Celebrating Two Years of ‘Pistol Whip’

Oculus Blog
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Posted by Antony Stevens, Pistol Whip Designer & Writer, Cloudhead Games
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November 7, 2021
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In the two blazing years since the launch of our first-of-its-kind action-rhythm FPS, Pistol Whip, we’ve turned the game from a small arcade shooter with 10 on-rails scenes into a nearly 30-scene sandbox FPS extravaganza. In our original reveal trailer, I called Pistol Whip a glorious hodgepodge of genres, mixing the flow-state rhythm of Beat Saber and the frenetic action of SUPERHOT VR into an original experience that makes you feel like Keanu Reeves eating his daily bowl of guns for breakfast. While that vision has stayed true across nine free content updates, including two cinematic campaigns that no one saw coming, the way we’ve built and designed levels has changed dramatically over the years as we’ve added new features and modes galore.

Launch

When we started on Pistol Whip, the very first scene we designed would become “Black Magic”—a hard-hitting bass-boosted masterpiece that felt straight out of John Wick with an equally iconic Mortal Kombat stinger. Enemies, or targets, were simple rectangles that designers could place along a 5x4 grid with “near,” “medium,” and “far” distance options. Each target had an associated beat, or what we called an “Action Point.” In Pistol Whip, the associated beat set by designers is only a suggestion—the golden path—and players can choose to shoot their targets on any beat within the music and still earn top points. This is what defines Pistol Whip: Unlike traditional rhythm games, there is no line in the sand. You’re free to shoot and dodge to any rhythm you see fit.

As we worked out the base gameplay loop for Pistol Whip, targets became humanoid with behaviors, or “sequences,” in-time with their Action Point. Should they spawn on-beat? Should they shoot on-beat? Should they settle into place on-beat? Designers would set Action Points, position, and sequences for each target to choreograph the scene.

Once we had a way to map enemies, we built procedural generation tools to create the world geometry and environment around them. We also introduced obstacles that would automatically populate in the scene to provide dodging opportunities—however, those were eventually moved to designers to hand-place. The procedural geometry would carve paths and sightlines through walls and build floors for enemies depending on their sequence.

Next, armor types came online. Each target would require one, two, or four shots to defeat. These values added musicality and agency, as now players could shoot the same target across two different beats, or two different targets across those same two beats. Finally, we added the titular feature: pistol whipping. You could now choose not to shoot an enemy at all, but instead smack their head with your gun in close combat—perfectly in-time with that sick bass drop.

And everything was in place for launch. The team mapped 10 unique scenes with three difficulty levels each. Difficulty would define the breadth of obstacles, the timing and number of shots fired by enemies, the density and armor of the enemies themselves, and even the positions of the enemies to make them more or less visible during combat. As enemy sequences changed per difficulty, so too did the procedural geometry, carving more or less based on each enemy’s behavior.

Year 1

Over the next year, we continued to flesh out the game and added eight new scenes in free content updates. With each scene, we experimented with new tools and mapping features to take them from surreal dreamscapes into traditional spaces with more props, colors, and art polish beyond the early procgen environments at launch.

On the design side, the biggest change to come in Year 1 was the introduction of the event system. The event system, for the first time, allowed us to synchronize not just targets and obstacles, but animations too. We launched this system with “Full Throttle,” a Mad Max-inspired scene with dystopian rally cars flying overhead in-time with the music. While we had some minor animations in the game at launch, this was the first time we were able to synchronize animations as music visualization.

Once the event tools were in place, designers were able to begin using those events to synchronize new gameplay as well. In the “Heartbreaker Trilogy,” we experimented with obstacles that would animate in-time with the music, synchronized via the event system. This would pave the way for more complex obstacle sequences, as well as synchronized voice-over events, in our first cinematic campaign, “2089.”

Not to be overlooked, it was at this time we fully implemented “nobeat” sections. Because Pistol Whip is free-form and there isn’t always a specific beat to shoot to, designers needed a way to indicate which areas of a song had no discernible beat. In these nobeat sections, beat scoring was automatically granted for every shot, like a freestyle solo in Rock Band. This meant we now had support for new types of music, and not just the bone-rattling basslines of hard EDM. The “Heartbreaker Trilogy” included the first scene with prominent lyrics.

Year 2

The second year of Pistol Whip brought two cinematic campaigns, each with five narrative-driven scenes and comic book cutscene interstitials. The key to the cinematic campaigns were the new weapon types. Where Pistol Whip started with only a single weapon (semi-automatic pistol by default with a dual-wield option), “2089” introduced Burstfire, an intelligent four-round burst pistol.

Burstfire itself encouraged new mapping techniques for designers. Specifically, Burstfire made short work of armor, as well as clusters of targets that would previously take two to four shots. This meant we could now ramp up enemy density without overloading players’ trigger fingers. Clusters of four or more targets became common, which required us to develop a new low-tri turret enemy that didn’t need the same animation sets as the humanoid enemies.

Since Burstfire was borderline OP, melting armored enemies in a single burst, “2089” also introduced shield enemies which could only be defeated by a pistol whip. This was the first time in Pistol Whip that designers were able to enforce a specific engagement rather than just encourage it. Campaigns took that one step further by also allowing designers to preset modifiers which would typically be optional within Arcade mode. With “Cage Fight,” we locked players into the “No Ammo” modifier, making it the first scene based entirely around pistol whipping.

Finally, the cherry on top of the Campaign: the boss battle. Bosses took the existing sequence system for default enemies and applied it to a large-scale, persistent enemy. While default enemies would simply spawn, run into place, shoot, and then die or despawn, the boss had complex pathing, multiple firing patterns, as well a new weakpoint system that could earn players points without killing the boss too soon.

The second cinematic campaign, Smoke & Thunder, took things even further. First, another new weapon: Boomstick. This was a shotgun-inspired weapon that dealt four AoE damage in one shot, taking out any armor and clusters of enemies instantly, much like Burstfire. Unlike Burstfire, Boomstick was balanced to have only two shots before reloading. We decided now was the time to build for dual wield, a first in Pistol Whip history.

Encouraging players to shoot with both weapons was the biggest challenge with Smoke & Thunder, as everything before it in Pistol Whip was built for single-wield by default. To start, we introduced revolvers, taking the pistol experience from a 15-round clip to six-in-the-chamber. With two revolvers, players would have nearly the same amount of ammo, but it was now split across two weapons in two different hands. We had to figure out a way for the dual-revolver experience to feel different from the default pistol, despite maintaining the ability to reload instantly.

The trick was in ammo management and enemy density—if the player ran out of ammo with one hand, but didn't have even a beat to reload the weapon without falling behind on targets, they would typically utilize their second hand. Recognizing this behavior in playtests, designers were able to map scenes in such a way to choreograph players crossing their arms and shooting right-side enemies with their left gun and vice versa.

Boomstick, with only two ammo each, was perfect for putting players in those positions where they had no time to reload and therefore used both weapons interchangeably. As testing continued with the new weapon type, we found players more and more often switching between hands naturally, taking out left-side enemies with the left gun and right-side enemies with the right gun. Designers were then able to predict the player's remaining ammo at any given time, and map enemies to challenge the player’s ammo management.

Smoke & Thunder added some new enemy types as well, including horseback riders which moved at a much faster pace compared to on-foot enemies, and the Boomshield which countered the Boomstick’s power by adding a four-health shield to any enemy. New obstacle types were also introduced, including elongated walls to further support obstacle tunnels. And, of course, a new boss based on the same boss sequencing system developed for “2089.”

But we had two more changes up our sleeves: First, “scrolling backgrounds.” Scrolling backgrounds enabled us for the first time to create scenes where the player was moving at a different pace from their environment. In “Bullet Train,” players move on rails through a train which itself is careening through the desert.

The second addition was gameplay props, our very first environmental interactions. Smoke & Thunder introduced explosive barrels which could be placed in the scene like targets, but with triggerable events on kill. In the case of explosive barrels, their AoE can eliminate enemies, but in the future, we can take it even further and trigger events, including animations, on interaction.

Year 3

And we’re not done with Pistol Whip yet. We’re currently hard at work on future content after releasing our game-changing “Styles” update. Much like the preset modifiers found in Campaigns, the support for Styles allows us to design scenes around specific modifiers, like Headhunter (headshots only) or Scavenger (pistol whip to reload). Every scene designed from now on is built with consideration for five unique weapon types, from Revolver to Boomstick to Brawler (formerly the “No Ammo” mod).

As our suite of enemy types has expanded, a full-time animator has joined the team to breathe new life into animation sequences. Designers continue to find new uses for obstacles, including animations and ultimately interactables, such as destructible obstacles. And of course, new modifiers and scenes and... who knows what else... are all on the table.

Working on Pistol Whip for the last two years has been a dream. An original take on the rhythm genre, with stylish combat and nearly endless player agency. A sandbox on-rails action-rhythm FPS bullet hell—a glorious hodgepodge indeed. We hope to keep building badass content for the game and continuing to surprise with new modes and features that you wouldn't expect from the genre. See you on the leaderboards, heroes.


Pistol Whip is available on the Quest and Rift Platforms.