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Posts Tagged ‘Game Design’

So… Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is back in Draenor.  I liked the first visit, with the weirdly shattered, floating-in-space landscape, but hey, if they could Cataclysm the geewhillikers out of Azeroth (a pox on them for flooding Thousand Spires!), they can go fix Draenor with some superglue and spackle.

I have something of a love/disgruntled relationship with World of Warcraft.  There are elements of it that I don’t care for, but it’s a lovely world and I love flying around in it.  I did finally get a character to the level cap in Pandaria, and do a little shuffling around in the endgame dungeons and Timeless Isle.  Since I hit level 90, I can fly around Pandaria, too, and that meant I spent a few days’ worth of game time just flying around, taking screenshots.  I still have fun with the game, warts and all.  That last binge used up my last game credit from the now-defunct WoW Visa, though, which is unfortunate.

Lately I’ve been wondering if I can’t kill two birds with one stone, though.  Y’see, I’ve been supremely busy of late trying to find a job after circumstance effectively “retired” me from the game industry.  I’ve worked as a Technical Artist in games for almost a decade, but with a crummy economy and young, enthusiastic grads always ready to be fed to the beast, I was over the hill anyway, and fell out of the industry due to a company downsizing.

So it goes.

Anyway, wouldn’t it be grand to have a fairy godpatron step up and offer me a full time job, being a tourist and photographer in the revised Draenor?  Take screenshots, write guides, opine about… everything.  I know, I know, that’s the dream of millions of devoted Blizzard devotees, and I’m just as likely to point out problems as I am to praise the finer points.  Who would pay for that?

I’m sure I’ll play around in Draenor once the expansion goes on sale and I can free up some time and justify the cost.  (The cost isn’t just the $15, it’s the time spent since I have to get what I want to done before the timer runs out.)  I’ll take some screenshots, mess around in a few dungeons, have some fun.

In the meantime, it’s good to see people having fun in the game.  It’s not a perfect game, but it’s hanging in there, and though I don’t have a hand in its creation, it is nice to see a game appreciated by its patrons.  Sometimes the simple joy of playing is lost in the periodic waves of griping, and the early days of a WoW expansion tend to hit higher points of optimism in the expansion life cycle waveform.

So… have fun, everyone!  I’ll be along later.

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I’ve been dabbling in game design again.  It’s just one of those things that I do to keep myself from stressing too much, and since this whole “being unemployed” is really stressful, well, I’ve been doing a lot of creative things to destress.  I suppose I could have played more games to get through my backlog, but creative pursuits just seem more wise in the long run, since there’s at least some potential to make some money to pay a portion of the bills.

That’s part of why I did the Tinker Gearcoin Kickstarter.  It turned out really well, so thank you, all of you, who were a part of the campaign!  Despite the pretty numbers that we posted there, it’s still not a career replacement stream of revenue, though, so I keep on creating.

EleChromaroundBack

Anyway, this Chromaround game may someday turn into a project that we put on Kickstarter, just to get them professionally printed on spiffy paper, complete with a nice box and shrink wrapping.  We may put them up on TheGameCrafter.com before that as well, like we did for the Tinker Deck prototypes, but the whole point of taking it to Kickstarter is to get a bulk deal going to leverage the economy of scale that we get from printing a large quantity of decks.

For the moment, though, we need to really put it through the wringer and playtest the game to make sure it’s ready for release.  I’ve ordered some sample decks from Artscow.com for testing here, and I may send some out to other interested parties.  We’re also offering this “print and play” version of the game (again, like we did for the Tinker Decks).  It’s technically based around color, so printing in black and white won’t give the full effect of the game, but I’ve tried to make it possible to work for colorblind players with the elemental logos.

Rules for the core game are below.  This is where we really would love some input, if you’re up for some experimentation.  These cards could be used for several different games, actually, especially if we make them hexagonal and have the outer gems sliced in half (so they could be placed side by side to create a whole gem, making for puzzles and position-based games), but for now we’re just looking to develop this one.  (The game is playable by 2 to 8 players, though there are special rules for two players.)  Words that are bold are key terms for the game.

Thank you everyone!

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Chromaround 1.0

Card Components

Each card has a Core (large colored gem) that consists of one or two colors, and a set of smaller outer Gems that indicate what colors of opponent Cores that card can defeat.  A dual color Core is considered to be both colors, and therefore may be defeated by any other card that could defeat either of its colors.  The grey “chips” around the perimeter are placeholders and do not affect either offense or defense.  Each color has an attendant elemental logo to help identification, especially for color blind players, but these logos do not have a direct impact on play in this game.

Goal

Players are trying to collect the most points.  Each trick you collect is worth one point.  (For a more complex game, score by counting the Cores that you collect in tricks that you win.  Single color Cores are worth one point, dual color Cores are worth two points.)  A trick consists of the stack of cards after every player has played a single card.  (Two cards per player if playing with two players.)  

A round is completed when all players have exhausted their hands.  A game may consist of one round or several, depending on how long you’d like to play.  We suggest letting each player be the dealer once (change the dealer each round) as a simple baseline.  Record your cumulative score after each round.  The player with the most points after all rounds is the winner.

Setup

For each round, shuffle all the cards and deal 5 cards to each player.  (10 for each if you’re playing with two players.)  ***This is an easy place to suggest variation.  Odd numbers of cards make scoring less likely to produce ties, and fewer cards make play faster and decisions easier.  Two player games tend to play better when each player can play two cards per trick.***

Set aside the rest of the deck.  The rest of the deck is only used during play in a two player game.

Basic Play Structure

The first player plays any card from their hand.  This is the lead card for the trick.  (If you are playing with two players, for each trick, flip over the top card of the deck as the lead card, then proceed as usual.)

Each player must then play a card from their hand (see below in Card Interaction for how this works), taking turns in sequence.  After every player has played one card (two if playing with two players), the owner of the top card on the stack takes all of the cards in the stack.  (This is a trick, which is relevant for one style of scoring.)

The player who took the trick starts the next one, playing the next lead card (or card after the lead card if playing with two players).

Once all players have played all their cards, it is the end of a round, and you should record your scores.

Card Interaction

When a player must play a card, they may play any card they have in hand.  If the card played can defeat the top card already in play on the stack, it is placed on top of the stack and becomes the new top card.  If the card played cannot defeat the existing top card, it must be placed somewhere under it (order does not matter), and the existing top card retains its position on top.  (Keep track of what you play, since the player who played the card that remains the top card at the end of the trick claims the cards in the stack.)

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And that should cover it.  It’s designed to be fairly simple and quick, at least before you start trying to plan a few plays ahead.

The big question we have is, well… is it fun?  Also, is it actually simple and quick?  Does it allow for any sort of strategies or interesting decisions, or is it so easy to play that there’s not much mental meat to it?  (That’s not enough to kill the game, but it could constrain its appeal to children learning colors and how to play card games… more of a gateway game rather than one to break out in more serious settings.)

We have two big structural questions beyond that, though.

One is about the cards and their Core-Gems system.  Presently, they are designed in two “paper rock scissors” triangles (primary colors clockwise and secondary colors counterclockwise) such that:

  • Blue always defeats Purple and Red
  • Red always defeats Orange and Yellow
  • Yellow always defeats Green and Blue
  • Purple always defeats Blue and Green
  • Green always defeats Yellow and Orange
  • Orange always defeats Red and Purple

This was a simple rule to allow for some element of memorization and planning, to see if it’s possible to force others to play into your longer term strategies.

It might prove more interesting to make the perimeter gems more varied by making the perimeter gems more arbitrary and not follow a pattern.  This would make planning almost impossible, but it may make for more varied and unpredictable play, for better or worse.  Would you like a more unpredictable set of outer gems on each card?  (This has considerations for alternate game rules as well, like card placement games, if we can get them made as hexagonal cards.)

Two, do the dual color Cores help or hinder the game?  There are some clear tiers of efficiency among color combinations, but dual color Cores might make the game too easy, meaning the last player in a trick is almost always going to be the one to win that trick, since most can defeat a wider array of other Cores, and each in turn can be defeated by a wider array of attackers.  The hope was to make the game more varied but still allow some planning, but they may not actually be performing that function.  They also make scoring more varied, with some more subtle decision making about when to play them, but maybe that effect is also not working, or is not interesting enough.

If the answer to the first question is “yes, make the perimeter gems more arbitrary and unpredictable” it would naturally affect the approach to the second question, as the cards could be balanced along different lines.  The dual color Cores are inherently a “more options on offense and more weaknesses on defense” sort of system, but they need not stay that way if the color defeat cycles are broken.

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Thank you everyone for your interest and feedback!  Comments here or via email to tishtoshtesh at gmail will be most appreciated.

I can’t help but feel that there’s something here, but the game really needs to be put through the paces to see.  I look forward to any opinions or data points you might offer!

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The deck is designed as a standard-ish 54 card deck.  That means you’ll print one of each of these and then three more copies of the simple single color Core cards (so there will be four copies of the single color Core cards and single copies of each of the dual color Core cards).  The backs are optional, of course.

ChromaroundPower ChromaroundSA1Pri ChromaroundSA1Sec ChromaroundSA2 ChromaroundSimple ChromaroundWeak ChromaroundBacks

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Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been a month since I deleted Marvel Puzzle Quest from my smartphone.  I played the game for almost six months and had a decent roster of characters built up.  And yet… almost every single change that the developers made during the time I played the game made the game less appealing.  I finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to like it any more, and gave up.

The sad part is that the core gameplay is actually really solid.  The puzzle combat isn’t finely balanced, but I’m fine with that, as I don’t mind a bit of imbalance.  It is well crafted and adds some nice twists to the Puzzle Quest formula.  If the game can be taken purely on its combat, it’s a fine addition to the pedigree.

And yet, the progression scheme and monetization scheme (intricately tied together, but even without monetization, the progression would be awful) just kill the game in the long run.  Of course, that’s “kill the game for me”, since it’s apparently still live and gathering clients, but I would really love to see some numbers on what sort of churn they are seeing.  It is very much a “winners win more” game, with elements that skirt the dreaded “pay to win” area.  Some of the judgment on the latter depends on how you define the phrase, but for me, it’s clearly designed to give an edge to those who spend inordinate amounts of money on the game, in no small part because of how glacial the progression system is, and that you can pay to speed it up.

This is not anything new in the F2P arena, to be sure, and it’s less grievous than being able to flat out buy victories, but it does undermine what could be very satisfying PvP combat puzzling.

In the end, though, it wasn’t any single huge change that made me uninstall the game.  It was a death by degree.  The poor progression scheme.  Nothing worth spending money on (which saved me money, but it was still what I thought of as poor design).  New characters introduced fairly regularly… but predominantly at the rare tier, so recruiting them was a crapshoot with their slot machine sort of character acquisition.  (Almost everything in the game is tied to a random chance of acquisition or absurdly overpriced… sometimes both.)  The change in healing so that it was limited to the combat of the moment.  Damage persists after a fight, limiting the ability to play multiple rounds in succession unless you heal in the fight or pay for refills between fights.  You get a few free refills, but they don’t last long if you’re in a heated race to top the competition boards to get some character you’d like.  You can buy refills or wait for them to recharge, 1 every 35 minutes, and you can hold 5 at a time.  (With 3 characters in combat, that’s not a lot of healing to go around.)  Competition is mostly PvP of a sort (never against other players; the AI just takes their team and runs it), which isn’t terrible, but PvP really needs to be balanced to be fun, and when character levels can be as disparate as they are in the game, it gets old when you play a few successful rounds and then get matched with an overpowered team you have no chance of beating.  Normalized PvP (like Guild Wars) where skill and team composition rule would go a long way to making the game better… but that sort of level playing field is harder to monetize.

Playing the moment to moment combat was still good fun.  It’s just… everything else isn’t, and the combat alone isn’t enough to save the game.

On the other hand, there’s Slingshot Braves.  It’s sort of a weird mix of PS1-era graphics (so it still looks good; I’m playing on a phone for crying out loud), Squids and Angry Birds, with a gear upgrade system that feels a bit like Puzzle & Dragons (consume hundreds of little pieces of loot to level up your gear) and a newly introduced gem/slot system that is a bit like socketed gear in a Blizzard game, but you can also level up the gems by combining several of a kind, and you can move some gems around, so it has a slight FFVII flavor.  It’s simple, but the five weapons are fairly elegantly designed, each with its own niche.  Leveling gear is slow, and the only way to make your team stronger, but it feels just fast enough to be acceptable.  Marvel Puzzle Quest’s character leveling is very, very slow by comparison.

Acquiring gear is only done via very rare loot drops or by the “Gacha” system.  It’s effectively a gear slot machine.  This is a bit annoying, but the game provides you with enough “gems” (the currency you can buy directly or earn via play or the occasional promotion) to get the occasional new bit of gear in that system.  Gear is in four tiers (C, B, A, and S, increasing in value), and you’re guaranteed at least a B level bit of gear in the Gacha.  It’s a bit annoying in that the best gear seems to be in the Gacha gamble, but at the same time, you can level up your gear and evolve it to a higher tier with enough little loot drops, so you can grind into some good gear eventually.  It’s slow, and annoying to get great new gear that you then have to level up, but that’s the quirk that comes with leveling gear in general.  It’s still much faster than MPQ’s system, and less frustrating.

I’m not sure there’s much that offers good value for real money here, either, but at least progress in the game isn’t as tedious as is is in MPQ.  You can buy gems, which allow character renaming, larger loot libraries, Gacha “pulls” and stamina refills (each mission you play consumes stamina, which recharges slowly; a standard F2P throttle).  Still, it’s not necessary, and most importantly, buying gems doesn’t have a huge effect on your success or pace of progress.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the only multiplayer system is a cooperative one, so it’s OK if someone else is stronger than you.  You both win faster that way.  There is some light competition among scoring leaderboards on some events, but the majority of the time any reason you have to care about the gear other players have is in how much it helps you, not how hard it is to beat.  That’s a huge underlying shift in assumptions and goals, and it makes a world of difference.

…and is it telling that the progression scheme is the first thing I write about?  That’s really where these games live or die, since that’s where they monetize, usually.  It’s also where things get annoying, and where MPQ got worse as time went on, SB just keeps getting better.  Loot drops have been made more frequent, promotions give people more goods to work with, the gear Gacha was split into a weapon Gacha and an Armor Gacha (anything that increases player control over the slot machine is a Good Thing for players), and the new socketing system makes gear more flexible.

But how does it play, moment to moment?  Largely like Squids, where you fire your character in a direction and watch it bounce around the arena, beating on foes or careening off of your ally unit or the walls.  Maybe it’s just the billiards fan in me, but I love that a good eye for angles and thinking ahead pays off in the game.  It’s a simpler game than MPQ, but it still seems to reward player skill, and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most in games.

So, while Marvel Puzzle Quest’s fortunes in my library sank, Slingshot Braves has risen to be the game I most prefer to play at the moment on my phone.  Tiny Dice Dungeons is another great contender, but it hasn’t seen as many “live” changes.

I find it striking that MPQ made most of its changes to try to squeeze out more monetization, and it’s obvious.  SB wants more money too, certainly, but their changes have almost uniformly felt like they were improving the progression scheme, and occasionally the combat engine.  My visceral response to the two development teams couldn’t be more opposed.  The more I see each in action, the more I like SB, and the less I like MPQ.

In a world where games can mutate and adjust over time, I think it’s critical that the changes feel like they are making the game better, and that’s really the difference between these two when it comes to whether or not I play them and recommend them.

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Last time I noted some of the great bits and a few of the bad bits of this fancy new Marvel Puzzle Quest.

It turns out that the game is still more or less in beta, and the developers are still monkeying around with the character balance, progression system and monetization.

And it turns out that most of those changes are making the game slower, harder and more expensive.

I’d still buy a single player offline version of the game, and I still recommend at least taking the game for a spin, but I cannot recommend spending money on it.  I had hoped that the continuing development would mean that the problems I highlighted last time would be alleviated.  It turns out that such a hope was, at least so far, merely a dream.  Almost every change I see on the developer forums over thisaway winds up being what I’d call Bad Design, sometimes even Twinkie Denial choices.

I actually don’t mind slower, more tactical battles on the whole, but PvP and PvE scoring races mean slower battles tilt the scales ever so slightly more in the favor of established players or those who spend more money.  With the overall “rich get richer” system in place, it’s really not a game to play if you want to make steady progress.  It’s a game to play because the core puzzle combat design is really good, and the progress side is something you can ignore.

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Seems I poked the ant nest a little, sparking a bit of a conversation with my last minipost.  Not that I’m claiming credit for anything but sparking some thoughts, though; these fine folk are doing the heavy lifting:

Syl

Rowan

Klepsacovic

I’ve commented at their places, so I’ll keep this short and hit something I haven’t touched on there, speaking of specialization and generalization.  (Since one of the tangential topics is about players and their approach to their characters, as well as how characters fit into MMO design.)

From Robert Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Disclosure:  I work at a small gaming studio, where I’ve carved out a niche of being a multifaceted employee.  I’m primarily an artist, but I dabble in design, animation, even scripting.  I love that I can be a bit of a generalist, as it makes me valuable in more situations, and keeps things interesting.  I’m not as fine of a painter as my concept artist buddies, who paint all day every day, but I’m happy where I am.  This is also why I’m not a minor cog in a big studio like Disney or EA, where I would be a specialist.  I’ve been there, and I didn’t care for it.  That said, those specialist positions don’t threaten me… they just don’t interest me.

I also play a Druid character in World of Warcraft.  It’s the most flexible class, and I latched onto it precisely because it does allow the greatest variety in play.  And flight form.  I love that.

(Oh, and as I noted at Rowan’s place, I’d push it further and let passive and maybe even active abilities persist on the character, no matter the class.  I loved Final Fantasy Tactics for how I could build a strong character by pulling from a variety of jobs/classes.  I could keep a Ninja ability on my Knight, and it was great fun.  I’d love to see that in an MMO.)

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So… PAX is ruffling feathers with their “diversity” panel.  Seems like comments around the web range from outraged to offended to offensive to dismissive.  Coincidentally, a few days earlier, I made a comment on diversity in literature over at tor.com (#7) that pretty much covers what I think about diversity and how I’m fond of MLK’s dream, and ran into a person (comment #8) who espouses a position that I find… baffling.  I suppose that their position is where Affirmative Action comes from, though, and I’ve always thought that to be deeply flawed.

It seems that a lot of it comes down to what I think of as tribalism.  You know, the human reflex to want to associate with those who are like you, or who are perceived as like you, and shun those that are not.  That “other” guy isn’t part of the tribe, so he isn’t to be trusted.  It filters into everything, from politics to gaming.  World of Warcraft is one easy example to point to, with their strict divide between factions, even to the point of enforcing it on otherwise genial Pandaran characters.  It’s an easy thing to leverage in game design (and psychology); whip up some fury against the Other, and the emotional argument can stay ahead of logic and evidence.

For the Horde!  Go, go, Alliance!  …or whatever.  (And ultimate victory goes to the cabal pulling the strings or jockeying for money or power, never the people doing the fighting.)

The whole core of “diversity” as a concept enhances the subconscious categorization of tribes, since everyone gets tagged and filed away in neat little categories.  It fosters continued contention as factions jockey for position and prominence.  It has always seemed to me to be Sisyphian, or perhaps Schroedingerish, where the “cure” perpetuates and even creates the problem.

When it comes to games, though, there’s an extra wrinkle.  Some people play games and imagine themselves in the game, and want their game avatars to represent them.  They want to connect with the characters on a personal identity level.  This isn’t how I play games or read books, but it’s an understandable approach.

In fiction, this is less of an issue since books aren’t assumed to have a high level of interactability.  Games, though, bank on giving players some level of autonomy, so it makes sense that players would also want their identity to be a part of that.  I don’t care about it as a player, but it’s something game designers should keep in mind because some players do care.

For a point of reference, two of my favorite books in my teens were The Blue Sword and Sabriel, despite being neither a necromancer nor a kelar-gifted horseback warrior.  I loved the heroines of those stories for what they did, and their gender and other “diversity” flags didn’t matter.  (In fact, to this day, it sticks out to me that there’s a bit in Sabriel where the lead character thinks a bit about her period.  It just seemed shoehorned in to show she missed her mother and to bracket her age… and that she’s a she.)  Rather, they were fascinating characters with interesting choices in intriguing scenarios, and I learned about life seeing them grow, even though I didn’t really identify myself with either of them.  I didn’t need to.  To quote Dumbledore, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

In games, we are given the ability to make choices.  I think this is crucial to the whole point of making a game in the first place.  It seems to me that choices are the best vector to really look at diversity.  I do love a Final Fantasy and its plucky band of teenagers and token minority characters out to save the world via weird leveling up schemes and oddball weapons, but it’s trite storytelling sometimes.

So… it’s not something that really bugs me, this push for diversity, except that I think it embraces the wrong priority.  I think that a greater diversity of motivations, choices, conundrums and consequences are the far more important direction for creators to address.  With luck, as the medium matures, this will happen naturally… though given the PAX kerfluffle and that quota-based mindset evinced in the tor.com article, I’m not sure that it will happen significantly quickly or profoundly.

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I thought this worth noting:

Allods Online is experimenting with letting players change the class of their character.

I endorse this game design, though their implementation is timid, expensive, and extremely limited.  I’d love to see this as a crack in the MMO design gestalt.  It’s a simple little thing, but it could create some interesting ripples.

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