Friday, June 30, 2006

Game Idea: Alien Life

This is an idea that will require more tweaking down the line, but here is what I have so far:

You belong to a somewhat advanced race of beings who have mastered space travel but still have yet to explore all the planets of their immediate area of the galaxy. There are two philosophies where it comes to exploration of new worlds which are populated with lifeforms: The biologists, who use their technology to silently monitor the local flora and fauna, with various stealth technologies and recording tools to help them with this endeavor. There are also the game hunters, who take trophies from the most promising-looking dangers the planet has to offer in terms of wildlife. Both of these sects play very differently, with different goals and different ways of checking progress.

The biologist's game will involve visiting a new planet, and taking as many samples, photographs and behavioral notes on the creatures of that planet as they can. The more data you secure on a planet's population, the bigger your budget gets from the scientific community and the better equipment and storage space on your ship you receive. Capturing or killing live specimens however is against the ethics of the biologist and the game will tend to penalize any attempts to do so. As your technology becomes better and better, you will be able to monitor all sorts of bizarre lifeforms, from those existing outside the natural spectrum of light (which would require infra-red photography) to those which live high in the planet's atmosphere, or warps in and out of subspace to move around at great speed, both of which would require very precise and specialized equipment to monitor.

The big game hunter's game will be a little more direct: they receive money from the size and rarity of the types of creatures they take down. Like the biologist, the money they receive from doing their job will assist with grander and more elaborate tools to increase their effectiveness, but in this case that means weaponry. However, there will be times when the hunter will become overwhelmed (such as a colossal beast on one world simply being too big to kill with their existing weaponry) and so will need to return to that world at a later time. Since the hunter is somewhat devoid of morals, they can also plunder the world's natural resources on the side or capture the animals for selling to zoos situated around their civilisation's corner of the galaxy. Capturing animals will require you to upgrade your ship to accommodate lifeforms, which will end up detracting heavily from your weapons budget but may end up being just as lucrative as hunting for trophies. This career switch to the subclass "poacher" is just one of many slight career detours the biologists (though they would get the equivalent "researcher" role for taking many flora samples instead of poaching animals) and hunters may decide to embark upon.

With both games, the same worlds will crop up for both and yet offer very different experiences. For example, one world may be highly beneficial to the biologist and not the hunter (if it was full of plantlife and smaller animals) and vice versa (a planet whose dominant race has all but exterminated the weaker life forms, or domesticated them for food, and will provide a worthy challenge for the hunters to take down). A planet may contain a giant predator that only awakes when his food source becomes threatened, in which case only the hunter would find out about it originally. So if a player plays the hunter's game first, they can find a way to awaken the giant beast for their biologist player since they'll know it exists. Playing both explorer classes will allow for greater depth and understanding of the galaxy.

While this game could work easily as an expansive single-player universe (like the scope of an Elder Scrolls game, only covering more planets), it could also work very well as a galaxy-sized MMORPG like Star Wars Galaxies. The players would team up with other players of their respective ethical slant (peaceful research or violent money-grabbing) and prepare for their journey in the hub (which would be territory - anything from a planet to a spacestation - controlled by their space-faring race) before heading to one of the unexplored planets of their system to find new lifeforms. While they would receive minimal funds for photographing/killing a common lifeform that everyone else on the server has found, they could pool their resources and skill to find a rarer creature and be possibly the first to discover it, in which case they would get to name it and everything and the name would stay on the server for everyone else to see. Of course, they would make less money apiece for a combined effort, so a lot of players will want to go solo for a higher payout. New planets would be added as the MMO game is expanded (which would be explained in-game as a new planet being discovered by your race's astronomers), so there'll always be something new to find.

That's it so far in a nutshell. I'll work on how the game will actually be played (I'm thinking third-person action, with a first-person switch for photography/hunting/searching for life) and various other factors with the game that still need deciding. I'm really trying to go for an immersive atmospheric feel while walking around and monitoring the wildlife of the planets for this game, as well as a very diverse experience from one planet to the next, ranging from simple things like a jungle planet similar to Earth to complex ecosystems like a planet that has very low gravity with lifeforms that reflect this. I also really want to see a good nature photography game supplemented with some inventive technology, since the closest thing to it at present is Pokemon Snap which is about as limiting as you can get in terms of exploration (you have to follow a set rail path for one thing).

Thursday, June 29, 2006

ST Demos

Just a small thing I posted on the NCN forum about ST Demos that I thought would fit this blog:

There are two reasons I got so many ST demos: The first is that I got a lot of magazines back then, mostly because of the demos but mostly because it was something my parents knew I would read so they were willing to buy them for me. Sort of the same reason parents buy their kids comics at an early age I suppose.

The second is that ST demos had the same mentality as shareware games do now, in that it's practically a whole game in and of itself and they offer to give you more of it for a small donation. I guess it's because a lot of ST games were made by the same kind of people who make shareware: like one guy and his brother who make it all out of their basement. This is instead of some crappy teaser that doesn't tell you a whole lot like demos are today. The amount of games I've played where the first level was nothing like the rest of the game...

The only thing you can't get your fill of with a demo no matter how big is the game's story - or more accurately, how it ends. But that's fairly inconsequential for most non-RPG games if you ask me, especially back then in the NES/ST era when you were unlikely to get further than a few levels in without dying. In fact that's probably why I buy RPGs and rent/download everything else these days.

Man, long post. I'm really into this stuff though as you can tell.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Game Review: Meteos (DS)

Puzzler games, especially those on handhelds, tend to be both the most commonly played and most liked among gamers of all creeds and consoles. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who has not only never played Tetris but also didn't enjoy it so much to have at least one anecdote about sleeping through some important event from overplaying it the previous night.

So far the greatest DS puzzler I've discovered is Meteos, shortly pipping Zoo Keeper and Polarium to that title, as well as the new Tetris DS itself. Now, Meteos is fairly well known and has been out for a while at the time of this blog entry, but since it has engrossed me utterly for the past few weeks I figured it was worth closer scrutiny.

Like a great many puzzle games, the basic gameplay depends on the player lining up several identically-colored pieces (called Meteos, as they tend to plummet out of the sky in much the same manner as their namesake) and using them to launch blocks out of the immediate game area to avoid a dangerous and potentially-fatal surplus. However, in several cases, one simple line of three will not have the sufficient driving power to elevate the Meteos off and out of the game area, and so various tactics must be employed to boost the driving power of the Meteos so they can escape the planet's gravity. It is at this point where the old adage "easy to learn, difficult to master" comes to effect.

Since I've described the general basics of gameplay, I'll move onto the whole Meteos style. While I don't put a whole lot of stock into the art and music of a game (compared to the gameplay, which I've always considered more important), the Meteos universe entranced me. Each planet has their own distinctive look and style, and moreso they have very different playing methods. For instance, several planets will greatly boost the power of a vertical line (which are far easier to set up than horizontal lines though don't have the same clearing effect) while several planets flat out ignore them, giving them no boosting power whatsoever and effectively burning out those Meteos for several seconds. Take in account the planets' different gravities and their varying overall size and each planet is a new experience in and of itself for the player to learn all about.

The best thing about Meteos, or any puzzle game for that matter, is the learning curve. Presuming you haven't read the instructions or played the tutorial (I rarely do, since I like to jump straight in and feel my way around), the first time you play will be a confusing mishmash of various Meteos blasting off after landing in fortuitous positions, at which point you slowly learn how to blast the Meteos yourself, picking up how to make chains and sweep up extra vertical lines into your mobile Meteos stacks. After learning how to play the game, you can eventually learn various tricks to increase the amount of Meteos you can blast off at once for your opponent to deal with; as once they leave the atmosphere, the Meteos find the computer opponent players and drop them on their playing field instead. I am now far better than I previously was thanks to practice and learning these tricks, but am still nowhere near skilled enough to take on the harder challenges on offer.

Final note, the other thing I love about this game - and a feature I keep coming back to with these entries - is the collection subquest. All the Meteos you manage to blast off your screen collect on the main page for you to fuse together to create various things to assist with the main game. Some of these are items, which can be selected on or off on the Options page (so if there's a particular item you strongly like or dislike, you can increase/remove it once you've "fused" that item), these items of course being another thing for the player to learn about as they play. There are also sound sets (just for listening to basically), Rare Meteos (which are as the name states, rare Meteos that come up once in a blue moon, but can be made at great cost with regular Meteos) and Planets, which allows you to select your home planet from a greater range of planets available to play against in the main game. Having all these features to unlock would be reason enough to keep playing if the game wasn't so addictive all ready.

I think I've gushed enough about this game, so let me just finish with the look: While each level has its own unique background and little alien sprite (which dance as you're playing), they also shape their Meteo pieces differently. Luna=Luna uses colored warning signs, while Gigagush has little Space Invader guys of various colors. The coloring, of course, reflects what "type" of Meteo piece it is, and each planet once again has their own unique set of what colors to expect and in what quantity (a lush marsh world like Boggob has plenty of "Zoo" Meteos for instance, while a robot world would have plenty of "Iron" and "Zap" Meteos). For such a small game the attention to detail is amazing.

As I recall Meteos has a sister game named Lumines. I really must try that out at some point.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Super Smash Bros Brawl #2

More stages, more mayhem, less confidence in my level design when the actual stages turn out better.

#4 - Wario Stage (WarioWorld) - Wario is one of the many confirmed new characters, but it's unknown if he'll get his own stage. It seems extremely likely though. Wario has appeared in many of his own games after debuting in Super Mario Land 2 for the Game Boy, usually in the search of treasure of some kind. So what better stage for him than his own treasure room?

Basically, the stage will consist of a normal lower central area with two uphill slopes on either side made of gold coins. The coins will have the consistancy of sand, and you gradually sink in them if you spend too long standing on it and will need to constantly jump to get out. Moving around the coin piles could give you a neat effect where coins fly out wherever you're walking. In the background, various Wario World enemies would walk around, and the boss of Wario World (an evil purple crystal) periodically shoots its lasers at the players. I'm thinking the stage could also use something like various treasure items dropping from above and damaging those underneath (at which point jumping into the gold pile to avoid damage might be an idea), though it is a bit similar to the Game & Watch level (unless that stage doesn't make it into the new game, at which point this part becomes viable).

#5 - Pikmin World (Pikmin) - In the very off-off-chance Captain Olimar becomes a playable character, I thought a stage with those cute little Pikmin would be called for. In fact, I reckon there should be one even if Captain Olimar isn't a playable character (which seems very likely).

This level would be scaled out (though it's still very much zoomed in, considering how small Pikmin are) so the characters are about 5x bigger than the Pikmin. The level has various mundane items the players can use as platforms and slopes for height advantages or defensive positions. As you are playing the Pikmin are walking around picking up the items around the level and taking them back to their onion spaceship (which will float above the centre of the stage) for them to disappear up into. If one of the players is standing between an item and the Pikmin horde, they will be "collected" instead and brought to the onion. The player will bounce harmlessly off the onion instead of actually going inside, but they'll be helpless between when the Pikmin get them and when they attempt to beam them up.

There may be an extra little thing where all the characters have their Pikmin weight ratio, as in the amount of Pikmin required to pick them up. Heavier characters can resist getting collected by the horde for longer, as will any character who collects a super mushroom (since their increased size will also increase their weight) or the metal cap power-up. The Pikmin may start small in number (not enough to threaten anyone at the start) but increase in number after they find an item and bring it back. Towards the end of the level, when all the items are gone and the ground is covered with Pikmin, characters will be frequently picked up and deposited by the onion.

The players may also get the chance of attacking the tiny Pikmin and killing them (with the usual little ghost animation) and feel really, really bad for doing so.

#6 - Yoshi Stage (Touch Fuzzy Get Dizzy) - Another "comedy option" level not to be taken seriously. This stage basically recreates the infamous level in Yoshi's Island where Yoshi trips out whenever he touches one of the ubiquitous "fuzzy" enemies in that level. His actions are screwed up, he has trouble walking, and looks about as inebriated as Pete Doherty leaving the courthouse. The screen also goes fairly insane, with the platforms starting to wave and the background going psychedelic. Obviously this will be somewhat hard to translate for four players playing simultaneously, but it would be so funny to watch it seems a shame not to try and figure out a way it can work.

The stage would be somewhat uncomplicated in terms of space to move around in and how far away the edges of the stage are. The fuzzies would float gently around until a player accidentally bumps into one, at which point the background would go crazy for everyone (hopefully allowing a chain reaction of fuzzy casualties). The A and B moves are now switched, so B + Up will now do a regular A + Up attack and vice versa. There may also be random effects depending on who's been "fuzzied", some of which I'll list below:

1) Character constantly attacks without stopping, as if to fend off some invisible enemy.
2) Character shrinks for absolutely no reason, except in actuality they're still regular height and people can attack them as thus.
3) Character continues to grow until they fills the screen, and then pops. The character returns to where they was previously standing afterwards. It should utterly confuse all players on screen since no-one will be able to see where they're going.
4) The screen goes black and the first credit screen show up, as if the game was reset. The action continues shortly after in case someone takes it seriously and turns the console off.
5) The character can now jump twice as high, as if the gravity was greatly reduced.
6) The character collapses to the ground and refuses to get up until the effects have worn off.
7) The character bursts on fire. No actual harm is done to them however.
8) Character Specific: Yoshi gets into one of his own eggs and rolls around a bit.
9) Character Specific: Samus spastically screw-attacks around the stage at random until the effects wear off.
10) Character Specific: Jigglypuff just goes to sleep.

Well, you get the idea. It's the sort of a stage one can play after a trip the closest drinking establishment.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Design Features I Like #2

As a continuation of my previous "Design Features I Like" article, I'll present three more game mechanics/features that have appeared in existing games that I have a strong inclination towards. Really, this particular type of update is to record the kind of thing I'd love to use in my own game someday, or at least be able to suggest it for a game I'm working on professionally.

As a Junior Games Designer, it was my job to document (and later implement, once I'd received approval from the Lead Designer on the project) how parts of the game would work. This mostly involves talking over ideas for whatever part needed dealing with (such as how missions are given out, how the multiplayer would work, how the inventory/status page would be set out, what monsters to use, what items to use, etc.) with the other designers in the team and write up a concise design document to reflect what the group decided on, filling in any blanks as necessary. As I suspect I'll be tied down to that sort of position for a while before having the seniority of actually being allowed to come up with the game concept myself, I tend to look at features and mechanics (how parts of the game work as opposed to the game as a whole) for my inspiration, which is what this update is about.

#1: Information Databases: OK, this is sort of a nerdy thing I like about some games, since it requires a lot of often-unnecessary reading. By information databases, I'm not referring to any of the coding of a game, but rather the in-game encyclopedia that you can refer to as a glossary should something come up in the game that you're not familiar with.

I'll now state three notable examples of how a game has used these databases in the past:

civilization - Civ used a lot of real-life inspiration for all its inventions, areas of the world and, of course, the eponymous civilizations themselves. By reading up on actual history and how inventions and ways of thinking begat other inventions and ways of thinking, not only would you understand how to progress through the game better but you'd also gain an appreciation of the true world's history. Civ prided itself on being just as entertaining with its strategy gameplay as it was educational with its historical accuracy, which is no doubt why it became as popular as it did.

Star Ocean 3: Til the End of Time - Because the Star Ocean world is so massive (being almost an entire galaxy), the third title in this series allowed you to read up on key information garnered in the series so far concerning planets, famous characters, alien races, technology and organizations and federations of the galaxy. If you met a new character or learned something new in the game, the information database would update with that entry. This way, you could always refer to the guide for background information if needed. Even if several articles had little relevance to the game, it was at the very least an entertaining read into a highly realized universe, sort of like reading the descriptions on unique items in the Baldur's Gate series for various anecdotes behind that item's creation and how it featured in the vast history of that world.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - This is just an example of many adventure games over the years that have allowed the player to build up a vocabulary of terms (such as place names and people) to interrogate NPCs about as they investigate whatever needs solving. In this game in particular, you had a catalog of evidence and people involved with the trial on file to examine for clues to help win your case. Frequently, you'd be asked to present evidence you've found or things you've learned about the case to proceed. Practically every adventure game requires you to carry around items for when they're needed, but there's also many that allow you to keep abstract things like information for the same reason. When games got as complex as Phoenix Wright in the past it was expected of the player to write down clues as they found them, but now with games as efficient as they are the information is categorized for you to view whenever you need it (for another example, consider how often a map is drawn for you by modern games instead of expecting the player to be aware of their surroundings with a pen and paper).

So in conclusion, these databases can a) have real-life educational benefits, b) can give you plenty of optional reading material for whatever game world you're playing in and c) can keep ahold of vital clues and information you've gathered in-game so you don't have to write it down if you don't have paper handy. I appreciate the second point the most, since going to all that trouble to provide more information than some people are willing to read (these are the same people that tend to skip cutscenes with vital information) is a mark of a determined designer.

#2: Character Generation Using Storage Media: Back when I was little, I was absolutely entranced with the concept of the Barcode Battler. For anyone over 12 it would have been recognized as the gimmicky piece of technology it was, but for me I was hypnotized by the almost endless possibilities you could find in using easily obtained barcodes from absolutely anything to generate characters, monsters, items, whatever.

Of course, the actual Barcode Battler (or at least its first incarnation) turned out to be disappointing. Characters were little more than two numbers, who would fight other characters comprised of two numbers in mindless repetitive duels. The manual took the time to give all these arbitrary numbers faces and names, but I didn't care about the pre-generated guys. I wanted my Heinz Baked Beans Warrior to fight The Thing From The Cornflakes Packet in full glorious graphics (though even then I knew the game wouldn't be sophisticated enough to know where each barcode came from).

After this disappointment, I couldn't see anything that could give me what I wanted in terms of generated-off-mundane-objects mayhem until I found the Monster Rancher series for PS1. The game had several hundred monster types based on making hybrids of the dozen or so original monster classes and interbreeding them to make new forms that share the powers of both parents. While you could do this slowly with the small stock of creatures available to you from the game's marketplace, the true way to get all the strong monsters was to generate them off "disc stones", the quaint in-game explanation of using CDs (either music or game discs) to generate the monsters.

Again, though the game was disappointing (it was like a really bad version of Pokemon that moved at a snail's pace and kept killing off your monster as soon as it got good), the CD generation was what I adored right off the bat. It allowed for all sorts of humorous observations about what monsters came from which music discs (something from Mariah Carey would no doubt be hideous) but best of all CDs are a plentiful source for anyone who likes music or lives with a music-lover who doesn't keep their room locked, so the possibilities of using everyday objects to find really strong or rare monsters were again plentiful.

It's my wish to one day make a game that not only uses CD character-generation (though it would also have to include DVDs at this point) but also doesn't suck, since I'm 2-2 on the "great idea, pity the game is crap" front with these games thus far. One of the game ideas I've mentioned on the blog may actually end up using this system (the Superhero SRPG from the Strategy RPG "Design Genre" article) which would allow me to finally provide that annoying younger me with the game he always wanted.

#3: This is going on way too long again, so I'll end on a short one: Triggers. Triggers are a mechanic in regular console RPGs that allow the player to use their timing to affect the amount of damage done with an attack. The Final Fantasy series started throwing them around number 7 as a novelty but several other RPGs took them to heart and made them a significant part of their battle system. Probably the most important of these "other RPGs" is the Shadow Hearts series.

Shadow Hearts (which now has two sequels, the second of which I'm very eager to see a PAL release of) uses "the Judgement Ring" system to deal damage, which is basically a clockface with a spinning dial that the player taps a button for whenever it enters a damage zone. Providing the player hits the button for each damage zone on the ring, they can attack several times in one round. If they're accurate enough to get the thin red damage zone at the end of the regular orange areas then they have scored a critical hit and can do more damage. Seeing as how the ring is so important for landing blows, there are several statuses your character can incur to make the damage zones harder to hit. These involve shrinking the ring, shrinking the damage zones, removing the critical zones, speeding up the dial that spins around and making all the damage zones vanish all together (they're still there though, so you have to use your memory to remember they are).

Since I'll probably be talking about Shadow Hearts again in a new update, that'll be all for today. Both Monster Rancher's CD Generation and Shadow Hearts' Judgement Ring are features that tie in to what I mentioned in my last update about features being so unique and integral to the games they're in that they become the most important thing about those games beyond even the story or graphical style. As such, any other game using these features would be seen immediately as plagiarism impertinent to whether or not the new game is actually as good (or better) than the game that originally used them.

It's therefore somewhat depressing for me that the CD generation mechanic will never be covered by a game better than the Monster Rancher series. But then again, I'm pretty used to things not always going my way.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Small Update 2: Design Plagiarism

You know, it occurs to me now how similar yesterday's idea is to Mask of Majora, especially with puzzle solutions requiring you to wait for the very last second before restarting the timeline. Having an expansive knowledge of games can be a double-edged sword in this respect, since the creative process of imagining a whole new game can be hijacked subconsciously by vague and distant memories of playing a similar game years ago.

Instead of starting another game idea from scratch at this point, I'll be using the true and tested method of the creative displacement of a not-entirely-original idea. Because I'm a hack you see. Creative Displacement is simply thus: I take my-idea-that's-similar-to-another-idea, and change it cosmetically until it barely resembles the original idea at all. The sci-fi setting alone was a good start for allowing folk to be none-the-wiser of where the idea originally came from. All it needs now is a completely different interface and possibly a main character called Knil.

But seriously, there are various ethical designer codes that prohibit this kind of thing. Well, actually, there are none that I know of (like I'm even an expert of what kind of ethical pacts real designers have) but I figure there should be. But then again there are really clever features I see in games that decide to keep it as their own, using it as that particular game's own unique identity instead of using a combination of narrative, gameplay and graphical factors to define itself like most good games do. In the gaming world, the story doesn't often make a game unique but rather a clever game mechanic or feature does. I still believe those ideas should be open to anyone to use, providing some level of originality is intended with their use.

For example, the original Metal Gear Solid, while having an amazing and complex plot (the cutscenes of which do tend to take up a lot more of the game time than they strictly should) really got to where it was by having a clever and advanced stealth feature to focus the gameplay around. I can't even begin to list how many titles have taken that "unique" stealth feature and either tried to do something new with it (appreciating the concept from a designer's perspective) or simply tried to cash in with mimic games using the feature at the height of its popularity (appreciating the concept from a marketer's perspective).

Beyond Good & Evil is an example of using a stealth system similar to Metal Gear Solid in a new way, as you play a relatively weak (though she can kick ass if she needs to) journalist who needs to sneak around the heavily-armed guards and take incriminating photos of their operations. While several factors of that game are derivative, as are most features in any video game ever ("all FPSes are clones of Wolfenstein 3D!"), the interesting and innovative uses of those factors employed by the game meant it received glowing reviews by the industry in general.

So, in conclusion, should a unique game feature be used by others for new games? Yes and no. While there's no copyrights against a certain game feature (though I wouldn't be surprised if FFX's Sphere Grid has its own copyright), there is the reputation of taking such a move to consider. But if you can do something imaginative and awesome with that idea, maybe better than the original game did, then it shouldn't matter if that particular part wasn't invented by you. It's like inventing a time machine by using tools someone else invented and a basic idea from an old sci-fi novel that was never fully realised. Does that still mean the time machine is yours? Hell yes.

But still, it is kind of cheap. There needs to be more true innovation (if there's any left) and less taking ideas and changing them slightly for a game that's sufficiently different from the original to warrant it's own identity. The true innovation stuff is harder than it sounds though, trust me.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Design Genres #3: 3D Platformers

The natural jump to 3D for the most ubiquitous of console genres was a shaky one. Despite Nintendo getting right on the first try with the excellent Super Mario 64 and several recent exceptions (such as the Sly Cooper and Ratchet & Clank games), 3D platformers have become as stale and generic for modern gamers as their 2D ancestors were for the SNES/Genesis crowd. This is largely part to the "phoning-in" of identical platformer mechanics to make dozens of license games: most notably those cashing in on the success of Nicktoons' and Cartoon Network's popular animated shows.

Instead of coming up with reasons why I like the genre (and I do, since they're very uncomplicated games and that mixes well with the often complex strategy and RPG games) or any kind of design features or gimmicks I thought were cool in past games (because there's a lot and I'd be here all night), I've decided to try to come with a Platformer game idea to disprove that there's no originality left in the genre.

Game Idea - There are a few games that do some gimmicky things with time; notable examples include the Prince of Persia games and Blinx which allow you to slow down, speed up and briefly stop time to get past obstacles. Rather than use time in an instantaneous action/move-sense, this game focuses on travelling through time with a real-time "timeline" to be wary of, with various pre-set events on it per level.
While the powers in this game can be used reactively (you can avoid an enemy's attack by suddenly jumping through time), they'll be mostly used to solve problems and open up/access new areas that may be closed off in the "present" to allow you to proceed.

Because your mastery of time-travelling needs to be learnt gradually, the first stage will allow hops through time of about five minutes. That is to say, five minutes back or five minutes forward from regular game time. So puzzles based on this limited timeshifting power will be based on a particularly unstable area and are fairly simple to solve: Finding a useful key behind a suddenly collapsed pile of rubble would mean jumping back five minutes to make the rubble vanish (as it has yet to fall). Jumping forward five minutes will allow you to avoid a sudden meteor shower in the present.

Later levels will allow bigger hops through time to solve more complex puzzles. You'll receive a "timeline" for the level, which may start some time before you entered the level and will end at some kind of level-imposed deadline. For example, there's a level on a spaceship orbiting a vital planet you need to land on. At the end of the timeline, the spaceship will leave orbit and you'll fail to reach your intended target in time. You will need to explore the area as well as observe time-based events on the level by rewinding/fast-forwarding the timeline (which could be anywhere between 10 minutes and several hours long for the whole level overall). You'll then go about fulfilling objectives such as setting off the self-destruct, finding anything useful on board, perhaps a few other side missions like stealing the plans to a weapon or the captain's report (which will all have time-based problem-solving of their own) and get off the ship in time. Your powers will still be limited, so you won't be able to travel much more than a few segments (from five minutes long and onwards, depending on how far you've progressed with your training) of the timeline at once, though there will be an option to rewind the entire timeline if you think you missed something (maybe as some kind of save/restart timeline point somewhere on the level). There may be several "events" in the timeline which you can both convenience and inconvenience you: The captain may leave his cabin for ten minutes to visit the bridge (in case you need something from his cabin without him spotting you), the middle 30 minutes of the timeline will have the ship's alarms raised as they pass through an asteroid field around the planet (so you'd need to keep a low profile to avoid all the crew rushing back and forth to protect the ship).

With (hopefully) a lot of the puzzles, there'll be two methods on how to solve it: the clever route or the dangerous route. If you can't solve the captain's cabin problem with the clever solution, you can always set off the self-destruct and sabotage it so it can't be undone (which will be a main requirement for the level's success anyway), fast-forward until everyone's escaped off the ship, grab whatever you need from the now empty captain's cabin and then quickly rewind time or restart it (with the restart point) before you blow up.

Obviously there needs to be a coherent narrative reason for you being somewhere like this, as well as a coherent reason why there aren't a million yous doing stuff at different times, but thanks to good old video game logic the second point shouldn't be a problem. Credibility has never really been the Platformer's strong suit anyway (so much for me being part of the solution and not part of the problem, tsk).

I may have to expand on this idea in a future update for more instances of how the timeline-based gameplay could be used to solve problems (not to mention some kind of cool story and background setting to tie it all together with), but this'll be all for today since I think I'm tapped out.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Super Smash Bros Brawl Melee Deluxe 64 Whatever

Probably the most interesting Wii title for me is the new Smash Bros. Why? Because I have high hopes that the new additions for Brawl are just as considerable in number as the amount of new stuff that was added to the second game.

Currently, folk are all wrapped up about the new characters the third entry will have: Snake and Wario seem to be the favorite new guys, while fanboys are endlessly lobbying for the inclusion of other third-party characters like Sonic, Alucard and Megaman. Me? I'm more interested in the inclusion of Meta-Knight, but that's just a small thing compared to what I'm really looking forward to seeing in the new SSB: The new stages.

Practically every stage of the first game had it's own characteristics and soul. There were all sorts of distractions such as explosions, lava/acid, gunfire, Pókemon attacks and so on. When the second game came around, they became even more inventive. Take for example the two F-Zero stages: One had you boarding a small platform racing high over a track from one of the games, which would occasionally touch down to allow you more space, but also let the racers crash into you. Before you could even recover the small platform was rising and you needed to board it again. The second F-Zero stage took place entirely on the racers' cars themselves from a side-view, with a few "safer" platforms such as floating cameras and Falcon's spaceship to catch a breath on.

Now far be it from me to tell the Nintendo guys what the new stages will be like (I'm painfully aware that they're much more qualified to figure out how the stages will work themselves), I thought I'd see if I could come up with a few on my own, based on both existing and potentially new characters of game three.

#1 - Link Stage (Legend of Zelda) - Yeah, it's the compulsory Legend of Zelda level. While the second game already has two LoZ levels, neither are particularly imaginative (one's a very vacant recreation of Hyrule Temple, the other is based on Mask of Majora's Termina Bay which has a few random things happening but is sort of sketchy) and Link is my favorite character so I figure there needs to be a new one:

Hyrule Castle (OOT) - OK, this level is uncompletely unlike the Hyrule Temple and Mushroom Castle levels first of all. I'm thinking of a general design plan of two floors (the inside and on the battlements) and various ways to get between them. This is more like Ganondorf's/Zelda's stage, since neither really had their own stage previously.

The gimmick is as thus: The castle starts off looking normal, has plenty of furnishings, light fixtures and Royal furniture such as suits of Hyrulean armor in the background. After a few minutes in, the walls and castle fortifications start to age rapidly and the safe green field around the castle crumbles away until the castle resembles the horrific place Ganondorf turned it into during the Adult Link era of OOT. I'm thinking the changes could be fairly rapid, maybe 20 seconds long, at which point the castle will stay the same for another few minutes before gradually changing back to the nice "in the past" version. The second form of the castle will be full of dangers, such as collapsing walls, traps, the aforementioned big pit into some bizarre vortex as well as maybe some Fire Keese (the fire-y bats) to bother the players while they're fighting. With the Wii's graphics properly capturing the sudden decay of the castle (to represent Link's almost instantaneous seven year hops through time) all around the fighters, it should look pretty boss.

#2 - Meta-Knight Stage (Kirby) - My favorite of the new characters probably won't get a stage, since his encounters with Kirby during the Kirby games usually amount to a simple stark room with a sword that Kirby is required to fight MK with. However, Meta-Knight got his own cool little chapter called Revenge of the Meta-Knight in the underrated Kirby's Fun Pak (Kirby Super Star in the States), where he controlled a giant metal airship called the Halberd in order to take over the world. I have two ideas for this level depending on which mode you're playing:

Classic/Versus: This stage would take place in the super/twin-cannon room, which was one of the sub-bosses of the Revenge Of The Meta-Knight chapter. The super cannon had various gun turrets with which to attack Kirby, who had to destroy the cannon piece-by-piece to proceed in the game. These include a bomb-firing cannon, a giant laser cannon (which charged up to give you sufficient time to duck) and a robotic hand that occasionally drops bombs on you or picks you up and slams you down. For the purposes of this fighting stage, the scene is recreated in 3D and the fighters have to fight around these distractions. However, the fighters may decide to destroy the more annoying parts of the cannon boss first (since each part requires a sufficient amount of damage to destroy, just like in the Kirby game). It'll be up to the players to choose whether to concentrate on each other or gang up on the machine. Of course, those who decide to be jerks and attack players who are busy attacking the machine may end up winning, so it's likely the whole group will just to try to ignore it to avoid letting their guard down in front of the other players. But they'll all go down faster if the machine continues to work.

Adventure: Adventure levels allow for much more depth and scope for stages, and for this one I was considering another "get to the end"-type stage. This time, the stage recreates the escape from the Halberd ship as it's crashing down around those controlling it while Kirby speeds off. Occasionally during the escape, Meta-Knight flies by to taunt you (who knew he had such cool demon wings to get around on? I hope they're in the new game too) before escaping with his tail beneath his legs. In this stage, he would actually land a few times to fight you while the Halberd was breaking up. You'll have to beat him up a few times while escaping to finish the level.

#3 - Secret Bonus Level (???) - OK, this was sort of a joke-y reply on the forums I frequent, but with the new Bob Ross "Joy of Painting" painting game purportedly coming out for the Wii I couldn't resist. Basically, the level starts off completely white in a flat canvas frame (sort of like the Game & Watch stage of SSB:M). Then, Bob Ross's hand comes into shot to paint some of the background in behind you as you're fighting. As he's doing so, he'll occasionally paint a platform for you to stand on or some kind of obstacle to annoy you with which fits perfectly within the picture's developing background. As the typical Bob Ross-esque lush landscape painting fills in, the level becomes more and more complex until the painting is finished and it rises off the easel to reset for a new painting. I haven't yet decided if this "painting reset" instantly kills the characters (it would be annoying for the players, but that's their fault for taking too much time to finish) or simply knocks them offscreen so they can fall back onto the new clean canvas. This level idea could even be expanded to allow a non-fighting player with a Wii controller to do the painting, annoying his friends who are fighting in the game with his random placements of traps and platforms.

OK, that's enough stage ideas for today. Even though the real ones for SSB:B have probably all been planned out and built already, it's still pretty fun to make them up so expect a few more SSB:B "stage design" updates in the future. As long as that character list doesn't get finalized any time soon (or even if it does, since I guess it doesn't matter for the purposes of this exercise) I'll have plenty of game worlds to think up battle stages for.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Game Idea: Horror Hotel

While I plan to keep my in-depth game ideas somewhere secure off the internet to avoid getting them stolen, I'll go over the bare bones of this and many other ideas in this blog. That way, when folk start coming here, they can give feedback on what they think of the game as potential players. Besides, even if they did get stolen, I'd have the benefit of knowing my ideas don't suck PLUS it would mean another game on the market I'd really want to play. After all, that's rule #1 of any of my game ideas - I have to want to play it.

The first of these game ideas is this one I had that sort of follows on the comic appeal of Luigi's Mansion, but far more in-depth than that interesting little title. Your character inherits a spooky mansion after its owner (and your last known relative), Strange Uncle Pete, dies. Wandering around the decrepit building, your Uncle appears to you and leads you to a chamber where he was conducting experiments to explore the ruins underneath where the mansion is located. Instead of actually going down there and exploring himself (which is highly dangerous), he created a golem prototype that could be warped down there and warped back again once it had filled up on all the treasure and relics that were purportedly lost down there. Unfortunately, he only managed to build the one "fetcher"-class prototype golem before he lost his research in the lab explosion that killed him.

This is where you come in. Your Uncle wants you to fund his research to explore the vast ruins beneath the mansion. In order to make enough money to fix the current golem and create better and more expensive ones, you'll need to turn the mansion into some kind of profitable business. If you can make just enough money from hiring out rooms of the mansion as a hotel to fund your Uncle's golem research, you can find your fortune in the lost artifacts and treasure that await you.

Now, onto the gameplay itself: The gameplay will be split between a) sending golems down underground to fight creatures and recover items and b) continuing to build and decorate rooms in the mansion above for respective clientele. The advancement of one mode will greatly benefit the other so it's recommended you keep on track with both equally. Because the hotel is sort of macabre and spooky, you'll be attracting very strange specimens to your hotel and you'll need some obscure and slightly off-kilter furniture to decorate the rooms with for them to want to stay. The ruins now serve two purposes: find treasure to pay for upgrades to the hotel and your golems and find ancient relics and curios of interest to decorate your hotel with. Killing a boss for example will allow you to keep its treasure (money), any furniture that was in the boss room that could be servicable (like a throne if the boss was a Zombie King for example) and maybe the boss's head for the hotel's grotesque trophy room. The deeper you go into the underground ruins, the better the items you'll find and the more money you'll make, which you'll need to fund the research of better classes of golems, as well as building them (which your dead-but-still-present Uncle can help you build).

Eventually, you'll be able to have a party of golems like a party of RPG characters. You can control the "fighter" golems while several lesser-equipped "fetcher" golems run around and collect treasure. Once a golem's inventory is full of stuff it can be warped out (possibly using a crystal built into the golem, or maybe warp pads situated all over the ruins). If a golem dies, it'll need to be replaced at great cost (depending on how valuable a class it was) and as well as buying new golems you'll be able to upgrade existing ones with various enhancements (maybe like a miniature sword for it to carry to increase its damage output). There will be many variants of golem classes and will all have their own AI system while you're not controlling them (as you'll only be able to control one character at a time like most group-based Action RPGs). It'll be up to the player to find the best team to match their playing habits. There may also be "magic" golems who can cast spells, "digger" golems who can uncover hidden rooms and areas by digging through walls/floors and maybe even some kind of "ultimate" golem who can do the jobs of some or all of the other golems (but will need a lot of special items and cash to make).

Other features I'm considering incorporating into this idea:

A) A time limit. This may force the player to make only profitable runs with his golems before their magical power runs out. The game may work in cycles (control the golems by night, run the hotel by day) and you'll need to fulfil certain requirements before a certain deadline (e.g., an important VIP visiting the area that you'll need to prepare a room for or have a hotel rating that's high enough for them to want to stay). The second factor would have the benefit of forcing the player to concentrate on both the dungeon part and the hotel-building part, since each is important to the furtherment of the other. Of course, forcing the gamer to do things is something that good designers should try to avoid. I've found the best games don't force the player to do anything but make their own fun with the resources available.

B) Some kind of dynamic storage system. While a tad nerdish and probably something that's very much an acquired taste, inventory micro-management is a big draw for me so being able to control what your little golem minions carry could be a boon for the game. Being able to squeeze in as much as they can handle before they're shipped back with all their treasure would be far preferable than leaving huge spaces as soon a golem finds it can't pick up some huge item. Rather than the usual 2x4 item slots for shields, 4x1 item slots for swords etc., I was thinking of a system that takes an item and condenses it into an inventory sphere. Each sphere would have it's own volume and color depending on the item, and the player can easily move the spheres around to better fill a golem's carrying capacity. Also, should the game bother with some kind of inventory collection subquest (like Katamari Damacy's record of all the items you've rolled up into a katamari and blanks of what still remains), if they could all be displayed on the overview as their respective colored spheres, it'll be easier to figure out what type of item is still missing from your collection. For instance, a red sphere could be an enemy artifact (something an enemy could leave behind, which won't be worth much usually but may have some use, i.e. a giant head for a trophy wall or a pair of spooky antlers for a novelty hat rack) with its own volume depending on how big the creature that dropped it was. A mighty dragon's head would appear on the collection screen as a giant red ball for instance.

C) Final one this, a unique set of requirements for special characters in your hotel. For instance, you could hire someone who knows about the history of the dungeon beneath you who could provide you hints on what he knows about the current area of the ruins you're exploring. However, he'll want his own free room (which means an additional monthly cost to you) that's decorated to his liking (and as a scholar, he'd want lots of ancient books and artifacts decorating his room, along with a standard bed and desk). Other special characters that could stay in your hotel could include a blacksmith who could make special upgrades for your golems with the right items (found in the underground ruins of course), whose room will need to have a forge and an anvil. You may have a cook that will increase the popularity of the hotel if you bring him exotic food items from the dungeon (including things enemies leave behind when they die - ugh..). And so on.

The game will measure how successful your hotel is to provide you with a monthly (or whatever I decide to use as a cycle) income which you can use for improvements to the hotel and creating explorer golems to excavate the ruins with. You can buy things to decorate the hotel with from regular shops or find them for free in the ruins (though they might end up cursed or something, so you'll need to uncurse them with a witch, which you can have onhand in the hotel once you make a room for her). This idea works because there's so many possibilities with the format.

So, yeah, long post about the first of many game idea updates I'll have. This one sounds fun to me (I'd play it at any rate), but it could really use the right creative team to make it all it can be. A uniquely quirky art style in the vein of Tim Burton maybe, to properly realize all the macabre elements of the hotel and the ruins beneath. It's the kind of game I'd love to work on someday anyway.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Design Licenses #2: Firefly

So, onto my second one of these. As I intend to run the nerd-show gamut with this feature, I figured I'd move onto Joss Whedon's venture into sci-fi: Firefly. Now while this show has plenty of action and spaceshippery, which instantly suggests some kind of action-shooter-spacesim of some kind, the focus (and most of the fanboy support of the show) comes from the sassy dialogue of the crew of the Serenity.

At least I think sassy is the right word for it.

There is only one genre that could bring justice to the sharp writing of a show rather than any kind of content, and that's the classic Point N' Click Adventure format. That's right, all those old Lucasart and Sierra games. However it would play more like the Indiana Jones games, where several actiony type sub-games would be integrated, as opposed to just a plain "use everything on everything to solve problems" Point N' Click. At this point I've decided to call them Point & Clicks instead of using that stupid N'. I mean, I could go back and edit past instances of it, but I think implementing the change now and announcing it is far more professional. Far more.

Though, in retrospect, while the above Point & Click format would be good for all the show's slapstick humor and one-liners, it might just be a little outdated and stale for a modern audience. I just miss the Point & Click games, so sue me.

So onto the second idea for this game, which is a sort of first-person (maybe third-person, since that would be easier for some things) shooter/do-stuff-er system. The game would be based around several episodes of the show, which will be separated like chapters. You'd land in a place offering a job, pick up supplies for your crew and ship, figure out the gameplan with your crew (which would be in a cutscene), and play vital parts of the heist (or whatever needs doing) with whatever crew member(s) is(are) needed. This would include such fun FPS/TPS elements as stealth missions, vehicle missions and general shooty-up mayhem, with several mini-games involved also (such as one for hacking, one for loading up the ship using the magnetic crane, etc.). Best of all, when you're trying to concentrate with whatever, you could get someone giving you sarcastic comments over the headphones and put you off, instantly killing you and making you redo the mission! Wheee! The possibilities are truly endless. But yes, there should be plenty of opportunities for the show's trademark charming dialogue to come through without too much interference.

Firefly is one of those shows that probably won't get a game because it's still a bit too much of a niche market, even with the rather successful movie tie-in. But it's been such a long while since there was such a varied (both high- and low-tech) and interesting Sci-Fi universe fit for a video game that it seems a shame not to make one.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Small Update

Taking a break from all the massive posts today to show y'all what I've been obsessed with for the past few days:

It's pretty much all over the net at this point, but simply put it's a movie rating site that uses your compatability with the movie tastes of other users to suggest new movies for you to watch. The more movies you've seen and rated, the better the suggestions are more likely to be. And it'll just keep getting more and more accurate as new people sign up with similar tastes to yours. Incidentally, I'm on there as Mento.

Now if only someone could invent a site like that for video games...

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Design Genres #2: Strategy RPGs

Though occasionally a little nebulous, the definition of a Strategy RPG (SRPGs for short) is a game where you control a band of adventurers or soldiers who progress with levels and statistics like an RPG but are controlled as an entire group rather than individually. The second, usually unspoken requirement is that you use a gridlike field to move your pieces around like a chess game, choosing advantageous positions for your characters to stand and attack from, as opposed to the standard RPG combat system of facing the enemy in groups of 3 or 4 and attacking in turns.

In this update, I'll once again go through some of the better ideas games of this genre have employed, as well as one of my own ideas should I ever get the chance to work on the Strategy RPG genre again (which I hope to do, as I find them fascinating).

*** The "Dual Movement" System (Vandal Hearts II - PS1): As an attempt to diversify from what people consider a perfectly solid first instalment of Konami's strongest foray into the genre, Vandal Hearts II came up with this rather unique twist when devising a strategy for your battles:

1. The game first of all eschews the speed stat, choosing the older method of allowing the player to move their units in whichever order they choose. It also allows for angle modifiers, where the game adds damage depending on where the attack is coming from: attacking from an elevated position causes more damage than being lower than your target, and attacks from behind and the sides are similarly enhanced over direct face-to-face confrontations.
2. As you move one of your units, the enemy side moves one of his. The AI chooses the enemy unit in the most advantageous position to do damage (either the one standing closest to your units, or having its most powerful unit attack first).
3. Instantly, you're on a whole new level of strategy. You may find yourself moving towards the enemy as he's moving towards you, and missing each other completely. You may also predict that the computer will move that enemy behind your unit for a higher damage attack, and so you move your unit behind where that enemy unit will move to so you can score a powerful blow on him instead. You may find yourself purposely baiting the enemy units with your weakest character, only to move it out of the way and waste an enemy unit's attack. The applications for wise-assery at this point are almost endless.

Though somewhat confusing at first, and difficult to get used to until you start recognising patterns in the AI, the Dual Movement system may have indeed put many casual players of the genre off. However, the system has amazing potential (especially for a two-player mode) and I'd like to see it (and this series) more often in the future.

*** The "Item World" feature (Disgaea: Hour of Darkness - PS2): The most innovative series this genre's ever seen, the Nippon Ichi series of SRPGs (which I mentioned last update) continually tries new features and systems to keep each new instalment fresh. Disgaea's "Item World", a never-ending series of random dungeons based actually inside the items and equipment in the game, is an inspiring way for allowing a player to level-up his equipment and characters. The immediate and most obvious goal of this feature is to increase the power of a piece of equipment by levelling it slightly each time a floor is completed, and levelling it a whole lot once an "Item Boss" (placed on every 10th floor) is defeated. However, each item also has "trainer" monsters, which give any item they live in a bonus to various stats. After finding and taming these monsters (by defeating them), you can move them across to other items of equipment. Finding a group of randomly generated Attack-boosting trainers in an otherwise useless item for example will provide you with an opportunity to enter that item and retrieve them for your character's main weapon.

Needless to say I gushed all over this feature like a rabid fanboy, and spent waaay too much of my time playing through all these item worlds to power up various characters and their weaponry. The best part about this series is every game in it has something like this to explore the possibilities of, though the Item World is by far the best example of their imaginative optional features.

*** Randomly Generated Mutational Skillsets (my own invention): I finish with one of my own attempts to create a new spin on how characters are formed for a game of the SRPG classification. This works ideally for a superhero Strategy RPG (something that is missing from the genre in my opinion), though it could be easily applied to a sci-fi or standard fantasy setting.

Characters in this scenario would gain their powers at a pre-generated rate of level acquisition, i.e. they would gain new attacks once they reached certain levels, a la Pókemon. However a character generated by the player (using a random generating tool, which may be CD-based such as Monster Rancher's fun monster generating system) may end up with several "mutations" (randomly generated with the rest of the character's stats) in their pre-ordained skillsets. This may end up giving a character a powerful attack at an earlier level than usual, or a completely different attack all together. The player can then use these "mutant" characters as unpredictable wildcards when playing against the computer or another human. For example, a character who has ice-based attacks (in a superhero setting, this guy would be like Iceman, or an Icemage in a fantasy setting) might find themselves with an electric-based moveset as well (such as Electro's, or a Thundermage's) so they can surprise enemies expecting standard ice moves. That character may also be fortunate enough to find a passive skill (one that is always in effect) such as regeneration or increased resistance from mental attacks. At a certain point of their development, they can pass on these mutated skills to another character, and the player can unlock various rare abilities and skills from randomly generated characters and merge them with their favorite hero to create an indestructable powerhouse.

As with any complex skillset structure, this will require more tweaking as well as a working demo system to test it with, but it's something I may get around to creating one day. Superhero RPGs are getting far more common (consider the success of X-Men Legends or the City of Heroes MMORPG), so a decent superhero SRPG - which will finally allow a player to properly control a group of superheroes as a strategic team rather than just have them as AI cohorts - will hopefully be on the table in the near future.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Design Features I Like

Just a shortish (relatively short anyway, like how Jupiter is relatively short compared to the Sun) bulletpoint list of common gameplay features and why I like them, despite all three being used in practically every game (of the relevant genre) out there.

* Collection Subquests: These started out as the most benign and dull of all RPG subquests, where you were charged to simply recover some number of otherwise useless objects from the wizard's dungeon or some such. However, when the same feature is transplanted into a different genre such as a 3D Platformer it becomes... even more pointless, since there's usually even less of a reward waiting for you upon completion. However, it does a good job of extending the lifespan of a game artificially after the fact (sort of like a Terri Schiavo effect) and it allows for some really devious optional gameplay to be added by designers, such as requiring the completion of an extremely difficult subgame for the capricious goal of some random mcguffin, just so you can have a finished collection. I can't even count the amount of times my stubbornness to get an optional item collection finished has allowed me to perform superhuman feats of gamer skill. So for that I thank it. Or spurn it until the day I die for wasting so much energy on it, whichever.

On a side-note, the grossly underappreciated PC game Anachronox had its own item collection item called a TACO: Totally Arbitrary Collectable Object. So if I ever mention the use of TACOs in the future you'll know what I mean.

* Optional "Super" Bosses: Similar to the above, but much more focused around the RPG genre, the ideology of a super-boss is to give the "hardcore" player a greater challenge after the game is complete with a much bigger boss than the one you usually find at the end of the game's story. You'd be hard-pressed to find a RPG made after the SNES/Genesis era that didn't have at least one of these, but again even though this has become a somewhat obnoxious and ubiquitous feature, it still allows for some interesting game design.

Take, for example, your average RPG: Final Fantasy 8 is a perfect example for sheer averageness, so we'll use that. Final Fantasy often relies on the reputation of their "Weapon" bosses - huge dragon/demon hybrids with more HP than God (sometimes literally depending on the end boss) - as the greatest challenge a FF game has. In the final dungeon of the game, a series of events you can perform will allow you to fight Omega Weapon, a battle far tougher than the usual final medley of grotesqueries with semi-philosophical roots that you'll come across at the end of these games. This is just a simple instance of the optional boss feature.

However, with Final Fantasy X (in case people think I don't like the series), they've increased the whole optional boss scenario to a crazy zenith. There are now three whole subquests full of optional bosses, most notably the monster trainer place (where the right amount of captured creatures allows you to fight the uberdifficult "perfect" specimen of that particular monster class) and the Dark Aeons, which are all your summoning titan/god things made to look all gothic and hideously powerful. Finding these optional bosses tends to be almost as fun as getting your ass kicked by them (if you can manage anything as fun as that), and designers love adding easter eggs with these optionals. The blade-spinning uberboss in Kingdom Hearts 1 for instance was named after a lucky competition winner Kurt Zisa. Which again proves that even though a game feature can be overexposed, it may not be completely devoid of creative applications by a smart designer.

* Randomized Dungeons: Last one for today, methinks. Randomized dungeons are another of these groan-inspiring features that inundate the RPG genre these days, though it is in fact as old as dirt. The simplest way to create an endless combination of dungeons to fight through is to have your game's coding randomly create them, keeping such necessary elements as treasure, enemies, and a clear route between the entrance and exit. My two favorite games of all-time both used random dungeons to some degree (more on those two in a future update) and several games, if they don't feature them prominently in the game, have an "optional dungeon" (see optional bosses above also, since there's usually one at the end of these optional dungeons).

So you have some idea of the general application of such a feature. Now to move onto the more creative facilitations of it: Take Nippon-Ichi's series of Strategy RPGs (La Pucelle, Disgaea, Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdoms are the ones currently out in the States/Europe). The storyline is spread over 100 or so pre-generated maps, with their own little puzzles to solve and pre-set teams of enemies to beat. These maps make up approximately 1% of the gamer's time spent on that game (on average), as they're far more likely to be spending it in the optional randomized dungeons and levelling up for ungodly stats and equipment. The optional dungeons of Wild Arms 3 and Final Fantasy X-2 have 100 floors each. The optional dungeon of Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land is purportedly endless. It dawns on one that a simple feature like this (as well as creating enough high-level equipment for your character to survive the later floors) can almost make a game's lifespan infinite, or at least increase its longevity exponentially. Putting all the best gear the game has to offer on the final few floors will entice enough players to attempt the ordeal, as long as you (as a designer) don't make it too painful for them (like removing the ability to save every so many floors, which is a killing blow for any optional dungeon which I've met way too often).

Long update again. But once I get talking on those three above things I'm unlikely to stop. I want to reiterate here though that I'm well aware all three of the above have been used so lazily or incompetently (far more often than competently, in fact) that they may very well turn off some of the more casual players, but for those who want to stick with a game they've enjoyed immensely those three features are often a godsend for extending your time with them. Like finishing a book you really enjoyed and finding it has three more optional chapters. Yay!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Design Licenses #1: Stargate SG-1

Making game licenses from popular TV shows or movies has always been a dubious process. Ever since the caveman days, when one industrious caveman decided he could double the profit of twigs made by a cave drawing by also making collectible sabre-tooth feces action-figures of the characters in the cave drawing, has been received by his critical peers as "Og sell out. Undermine artistic integrity of cave drawing with cheap merchandise. Would not seen dead with cave drawing lunchbox, ugh ugh."

However, licensing has come a long way since the early days when a rushed product would sacrifice competency to sell a game of a franchise at the peak of its popularity. Video gaming's increased validity as a media form has allowed for more in-depth and focused efforts being endorsed by those in the industries of movies and TV (who increasingly are fans of gaming in general), and now any given franchise can be fully realised as a video game without having to go to "Generic Platformers R Us" to phone in the gameplay.

Which brings me to Stargate SG-1. Stargate is one of those sci-fi shows that's "just there", taking over from a tradition set-up by Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. It doesn't have the sheer inspired bizarreness of some sci-fi shows, but this helps it become more accessible to a general audience of both sci-fi fans and people who saw enough explosions and scantily-clad off-world women in the show's commercial to warrant giving it a look. However, while many people who watch the show may do so for simple entertainment, the loyal fanbase of geeky types are into the more nerdy characteristics of the show: namely the development of various storylines between the characters, the different races (Jaffa's struggle against oppression and slavery, the Tokra and their dwindling population, whatever those groovy little Asgard are up to), the fight against whatever System Lord is kicking ass that cycle and so on. They also dig the exploration element (or at least I do, and I very much include myself among these guys).

Therefore, when the Stargate game was released (the one based on the show, not the couple of games released after the movie: an excellent example if any of the "Generic Platformers R Us" analogy above), I found it pandered more to the former group of people who watched the show: the ones doing so to be entertained with explosions and hot alien chicks. This is, of course, fine and all, but as a nerdy fan I wanted more.

So here is my idea for this game: Start with a classic X-Com set-up, this series of games being very similar to the plot of the show i.e. funding a secret government project to fight an alien menace, using a base of operations to launch teams to procure alien technology to defend our planet with while fighting off any threats that show up. Add a greater sense of controlling how the base and your personnel expands and grows, giving off-world team characters their own RPG stats (I'm thinking something like Call of Cthulhu's character design, where focus is on building skills and applying them to situations, rather than arbitrary numbered stats for health and such) and then expand it to the scale of something like Oblivion - there is a whole galaxy of Stargates out there after all - and you'll have something that will properly recreate the true appeal of the show: exploration and plot development.

So, how would this game be played? Well, you'd work in cycles (probably 1 week or 1 month, though it could also be a "real-time" system that can be artificially sped up like X-Com) and you'd be given several gate addresses for that cycle that the computer has figured out the coordinates for. Out of, say, 10 addresses generated that cycle you can visit 5 of them, and later on in the game expand that number to 6 of them and so on as you gain the resources to expand your operation. Your MALP (the little exploring robot vehicle thing) readout of the planet will tell you what kind of mission to expect, ranging from simple diplomatic/research missions to life-threatening melees with Jaffa or whatnot in order to procure their weaponry or some valuable Naqadah - the show's ultra-powerful McGuffin-esque element. You'd also come across completely inhospitable lava/ice/blown-up worlds which may end up with you losing your MALP unit, so some discretion is advised (though it would be cool to see what happened to it). There would also be some references to the show, meaning the more obsessive of fans will be able to recognise one Stargate's address as being the black hole world and wisely avoid it (or save the game before trying it). Most of these planets will be purposefully created for story-based missions (such as fulfilling important events in the show's timeline, like meeting the Asgard), though a fair number can be generated randomly using the kind of "common encounters" the characters of the show are implied to frequently deal with between episodes.

The trouble with licenses is that the chances of working on one specifically is exceedingly rare, as you'd have to be employed by the company willing to buy from or make an agreement with those who hold that license. Therefore, it's unlikely I'd ever get to work on turning any of my favorite shows into games, and I'll end up watching helplessly as generic "okayish" titles are made of them instead. Sometimes they do things right (I don't think the Futurama platformer game could have been any better than it was), but sometimes the missed opportunity is just heartbreaking.

Man, I sound like a dweeb. It's a good thing most of you stopped reading hours ago.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Game Review: Chibi-Robo (GCN)

Every so often, in addition to whatever twaddle I decide to write about game design, I'll take a game I recently played and discuss what I liked about it. Or in some cases, what I really didn't like about it. Expect the latter to show up often in the near future as I play through my expansive backlog of past impulse purchases.

I start with Chibi-Robo for the GameCube, a fun little game (does Nintendo make anything else?) about a tiny robot and his efforts to make everyone in his household happy, humans and sentient toys both. Aww.

First off, I have to say I've always loved the use of scale in these types of game. It's fair enough to create some faraway planet or something with its random alien dangers, but I have a soft spot for games designed around something as mundane as a cluttered house really close up, presenting a world fraught with dangers of its own for those of a tiny disposition. Focusing the adventures of our toys around shelves, piles of books, the large tree outside and so on is something we all used to do as kids and continues to entrance us as grown-ups who really should be doing something better with their time. I guess there's also that "everything seemed bigger when we were little" thing too, but it's mostly the toys. Mostly.

For me, this game draws a lot of parallels with Pikmin, the other exceedingly cute GameCube franchise. While gameplay is vastly different, the setting of an otherwise boring landscape filled with trash made beautiful by the juxtaposition of the cartoony graphics of the characters with the hyper-realistic backdrops is just as prevalent. Furthermore, both games - lest you get driven to distraction by your surroundings - are constantly providing you with a "ticking-clock" feature to adhere to. With this title, the ticking-clock is both general (the game runs in half-days, which can be 5, 10 or 15 minutes long in real time) and immediate: your power supply constantly speeds downwards as you perform actions, and the more complex those actions are the more of your power supply is taken away from you. Spending several minutes scaling a large bookcase may come to an abrupt end if you used all your battery life getting up there. And so the game expands from the initial living room to those of the first and second floors and beyond as you increase the capacity of your little battery, plugging yourself into the mains whenever necessary.

A couple more notes about this game: The cast is wildly eccentric, as you'd expect from a game with such a bizarre premise, and fixing all their problems becomes an engrossing ordeal for you and the little robot. Solving peoples' problems awards you with their sticker for your collection, and I just love any inclusion of a collection subquest to follow after the main story is completed (I'll make a future update about the acquired taste of collection subquests). I also noticed the music, and whenever I do it usually means it's either really good or really bad, and this time it was really good. The background music ranged from the comical to the atmospheric (even poignant, when the sad tale of the family's now-defunct Giga-Robo is revealed to you piece-by-piece), with music cleverly interjected into the sound effects in a style similar to Rez: Attempting to dig into solid ground with your digging tool (a spoon) creates a classic piano noise, which strung together with repeated digging creates a melody. The sinister heavy metal music that signifies a Spydor (the protagonists of the game) appearance is accentuated with the power chords they make whenever they walk around.

Overall, I was impressed with this game both as a gamer and a designer (and it's usually either/or). It's growing up with games like this which put me on this rather temperamental career path in the first place.

Design Genres #1: God Sim

So, a little more about this blog: I intend to write about how I would go about designing a game using only the genre or license (such as a TV show or movie) to start me off, explaining a little about the topic and then discussing how I think it would best work as a game. Hooray for having opinions on the internet!

Today's update is about the somewhat out-of-vogue genre of the God Sim. While structurally similar to the popular RTS genre, the God Sim also depends heavily on how effective you are (as the player) of looking after all your little followers while keeping such evils as monsters, rival religions and the ever-present threats of free will and an age of technological enlightenment off your doorstep.

While I respect the traditional genre set-up of sitting on a cloud and occasionally shooting lightning bolts up the asses of people you don't like, I'd appreciate more God games where you take a more direct approach of protecting your little underlings while simultaneously striking the fear of You into them. Ergo, more games that allow for Avatars. The concept of Avatars is simple enough: You can use some of your godly power (which, like most GS games, would come from your people's worshipping) to manifest yourself into a form that can roam the mortal world. You can either assume the role of an average adventurer and walk amongst your believers incognito (while helping out with their problems or fighting in their wars in a standard RPG Adventurer sense, while also spreading the good word of You, of course) or, and this would be even cooler, to manifest yourself as one of those giant statues like in Clash of the Titans. The latter form would be used to fight off Titans or Ettins (depending on if the game focuses on Greek mythology or Norse) who are equally colossal and potentially world-ending. While I haven't ironed out all the details about combat yet, I'm thinking you could repeatedly stomp on the neck of the metaphysical manifestation of the people's mistrust about poisonous vegetables whilst proclaiming something derogatory about its mother.

Either way, you could inject some (optional) actiony bits to an otherwise stale "directing genre". Of course, most folk who play these games like the directing part, so the Avatars would be made optional.

Notable games with avatars include: ActRaiser, where you manifest yourself to take out the most stubborn of evil lairs. Valkyrie Profile, where you assume the role of a Norse warrior angel (close enough) who constantly fights alongside your einherjar (
uber-Viking warriors who died in battle that you have been ordained to collect). These two games are mostly platformer and RPG (respectively), though they do share some God Sim features in the downtime between action areas.

The second thing that needs more exposure in this genre is the concept of God Pantheons. With this, you could choose your own team of Gods, either from the ether like the Gods of Old or select them from particularly worthwhile mortals. With the former option, you have the particularly neat option of having the world around you be directly affected by who you choose to assume the roles of your under-Gods: Your potentials' personalities will effect how they would perform in their given Godhood. For instance, selecting a kind-hearted soul for the job of Nature God(dess) would yield a planet full of lush, rich environments suitable for farming and peaceful co-existance between all its peoples. Selecting a hateful asshole for the same job would result in a landscape that resembled a heavy metal album cover. However, selecting your second guy as the new God of War could ensure that your mortals will train themselves to become scary berserker types who would rip out spines first and ask questions later. Having a great library of these personalities to choose your Gods from could potentially create many different combinations and experiences for you to play through, maybe ramping up the difficulty by making the God of Life allergic to animal hair or giving the role of God of Magic to a complete klutz, who has inexplicably turned the people of the south continent into 30ft tall hideous demons while trying to solve their lumber shortage.

In conclusion,
a really good Clash of the Titans game wouldn't be all too bad either. From a "Gods playing around with figurines of mortals" perspective as opposed to "kickass dude kills mythological things", because God of War already delivers on that front. And how.

Friday, June 02, 2006


Whoa.. first post. This blog is intended for various Game Design portfolio stuff as well as whatever I feel like talking about. Like most blogs, in fact. Chances are I'll get bored of it and stop in the near future, so hopefully there'll be enough readers to send me a deluge of disappointed e-mails by then and cripple my inbox (which sounds painful).

So, yeah. Welcome to the Mento Blog. Please excuse any attempts at humour.