Developers make games, and speedrunners break them. Those goals might seem to be at odds, but Owlboy studio D-Pad keeps in touch with the game's speedrunning community, and has left sequence-breaking glitches intact just for them. (It's even added some back in.)
Image credit: D-Pad.
Like inspirations such as Super Mario Bros 3 and Kid Icarus, Owlboy has developed its own speedrunning scene. But while those games have been set in stone for decades — routes mapped and re-mapped countless times by speedrunners — Owlboy is still being updated. Owlboy's developer, D-Pad Studio, walks an especially precarious tightrope. On one hand, it wants Otus the owl's journey to be as polished and intuitive as possible, but, as it revealed in a recent interview with Gamasutra, it doesn't want to pave over paths uncovered by feverishly dedicated speedrunners.
I reached out to programmer Henrik Andersen for more detail, and he explained that the most popular type of Owlboy speedrun involves players going outside the bounds of levels. Problem: If you're a regular player, getting stuck outside a level totally blows. D-Pad has done its best to strike a balance.
"In order to ensure that regular players would not be affected in the worst case scenario, we added 'Load from earlier checkpoint' in the menus to help players who get stuck out-of-bounds," Andersen explained to Kotaku via email. "It retains autosaves at frequent key points throughout the story, so that if you somehow get stuck despite our best efforts, you can always just jump back to the previous chapter of the story and retain your progress."
He also noted that D-Pad is actively "in touch" with speedrunners, and a result, the studio has even added glitches back into the game after patching them out. One time, for example, Andersen and co patched out a glitch that let players skip a boss, but that rendered a world-record speedrun impossible. Upon learning this, they put it back in. The team's also kept an eye on mechanics that can be abused in interesting ways to improve speedrunning times. He pointed to a glitch where players can spam side-up-side-up to fly up waterfalls that normally push them down. The dev team could've treated that like any other glitch and patched it out, but chose to leave it in.
Andersen noted that the development team has even added some of its debug tools to the released version of the game so that speedrunners can easily inspect updates. "A lot of our best bug fixing feedback and most active community members are from the speedrunning community," Andersen said. "Today I'll be fixing a soft-lock that was reported to us by a speedrunner yesterday."
Andersen acknowledged, however, that the team might have to fix a few out-of-bounds routes ahead of Owlboy's release on the Nintendo Switch to appease "stricter" console requirements. Still, he hopes to maintain an ongoing dialogue with speedrunners, because he thinks it makes the game more interesting and, on the whole, better.
"Much of the reason we try to accommodate speedrunners is because it's part of what makes games feel special and unique," said Andersen. "Every game's code and design has its own unique characteristics, and they really come out when people try to break the game."