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).

Friday, July 07, 2006

Game Design Step 1 - Coming Up with an Idea

Coming up with a game design idea is easy for most gamers, but coming up with a good idea that's worth developing into a game is a little harder, but not by much. That is, if you know the trick.

I see a lot of gamers who suggest game designs in forums or on blogs who don't understand a few basic principles:
  1. If your design is very similar to an existing game, your game will have to be significantly better (or much cheaper) for it to be successful. Taking your favorite game and tacking on the one feature you wish that game had is not game design, it's just wishful thinking.
  2. If your design is completely original, you have to ask yourself, who would want to play it; who would be attracted to the idea of playing this game?
Most of the game designs I come up with (with the exception of more abstract games, like puzzle games and such) start out by answering a specific question: is this something people dream or fantasize about doing?

Think about it, many successful games let the player do something they probably can't do in real life (or can't do without suffering consequences...) :
  1. Shooting down cops and stealing cars (Grand Theft Auto series)
  2. Flying a fighter plane
  3. Shooting down nazis (any WWII game)
  4. Driving a fast racecar
  5. Driving a tank
  6. Commanding an army (this includes turn-based wargames and almost every RTS ever released)
  7. Second-guessing an army general's decisions (that's the main point of most realisitic/historic wargames)
  8. Living in a fantasy or sci-fi world, and possibly being a hero in that world (or an asshole) -- that's the point of most RPGs.
  9. Playing various pro sports (anything by EA Sports, for example)
  10. Rocking out on your favorite rock songs (Guitar Hero series)
This list could go on... As a further example, the game design I suggested in Monday's post answers the fantasies of racing fans, sci-fi fans, and gamers who wished they could race using the ships they flew in previous games, such as X-Wing, Freespace, Wing Commander, and so forth.

Here are some other fantasies I'm likely to address in the coming weeks: managing a space station, flying a dragon and dogfighting agains other dragon riders, creating a fighting with magical spells, and being a supervillain.

The other side to this basic concept is that some games are so totally original that they don't really fill an existing desire. The most popular example would have to be Tetris, along with most other puzzle games (Dr. Mario, Columns, Bejeweled and most of the other games up on Popcap.com, and so forth.)

Another recent example of a game that's taken many people by surprise is Katamari Damacy: it's such an original (but simple!) concept that no one could have had the desire to do what they do in the game, yet it's a successful game.

But note that most of those games that don't fill a desire or fantasy for the player tend to be extremely original and artistic in the way they're presented. They tend to be very rare, and so they could be considered the exception to the "rule" I postulated above.

So if you want to raise your chances of working on a successful game, start by thinking about the one thing you wish you could do, but can't. Chances are it'll lead to a compelling game.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Steal this Game Design: Lightspeed


Lightspeed

Overtake your opponents at the SPEED OF LIGHT!

Overview

Lightspeed is a racing game in space. The player flies his one-man ship like a starfighter or fighter plane. The controls are laid out in a similar way to what is found in games such as the X-Wing series, the Freespace series, and so on.
Similar games may include:
  1. Plane Crazy, by Segasoft, which had floaty, imprecise controls and some dubious game mechanics (it was still fun, however.)
  2. F-Zero X and F-Zero GX, by Nintendo, which constrain the player to a track, so that they feel more like terrestrial racing games than true 6-degrees of freedom racing.
  3. Rocket Jockey, by Segasoft, where one of the gameplay types was a somewhat more freeform type of racing than most racing games offer.
Gameplay

Racing types vary; for some races, the player is required to go through a course made out of rings, other races have more of a rally-style structure where you have to go by or past a few specific checkpoints. Further racing styles may include flying through long pipes or tunnels, or require the player to shoot special targets down along the way (biathlon-style).

Except for the biathlon type of race, weapons are rare, meaning that, when permitted and available, the player will likely only have very limited ammo, say, 3-4 shots. A few basic weapons simply damage opponents, but there are also specialized weapons that have very specific effects, affecting the opponent's weapons, speed, maneuverability, or course. For example, one weapon can be shot in a continuous stream not unlike silly-string, and if a continuous shot hits an enemy and then another object (or another enemy!) the two are then stuck together, on a leash.

The ships are extremely customizable. Many different basic hulls are available, and the ship building module shows all the "attach-points" on the hull for various components, such as engines, weapons, generators, force fields, thrusters. Placement of components always has a significant effect on how the ship "feels" in flight.
The "attach-points" feature was inspired by playing around with the ship-building component in Galactic Civilizations.
For example, a ship with one main rocket engine and three spall thrusters will have a high top speed but less maneuverability than a ship with three rocket engines where the thrusters were on the first ship. Placing multiple thrusters or engines farther apart gives more maneuverability, at the cost of stability. The placement of other components also affects maneuverability and stability, because heavy weapons and generators affect inertia.

The player is also able to customize the paint job on his ship, and buy some cosmetic enhancements (spoilers, holograms, special paints.) These enhancements can be bought using the player's winnings.

The player's first races are in local racing leagues, but as he progresses, he'll get opportunities to race in more prestigious leagues, culminating in the space equivalent of F1. Up until reaching the top league, the player also receives "private" racing challenges from other racers, and these are special challenges where the player can make extra money. Some of these challenges may involve out-of-the-ordinary mechanics, such as orbit-racing around a planet, where flying as close as possible to the planet gives better speed, but fly too close, in the wrong trajectory, and you run the risk of slingshotting out of orbit in a hyperbolic trajectory, losing all hope of winning the race.

As the player progresses up the league structure, the new tracks that are unlocked tend to become more complex. At the beginning, most of the tracks tend to be very flat, with only a little deformation in the third dimension, but the more advanced the tracks, the more they twist and turn in all three dimensions, gradually removing any distinction between up and down.

Graphics

The ships and course objects have to look as real and solid as possible, with damage modeled as accurately as possible. At the same time, however, ships and environments have to be colorful and stylish, with ships gradually accumulating sponsors on their hulls as the player climbs up the league structure. The impression of speed must be maintained as much as possible, so there should always be at least one object close to the player, moving off-frame to provide that impression of speed.

Sound

Sound effects should be exaggerated. Engine sounds provide cues as to how hard the engines are being pushed, how hot they're running, and if anything's not working properly. Weapon sounds should be impressive and powerful, as well as funny for some of the special weapons. The announcer voice should be very excited, although having multiple different announcers (some female, some obviously alien, and some robotic) could also be fun. Collision and weapon hit sounds should be positional and provide cues as to the extent of the damage.

Music

The music should vary between spacey (à la Pink Floyd) and heavy rock (à la Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and so forth.) Ideally, the music can flow seamlessly between those two styles: instead of full songs, the music is built up from shorter bits (30-120 secs.) that crossfade into one another. The last lap or the last 30 seconds of a race should always use faster-tempo music. Most of the music should be instrumental, but the front-end music can have some sung lyrics.

Multiplayer

There are two parts to the multiplayer:
  1. All racing forms and all tracks can be raced on online against other human players. An online league structure defines the constraints for building up ships (for example, some low-level leagues might limit the amount of money that can be put into a ship, or require/prohibit the use of certain components.) If it's worthwhile, the game can also offer a split-screen mode.
  2. Players can also design and customize ships in the "garage" part of the game. These ships can then be "sold" to other players online. Each ship is rated so that players will know if they're buying ships that are allowed in the leagues they want to play in.





I would love to hear all your comments, criticism, and any additional ideas you might come up with for this potential game.