July 26th, 2015

This week was mostly a week of second guessing last week. The main conflict was deciding between the old structure (single linear path with many branches) and the new structure (many linear paths with no branches). I had many ideas to make the branching system more interesting. I was worried about removing movement choice so aggressively would make the game feel a little too devoid of player choice. I also felt having many linear paths would remove the simplicity of making progressing to the end being the main objective at all times. But for all the ideas I had for improving it, none of them really solved the core problem of making advancing on the map have a more satisfying sense of progression. Many of them actively encouraged backtracking, which goes against the central push your luck format of the game. Eventually I came to terms with this and feel pretty confident about the new dungeon format.

So at this point I have all the pieces that make up the game strewn about the floor and I am carefully putting them back together. Throwing out the pieces that no longer make sense, fleshing out the new ideas to support the central pillars of the game. It’s going pretty slowly for whatever reason, but I’m finally starting to put the game back together. In the process of doing so I actually reformatted the event tile system in such a way that really excites me (in short, players will be able to manipulate the luck of events to a degree- either to their benefit or the detriment of others). Combine that with the new dungeon structure and I’m starting to really feel good about the game. Hopefully this design phase will come to a close this week.

July 19th, 2015

At some level my design work comes down to stripping down a perceived problem to its simplest form before any real progress can be made on fixing it. In some cases this means untangling connected problems to find the origin. In this case the tangled mess was thinking of lacking progression and lacking maps being separate problems, when in reality the lacking maps were much of the source of the lacking progression. Now that the connection is clearer it’s easier to solve: the maps lack any form of “conquering” progression to them, which in turn makes any progression system, no matter how sophisticated, feel lacking in the accomplishment that makes progression feel good. Stupid simple on paper, but took awhile to boil it down to this. Now that I have it’s mostly a matter of reformulating the map around it. The leading contender right now is the “critical path” system:

critical_path_system

It’s pretty obviously designed around solving the problem. By segmenting it into chunks with defined end goals, it’s easy to instill a feeling of “conquering”/”creating order” in players. It also allows for creating longer chunks within the dungeons without ballooning the critical path’s backtracking. This allows for a greater feeling of endurance without creating as many dead space turns getting back to place (the backtracking itself is still important to create that feeling of endurance because if there is no cost for retreating then players will always retreat at the slightest sign of danger). Another factor is that building around more linear pathways will allow me to create more well-defined areas, as opposed to the current system of creating an indistinct mush world since it’s trivial for players to sidestep danger rather than having to deal with it. In that regard it also creates more choices for players in terms of having to decide what challenge to undertake.

There are downsides to it. Having several longer tracks without connections makes it easier for players to distance themselves from each other by each going into different dungeons, diminishing player interactions. It’s also more difficult to explain the structure to players: how many dungeons before it’s safe to take on the next boss? On paper it should be “at least one dungeon makes it possible but risky, all dungeons makes it trivial”. But communicating that to players is tricky, especially when class advantages/disadvantages, luck, and player parties can make the extreme ends invalid.

So I’m not totally satisfied with this variant quite yet. Still exploring other options. It’s closer, though.

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Probably the best thing to come out of this design phase so far was a suggestion to make the battle group on a tile static instead of random each time. It’s an idea I’ve been dancing around with in terms of less random ways of picking battles. Flat out making them static was something my brain was avoiding for some reason, but actually makes way more sense: areas become more distinct (that’s the tile with karate chimp!), class advantages/disadvantages play out consistently for each player (that tile was rough with my build, but easy for that other guy!) instead of players lucking out by getting an enemy they’re good at, and player engagement is increased because you can figure out the next enemy’s pattern by observing the guy ahead of you. It’s something so simple that it’s easy to miss, but probably going to be one of the biggest improvements of this design phase.

 

 

July 12th, 2015: Return to blog

It has been some since the last blog entry. The simple explanation is that these devblogs started as a means for keeping everyone on the team up to speed with one another. They failed at that purpose. Back in April we moved to a meeting format instead that has served us much better, but also invalidated weekly blogging somewhat. As such I didn’t bother to keep up with it, doubly so since the entirety of my work has been working on the UI systems further by converting the existing UI over to it. This has made for a cumulative 6 months just building the new UI system. I’m disgusted by that figure, but there really wasn’t an affordable alternative available to us. Don’t make a UI heavy game if you’re an indie, I guess? Or if you do use Unity or some other engine that gives you a free license for scaleform? That’s all I got for you. At any rate, it isn’t something worth blogging about (unless I was doing a 100% programmer blog)

With UI work starting to die down (though a third wave will be on the horizon) I’ve started to settle back down into digging into the remaining design issues. I honestly thought this work would get easier the closer we got to the end, but it really hasn’t yet.

1. Progression / Rewards / Pacing

The biggest issue on my plate right now. Players don’t enjoy the progression arc that much right now. By 1/3rd through the game starts to repeat itself instead of evolving as it goes. The weakest link is equipment- it doesn’t help that much, and it’s boring since all they’re just minor stat bonuses. Initially I grabbed for the simplest solution on the shelf- binding abilities to equipment. Before I even started working on that, though, I realized there was a much deeper issue here than that. The game is currently almost double its target length. If I just slap abilities onto equipment, that’s just going to make the game take even longer. Whatever changes I make to equipment, they need to be streamlined instead of bog down the pacing even further! I haven’t gained insight on how to actually accomplish this, though.

On the front of evolving the game across its phases I’ve decided that more escalation is needed in the game. Particularly player abilities in PVP need to get stronger. Especially abilities involving other players, to force tactics and alliances to change as the game goes on. Escalation has a secondary benefit of potentially speeding up the game as well. Ideally it should just raise the risk/reward stakes rather than simply making it faster to traverse, though.

I have certain backup options in mind to create a faster and more diverse progression if necessary. One idea is to basically make the middle part of the map a sort of minigame gimmick rather than the same as the rest. ie, players might have to compete in a battle arena rather than moving across the map. Or they might have to take on gambling games. Such gimmicks can take less time than the main game while also providing diversity (not to mention more ways for a player to snag the victory even if they’re doing poorly in the main game). Right now they’re more of a last resort.

2. Improving The Map

The basic format of the map is on course now. It does a great job of recreating the feel of a dungeon while taking minimal time: the endurance, the hesitation of going back to town, wariness with each roll, etc. But the detail work on it is miserable. Part of it is a matter of sameness: each track has very little distinguishing it from the others. A rank 1 track is much the same as a rank 3 track. An all-negative track has little incentive to go down it, so players will only traverse them once on accident.

Adding more variety to tracks sounds simple on paper, but I hesitate in practice. How much is too much? At what point will players have no idea what they’re looking at when they look at the map? That was an issue at the peak of the previous map style, and some of the others. Of course a big part of the problem is just that there isn’t any art design backing the game up right now which makes every new thing more confusing since its explanation is 90% buried in text. Some day there will be art backing it up, which is a fact I must remind myself of every day. A good start would probably be to just start adding 1 gimmick to every lane to distinguish them a little bit, and move on from there.

Another factor is that exploration is falling flat. Once you find a “good track” there’s no reason to poke around the others. It should probably be more competitive than that to explore the others. But for that to work I need actual rewards to put in them. The actual palette of rewards is incredibly lacking, as outlined above. My hope is that whatever form the equipment system takes will also be capable of being peppered around the map to give it some character, rather than a generic exp/gold machine.

3. Other Things

The above are kind of the major issues that I have no immediate solutions to. There are smaller things like the lack of variety in main quest objectives, the need to remove or rework the bland fetch side quests, figuring out what to do with meta progression, etc. But I have ideas for most of these things, or they’re just not that important compared to the core of the game being lacking at the moment.

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I’ve played the current version of the game enough (and with enough distance since making it functional back in March) to know that it has a pretty dang good foundation now. There’s just a whole lot of detail work remaining to be done to make that goodness actually come out. My biggest regret is how much of my time has been spent on UI work. From the initial time spent integrating a library that ultimately didn’t work out (and which also probably took even more time to learn work with) to the 6 months that the new system has taken from me, to the remaining months of work that the final designs are going to take to integrate and polish. I should have brought an intern. Or second guessed my technology choices? I don’t know. It’s almost over.