Meraki

Meraki - Doing something with soul, creativity, or love. It’s when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing. It forms the core of my game design philosophy.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Godus - a review




Throughout its development, there has been a lot of attention lavished on 22 Cans' Godus. For better or worse, the internet just can't get enough of Peter and his machinations. There seems to be an ever eager pack of people following his every move, just waiting for him to slip up so they can pounce on him. I'd go so far as to say that I wouldn't be surprise if Internet Molyneux Bashing turned up at the next Olympics. This is not something I particularly want to be a part of as I owe my career to him.

I've commented on Godus before - well, okay, I've commented on an article on Godus before - but I wanted to hold fire until I'd given the thing a fair crack of the whip. I downloaded it on iOS last night and spent most of the evening messing around with it until now I feel like I've got the gist and can form an opinion.

I'll be honest though - it's not good.

Curiously, it's not good in a way I was entirely not expecting.

When you hit up the App Store, there it is in all it's Editor's Choice glory - as you'd expect, for something that has the Molyneux stamp on it. But you click on it and you're not presented with 22 Cans or Molyneux or anything like that.

It's DeNA.

That was my first worrying sign right there. Okay, it's mobile. Okay, it's F2P. I was expecting this. But I have an issue here - one that will crop up repeatedly over the course of this post. I shall enigmatically refer to it as the 'T' issue.

First Impressions


Build, my minions! Build!
Presentation - excellent. Love the art style. Brilliant audio too. But, seeing as how the guys behind both of those are two of the absolute best I've worked with, no surprises there.

The terrain is stylishly abstract. The stepped hills make a pleasant change from all of those hyper-realistic landscape engines. Oh hey - I'm as big a fan of From Dust's world as the next guy, but it's nice to see someone going a different way. The flat colours serve a purpose to denote both altitude and, subsequently, cost of modification - the sand layers are free, everything else uses resource. The lack of texture makes everything very clean.

I, like most gamers my age, probably bought in to the Godus idea as another of those 'spiritual successor' things that seem to be so popular these days*. This time it's Populous that's getting the reboot treatment and, given that Peter is one of a handful of people I'd say are qualified to give this a bash, I had high hopes. Not least of which because I kinda thought his vision on what makes Populous, was pretty well aligned with mine.

The God Game Genre


I don't think Populous has ever been done 'right' since the first one - for a variety of reasons. I say that having proudly worked on the second which, fun as it was, just wasn't quite there. Close, but it didn't quite capture the magic. Part of that was down to the more advanced technology**, but most of it was down to the inherent problems involved with balancing so many different effects.

For me, a God Game does several things a bit differently to other, similar games - something I've talked about previously. Core to this belief is the 'no direct control' rule. You are a God, not a General. You do not tell an individual person to go and do a thing. They decide to do it themselves. You influence the population. The minute you start micromanaging, you're in an RTS not a God Game.

So, Leashing is an instant black mark in my book. Thankfully, it's so wonderfully broken that it's not really something you ever use. At least, not something you ever use intentionally. More on that later.

Whilst we're on the subject of feeling like a God, Godus falls short there too. What kind of God scrabbles around in the dirt, digging up chests? Seems a bit... menial.

But back to the game.

The idea is sound. Provide flat land for your population to develop and thereby expand. Very Populous - we like that. At the start, it's all fine and dandy too. Plots are marked out and you turf Builders out of your buildings and off they go. Cool. Pretty soon, you'll have a nice little township developing. The way the map is laid out, you'll have a selection of tents then a ring of small huts then a ring of larger ones - provided, of course, you've managed to flatten out enough land.

There's part of me that misses the transient, fragile nature of the dwellings in Populous. They were always tailoring themselves to the surrounding landscape, meaning they were at risk every second from either a vengeful God, hell-bent on destruction or an errant one, over-zealously raising a new plot of land from the ocean and going just a shade too far. In Godus, once a house is built, it seems to stay built. At least it doesn't get destroyed if you modify the surrounding landscape - you have to wait until later to get effects that can blow stuff up. This means that the heart of my developing metropolis consists of ragged tents.

On the other hand, it does give the game a Settlers of the Stone Age, migratory feel to it. You can see where your tribe started and how it developed as a snapshot in time.

Gameplay Features


Each dwelling produces Belief, which is the resource used to do just about everything - landscape modification, Leashing, effects, etc. After the appropriate wait loop, a blob of Belief will appear above each house and you can tap on it to collect it. Or you can tap and hold on the first one, then drag your finger over each and every one of your houses, scooping up the pink stuff and playing out a tune. It's very compelling.

The tech tree annoyingly uses a card-based system. I say annoyingly - it's a fine system. It's just it's also thematically similar to what we've got in Super Glyph Quest... Well, to a point. Both use cards. Godus goes one step further. It's all very well to reach the point at which they give you an upgrade card but then you have to activate it. This entails sticking little resource stickers on it. Stick enough of the correct type of sticker on the card and it turns on, giving you all of its benefits. It's an interesting system, especially when you start picking up stickers with multiple resource types and values. Stickers are acquired by digging up those damn crates or sending your dudes out on a Voyage.

Voyages are like little quest arcs that see you solving a series of puzzle-based levels. It took a bit of getting in to, but these things are quite fun. It's like the Challenge levels in Populous II or, well, From Dust in micro. There's also a nice risk element there where you choose how many of your people to chance on each island. More people increases the chance of you getting the minimum number required to the target but any you lose won't be available for subsequent islands on this Voyage.

Another way of getting precious Stickers is to bite the bullet and spooge a bit of premium currency on the gacha and buy a Sticker Pack. In the name of science, I gave that a go. Half of my currency later and I've got a handful of bonus Stickers which is just enough to... not actually activate any of the cards I have. I've said before that I don't mind gachas at all. I like card packs or monster eggs or things like that. But it feels like the balancing on this is a bit out of whack. That felt like an awful lot of currency for not very much in return. 'T' issue takes another hit.

Sprogging*** people and watching them go about their business is fun enough and, despite the 'car park construction simulator' aspect of reducing the lovely terrain to a flat eyesore, makes for a cool-looking town. Especially when you get to the Settlements part where you can schmoosh together a bunch of buildings to form a single building that holds all of the same people but with a smaller footprint. These things look very cool indeed and open up farming for wheat...

So much Belief to collect.
...which is where the game grinds to a halt. New buildings now require wheat to build and wheat is very much attached to a wait loop. 6 hours or so. It's not as if this is just for new and exciting, higher tech buildings or anything. It's everything. Those tents you started with. The little huts. Everything. The rules have changed. It's like having the rug pulled out from under your feet****. Now you're thinking "What else are they going to change? Is all that stuff I've learned a complete waste of time?". 'T' issue.

Interface


You can instruct your people to go places by Leashing. Effectively you drag a path to where you want them to go, instantly making this an RTS and not a God Game. Leashing costs Belief. Lots of Belief, so it's not really something you want to play with, which, I guess, moves us back in to God Game territory?

Then there's the landscape modification itself. I was always a bit concerned about the smearing thing as I've yet to see that done well, but a touchscreen should be a wonderfully tactile way of doing it and probably represents the best chance of pulling it off. Also, the stepped landscape should really play in to this - giving you precise boundaries and avoiding the vagaries of analogue slopes.

But it doesn't.

The controls are so incredibly fuzzy it's ridiculously tricky to get the game to do what you want it to. At the very least, 1 in 10 swipes will lead to something unintentional happening. Given that these miss-swipes can easily drain your vital Belief, this borders on the criminal. It's the 'T' issue - and it's happening in the interface itself! There's almost zero feedback to inform you that whatever you're doing is draining this Belief too***** meaning you can find yourself entirely hamstrung.

This is the last thing I was expecting. I was really expecting to enjoy the minute-to-minute stuff whenever the F2P trappings would let me. Instead, I found myself in the curious position of finding the F2P stuff pretty inoffensive - even the gacha, as I think that's just the perils of early adopting a system that may well yet to be fine tuned. Well, up until the wheat thing at least, but that was a good few hours in to the game.

Ownership


The final element of the game comes back to the F2P styling of it. That is, this is supposed to feel like my tribe. My kingdom. My towns. I dictate where they go and how they look. But it doesn't feel like that at all. I know that I'm only given stuff when the game says I should be and everyone else gets it at the same time. All of our empires end up looking the same and I don't actually have any authorship over the game at all. It doesn't really matter what I do. I can't get 'good' at the game. To do so would move me outside the various formulae and spreadsheets that are carefully managed to funnel me through the 'experience'. They rely on me doing the same thing as everyone else at the same time as everyone else. It's so constrained.

Sure, there's some wriggle room - especially when you have more cards than the Stickers required to activate them - but it's nothing like a game like Civ, for example, where two people can have two very different games and approaches.

The 'T' Issue


It's Trust.

I don't Trust DeNA (or almost any F2P publisher) to produce a decent, original game and not just be in it for the money. Yes, it's a business, but it's also a craft. I've yet to see a single design decision based on increasing revenue actually improve the gameplay and I know that DeNA's view on making a game better simply equates to making more money. I want to give you money, but I want a decent game in return.

I don't Trust the game's rules. When something so fundamental as the rules for building your settlements can change in an instant, you really don't know where you stand. What's next? Buildings explode if you don't collect their Belief? Every second Tuesday, all of your people whose name begins with 'F' spontaneously combust? Who knows!

I don't Trust myself. I've got an idea in my head about what it is I want to do on the micro level. I want to flatten this bit of land so that guy can build a nice house. Brilliant plan. So all I need to do is drag that bit of land over there and we're good. So that requires a swipe. Like... no. Not like that. That's squished a tree. No, not like that either. That's moved a guy across the map and wiped out half of my resources. Nope, that's raised the land instead and formed an impassable barrier. I need to flatten that out again. Oh, but it keeps springing back because... ah yes. I've used up all my Belief in doing all of these incorrect things. I don't like not being able to trust my fingers to do the job at hand, even though it really doesn't feel like it's their fault at all. It really is like a lottery, and that's not what you want from an interface at all******.

Overall


Godus is a very frustrating experience.

There are a lot of interesting ideas in there but they all seem to fight against each other and it's like their interactions have not been properly thought out. The interface seems to actively fight against you and the paywall comes down with such a resounding thud that it actively changes the way the game plays.

I hear the PC version is a completely different beast but the iOS one is sketchy at best. Maybe I'll give that a try as I really want it to be a good game.

* Largely involving old Bullfrog IP, I've noticed.
** The ability to have more than one person on a landscape tile, for example.
*** An old, in-house term for turfing people out of houses. In Populous you had to engineer less land for the house, shrinking the house so that it was too full and had to boot out a person. In Populous II this was streamlined in to just clicking on the house itself.
**** Or removing the Creature...
***** The virtual stuff - the actual stuff you can feel leaving you in waves.
****** Unless your interface is for a lottery.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Super Glyph Quest Dev Diary 08

In which we re-visit early ideas, meet up with some old friends and generally get excited about the future.

The Story


Who needs wallpaper?
We've finally sorted the story out. Well, okay, the main story arc has been finalised - we're still adding side quests and fleshing other bits out. Having the whole thing mapped out really helps though. In theory, we could set up the entire game now - the only thing missing are the actual quests themselves as the vast majority are place-holder things in which the player kills a test rat.

I've never been a big fan of speccing everything out beforehand. I like a spot of emergence or evolution to the production process. That said, we needed the main bit of narrative to be sorted out before we could make a move on the rest of it.

Upgrades


Speaking of evolution, remember that upgrade system that I talked about before? We've binned it off.

Not upgrades themselves, but the way we had it laid out. Thing is, there were an awful lot of upgrades you had access to at any one time and the screen looked incredibly daunting - especially for mobile and the kind of entitled gamer you get these days. Hell, just the idea of having to write a tutorial for it was enough to put us off the idea.

I still like the upgrade thing and it's never easy to get rid of something that you've already implemented, but these things have to be done. There's a phrase that gets used to describe it - 'killing your own babies'. Horrific, eh? But it's a vital skill for any designer. By all means, fight your corner and push for the vision, but you shouldn't be afraid to admit that it might be wrong and there would be a better way of doing it. There's a time and a place for it, which is ideally towards the beginning of the project, but there's no way we could ship this with that in place.

After some more judicious Post It notes, Leanne and I have come up with a slightly different system. Okay, the system itself remains largely untouched, but the player's interface to it will be changed dramatically.

Instead of having access to the entire tech tree, the player will instead be presented with three random 'cards' each representing a different upgrade whenever he levels up. The cards will be face up and the player can pick one to upgrade. This means that the player is only ever picking from 3 manageable options rather than scrolling around and choosing from anything up to about 15 different things at any one time.

Sure, you lose a bit of fidelity and player authorship, but it also encourages replaying whilst keeping everything flowing a little better. Think of it like the Arena mode in Hearthstone where you build your deck on the fly.

Once we'd come up with that as the basic idea, we spent a bit longer thrashing out the details and trying to pick holes in the design. This seems to involve moving Post It notes around.

To give you an idea of how long these posts tend to hang around before I publish them, I've finished updating the upgrade system. The cards work out very well and they all have a tarot vibe which fits very nicely with the art style. The upgrade screen is a lot cleaner. There's still some stuff to do on the icons themselves - showing you how many times one of them has been upgraded, for example, and maybe a tweak or two to the colours.

We're both a little concerned that it means your character build is in the lap of the random number gods, but that's only because we've peeked behind the curtain and know how it works and what other upgrades are possible at any given point in time. I guess the way to think about it is like a game of Agricola - sometimes Family Growth appears at the start of Stage 2 and other times it appears at the end, which can have a huge effect on the tactics but doesn't make it any less fun.

Spell progress


As with the last game, I have a spreadsheet that shows my progress on each spell in the game. Over the course of the project, I gradually colour it in as the effects are completed.

It is rather depressingly lacking much colour right now.

This somewhat daunting task is obviously made a little more concerning by the fact that it's just so much bigger than last time. In the first game there were 18 regular spells, 6 summons and 12 combos - 38 in total. This time around we have 2 extra elements and another level of regular spells. This makes for 32 regular spells, 8 summons and 24 combos - 64 in total.

The vast majority of the spells are functionally in the game. That is to say they do what it is they're supposed to do but with a generic placeholder effect. Actually, just the effect from the Ignite (Fire, 2 glyph spell). As I finish off each feature, I can devote more time to the effects and fill in the rest of the spreadsheet, but it still looks like an awful lot of work.

Now I'm just bouncing back and forth over whether or not to enable area of effect with basic spells or to save that as a feature of combos. I think we're going to end up going with 5 glyph basic spells providing an area attack.

Early game


One of the criticisms of the original was that it took too long to really get going and you had to be the other side of the paywall to really appreciate it - a paywall that people didn't really understand.

Hopefully we've already addressed these points by:

  • More front loading. You start the game with both 2 and 3 glyph spells. Matching 2 was just never really fun enough. 4 spells follow pretty soon and you should be slinging combos around the point where we would have had the paywall last time.
  • Premium. We feel the shareware model is still the best and fairest play but the extra work in entails coupled with a lack of support for the language means that premium is just simpler. I guess you can imagine that Glyph Quest remains as the 'Lite' version and you can upgrade to Super Glyph Quest if you like that particular taster.
There was talk of pulling a Metroid or Need For Speed where we give you a taster of phenomenal power early on then contriving to reset you back to basics. The problem with that is that a full board of glyphs and access to combos straight off the bat would rather overwhelm quite a few people. Or they'd have to sit through the mother of all tutorials and that's just not fun at all.

The narrative should help out though. The characters all point you in the direction of the next thing you should be tapping on in the meta game before we let you explore the map yourself. It also allows us to introduce features bit by bit - talking to people, fighting monsters, the upgrade system, exploring, shopping, crafting, etc.

Develop and charity


Also on the time table was the Develop conference - where devs from all over the world descend on Brighton for a week of talks, drinks and fish and chips. I've been to Develop many a time but, as yet, have never attended a single talk. Instead, I use it as an opportunity to catch up with old friends that I haven't seen for a very long time.

This year was also an excuse to introduce Willow to a whole bunch of people - primarily Shin from Chorus Worldwide so he can see just what's at stake with this whole venture. She handled the noise of the expo very well indeed. Also, for future reference, the giant bean-bags at the Unreal stand made for excellent breast-feeding stations.
Simon did not last long. Nor did his trousers stay dry.

Another of the features of Develop week is the charity poker event run by Mark Ward and hosted by the G Casino for GamesAid. Last year, I went out just before the final table. This year I did much better and finished in the heads up against Jon Hare. The resulting goodie bag contained all manner of nice things - most of which were duly traded to the local CEX to cover the buy-in. But, since one of the prizes was a copy of Rocksmith, it looks like I'm going to have to fork out for an electric guitar, much to my brother's amusement.

To wrap it all up, Simon Barrett of Four Door Lemon hosts his birthday party at the end of the week. Each year he takes donations for Special Effect - an incredible charity that enables disabled people to play games using some pretty innovative solutions. This year, Leanne and I stayed off the sauce and just chatted to people.

I think there's a rule somewhere that states whenever 3 or more ex-Bullfroggers get together, they must sit down and talk at length about The Good Old Days. For anyone else within earshot, this must be an incredibly boring experience. In fact, one of the things to come out of Develop this year was the feeling that we really must organise a proper reunion soon. Time to hit up Les and see if The Parrot is available...

All in all, we came out of Develop week absolutely buzzing. We're* very stoked about the next project yet terrified of the work yet to do on this one and the current state of our bank balance.

*I'm very stoked about the next project. I'm still working on Leanne.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Super Glyph Quest Dev Diary 07

In which productivity takes a hit thanks to Pikmin 3* and the World Cup**.

Money

As well as being on my mind, it's also almost always too tight to mention. For the last few weeks, I've been steadfastly not looking at my bank account. My head was firmly in the sand and I didn't want to see how long we had left. The other day, I finally plucked up the courage to take a peek an it wasn't as bad as I thought it was. Still pretty tight, but we've got a couple of months I reckon.

That is, of course, unless the Asian version goes crazy and makes us a stack of cash, in which case we can take our sweet time over this.

The Asian version ditches our 'shareware' model and goes for something a bit more F2P-ish. Also, in game ads which you can disable by purchasing one of the gold bundles. With that in mind, it's very interesting keeping an eye on Apple's current thoughts about making money on iOS. It feels like they're finally fed up with the swathes of cheap, knock-off, exploitative F2P crap that's out there and beginning a push back towards premium.

Okay, that paints a somewhat saintly slant on the situation. One of the main features that is now coming under scrutiny is the incentivised advert. That's something that the player can elect to watch in exchange for currency. As far as F2P goes, I quite like those things. The fact that they're entirely opt-in rather than rammed down your throat is pretty cool. In fact, I've taken advantage of that feature in games like Pocket Mine on a number of occasions. Apple would much rather that people bought in to the iAd system, as that's the one they make money from.

A lot of this is done under the guise of not confusing or unduly influencing the App Store - buying favourable reviews or otherwise trying to prevent people posting negative ones. An admirable intention, I'm sure you'll agree.

The thing that I like about this whole thing though is that even some of the heavy hitters might well have to re-think their approach and there may well be some space opening up at the top of the charts for something else to break through. Wouldn't that be exciting?

Project Management


There's a space above the fireplace in our living room that would normally be filled with a mirror or a picture or something. Whilst both of those would be nice, we're thinking more along the lines of getting a whiteboard instead. We would use it for task lists and stuff. In the meantime, we've also gone a bit old school.

Post It Notes.

With these Post It notes, we can take over the world!
We've begun laying out the story and game progression in Post It Note form. Each note corresponds to either a location, character, quest or conversation and is linked by a series of arrows that shows us the various dependancies. Normally, I'd use either a spreadsheet (but that's not so good for tech trees) or Visio (but I don't have a PC anymore) but this time it's back to Post Its. I had a brief look in town to see if I could find a nice big piece of foam board or mounting card or something, but to no avail. Then I remembered that I hadn't taken the box that the baby's crib came in to the dump, so I've cut the top off that and it's now our project board.

Now many evenings are spent poring over the board, occasionally re-positioning a Post It because we've had a better idea of where it should appear in the sequence or because it has just fallen on the floor.

Willow seems to like the bright colours too.

Update:

The cardboard sucks. The Post Its keep falling off. I think we're going to resort to the wall*** instead.

Quest Arcs


There's a main storyline running through the game, but there are also plenty of little side quests for the player to explore. With all of the various dependancies, it's quite easy for the distinction between Main and Side getting blurred on occasion. The board can occasionally resemble some kind of crazy maze with little arrows going everywhere to indicate things that get unlocked in a particular order. I can envisage a major re-organisation pretty soon.

But those things are fun anyway, so I'm not particularly bothered about that.

I might be getting a little bothered about the amount of story we're going to need to write for the game. Each encounter in the game can have a conversation and quest associated with it. The quests themselves can also have two conversations - one at the start and one at the end. As you'd imagine, this little lot adds up pretty quickly. Of course, it's not the case that every encounter needs all of the things, but we've certainly got a whole heap more text than we had for the first game.

There's a bit of a concern that we're drifting away from the drop-in and play, mechanic-driven gameplay of the first and getting a bit bogged down with content. But the gameplay remains the same as it was - plus tweaks to fix the issues that cropped up in the first one - so it should still be great fun. This time though you might care a bit more about the world in which everything is taking place. Get a bit more invested. That sort of thing.

In Other News

"Which began Glyph Quest - The Wizard"**** gets its Asian release this Thursday. We are all very excited by this.

* Which I have now finished, but subsequently found the leaderboards and score attack modes.
** Which has made me dislike Suarez even more.
*** You know nothing Jon Snow.
**** Google translate is a wonderful thing.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Super Glyph Quest Dev Diary 06


The days are beginning to blur. It's all starting to get a bit crunch-y. But that also means it's all beginning to come together, feature-wise.

Glyph Types

From left to right: Light, Air, Water, Metal, Dark, Earth, Fire, Primal
Leanne did us a lovely suite of the new Glyph Icons. The old elements are still there and the new ones are called Metal and Primal. For Metal, think things like blades and for Primal, think spirit animals. Kinda mini summons really.

Aesthetically, I really like them. They're a bit of a blend between our original set and the ones Chorus did for the Japanese version. We'll probably still tweak the colour balance throughout testing as we do find people trying to blend things like Air and Earth still.

Phat Lewt


Loot glyphs are back in. They work just the same as before - you have a chance of them appearing and, when you collect them, they'll either be a nifty item or cold, hard cash. This time though, we're keeping tabs on them a bit better and capping the maximum number that can appear on the board. This number is something you can increase by Upgrading your Luck stat.

Upgrades


Oh yes, Upgrades are in. Remember that whole levelling up thing I was talking about before? Well, it has finally gone from sitting in it's own little scene in to the main game itself. You can access it from your room in the Inn. So the way character progression now works is this:
  1. Kill monsters.
  2. Get XP.
  3. Level up at prescribed XP thresholds.
  4. Gain upgrade tokens for each level you gain.
  5. Spend upgrade tokens on upgrades.
  6. Kill monsters, but more effectively this time.
The Upgrade Screen itself is functional, but requires some serious art love. The layout could use a tweak or two as well to better make use of the themes. We've broadly split Upgrades in to three different themes - Offence, Defence and Utility*. 


Offence


Offence is where you'll find things that help you do more damage - from upping base damage on a per-element basis to increasing the chance of a critical hit or the amount of damage you do from a chain. You can even throw in extra glyphs to add a bit of Aftertouch.

Defence


Defence is where you'll find things that help you stay alive for longer - normally reducing damage you take or increasing your base health. It can also help you resist harmful status effects, so things like those Goblin Shaman may start to lose their sting.

Utility


This is where all those other neat features that can't fit into straight up attack or defend fit in. These are all to do with things like the aforementioned Luck or gaining XP at a faster rate. There's also one that increases the material drop rate of monsters. "Materials?" I hear you say? Why yes. Materials.

Crafting


Oh ho! Crafting. Okay, so I haven't written this bit yet, but the idea is that you can harvest all sorts of icky items from dead creatures and turn them in to really useful bits of kit. New robes or weapons and the like.

There's a part of me that's a little concerned by the Crafting bit - if nothing else, it's just more work. It should add a bit of longevity to the game as players might want to grind to gather material for cool pieces of kit. That doesn't mean to say that we need Crafting per-see - ultimately, it's topologically similar to just awarding kit for killing enough creatures, so that's our fall-back position if it ends up too much work.

It's always a good idea to have the odd contingency plan or two. In fact, we'll often spec out two or three ways of implementing something and list them in order of difficulty. If we can't do it the first way for whatever reason**, we'll look at doing it the next way and so on.

Henchmen

Young Parker dropped by last week on a bike ride. He started talking about servers and accounts and all sorts. I nodded and smiled. This is still Plan A - piggybacking Game Centre and it's user IDs and friend lists and stuff. Need to look up the Google equivalent. We're probably going to stop short of cross-platform stuff - that is to say that iOS people will only be able to summon other iOS people and likewise for Android - otherwise we'll have to set up our own user accounts system and that's just a complete pain in the backside waiting to happen.

As a precursor to this (slightly terrifying) prospect of taking your friends' characters on quests with you, I had to hook up henchmen to the customisation stuff. It's still not finished but now you can swap yourself out for a randomly generated test mage. Next, I need to hook up the gameplay stuff so that these henchmen can have stats based on their Gear and Upgrades.

Plan B probably means we don't do the online stuff. Instead, we'll have a local repository of generated characters for you to pick from. In fact, we'll need Plan B anyway for such times as you can't connect to the ol' interwebs.

Either way, I still need to write some kind of 'recruitment' screen, where you select which character you want to take on a quest with you.

Narrative and References

In keeping with the higher narrative content of this game, we've got some really interesting things in the pipeline. Collaborations. In jokes. References. That sort of thing. I don't want to ruin any surprises (or, indeed, jump the gun) so I'll probably stop talking about that stuff now.

...

Actually, that's something to mention. Nothing dates a work quicker than throwing in a pop-culture reference or two. Pop-culture moves very fast and memes get left behind even faster***. It's generally a good idea to avoid references like that. But we don't mind. This isn't games-as-a-service. We don't expect you to be playing Super Glyph Quest in a year's time. What we'd like you to do is play it now and have fun doing so. We don't have the resources for Big or Polished so we have to go for Funny. The easiest Funny to pull off appears to be pop-culture references and in jokes. So we're loading up on them.

Along those lines, Leanne found a weird thing on Reddit**** the other day. There was a thread somewhere that accused Glyph Quest of being a rip off of Dark Souls because of the Summoning Stone item. I'm not sure the guys got far enough to summon the Sun Knight*****. Thank you internet. There are many, many references to many, many things in the first one and it's only going to get better in the next.

Well, better for us. Worse for Shin who's going to have a hell of a job translating all of those references to ensure they're still funny on the other side of the world. At least this time the text is all in a single file and not embedded in the deepest, darkest recesses of the code.

Little Things

I noticed an interesting button in Unity the other day. It lets me toggle between different aspect ratios for iDevices. Man, that would have been a good thing to know about when we were struggling with image sizing for the original game.

It's much nicer writing things the second time around. You have a much better chance of getting rid of the annoying bits. Now scrolling through things like the shop screen won't select items whenever you let go.

Burn, familiar goblin chap
Macs are pretty cool for things like screen grabs or video capture. I wanted to send a short video to Shin, showing him the Sunstrike effect and it was a work of seconds to capture a video of the relevant part of the screen. In fact, how about a screenshot of the game as it currently stands?

Willow now fits in her Creeper baby grow. It's still a bit big, but hey. Next up: the "Little Short For A Stormtrooper" one.

We have a lot of cake in the house. This is probably a Bad Thing.

* LoL and WoW have a lot to answer for...
** Normally a lack of resources.
*** Except for things involving cats. It would appear the internet has a long way to go before we get fed up with them.
**** Hardly news, I know.
***** \o/ Praise the Sun! \o/

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Super Glyph Quest Dev Diary 05


After an interesting trip up to Birmingham to introduce Willow to her great-grandparents and her great-great(!)-grandmother, it's back to sunny Worthing and work.

Character Customisation



This style requires a pillow
This style requires a lot of effort
After going back and forth on this for a while, I think I've decided to get over myself and just implement the damn thing. You buy clothes. You wear them. They can affect your stats. Simples. There might be clothes that you like the look of but are not very efficient against the types of monsters you're going to meet on your current quest, but hey.

I've written a compound sprite system to allow us to layer in the various clothing options. Not just clothing either - it will also be used for things like hairstyles and weapons. It sounds like a simple thing but, as is so often the way, starts getting a bit more complex when you think about it a little more. The main issue is making sure everything looks right and things overlap other things in the correct way. That means that robes should be drawn in front of the character's body...

... apart from the robes that you might want flowing out behind or if you needed to do the back end of a cowl or big collar. So robes are split in to two bits - front and back. The player will only ever choose a single item and everything else happens under the hood. The same is true for hair - there are times when we want it drawn in front of the robes and bits of it that might need to be drawn behind.

Japanese Feedback


Whilst the boys at Chorus Worldwide were doing the conversion, they tweaked a few things and added the odd feature or two. Some of these bits and bobs are going to find their way into Super Glyph Quest. Their version of the characters feature a couple of frames in addition to the standard pose - one for when the player attacks and another for when they take damage. It all adds to the feedback presented to the player.

It does somewhat increase the art demands on Leanne as we now have to have multiple versions of each item of Gear to cope with each pose, but it's totally worth it. Actually, we're skimping a bit by some judicious code that tilts the idle sprite when it gets hit, meaning that all we'll need to do is adjust the underlying body sprite and make them blink or wince or something.

Hang on! Where's the baby? NOBODY MOVE!
There's also an attack frame and the character leaps forward a bit. It's a lot more dynamic and even though it's a pretty simple thing, really adds to the feel of the game. Again, a simple task if one that has extra layers of complexity the further you dig in to it. Different sprite for robes? Check. Wait - two different sprites for robes given that robes themselves consist of a front and back sprite? Check. Different sprite for weapon to make it look like the character is actually pointing it? Check. Wait - different position for the weapon sprite because the character's hand has moved as part of the robe 'animation'? Okay, now male and female versions for each...

Sticking with the art, the new character designs are also taking a leaf out of the Japanese version's book. That is to say they're a weeny bit more brightly coloured than they were. In all of this, it was very exciting seeing Leanne back in front of her computer.

Work Hours


There are two* things guaranteed to mess up working from home. Daytime TV and a baby. We have both. Cake Boss is a problem. It makes us want cake**. All day. I've also got a soft spot for Fast and Loud. Pointless isn't a problem though - we have that on series link.

The rest of the time is spent looking after*** Willow.

Whilst I can normally get on with some stuff during the day, it's only after she's gone to bed and we've had dinner that we can really get down to business. We tend to get quite productive but unfortunately, it's usually around 2am.

I can see why new parents - dads in particular - might be eager to return to the office, but I can't stress enough how privileged I feel to have been here these past 4 months. Willow has changed so much in that time and, if I were back in the peace and quiet of an office, I'd have missed it all. Sure, it's not easy - we're getting it done though. We're shooting for a submission in two months as that's when the money runs out. Well, assuming, of course, that the Japanese version doesn't go all Angry Birds on us in the meantime.

Items & Shopping


The Items are back in****. You can buy them from the shop and use them in combat. They use the ever-so versatile Attack system, although for the more specialised items there's going to have to be a layer of special case stuff added. I'll probably end up adding it to the Status Effect stuff and just giving it a single turn's duration.

Remember what I was saying last time about having possibly unsuitable-for-mobile game systems in there? Well, we're thinking about that again with the shops. It would be quite simple for us to hook up multiple shops that sold different items. It makes narrative sense - here's the Hat of Cold Resistance, weaved in the frozen north and only available from the Viking Village shop, for example. Or the exotic Robe of the Sands that can only be bought from a faraway land to the south.

In other games, this would be fine. It would also encourage exploration and travel (such as the game allows) to find these places. But in a mobile game for this increasingly lazy bunch of modern gamers, I reckon most developers would tell you it was madness to fragment your storefront in such a way. Of course, that might only apply to those selling you items for actual money, but I'd hope it was okay for in-game items.

Elementary


Given that we've got two extra elements this time around, the board can get a bit crowded. This means it can be trickier to make longer Chains although that definitely becomes easier when you unlock Combo spells and utilise the features of the new spell parser.

Still, it got me thinking that maybe we'd got a bit carried away with the extra elements and they'd be more trouble than they were worth, so after I'd hooked up the Attunement***** bit, I wrote an elemental bias thing. It works alongside the Attunement to weight the randomness of the glyphs getting swapped in whenever a spell is cast. Elements used in a previous spell are given higher priorities and so are more likely to appear, therefore giving the player a better chance of maintaining a Chain. It still retains the 'at least one swapped glyph will match a neighbour' feature of the original, but the others will be decided according to this weighting.

The risk here is that the weighting is so high it's possible for the player to fill the entire board with a single element or that it's so low that it doesn't make a blind bit of difference. Thankfully, this is just a couple of numbers in the balancing file but we're still going to have to keep a close eye on it.

Leanne remains sceptical. Willow doesn't have an opinion on it one way or the other.

* Three, if you're single or the missus works elsewhere.
** A problem I have solved thanks to a judicious trip to the local cake shop.
*** Read: staring at until she goes to bed. Actually, after she's done that there's still plenty of good staring time to be had. So cute!
**** Well, the system is in place. Now it sits there, screaming for content, like so much of the rest of the project.
***** A player can adjust his Attunement to a particular element, making that element more likely to appear as well as being more effective (damaging) when it's used. This can happen either though levelling up or wearing the right Gear.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Super Glyph Quest Dev Diary 04


No luck at the poker so it looks like I'd better make a go of this game development lark after all. At least I'm getting much better at eating solid food, even if my jaw looks like someone has set about it with a sledgehammer. Also, we had a very pleasant weekend subjecting a couple of friends to more board games than they would otherwise have been comfortable with.

Narrative & Characters


It is our intention to give the game a much stronger narrative than it had before. Given that it had almost no narrative, that shouldn't be too hard. We've got an idea for an overarching plot that loosely ties everything to the first game but it can also be constructed in quite a modular way. To that end, everything will be a series of side-quests and little adventures, all building up to an epic climax. Leastways, that's the aim.

One of the first steps was to start creating a bunch of characters. Our process for this has been pretty simple - find one of our friends that we want to include in the game, assign them some kind of relevant character trait and come up with a reason for them to be there. Whilst it won't mean much to the user-base at large, it gives us a great starting point and hopefully shows some measure of thanks to our friends for their support. I guess it's the sort of thing you might expect to find in a Kickstarter reward tier*.

Anyway, we now have a pad with a whole bunch of characters and some key story points written down. I've managed to write a rudimentary conversation system which will be used to communicate with these characters as well as give out quests and the like.

As for the player characters, we're currently still discussing the level of customisation we're going to allow the player to have. At the very least we want different robes, hats and staves.

Aesthetics & Gameplay


This customisation stuff raises an interesting point - the link between aesthetics and gameplay. It's something that often bakes my noodle. It makes sense that the reason the player would pick a particular item of clothing is based on one of two criteria. Either they like the way it looks or they want the gameplay bonuses conferred by it.

The problem arises when they actively want one aspect without the other. That is to say, here's a mighty Hat Of Badassery that has awesome stats but looks like someone curled one out on your head. Actually, it doesn't have to be all that bad but because aesthetics are so subjective, it can get quite emotive. You may end up with your avatar in the game being dressed in stuff that you just don't like the look of but you need to wear them because of the perceived gameplay bonuses you're getting.

We are by no means the first developers to run in to this. This scenario can also be used as a great illustration for the issue of seemingly easy solutions causing even more problems or contrivances later on down the line. The simplest solution is to just not care - make things look interesting and give them stats accordingly. But that's when you can end up with the above scenario and have players uncomfortable with their own avatar.

Or we go the other way - clothes are purely aesthetic and there's some other aspect of non-visible equipment (like Rings for example) that apply gameplay bonuses. Many MMOs these days utilise some kind of display system where you actually get to equip your character twice - once for a hidden layer that confers the stat bonuses and a second, visible layer that displays what you actually want your character to look like.

Personally, I think we'll probably just go for the aesthetic clothes + gameplay rings approach.

How Much Game?


Another of the issues we're having with SGQ is the fact that we're both gamers. This may seem a little odd, but hear me out.

The problem is that we're falling back on established tropes and doing things the way we expect them to be done in other games. It's habit really. For example, the way quests are handled. This is an RPG. Therefore you go somewhere** and chat to someone*** and they give you a quest****. Then you navigate to said quest, kick the crap out of a bunch of monsters, harvest whatever phat lewt is required and return to the quest giver for your payment. This is simply The Way It Has Always Been Done and an obvious starting point.

The problem arises when you begin to realise that we're making this game on mobile and people who play mobile games aren't really "gamers" as we would understand them. They have the attention span of a fruit fly and unless they can simply pound a single green button to move everything along, they find things too complicated and lose interest. At least that's what any modern mobile developer's analytics will tell them.

A typical quest log
Our initial design revolved around Inns, Quest Logs and Maps. As with the original, these would all be separate scenes in Unity. To be fair, the Old Way could use a little streamlining, so we eventually came up with something a little more fluid. The eureka moment was when we realised we could use something akin to the tech tree stuff to populate the world with quests and therefore author the entire game. That has now become the plan.

The player now has a global Map to scroll around. It is filled with interesting Locations - like the Town or the Goblin Hills or whatever - and each of these Locations has a number of Encounters in them. These Encounters can be anything from a Quest to a Character to talk to. Each Location is unlocked according to a set of criteria dictated by what the player has already done. Normally this just means the player will have to have had a particular conversation (say from the quest giver), already completed a particular quest or is in possession of a particular Item.

All of this happens in a single scene but we're going to load up others for the Shoppe, Spellbook and Bestiary. Either way, the Map will form the hub of the game and the act of scrolling around and exploring these Locations is pretty tactile and very suited to touchscreen devices.

We're also big fans of the way Dark Souls does it's NPC stuff. You encounter NPCs out in the wild in various locations depending on your progress through the game and where you last met them. Sometimes they move on to another location deeper in to the game and other times they return to the hub for you to interact with whenever you return home from your adventures.

Henchmen & Summons


Another cool new feature for SGQ is the Henchmen system. This allows for the player to bring other characters in to combat instead of them. I guess it's a bit like Pokemon where you swap out to another member of your party. In reality, we'll probably just restrict it to a single Henchman that you bring on any given Quest with you. The system is also going to allow us to re-work the Summons. That is to say that you'll actually be able to summon these creatures to fight for you rather than just have them appear for a single attack.

But the really cool thing will be the Player Henchmen. Your player data would be stored on a server somewhere and your friends would be able to access it and take you on Quests as their Henchman. This gives the game a more connected and social aspect that, certainly in mobile gaming, can be very beneficial indeed. 

As an idea, it's very exciting. There are some practicalities to consider though, not least of which is not knowing how to construct and then maintain a server infrastructure as well as accounts and friends lists. I'm sure there's a load of Game Center stuff that could handle it, but it's a big ask. It also rather relies on some serious levels of player customisation which, as we've already explained, is a lot of work - certainly on the art side. The more customisation we have though, the more players can express themselves, but all of that is seriously undervalued if there isn't a public forum for them to show their creations off to others.

* Hmm. Not a bad idea now that I think about it. Do you want to be in the game? Well, we're open to offers...
** Almost always an Inn.
*** Mysterious stranger.
**** Bring me n Withered Ogre Genitalia. And don't ask questions.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Making a God Game

I read Eurogamer's article on the problems that Godus is having recently and it got me thinking. Firstly, how accurate is the Eurogamer verdict? In the interests of full disclosure, I have not played Godus at all - no early access or sneak peaks or anything. Everything I'm about to write is based purely on speculation and a small insight in to the way that Peter used to work. Take that as you wish - many might recommend a pinch of salt - but the point remains: If the items the Eurogamer article highlight are true, then it seems like the game is in trouble. Why?

Populous Reboot


Very much WIP
That's how Godus was sold to me and I'm very happy about it. Glenn and I used to talk about remaking Populous many times but we just never got around to it. As one of the original creators, Peter has every right to give it a go and even from a very early stage, the stuff I was hearing about it was very encouraging. To me, it sounded like he was going about it the right way.

To establish what I mean by that, we need to delve back in history. I was at school when Populous was released. I only had a lowly Spectrum, so the whole 16 bit thing was very new to me. My friend Scott had an Atari ST though and pretty soon we were bunking off school* and sneaking off to his to play Populous. I  loved it. It was unlike any game I'd played before.

Pretty soon, I was at Bullfrog and working on a sequel. For Populous 2 we didn't mess with the formula too much. It was still very much a Populous game. In fact, looking at what became of Populous: The Beginning, I'd say it was the last of them. It wasn't perfect by any means - too many effects could become a little overwhelming and a nightmare to balance. We innovated a little in Pop 2 but we didn't mess with the core principles. For me these are Landscape Modification and Indirect Control. P:TB had gone too far down the RTS route and recruiting wild men just wasn't as compelling as carving out the landscape.

Landscape Modification


Populous had it easy. It was made in a time before everything had to be realistic. Everything was an abstract representation. A single person sprite could be anything from a single dude to a whole army. Sweeping hills and valleys were constructed from low resolution building blocks. Godus certainly ticks the abstract box. Personally, I love the style, but it's missing one thing from the original: It was all digital - a house took up a square, a slope was always a particular angle**, a click was a click.

That last point I feel is something quite relevant. Each click would raise or lower the land by a prescribed amount. There was no ambiguity about it. It was a very simple system that could then be exploited. The most efficient method of rapidly raising a settle-able swathe of land from the sea was to employ the two-up/one-down approach. Each sequence like this would result in a much larger square of land than had you raised each point individually. Knowing where to perform these little combos was all part of the skill of the game (so you could get better at it) and was a very compelling thing to do (so you wanted to do it). As you can imagine, this is quite a potent mix in terms of gameplay.

I'm not sure smearing the land flat has quite the same appeal - certainly not on anything other than a touchscreen device - but this does bring us to a very valid point in the Eurogamer piece. Your entire aim is to flatten the world. Turn it all in to one sprawling metropolis. Whilst the same is true in the original, it occurs to me that there are two key differences, one of which was the raise / lower land interface. Then again, because of the compelling nature of said interface, we used to see an 'issue' where people couldn't walk past a screen showing hilly Populous landscape without stopping to flatten it all out. It was like digital bubble wrap.

None of this is to say that you can't do analogue landscape sculpting well. In fact, why not take a look at something like Glenn's Topia for a decent example*** or Eric Chahi's From Dust.  But if the aim remains the same (to flatten the land) and the only real tool at your disposal is a smearing, flattening one (as opposed to a combination of raise and lower), then you might end up with something quite dull at the end.

The second difference may seem a little odd: You only saw a bit of the land at any one time. It sat in the middle of a book, surrounded by icons and other interesting (though largely pointless) features. Of course, this was mainly down to the technical restrictions - there's only so many things a poor ST or Amiga can draw before it gives up the ghost - but it did mean that at any given time, there was still something interesting to look at even if the whole thing was flat. This was illustrated further when the PC version of Pop 2 developed a full screen mode. Sure, you could see much further and you actually gained a gameplay advantage but it did result in this issue of turning the entire world into a giant car park.

Indirect Control


The second core pillar in a God Game's design is that of Indirect Control.

I feel this is crucial. A God Game is quite a voyeuristic experience. The instant you start ordering individual units around, you're a general in an RTS. Populous was about coaxing the population. Guiding it. Steering it. Never telling it outright. This created a level of indirection, certainly, but one that could be exploited by a skilful player.

If you're going to give orders, give them to the whole population, not individuals. A god doesn't concern himself with the life of an individual.

The closest the game came to giving the player direct control over individuals was the Papal Magnet - a device that could be used to attract every (keyword - "every") walker on your side to a single point on the map. This could be used to micro manage and get people to migrate to new areas of the map or invade the enemy's territory, but there was a skill to it and it was a very broad brush stroke. Also, time spent doing this meant that your population wasn't growing as fast as it could be as they would be ignoring settle-able land in favour of marching towards their fate.

From what I've heard about the "leashing" thing, I'm a bit concerned that this is a step too far towards RTS.

Living With Bumps


Why does everything need to be flat? Isn't that just a legacy hangover from the original, born out of the block-based technicalities and a decent abstraction for what constitutes 'buildable' land?

I would suggest that the landscape actually offers plenty of opportunity. Instead of 'flat' being the only resource, there are plenty of other things to be found in the landscape. Actually, use of the word "resource" might hang a few people up. By that I'm not just talking about veins of Tiberium or Vespene gas pockets - places where specific buildings can be built - although that would certainly open up some interesting strategy, especially if the person responsible for placing those resources was you with a godly power.

Instead, I'm talking about the landscape topography itself. I think the 22 Cans guys are already thinking about things like altitude affecting the buildings, but that just means that you might have plateaus instead. Still a "step up" from completely flat, but there's more that can be done.

What about delta altitude? That is to say certain buildings that require the landscape around them to have a difference between the highest point and the lowest. Say, for example, mines or quarries that can only be built into the side of hills or cliffs. If there were more in-game resources (okay, I'm back to the ones you expect now) that were produced by different buildings instead of just mana, a player would have to have areas devoted to each. Kinda Sim City-esque although instead of discrete zoning you'd employ landscape sculpting. Big flat bits would provide food and allow for population growth. Hilly bits would provide resources and allow for population strength or even technology. This sort of thing could be used to gate other advances or resources or even the rate at which the player acquires powers.

The nice thing about this is that it plays in to the stepped nature of the landscape. The delta value can be expressed in terms of digital levels rather than something more fuzzy and analogue.

Then, even simpler than that, you've got things like trees. Throwing down forests will brighten up the landscape - even the flat bits. These could be used for all sorts - slowing movement, defence, resources, kindling for fire-based effects...

And now I'm getting carried away.

Potential


When I look at something like Godus, I see it as a toolbox. A designer's plaything. There's a landscape and an AI system for the population. With these basics, you could make anything from a simple RTS (Total War) to an arcade shooter (Cannon Fodder) to, well, a god game.

A Knight. Quite a late addition to the game.
I hear people complaining that the game isn't fun and to them I say "so what?". It's not ready. I guess this is a problem when you open yourself up to things like Early Access. The people you're opening it up to (the general public) are not game developers. They're consumers. They expect a finished product regardless of whatever disclaimers you make them sign ahead of time.

Every game I ever worked with Peter on wasn't fun. At least, it wasn't fun until quite late in development. Then there'd be a two week period of insanity, during which the game would suddenly leap forward in playability. It happened every time and I see no reason to expect anything else this time out.

Joe consumer wants a shelving unit. Only he's gone to Ikea and come home with some boxes of raw materials.

And he can't find that allen key in the box.


* Don't do it kids - it's not cool. Well, okay, it's cool but not particularly helpful in the long term.
** Born out of a rendering restriction.
*** In fact, why not take a look at just about anything Glenn has ever written. Chances are it's got a sculpted heightfield in it.