Monday, November 20, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Harry the Fridge Repairman


Harry the Fridge Repairman:

Cold Day in Hell


The Story

Harry is the best fridge repairman you've ever met. He knows everything there is to know about refrigerators and freezers. After months of tinkering, his freeze gun is finally complete: it might look like a flamethrower, but it shoots out the coldest air ever. It'll freeze you to the bone before you even realize it!

After shopping his freeze gun to various companies, even the military, Harry throws his prototype in the closet and forgets about it for a couple of months.

Until a crack opens in his backyard, and he sees lava pouring out, along with all sorts of demonic-looking, devilish things that start turning his neighborhood into a place worthy of their presence. Harry gets pissed-off, remembers his freeze gun, straps on two large tanks of refrigeration gas, and starts going after the demons, freezing up the lava as he goes along.

Turns out the demons don't like the cold! Who'd'a thunk it? After single-handedly saving his town from a demonic invasion, he goes down into the crack, with the whole neighborhood cheering him on.

"When will you be back, Harry?" asks his next-door neighbor's little girl.
"When hell is frozen over, Lucy, when hell is frozen over."

Then he jumps in.

Gameplay

The game is played from a somewhat standard 3rd-person 3D platformer perspective. Harry's moves are halfway between realistic and cartoony: exaggerated, but not entirely unrealistic.

Harry can jump, walk around, run around, and shoot his freeze gun in three different ways:
  • the gun quickly condenses water from the air, freezes it, and shoots it really fast using compressed, super-cooled air. This is used to shoot down demons, or hit specific targets with some force. Uses a very small amount of refrigeration gas.
  • the gun shoots a short burst of super-cooled air, which can cool down a small target, like a platform, or stun an enemy. Uses about twice as much gas as an ice bullet shot.
  • the gun shoots a continuous stream of very cold air. This will keep enemies away for a while, freeze lava pools and lava flows, and temporarily cool off the air in places where it's too hot for Harry to breathe. This mode can also be used to propel Harry or slow his fall, if pointed down. Maneuverability is limited, however. This mode uses up a lot of gas and should not be used too often.
Fortunately for Harry, there are some "veins" of coolant gas trapped in some walls in the caves that Harry goes through. Harry can use those to refill his tanks. Harry might also get help from "above", but this only happens rarely, and at specific moments.

The game is played in stages, with the first quarter or so of the game happening above ground, in Harry's neighborhood, and the rest happening deeper and deeper down in hell, with a boss "fight" every few stages, which must be fought by judiciously using the freeze gun, and a final battle with Satan himself.

Graphics and Visual Presentation

The neighborhood should look realistic, but also like an exaggerated version of suburbia, as seen in many Hollywood movies. All the characters Harry meets are clichés from the common Hollywood vision of suburbs.

Once Harry jumps down the crack, environments tend to use a red-yellow-black color scheme. On cooler walls, stones of other colors are sometimes visible, and in particular, bluish walls tend to hide veins of trapped coolant gas that Harry can harvest.

The demons themselves vary greatly in size and style, from small little imps, some of which can fly, to huge fat purple beasts that shoot napalm slime at you. Each demon type has its quirks, strengths and weaknesses.

Humor

While this game may look somewhat realistic, it should always feel a little over-the-top. Harry is a hardass who always has an ice- or cold-related one-liner ready. The demons all have quirky personalities: some will be sneaky, some are more likely to charge straight at Harry, and some others will band together and try to surround him. Some are particularly stupid, which should help create lots of funny little moments in the game.

The game should also have a physics engine that exaggerates the consequences of some actions. For example, some rocks can be shot at, causing them to tumble down and bounce around, possibly flattening a few demons in the process. When such a flattening happens, a cartoony "splat" sound is heard.

Damned Souls

In some areas, Harry will meet damned souls, doing slave work. It's his choice whether he decides to free them or not, but this choice will have consequences later on in the game: for example, souls he frees might give him some useful tips, or they might double-cross him, and some souls might help him during boss fights, but some may turn into nuisances during those same fights.

Puzzles

In order to get around in hell, Harry will have to figure out how to get past some burning hot obstacles, such as lava rivers, burning-hot floors, and so forth. Harry will have to figure out what he can cool off with his gun (some lava rivers, for instance, flow too fast to cool off) and find breakable walls, rocks that might tumble down when shot at, and so forth.

Combined with those cold-related puzzles, Harry will also face interesting jumping puzzles, which will sometimes require the use of the freeze gun's hover mode.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Video Games (and) Violence

It's funny, just a few hours after I put up a game idea that's potentially extremely violent and controversial, I find this Boondocks strip, which encapsulates many of my feelings on all the controversy that surrounds video game violence these days.

I don't think I could have put it any better myself.

Updated on Jan. 10: the old link didn't work anymore, changed to a link that should hopefully stay valid for a longer time.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Serial

A very controversial, decidedly adults-only type of game, this week. Another possible title could be "The Kill". If you are averse to casually or even clinically discussing the killing of another person, even if it's only in a fictional setting, like a book or a movie, then I would suggest you avoid reading the game concept below.

Serial

Serial is a game about a serial killer, ideally played by multiple players. It's a kind of macabre and more vivid version of the classic board game "Clue".

When the game starts, each player selects a character template (including the character's gender, appearance, and some basic background information, such as a job), three skills, three hobbies or special interests, and two faults. One of these players is then secretly told that he or she is the serial killer.

The game is played from a first-person perspective, switching to third person when necessary to better show what's happening (such as when the serial killer does his thing.) The players all start separated from each other, in a large but enclosed space, such as a large building. There can be other characters in the environment who are AI-controlled.

The Killer

The killer has a somewhat skewed perspective (such as fish-eye, or tunnel-vision) and can't just kill anyone he or she sees. Instead, the killer gets a tightening of the view, or the view turning red, accompanied by a noticeable increase in heartbeat when he or she sees a target. If there are fewer than 10 people (players and NPCs) in the area, only one target is designated at a time. If there are more, between 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 are designated as targets. The first target(s) is (are) chosen by linking some of the characteristics the players chose at the beginning: for example, if a player likes baseball, and the killer does as well (or absolutely hates it!) there is a chance that the first target will be that baseball fan.

The killer must then kill the target without the other players and characters realizing it, using the environment to lure the target away, or destroying the environment in order to block off certain passages. Various objects lying around can also be used as tools or as weapons, but to get the maximum score for a kill, the killer must find the "fetish" weapon, which is highlighted in a similar way as the target, when the killer sees it. To keep using the baseball example, the killer's fetish weapon might be a baseball bat, or it could also be an automatic ball launcher (like the ones used for batting practice) that the killer tweaks to throw balls harder and faster.

After the killer completes the first kill, another target is designated. The killer's goal is to complete as many kills as possible before getting caught.

The killer need not betray him- or herself: the best players will be able to act like they're part of the group of the other players, and not cause any suspicion.

The Potential Victims

The other players must use their talents to manipulate the environment and find the killer before he or she kills (or kills again...) Some characters will have talents that let them manipulate things others can't. For example, some weapons will only be usable by some characters, whereas others might know how to fix an electical panel to restore the lights, or open a mechanical door.

Some paranoid players might end up killing innocent characters. Others might decide to just find a place to hide and wait things out, because when you get killed, you lose all your points. Players who survive until the killer is caught or killed get points according to how long they've survived, while the player who captures or kills the killer gets more points.

Multiple Matches

The game becomes most fun when the same group of players stays through multiple matches (each match lasts until the killer is caught/killed or everyone else dies) with the killer role moving randomly from player to player between matches.

Points are accumulated between matches.

Graphics and Visual Presentation

Creepy and macabre should be the main keywords. Lighting should be moody and mysterious, environments should be inspired by the creepiest horror movies, as should the places chosen for the various possible scenarios.

Wounds on characters should be as realistic as possible: ideally, they should appear precisely where they were dealt. There is no "life bar": painful wounds cause red flashes or momentary blackouts, bloody wounds bleed until something is done to reduce the bleeding, and while bleeding continues, the character gradually turns paler until loss of consciousness happens. Basically, you don't accumulate hits until you die, instead, you risk dying if you're hurt badly enough, and some wounds cause you to "function" worse than normal. A character's health should be visible by simply looking at the character in the game, and for the player playing the wounded character, the consequences of the wounds should be obvious when moving or trying to do things.

Communication Between Players

If the game is played over a network that permits voice communication, the only possibility is "in-character" communication: this means that you can only talk to players that would be able to hear you in the game (i.e. within earshot). In a few cases, phones, intercoms or walkie-talkies might be available, but they will have to be manipulated realistically to be used. For example, if a pair of walkie-talkies is found, maybe the group might split up and have someone in each group designated to manipulate the walkie-talkie.

Characters can also scream, which will let their voices carry more, but not necessarily across the whole environment.

Bad Taste

This would likely be a very controversial game. In the end, the "vibe" in the game should be as close as possible to the best movies in the thriller, horror or creepy science-fiction genres. Things should be kept realistic, but always with the idea of keeping maximum impact (real life is rarely this creepy or dramatic.)

At every level, the game should be close enough to the movies in such a way that anyone who would condemn this game would automatically condemn the corresponding movies.

Additional Ideas
  • More than one killer. Do they have to work together, or against each other?
  • All killers: the players don't know it at the start, but they're all killers. They still get targets, and they must still try to behave "normally" so they don't get "caught".
  • Giving the "potential victims" a way out: if all the survivors can escape the place they're in without the killer escaping with them, they get a bonus. But it helps if the players can figure out who the killer is, first...
  • Adding in some fantasy, occult or sci-fi elements:
    • fantasy, as in trolls, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and fantasy-style magic,
    • occult, as in spirits, poltergeists and other ghosts, possession, demons, and occult-style magic
    • sci-fi, as in aliens, mutants, dimensional gates, teleportation, ray guns, bizarre gravity effects, energy force fields...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

How will Wii change game design?

Gamers, these days, are polarizing between two opinions on the future of video games.

There are the hardcore gamers, who became good at a few particular genres to the point where the games in that genre now have completely solidified conventions, with developers in those genres afraid of deviating or innovating too much on those conventions in order to avoid alienating their core audience. This segment of the gamer population tends to be comfortable with either a standard gamepad or, in case of PC gamers, a keyboard and a mouse. Since the hardcore segment is currently the one most likely to adopt improved technology, earlier in a product cycle, they are the people who have been targeted most heavily in the past ten years or so. These gamers tend to specialize in certain genres, like RTS, FPS, MMORPGs, and so forth. They will be experts at a particular game (Quake, Counterstrike, Unreal Tournament, Starcraft, Warcraft, Command & Conquer, Everquest, World of Warcraft) and have very little interest for the games lying outside of their genre of choice.

Then, there are the enthusiasts, who will occasionally play games that were created for hardcore gamers and enjoy themselves, although they will always be aware of being inferior in ability to the hardcore gamers. What these enthusiasts have found, though, is that they can easily have fun with many different games, regardless of genre. These are the people who are most likely to be excited at the idea of a new game type, or a new approach to an old type of game. These are the people who have been having fun with the Nintendo DS since its launch, who got that instead of a PSP because they expected the PSP to just play the same old games they were already playing on other systems. They are the people who enjoy quirky games like Katamari Damacy, Nintendogs or Wario Ware.

Naturally, many gamers fit somewhere in-between these two extremes, but I've seen the polarization happening since around the launch of the DS, and it has progressed at an accelerated rate since about a year ago, when Nintendo and Sony both revealed many of the main characteristics of the Wii (then still code-named Revolution) and PS3, while Microsoft released its XBox 360. Gamers everywhere started declaring their allegiance to one system or another, sometimes through logical arguments, but often with emotional fanboyism.

We've all heard that Nintendo is trying to target a completely new group of people with the Wii, in order for the gamer audience to grow substantially. Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft are fighting for the same core group of gamers which isn't really growing all that fast, with new gamers entering the market at about the same rate as older gamers are cutting down on their habit, as real life catches up with them.

Nintendo realized that, to entice casual gamers and non-gamers to play more video games, a few things needed to happen:
  1. the controls needed to be simplified, and made more intuitive. This has already been demonstrated with the DS and its Touch Generation games, and is at the core of the new Wii-mote controllers.
  2. games and gaming had to be made less threatening, especially with all the current violence trends in hardcore games. So games like Nintendogs, Brain Age, and Wario Ware were created, and had major success. If a game is easy to get into, and doesn't alienate most people who aren't already big gamers, it has more of a chance to succeed with the new group.
  3. the games had to be fun, regardless of the initial talent or ability of the player. Hardcore games tend not to be much fun for newbies; ask anyone who's ever tried to get into Counterstrike and gave up after a few tries. Even though the game was popular, its community quickly became hermetic, making it hard for newbies to enter and learn how to play well, as the game itself had a steep learning curve. Contrast that with Wario Ware on the Gamecube, which can be picked up by almost anyone, and even the players who aren't as good will find the game exciting and fun, and because of that, these players are more likely to climb the learning curve up to a point where they're competitive.
So, what's going to happen to game design, when Wii proves that it can reach more people through its innovations? That's the revolution in the console's codename.

We'll see more and more games that use as simple a control scheme as possible, using as few distinct buttons as possible. Most of the gestures the Wii-mote recognizes will be the movements that come naturally to most people. For example, jerk the controller upward to jump, swing it like a racket to hit a tennis ball, point it at the screen to select or shoot something... Even the more complex gestures will seem easier to perform than all the special moves fighting game fans have become used to, which most casual gamers can't perform.

We'll still see some violent games, as that still has a wide appeal, but the shelves won't seem to be filled with such games quite as much as before. Less violent games are now less likely to use violent or sexy imagery on their covers or in their advertising, and there will be more focus on showing that the games are actually fun and easy to get into. The games that don't do this will just hit the same old gamer audience and rarely reach anyone outside of it.

More games will have smoother learning curves, and more people are going to have fun playing games, possibly with fewer thrown controllers and frustrated gamers. Some gamers are going to complain that games are getting easier, but in the end, the games will be more fun, and there will be more people playing them, so that all those hardcore games which many casual gamers find much too challenging to enjoy will start to sell less in comparison to games where it's easy to get far into the game without having to replay the same little bit dozens of times to get it perfect. Games that wish to keep the hardcore gamers in their audience, while appealing to the the rest of the now expanded group of all gamers, will instead place some very special challenges into the games for those who want a more intense challenge. An early example of this can be found in Super Metroid: the game isn't that hard, and most gamers who played the game didn't have that much trouble completing it, but finishing the game with 100% item collection, and in under two hours got the "best" ending, even though it wasn't much different from the other endings.

The last, big consequence of the Wii release is that developers will be forced to innovate, simply because the old control schemes won't work without some retooling, and because most good game designers will see the potential to make their games more intuitive. This innovation may temporarily alienate part of the hardcore audience, but these people will join back in once they have a chance to play the games.

After all, even hardcore gamers just wanna have fun.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Voices


This week, I bring you an idea that's less defined, but which seems rich in possibilities:


Voices

This is a new kind of role-playing game. Note that in this case, I won't use the RPG abbreviation, because the gameplay will be very different from most popular RPGs, with the possible exception of the Shenmue series.

The player directly controls the main character, with the more-or-less standard controls found in most third-person 3D platformers, action games and other action RPGs. There are no character stats per se, but the player can create the appearance they want for their character (male or female) with one restriction: the character has recently reached the age of 18, and is now responsible for his or her actions in the game world.

The game world itself is essentially based on the present-day real world, with NPCs acting and reacting realistically (as much as the game engine will permit, anyway.)

The twist is that, after waking up one morning, the player's character starts hearing voices in his or her head. At first, the voices don't seem to mean anything (either they're gibberish, or they just don't apply to what's happening, and are just mysterious) so all the player has to do is complete mundane tasks in order to proceed through the day.

The player is free to do anything his character could realistically do in the real world, but not accomplishing some of the main tasks will prevent the story from moving forwards, and some extreme actions (like killing someone, or stealing certain things) could result in an end to the game.

After certain tasks are completed, the voices start telling the player to do certain things. The player is free to decide whether to do these things or not. Sometimes, acting on the voices' demands will lead to benefits to the player, who might get money, stuff, or meet someone new, and sometimes, acting on the voices' orders will lead to negative events. Not doing what the voices demand has equally (seemingly) random consequences.

As the game progresses, the player can decide on the following possible paths:

  1. Try to live a normal life, despite the voices.
  2. Try to find out the reason, the source of the voices
  3. Give him- or herself over to the voices completely (doing everything the voices ask for)
  4. Only do the things that the voices request that seem like good actions (with sometimes negative results)
  5. Only do the things that the voices request that seem like bad actions (again with sometimes positive or negative results)
Each of these paths should eventually lead to an interesting, at least partially fulfilling conclusion. Changing streams in mid-game will cause the game to last longer, but can also introduce confusing inconsistencies, which might confuse the player, and it will then be harder to reach one of the game endings.

Sometimes, the voices will seem to reveal NPC secrets, or know things no one should know, making it seem like the player has telepathy. Other times, the voices will be intentionally misleading.

The game will keep track of the player's finances, which are small at the beginning, as the player starts out with a menial job that pays minimum wage, but lives with his or her mom in a small but comfortable appartment. As the game progresses, the player's actions will affect these finances, and may cause them to balloon up or disappear almost entirely.

The attitude and reactions of the NPCs around the main character will also evolve throughout the game. If the character starts doing too many bizarre things, he or she will probably be avoided by everyone. On the other hand, if the player starts doing many good things, helping people, possibly saving lives, he or she may find him- or herself being propped up as a hero, or even a superhero.

In general, the player's character will be free to move anywhere, but with the normal limitations of the real world: many locked doors, breaking a window to enter somewhere you're not meant to leading to arrest (and Game Over) and so forth. But a large part of the city in which the game happens will be accessible, with interesting things to see, hear and do.




I'm certainly not going to reveal the 5 possible endings or any of the major plot points here, as that's not really the aim of this blog, but if anyone is interested in this game idea, and has the means to make such a game, I'd certainly like to discuss the story in more detail with you.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Balls!




Balls!

All kidding and insinuating puns aside, Balls! is a cross between pool or billiards and games like Marble Madness, Marble Blast Ultra and Super Monkey Ball. It's essentially like playing pool in environments that look more like Marble Blast levels.

You start with a special cue ball, and a queue stick, similar to those used in pool, and there are other balls of varying colors and materials lying around the level. The goal is to find the best way to hit the cue ball so that most or all the balls in the level hit a goal (some levels can have more than one goal.)

There are two ways to play.

The first one is called Trick Shot: in this mode, you only get one hit on the cue ball, and you only win if you complete the level's goal (get a certain number of colored balls into their goals.) If you don't succeed at completing the objective, the level is reset, and you try again from the beginning.

The second mode is called Elimination: in this mode, you have to get all the balls to go into their goals, in as few hits of the cue ball as possible. Some levels may be completed in one hit, but doing so is extremely difficult to do and will be a rare occurrence.

Unlike most Marble Madness/Marble Blast/Monkey Ball levels, Balls levels will have fewer "drops into oblivion". Most platforms, ramps and floors will have borders, so that balls will generally have to jump for some reason before going overboard. When a ball goes over or drops off the level, the level is reset to how it was laid out before the cue ball was last struck. The exception to this is the cue ball: if the cue ball falls off or out, it is placed back at its starting point, and two "strokes" are added to the player's score.

After the first few levels in each mode, each level will have a special gimmick, somewhat like minigolf holes (windmills, merry-go-rounds, moving platforms, other gimmicks reminescent of games such as "The Incredible Machine")

As mentioned above, balls can have different colors and be made of differing materials:
  • plastic (like the plastic used in real pool balls) is the default type of ball. It doesn't break, has average speed and average weight.
  • metal (looks like a shiny ball bearing) is unbreakable, but heavier (might break through some surfaces (glass, ice) if the hit happens at a high enough speed. Its extra weight also means that it can go a little faster than plastic, but is harder to stop or redirect.
  • glass (looks like a glass marble) is breakable, so be careful not to drop these from too high, unless falling on a soft surface, as that would break the ball and require restarting the level. Average speed and weight.
  • rubber (a solid rubber ball, made from the same stuff as a hockey puck) tends to bounce a lot more (except on soft surfaces), is unbreakable and of a lighter weight, which causes it to have less speed.
The balls end up moving on varying surface types:
  • Pool Table felt: glass balls need to have twice as much momentum to break on this surface than on hard wood. Rubber bounces half as high on this. One of the two most-common surfaces.
  • Hard Wood: the other common surface, this basically feels like the most "normal" surface.
  • Glass: glass can be broken through with metal balls if the balls are moving (or falling) fast enough. A little more slippery than hard wood.
  • Ice: the most slippery surface, and also breakable when not thick (the difference is always obvious: breakable ice will always be clearly thin, while unbreakable ice will be made out of big, massive blocks of ice that are obviously very thick.
  • Foam: thick foam like that used for mattresses and such. Not very bouncy, it visibly compresses when a ball hits it with enough momentum, and most of that momentum is absorbed. Balls also slow down a lot when rolling on this surface. This surface is usually used to "catch" falling balls or as traps to stop balls from moving on some levels.
As the levels become more involved, their "solutions" should get more puzzle-like, but ideally, there should be more than one precise way to complete each level (especially if special bonuses are hidden in the levels, for instance.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Boxes

Wow, it's been a ridiculously long time since I've updated... After the burglary, I lost the motivation to keep posting regularly, I had way too much on my mind. I can't say I didn't have the time, because that would be a lie: I'm basically unemployed (doing a little bit of freelance game design on the side, but certainly not enough to support me) and that's kept me preoccupied. That, plus the stupid people at Sympatico who couldn't upgrade my connection from plain regular High Speed DSL to High Speed Ultra DSL without breaking something and causing me to be stuck on dial-up for about three weeks...

Anyway, all these aren't good enough reasons not to post. I came close to posting a few times, but some form or other of my intrinsic laziness came in and knocked me out... Left on my own, I tend to revert to an amorphous gelatinous state and I don't do anything except surf the web and play videogames (occasionally eating as well.)

It's a pity laziness can't be made into a video game concept. (Or can it? I think I'll think about this some more... This might turn into next week's post!)

In the meantime, here's something new that could work nicely as an XBox Live Arcade game:

Boxes

Boxes is a simple puzzle game that is played in a 3D environment with gravity and realistic physics. The goal is to gather cubic boxes that are the same color, and insert them into each other in order of increasing size.

Depending on the level of difficulty, there are either 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 box sizes (the more sizes there are, the harder the game is.)

The game is played inside a room that has a square floor, and a ceiling that is about two and a half times as high as the width of the room. The player controls a smoothly animated stick figure who can move around the room and jump up about the height of two of the bigger-sized boxes. But the main thing the player can also do is grab a box in each hand, or drop whatever a particular hand is carrying, or "combine" whatever he has in his two hands, if they're compatible.

The player must move around the room, pick up a box in one hand, then pick up another box with his other hand, and then insert one box into the other, but only if their colors match, and if one is smaller than the other. After two boxes are "combined", they remain combined, unless the player uncombines them. This only works if there's a box "missing" in the middle of the set, for example in a 3-size game, the player can place a size-1 box inside a size-3 box, then separate them when he finds a size-2 box to place in-between.

Picking up boxes is done in one of two ways:
  1. When the player moves around, the boxes around him light up, one at a time, to indicate "focus". Pressing the left or right trigger causes the corresponding hand to pick up the box with the highlight.
  2. If the player holds down one of the triggers, a bright little spark can be moved around with the movement controls (the stick figure remains stationary during that time) to choose a particular box. When the trigger is released, the stick figure picks up the box with the corresponding hand.
When a set is completed (for example, in a 3-size game, the player gets a size-1 box inside a size-2 box, then places that inside a size-3 box) the set itself disappears in a burst of colored lights.

The twist is that boxes just keep falling and tumbling from above, and each box moves, bounces and collides with other boxes as realistically as the physics engine will allow, which means the boxes will gradually stack up every which way, and very haphazardly. It also means that when the player picks up a box, the boxes above it might tumble down, causing an avalanche if a lot of boxes were piled up.

If the boxes get piled-up so high that no more boxes can drop into the room, the game is over (in the same way that a game of Tetris ends when the blocks reach the top.) If the player's stick figure gets completely buried under the boxes, the player can try jumping repeatedly, to hit the boxes above him. By moving around at the same time, the player might eventually land on top of higher boxes, and gradually climb and dig himself out. Another way is to randomly pick up boxes, moving, and then dropping them, as if your tunneling your way out.

As the game progresses, the boxes start to fall at an increasing rate.

The room walls change into different looks once in a while, based on the number of sets completed, but all rooms start with a mostly "cool" color scheme (blue, green, purple, some black) and every time a set is completed, "warmer" colors (red, orange, yellow, some white) appear at the bottom of the walls, move up after every completed set, and gradually down otherwise. When the level reaches particular levels (the higher the better) sets become worth more points. The net result is that it's better to line up almost-complete sets close together, so you can combine them as quickly as possible, raising the level more quickly to score more points.

Once in a while, a flashing multicolor box might appear. That box can be used in any color set, as long as you insert it in the proper order (according to its size.) Other special items are possible.

Other gameplay modes could include a puzzle mode, where boxes are piled in a particular way, and you have to make them all disappear through combination, without causing a haphazard stack to fall apart. Or a stage-by-stage "cleanup" mode where the room starts out full of boxes almost up to the top, and the player has to move around putting sets together to bring it down (this could also be a kind of time-trial style game.)

Multiplayer could be co-op (two or more players in the same room trying to clear it out as fast as possible), vs together (two or more players in the same room, each one trying to complete more sets than the other, and trying to prevent the other player from completing his sets) or vs separate (each player in his own room, except that as your level rises, boxes fall more slowly for you, and faster for the other player(s), and vice-versa (basically, the player with the highest level has his boxes fall the slowest, and the player with the lowest level has his boxes falling the fastest, with any other players in-between seeing boxes coming down at an intermediate speed.)

All this game needs is stylized, very colorful graphics, and an engaging puzzle game sound scheme that reinforces every positive action to keep players playing for as long as possible.

Monday, September 25, 2006

No game design this week

When I came back to my appartment last night, I quickly found out that I'd been robbed.

They took some big, seemingly expensive stuff, and they also took my main desktop PC all while trashing the place. I have to do some clean-up, which will probably take me all week. I also have to try and get a new DSL modem from my ISP (dial-up just doesn't agree with me.)

Isn't it ironic that my last game concept was a security/surveilance game? Oh well, hopefully I'll get everything sorted out and get back to my old routine soon.

Meanwhile, if there are any visitors coming here this week, leave some game ideas as comments! I'd love to turn this thing into a dialogue, at the very least.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Security

A quick one, this week. I had some actual, paying game design to do today, and I kind of lost track of time. (Was fun, though.)

Security

You're responsible for the night security in a building that contains all sorts of valuable, sensitive or dangerous materials. You don't know what it is, and you don't care. All you care about is keeping everyone out.

You're the only human there (presumably) but you have enough technology on your side to fend off an army of burglars and terrorists:
  • many strategically-placed cameras, which you can control
  • many unarmed robot drones you can control by remote, switching between visible, night-vision, and infra-red cameras. These also have big manipulating arms that can be used to move furniture around, in case you need to build barricades.
  • some 2-inch-thick steel doors to block off certain sections
  • motion detectors in every room and passageway
  • one armed drone you can control by remote; the weapon is non-lethal and taser-like. it's used to immobilise intruders
You can also go out and patrol for yourself. Your only weapon is also a taser, but it's a new kind of taser that shoots an x-ray laser which ionizes a slender beam of air, letting it conduct an electrical impulse that can stun as well if not better than most tasers. In effect, you have a "phaser" that's permanently set to "stun".

Each day, you repel or try to prevent unwanted intrusions. The better you do, the more your reputation grows, which can lead to promotions. You start on the bottom basement floor of a forty-floor building, and with each promotion, you're moved up a floor (you're only responsible for one floor at a time.) The higher you get, the more valuable or dangerous the materials on your floor are, and the more insistent the criminals are.

You'll spend half of your time in your security office with multiple monitors used to monitor all the main entry points, control your drones, etc. If you plan your stuff well, you can complete some nights without leaving your office. But some nights, the bad people can get more persistent, and you may need to leave your office and patrol on foot, stunning any burglars/terrorists/industrial spies you come across.

If any bad people succeed in stealing or destroying anything significant, you can get demoted (if it's really bad, you can get demoted down more than one floor!) or even fired, if you're bad enough.

And if you're bad enough, you might even get killed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Survive This!

A short one, this week, as I'm still not clear on the details for this idea. Not to mention that I'm only partially familiar with the genre I'm targeting... Let me know what you think...


Survive This!

This would be a survival horror game, but with a major twist: the player will get no effective weapons, whatsoever. The horror will be enhanced by never being able to fight back.

So, what can you do, then? Your only choice is to run away, but there are still many choices involved: you have to decide where you want to run to, pick passages, etc. Anything you pick up which may seem like a weapon might not hurt the creatures and apparitions you see, but you can still use a baseball bat to break a window, or an axe to cut through a locked door, or even a sledgehammer to... well, break stuff.

So while there may be no way to directly fight back, you can still use the environment.

For example, maybe ghosts can move through wood, but not through stone or metal, so you can try to find ways to smash stones to block a ghost's passage.

Each creature type can have its own characteristics, which the player must learn to effectively avoid them.

There should generally be more than one possible way to avoid a creature, unless the only way to avoid the creature is very obvious.

There would be no "boss fights", but there would be major setpieces that the player would need to get through, sometimes involving unique creatures.

Basically, the pacing would be:

- open with a quick action scene, almost like Dragon's Lair
- some slower-paced exploration, with easy-to-avoid enemies, giving the player a chance to plan his way out
- a mid-level action scene, perhaps some sort of chase, if possible not on any rails.
- the chase unlocks objects and places that weren't accessible before, so, more exploration
- trying to get out of the "place" causes the "place" itself to fight back, which culminates in a setpiece scene (as described above, this replaces an actual boss "fight".)

Repeat with some variation along the way.

Oh, and the player is never told that the weapons in the game are ineffective. The game may hint at it subtly, but generally, the moment when the player realizes this should be a major revelation, something that makes the player go: "Oh, so THAT'S how this game is supposed to be played!"

Monday, September 04, 2006

Steal These Game Designs: Rapid Fire Mode

I was sick last week. I spent most of my time trying not to think too hard, as it made my insides hurt more. And then, later in the week, when I was feeling better, I finally got a Nintendo DS development environment running properly and started exploring that. (You can get what you need at www.palib.com, just check the first section of the walkthrough, which shows how to install everything.)

So you can expect to hear/see some DS stuff I'll be working on soon. Hopefully.

In the meantime, and because I don't have any major, fleshed-out ideas to share right now, I'm going to share a bunch of small ideas in a rapid-fire fashion. Hopefully, the amount of raw "ideage" will compensate for the lack of depth, as well as the delay in posts.




Idea 1: 2nd-person game

How about a violent game where the player views the action from his victims' perspective? I know this would be particularly hard to control, but it could make for some very intense, visceral experiences. Plus, it might help shed new light on the whole "violence in videogames" debate, by having the players experience what they do in games from the victims' point of view.

Idea 2: Wargame/RTS where the goal is to prevent war

This would be a real-time game where you control vast armies, as well as the means of production, and the media in your country (control which would be absolute at the easy skill level, but more and more tenuous as difficulty rises) as well as all the diplomatic channels with your allies, enemies, and any other neutral countries. The goal is to prevent a major war from erupting by judiciously using your limited military resources, as well as your diplomatic, economic and media resources. You lose the game if a country with significant might declares all-out war against you.

Idea 3: Demolitions Expert

I remember watching some TV shows where they show demolitions experts placing all the explosives to blow up buildings without damaging the surrounding areas. I think this could be a fun game, where you set all the charges, including the placement, amount and type of explosives, as well as the shape. This would require a pretty realistic physics engine, but in the end, the fun would just be to watch shit get blown up. There could even be a "career mode" of sorts, where good demolitions jobs on small buildings bring bigger contracts, and maybe the occasional Hollywood commission (i.e. blowing shit up for the movies).

Idea 4: The Mother of all games

This will seem extremely ambitious, but I think I know the way to pull it off. This game is like a history of video games: starting with a Pong clone, soon turning into a Space Invaders clone, then into a Pac-Man-like maze game, later into a racing game, a shooting game, a 2D platformer, a 3D platformer, a first-person shooter, an RTS, a turn-based strategy game, a GTA clone... the idea is to have a relevant snippet of gameplay to represent all the major genres of video game, with each segment taking from 30 seconds to a few hours to complete.

The best thing would be if the transition from one game type to the other was smooth, meaning that either a cutscene plays explaining why the main character is doing something else, or at least some sort of morphing animation. There would be a point to doing all this, with clues laid out all through the different (mini-) games, but only after beating each and every game type, in the proper order, would the whole story be revealed. I have a pretty good idea what this story could be, but I'm keeping it to myself until such time as someone with the ability (and resources) to really make this game contacts me. Why? Because I'm like that.

Idea 5: a 2D platformer with over 100 playable (and relevant!) characters

This could work well with a brand such as Pokémon, but it's not the only possibility...

The game would have the player start out with 5 free (as in freedom) characters, with all the other characters imprisoned in some way in the "game world". Gameplay would have the "Metroid" and "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night" structure, except that instead of having one upgradable main character, you have to free hundreds of characters, and find ways of taking them where they're needed.

Each character is independant, meaning that while you're controlling one character, the others you've freed either stay in place or proceed with a particular, but simple behavior until you return to them. In a way, this is somewhat similar to the old 16-bit era game "Lost Vikings" (one of the first few games from Blizzard... yes, THAT Blizzard...) but with a lot more than three different characters. And no levels per se, just one gradually expanding world (as you reach more and more of it.)




Well, after putting up a few of those shorter ideas, I feel I might revisit one or two and flesh them out, at some point. Stay tuned for a new game design next week.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Food Fight!

I got this idea while discussing a science fiction story I'm thinking of writing. The story will be very different than this game, but, well, that's the way ideas come to me. So there.


Food Fight!

Food Fight is a Real-Time Strategy game where the four playable "factions" are the four food groups, and each food item fights according to its abilities.

Bread and cereals: huge loaves serve as buildings, baguettes are used as blunt weapons, popcorn cobs get heated up and explode to drown enemies in popped corn. Cereals can soak up milk (see the milk and milk products section to understand this one.)

Milk and milk products: buildings made of cheese, special old cheeses that smell so bad they're toxic to enemies, milk can drown enemies who don't have a way to absorb it, yogurt acts as quicksand, ice cream can be used to build temporary fortifications.

Fruits and vegetables: buildings made of pumpkins and watermelons, many harder fuits and veggies can smash into the enemy, the smaller stuff like berries are thrown as projectiles, pomegranates act as actual grenades, broccoli is used for chemical warfare, and brussel sprouts are obstacles that all units avoid at all costs.

Meat and legumes: buildings built from bones and gutted carcasses, chickens, pigs (with a tomato in their mouth), cows (move slow, but pack a big punch when they charge), lima beans to confuse the enemy, fish to navigate through water-based environments, soybeans and tofu to build fortifications, baked beans to slow the enemy (quicksand-style).

The player will have to play through the four campaigns, and the order in which the campaigns are played affects a few plot points in the storyline. Once all four campaigns are played, a fifth campaign is revealed, where the player will play as the last race he played in the fourth campaign, against the menace of junk food, the fifth food group. Gradually, as the other food groups recover from the previous campaign, they join into the fight.



I left the interface, controls and gameplay vague, here, simply because I would want the game to play like a standard RTS. The idea here is that the setting is so outlandish for a game that the game would just be too hard to do if a new interface, presentation and gameplay were used.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Bobby the Bubblegum Boar

I came up with this design after I challenged a friend of mine to try and come up with a setting and some simple mechanics for a linear (stage-by-stage) 2D platformer. We had to come up with a setting, a main character, a bit of story and at least three original game mechanics (something you can't do in most 2D platformers.)

Unfortunately, real life got in the way of his coming up with a concept of his own, but here's my attempt. Doing this sort of thing is a good exercise because it forces you to be original within a set of tight constraints.


Bobby the Bubblegum Boar

Bobby the Bubblegum Boar is a 2D platformer done in a very cartoony, colorful style, with anthropomorphic animals.

Bobby is a young boar who chews bubblegum. When his forest is threatened by aliens who want to turn all the trees into toothpicks for sale to Klacktorg restaurants (the Klacktorg are aliens that have ten mouths, with 200 teeth in each mouth) he takes it upon himself to drive them away.

Bobby can walk, run, jump (jumping higher if he's been running) and can bump into enemies and destroy some walls after he grows tusks (after the first few stages.) Bobby also chews gum. The more gum he has, the more stuff he can do:

1- he can blow a large bubble and float up and around slowly for a while (careful not to get the bubble popped!)
2- he can also blow a bubble to capture some enemies, which he can then bop into other enemies and obstacles.
3- he can spit a wad of gum on the ground or on a wall to make it sticky. Enemies will stick to the wad, and Bobby can also stick to his wads (can be used to walk up walls, stick under moving platforms, etc.)

There are (at least) 5 worlds, split up into shorter stages:

  1. The forest
  2. A large cave environment (where the Aliens have hidden their UFO)
  3. The Alien UFO
  4. A Klacktorg restaurant (these places are HUGE)
  5. The Alien homeworld, where Bobby will find an Alien President and explain how to make plastic toothpicks cheaper than wooden ones, so the Aliens won't have to destroy forests anymore.

In general, physics are cartoony and exaggerated.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Death


Death
A Day in the Life of the Grim Reaper

Overview

You play the Grim Reaper, black hooded robe, scythe and bony silhouette included. You must fill your death quota each day, whether you directly or indirectly cause the deaths. Remember to grab the souls after each death, or it won't count!

Gameplay

The game is played from a third-person perspective, mostly from behind the reaper. You can walk, run, jump, swing your scythe in a few different ways and turn into a dark mist to move around unseen. Whenever you go by people while in mist form, those people visibly shiver.

The environment is a familiar, modern-day metropolis, with people walking around, riding in cars or the bus, walking into and out of buildings. You can only go into a building if you're "meant" to, meaning only if there's potential death target inside. Otherwise, there's an invisible force that prevents you from going where you're not "meant" to go. In general, you can walk the streets and parks freely.

You always get a direction indicator that tells you where the next or closest potential death is, and when the person is visible, a kind of dark aura surrounds them. Take a quick look around to see if there are any easy ways to cause that person's death (drop a piano on them, cause a car to swerve and crash into them, deflect a stray bullet, etc.)

If there are no obvious ways, you can try directly using your scythe on your target, but beware: some people might see you (although most people would likely just ignore you; remember, this is a big city, other people don't really give a damn about you or how you look, they try very hard to ignore you.) If there are too many sightings of you in a particular week, you might lose your "job" (game over, man.)

After a person dies, a ghostly version of their live selves appears nearby (not necessarily directly on the spot where their body is.) You have to get close enough within 30 seconds of the death or this "soul" will go directly to heaven, and that's bad because it means it won't count as part of the soul quota you must fill each day.

If you don't fill your quota for a day, it's game over, but you can replay that day and see if you can do better.

You get style points for creative or particularly elaborate deaths. You also get bonus points for filling your quota early, and for avoiding getting seen for a whole day.

Sundays are special: there is no quota, so it's a free-for-all bonus stage! Now is a good time to practice more complex death-causing schemes, or harder to execute special moves.

The part of the city you play in is half-scripted, and half-AI-controlled: each person has a main objective (which may change depending on the hour of the day) and a secondary desire, so that a guy whose main objective is to get to work might have a secondary desire to get some ice cream along the way; if the're an ice cream truck or stand that's visible on his path, there's a chance he'll stop before going into work.

Any objects that might be useful to the reaper will be under the control of the physics engine, and will behave realistically, although some objects' trajectories might get adjusted slightly to make sure a death occurs in the event that characters and objects don't align perfectly. This should be a subtle, almost imperceptible effect.

Graphics and Presentation

The world around the reaper should be as realistic as possible. Deaths should be graphic but not exaggeratedly gory. The reaper should always look supernatural somehow, like he doesn't fit in with the environment. Any moves and actions he takes have some supernatural-looking effects to emphasize that it's not just a guy in a dark robe with a scythe. The dark fog that is shown when the reaper is non-corporeal should move like smoke and fog normally move, and should look like it's occupying a real three-dimensional space.

Sound and Music

Sounds of the city should be as realistic as possible, to really make it feel like the player is actually in the city.

Any sounds related to what the reaper does have an unnatural depth to them, a kind of weight.

The music should be similar to what is heard on modern-day supernatural thrillers. It would be a good idea to have music playing only on occasion, with special, evil-sounding jingles playing when the reaper does something special (like reaping a soul, for example.)




This game idea came to me after watching an episode of "Dead Like Me". I love that show, it's well-written and does some very original things I rarely see on TV. It was a shame when it got canceled after two seasons. If you like quirky, dark, well-written comedy (I hear it's somewhat similar to "Six Feet Under", which I haven't watched yet) you'll like this.


Monday, July 31, 2006

Steal this Game Design: Supervillain

I had to shorten this game's title so it would look better in the heading. The actual title I would want for this game appears below.

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about being a
Supervillain
But were afraid to ask…

Overview

Terrorize the population! Destroy buildings and stuff! Meddle with potentially cataclysmic forces! Conquer the World!

This game takes the original premise from Dungeon Keeper (being evil is fun!) and applies it to a modern superhero-type universe, as commonly seen in the superhero comic books that Marvel and DC comics publish.

Gameplay

The player starts out as a lone villain, doing some simple thug-type work, either alone, or working under another supervillain. He then realizes he has or gets special powers somehow, and decides to use those powers for evil.

The first few stages are played from the third-person perspective, with the player controlling the villain with fighting game-style controls. After a few missions, some other thugs or minor supervillains join with the player (or are forced to join) and they then go in search of an appropriate lair.

After that, part of the game becomes more of a management game, but the business management is about building up the lair, researching and constructing doomsday weapons and taking over the Earth!

Once in a while, superheroes and various law-enforcement agencies will try to infiltrate the villains’ compound in order to thwart their evil plans, so defenses must be built and maintained.

And sometimes, the villains must move out to accomplish evil things. That’s where the third-person perspective from the beginning comes back in: the player reverts to controlling the supervillain directly, as in a fighting game. His henchmen become AI-controlled, but the player can still give them simple orders like “retreat!”, “cover me!” or “go long!”.

Each play-through should be different, because each new supervillain the player creates will get a few randomly-generated traits:
  • a special weakness: can be some sort of physical Achilles' Heel, or it can be a bad habit, like always divulging all his plans to each and every hero he captures. Some weaknesses become apparent early in the game, others may only surface later. The player is never told outright what this weakness is.
  • a reason for turning evil: either some traumatic childhood event or situation, or some later situation that forced the player into a life of crime.
  • something that could redeem or turn the villain back into a good person (again, this is not divulged to the player, but there are ways in the game for the player to figure this out and possibly avoid it.)
  • a specific fetish: likes a certain kind of animal, music, art/decoration style, books, gadgets, litterary quotes, and so forth. Usually harmless, but it will affect what's found in his lair, and some of the avenues of research that can be followed.
The villain's special ability or abilities are also randomly generated, which means all of them should be made as equally desirable for players as possible.

Once the player discovers his special ability, he gets to design his costume, starting with an acceptable suggestion generated by the game.

Graphics and Visual Style

One obvious graphical style would be to have the whole game cel-shaded to look like superhero comics. There could even be a few options left to the player to choose different art styles, like old-time comics from the forties and fifties, or more detailed and vibrant styles from more recent comics.

All interfaces, HUDs and front-ends should use the same comic strip style, with text boxes and dialogue bubbles where appropriate, and sliding the panels around to move from screen to screen, as the main transition.

One funky option could be for the game to generate the "Hollywood movie based on this comic" at the end of a game, cramming together most of the highlights into a more realistic-looking (no cel-shading) "movie trailer" depicting some of the more impressive parts in the player's game.

Sound and Music

The sound effects should always be exaggerated, overblown, without becoming comical.

The music should be suitably sweeping and grandiose, sometimes with bits that highlight the villain's potential madness.

Other, Similar Games

I will update this last section soon, as I have uncovered a few games that I didn't know about when I first came up with this concept. For now, here's a well-known example:

As an expansion or counterpart to "City of Heroes", the Massively Multiplayer Online Game where each player is a superhero, NCSoft released "City of Villains" where the players could finally be the bad guys.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Steal this Game Design: Chlorophyll

I made it! I got this one done before the end of the day!

This idea was harder to flesh out than the last few games I've posted. Even though it takes many elements from existing games, it has enough new stuff to make it a headache to keep concise, consistent, and complete enough for my needs here.

This is based on an original idea a friend and ex-coworker once suggested. If he ever reads this and wants to be credited, he can contact me and I'll mention his name here. What you'll read below is a lot more fleshed-out and thought-0ut than what we'd originally discussed, but since he provided the original spark, he should get the credit for it (if he wants it.)

Chlorophyll
On an alien planet, plants are the dominant life form.
Make sure it stays that way!

Overview
In Chlorophyll, you are the first consciousness to emerge from advanced plant life. You decide how the plants you're made of grow, expand and function. You must also fight for survival against other plant consciousnesses, single mindless but dangerous plants and the few primitive animals that have started evolving into more complex creatures.

Your final goal: to spread your consciousness across the whole planet, and beyond.

Gameplay
This game falls somewhere between the Real-Time Strategy genre and the God-game genre.

Instead of ordering people or creatures around, however, you decide where you're going to sprout new plants, what type they are, and how they should behave.

You start with a few different plants that, together, form your consciousness:
  • The brain plant: bulbous, greyish-green with only a few fat, yellowing leaves, this is where most of your consciousness resides. Through roots, you can create new brain plants, but there are special requirements that make these hard and costly to grow. Your resources are better used in generating other plant types.
  • Collector plants: these tend to have more leaves, and be greener all around than any other plant type. Once they sprout, they grow as fast as the resources available permit (water in the soil, nutrients in the soil, and sunlight.) Your other plants can consume these collectors to grow or mutate themselves, or to sustain themselves when the resources available in the soil are not plentiful enough (collectors are more efficient at absorbing water and nutrients, they are often the last plants to die before the brain plant.) A variation of this plant type looks more like a cactus: better at retaining resources and surviving, but this grows more slowly.
  • Warrior plants: These tend to have a leopard-like pattern of yellow spots on their otherwise green foliage. These plants cost the least to sprout far from your main cluster, they can grow fast if they share roots with collectors, and they sometimes have spines or other elements that can damage other plants. Some variations can also poison the soil around them, causing other plants to die. You use this type to attack an enemy consciousness or prevent it from establishing it in a certain area.
  • Guardian plants: These should be grown around your main plant cluster. These are the most resistant plants, they need very little in the way of resources, but they grow slowly, and can't be grown far from your other plants. Enemy plants that try to grow close to your guardian plants will have their roots "strangled" and their water sucked out, until the opposing plants die. Only warrior plants can hope to damage and destroy guardians.
  • Specialty plants: this includes bug-catchers (for nutrients), reflectors (to redirect sunlight to shadier areas and make them more productive), diggers (to move dirt around and redirect water flows) and spore-spouts (send spores out to try and establish new "colonies" where your roots can't reach).
  • Rogue plants: one very special plant type will let you cut part of an enemy's root system to isolate a cluster of plants from its colony. If the enemy controller can't re-establish new roots that connect to this cluster, and you can grow roots to the cluster, this special "rogue" plant will help connect the cluster to your roots, thereby stealing the cluster from the enemy.
As mentioned above, you can't move plants around, but you can control where and how roots grow, and where your plants sprout (and what type they are.) All your plants are connected through their root system. You never directly control what each plant does, they just act and react based on what's around them (collectors grow, warriors attack enemy plants, guardians grow slowly and react to enemy plants that try to sprout in the area, etc.)

Interface and Controls

You give orders by marking areas where you want your roots to grow into, and where your roots should avoid growing (some areas can be damaging, or could cause a premature reaction from an enemy.) Your roots automatically grow slowly around your plants, except where you marked the ground as "no-go." Automatic and directed growth only happens if your plants are getting an adequate supply of light, water and nutrients. If any resource is lacking, either your collectors will start shrinking, as they're consumed by the other plants, or other plants will shrivel and die, while your roots will retreat.

You can only sprout a plant on ground where your roots have reached (except where spores are concerned.) Right-clicking (or pressing the right controller button) on an acceptable spot brings up a radial menu where a plant type can be chosen (specialty plants are in their own category.)

The health of each plant is immediately visible, there should be no need to display health bars or anything of the sort.

There are different soil types, shown using different colors, which affect how easy it is for roots to grow, and can also make it easier for certain plant types to grow faster or impede the growth of other plant types.

The whole interface should look very organic and plant-like, including front-end menus, etc.

Sound

There should always be a background "nature" soundtrack to the game, with varying wind, trickling water (or rain), possibly as part of a completely dynamic musical soundtrack that can add some "tribal"-sounding percussion, flutes, didgeridoos, possibly mixed-in with an occasional bird-call (although birds should not feature prominently, as the world in question in the game doesn't have much in the way of animal life.)

The music should dynamically convey the current situation: calm and soothing if all is well, some sort of digging rhythm if a lot of digging is happening, more percussion if there is some "fighting" going on, with subtle differences in the percussion denoting whether the player is the attacker or the attacked, and how the fight is going, mushy, disgusting sounds if some of your plants are shrinking or rotting (from lack of resources or because of enemy attack.)

All sound effects should sound natural, or like exaggerated versions of natural sounds, with no artificial- or technological-sounding noises.

Multiplayer

This seems like a natural for multiplayer, in the same way that most RTS games make good multiplayer games. The whole "indirect control of individual plants" aspect should curb the otherwise common "rushing" problem.



This concept still needs a lot of fleshing out, and could seriously benefit from some concept art. I'm useless as a graphic artist; if you're not, and you can picture this game well enough to create some artwork that should represent the different elements of this game (just keep thinking "lush vegetation" and you should be on the right track) just put up a sample or two in the comments, and if I like what I see, I'll incorporate it into the design post itself, with full credit to you and a link to the website of your choice -- as long as it's related to your artwork or to game design and art.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Steal this Game Design: Extra

I'm sorry to be late this week, but I wasn't home for most of the beginning of the week, and didn't have practical access to the Internet (yes, such places DO exist! You just have to look very hard!)

Anyway, here's a quick idea for now. Next week, there should be a much more fleshed-out design, something very different and original (I'm already working on it, but it's just not ready for the "prime-time" of this blog.)

Extra

When the tables are turned, can you still survive?


Overview

In "Extra", you're an extra in various videogames. Sometimes, you're a baddie, and sometimes, you're an innocent bystander. In both cases, try not to get shot or blown up by the hero who's plowing through the game!

Gameplay

The game fluctuates between a first-person and a third-person perspective, depending on which context works better at the moment (this is not under the player's control.) Before each "mission" (or "job") you are given some directives as to how to behave.

If you're a baddie, this might be to try and shoot the hero, or to push an obstacle into his path, and not get killed in the process.

If you're an innocent bystander, your task might be to walk through a dangerous environment without getting killed by the hero or the other baddies.

Here are some games you might end up in, and some sample tasks to go with those:
  • WWII First-person shooter: you're one of the nameless nazi soldiers the hero may or may not shoot down.
  • You're one of the other drivers in a racing game. When you're behind, you get an unnatural boost to keep you in the race (CPU drivers always cheat!) but the hero car tends to drive a lot more recklessly, so try not to get pushed off-course or into a tree.
  • You're one of the cops in a GTA-style game: try to arrest the "hero" before he shoots you down.
  • You're one of the ho's in a GTA-style game: try to get the "hero" to do YOU instead of the other ho's.
  • You're one of those turtles in a Super Mario Brothers-style game. Try not to lose your shell!
  • You're one of those evil aliens shooting at the hero.
  • You're one of those zombies in some survival horror game.
I'm sure any gamer can come up with ten more like the ones above.

One interesting thing is how to reverse the gameplay of boss stages: sometimes, if you play well enough, you get a chance to play out a boss fight! Just imagine, you're the huge dragon spewing fire at the hero, or you're driving the giant tank that's shooting at the player, or the giant mutant monster who might squish the hero.

Graphics

The graphics should always try to emulate, or even better, exaggerate the style of game the "Extra" finds himself in. The visual perspective should always strive for maximum impact: if it's more impressive to see the hero charge you head-on, a first-person view imposes itself. For situations like boss fights where you're much bigger than the hero, there'll be more impact showing everything in third-person view.

Sound

Again, sounds should correspond to the game and environment you find yourself in, but with a twist: game music follows THE HERO. Since the music in regular games tends to be indifferent to the position and orientation of the player, from the extras' perspective, the music follows the player!

Also, before and after the hero goes by, the other extras might banter with you about "the job", mostly for humorous results, but also to give hints about how to play better.

In the end...

If you go above and beyond the tasks assigned to you, either by getting rid of the hero way ahead of when you should have been able to, or by marshalling all the other extras to so completely overwhelm the hero that the he or she is forced to give up, then the game turns around, and you can play through that stage as the hero yourself, somewhat like an interception during a football game, which turns into a touchdown.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Concerning Episodic Content

I just started reading a thread on the Penny-Arcade Games & Tech forum about episodic content in games, with a recent example being the Half-Life 2 epidodes.

Contrary to most of the posters on that thread, I'm all for episodic content. Let's go through my reasons, shall we?

1- Plot fatigue in full games

How many times have I read reviews that complained that a game with a really intriguing and compelling plot fell apart around the mid-point, where plot became sparse, level design became less inspired, and common clichéd filler was used ("throw more and more baddies at the player", "backtrack all the way to the beginning to find that damn key", that sort of thing.)

The reason for this is simple: most AAA games go into crunch mode a few months before release, and at that point, the first half of the game or so has been designed, filled-in, scripted, and often tested extensively, but the latter part of a game is often just at the stage of vague notes in a document somewhere, or the level design has just barely started, and the designers are tired and quickly become less inspired.

As an aside, I remember reading somewhere that Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's star game designer and creator of Mario and Zelda, will often create the last levels of a game first, since he can put everything in those levels and make them as hard as he wants. By working his way backwards, when he gets to the first few levels, he knows which mechanics to introduce, and in which order, and he's in a better position to design easy, elegant and fun "tutorial" levels. I don't know if he does that with all his games, but it makes a lot of sense to me. And it also means that the end part of a game is much more likely to remain exciting.

So we have a lot of games where the plot becomes uninspired around the mid-point, because the designers aren't as inspired. Episodic content is one solution.

Episodic TV is often written by different writers for each episode, with staff writers and producers making sure that everything fits. (I know, I know, most of Babylon 5 was written by just one guy, and it kicked ass, but that's a rare exception in the field.) That's already very similar to how things work in games: levels will be divided up between a bunch of designers, although sometimes the story text and plot is all written in advance, often by one person (which can be one of the causes for plot fatigue...)

The problem comes from the fact that everybody has to crunch, at the end, so cool bits of plot get cut because they require too much scripting or the voice acting budget got cut, or a bunch of other reasons.

With episodic content, each designer, each writer can get a different deadline. Keep a few designers on the side that can move from episode to episode and help out when an episode is not moving fast enough. Give yourself at least a month's lead time between the scheduled completion date of each episode and its "airdate" where it can be thoroughly tested, balanced and evaluated.

That would result in a more consistenly compelling experience.

2- Price comparisons

"I don't want to pay 20$ for 3-4 hours of gameplay when I can find a much better and longer game in the bargain bins for the same price!"

Most of the people against episodic content came back with variations on this. My answer is this: you're right. 20$ is way too much for episodic content. Why is it that Hollywood movies with bigger budgets than AAA video games sell for about 15-20$ on DVD, but video games have to sell for 50-60$?

I think most video games should sell for about 30$, and episodic content should go for amounts closer to 5$ an episode.

Psychologically, if you spend 5$ on an episode and you don't like it, well, that was just 5$. You can't easily find a good game for 5$. Actually, you can't buy much else that's really compelling for 5$. So losing that 5$ doesn't hurt as much as the current 20$/episode.

Also, at 5$ per episode, each episode could be only about 2 hours long for players who just plow through (with maybe 4 hours total for the players who like to look everywhere and find everything.) That's a lot less content to develop. Weekly or semi-weekly episodes somehow become feasible.

3- I want the full game, NOW!

That one makes me laugh. That's so childish, when you think about it. Well, you can always wait for the compilation. That's what many people have done with TV shows such as 24 or the new Battlestar Galactica: instead of watching the show on a weekly basis, they waited until the season was over, and watched the whole season in very quick succession. That way, you can get the "full game" experience.

However, that requires special pricing. The compilation shouldn't sell for more than the price of a full game.

4- I'm not going to wait 6 months for the next episode!

If it takes 6 months between episodes 1 and 2, there's something wrong. Monthly episodes are just about as long an interval as I believe can be accepted by gamers. With one exception: the gap between "seasons". Clearly, for years, people have been able to wait all summer between seasons. Let's see, seasons tend to end in early May, and often don't start up again until late September or even October. That's almost 5 months!

So, as long as gamers get a full season (at least 20 short weekly episodes or 10 bi-weekly episodes) with some sort of compelling reason to await the next season (cliffhanger, unanswered questions, etc.) they will gladly wait 4-5 months for a new batch of episodes, while the design team hammers out what they want to do in the next season (and take a month or two off on vacation!)


It's clear that, with the changes I suggested (lower price, more frequent but shorter episodes, TV series-like structure) episodic games sound like an appealing change of pace from monolithic big games. For one thing, it means a somewhat steadier revenue stream, in an industry where, if your game doesn't make a splash during the first month or so of its release, it gets quickly moved off the shelf, consigned either to the bargain bin or (gasp!) oblivion. Engines can get updated between seasons, to keep up with technology, and the story can progress in ways that big one-off games (even if they're sequels) can't.

The depth which can be attained with a TV series just can't be reached by a Hollywood movie. The same will likely apply to games. The two distribution formats will eventually turn into two separate media.

Most current game companies can't afford to create episodic games, because their whole structure is based on building one big game after another. Kind of like the part of Hollywood that makes all the big movies.

Episodic content is where indie studios can shine. Creating a pilot and a few sample episodes should cost a lot less than creating one full AAA title. And the episodic content means that online distribution almost becomes a requirement, thereby bypassing the whole physical distribution model that couldn't really accomodate the indies anyway.

We've seen many episodic action-adventure games (for example, all the Source engine-based content up on Steam) but other genres could definitely benefit: strategy games (either turn-based or real-time) could work great. RPGs are naturals as well, they're the most story-based gaming genre of all, so that cutting up the story into episode chunks should be easy enough.

The more I read the opinions of hardcore gamers on forums, the more I realize that Nintendo is right in targeting current non-gamers and casual gamers with its DS and upcoming Wii. The hardcore gamers are so set in their ways that most of them can't see that episodic games are soon going to be a big part of the gaming landscape in a few years. Especially with all of the main consoles in the next generation being built from the ground up with Internet connectivity and online distribution of content in mind.




Monday, July 10, 2006

Steal this Game Design: There Be Dragons


There Be Dragons

Ride a DRAGON!
Dogfight against other dragon riders!
Burn down enemy camps with your dragon's breath!
You are the rider, you control your own dragon!

Overview

There Be Dragons is a flight-sim with a twist: you're not flying planes or spaceships, you're flying dragons. The setting is classic medieval fantasy with all the usual trimmings, except that dragons are a little bit more plentiful, and they're often part of military campaigns (meaning that they're not rare, semi-mythical creatures).

Gameplay:

This game puts the player on a dragonsaddle, gives him or her some dragonrider's armor, and, more importantly, gives him control of a dragon.

There are two types of dragon:
  • Colored dragons: those are the common Red, Green, Blue, White and Black dragons common in fantasy settings such as D&D. They are more plentiful in the gameworld, and generally evil, but a proficient dragonrider of any persuasion has a chance of getting control of them. Their sheer size and power will awe and frighten most people on sight; only seasoned dragonriders can see past the awe that others have for dragons.
  • Crystal dragons: they often look brittle when in fact they are generally stronger than the more generic colored dragons. They are generally good, but the best of riders can sometimes turn them to evil purposes. They are Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, Diamond and Opal dragons, and their hides are valued above all else by generally evil people. Majestic and beautiful, especially under sunlight or moonlight, they generate awe in all but the most mentally disciplined people, but they don't generate the fear that evil dragons do.
Gameplay is mission-based, inside a campaign structure that develops into an engrossing story. During the campaign, the player should get at least one chance of flying one of each of the ten dragon species.

Combat areas are generally smaller than those in modern flight sims: Dragons might fly fast, but they don't even come close to flying at MACH 1. By reducing the flight areas, we can create more interesting landscapes to dogfight in, including mountain passes, cliffs and canyons, maybe even a volcano.

The rider either flies with a dragonrider's bow (a specially mounted bow that can be fired at enemies and their dragons) or a dragon lance, which is similar to a jousting lance, although longer, barbed at the end, and balanced for dragonflight. Dragon bows are more common than dragon lances, because the dragon rider must charge his enemy in order to score a hit with a dragon lance. Dragon lance hits are much more damaging, though: lesser dragons can be slain with one hit from such a lance!

The dragon's breath weapon uses a basic power bar system that goes down quickly while firing, and comes back up slowly when not firing.

The rider's dragon has a stamina meter along with a life meter. Holding the throttle at maximum for level or climbing flight for long periods of time lowers the dragon's stamina, as will firing the breath weapon for very long periods (like emptying half the dragon's breath bar) or firing too many short bursts (for example, after ten bursts). Letting the dragon coast on air currents is the easiest way to let it regain stamina (and its breath.)

Graphics:


The game should display lush environments, more like something out of Lord of the Rings than the flat landscapes of most flight sims. With the more restricted flight areas, it should be easier to display cool looking cliffsides and canyons, medieval cityscapes, forests with millenial (extremely tall) trees and so forth.

If possible, air currents could be depicted by the wavering refraction effect that happens when there is hot air between the viewer and his target. This will be a functional part of the game, because rising air currents will be used as much as possible to fly up the way real birds do.

The dragons themselves is where most of the visual detail should go, though. Colored dragons should have scaly, bump-mapped, iridescent hides, eyes and head that track their target, and a generally sinister, evil look about them. Crystal dragons should look very shiny, with faceted scales, and they should be translucent or transparent, like the stones they originate from. They must not look ghostly, however: they must have a completely solid, heavy look about them.

Wounds on the dragons should also be very graphic: getting hit by a dragon lance should cause open gashes, holes in the wings, etc.

Visual style and presentation

Menu screens should have a suitable medieval fantasy look to them, perhaps with heraldry-style dragons used as a general theme throughout. Transitions between menus could be done by animating those heraldic dragons, making them breathe fire onto the screen as a transition.

In-game, the ideal look would be to display as much information directly on the dragon instead of creating a HUD. Here is the information that needs to be displayed (apart from any mission-specific info): Rider's health bar, Dragon's health bar, Dragon's stamina bar, Dragon's breath bar, dragon arrows remaining for dragon bow missions (this could be displayed as a quiver strapped to the dragon in such a way that the rider can easily pick up arrows one at a time and string them up quickly.)

The dragons' looks should be close to the images of dragons in western medieval fantasy (not like chinese dragons at all). The faces should be emotionally expressive : dragons have large heads, and, seeing that the game will involve charging at other dragons, those enemies' faces will need to be detailed enough to be looked at up close.

The game in general should be pretty colorful, with varied environments and mixed colors in the dragons.

Sound:

The sounds should always convey positional information about what is going on around the player, be it enemies, wingmen, and so forth. The swoosh of the dragon's wings will replace the engine sounds, and must be timed with the dragon's animation. Dragons' breath weapons should also sound powerful and awesome (in the original meaning of the word). Dragons screeching when they're hit, and dragon riders taunting are other appropriate sounds to add.

Music-wise, a majestic and sweeping classical/soundtrack-style score will be the most appropriate. Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries-type stuff. Unless synthesized music can be made to sound as impressive as real orchestral music, a real orchestra (or parts thereof) should be used. (Hey, a guy can dream, can't he?)

Controls:

Dragons are controlled in basically the same way a plane is flown, although the flight modeling itself will feel much different.

There is no throttle control. Instead, the player can adjust the wingspan and the strength of wing beats, in coarse increments. Speed is affected more by the player's ability to know when to dive, when to coast on air currents, and when to push the dragon to beat its wings to accelerate or climb.

One button is assigned to firing and stringing the dragon bow:
  1. press to string a dragon arrow,
  2. hold to pull back,
  3. release to fire.
The same button is used for steadying the dragonlance:
  • hold down button while charging,right up until you hit your target, or miss
  • the button can only be held for a certain number of seconds, and must be released for some seconds before readying a new charge -- so the rider does not get arm and finger cramps!
One button will tell the dragon to pick a new target for its breath weapon (hold down to simply fire straight ahead). The dragon's head will turn in that direction and track the designated target to the best of its abilities. Another button will fire the breath weapon in question. Lightly tapping the dragonbreath button will fire a short burst that's twice as fast as normal dragonbreath, and has twice the range. (For fire-breathing dragons such as a Red Dragon, this is a bit like a quick fireball).

A special diving maneuver can be executed by flying downward at a very steep angle and rapidly pressing the button that causes the dragon to beat its wings faster.

Normally, the dragon always flies forward at a minimum speed. Pressing the button that tells the dragon to brake, and pulling back on the controls causes the dragon to hover or stay stationary in the air. This tires it quickly, causing the stamina bar to go down. Also note that the various dragons each have varying capabilities for hovering, so some might be able to last longer than others.

Force Feedback should be used if available, perhaps giving feedback when the dragon does not want to do certain tasks, and to let the player feel hits, bow shots, lance hits, breath attacks and so forth. A more subtle use for force feedback would be to let the player feel updrafts as the dragon enters them. Every beat of the dragon's wings should be felt.

Multiplay:

Multiplayer will be an important part of this game: after fulfilling the dream of flying a dragon, what else is left but dogfighting against your friends?

Apart from straight-on dogfight, there should be other multiplayer modes, such as capture the flag, king of the hill, team dogfight, and new modes specific to this game, such as: All-out war, where two teams compete to capture territories and conquer all of the enemies' territories, as if in a real-time version of the classic board game RISK. Another interesting gameplay mode would be dragon jousting, which is similar to regular jousting, but in the air, with only dragon lances permitted as weapons, and where using the dragons' breath causes immediate disqualification.

Description of Sample Gameplay


You're the new recruit for Ruby Dragon Flight Squad. This will be your first flight into contested territory, as you are fresh out of flight training.

You meet up with your assigned mount, a young drake with a stunning, clear red body that glitters and shimmers with every movement, which this very live dragon does a lot. A fit mount for you to swiftly fly over the challenged lands in a reconnaissance mission that will help your generals plan their defenses and attacks.

As you ride into the sky, all trace of nervousness evaporates with every powerful beat of the dragon's wings. You can feel that dragon's power in every point in your body.

As you follow your designated patrol route, along with your flight leader and three other flight rookies, you notice a slight haze off to your left.

"Veer to 10 O'Clock, your flight leader orders. Something we should investigate."

You turn smoothly in the ordered direction. Being the youngest of the five dragons, your mount, Marsikh, or Bloodfire in the common tongue, has the best eyesight and tells the group:

"It's a flight of five green dragons. They don't seem to have noticed us yet."

"Let us fly closer to the ground and hope they will not see us, your commander orders. But don't dive, or they might see us!"

You slowly sink down, following your squadron. Unfortunately, the green dragons eventually see you, and turn to intercept your group. Your commander readies his dragon lance as the rest of the group ready their bows.

"Aim for the front dragon," your commander orders.

As you get closer to the enemy, you can finally distinguish the rider's colors: purple and black, and the crest of the Twilight Allegiance. With their mad leader aiming to stop the movement of the suns and create a perpetual twilight, it is not surprising that his group has been labeled as Evil by most of the peoples of the continent.

Your formation spreads out, so as to force the enemy to spread their attacks. When you get close enough, all four bow-riders fire at the lead dragon. You hit it in the eye, as your fellows hit it twice in the wings and once in the neck. The dragon, having trouble breathing and flying, goes down, its rider cursing the daylight for his misfortune.

As you were hitting the lead dragon, your commander was veering to charge at one of the other dragons. Getting his lance ready and steady for a charge, he dives into the enemy, tearing part of its right wing and side apart. The wounded dragon, screaming in pain, trashes for a few seconds before steadying itself and turning its head towards your commander.

The dragon breathes out a concentrated corroding green gas that scorches your commander's face and armor, but he seems to stand up to it.

You then turn your attention to one of the three other remaining dragons to discover that your three flightmates have already downed another enemy. Aiming for one of the foes that is still unharmed, you let loose with a volley of arrows, as you command your dragon to let loose all the fires it can blow out of its lungs. Scorched and burning, the enemy dragon and its rider tumble down, screaming.

As your leader finishes off his target, you and your three wingmates concentrate on one of the remaining dragons, piercing it with at least a dozen arrows before it loses consciousness, crashing to the ground below, crushing its rider in the process.

Seeing its imminent defeat, the last dragon rider turns his mount around and heads back the way it was coming, but all five dragons in your squad let loose with short, fast fireballs which explode on and around this final foe, burning it fatally.

Returning to your keep, you find that your commander will probably be left with a horribly scarred face, but, on the other hand, he never really looked good anyway, so you instead dwell on your future with the Ruby Dragon Squadron, and try to imagine the rewards the Queen will heap upon you when you singlehandedly conquer the Twilight Alliance's territories.

Similar Games

There are at least two games that I know of who have come close to being what this game proposes to be:

Dragon Strike, developped by Westwood, published by SSI in 1990. This game was set in the AD&D campaign setting Dragonlance. The graphics were impressive for the time, but are extremely rudimentary by today's standards. This game has the basic gameplay I want for my game, except that I want it to be more immersive, realistic -- for a dragon flight sim, that is -- and involving. Please note that I had just read about Dragon Strike when I first conceived the concept for my own dragon flight sim, and it was only in writing this document that I decided to look up that old game -- and to my surprise, I found a copy I could play!

Drakan: Order of the Flame, developped by Surreal, published by Psygnosis in 1999. Half of this game almost had what was needed to be this dream game of mine. Flying the dragon was sheer joy. If the missions and story had been better, and if the "pedestrian" parts of the game had been skipped in favor of a fully dragon riding-based game, this would have been much better. Multiplayer was an afterthought, but ended up being the most fun part of the game, with players "deathmatching" in dragon-vs-dragon dogfights.

Why this Game Could be Successful

I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one who has fantasized (at least in a game) about riding, flying and dogfighting with a dragon. Done well, this could be the kind of game that has universal appeal among the hardcore gaming crowd. After being disappointed by the Panzer Dragoon Orta demo (I thought this might have come close to my ideas, but it was in fact a run-of-the-mill rail shooter disguised as a dragon flight sim) I believe this proposal might fill in a hole where there is very little competition but a lot of potential fans.

Some free-form ideas and notes
(these are simply here so I don't forget...)
  • During the campaign, the player will start by riding a powerful crystal dragon for a few missions, then get stuck flying colored dragons for one half to two thirds of the campaign (and he might be forced to do evil things during that time) until later, when he gets to fly crystal dragons again.
  • Maybe part of the storyline could deal with a mist dragon that appears to certain people, making them do certain things out of character.
  • If possible, it would be fun for the final boss to be a 5-headed, 5-color dragon like Tiamat, as seen in D&D and other fantasy settings (I wonder what the origin of this name is...)
  • Young crystal dragons should look as clear as possible, while older dragons' crystal will look a bit milky or smoky, with the best (most important) dragons showing the kind of star that is visible in certain star sapphires and rubies (like the last picture down this web page: http://www.palagems.com/sapphire_connoisseurship.htm).