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When DigiPen game team The Cannonade is asked for a few select words to describe their project, three come up again and again: chaos, energy, and fun. Recoil Riot, an action-packed, first-person, multiplayer arena shooter, encapsulates all of that and more.

Lelan Sawtelle, a recent graduate of the BA in Game Design program and The Cannonade’s producer and lead designer, says the origins of the game actually predate his time at DigiPen. “What if we could make a game that lets players rocket jump whenever they wanted to?” Sawtelle laughs, remembering the seed idea that he’d originally thought up for an older project. Sawtelle pitched the concept to level designer William Wells, and Recoil Riot was born. Beyond the rocket jumping, the team took inspiration for the project’s gameplay from favorites old and new, like Titanfall 2 and Quake.

In-game screenshot of opening menu selection screen.
A graffiti-like font accentuates Recoil Riot’s playful, rebellious style.

Set in a funky, punky, post-apocalyptic junkyard splashed with neon-colored graffiti, Recoil Riot gives players the chance to play as droids rolling on balls with the goal of blasting their opponents. The catch? The ammo for each of the game’s three weapons sends players flying backwards as a result of their recoil — hence the game’s name. Part of the game’s challenge comes from balancing your aim while controlling your movement across the landscape. Players can choose from a beam sniper that demands precision play, a shotgun with a huge blast, and a machine gun that “operates more like a jet pack,” as Sawtelle describes it. “A player’s choice of weapons really defines the play style as they impact their movement in the game,” he says.

In-game screenshot of player, midair, aiming weapon's crosshair down at enemy robot.
The constant movement involved in the gameplay demands both precision and split-second decision making.

Charlie Wells, a BA in Music and Sound Design graduate and the team’s audio lead, was faced with the challenge of composing a soundtrack that would accurately capture the chaos, energy, and fun of Recoil Riot’s gameplay. He settled on a hip-hop inspired score in order to amp up the excitement as players shoot, wall jump, and swing across the level with grappling hooks. “I had to adapt my style and musical preferences and also learn about what makes a hip-hop kick drum a hip-hop kick drum. How do we keep the music connected to the visual space of the game?” Wells says. “I created tracks that sound a lot like hip-hop production, which often involved grabbing samples and sounds from different songs. Hip-hop itself is full of so many different styles. What I eventually created is a good reflection of the action of the game.”

The Cannonade team injected a myriad of details into Recoil Riot that bring together its visual style, narrative, and gameplay. For example, the musical theme of the game is tied into numerous facets of its visual styling. All three weapons appear as though they’re composed of scrapped musical equipment — the machine gun is made out of a boombox, the beam rifle has a headphone attachment, and the shotgun has a big speaker cone that fires sound waves.

“The music and the art mash together,” Wells says. “While the background music is playing, if you look closely at the visual effects of the weapons, they pulse with the beat of the music. I’m really proud of that. It took a lot of help from other folks on the team.”

If players look closely elsewhere, they might find other surprises as well. “There are inside jokes written in the graffiti and images on the wall,” laughs Nolan Dost, a BA in Game Design graduate who The Cannonade brought in late to overhaul the game’s user interface.

From the start, it was clear to him that his job of revamping the UI would be a huge undertaking, but an undertaking he was nonetheless excited to begin. “It was essentially a zero-to-100 revamp that needed to happen in three months,” he explains.

The overhaul was both stylistically and technically challenging. The UI needed to give players structure and focus while still capturing the anarchic energy of Recoil Riot.

Dost streamlined the menus and information display, introduced a kill feed, and collaborated with his team’s artists to reconfigure the game’s visual effects. While his team members were on board with the changes he proposed, he knew he was running some stylistic risks. “You needed something that was almost screaming at you with desert-punk energy, something made with a complete disregard for holding back,” Dost says. “Professors told me my revisions were almost too energetic.”

In-game screenshot of weapon and equipment selection screen.
Dost emphasizes the need for a consistent and intuitive system of information display throughout the game.

The Cannonade worked down to the wire, making modifications to their game through the final hours before submitting their project this past spring. The risks the team took paid off. “The systems before were very confusing,” Dost says. “We got consistent feedback by the end that people immediately knew how to get into the game. I’m proud of making the system comprehensible and legible.”

True to the game’s ethos, Recoil Riot turned out to be a no-holds-barred, explosive experience that sends players and their excitement soaring.