Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Lovely Planet - Gameplay Trailer

Lovely Planet now has a gameplay trailer, watch it now on YouTube!

These clips were pulled from the first three of a total of five sections in the game, the rest remain under wraps for now.

Full HD 60fps versions of both the trailers are going to be sitting at quicktequila.com/lovelyplanet.

Share so everyone can see, any feedback would be great!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lovely Planet - Completion

If feature creep doesn't show its ugly face again and everything goes according to plan, I think it's safe to say that Lovely Planet has reached a stage where I can call it complete.

I'm quite happy with the amount of content now, with enough variety in gameplay spread over ninety levels, it's definitely packed with plenty of interesting challenges for players to take on. Over the last month I've been putting a lot more work into the UI and menus both of which are now more functional and easier to understand. The sounds are now more congruent with the serene setting of the game world with bells, gongs and windchimes going off every now and then. Sound queues are extremely important inside the level which don't allow for any kind of music - I'd blame it on the time critical nature of the gameplay.

Other subtle but very important features were introduced, Lovely Planet doesn't play out like most shooters, it pushes you back for the slightest mistakes, the margin for error is low and perfection is rewarded. Sometimes I don't have the authority or a good enough reason to abruptly restart the level, with a new smarter in-game heads-up display, the game is now able to remind the player of when and where mistakes are being made by suggesting a manual restart. Most of these additions were the result of short playtesting sessions, clearly I don't have the foresight of a vetted game designer yet but it was fun to discover and resolve these issues.

I had posted a few screenshots taken from levels where it was raining in the background, I thought I'll post some more and explain what's going on. World 3 represents the first big jump where the gameplay changes drastically, precision shooting is made compulsory and platforming is introduced for the first time. It's the part where the game slows down one last time before the player is put to the final test. That final test comes in the world that follows, which will remain a mystery for now. As the events of the unwritten story unfold and more secrets are brought to light, the ambiance doesn't call for a bright and sunny sky for too long. So world 3, also called the Forest, is where the weather gets a little bit unpleasant and the clouds set in.

Apple bomb

Another apple bomb

Cute M16
I didn't want to fiddle with the aesthetics too much, if there's anything wrong with this game it would be that the environments are quite repetitive, the same assets are reused throughout to piece together levels. Also I'm not too sure whether the lack of a storyline is something players would hold against the game, I would just rather not have a story instead of piecing together a narrative that doesn't complement the gameplay just for the sake of it being there. Writing on walls inside the world and objects of interest later in the game clue you in on what's going on around you, they're not detailing a story but making a promise, that given the opportunity I'd love to put more work into the fiction of this universe.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

VYDE : Escaping Game Dev Limbo

VYDE got two enormous updates a while back so I thought I'd put them here.

It wouldn't have been wise to release the game in its original form with black bands on either side of the screen on newer devices. The transition from letterbox to a wider screen required a few minor tweaks since the game wasn't designed to run on a different aspect ratio. The play area still maintains its original dimensions while desaturated gray tiles fill either side of the screen. The main menu doesn't use this kind of a dirty fix though, I prepared new assets so we could enjoy the sweet parallax scrolling goodness on the wide screen. It definitely looks better and thanks to Cocos2D, I didn't have to fiddle around with positioning the menu items for too long. A couple of images of the game running on a 4 inch Retina display.

The old hand-written style font didn't quite fit the 'espionage' and 'conspiracy' setting we wanted for this game. We picked a less extravagant font and revamped all the menus including the ones in-game. To top that up, I also added animations to individual menu items which now show up in order after a smooth delay.

I can't give a release date just yet, but trust me, this game exists.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Lovely Planet Feature Walkthrough

On launching the game the player is thrown into the world menu where they can pick from the four different worlds over which the levels are distributed. Stars represent the completion status for every world and the levels inside. Worlds are unlocked when all levels from the previous world are completed, once unlocked, the player is free to attempt any level inside the new world irrespective of the order in which they are displayed. Crafty in its presentation, the menu is fluid and the controls are quick - I make a big deal out of it. You can navigate to wherever you want without leaving the W, A, S, D + mouse stance which a player can maintain when switching between the game world and the menus.

The straightforward reward system comes with its own special agenda, I like to think it does a god job at introducing players to different play styles. For example the cautious slow moving players might like to take their time hiding behind cover and taking pot shots from safety, cleaning out the whole level will get them the first blue colored star. A few stages into the second world, elements are introduced that push the player to speed things up a little bit. Every level comes with a qualification time to beat - complete the level faster and the green star will light up on your scorecard. As an added reward for the speed-run enthusiasts who might like to go up against others, the game also keeps track of the world record on each map to compare with your personal best time.

Since Lovely Planet considers itself to be the closest thing to FPS gun ballet, the final golden star is reserved for the perfectionist. Every level can be completed with one hundred percent accuracy, spending no more bullets than necessary, the gold star goes to the performer that can prance her way to the exit defeating all enemies without wasting a single bullet.

Don't expect any cut-scenes before a short clip during the credits at the end of the game, the story is so abstract it's not even told and there isn't a lot of variety in the visuals other than a slight change of weather conditions moving from one world to another. From the corridors of a generic military First Person Shooter game, Lovely Planet tries to embrace the idea rather than lying confused somewhere in the middle, think of it as a rails shooter without the rails where keeping up with the pace of the level is part of the challenge. Memorization and cheap deaths dominate the initial stages of play, but learning every corner of every level and practicing to master the fastest most optimal way through to the exit is what I feel is going to be the more rewarding experience.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Gunplay of Lovely Planet

With boots of speed on your feet, an infinite supply of bullets for your semi-automatic and the ability to jump over twice your own height, you're well equipped to go up against any enemy on your quest. The gameplay, should you choose to play a particular style, doesn't involve camping at cover spots and waiting for enemies to pop out. You'll find yourself trying to balance between jumping around dodging bullets and taking aim for a better shot at your enemies. Bullets made relatively slower can be dodged, enemies paint the world leaving patterns around the player, patterns which the game tries to change a little bit at a time by slowly introducing new enemy types. Moving, shooting and jumping at the right moment are all equally important actions to completing a level similar to games like Contra. Defeat enemies and avoid the onslaught of bullets to get to the next stage - perhaps it's a kind of play not suited for a 3D First Person Shooter game, but Lovely Planet hopes to translate the old formula into a version of its own anyway. It learns from more recent titles like N, Super Meat Boy and Hotline Miami - stages remain short and getting hit or falling off the edge of the map instantly resets the game. Jumps and enemies are strategically placed requiring the player to find and execute a set sequence of steps to get to the exit where every minor slip up results in failure.

In short Lovely Planet isn't trying for anything more than just the most simple game of jumping and shooting, there aren't any power ups or elements of character progression of that sort, the player is expected to get familiar with the controls and enemy types as they make their way through the levels. At the same time it also tries to keep things fair, most if not all the levels create challenges that don't necessarily involve a lot of trial and error or luck. Learning to master the controls and being quick is what gets you to the next level, not fluke shots at targets that are a mile away. After players are comfortable with the controls they can also choose to play at a higher difficulty setting that puts a cooldown on the shots or play without wasting a single bullet to earn extra rewards as stars for each level in the game.

I think this frantic gameplay set in the cheerful ambiance that Lovely Planet tries to maintain makes for a unique and interesting first person shooter game. I'm not pushing for a lot of content, at least not right now, there are no bosses and four maybe five worlds where new gameplay elements are introduced. I'd love to hear what you think, are a hundred plus levels expected on a game like this or should I push for quality rather than quantity?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

You Don't Go to Lovely Planet

The plan was to prepare a game that is the not-FPS of today. I've played my share of first person shooters and not just the ones that go grey and brown where people swear a lot. What I couldn't find, what I think would make for a more original FPS experience, is a game that is about nothing more than jumping and shooting. So I wrote this game called Lovely Planet.

It's more Gun Ballet than Gun Fu, but I won't call it a bullet hell. It learns from old side scrollers like Contra and puts all its focus into the movement and shooting and leaves out the rest. So short levels with enemies that fire at you while you avoid bullets, shoot baddies and make your way to the exit. There are no level-ups, two difficulty levels and a single weapon with a rotating star on it which doesn't ever run out of bullets. More importance is given to the movement, being agile is rewarded and aiming is difficult. Taking pot shots on enemies that make timely jumps out of cover isn't the kind of gameplay that interests me anymore, it's monotonous, repetitive and boring. It's not about boosting your XP or earning ribbons and trophies for playing a couple of hundred hours or unlocking every attachment for every weapon. What stands between you and your goal is a bit of platforming and some angry turrets, not hours of farming stats or silly and unnecessary side quests that don't make any sense.

I've worked on a number of my own games to be sure that if I attempt a photo-realistic graphics style I will fail. A simple style pulled off properly is better than an ugly looking game, it only made sense to go the NPR way. NPR too comes in a lot of flavours, with no intention of putting any sort of budget behind this game at the time, I knew from the beginning it was going to be flat shaded and untextured. Except the particles and most of the text on the walls, everything is a model. That's for the style, where the theme and setting come from is a different story. At the time this game was being prototyped I was overly obsessed with a few Japanese pop music videos by this one artist which I still think are outrageously magnificent to say the least. Since the whole intention was to do the not-FPS first person shooter I thought it would be a great idea to populate the world with cute things. The palette is composed of a lot of vibrant colours and things generally have a cutesy look to them, little pink hearts make for grass on the ground and the architecture has a pleasant and cheerful vibe to it. Pretty things float in the sky and Lovely Planet along with its only moon are always visible in the distance.

It's not done yet, still thinking about boss fights and there is no music without which I won't even call it half complete.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

VYDE - Playstyles

We've agreed that VYDE is clearly one-dimensional in its execution, the player character is very weak and the game lacks variety. Players are not allowed to apply the rule-set to discover their own way of beating a level, rather it's about performing what I as a level designer think is the best way through a level. The game doesn't allow players to express themselves in the game world because it's not about what they can do inside it, which I think isn't right..

We don't have multi-path labyrinths with simulated entities for the player to interact with, no cameras to disengage or computers to hack - if we can't offer the player that choice in playstyle during gameplay, could we at least try and encourage it by acknowledging an attempt at a different approach? Not a mere incentive but an agent that recognizes a different playstyle so as to give more meaning to an otherwise player-set goal? Before I reveal this new addition, I need to explain what I mean by play-style in this context.

This isn't an RPG where I can level up my stealth ability instead of my armor to make sneaking easier, nor does the game offer tools or items that could change the way a level is approached, all the choice lies with the player at all times, which has its own set of issues. Every level in VYDE has had a record time and a package as secondary objectives, the primary objective of the exit encourages players to take the safest path through the level, the record time promotes the fastest route and the package challenges the player to reach the toughest cell of the level and make it back to the exit without being detected. This is the best I could do with the kind of game VYDE has shaped into, instead of being a part of the game itself, a different approach is encouraged through its acknowledgment by the level designer. A better game would execute the same in a more organic fashion, a game where the systems it employs are wired perfectly which allow these playstyles to emerge - in that case the acknowledgement would come from the game and the player herself instead of the person who designed those systems.

This means that now it's my responsibility as the architect of this experience to understand and acknowledge all the different playstyles one might want to exercise inside the game world. Instead of the two we've discussed already, I discovered one last approach where as a player you explore the whole map before completing it, encouraging you to visit safe cells that might not be otherwise important to you while simply trying to complete the level. First I was planning on rewarding the player with points proportional to the amount of time they spent in the level but that would just encourage camping which would be dumb. So how do you get players to do something which doesn't really have a purpose yet - if you work in social games you should know the answer to that question already - candy.

Now this isn't the kind of Skinner Box system of loot which tries to tap into the player's head, encouraging a mindless repetition of simple tasks to engage her for a longer duration - it's simply reminding the player of the fact that the game allows a different playstyle, as an assurance that it's actually possible to explore those cells and make it back to the exit. If the player is able to complete the level after having collected all the coins, the game rewards them with a "Looted" label on the end screen, which would otherwise show how many coins were missed.

With an average of four different styles to tackle each of the eighty levels in the game, I think we've introduced at least some variety in gameplay.

Monday, May 27, 2013

VYDE : A Whole New Game

In most immersive sims, plenty of importance is given to playstyle and choice, they make it a point to provide players with an arsenal of options at ever step which empowers them in ways other games don't. Most examples I can think of can be classified as stealth games, or at least games that allow you to sneak around in the world. While other (inferior in my opinion) stealth games don't stress on playstyle all that much and only work with this thing designers like to call 'second stage mechanics'. The one and a half minute after Snake is spotted and enemies are searching for him is when the dynamics of the world have been changed momentarily, everything from enemy behavior to the player's goals change instantly for a short duration, which can introduce the much needed variety in gameplay.

I call VYDE a stealth game yet it has none of these characteristics, nothing in the game is actually simulated, enemies follow strict paths and there are no second stage mechanics to speak of since detection leads to instant failure.What then is that one thing in VYDE that makes it good, if at all? Is it the color-hiding gimmick or the abstract squarish minimal look, both of which actually make the game harder to understand. Players tackle every level in a two pass process - identification of the correct route to the exit which is apparent from the colors, and then the actual performance of that plan. The identification happens almost instantly at first glance, the difference between the cells that are safe and those that aren't is made clear from their colors and enemy patterns are quite obvious. Since it's not encouraged to start moving before you have a set plan in your head, the level isn't learnt by actually exploring it through the act of playing, but rather a passive calculation which doesn't involve interacting with the world in any way. What this creates is the kind of experience that I found extremely boring. Once I've calculated the route I'm going to take, the rest of level is just a test of my dexterity, or how well I can function the awkward controls that aren't best suited for touch screens anyway.

Apart from not having enough space to allow more fleshed out levels, there wasn't really any scope of introducing more variety in gameplay. I tried smoke bombs and traps but they were too cumbersome to use, making the already difficult to comprehend control scheme even more complicated. The question I asked myself then was - if I can't add anything to the game, what could I possibly change or remove that could make it better? A week ago I was toying around with some levels and I prepared this obnoxious mess of a room, with random shades of red thrown around and enemies with movement patters long enough to never remain synchronized with each other - and suddenly I had a whole new game with me.

I increased the percentage of safe cells on the map allowing the player to roam freely, effectively increasing the size of the map. This sudden boost in freedom was then complemented by more enemies with longer routes, which were less predictable to chart out. These changes eliminated the first problem we were having, players could no longer analyse and find an effective solution to the problem by just staring at the level because enemy positions as a function of time were no longer obvious. This solution only partly solved our problem, players need to be encouraged to explore the level and that would only happen if I wasn't pushing them back for the smallest of mistakes. Levels are too small and they finish quickly, the average play time never exceeds ten seconds which is not right. How do you make the levels bigger and also introduce enough room for players to recover from those errors without actually restarting? I'm ashamed it took me almost a year to solve this one.

We decrease the game speed! If both the enemies and Bob together move slower than maybe half an inch per second, the player can extrapolate enemy positions with enough time to evade an impending collision. If I can now guarantee an opportunity for the player to avoid being detected and recover from a mistake without being thrown back, I've successfully encouraged the player to find a solution to the given problem by actually PLAYING the level. The process of understanding enemy movement patterns to identify a safe route is now intertwined with the act of roaming the map, both of which can no longer exist effectively  on their own. The question of whether or not Bob is going to be safe on a particular cell will be answered when you actually show up there and not before that. From a two pass process we've turned it into a continuous feedback loop where the study of enemy movement patterns and your own position allow evasive maneuvers that constantly change the variables to the function that describes what comes next. I feel the maps are more exciting now, the difficulty level is more effective and feels fair. Earlier the trial and error felt more like hitting your head against a wall, you weren't exercising your brain to come up with a solution because you already knew it. Now the levels are long enough for every attempt to produce this kind of tension, accumulating a cost for every second invested in playing which pays off if you're able to actually complete it. It's amazing how ten seconds could add so much.
I removed most of the levels that I wasn't happy with and replaced them with new ones which learn from all that we've discussed above. Even though it falls short on many fronts when it comes to the kind of stealth game it was trying to be, I'll just say it's a different sort of fun and I'm happy with it.

Okay, who wants to play?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

VYDE : Game Screen

While the main menu went through quite a lot of makeovers and more than one complete redesign, the actual game screen, not so much. The problems with the game scene became apparent after we first had it play-tested after which I had to start considering the possibility of introducing some major design changes.

I couldn't really entertain those ideas for too long since some design errors were hard-wired into the way the game wanted to work, taking it apart after having spent almost a year on it didn't sound like a great idea. So before I knew it, I was holding my head sitting in front of another partially completed game with a list of awfully glaring issues that I regret were not handled earlier.

If you haven't been following these articles, VYDE is a stealth game with over 80 (yes 81) levels where each room consists of a 6x4 map of flat shaded tiles of solid color. It's got an abstract, arty, minimal look or whatever you might like to call it with no sprites or graphics of any kind. Your character aptly named Bob, like all the patrolling guards, is shown as a flat shaded box with a square nose. The original version of the game on which I created the first half of the levels looked bare, it was at that stage where you'd call it too simple to look polished or even complete.

My solution to problems of this kind, unfortunately never involved going to an artist for help. With most of my own games that I've worked on in the past, I've had two options out of which one involves programmer art, so that doesn't count. With an elementary knowledge of programmable graphics pipelines I looked at a few shaders to somehow throw a little life into the colorful but flat shaded world. If I can code my way through another problem, why not?

Programming and playing around with full-screen post processing effects to me is like the feeling you get the first time you discover image filters in Photoshop, but unfortunately nothing acceptable came out of that exercise. I had to get the characters to stand out somehow while also warning the player of Bob's current visibility in each cell. I put a small shadow under each character and masked it with the cell visibility on a per pixel basis. Part of the box that was inside its safe cell didn't drop a shadow while the rest did. Although a drop shadow of this kind does have a physical significance to it (of depth), I liked the Ambient-Occlusion-y look it gave while still keeping things minimal the way I wanted them. A vignette was later added to produce the same kind of shadow on the edges of the screen.

Each level has a record time and a briefcase as secondary objectives. The status of the player's progress is saved and presented each time a level is started. Initially, we tried to convey all of this symbolically using icons and numbers only, we found there was too much information to be shown and that our symbols looked too cryptic to make any sense. This end game screen now uses a few lines of text to convey all of that information before and after each attempt is made.

I discussed previously how the game had some horrible conveyance issues, players never understood what character they're supposed to control or who spotted them or how they failed . Still being hell bent on keeping with the minimal interface and the original aesthetic style of the presentation, these seemingly trivial problems were a lot more difficult to solve. So instead of littering the screen with an overlay of jarring outlines and arrows, I took on each of those problem separately. The color of the cell on which Bob spawns at the beginning of each level is now given more contrast than before making it easier to spot.

A cloud of dust animates over the starting cell each time a level is reset as an attempt at immediately drawing the players attention.With the new auto restart feature, the game encourages players to fail, reset and try again over and over till they're able to understand and analyse the level and find an effective way to defeat it. We initially weren't revealing enemy locations at all, guards hidden in cells that matched their color perfectly were never shown. The game now has no levels where enemies aren't revealed at all and on detection the scene halts for exactly one second and zooms into that particular enemy before it resets automatically for the player to have another go. I'm relying on this fast transition back into the game to trivialize the event of having a failed attempt, effectively removing all the discouragement that came with it.

There was this one other issue in the list where I complained about the linearity of the levels and their puzzle like structure. Well the great news is that I've cracked that one too, a detailed explanation would have to wait till the next post.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

VYDE : Main Menu

There was a point during the development of VYDE when we were stuck with forty untested levels and a horrible main menu populated with text labels for each level. It was all too convenient, the text labels fit perfectly with the name 'VYDE' occupying all of the 6x4=24 tiles on the screen. I needed a reason to fix it up so I decided to double the number of levels in the game.

Initially, I wasn't going to tell the players that they're actually descending a building until the last level, but it seemed like a great idea to have an illustration of the building on the main menu itself. An eighty story building didn't make much sense so we decided to group similar levels into floors where each level becomes a room on a particular floor. Some floors have five to six rooms whereas some have just one. We had with us a list of rooms for each floor, so we decided to paint the building with floor numbers and show the rooms expanded horizontally to the right.

Parallax Scrolling

A building on its own wouldn't look nice, to complete the scene, a set of mountains, a sun and some trees were added. All the sprites are given a depth value which is used to calculate their location on screen as a function of the camera position. So the mountains and the sun are given almost infinite depth, whereas the building and menu items are kept nearer to the camera. New positions are calculated every frame when the camera is moved to give a smooth transition as the user swipes between the main menu and level selection screens.


As you progress through the game, the time of day changes from very early morning (around 3 a.m) to daytime (8 a.m) as you make your way to the ground floor. The moon starts from being high up in the sky and disappears slowly into the top edge of the screen while the sun makes its way up from behind the mountains. All the images are being lit up with OpenGL Blend Mode magic, I darken the sprites at night and make them brighter in the day. The sun wasn't brighter than all the other elements on the screen, which I could have solved with a simple Bloom shader, but we figured the flat shaded sprites actually agree better with the aesthetic style of the game. Right now, I'm modulating the opacity of a plain white image overlay on the screen to simulate a cheap tone mapping effect. The overlay goes invisible as the sun is hidden behind the building, and then spikes and comes down back to zero using a logarithmic function over time when the sun is revealed immediately.

Level Tiles

All the levels in the game are stored as text files which detail the color for each of the 24 cells, along with enemy and player colors too. On loading a level, the level background image is compiled using a render texture. Now we thought it would be only right that players are able to see the levels on the selection screen so they can recognize it. Compiling and storing textures for all the levels wouldn't be feasible (memory) and compiling the textures for each room when a particular floor is selected would be quite a pain (too much work). The solution to the problem was simple, since the levels are made of six by four flat colored cells, each level texture could be represented by exactly 24 pixels in memory. Cocos2D allows sprites to share a target texture and reveal only a part of the memory using spriteFrames. So the game bakes all the levels onto one small texture when it starts up and the eighty sprites are made with sprite frames of the size of 6x4 pixels. Those sprites are then scaled up to the required size of a clickable tile item on the menu.

Framebuffer Objects - Parallax Scrolling - Faked Lighting - Fun.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why VYDE Needs Fixing

1) You Fail A Lot
You fail often, you fail quickly. This process is not at all rewarding because I can easily tell that the player has no  incentive to go on when she hands the game back to me after trying only twice. There is no flow to keep you going and the game doesn't do a good job at telling you how exactly you failed. Running into an enemy and getting spotted in the open are the only two ways you can fail, but it's not made apparent because there are no field of view cones and the game waits for exactly one second before it moves to the end game screen.

2) Zero Conveyance
The game has to resort to tutorial screens to explain the simplest of rules, including it's control scheme. There aren't enough intro stages to explain all the rules one by one. The rules :

1) A matching background color makes you invisible
2) A perfect match makes you completely invisible
3) Enemies will spot you if inside their field of view and visible (1,2)
4) Touching enemies is allowed iff you're completely invisible (2)

Rules 1,2 and 3 are conveyed via tutorial screens in one level, and the last rule number 4 is explained in the one after. Players don't read the short tutorial texts and the rules are never made clear.

The control scheme is new, players don't understand how to properly use it unless I demonstrate it for them. Once they do understand, they have no trouble with it, they actually admit that it's better than a traditional joystick for the freedom it provides by better understanding the player's gestures.

3) Just Puzzles
The levels are very small (6x4) and every level has hardly more than one solution to it. The extra pickup is a nice twist but they're mostly too hard to execute. In effect, players never beat a level taking a path I don't know already. Some levels are less brains and more hands which are even harder to complete for those who are uncomfortable with the controls.

4) A Flawed Concept
I'd mention in an elevator pitch that it's a stealth game about hiding in colors, and to keep with the simple minimal art style I had in mind, the player character is mostly hard to spot and sometimes even invisible. I expected players to understand that the character in control is the one that's not moving on it's own without player input (patrolling enemies) but it seems it's not that obvious to most. I could make Bob stand out in some way but then I'd have to sacrifice the aesthetic style of the game.

How to Fix It
Only so much can be fixed really. A total of eighty levels have been completed and tested so it's not feasible to change them all. Failing over and over is not fun and the players need to be encouraged to try again, the level now restarts itself automatically within a second of getting detected. The tutorial screens are useless because nobody has the patience to read through them, the player needs to be able to learn the rules by PLAYING the level instead of wading through a wall of text.

Also now on starting a level, Bob is revealed from under a cloud of smoke indicating to the player that there's something special over there, perhaps the character they're supposed to control. I don't want to put more junk on the screen like a visibility meter, an outline on the player character or even a permanent joystick. If the game world is not doing a good job in explaining itself then there's something wrong with it.

Now, how do you teach players a completely new way to interact with a game world behind a touchscreen?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Last Day of Winter

I've been meaning to give a detailed report on this game with a complete dissection of the things done right and the many improvements over it's predecessor, but I'm afraid we'll have to settle with an extremely short and informal discussion for now. Spoilers below, it should take little over six minutes to complete the game, I highly recommend you play it to the end.

Event Structure
The game holds a set of events that are initiated each time the player makes it across one scene, the first half of the game where the king is collecting gifts is where this system is employed. This is by no means a mechanism that is trying to generate a procedural story, they're just events, for example, a pack of ghosts, village folk crowding around the king or a wizard with healing powers. The game selects an event form this list and randomly populates the scene with other simple game objects like trees, plants and grass. When we speak of stories in games we often find the player's actions working against narrative, they're always fighting each other and it's our job to have them both somehow have an equal say in how things progress. A story in the ultimate sandbox game can be a problem because one can always talk the nemesis into a ditch and drop lava on them.

Almost every player action has a couple of numbers attached to it (only one in our case), numbers that describe how certain metrics are changed. The system tries to complete the feedback loop between what events the game is producing and the player's actions, ensuring a smooth dramatic arc (see Robleto, Dramatic Arc) by trying to measure things like dramatic tension and danger. So if you've been collecting a lot of rings for a long time, the game will ensure you get some ghosts to deal with in the next scene. The granularity of how the information is collected will ensure the feedback is dealt with appropriately, so if the player had enough mana to get by the ghosts without any issues, the system will understand that she's still ready for more trouble. The game currently only demonstrates a very crude and dysfunctional version of this idea.

Non - Combat
There is no combat but you're always racing against time, so in effect we've just switched the HP bar with a timer and altered how the game affects that resource. Not much of an achievement but at least our game doesn't involve knives, guns and bazookas. The spells were put to constantly change the way the game is played, it can be argued that some of the spells are 'evil' so I leave it to the player to decide against using them. Instead for this game, I wanted players to engage with the objects in the world, every object has an almost equally important role to play. The apples give speed, the grass gives you mana, the plants help keep the flies off and the cows can be kicked. I tried my best to have the objects work as players would expect. More importantly, I made sure the 'first order actions' (like cows hitting villagers) are wired properly for players to fool around and find new ways to interact with the world, discovering 'second order behaviors' (like forcing the Wanderer to teleport onto a portal).

Controls and Progression
I've worked on many games and shown them to my friends, but only recently have I been putting some thought into mobile and web games. Truth is I'm frustrated, I'm frustrated with players holding my iPod with the most lost expression asking 'What do you want me to do?'. These games assume that players somehow understand the basics, which is not true, so I wanted a way to always keep players in context. The game borrows heavily from Super Wagon Adventures, that's another reason for the scene structure we discussed above. Mouse clicks are used to move the king around, interact with objects and cast spells. The spell casting system in the last game had zero conveyance, so I decided this time to pause the game and wait for players to cast targeted spells. Every scene change and interaction comes with a small line of text that snatches all control and halts the game for a few short seconds. This interruption covers the screen in black and puts that line of bold text in the center, holding the players by their hands only when necessary. Although it's very slow and frustrating to be skipping these messages every few seconds, I can be sure the player is always aware of what's going on.

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