Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Mute King : Afterthoughts

I try to avoid giving general statements about game design but it's almost accepted as a universal truth - Learning is fun. Which is what I was trying to do with with my LD48 entry The Mute King, but it fell short on many fronts. From that list of design errors and careless mistakes, I've shortlisted the following which completely ruin the experience, holding it back and not allowing players to appreciate the game where it succeeds.

A More Compact Possibility Space
The spell system in the game requires players to cast using mouse gestures on the screen. The game recognizes simple directional swipes and some shapes but none of this is ever communicated to the player. Players no longer want to try and demystify the system infront of them because it's possibility space has been inflated to a size which makes it less inviting and more intimidating. Learning by hit and trial can be enjoyable but not with an infinite number of combinations to try out, that's torture not experimentation. To encourage experimentation, a more limited and compact possibility space would be required, examples of games like Aquaria and Magika come to mind which do this really well. A combination of buttons or items on screen allow players to realize and understand the complexity of the system, a system that the players now know can be tackled - making depth more accessible.

Feedback Loop
A symbol in the center of the screen appears after a spell is cast successfully but the player is not always given any feedback on how exactly the spell works. Some spells are tied to a certain type of entity, for example the clone can only be spawned using plants but not trees or bushes. I was expecting players would experiment with the spells but I wasn't particularly doing a good job in encouraging them, since casting a spell without the intended result still drains the player's mana. So if the cloning spell is cast where there are no plants in the near vicinity, the spell drains your mana but doesn't reward you with any results, just a cryptic symbol that congratulates you for discovering a recognized mouse gesture. There are many ways to indicate what an action is supposed to do, one of which is an intricate tutorial screen with lots of information and text, again something I'd never do with my game.

The game could use a brief explanation of each spell but that might still not be enough to close the feedback loop. The spell system simplified into a couple of buttons with permutations leading to different spells would contain the open ended-ness of the gesture system the game currently employs.

This game was a great learning experience, I had these ideas rattling around in my head and the LD48 was a good excuse to try them out. There were other things I wanted to accomplish in the game but I could do only so much in the forty eight hours that were allowed. Players will eventually extinguish the game after they've learnt all there is to learn about it by trying every spell with every game object and their combinations which might result in new and interesting dynamics and behaviors. Its wishful thinking but all we need is a system that can procedurally create meaningful constructs that demand and facilitate learning, a game that doesn't only generate content procedurally, but gameplay and mechanics as well.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

GGJ '13 Entry - Listen to Your Heart

In a three man team over two full days we wrote a short text adventure game called Listen to Your Heart for the Global Game Jam '13. I've always disliked text adventures which involve wading through pages of text before the next player input, matched with a horrible text parsing algorithm which is always a let down, I've never spent much time playing games like Adventure or Zork.

Nobody appreciates a wall of text, especially players suffering from ADHD who are always looking for a TL;DR version of anything longer than a two line paragraph. Before we get ahead of ourselves, one question that needs to be answered is - why text? With computers now capable of rendering real-time photo-realistic graphics on the cheapest of GPUs, why would a game still constrain itself to a text-only interface? Books and comics already provide quality fiction for those who want to read, but what they'll never be able to do is quench their thirst for narrative control which is something only a game can try to pull off. Which is why a text-only game makes complete sense, text over films and animations require the reader to exercise her imagination to a great extent, something we should be using to our advantage. Animated character sprites may sometimes work against the player's mental image of a deadly fire-breathing dragon and break that level of immersion which they originally had.

Listen to Your Heart understands most of this, choice does not make a significant or lasting effect on the story but it does try to keep the player involved by always throwing less than two lines of text on average before the next input is requested. Its a graph with nodes for text and edges for choices, all the content is scripted into it and every player takes a path that is a result of the choices they make. Its obvious that this rigid structure makes for a system that is devoid of any mechanics that could possibly produce story bits that are not prefabricated by the author, in that regard player participation is still cosmetic, the story is assembled not constructed.

Procedural story generation is something I didn't want to trouble myself with for this game, I felt that the exploration of a simple graph would be quite satisfactory when simple choices are made frequent enough to keep the players engaged. A problem that this creates is that players quickly understand that they are not in a world governed by a system that needs to be beaten, it's rigidity is made apparent by the nature of the choices laid out in front of them, which makes player choice a chore now that they're fully aware of the possibility space which is severely limited.

Play the game on your browser here. Feedback, comments and suggestions are always welcome, post away here on my blog or on the GGJ page for the game.