research, lots of reading and watching and screen grabbing. The writing itself. I’m not a native speaker, so this takes a bit longer. Putting it all together in WordPress, making sure things look nice. Spreading the message through our socials.

Assuming five days of work per week – not the case with me, I work more, but whatever – it means that 20% of my time is spent writing a blog post. 20%! One fifth!

So I really should not be writing this post. I still have things to design for the GGU, which is the codename for our first big update for Witchfire, coming early next year. Hopefully, very early.

But… I got an idea. How about I marry the two?

The feature I am currently working on is how the Calamity system should evolve in the GGU. The idea would be, then, to go through the design process as I usually do …but document it here. This way I get to work on the feature, while you get a glimpse into the life of a game designer.

I think this might be cool. Let’s do this! *reloads*

I need to start with the answer to the question: what is it that I am trying to solve here? In other words, what is the problem with Calamities, and how do we fix it?

Witchfire is a dark fantasy shooter with soulslike, roguelike and extraction elements. During an expedition – a run, if you will – when you fight monsters, collect treasure and explore the world’s secrets, a seemingly random event can occur.

During that event the witch throws a curse at you, the player, and you have a limited but fairly generous time to deal with it until you lose your Sanity. The events are unique, special and spectacular, for example the world gets a bit quiet and undead warriors rise from the ground to hunt you.

We call such an event a Calamity.

It’s a feature we’re quite proud of. It adds an extra layer of tension to the game, and allows us to add challenging, dramatic, beautiful gameplay events. I mentioned the undead warriors, but other Calamities include the witch summoning a giant demon knight from Hell or a group of Swordsmen hunting for you in the unnatural, thick fog.

However …some people don’t like it.

I am not talking about the dislike that a lot of players had for it in the first days after the launch, when Calamities happened way too often and for silly reasons. That has been fixed and patched already, the Calamities are under control and more or less are where we wanted them to be from the start.

No, I am talking about the dislike for the feature as such. Here’s a sample of the discussion from our Discord.

To be clear, some people – most? – do like them or at least don’t have an issue with them. You can see the reactions in the image above. Still, we feel it’s a problem.

Our design goal for Calamities was:

  • Beginners shall fear them, even run from them rather than deal with them.
  • Veterans would love them because once mastered, Calamities are a good source of rewards.

That goal we also achieved:

But we don’t want most people to like or love Calamities, we want all people to enjoy them. Meanwhile, there’s enough voices telling us that Calamities are a problem to trigger a redesign. We agree with those voices. That’s how we always go about anything, really: we listen to the players and if we agree with the feedback, and most of the time we do, we redesign this or that element of the game. That is the entire point of Early Access!

What is the number one issue for people who dislike Calamities?

Broadly speaking, the lack of understanding when they happen. Here’s the Discord discussion continued:

Not knowing when the Calamity will happen has more consequences than one.

First, the players don’t feel they deserved this kick in the nuts.

In theory, this does not make sense. You are hunting a witch. She fights back. A sudden Calamity is basically like a surprise attack from her. And yet… In video games, when things make sense but are not fun, they need to be murdered, I mean, fixed.

Second, the feature makes the players not being able to play 100% on their own terms.

Again, in theory, this does not make sense. You are hunting a witch. She fights back. She’s not a pushover. Actually, here’s a conversation I had with a well know streamer BikeMan:

Alas, as previously, if the feature makes sense but is not fun …it needs a review. But this is a very interesting case. I do like playing on my own terms as well. Take From games, for example. They can be brutal but it’s always you who decides what to do next. You’re not really surprised in these games more than twice in one place, there’s nearly no RNG.

The thing is, this makes sense for the world that From creates because these worlds are, figuratively, dead. Note how in Souls or Bloodborne or Elden Ring you fight what we can call guardians of these various cursed places. You are the initiating side. You are the intruder. But all the enemies want is to fend you off. With some extremely small number of exceptions like AI Hunters in Bloodborne, they will not be chasing after you. They’re not playing the “war chess” with you as the witch does.

Third, Calamities break the flow and can simply be annoying.

Under this umbrella we have many issues, actually. For example:

  • Calamity can happen in the first minute of an expedition.
  • Calamities can chain one after another.
  • Calamities can happen during a Boss fight.
  • Calamity interrupts the current plan and forces a complete change sometimes.

Let me recap, as this is important. For some players, Calamities feel undeserved and out of the blue, they make playing the game 100% at your own pace impossible, and they break the flow in an annoying way.

There’s actually one more big issue with the Calamities. Some people believe that the correct way of dealing with them is not to fight them, but to run to the Calamity Catalyst (a thing that appears in the world, charging for a minute to release the Calamity) and destroy it before it launches the curse. This is …not entirely correct. But one thing at a time, let’s leave this design challenge for later…

Ok, so we identified the issues that some players have. A minority that is large enough to warrant a review and re-design if needed.

I agree with those notes. Here’s an example why. We, the developers, know exactly why the Calamities happen. To some players, this is a mystery. They play the game and boom, at this or that point the Calamity happens. Meanwhile, when it happens to me, I know it does so because of a particular set of actions.

If you’re curious, here’s the current set:

  • Destroying a trap
  • Collecting a Cursed Treasure
  • Exiting an arena next to the active one (i.e. running away from combat)
  • Lack of healing elixirs
  • Low health
  • Being spotted by a Warden
  • Collecting a Crystal

The idea was: the witch is aware of you but she waits with her most powerful curse – the Calamity –  until you’re at your lowest. Wounded, lacking ammo, lacking elixirs. So the entire map is full of traps and enemy units to wear you down. And then she strikes.

A keen eye will notice a few issues with the current set, though.

One, why is destroying a trap a sign of weakness? It’s not – unless the trap has activated and wounded you. But if you disabled or destroyed it, it should not count towards the Calamity. We know this but …well, we just didn’t have the time to make it right, it’s more complicated than it sounds. We did decrease the importance of this element of the set, though, so destroying the traps is not that punishing.

Two, cleansing an area of evil and collecting the witchfire Crystal is most definitely not a sign of weakness, and yet it counts towards Calamity. Our reasoning was to make sure that experienced players also get to experience the Calamity skill check every now and then. But the downside is that it is confusing. If I am to be punished with Calamity for playing badly, why am I punished for playing well?

This way or another, I – the designer and the developer – know the set. And so when the Calamity happens I am surprised but not that surprised. This is not the feeling that some players share, being literally clueless as for why they just got cursed with the Calamity.

All right.


At this point I now understand the issues and agree with them. I know now what is it that I am trying to fix with the potential redesign.

Before thinking up of the fix, though, I need to remind myself of the design pillars of the Calamity feature. Because any fix idea should be thrown against these pillars first. Here they are:

  • Unique, spectacular, interesting combat scenarios
  • High difficulty level to raise the stakes
  • High difficulty level to make the player hate the witch
  • Occurring at unpredictable moments for the Indiana Jones factor

Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second. “Unpredictable moments” is a design pillar but we’ve just established this is bad, right?

But note the second part of it, “the Indiana Jones factor”.

Here’s what’s it about. When discussing Calamities a few years ago during one of our design brainstorms, Karol mentioned they should add to the “from frying pan and into the fire” gameplay of Witchfire. Just like what happens to Indy in the opening segment of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Everybody remembers this…

…and then this…

…but a lot of other things happen in-between and after. There’s clear escalation of danger and trouble. First, after the exchange gone wrong, the roof is crumbling down…

…and the walls start firing poisonous darts.

Then, while the stone door is closing. Indy is betrayed by his companion and has to risk a jump over a chasm…

…only to slide under the door at the last second.

But even between the jump and the slide there’s this extra moment of bad luck when the vine he grabbed onto, gives.

Then we have the famous boulder scene …and then, when we think it’s all over, when Indy opens his eyes, all he can see is dozens of sharp objects aimed at him.

When he runs away, he’s chased by the entire tribe.

And finally, when he successfully jumps onto the plane and leaves the place, when we thing this entire ordeal is behind him …he finds a snake in the cockpit.

It’s this insane chain of events that dictated the Calamity feature. If you played Witchfire, you probably had a moment when you got cocky for half a second, just messing with a single low level enemy, only to somehow get wounded by them, so you run away to drink the healing elixir, but you realize you have none left, and then enemies from another arena close in on you, you change direction and stumble upon a Warden, so you start panicking and then …boom, Calamity. I deeply love moments like these.

Anyway, going back to Indy, even though literally all of these bad luck moments were surprising, they were somewhat expected. He was, after all, inside an ancient temple. He knew it has various traps, that’s why he carried a bag of sand to replace the idol with in the first place. The presence of the evil Belloq at the end of the scene is, when you think about it, quite logical as well. He is after the same thing as Indy.

And this is key. If Indy got shot with a poisonous arrow during his lecture at the university, that would be surprising for sure. But it would be illogical, out of place. And this is what Calamities feel for some people.

So, the design pillar is wrong. Calamities cannot be random. They need to be a logical surprise, if you will. Surprising the players when they happen, but at the same time offering “Oh yeah, that makes sense” kind of reaction.

Seems like mission impossible, doesn’t it? Surprising but expected. Like having a cookie and eating it, too.

Time to look for solutions.

What inspires me most when designing, it’s other video games. I deeply believe that in order to be a decent game designer, you need to play a lot of video games. We’re talking hundreds, thousands of games. As King said it in his writing guide:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

Same with the designers.

Playing is not the only thing, though. You must also be aware of the game you have not played but had significant effect on modern game design. Yeah, before I sit down and think of the solution – design is nothing but finding solutions – I like to immerse myself with other games, reading about them, watching them in action.

Like Demon’s Souls. It’s the only Souls game I have not played yet (okay, that and Dark Souls 2, but I believe I am excused here…) – but I am aware of its World Tendency feature. From the reception point of view, it sounds just like Witchfire’s Calamities: a unique feature that most people love, but some people hate with passion of a thousand suns. Doesn’t this remind you of the quotes I put up earlier in this post?

In case you don’t know, World Tendency is, in short, a thing where if you play badly, the game gets harder – but the rewards get better. Another thing Calamities share, right? Anyway, it’s a very interesting feature, and it was interesting to read on why people both loved and hated it. And the latter was mostly due to how unclear and convoluted the entire system was. Some players finished the game without even realizing the feature existed at all!

From are design gods, so I was excited to see how they solved the problem in their next games.

They didn’t.

They killed the feature and that’s it.

Some people speculate that Dark Souls et consortes did not have the clear hub/worlds design like Demon’s Souls, and this was the reason. I don’t quite buy it. I think that because of the feedback and many disappointed and frustrated players, From just lost faith in the feature and decided to drop it.

Were they right or wrong? Who am I to say? But I do know that sometimes controversial features, with some time and care, become super useful and loved. When The Getaway (2002) introduced regenerating health to mainstream AAA, both critics and players laughed at it and I believe it was one of the reasons for the game’s failure. But then Halo 2 and Gears proved that when done right, it just works.

One of the most humiliating and sobering things in design is when you think you invented something amazing and fresh, then you do your research and discover someone else has done before. In the case of Calamities, a feature that punished bad plays, World Tendency is one such example. But others exist, because of course they do:

Wait, isn’t that… Yes. Yes it is.

Now, I know that it’s debatable whether the famous Wanted Level – first introduced to the world with GTA III – is a punishment for playing badly. In my opinion, it really is. But it doesn’t feel like it, because you have full control over it. Intuitively, you know what actions will increase the level. Shooting someone, hitting a police car, etc. Also, you can role-play playing someone who “fights the law” and just wreak havoc onto the city. Both of those things together mean that when the Calamity hits you… Sorry, I mean when the police start chasing after you, you know exactly why, and you might have even initiated this yourself, on purpose.

Whew, okay, so I have identified the problems with Calamities and then looked at how other games handle a similar feature.

Out of all that research, a clear solution begins to form.

Design issues to solve:

  1. The player needs to understand why Calamity happens
  2. The player needs to understand when Calamity happens
  3. The Calamity should still be able to catch the player off-guard

Design solution:

  • Expose the Calamity meter on HUD.
    • But make it fuzzy, like the Wanted Level, so it can still be a surprise.
  • Improve messaging on when the meter grows.
    • And make it consistent on what type of actions move the needle.

Believe it or not, but we’re just getting started. There are bigger challenges ahead. But for now, let’s quickly unpack the above.

Exposing the Calamity meter will allow the players to know when the Calamity is coming. That’s good, this will help them feel in control, and that feeling enhances Autonomy, a fundamental element of the core design philosophy of Witchfire.

But we have already established we don’t want players to know the exact second it will happen, because that kills the panic and the surprise. Hence the idea of a fuzzy meter, the way the Wanted Level works. Basically, imagine a 3- or 4- or 5-skulls around the minimap. When the eyes of all are lit up, boom, Calamity time.

So, you will always know you’re close to the Calamity, but you won’t be able to pinpoint the exact moment it happens.

Still, two doubts arise.

First, doesn’t this kill the tension? I know exactly when I am safe from Calamity, e.g. when I only have one skull lit up. On the other hand, I also know it well when I am close to all skulls being lit up — so I can get very ready and the Calamity won’t surprise me. Where’s the tension, then?

Well, we actually do not want a permanent tension. It’s not fun thinking that the Calamity might happen at any random moment. Persistent tension just dulls the senses and that’s a design failure. We need ups and downs, we need both fear and safe heavens.

As for the rest… If the police calls you that a serial killer is heading your way and will reach your house in fifteen minutes, does that increase or decrease tension in your life?

So yeah, tension-wise, I am not worried that the players will understand where they are with the Calamity.

Second, even with the fuzziness, isn’t this still too much control? Will I really be surprised when the Calamity happens?

It’s a reasonable doubt but this is where a knowledge of other games helps this designer again. In 1984, nearly 40 years ago, the world was blessed with Knight Lore, a ZX Spectrum game. You played a cursed man who turns into a werewolf at night. An onscreen timer – lower right corner in the screenshot below – shows the progression of day and night loop. When it hits the night the hero metamorphoses into a werewolf, when it hits the day, he returns to the human form.

You had full knowledge of when you’re going to transform. And yet thousands of players were caught with their pants down when the transformation happened mid-jump between the platforms, so you lost momentum and fell onto the spikes.

In other words, having the access to information does not mean a permanently proper use of it.

So, a fuzzy Calamity meter. What about the messaging? How do we let the players know they executed an action that makes the meter grow internally, and how do we keep things consistent?

This is where I got sidetracked for a few hours, including a design call with our designers. Because I realized …maybe Calamities should affect good plays, instead of bad ones?

Witchfire, at its heart, is a heist game.

The artifact you look for, and the witch herself, reside in the heart of a certain mountain. To gain access, you must kill the witch’s Familiars and steal the “keys” from them. But the Familiars are protected by traps (like the exploding mines), patrols (like the undead Warden) and guards (like the Crystal arenas). Even the cursed chests are honey pots that exist solely to weaken and ultimately kill you.

The witch has set up all of these protection layers so she can study the dark magic in peace, dreaming of creating her dream castle, in which Satan fulfills all of her wishes. The player’s task is to get past all of these defenses, whatever is the cost.

See how this resembles …a bank?

The Familiar is the vault, the key is the treasure inside the vault. The creatures exploding when you’re near them are trip mines, the Warden is like the security guards patrolling the area, the ghouls are the guard dogs, and the skeletal Sentinels are the infrared cameras.

Witchfire is a heist game, and you are the thief.

But forget the bank. Imagine a house of a mafia lady boss instead. Deep underground, she has a panic room and a safe with tons of gold. Outside, all the best protection: guards, dogs, high tech detection and tracking devices, deadly traps.

Now imagine she is aware of your presence and considers you a formidable enemy. She has a special commando unit she hopes can deal with you. But it’s a costly thing, they demand a lot of money for their services.

When should she unleash them: when the guards etc. wear you down and when you’re at your lowest, wounded and tired – or only when you get too close and it seems there’s no other way to stop you?

See where I’m going with this? The answer is not that simple. I like when the gameplay matches the lore. So what makes more sense, that the witch drops the Calamity to finish you off after wearing you down, or when you get too close and become a clear threat to her security?

In other words, should she unleash this costly attack when you play the game badly, or on the contrary, when you play it well?

Other way of thinking about it is imagining the player as an annoying mosquito. Would you chase after it as soon as you hear it, or would you wait until it sits down on your skin and then smash it? Both strategies have their own strengths and weaknesses.

During the design call, I actually proposed four possible solutions:

  1. The Witch’s Mind Is Her Own. We keep the Calamity system as it is, just make it a bit clearer as for what counts towards the Calamity. No meter is exposed, we keep things vague. Just …a bit less vague. This way we keep the feature mysterious, and it can affect both perfect players and the ones that make mistakes.
  2. A Force of Nature. Let’s make it purely random and let the players know it’s random. No more confusion of any kind this way anymore. Just nice and clean RNG.
  3. The Witch Strikes When You’re Down. Let’s expose the meter but make it fuzzy. Cleaner messaging as for what increases the meter. Make it so only mistakes count towards the Calamity.
  4. The Witch Strikes Out of Fear. Let’s expose the meter but make it fuzzy. Cleaner messaging as for what increases the meter. Make it so only clear progress and spectacular plays counts towards the Calamity.

If you read it all up to this point, you can understand why 1 and 2 do not sound right. Unclear systems are annoying or useless to most players (hello, poise) and RNG feels like a cop out. We can do better.

For a while, I leaned towards number 4. Makes sense, right? You become more than a thorn in her ass, so the witch gets scared and angry and decides to spend some extra energy on a powerful curse. What a nice power trip! And a clear acknowledgement you’re getting there.

But… Eh… It’s not exciting. Not fresh. Not surprising. Just another danger to deal with …and will accompany you always. You cannot avoid it. It’s like, I don’t know, a pre-boss? You play well, gain Arcana, kill the witch’s minions, and then, yeah, nearly always around the same time, here comes the Calamity.

So I went back to the number 3. This still feels exciting to me. Something you don’t see everyday. A feature that both teaches you how to play the game, by pointing out your mistakes, and motivates you to do better. But also a feature a great player can abuse. Trick the witch into thinking you suck and then reap the rewards. This supports Competence and Autonomy – again, the absolute titanium pillars of our design philosophy – much better than any other idea.

I understand that the proposed solution kicks you when you’re down. But…

Ever since ‘Demon’s Souls,’ I’ve really been pursuing making games that give players a sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds.

Hidetaka Miyazaki

This is a quote very dear to my heart. I made some games that are all about the mood, the experience, the story. Witchfire is about perseverance, growth, and the satisfaction of overcoming a challenge. Once you taste such a victory, it’s hard to go back. Give it a try.

Okay, so The Witch Strikes When You’re Down it is. But how to communicate to the players that they made a mistake? And, for that matter, what are the actions I would consider mistakes? Signs of weakness that the witch would love to exploit?

I’m thinking:

  • Missing shots entirely
  • Getting wounded
  • Using elixirs when you don’t have any
  • Being out of ammo
  • Being affected by a trap (wounded, immobilized, etc.)
    • This includes stuff like being spotted by a Warden
  • Running away from combat
  • Running away from manually activated events (e.g. cursed chests)
  • Casting a melee/spell with no charge
  • Getting cursed by a cursed item

Maybe this list needs more, maybe it needs less, and maybe elements can have different weight (e.g. so missing a shot is 1 Calamity point but being affected by a trap is 10 points) – but I think it’s the right general direction.

How to announce this to the player?

The minimum plan would be to make the action displayed in the expedition log (left side of the screen) with a special tag and sound.

The maximum plan would be to introduce ravens, witch’s eyes and ears, which would comment on some player actions, e.g. shrieking “No more, no more fire!” when out of ammo or “Coward, coward!” when running away from just-opened cursed chest. This would be in addition to the adventure log.

Ok. I think more or less I arrived at the design that is actionable here. A fuzzy meter with clearly messaged mistakes. Is this it?

Nope. Not yet.

One worry is that it might be weird that a big event like Calamity happens just because I missed a shot. Kind of weird, right? Well, we don’t know until we see it, feel it. But I need to come up with a back up plan anyway…

…and I got one. Well, two.

The first is that mistakes can be divided into Minor and Major ones. Minor ones can buffer up until a threshold, but only making a Major mistake can get the meter past the threshold (a skull lights up) – adding the archived Minor mistakes to the meter (so another threshold can sometimes be reached very quickly).

The second is that mistakes that happen in a certain short timeframe are worth more Calamity points. This will make it so thresholds are passed much more often during panic moments, which supports the Calamity launch nicely.

That’s …still not all.

You did not forget the Calamity Catalyst issue, did you? As one player (hi, Wyrdplae) described Calamities:

It currently is a lose-more mechanic. If you’re good, they’re boring to manage and if you’re in a bad spot they are oppressive.

Yeah, dealing with the Catalyst is too easy and it require a new approach. But first things first. Let’s see how the new Calamity system works and feels first, and then design the new approach to the Catalyst. Assuming it survives the changes at all…

Oh, and we do need even better rewards for dealing with the Calamity. As I said, we want Calamities to be scary, but also exciting – because of the drama and because of the rewards.

The drama?

Did I mention that we’re also making a unique audio system for the combat and the Calamities? Something I have never before seen in any game? No? Next time, then.

Also, we need items, ones you can find, win or purchase, that will affect Calamities in some way. Stop them once. Activate them faster. Decrease your Calamity meter. This kind of stuff. I guess we can do consumables — or put up interactable shrines hidden somewhere in the world.

What’s next?

The good news is: we have an idea, a direction, and it doesn’t seem like implementing the new Calamity system is too complicated or time-consuming. Not saying it’s going to be easy or quick, but it’s not a complete mystery.

The bad news is: every now and then, a design can sound fantastic on paper, but then it turns out to be garbage when actually implemented. You just don’t know until you know.

The gut tells me that the design I just proposed is a good solution. But the proof is in the pudding. We now need to make and test the prototype.

Will keep you all posted, of course. Meanwhile, do feel free to sound off on our Discord as for what you think of the proposal, and if the Catalyst should stay or go. We’re going to read it all, as always.

Oh, and this took me two days instead of one. But well, two birds with one stone. I am sending the link to this post to the programmers and designers so they know what’s the proposal, so they’re learning about it the same second you do.


Question of the Week

Hello there. Hopefully? Cannot guarantee but we’ll do our best. For the duration of the Early Access, it’s just English. Things just move too fast too many times to invest into more languages. Once the game is more or less done, adding more languages will be a priority.

Preyers, next post in January. It’s mere ten days till Christmas, so enjoy the holidays, enjoy the gaming sales, and may your backlog never be empty. Cheers!

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