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Posts Tagged ‘puzzle’

It’s the Decennial celebration for Puzzle Pirates this month.  It’s the plucky little MMO that thought it could, so it did, largely by making people happy to play.  ‘Tis the perfect time to check it out! (I’m Silveransom over there, the genesis of my little pirate avatar I use on Twitter and around the web.)

It’s kind of odd, thinking that it’s been around for ten years.  It was one of the pioneers in microtransaction monetization in the MMO space.  They started as a subscription-only game, but really exploded with their take on what we now call Free to Play (F2P).  Sadly, they aren’t quite as big as they used to be, but I suppose that’s true of most MMOs, given that the market exploded.  Still, the game is still alive, still developing in new ways (the alternate Sailing puzzle being the most recent addition), and it’s still one of the most solo-friendly games I know that still makes it easy to group up on the fly.  Guild Wars 2 might challenge that (if I ever get my computer running it for more than 20 seconds), but even then, Puzzle Pirates is still great fun, just a different sort of play experience.

I’m definitely a fan of the game.  It’s my MMO home, the game that has the most traditions I’ve taken part in, delightfully early access to the freedom of personal ships, and it happens to be a perfect fit for my puzzle-infused mind, one as fond of Tetris as Gyromancer, of Professor Layton as Puzzle Quest.  I’ve done a fair bit of fan art for the game, and even chipped in a little with some art that wound up in the game proper (the rare Easter Egg for the 2007 contest).

Happy tenth, Puzzle Pirates!  May Three Rings have continued success and fair winds!

…oh, and the Three Rings offices are sweet.  Really sweet.  Seriously, go check this out.  It would be a blast to work there.

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Balance Part 1: Tao of Picasso

Balance Part 2: Asymmetry and Art

…and now for something a little more concrete.  I’m taking a look at the backbone of character progression in a game I’m designing and digging a little into why I’m making my choices and how I’m incorporating “balance” within the game, specifically how it relates to pacing and balancing player abilities against the game’s design.  (I’ll handle other balancing aspects of the systems in another article.)  Let’s call it a practical theoretical exercise, since I’m not sure this game will ever actually be created much less published, but I’m designing it as if it were something I’m happy enough to put out there as a finished game.  One that I’d even buy and play, at that.  (So if you’re sitting on money with nothing good to do with it, by all means, build something good with this system, or make it better.  All I ask is for steampunk in there somewhere.)

At its heart, my game is a hearty blend of Final Fantasy Tactics and Battletech mechanically (tactics on a hex grid), with a slight zombie flavor and a wacky premise with room for such weirdness as this hippopossum I sketched (yay for sketching in ballpoint pen!).

There’s even a bit of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days in the mix, so that’s where we’ll start.  In that game, character progression is based on placing panels on a grid (that expands as the character levels up).  These panels come in a variety of sizes and shapes (some like Tetris pieces, for example) as well as the occasional mutually exclusive choices.  It’s the character’s gear, skills, magic loadout and level, as well as FFX’s Sphere Grid or FFXII’s License Grid all rolled into one, with some quirks.  (OK, that’s a bit of an insufficient explanation, but it’ll do for now.)

My game uses something I’m calling the DNA Codex, a riff on those systems with some flavor for spice.  It combines my older idea of autopilot character progression and high flexibility that I’m so fond of, up to and including the potential to “break” the game.

DNA Codex, empty, level 20

In a nutshell, it’s a customizable grid (3 rows of 5 hexes at level cap, 2 rows of 3 at level 1) that allows a bit of “skills-based” wiggle room within a sort of “class-based” shorthand.  I really want to reward exploration and experimentation within the game’s systems, without penalizing those players who just want to get on with things.  Players who really dig into the system should be rewarded with varying levels of brokenness or crazy fun, while those who don’t want to bother with the “skills” can simply play and be assured of adequate tools to meet the challenges.

It could almost be suggested that there’s a balance between broken near-abuse of the systems, which requires one sort of skill (“systems analysis” if we’re being generous, “munchkinizing” if we’re being snarky), and playing with the default tools, which requires a different sort of skill (better strategy and tactics, generally).  There’s actually nothing that says those are truly mutually exclusive as far as players are concerned, as a player can have both skill sets, the balance comes in when considering pacing and player vs. computer play.  Conquering the game’s challenges requires mastering one or the other or some balance of the two, allowing tactical geniuses to cruise through on their strengths, and munchkins to do their thing.  Total mastery of both tactics and systems would be effectively overpowering the game.  At least… on Normal mode.

It might be noted also that there’s a third rail here that gets used in some games, but that I’m undecided on here.  That’s the leveling fudge factor.  Players in many games that incorporate levels as a character progression tool (and I am, though only 20 levels) can often forge their own edge by grinding for a while, making their characters stronger than they otherwise would be at a given point.

On the other hand, some games totally ignore this, say, something like a Fire Emblem.  Those games typically demand players learn the game and play near-perfectly.  There are harsh punishments for failure and no opportunity to grind up experience and gear by killing inconsequential foes for a while to overpower the game’s challenges with brute force.

Deep down, I really like the leveling fudge factor, as it is a way of letting players self-regulate the challenge of a game.  On the other hand, some masochists love games that demand a lot of the player.  I think in the end, I’ll include a leveling fudge factor, but turn it off for higher difficulty levels.  It seems a fair compromise.

Speaking of difficulty levels, though, that’s another factor to consider.  Who is the average user?  What is their anticipated skill level?  Can the game be tuned well enough to be able to challenge a spectrum of players, maybe even reactively to player choice “under the hood” instead of something as heavy handed as difficulty settings?  Are the Easy, Normal and Hard modes appropriately spaced on the bell curve of player ability?  (Say, almost anyone can get through on Easy, Normal asks a bit more, and Hard demands a high aptitude… and Hardcore will punch you in the head and take your lunch money, then mock you for not asking to be hit again.)

This isn’t so much balancing game design elements against each other to make the game internally consistent and interesting, it’s balancing the game against the potential players.  Perhaps it could be called a sort of “metabalance”, but considering that games tend to need players at some point, especially if there’s even a vague hope of commercial viability, it’s still something useful to consider.

There needs to be a default setting, where the bulk of your target audience can handle the game and derive fun from the experience.  In this case, as it’s a tactical game, I believe that I’m generally looking at a smaller audience, but one more acclimated to a harsher climate.  Kinder, gentler difficulty settings might open the game to more players, but then, how many casual players pick up tactical games in the first place?  I’m not convinced it’s a large number of people, which is sad, but a consideration for the market.

Within the game itself, this “default” is the automated character progression I’ve written of.  Players will automatically have their units on autopilot when it comes to developing the DNA Codex (though they will be notified the game is doing this, and they can override it at any time).  A strength-based melee unit will automatically slot melee skills focused on strength into their Codex.  An agility-based ranged unit will pick appropriate skills, all without the player ever needing to dig into the Codex.  Those skills will provide the player with adequate tools for the challenges at hand at relevant levels.

On the other hand, someone with different tastes might dig into the Codex and start tuning their units to their particular playstyle and tactics.  That’s where the RNA Codes come in.  Here are a few for a strength-based melee unit: two special attack Codes, a five-cell Joust and a three-cell Grand Swing, one two-cell defensive Code, Counter, one three-cell healing code, Regenerate, and two single-cell utility Codes, Shove and Flare.

RNA Codes, strength based melee, level 20

These are the components that a character is built on.  These typically offer specific tactical abilities or passive buffs for a unit, though there will be a variety of RNA Codes.  Because these are shaped specifically to fit into the DNA Codex in certain ways (there will be no rotation), there will be choices to make regarding which Codes are used in which combinations.  A 5-unit long powerful Code won’t cooperate with a 3-unit tall utility Code, for instance, as they would overlap in the grid, and that’s not allowed.  Players will choose which puzzle pieces are important to their particular game aims, and tailor their units to their preferences.

The hope is that this will allow for a variety of playstyles.  Those who prefer higher risk might load up their units with potent offensive Codes, but skimp on defense.  Players who prefer long, slow grinds through a level might prioritize defensive Codes and naturally wind up with a mediocre offense.  There should be a spectrum of possibilities between those, even including some tricky utility options for gimmicky builds.  (I’m reminded of Stasis Bubbles or Assault Shuttles in Master of Orion 2; quirky strategies in spaceship combat that can be employed to devastating effect with a little care, but it’s also possible to just outfit ships with big guns and go start a scuffle.)

It’s also probably worth noting that these RNA Codes are layered on top of a unit’s baseline abilities.  In fact, you could even take all RNA Codes out of your unit’s Codex and play through the game, it would just be harder.  Not impossible, just more difficult.  (See also “No Sphere Grid” runs in Final Fantasy X.)  While I actually like the ability to make “gimped” or dysfunctional builds, I’m going to assure that a RNA-free unit will be usable.  RNA Codes will be bonuses, not baselines.

With those in mind, what all this leads up to, the overall balance and pacing will be established around the autopilot DNA development.  Players who ignore that aspect of the game can play the purist game “as intended” without a fuss (though I’ll certainly include hints that the DNA system could be useful; there’s no reason to make the system totally irrelevant).  Players who want to flush their RNA will be able to make life harder on themselves.  Players who try to abuse the DNA system can make the game easier.  It’s on their head if they want to step off the dock and swim in weird waters, and the trick will be in making the default experience enjoyable as well as making the customization choices viable and fun.  (Notably, this means being able to change one’s mind.  None of these choices will be irrevocable.)

Anyway, this article is already more massive than any of mine in recent history, so I’ll dig more into some more specifics of the design in another article later.  I’d like to write a bit about some “Rock-Paper-Scissors” triangular balance elements that I’m using, and step back and show a bit more of the DNA Codex and some further implications of the design.

If you’ve gotten this far, apologies for my long-windedness.  There’s a lot to consider in game design, and it just all doesn’t fit neatly into 1000 words, even if there were One True Way to design games… which I don’t believe there is.

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The Professor Layton games are fantastic pieces of work.  (If you don’t want spoilers for their stories, though, please go play them and then come back.)

The first game quickly establishes some quirky characters and ground rules for the Layton game world, notably the preponderance of puzzles and people who love them.  Smaller puzzles are nested in a larger mystery, though curiously, the player doesn’t solve that mystery so much as tag along.  We’re introduced to a world that is oddly modern and yet antique at the same time, and a twist in the story introduces futuristic technology.  It isn’t beholden to any particular time setting, so it can be “modern” for many players for years to come.  The story is ultimately about the love of a father for his daughter and a test of character for our heroes.

The second game pokes a bit more into Sherlockian waters by forcing the good Professor  to find scientific explanations for some rather mythological and mystical mysteries.  It steps back a little from the impossibly intricate technology in the first game, but still has absurd architecture and weird science.  The underlying story is one of love lost, selfishness and sacrifice, reconciliation, and hope for the future.

The first two games have heartfelt stories with surprisingly honest emotion, but the third game is even better.  Yes, all three have tons of puzzles, and each gets progressively better with smarter puzzles and better controls… but here I’m talking about the good Professor himself.

Professor Layton and the Unwound Future is Hershel Layton’s story.

It’s heartrending, chilling, poignant, cautionary and engrossing.  Not bad for a collection of puzzles on a handheld gaming platform.

As further prelude, may I recommend a great article from before the third game from the gentlemen at Experience Points?

The Mysterious Identity of Professor Layton

The Unwound Future doesn’t answer much about the good Professor’s racial or ethnic identity (which I consider a good thing, after all… I’d rather measure a man by his actions than his inheritance).  It doesn’t explain why Luke tags along like a leech-puppy hybrid.  It does, however, explain a great deal about the Professor’s curious hat, his gentlemanly mannerisms, his nemesis and his almost single-minded devotion to solving puzzles.  (Even more spoilery spoilers after the picture, fair warning!)

image shamelessly copied from the link under the photo, gamrfeed

Simply, Hershel Layton is a broken man, and The Unwound Future kicks him while he’s down, teasing him with hope and then removing a piece of his personal puzzle… again.  Layton will be forever broken, forever searching to piece his life together, always frustrated.  Solving other puzzles are his only solace, his only outlet for closure and resolution.  In this, he is one of the most human characters in games that I’ve seen in a long time.  He is damaged, but he soldiers on, hat firmly on his head.

To be sure, there are other broken characters in the game.  The primary antagonist proves to be a severely traumatized and sympathetic character, even after he engages in some domestic terrorism with a death toll likely in the thousands.  The secondary antagonist is revealed to be almost as deeply wounded as the Professor, and far from an evil man.  A villain from the earlier games is revisited and made far more sympathetic.  The true villain of the story never receives his just rewards, and his story is left open.  These political implications have strong connotations in today’s political world, and the game doesn’t grant fictional justice.  Every character is asked to step up and accept painful truths and then be strong anyway, even when the world is hostile.

Further, there’s a twist to the knife.  The concept of time travel is presented as another mystery to be solved, and in true Layton style, a grand conspiracy and coverup are revealed.  Time travel is revealed to be a scam… and then, agonizingly and astonishingly, it is revealed again as a reality.  The Professor is granted a few precious moments with the love of his life, only to have her knowingly go back in time to her death.  After convincing everyone that time travel isn’t possible, he finds that it most certainly is.  After telling everyone to accept that they need to move on, and demonstrating that he’s willing to forgive even in the face of great loss, he is teased with the possibility that history could yet be changed, and that maybe, just maybe, the “bad” guys were right.  The axis of his world is shifted, ever so slightly, and the careful pretense of rationality that he has held to is undermined again by the delayed results of the very event that shattered his life.

In the ending sequence, after displaying a somewhat ungentlemanly bout of agony and emotion, he is not offered solace or peace, but rather told (gently and kindly, but painfully) that in the face of his most heartbreaking loss:

“You’ll be strong… because that’s what a gentleman does.”

…and then we see him cry.  A gentleman, hat in hand, beseeching the heavens for peace he knows he will not see, even as the “what if” questions continue to eat away at him.

What more can any of us do?

How many of our sorrows are ignored by throwing ourselves into distractions or puzzles that have solutions?  Is this not one appeal of games, that there are solutions to the problems in-game, if only we play enough or well enough?  The character arc for Hershel Layton stands in contrast to that very nature of games, intentionally subverting his oft-repeated refrain “every puzzle has an answer”.

These games have a lot of heart, especially for what could have been thinly veiled Brain Age-like games.  While I find I disagree with the choice to hurt the good Professor the way they did in the third game… that I care at all is testament to the character and story.

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I want to see the Cataclysm.

Yes, it’s WoW, not my favorite game, and I still detest the sub model… but I want to see what an old game world does to revitalize itself, especially since I called for a revitalization of the “old world” way back before it was announced.  I want to see whether it works out or not, especially since CAT has the potential to splinter the playerbase in new and interesting ways.  TBC and Wrath split people off into the expansions, but CAT is touching nearly everything, so I’m curious to see what it winds up doing.

Note that I’m not saying “I want to jump on the WoW bandwagon” so much as “I want to understand CAT’s ramifications and take a look around at the shiny new world”.  Because, well… those guys really do make pretty worlds.

At any rate, I find myself approaching that exploration in a way eerily similar to the way I approached BattleTech ages ago.  Y’see, back then, I read up on ‘Mech specs and all sorts of tech, then built myself the perfect ‘Mech that would allow me to tinker with as much of the game as possible.  Yes, it was a Mad Cat.  Imagine that.  I also dabbled a bit with Lance design (five-unit battle squad) so I could play around with different combat roles and see what the different weight classes had to offer in a group setting.  (Mad Cat, Firemoth, Vulture and Raven looking for Kodiak, PST…)  It was my ideal BattleTech party, an A-Team of hardened mercenaries, geared to handle any mission.  Of course, this was all on paper, since I didn’t have anyone to play with.  I was just digging into the game mechanics and exploring possibilities in my mind.  And, y’know… I liked it.

So now I find myself in a curious position of trying the same thing with WoW characters.  I’m pontificating the best race/class matrix to see as much of the game as I can.  I already have the Tauren Druid covered with Padgi (my only highish level character at 52), but who to pick for the Priest?  Who should be the Shaman?  Do I care about role-playing potential or my traditional counterculture trend of choosing the underrepresented combos?  (Dwarven Rogue?  Whee!)  How many cool sounding unique names can I come up with?  How can I see as many starting areas as possible, and tinker with as many class mechanics as possible in the one month I’ve allotted myself to play?  (And yes, it would be awesome if I could run with a self-driven posse like I can in GW, just me and my Heroes, er, Alts, under script control, prowling the world with me, myself and I.)  How can I distribute professions to make my little team as self-sufficient as possible?  How will I ever survive without Heirloom gear?  (Gasp!)

Of course it’s dorky to plan ahead that way, but when I’m not free to just go tinker in the game (thanks to the subscription model… *spit*), I tinker with possibilities beforehand so I can hit the ground running.  I’m even considering that WoWPro leveling addon (tut, tut) to maximize my ability to go places, since darn near everything is level-gated to one degree or another.  (Now, if I could have a flying mount at level 1, that would solve a LOT of problems.)

And then I stop and wonder… wait, whut?  Why?

Why should I overplot my potential experience and potentially even follow a glowing yellow arrow once I actually am playing?  I love to go off the rails, and I believe that offers the best game experience.  Sure, I’m plotting all this to facilitate exploring, but it’s like a vacation that is planned to the minute.  There’s no room for spontaneity, for discovery off the beaten track.  I always hated those sort of vacations as a kid.  If I wanted a schedule, I’d go back to school, thanks.

Answering myself, I came up with the following:  “Self, you’re plotting and planning, exploring the potential because that’s all you can do at present.  Your’e deriving fun from one of the only exploration avenues open to you without actually playing the game. You’re also trying to maximize the value you’ll get out of the limited time you know you’ll have.”

That Self, he’s a pretty hard-headed guy, but even he saw the wisdom in that supposition.  He admitted to spending more time exploring the WoW wiki than actually playing the game over the last five years.  He admitted to spending time trying to help BBB plan his latest Raid event and doing promo art for it, even though he’s not likely to actually be in-game for the thing (again, sub model *spit*… let me pony up $2 or something for the single day event and I’d do it, and maybe sneak in a bit of Gnome and Troll events).  He admitted to spending more time than is probably warranted thinking about WoW’s game design and how to make it better.

And then he reminded me that:  “If the flibberdygibbit thing didn’t have a blubberblinkin’ subscription, I’d already be playing and experimenting in-game, and this would all be academic.”

At that point, sensing something of a mildly hostile stalemate, my real life alt stepped in to remind us all that there are other games to play that don’t have subs (holding Wizard 101 up as a fine example, quietly shuffling that game’s alts to the side), and other things that really should be done before any sort of gaming in the first place.  Everyone grumbled a bit, but ultimately agreed.

And so, my alt puzzle settled… for now… I’m painting illustrations for a children’s book my mother wrote.  I’m as yet undecided whether it’s a good thing I’m using the computer to paint since it keeps the thing busy and therefore not-gaming, or whether it’s a bad thing to be using the computer since games are only an Alt-Tab away, and Recettear is on my thumb drive…

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I’ve had my eye on Machinarium for a few weeks now, so I had to try out the demo:

Machinarium

I liked it, and will probably pick up the full game one of these days if it goes on sale.  I like some adventure games (“The Dig”) but don’t like others (“King’s Quest 7″).  The genre really is a mixed bag.  Machinarium’s demo plays fairly well, though, so I recommend at least the demo to anyone who is interested.

For a pair of differing opinions, check out Andrew’s experience over at Of Teeth and Claws and Nels Anderson’s take at Above 49.

In the meantime, the demo reminded me of the importance of trust in game design.  There was a point in the demo where I found my gamer instincts warring with reality.  Naturally, Here Lie Spoilers…

..

.

The game is all about clicking on stuff, trying to find what you need to solve puzzles.  Sometimes, you have to combine objects you’ve gathered to progress.

Level 2 has your character trying to get through a security checkpoint.  You need to devise a disguise to get past the sentry.  At one point, you pick up a traffic cone as part of the disguise, but there’s still a stack of cones left over.  You can click on the stack, and the character throws a cone into the nearby canyon.  This is where I ran into trouble.  I wasn’t sure that I’d never need another cone, so throwing them in the canyon seemed like an irreversible move that I might regret later.  I never want to get stuck in a game, so I don’t like irreversible moves.

Thing is, you need to throw all the cones overboard to get to a puzzle piece under the stack.  I only found this after I had exhausted all other possible moves and just went ahead and threw caution to the wind.  I didn’t want to get myself stuck, but the devs were a step ahead of me and made the game so that I couldn’t get stuck.  My instinctual desire to keep all potential puzzle pieces around until I had it solved, a sort of MacGyver/Packratitis affliction, ran contrary to the solution of throwing away potential puzzle pieces to get to the solution.

This might just be a set of mixed expectations, just as much my fault as the designers, since often in these adventure games you actually do need everything and even a lot of apparently useless stuff to solve the puzzles.  In a way, this skirts Twinkie Denial conditions of “extreme lateral thinking” and “no lateral/logical thinking”.  Some pieces just don’t make sense unless you’re reading the devs’ minds, and some are blindingly obvious in their function… which means they don’t really work that way in the game’s logic.

Still, I don’t like throwing pieces away that might have a use later.  I had to trust that the devs knew best by having my little character throw the cones away.  That wasn’t something I did lightly, and I find that it reveals a slightly untrusting/adversarial relationship that I have with puzzle designers.  (In contrast, the only reason I’m still working on one puzzle in Professor Layton and the Curious Village is because I do trust the devs that there’s an answer to it, despite evidence to the contrary.  Funny how that works out.)

All in all, this is probably just as much, if not more, about my approach to the game.  I don’t like throwing away potential puzzle pieces.  I don’t like needing to trust the devs that much, especially when the puzzles themselves may well get increasingly obscure as the game goes on.  I detest needing to read the designer’s mind; to me that’s the sign of lazy puzzle design.

I do still like the game.  I’m leaning toward buying it at some point.  It’s just not a perfect game, and this tenuous trust between player and designer can make or break a game, especially one based on puzzles.  Players need to know that they will have all the tools and pieces at their disposal, and that their cleverness will carry the day.  That’s the backbone of the puzzle/adventure game genre, and really something that should be the core of the design.  Obscure elements or lack of communication of clear goals, tools and pieces can kill a game like this very quickly.  Some of this is UI design, some of it is game design, but players need to be able to trust the designers… even if (maybe especially when) they default to “not trusting”.

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After a bit of research and tinkering with the demo for the PC version of the game, I went ahead and purchased Puzzle Quest Galactrix for the DS.  It’s suffered a bit from mixed reviews, but I find it to be a great game, a worthy sister title to Puzzle Quest Challenge of the Warlords.

That’s not to say that it’s perfect.  It’s just considerably better than the detractors would have you believe, and I heartily recommend it to anyone with any interest in puzzle games.  The RPG elements aren’t anything huge to write home about, but the core gameplay and Privateer flavor add up to a great way to spend some time.

*This clocks in at over 3500 words, perhaps because I’ve written it over several days, so I’m using the More tag here to hide the wall of text*

(more…)

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