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A New Witchfire Feature, Gnosis

Re-designing leveling up vs. difficulty

Re-designing leveling up vs. difficulty

There is a certain element of Witchfire design that looks great and fun on paper and makes total sense gameplay- and lore-wise – and half of the players love it, and the other half hate it.

No, not the Calamity system, we handled that in the previous update.

I’m talking about the fact that with each level up, the game becomes a bit more difficult by adding new enemies, new traps, and new events. In the Early Access release version, the witch runs out of resources around the player’s level 60 – and then you can overlevel. But until that point, for each +1 level, the witch improves her defenses.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? You get better, stronger. You become more and more dangerous to her. She has to react to this. Creating witchfire is not an easy process, and then spending so much of it to create all these ghouls and deadly traps also takes a toll on the witch. But she can’t just ignore the fact your powers grow. She needs to up her game.

This is also cool because it means that the game keeps surprising you, frequently introducing new challenges to deal with. The world is way more dynamic this way. You start the game with a certain vibe, then some level-ups later, you revisit the same area, and now it feels different. And then there’s another big change a few more levels later. Safe zones become death traps, and useless empty spaces become filled with gold.

This is the game I played for the last few years, and this is the game I played after the start of Early Access. I love it.

I know others do, too.

But some people hate it.

Enough people to get us back to the drawing board. You never change your design if five guys out of a million have an issue, but that’s not the case here.

All right. Okay. So we started to look for a solution. First, we needed to identify what exactly is the problem. Turned out, it doesn’t matter if your design “makes sense”. That means nothing. In the words of the Polish Romantic-era poet Adam Mickiewicz…

Faith and love are more discerning
Than lenses or learning

You know the dead truths, not the living,
The world of things, not the world of loving.
Where does any miracle start?
Cold eye, look in your heart!

Indeed, the dislike for the feature revealed itself to be an emotional one. As I said, it all made sense on paper… but people didn’t care. The reason was: the witch leveling up when the player levels up means the player cannot catch a breath, let alone become overpowered.

Overpowered is the keyword here.

Without going into details on how Deci and Ryan’s 1975 book called Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior informed the design of Dark Souls, we know that From games – and a few other great games of this world, to be clear – offer not one, not two, but four paths to success:

  • Skill
  • Brain
  • Grind
  • Cheese/Exploit

Skill is demonstrated when you successfully defeat the first giant pig in Bloodborne by strategically using dashes and managing your stamina to avoid its attacks. Brain comes into play when you explore and discover a way to approach the pig from behind, delivering a fatal blow with a single strike. Grind is all about killing trash mobs in the city multiple times to increase your health and reduce the impact of the pig’s attacks. Cheese involves exploiting the pig’s AI to lock it into a predictable movement pattern and gradually chip away at its health from a distance using ranged weapons or spells.

Uppa da bottoma

The “You Level Up, So The Witch Levels Up” solution that we use in Witchfire somewhat neutralizes the Grind option. You level up to have an easier time dealing with a certain danger… only to have the witch react to it and spawn twenty even more challenging dangers into this world.

We will never make a game in which grinding alone guarantees success. This is why you will not be able to reach max level without touching Gnosis. So you can grind but you have to somewhat git gud as well. Still, for some challenges, overleveling should be, just like in real life, a valid strategy.

Side note, the above is not the only reason why some people dislike the feature. As it turns out, a lot of players do not consider leveling up as anything impressive. They understand and have no issue with a game getting harder due to intuitively understood accomplishments, like killing a boss and gaining access to a new area. But the game getting a bit harder because they got a bit stronger? Nah.

In light of this feedback, we knew we needed to make changes. However, we also had to ensure that the core concept of the witch reacting to the player’s conquests remained intact. After all, Witchfire is a game centered around the battle between the preyer and the witch, a war of two formidable adversaries, an ongoing arms race. The witch will not allow the player to evolve and grow in peace, undisturbed.

Unlike the deep dive into Calamity in the latest post, I’ll skip the research process and jump straight to what we came up with.

Funny story, that. Some time ago, I mentioned that without realizing it, a Witchfire Discord user accidentally discovered — well, was on the right track, I’d rather say — what GG means in GGU (with U representing Update and GGU being the upcoming first major update for Witchfire). Now, the story repeats itself in a way. Just as I started writing this blog post, another user posted this…


Well, not exactly this, but close.

We call it Gnosis.

This is what truly terrifies the witch. She is not concerned about your increased agility or suspiciously frequent luck. It is the dark magic and the ability to create and utilize witchfire that poses the real threat. Originally, only witches possessed such powers, but now, these blasphemous abominations known as preyers can wield magic as well. It is indeed something to be worried about.

Gnosis is not one of your six base stats. It is a separate thing you can increase in the Hermitory’s special new room. There are ten levels of Gnosis to gain, and as you ascend, your understanding of dark magic grows, revealing hidden paths and events.

Consider the entrance to Witch Mountain, guarded by an indestructible magic barrier. The incantation, written on the wall in the language of demons, Enochian, is incomprehensible to you. But as you increase your Gnosis, the letters suddenly make sense, granting you the knowledge to undo the spell and break the barrier.

Or imagine fragments of the world shimmering, bits of witchfire in the air. You know there’s something there but you can’t really see it or touch it. But with high Gnosis, the veil is lifted and you realize you’re looking into the witch’s secret stashes of enchanted items.

Why is Gnosis its own separate thing and not, say, the seventh stat? Because it’s an obligatory part of your journey. Whether you improve your stats or not is your choice. You can, in theory, finish Witchfire without a single level-up. But you need to increase your Gnosis. Think of the ten levels of Gnosis as ten doors you need to open with ten keys you need to acquire. How you go about it, that’s up to you. But you do need those “keys.”

Leveling up Gnosis – ascending to the next plane of understanding the dark magic – is not a question of simply spending enough witchfire. It will be connected to your wins in your one-man war against the witch. Collecting all Crystals during one expedition. Killing a boss. Surviving and conquering [redacted]. Things like that. “Intuitively understood accomplishments.”

There is a certain level of freedom in how and when to improve Gnosis. As I said, sooner or later you have to do it, but whether it’s sooner or later is up to you.

So, how does it work?

First, we are considering a choice here, so you’re not locked into one way of playing. For example, a Gnosis level-up might require killing a boss, or an obscene amount of witchfire, or something else entirely. Just one of these things would unlock the level-up.

Second, we are adjusting the leveling-up curve. The amount of witchfire needed to level up will increase. However, with each level of Gnosis, you will earn more witchfire.

The gameplay will follow this flow: initially, you will earn witchfire and level up (if you choose to do so) as usual, maintaining a standard rhythm. But at some point, the gains will slow down gradually. You can opt to continue grinding, weighing the diminishing returns, or you can level up Gnosis to receive a witchfire boost, allowing you to return to the standard tempo immediately. This cycle repeats.

Oh, and as a consequence, if you level up Gnosis faster than the rest of us mortals, your witchfire gains will be much stronger and you will level up like crazy.

Such a…

…is nothing new in game design. For one, Dead Cells veterans will recognize it immediately. In Dead Cells, during a run, when you get a new tool of murder, it’s initially a bit OP, then it becomes normal, and eventually it’s bordering on useless… until you acquire a new tool or level up the existing one. This provides periods of power discharge and periods of struggle, which is fun.

With each level of Gnosis, the game becomes harder. The witch begins to respect you and your insight into the world of dark magic, and she reacts accordingly.

Unlike the current system, which is more granular, the additions to the world with GGU will come in packs. Ten levels of Gnosis means ten packs of enemies, traps, and other hazards. For example, a pack might introduce the Grenadier, elemental shields, Sentinels, and cursed chests.

However, packs do not mean that everything they contain will hit you all at once. For example, adding Grenadier to the world only means that now the witch has access to him. Initially, she will be using him only in the most challenging Crystal areas. He is expensive to her, after all. But then she’ll use him a bit more often, just because you’re still here, kicking, fighting. Finally, he will become a standard element of a battlefield …and new enemies will come into play.

To summarize the new Gnosis feature:

  • Gnosis is a separate entity that you level up in a special new location
  • There are ten levels of Gnosis
  • Each level requires a single select multiple-choice requirement to unlock
  • Each level, you earn a witchfire multiplier and gain access to new things
  • The witch also strengthens her defenses with new enemies and traps
  • There is relative freedom in when and how to unlock a new Gnosis level

It is worth noting that Gnosis will likely be connected to more than just witchfire gains and story/game progress. It would make sense for more advanced weapons and spells to be locked behind higher levels of Gnosis, wouldn’t it?

But then again, as we’ve learned today, making sense doesn’t guarantee fun and engaging gameplay. So we’ll see. Karol is completing the implementation of the new Calamity system with promising results and will begin working on Gnosis next week.

Until then!

Question of the Week

1. We know. Swimming in cash is not the priority at this point, though. After securing the necessary budget, making a great game first is.

2. Deal with Epic – Early Access exclusivity to EGS – helped us to keep the studio independent. A pretty big deal in these times.

3. EGS leaves more to the developer than Steam. This nicely helps our current budget. We spend the extra to make Witchfire even better. Big fat thanks to everyone who bought the game before it hits other platforms <3

4. Last but not least, Epic is genuinely good to us. Helping out, promoting the game. We’re happy with the deal. We will come to other platforms for sure, stay tuned — but for now we’re glad with went with them.

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