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!


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).


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.)


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.


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?)


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.


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:

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