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When the Light Dies » Project Update 5: Meta Progression, Upgrades & Constellations

Welcome back, survival enthusiasts!

We prepared yet another project update for our upcoming action roguelite When the Light Dies. This time around we will be discussing two of our most exciting game features, the upgrade mechanics and the meta-progression system.
Once again, we sat down with Harrison, lead producer here at PQube, and Hugo, game designer and project manager at Electric Monkeys, and asked them our most pressing questions about upgrades and meta-progression functions in-game.

1. What was the rationale behind the upgrade mechanics?

Harrison: When designing the underlying game systems, we wanted to expose as many character variables as possible and let players experiment with them. We have movement speed, projectile speed, number of projectiles – all that good stuff that lets players try something slightly different each time. With so many options, we knew that favourites would crop up, so having some QoL features, such as pinning desirable abilities or rerolling was a must. Hugo can go into more detail on that.

Hugo: The best way to understand When the Light Dies’ upgrade system is to compare it to a progression race, where the player gains experience and improves their attributes, while over time, enemies also become stronger, more numerous, and resistant. Whoever makes better progress will be the winner of the match.

Progression Strategies

In WTLD, the player will gain experience every time they defeat an enemy, and after reaching a certain experience value, they will level up, granting them an upgrade. The experience required to level up increases over time. It’s hard to say what the best strategy is to win the game, as there are many, and they depend on each player’s skill and preference. That’s why we use the concept of builds.

Different Types of Builds

A build is a set of upgrades that exploit a specific characteristic of the game. A clear example in the game is the “high sanity” build:

  • High Sanity: The “Mental Connection” ability allows the player to recover 5 sanity points when defeating an enemy with the last bullet of the selected weapon. But why is this good? The Shotgun, for example, is a high-damage weapon with only 2 shots. Therefore, every time you defeat an enemy, you have a 50% chance of regaining 5 sanity points. From there, the player can increase the Shotgun’s DPS and select a powerful Dark Magic to use constantly.
  • While it’s not possible to define the best strategy, it is possible to define the worst: investing in all attributes. A player who tries to improve everything will end up with nothing exceptional. This is where the expression “Jack of all trades, master of none” comes into play.

Upgrades: Quality of Life

Creating a strategy is vital to winning the progression race, but due to the random nature of upgrades, this can become a challenging task. Some situations can prevent the player from achieving the ideal build:

  • The desired upgrades may take a long time to appear or may rarely appear.
  • Two or more desired upgrades may appear at the same time, but the player can only choose one.

We have added features in When the Light Dies that will increase the player’s chances of achieving the ideal build:

  • Reroll: If none of the available upgrades are useful, the player can reroll them.
  • Pin: If more than one desired upgrade is rolled, the player can use the pin to make it appear again at the next level.
  • Ban: If a player is certain about their build and dislikes a specific upgrade, they can ban that upgrade from appearing again.
  • Improve Quality: Passive upgrades have 3 levels of rarity (bronze, silver, and gold), with rarer ones providing better effects. This functionality allows to improve the upgrade’s quality and helps the player to achieve their goal faster.

2. How do we approach meta-progression within the game through the constellations?

Harrison: We knew from the beginning that a meta-progression upgrade system is a staple of this genre, especially when we’re taking a particularly hardcore survival approach, so upgrade trees were always in the plan. We deliberated over the theme for a while and were discussing tattoos, tarot cards, and some other approaches, but the perma-night environment meant that constellations seemed more apt. Our character could gaze up at the ever-present night sky and perform eldritch offerings to gain the blessings of the constellations above. In mechanical terms, using a skill tree in this fashion allows us to avoid putting too many features in front of players at once since the constellations unlock some very significant gameplay modifiers. We were able to position roughly when players would be unlocking other weapons, inventory space, and such.

Hugo: On a technical level, the main difference between common progression and meta-progression is that, while common progression resets every time the player starts a game, meta-progression is permanent.
This progression is achieved through constellations that the player needs to unlock through achievements and purchases using in-game currency.

Horizontal Growth

The improvements offered by constellations provide the player with horizontal growth. They alone are not enough to win a map from scratch, but they empower the player to progress faster in the race. Furthermore, the upgrades offered by constellations touch on areas that common upgrades cannot reach. Some examples include:

  • Bounty Hunter: An upgrade from the “The Ranger” constellation adds GUI elements that point to the nearest loot.
  • Extra Pocket: Upgrades from “The Merchant” constellation add slots to the player’s inventory, allowing them to carry more items.
  • Not yet!: An upgrade from the “Humpback Whale” constellation grants the player invincibility after the first death.
  • Hot Beverage: An upgrade from “The Merchant” constellation unlocks the “Coffee” item for the player.

Due to the nature of WTLD, upgrades and builds, unlike other games of the genre, can also be combined with items, creating moments of great satisfaction for the player by creating powerful effects to defeat hordes of enemies.

That’s it for this month’s project update, but we have a couple more exciting things to share! Right now, you can check out some early gameplay via our brand-new YouTube Let’s Play and we are also working hard to prepare a When the Light Dies demo which will be available on Steam soon!

As usual, make sure to wishlist our game to stay up to date on any news and game developments.

Until next time!

PQube & Electric Monkeys