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Posts Tagged ‘indie’

Some time ago, Psychochild mentioned his friend, Dave Toulouse, and his crazy awesome indie game development ways.  He runs a blog over at Over00, where he writes about his efforts.  I’ve been following them both on Twitter, and a couple of days ago, they announced Toulouse’s latest project, Bret Airborne, which he has written about a few times on his blog that I totally have been neglecting.  I’m so bad at keeping up lately.

Anyway, I gotta say… I like it.  A lot.  Like, enough to play it and write this post about it instead of working on my steampunk poker stuff like I probably should be doing.

Y’see, I’m a fan of Puzzle Quest.  And Puzzle Kingdoms.  And Puzzle Quest: Galactrix.  And Gyromancer.  And I’m a huge fan of Puzzle Pirates.  Muckbeast’s Tower of Elements is similarly sweet.  I’m a gamer, have been for decades, but I never did pick up the attitude that “match 3″ or other simple puzzle games are unworthy of attention.  I like puzzle games, and though they may be “light” gaming fare most of the time, that’s not a bad thing.  I also happen to love RPGs, so splicing in some RPG DNA into puzzle games is a Good Idea in my eyes.

Bret Airborne is definitely a mutation of the Puzzle Quest school of design.  This is an expression of praise, at least as far as I’m concerned.  It uses some of  the standard match 3 game design elements, with swapping items, new pieces dropping in from above, that sort of thing.  It is basically PvP puzzling, like Puzzle Quest is, complete with special attacks (using energy from matches you’ve made) that you can use to make the experience a bit more strategic.  It’s pretty simple to understand, and the learning curve is kind.

BretAirborne

It builds on the Puzzle Quest design in a few important ways (that I’ve seen, there may be others), though.  First, the playing field is split between the two players, though it’s still technically a shared space.  If you get matches of 4 at a time or more, you can push your zone of control of the shared space into the opponent’s territory (that bar in the middle scoots over, opening up a new column to control), messing up their plans or using their resources.  At first, I thought this was too constraining and potentially too swingy, but it actually plays very nicely.  I thought the scoot was persistent, silly me.  It actually resets at the beginning of each player’s turn.  It certainly penalizes bad luck and bad defensive play, but it just feels right, like my own play is more important than luck.  This is a Good Thing.

Second, and I can’t emphasize how much this made me happy, you’re not constrained to making moves that create matches.  You can make a move that sets things up for the future, though if you don’t make a match, the opponent gets a boost to their zone of control on their next turn.  I have always loved Bilging in Puzzle Pirates for exactly this, the ability to shuffle things around without the necessity of matching every time you make a move.  In that game, you do take a scoring penalty, but if you play smart, you can set up big combos that more than make up for the penalty.  This freedom is a beautiful thing, and it’s awesome to see it in Bret Airborne.  This also means the board will never reset itself if it gets into a locked position, which again facilitates planning over randomness.  This is a subtle thing, perhaps, but it’s something that makes the game a joy to play for me, rather than the frustration that the persnickity prototypical Bejeweled clones tend to offer.

It also has a few of what I call “quality of life” improvements.  One that made me smile was that matching two sets of three in an L or T shape doesn’t just register as two threes, it registers as five at a time matched, with the concurrent zone increase bonus.  Again, it’s a subtle thing, but it really helps me enjoy the game.  No longer do I have to choose to match a four in a row (to get the zone bonus and extra move) and leave a bit of clutter with that fifth piece as the odd man out.  If the gems are in the right formation, I can play with an eye to keeping the board cleaner, which enables further tricks down the road and still get the bonus for matching more than the baseline three.  Maybe this is “easy mode” to purists, but I love it.  The suite of tricks that you can learn to make combat more interesting are excellent, too.  There isn’t quite the array of abilities that Puzzle Quest has, but then, it doesn’t have the class system, either, so it’s nice and flexible.  One other, simple thing… it lets me click over to my second monitor without freaking out, crashing or nuking my computer.  No Alt-Tab necessary.  This is a little thing, but I love it.  It’s like Star Trek Online in that regard… and it’s something that WoW, in all its pomp, still fails at sometimes.  (Alt-Tabbing out of it crashes the game half the time for me.  It’s a jealous game.)  Bret Airborne runs in full screen mode nicely on one monitor while I do my thing on the other, like writing this post, and it doesn’t try to wreck my workflow.  It’s a genial game.  Again, simple quality of life improvement, and it’s a shame I have to mention it as an aberration, but I appreciate it.

Oh, and it’s Steampunk themed.  This also makes me smile.  The art is fairly simple, but it’s clean, readable and stylistic.  It won’t compete with Bioshock Infinite (since y’know, that’s important or something), and there are some things I’d do differently (I’m an artist, after all), but that’s just me nitpicking.  The play’s the thing, and Bret Airborne is simply a joy to play.  Maybe it’s a little “plain Jane” to look at, but it’s a beauty in action.

Go get the demo.  Play it.  Buy it.  It’s worth it.  I’ve been picky with what games I buy lately, mostly because I don’t have time to play, but this is one that I’m happy to have found.  I recommend it highly.

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A little while back, Muckbeast of Frogdice, a fellow blogger who used to write an incisive game design-heavy blog (now sadly apparently lost to the 404 archives), asked me to take a look at his company’s latest indie Unity-based game offering, Tower of Elements.  It’s sort of an oddball little game, but I like it.  Partly because it’s a stew of disparate elements that seem to mesh well together.

I’m the sort of gamer who loves genre and mechanic blends like Puzzle Quest.  I’ve indulged in mixing and matching game design elements before, like this article on a game I still wish would be made.  (I’d be happy to make it, but I’m kinda… not rich.  Not even close.)  So, this Tower of Elements thing, combining bits and bobs of match-3, tower defense and RPGish progression elements, is just the sort of weird mashup that makes me happy.

This video gives a good sense of the core gameplay:

I can’t say for sure that it’s a game that I’d play for dozens of hours like I did Puzzle Quest, but it is one that I’d at least like to spend a good chunk of time with.  There’s a ten level demo that’s worth investigating, if nothing else.  I know, I know, match-3 games aren’t exactly novel, but there’s some good design in making the matching spatially relevant as it’s the way you attack the hordes at the gates.  Spatially sensitive, time-sensitive match-3 is a nice riff on the genre, and there’s a whole system of upgrades, utility spells (to change the playing field and mess with enemies, always nice) and progression that is icing on the cake.

For the next week or so, they are also running a promotion to get some meals to people who need them through these guys, as part of buying the game.  It’s a nice side effect of picking up the game, methinketh.

Anyway, I wish I could give you a rundown of the full game, but my time is very constrained of late.  I’m poking my head up on this because I think it looks like a good game, and there’s that time-sensitive promotion involved.

Oh, and Muckbeast shared a 50% off code as well, so, y’know, that’s cool, too.

CFXR000QV

Tally ho!

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I had no idea this was in the works.  Sneaky ninjas.

The Indie Royale guys have a new bundle up of NinjaBee games, four with a fifth if you beat the minimum price.  I’ve worked on four of these, though, admittedly, only on a phone port for Outpost Kaloki, not the original game.  Cloning Clyde was done before I joined the Wahoo/NinjaBee team, as was the original Outpost Kaloki.

Still, I did a few bits of the art for Ancients of Ooga, a fair bit of art for Band of Bugs, and a lot of art for A Kingdom for Keflings.  (Oh, and we’re working on more DLC for the sequel, A World of Keflings, as a result of this contest from a little while ago.)

So yeah, go check it out, y’all!  It’s hard to beat the price on these.  Am I shilling for my company?  Yes, yes I am.  They are good games, too, and ones I’d recommend as great indie titles anyway.  I have a soft spot for Band of Bugs especially, tactical game nerd that I am.

Oh, and speaking of ninjas and hidden secret things, I’ll come back to that “hidden” photo from last post.  There’s an art point I want to make with it, but I’ll let it sit for the weekend.

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The original X-Com is on my short list of favorite games.  It was my first foray into tactical games, and since then, I’ve steeped my gaming sensibilities in other masterpieces such as Master of Orion 1 & 2, Master of Magic, Civilization, Front Mission, Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea and Ogre Battle.  I never did play Laser Squad Nemesis, but the Gameboy Advance game Rebelstar: Tactical Command captured a bit of the old X-Com magic.  One of the first projects I worked on here at NinjaBee/Wahoo was our little gem Band of Bugs.

Similarly, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about tabletop tactical games like WarHammer and WarMachine, and I’m developing one of my own I’m calling Zomblobs! that may well wind up being a sister game to another one I have in mind (the sooper sekrit *redacted* project), not unlike the mesh between WarMachine and Hordes.  I have a lot of ideas for tactical games, and it’s been a blast to try to make one and see if there’s something to those ideas.

Let’s just say that I love tactical and strategic games.  They run deep in my gaming DNA.

So when I heard that the BioShock guys were making an XCOM game, at first, I thought “great, a resurrection of the fantastic tactical game by some guys who have no small amount of game prettification experience!”.  After a bit of cursory research, though, my response was pretty much the same as Shamus’ over at Twenty Sided and Jay’s over at The Rampant Coyote.  In short, it wasn’t quite the Darth Vaderish “NoOoOoOOO!”, but it was pretty close.  I had to go and play the original (I bought the whole bunch of them on sale over at Direct2Drive, also available on Steam, and conveniently on sale today), just to wash the 2K out of my brain.  Shamus later followed up with this lovely extended rant, and I found myself nodding along.  Seriously… this just bugged me so much I had to ignore it or slip into mild-mannered nerdrage.

…tangentially, I find it interesting that my flavor of nerdrage expression was to buy the original game in protest, even though I still have the CDs for the first two games in my library somewhere.  That probably borders on ineffective.  This might also be why my efforts to resurrect the Chrono series by buying ‘Trigger on all platforms and playing the OST for CT and CC every week isn’t doing so well.  Anyway…

Yesterday, it was with much happiness that I found out there is a team of intrepid indies working on a game they call Xenonauts, a little gem that looks to be nicely faithful to the original X-Com.  While I haven’t bought in yet, Minecraft is the only other game I’ve spent money on while it’s still in development, and I’m sorely tempted here.  Maybe I’ll get it after passing on a few more junk food runs (my gaming budget is what I might have spent on junk food).

Then this morning, Firaxis pulls a vaguely mean move and announces their own resurrection of the X-Com name.  I like Firaxis.  I trust them, at least for now.  I think they might actually understand X-Com and be able to bring it into the 2010s.  That sure has the potential to put the bootheel of Bigger Business on the Xenonauts team, though.

As ambivalent as I am about Firaxis maybe poaching indie efforts, both teams really are poaching the X-Com name in the first place, so I can’t get too fussy about it.  If anything, the competition between the two could be a healthy thing, making for better games.  I do hope that the Firaxis effort doesn’t destroy the livelihood of  the Xenonauts team, but mining nostalgia is a dangerous game.  (Never mind the IP legalhounds and shenanigans that come up with things like the Chrono Resurrection project.)  The squishy territory covered by tribute, homage, mimicry and plagiarism is a minefield.

May the true inheritor of the X-Com throne rise up!

…but if they both flub it, will someone else please try again?

…and I dearly hope that the 2K iteration doesn’t become the most successful one.  That would just be… sad.

UPDATED with more info at the following pair of articles,

Why Firaxis Loves X-Com

First Screens and Details

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Kinda busy here, sorry, but I wanted to point out a few indie games that have caught my eye of late.

First up, Jay from Rampant Coyote has finished his Frayed Knights game!  I’ve been following his excellent developer articles on the game for a while now.  He used to work here at Wahoo/NinjaBee, but he left shortly after I started, and he’s been working on Frayed Knights for a while.  It’s great to see it in finished form, and I wish him much success with the game.  I’ve not played the demo yet, but I’m going to make time to do so.

Second, the Humble Bundle guys are at it again.  This time, there’s a new twist; you can get the core Frozen Synapse for any price (and it’s a fantastic game, one I highly recommend), but if you beat the average price, you get a handful of other games.  It’s a clever marketing ploy, and it will be interesting to see how it pans out.

Third, Muckbeast and his Frogdice team have whipped up a curious game they call Coin ‘n Carry.  It looks a bit like Puzzle Pirates to me, and that’s a Good Thing.  I’ve not tried this one either, though I intend to when I can make the time, but Muckbeast is putting his time and money into an indie game he believes in, and that’s the heart and soul of the indie movement.  It’s worth checking out.

…and yes, I’m busy, at least partially working on my own games and illustrating a book for my mother.  The economy and politics aren’t very kind to startup businesses at the moment, so it’s a scary climate, but it’s very satisfying to work in and see others find success in.  if you get a minute, please check out the work these guys have been up to.

…and in the meantime, speaking of indies, I still have Storybricks to investigate some more.  So many cool things to do, so little time.

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Do What You Want, OKGO

Why are so many gamers content to just do as they are told?  Who exactly is to blame for not exploring the world of an MMO?  (Which is, after all, still a game, not a pure world simulator, for better or worse.)  Why, in one of the most potentially interactive entertainment mediums, are games so constrained or controlled, and so many “consumers” still so passive?

Outside of the games themselves, why do players offer critique, punditry or backseat driving without seeking to understand before demanding to be understood?  I guess it’s always just easier to blame the other guy.

Why do devs cater to player trends?  Might I suggest that at least some of them still want to make money?  That may be a tough question: make a game specifically to make money, or make the game you want to make and try to market it?

There’s a place for products that are built from a singular vision and that are uncompromising in how they approach it, counting on their labor of love to find the right audience instead of opening the tent doors to all the camels.  I suspect everyone has their pet product that might fit this mold.  I hope we never lose that corner of the game industry.  (Though it is changing thanks to budgets and tools.)

but it’s still an ecosystem of niches, not a way to survive the mainstream.  There’s gold in them thar hills, but it’s risky business.  The less risky mainstream might stumble onto a gem here and there, but by its nature, it’s more about keeping that shareholder cash flowing, and that means you can’t rock the boat much.

Oh, and challenge is still a variable, completely dependent on the perception of the player.  Too many players (and devs) don’t understand that.  There is no golden equation that collapses the player skill distribution curve into the Perfect Game.  Even player-driven variables (difficulty settings, for one) can’t possibly cover all possible players.

So what do you do?  You make the game you want to make, and you play the games you want to play.

…and let others do the same.  In a market that is ever more digitally distributed, there’s room for the mid-size games with modest scope and other assorted indie products (including hardware, apparently, which is fascinating).  The niches can work… but it may not always be easy.  They can’t try to be AAA games (barely interactive movies), they have to embrace the niche and, well… do their own thing.

As one author noted…

 Isn’t the point of an RPG — MMO or otherwise — to let me roleplay what I choose?

Not every game is one of those RPG things, but games from Puerto Rico (an interesting example as there are no dice rolls and very little mechanical randomization; the most important random elements are the other players) to Chess to Rook to StarCraft rely on player choice. Players need to make choices (not just solve problems), and devs need to let them… even if that means letting them choose not to play their game because it’s too different.  We all need to be confident in our choices and not worry so much about catering to anyone else.  I think we get better games and better gamers that way.

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Time is an interesting thing in games.

At a very basic level, you usually have the power to pause a game.  Some games play with time more explicitly, as the recent Prince of Persia games have.  Yet others take time manipulation even further, like Braid‘s suite of time-bending mechanics, or maybe just temporal echoes like The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom.  Like death, time is one of those immutable things that we face in nature that is ripe for fictional and mechanical treatments in games, both in the narrative and in the play.  (That could be an article in itself, though, so I’ll save that for another time.)

On a more specific level, I’ve been looking at time and how it functions mechanically as a game design element, working on my own game design again.  I’ve been pulling in ideas from a variety of sources.  From the differences between “speeds” of cards in Magic the Gathering or the World of Warcraft TCG (instant, sorcery/ability… and then there’s phasing, delay counters and other oddball mechanics) to warmups and cooldowns, from turn-based RPG notions of speed to real-time games and rate of fire or travel speed, there are a lot of ways that time makes a difference in games.  Specifically when considering balance, I tend to look at speed as another “handle” to tweak in order to nudge around valuation of varied game design elements.  Mark Rosewater has written about similar things when talking card design in MtG, so before I blather too much more, may I recommend an article or two of his?

Mark Rosewater Q & A

Plenty of Time

You Make the Card FAQ

Equipment to Be (especially the Topic #6 subsection)

That last one is likely where I latched onto the idea of “knobs” to tweak when defining costs on game mechanics.  I’m pretty sure he’s written about it elsewhere, but durned if I can’t find those articles.  Point being, the cost/benefit ratio for each game design element is an important factor of balance.

In MtG terms, two similar cards might be allotted the same level of power but that power might be expressed in different ways.  One might be an “instant” card with a cheap effect, while the other is a slower “sorcery” card with a more powerful effect, but both have an equivalent abstract power level.  (And yes, something like a 2W 1/4 creature with an ability might have its power balance figured differently against a 2W 3/2 creature with a different ability.  MtG design isn’t always about the card’s speed… but speed is what I’m looking at today.)

So what of turn-based tactical RPG design, since that’s what I’ve been looking at in my other articles (this, a game of my own design, so I can speak with some authority about the thought processes behind it)?

Balance, Part 1: Tao of Picasso

Balance, Part 2: Asymmetry and Art

Balance, Part 3: Systems, Defaults and Munchkins

Balance, Part 4: Triangles, Trinity and Triage

I’ve pulled inspiration from a lot of different sources on this, but four major examples stick out: Final Fantasy Tactics, Band of Bugs (the first game I worked on here at Wahoo/NinjaBee), World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy X.  Some thoughts, then…

Speed

In physics terms, “speed” is distance per unit of time.  Many RPG systems incorporate speed as a core characteristic of units in one form or another.  Sometimes it’s “agility” which affects a variety of things, sometimes it’s a simple measure of d/t.  Band of Bugs expresses unit speed purely as distance (number of squares on the grid a unit can move) per turn.  Each game “turn” consists of a single action (with or without a move) by each allied and enemy unit.  Once everyone has had a shot at doing something (even if it’s only defending in place), a “turn” is over.  A fast unit can move farther each time it gets to move, while a slow unit can only move a few steps each turn.

BoB units alternate activation.  A player gets “action slots” within the turn to move their units, and a turn allocates all of its slots more or less randomly between all of the units on the field, friend or foe.  Players can choose to move whichever unit they like in their time slots.  The first two slots might be reserved for the player, but then the computer or other player might get the next two, then they may alternate single slots, then back to two.  Since it’s not “all my team moves, then all your team” like Disgaea, FFT or Valkyrie Profile, Covenant of the Plume, you’re never sure which unit the other guy will choose to move during their time slots, so it’s a little trickier to plan things out.  This rewards a more conservative set of tactics.  I’ll admit, I’m a bit annoyed that I can’t predict my opponents, and that I can’t gang up or make a front by using my units all together, but it does make for a more chaotic sort of feel, which again, rewards a different sort of play style.  It also makes more chronological sense than “all my guys go, then all yours” as if mortal combat were some sort of square dance with weapons.  …which might be sort of interesting in the right context, but I digress.

Point being, speed in BoB has more to do with how far a unit moves than anything else, and this is pretty common among TRPGs.  It seems to be largely rooted in the “turn” structure, where the balance comes in giving each unit an action per arbitrary large chunk of time we call a “turn”.  True, this may mean an enemy squad that outnumbers the player team 2 to 1 will also get twice as many actions per turn, but that’s just something that designers have to keep in mind.  (On the other hand, if a player team of four units against a computer team of eight units simply alternated these “time slots” without the overall turn structure of giving each unit one action each turn, the player units would effectively move twice as frequently as the enemy units… also clearly a weird notion of balance.  More on frequency below, though…)

Contrast that with Chess, where each player has the same number of units, and they take turns moving a single unit at a time according to that unit’s rules.  It might be said that the Queen has extraordinary speed potential, if framed in distance/move terms.  We might call her flexibility “agility”, while we’re talking about RPG terms, thereby differentiating her from the Rook and Bishop.  All three have the same speed potential (as far as they can see in a clear line), but different agility.  Of course, the game doesn’t track all that well with RPG design; imagine how the dynamics of Chess would change if you could move all of the units on your team once before your opponent got to move anything at all.  It would be almost unplayable.  (Which could lead to discussions about why TRPG teams tend to be small, and turn order advantage…)

Of course, there are the Fire Emblem games that take speed and use it differently.  The FE games use speed to determine whether a unit can attack a foe twice in a combat round, and to determine how likely an opponent is to actually hit you.  High speed means better dodge rates, then, and enough of a speed disparity between attacker and defender may well lead to one getting hit twice per exchange.  Speed doesn’t affect how often a unit moves, then, or how far (the former is determined by the “all my team, all your team” system, the latter is class-based), it affects combat.  It’s probably closer to what most games call “agility”, then, though the two-for-one strike bit does feel like a unit is simply much quicker than its opponent.  It’s such a strong tactical effect that it seems to me that many FE players prefer speed over raw power.

So, there are several different directions to take the notion of speed.  The direction you go with it will depend mightily on what you want the game to play like.  I find I like the effect speed has in the FE games, though I like the tactical utility of letting speed affect motion range.  In something like Phantom Brave, where you aren’t constrained to a grid, it can be even more useful to have a big range of motion.

Warmups and Cooldowns

Timing on actions can also be an interesting knob to tweak.  Final Fantasy Tactics has a quirky magic system (the Faith mechanic is something I’ll revisit later; I’ve used something like it in a tabletop miniatures game I’m designing) that might be parsed easily by a World of Warcraft veteran.  WoW character abilities tend to range from instant cast abilities with a wide variety of cooldown timers (time before you can use them again) through a range of what I’m calling “warmup” abilities; those that require a bit of time between activation and effect, whether it’s a “fire and forget” missile sort of thing or a “stand here and mumble for a while and eventually your effect will happen” thing.  There’s even a sort of hybrid; the “channeled” technique where the effect happens while standing there mumbling, and it keeps happening for the duration of the mumble period.  There’s also the instant-cast, lasting effect sort of spells.  There are a lot of knobs to tweak with timing there, both with the casting and the effects.

By comparison, the FFT system is pretty simple.  It’s just a warmup system where magic spells take time to cast, but once cast, they have an immediate effect.  The only cooldown is waiting for another turn to move your mage and start a new spell (and refilling magic points, I suppose, but combat doesn’t usually last that long).  There is a marked lack of what I’m calling “smart” or adaptive targeting in FFT, though.  In WoW, even your spells with a warmup time are still cast at the initial target, wherever they may be.  (OK, assume your cast isn’t interrupted, anyway.)

In FFT, you choose a target and a spell strength.  Stronger spells take more time to warm up.  …more time to allow the targeted space to change.  If memory serves, you target a place on the ground, and units may move into or out of said target.  (I don’t think you can keep targeting a unit… though if you can, you don’t know where it will move, so you may well hit friendly units with splash damage.)  Using powerful spells then naturally changes into an exercise in prediction and spatial control.  That’s all well and fine from a “depth of tactics” standpoint, or for the “I want the game to hate me” crowd, but the trouble is one of feedback.  It’s been a while since I played the game, but I seem to remember that you can’t tell when the opponent units will move.  You know how long your spell should take to cast, but not exactly who will move between casting and the effect.  It’s hard to pin down what might happen to that targeted space.  That makes it hard to use bigger spells.  If you knew who would move and when, you could predict where they might move thanks to blocking and baiting, but absent that knowledge, magic is little better than slow artillery.  Carpet bombing locations has some tactical value, but it’s an indelicate, imprecise weapon.

It seems to me that the missing piece of “when” is crucial to making that sort of warmup-based location-targeted magic useful in a turn-based system.  In WoW, where everything is real-time, that question largely goes away, since most players can just move anytime (mobility controlling spells aside, of course).  Later FFT games (FFTAdvance and FFTA2) have moved to an “instant cast” system that make tactics simpler and easier, for better or worse.  (I know, old school is the best school, and all that.)  It’s a change I like overall, but I think the predictive potential of delayed warmup magic could be better realized with better feedback on who would move when.

Back to cooldowns, though, WoW tends to use cooldowns to throttle the use of certain abilities.  More powerful abilities tend to get long cooldowns.  Utility and common abilities get short cooldowns so they can be used more often.  Players get the benefit of being able to use something right now if it needs to be used, but they have to wait to use it again.  It’s a nice balance between usability and throttling, permitting powerful abilities without them overwhelming the more common ones.

Similarly, the Kingdom Hearts series has fiddled with its magic in each iteration of the IP.  Early titles used instant-cast magic point-consuming spells (MP being yet another knob to tweak for balancing things, of course).  MP could be refilled by collecting drops from fallen foes, recharging at save points or by using items.  Later iterations of the game have dropped MP altogether and have used cooldowns to throttle magic use.  It’s an interesting change that sort of smooths out the pacing of magic use.  Instead of using a bunch in a flurry then refilling MP, players can use magic spells more regularly over time, but without the temporally concentrated burst of activity they once were capable of.  The spells refill automatically, so resource management moves from keeping track of MP and items, and more into keeping track of time.

Time as a Cost

Or, “where it all starts to come together”.

I really like using time as a cost for abilities, ideally with a mix of warmups and cooldowns.  To really make things work, I want enemy turn order to be crystal clear, so that prediction can work.  When time becomes the coin of the realm for using abilities, as a matter of feedback, it needs to be clear how things change during that time.

That’s where I’m borrowing from Final Fantasy X.  It’s one of my favorites in the FF series, partially because of the combat system.  It’s a turn-based sort of system in that it’s not “real-time, always running”.  The game waits for your input, and your characters and the enemies take turns beating on each other.  It’s a different sort of “turn” from the games I’ve written about above, though.

There’s a timeline that all unit actions fall on.  Units act when they are ready, with the frequency of their actions depending on their speed rating.  Faster units get to act more frequently.  Time itself ticks on underneath the turn order.  There’s no “each of us gets one hit on each other” ad perpetuum, it’s just characters checking against the underlying clock to see if they get to act again.  (I’m not sure what the system does in the case of a tie, but I’m not sure it matters to the user since they know ahead of time and can plan accordingly.)

As for feedback, you always know who takes the next turn and the next handful of turns after that because there is a UI element that shows you the next several actors (not their actions, just who is up to bat next for the next ten actions or so).  Further, those actions can be modified by things like Haste spells (higher frequency of actions) or Quick Attacks (low power, shortest cooldown), and the turn order shifts around to reflect that.  You can also swap characters in combat and the time layout may shift to reflect changes in the order because of the new character’s speed.  You can predict the next few moves very nicely this way and react with much more control.

It’s that sense of “time goes on” that I like, rather than the Red Rover sort of game where teams alternate attacks.  Yes, you will always get some of that “wait ’til I hit you” time stutter-step with a non-real-time combat engine, but I think that the FFX system hits a nice compromise.

This time treatment is actually fairly similar to the World of Warcraft Miniatures game, which I like quite a bit.  It’s not something that functions to the depth of a WarHammer or WarMachine tabletop game (go check out 6 Inch Move for some great articles on tabletop gaming, by the way), mostly as a matter of scale, but the WoWMinis game is pretty solid for a simplified tactical game.  That game also has a ticking time line that progresses all the time (though players track it, not the computer).  Each unit has a personal clock, and they get to act when their clock matches the master clock.  Moving (or doing nothing, actually) costs a tick, and unit attacks or abilities each have a “tick cost”, effectively a cooldown.  Their attacks are balanced against the time cost.  There are no magic points, just time costs.  (OK, if you use the optional ability bar cards, those effectively have a “ten tick round” potential cooldown, as they can only be used once per ten ticks of the master clock, so they function a little differently, but still, that’s a time-based throttle.)

I played a game with my wife where her Orc Warrior was able to use an ability to get some extra range on one of his turn’s moves and then immediately take another turn simply because everyone else was on cooldown.  He subsequently squashed my fragile mage, winning the game for my wife.  That sort of tactical situation (effectively a last-ditch two-for-one double turn) doesn’t come up in a game where you just alternate actions.  Yes, I lost, but it was awesome that the game allowed that sort of thing.

My Turn

So, for my game, I want to have a FFX-like time system, where units act according to their own timing measured against the master clock.  There will be a display of who will be acting for the next handful of “turns”, allowing for predictive tactics.  I love the idea of both warmup and cooldown abilities, and I want to make a system that makes them interesting and fun.  I will probably include a UI element that shows when a warmup ability will actually trigger within the master clock’s queue.  Unit speed will dictate the frequency of their actions (and other subtle effects we might usually attribute to agility), and actions will be paid for with their time cost.

I want the gameplay focus of the game to be on smart tactics based on solid intel.  There’s a place for guesswork, but that will be optional, as players can turn off the timeline UI or introduce fog of war.  At its heart, I want my game to err on the side of ease of use (not necessarily ease of conquering the game’s challenges, mind you) so that the challenge comes from the game’s tactical situations, not fighting the system’s limitations.

One More Thing

A few final quirks of time in games:  Talking is a free action; time moves at the speed of Plot, or as fast as players need it to.

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Social Games

Mwahahaha!

You want social games?  Deal with people.  They will always be the weakest link.

And for the record?  I applaud Ryan’s moves here.  “Kirk to the GDC’s Kobiyashi Maru” indeed.

Tangentially, the commenter in Eric’s discussion thread who noted that “rules are for both the admins and the players” is crucial to good governance.

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I’m one of those odd sorts that plays a game like WoW as if I’m a citizen of a world (a role!), rather than as a race to the raiding treadmill.  I make up minigames for myself, or just go wandering around looking for the perfect screenshot (I still need to set up a Picasa portfolio for sharing, come to think of it…).  I even have a Goblinish trend, happy to tinker in the markets, which so far has been supplying the Horde AH with Deadly Blunderbusses with an Orc Hunter Engineering alt… nothing huge, but a fun little way to make some profit fairly easily at a low level.  (I’ll leave the misanthropy to Gevlon, though.)

So when a quirky little game like Recettear comes out and embraces a different aspect of these RPG things, in this case shopkeeping, my interest is naturally piqued.  Tipa mentioned the game a while back, and I’ve been keeping an eye out for a sale.  At present, it’s available via Steam and Impulse for preorder for $18ish, 10% off.  I’m sorely tempted to get it, but for now, I’ll be playing the demo.  Maybe I’ll get the whole game in the next few days, depending on how the demo goes.

Still, I applaud these Japanese indie devs for tackling something in a new way, and the intrepid localization team for bringing it to my side of the pond.

It also has me itching once again for some more interesting noncombat options for “careers” in MMOS… but that’s another article for another day.

Update: I went ahead and preordered the game through Impulse.  I think that’s the first preorder that I’ve ever done; usually I wait for sales.  I’m impressed with the game, and I’m even going to use it to teach my four year old a bit about capitalism.  Score one more for the indies!

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Cipher Prime is currently having a “moving sale” for their company.  I’ve been waiting for just this sort of thing ever since Fractal was released.

So, until July 30th, you can get Fractal and/or Auditorium for $5 each.  These are great games, well worth the cost.  I’m stingy, so I’ve been waiting for a sale, but these have been at the top of my “pull the trigger and buy” list.

Really, just go play their demos (right on the web, no download) and see what they are.  Auditorium especially really needs to be experienced, and Fractal is a rock-solid bit of fun hex-based puzzling.  I was sold on the demos… but now that I’ve played the “full” game for each (at least, in breadth, if not depth), I’d recommend them even higher.  The demos are good fun, but the full games are fantastic.

Disclosure:  I have no material connection to these guys and receive no benefits from promoting these games.  I just think they are great games, totally worth playing and buying.  If nothing else, go check them out, and if you like ‘em, spread the word!  That’s part of how the indie game development world works; we can’t rely on publishers to make or break our games.

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