At the time of writing, the fastest run of Neon White’s “Smackdown” tier is 9.56 seconds, taken by the “earlobe” player on September 6, 2022.
In contrast, there is the work that was carried out. According to designer and creative director Ben Esposito, the first iteration was in March 2019, more than three years before its June 2022 release. At that time, there were more than 50 different iterations. Sometimes the changes were small. Other times they fundamentally altered the level. Every designer who worked on the game has touched Smackdown in some way. However, load it now; the job is most likely invisible to you. Before I sat down to write, I got through it in a mere 11 seconds.
Neon White is a game based on speedrunning. The levels are short. If you’re playing as intended, you barely notice your surroundings before continuing. But the only way it works effectively is if the levels are meticulously designed to facilitate that movement; they have to be made so that the player feels natural when flying through them. Doing a level where you barely give it a second thought takes a lot of effort.
To a large extent, it works. We gave Neon White a 9.5, and our review mentioned the level and game design, saying it feels “effortlessly like you’ve practiced for years, not just 15-20 minutes.”
To understand how that ease was achieved, we spoke with Esposito, Game/Level Designer, Programmer Russell Honor, and Senior Level Designer and Environment Artist Carter Piccollo, who walked us through the making of Smackdown from concept to release. ending.
Neon White is all about speed racing. But it wasn’t always the case that every level emphasized that point.
As Esposito tells it, before Smackdown, many levels were built around the idea of teaching specific mechanics. But when work began on Smackdown, it was the first time the team grappled with the idea of repeatedly playing on an individual level, optimizing timing, and figuring out different paths and shortcuts. Of course, Neon White still teaches you its mechanics, but Smackdown brought the team back to looking at the game as a whole.
“This was specifically about exploring, ‘What if we don’t teach you something new? What if it was about going through it over and over again?’” says Esposito. “And the things that we ended up learning in levels like this created new ways of thinking about the rest of the game.”
Opens the older version, which runs on the Unity game engine. It is a gray box, with the geometry of the level but without art (see image). While some core ideas are the same as the shipped version (some enemy placements and level design), there’s one immediate flaw: ambiguity. It is not always clear what you should do.
In this iteration, the level begins with a Godspeed card and an enemy standing to the right. He is telling the player to take the card, granting them a dash forward, before killing the enemy, who then drops an Elevate card, doing a double jump. But as Piccollo points out, there’s nothing to use that Elevate card on. Neon White, he says, is all about using what you have immediately.
To disambiguate, they’ll need to remove the Elevate card, telling the player that they should instead jump to the left (not double jump, mind you) and then advance through the next group of enemies. However, that script also presents its own set of problems. Two enemies stand on opposite sides of a small space, and when you reach them, you have two Godspeed cards. The enemies are placed so that the player has to run through both, but it’s unclear if they need to run twice to kill them or if one will do the trick.
This topic is a central problem.
“If you’re ever confused about what to do, the game doesn’t feel right and it starts to fall apart,” says Piccollo. “Your first time should feel really clear. And the time when you’re fully optimized should also feel really good, otherwise it feels like you’re doing it wrong, even if it’s faster.”
Removing the ambiguity, Esposito says, was the main job of the build levels. The less ambiguous, the more secure a player feels. The more confident, in this case, the more fun they have.
Both Honor and Esposito point to a card placed in this first version. It is a bomb card that is only used for shortcuts. Which in that specific context works, but ideally, the player won’t know or see the shortcut on their first run. It means that this card is useless in the rest of the level. That undermines the confidence of the player.
“People would take the card and not understand what they were expected to do with it. [and think they] I missed something,” says Esposito. “That was another rule we had to establish; each card should have an obvious purpose the moment you pick it up.”
Fast forward in time 14 months and see a further iteration starting in May 2020. The most noticeable change is all of the art; It’s starting to look like Neon White.
There is now a straight track at the start, which channels the player into the level. It features a Godspeed and Elevate card, though it’s designed in such a way that you can’t see the latter behind the former. This is an issue that is addressed in later releases.
The problems of the first iteration show up here, too: the script isn’t yet clear, it’s not immediately apparent which cards you should be using, and as Esposito says, “there’s a lot going on.”
But the first half of Smackdown is starting to take shape. The rear half is a different story; is completely different from the submitted version. Esposito points to a “failed” experiment in which an enemy stands behind metal bars. The idea is that players can shoot through these bars to kill an enemy, but cannot go through them themselves. The setting keeps showing up in different forms throughout the game, but in this case, it’s cut off. “Just because it was a confusing concept for people,” says Esposito. “It felt so important, but in reality it was completely irrelevant to the concept of the level that was distracting everyone.”
There is no average number of changes or adjustments between iterations; it ranges from small nudges to complete remakes. With that said, quick math reveals the scale of Neon White’s development. Considering that it shipped with 100+ levels, the team did “double” that amount in dropped levels, and Smackdown alone had 50+ changes, we’re faced with thousands of tweaks and redesigns throughout the game. Neon White is made to play as fast as possible, but getting to that point was a long and monumental task.
Also, the team came up with new ideas later in development and added them back to the whole game. Smackdown, which was worked on from start to finish, was one of those levels. It worked as a prototype for a Neon White stage and what it needed to be successful. That influenced the rest of the game and required new lessons to be reapplied throughout Neon White.
Fast forward to January 2021. The track is fixed, both start cards are perfectly visible. The first enemy to the right from before no longer drops a card. The script still needs work, but it’s getting close. In the middle, there is an enemy at the top of the ladder, but you might miss that fact at first glance. The ending is close to final version, perhaps in a shippable state, but still a bit clunky.
Eight months later, and the two cards at the beginning are further apart to allow the player more reaction time. The gap is much longer to make it clear that you need two dashes to trap both enemies. The enemy at the top of the stairs now shoots at you, so you can see his location. Overall, Smackdown now gives the player more information, making it easier to navigate. It is becoming unambiguous. The ending is falling into place, but the path to the optional gift is unclear. It can be reached by jumping over the columns that surround the back of the level. But where the player needs to do that is not, as Esposito calls it, attractive. It looks like a place that the player should not reach.
But Smackdown is almost complete. And in a few more months, it can be sent.
Honor’s last change was on March 5, 2022. Esposito’s last bug fix was on March 27. He doesn’t specify, but Esposito says that this final version is full of small adjustments. The art is finalized and everything looks like the Smackdown you may know.
The most significant change is the gift at the end. It’s now much clearer that there’s a path around the back of the level that leads to his hideout; now it looks like part of the scenery, not a background element. Finally, two wooden planks are placed in the direction of the gift as a last push for the player.
Three years later, Smackdown is complete.
It is impossible to analyze all the adjustments and changes made throughout the development of the level. Unfortunately, there were a lot of things we had to leave out, and almost certainly dozens of things the team didn’t have time to go over with us. However, an overview of three years of development distilled through the lens of a short level, even one that can be completed in just seconds, highlights the sheer scale of game development across all sizes. Neon White is a game made to be played quickly; it is digestible in short pieces. His development was the opposite.
From complete redesigns to minor additions, players won’t think twice, it’s about the sum total of its parts rather than any one thing.
Unless you’re Honor, which boils down Smackdown success to one small decision.
“I think when they put those two planks up, it went from average bad to almost perfect,” he jokes.
This article originally appeared in Game Informer #350.