Tuesday, June 5, 2007

More thoughts on game design...

I figure that sharing this info probably makes for the more interesting blog entries. This is gonna be a multi-part entry so that I don't end up writing a novel in one day and boring you, or entertaining and informing you so much in a single 24 hour period that your head literally explodes.

Here is a movie where you can watch my original title called Antskrieg being played by myself and friend of mine in Skill City.

Designing this game was an absolute blast. How come? Well for starters my kitchen was over run with gross little wiggly ants that morning and I find that even the most mundane tasks spark my imagination. Second, seeing your imagination come to life and then be shared by other people is a reward that defies words. You just have to try it.

Im in the middle, or what I actually hope is the end, of the fine-tuning process on our new game called Potions 101. I think I have said it already, its a game that is inspired by the title Dr. Mario.

This game was fun, but it was also extremely short lived for me. I beat one or two levels and then put it away because it didn't keep my interest. Multiplayer mode was even worse for me. It was just a race to clear your screen of the little dancing germ monsters.

If I could place all video game design in to categories, I would place this one in the "taking an existing product, and improving it so much its barely comparable to its parent." There are of course many other categories like "totally original production" or "slight upgrade to existing product."

My project with Dr Mario fit in to the first one, because clearly there is a game out there that I have played before and thought to myself "Hey this is nice, but I got tired of it too fast, here is what I would do if I was The King." Not that King, I don't wish I was Elvis, although I do wish I could do karate with a cape on and look even half as awesome as he did.

First place I start is to list out what I don't like about Dr. Mario. Well I sort of said it already:
1. Its too short. Levels are just a race to clear a few guys and then you move on to a level with more guys, repeat until you get bored which is going to be about ten minutes.
2. Multiplayer is awful and features no competitive interaction.
3. We don't live in an 8-bit world any more, so lets update everything
4. Add some depth to the game by looking at how the mechanic can be expanded. I'm talking basic game mechanic here, not just multiplayer or "lets add another color" although that is part of it.

Now that I have an enumerated list its going to be much easier to explain how I diverge from the parent product. First of all its too short. I play a lot of puzzle games, seriously tons, their weight alone could crush a star. I found that for me, and for those I observed playing, most people tend to lose interest if a level or match goes beyond just a few minutes. I'm not saying that playing a level forever doesn't have its appeal, I get plenty of emails asking for something like Quadria to run forever with no timer. I am saying that a game needs a limit, and if its not something like gravity where the pieces simply fall faster and faster until you are forced out, then it needs a hard time limit. I fall back on my secret love of 2-d fighters (Darkstalkers how I love thee) and say that a puzzle match is just like a fighter match. If both characters are equal, the match could last 8 minutes or more as they trade attacks and counters and blocks. Time itself will then decide the victor.

In Dr. Mario, like most other puzzles, you can also fill your screen, which will end your game. Im a fan of that mechanic too, it forces you to play smart.

So how is Dr. Mario short? What do I mean by short? Well you clear the bad guys and the level ends. You are then met with a new level of bad guys, clear field, and you just go at it all over again. Its like painting a bridge, get to one end and you turn around and start painting it again towards the other end. You know they do that right? Now you have a new cliche in your verbal arsenal.

I wanted to make Potions seem like it just goes on and on, because if you are good at it you could certainly last forever. Those who aren't good at it, well they can pretty easily last over the 3 minute match time. This is true of fighters IMHO, though fighters do get tough to go forever since you have limited life.

I decided to change the mechanic. Now when you clear the bad guys, you don't move on with tabula rasa. You get more, plus one for each time you have cleared, and your puzzle pieces from last time remain on the field, littering it with debris that now mocks you. You must clear down through that field of trash you left behind from a rushed level to reach the little dancing monsters who have now spawned afresh. This effects the entire game now. Not just up to the point you beat the level and cleared all the bad guys. Now your mistakes in the past, the trash you left behind is still there and its incredibly dangerous to your survival of this next round. Its also profitable, as you have more stuff to clear and thus rack up some points. Maybe you were smart and left it configured in such a way that it will trigger combos and give you even more points?

With this largely negative impact on clearing a level, there has to come a positive as well. Unbalanced games are genuinely un-fun. I further changed the mechanic: new pieces! Instead of adding more bad guys or more colors to manage, I just added a random power-up piece that you will get to toss in to your field. It gives you hope in dark times, it gives you something to look forward to, and most of all it helps get rid of all the junk on your screen: bombs!

Its a traditional "blows up everything around it when it lands" sort of piece. Nothing flashy, it just didnt exist before and I think it helps to balance out the fact that your field can now fill with debris and kill you pretty quickly if you aren't strategic.

So thats how I met two requirements, I made the game infinite, and to do that I modified the mechanic to balance out those changes. I do think I made the game a little harder by doing this. Originally Dr. Mario required little thought until you were up in to ten or more levels of play, I often found I didn't get that far out of sheer boredom with the mechanic though.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the other stuff I changed, and even some changes I haven't made up my mind on.


Illusion of Doing said...

I've played a lot of multiplayer Dr. Mario, against people who are far far better than I am.

In both 2 and 4 player, the standard setup would be to choose a fairly advanced garbage-level (normally 15 out of 20, =/- personal handicaps) and then play from there.

If you're working with only a few free lines of space, every block placement is critical. In that restrictive environment, the otherwise minor Dr. Mario trash mechanics (what is it, one block per break over 4? +1 for chains?) can be brutal. And while games can still drag on, the folks I played with were good enough to clear a lvl 18 screen in a few minutes, tops.

So, there we see a small group doing engaging in a similar process to the one you describe. Use the tools available to restrict the gameplay in a way that enhances head to head play.

Personally, I'm excited and terrified by the idea of a persistent playfield in Potions. How many times have I laughed and waved goodbye to a cluttered and trashed landscape in Dr. Mario or Sailing, knowing that as soon as I slipped the last piece into place, I'd never have to work with any of that crap again.

"That wasn't part of the deal Mayor! That wasn't part!!!"

Illusion of Doing said...

Um, that was me.