'Bullets Per Minute' Team on Game Balance: 'People Love Feeling Overpowered'

Bullets Per Minute is not a particularly well-balanced game but, according to its developers, that was an entirely conscious decision. Awe Interactive, the indie duo behind this cult hit, explained their unconventional design philosophy to Newsweek in an exclusive interview.

For the uninitiated, Bullets Per Minute (often abbreviated to the un-googleable BPM) is a first-person shooter with a rhythm action twist. The basic premise is that you are one of the famed Valkyrie warriors of Norse legend - inexplicably packing an arsenal of 21st-century firearms - who must battle their way through the nine realms, all while keeping to the beat of a heavy metal soundtrack.

Think of it a bit like the movie Baby Driver, in which the various set-pieces were all perfectly synchronized to needle drops. Only in this case you are the one responsible for ensuring that it all feels tightly choreographed.

Everything - from your dodge manoeuvres to your trigger pulls and reload animations - must be done at the right tempo here, otherwise the inputs will simply not work.

Bullets Per Minute Screenshot
In "Bullets Per Minute", you will have to fight your way through procedurally generated dungeons that are modelled after the nine realms of Viking legend. Awe Interactive

The Origins of 'Bullets Per Minute'

When trying to boil down the essence of BPM into a digestible soundbite, it is tempting to describe it as a mashup between a recognizable music game and an old-school shooter. For instance, The Guardian summarized it as "Doom meets Rock Band" while GameByte likened it to a first-person shooter take on Guitar Hero.

Much of the coverage for Bullets Per Minute cites those reference points because it succinctly gets the idea across, yet there is a lot more to it than that. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that none of those rhythm action classics were conscious inspirations for the team at Awe Interactive.

According to the UK based developers, the game's origins can instead be traced to modern roguelikes, such as Crypt of the NecroDancer and The Binding of Isaac.

Speaking about this in our interview, David Jones, the founder of Awe Interactive, said: "In my old job everybody was into indie games and a lot of [people] around the office were playing things like Crypt of the NecroDancer, while the rest were hooked on Doom 2016.

"Seeing those two games together like that, I had the idea to take Doom's combat chess mechanic and combine it with the Crypt of the Necrodancer's rhythm action to make something unique."

After putting everything on the line and leaving his job to start a new development studio, Jones enlisted the help of his childhood friend Josh Sullivan. Together, they collaborated on the project that would become BPM over the course of several years.

Bullets Per Minute Screenshot
Everything that you do in "Bullets Per Minute" must be perfectly synchronized with the heavy metal soundtrack. Awe Interactive

How Awe Interactive Prioritize Fun

Jones recounted: "We were basically playing a different build of the game every single day. The way we make things is very much by playing them and then tweaking whatever doesn't work. With us making these constant revisions, the game ended up being completely different from one week to the next."

Jones and Sullivan gave us multiple examples of how BPM evolved over time with each iteration. For instance, it was an eleventh-hour decision to steep the game in Norse mythology. Until quite late in development, it was apparently a toss-up between this and the Christian version of Hell.

Talking about this, Sullivan said: "We went back and forth between the Dante's Inferno type approach - with angels and demons - and that Norse concept. In the end, we chose the latter because it felt a little different. Of course, now in 2022, there are now far more releases out there that are Viking themed. They're suddenly everywhere!"

Meanwhile, the pair also toyed with the idea of using more cutscenes (for boss introductions and level openings) but ultimately decided against this as they didn't want to interrupt the frenetic pacing of the game. Sullivan continued: "We had a self-imposed rule that we would never take control away from the player once a level had started, because that just interrupted the fun."

Elaborating upon this philosophy further, Jones added: "If something took your fingers off the controls for more than 2 seconds then we just cut it out. When you are playing a roguelike, you naturally end up repeating the same sections over and over again, and anything that slows down the momentum can get really frustrating.

"So, none of that cutscene stuff ended up in BPM. Which is why I think it appeals to the people who enjoy it so much."

Bullets Per Minute Screenshot
Awe Interactive trimmed everything that would slow the pacing of "Bullets Per Minute", including cutscenes and character introductions. Awe Interactive

Letting Players Become Overpowered and "Break the Game"

Taking direct inspiration from titles like Crypt of the NecroDancer and The Binding of Isaac, Bullets Per Minute is ultimately a roguelike at its core.

As such, there are only a handful of dungeons for you to complete in any given "run" and, whether you win or lose, you will get some form of definitive ending after about 60 minutes.

However, the replayability comes from the fact that the stages are all procedurally generated, with randomized item drops, room placements and enemy spawns. This is the main appeal for roguelike fans, as they can play BPM over and over again and never know quite what to expect.

In one run the cards might be utterly stacked in your favour (with you getting all the best weapons, superior armour pieces, and forgiving dungeon layouts), while the next attempt can feel like an insurmountable challenge.

Acknowledging this flaw, Jones conceded that BPM is not a well balanced game. "I actually think that some of our items are probably a little too powerful from an objective standpoint, but that's totally fine. We didn't want to make something that was perfectly fair anyway.

"If you look at something like The Binding of Isaac, certain power-ups in that game are absolutely broken. There are abilities that just make the game ridiculously easy. That is not necessarily good design if you are going by the book."

It is worth emphasizing that, in this context, "broken" does not actually mean that something is faulty. Instead, it means that it is too powerful and that you have no incentive to use anything else. This can often be a problem for certain multiplayer games, where a specific gun or character might players an unfair advantage over the competition.

Bullets Per Minute Screenshot
The team behind "Bullets Per Minute" were not overly concerned with making sure that the game was perfectly balanced, as long as it was fun. Awe Interactive

Jones continued: "From a balancing perspective, you would normally want your game to be a finely-tuned machine. But we liked being able to [accumulate] an excess of power in The Binding of Isaac and then use it to mow down our enemies. That's the kind of fun that we wanted to allow in our own game."

Indeed, there are certain item combinations in Bullets Per Minute that can make the combat feel downright trivial. Examples that Awe Interactive are aware of include the minigun and infinite ammo pairing (which enables you to unload a never-ending volley of bullets without reloading) and the vampire healing spell with an increased health regen effect.

Against conventional wisdom, Jones and Sullivan have left these things in the game, despite the fact that they blatantly undermine the difficult curve.

Jones continued: "A lot of fans have pointed out how those combinations are completely stupid and broken. But they're also really fun. Whenever we realized that something might be overpowered in our game, we just asked ourselves if it was fun to use. If the answer to that question was 'yes', then it stayed in."

Sullivan echoed this point, adding: "People love feeling overpowered in games and getting one over on the enemies. We enable that because we wanted to give the player the chance to get those insane items and abilities. It just makes you feel great."

As far as the duo is concerned, this balancing problem does not really matter in BPM given that it is a roguelike. If your loadout is "broken", then it wont have any lasting impact on the game because you will only have access to it for the duration of your current run. Once that's over, you will then start again from scratch without any of the weapons or powerups you have acquired.

According to Jones: "It just works in this genre because you are inevitably going to get reset anyway, or you are going to get cocky and die. If you let people become overpowered in an RPG then it would totally ruin the experience. Because then [you would] be an indestructible meat shield for over 20 hours. But in a dungeon crawler like ours, you can totally get away with it. Everything here is only temporary".

Bullets Per Minute is available now on PC and is being ported to both Xbox and PlayStation consoles on Tuesday, October 5.

Bullets Per Minute Screenshot
After attaining cult status on PC, "Bullets Per Minute" is now being ported to consoles. Awe Interactive