Sunday, November 26, 2006

Design Licenses #6: Monsters In My Pocket

Monster In My Pocket was a fairly successful toy franchise in the early 90s, focusing on tiny rubber effigies of famous monsters around the world, based on legends, folklore and sometimes religion (which didn't go over too well). Clearly based on the quantity over quality rule, the original series had 49 of these little guys which were available in packets of 1, 2, 6 or 12. They were, in essence, the sort of toys perfectly suited for kids with allowances and varied tastes. If you wanted to save up for a pack of 6, you could, or you could just go with a small packet of 2 that week and spend the rest on comics or candy. Slowly the collection would grow until you'd found at least one of each monster in the series, at which point a new series of neon rubber beasties would arise and the circle began anew. Since there is currently a new, revamped series of M.I.M.P.s in the works, with the classic monsters given a major visual rehauling (they're much truer to the original artist interpretations of the monsters), I figured I'd attempt to get in on the ground floor with a game idea.

Now, the immediate and obvious connection is to Satoshi Tajiri's Pokemon, another media franchise that has depended on its "buckets o' beasts" and children's fascination with monsters (or punnishly-named mutations of regular animals as the case may be) to become a massive cash cow. So today's tie-in idea will not be an RPG in an effort to distance this game idea from that world-renowned series. I'll also avoid the Strategy genre, since that would be a little obvious of me (and would, in fact, be rather close to the actual video game I worked on during my brief stint at Gizmondo Studios Manchester).

Instead, the game idea plans to follow somewhat in the original NES game's footprints. In other words, an action-adventure title. Obviously the collection element would still be there, as this is me we're talking about, but the game will be based much more on how best to fight the various monsters (which range from the mythological to the undead to the colossal) with the weapons and tools at your disposal.

The main character would be something like a modern Van Helsing, by which I mean the monster-hunting character of the Hugh Jackman movie. He'd follow reports on global monster sightings and take out nests or hauntings of various monsters in the M.I.M.P. franchise in an FPS-style setting. Some scenarios will be mostly mindless action, which will parallel the equally mindless beastial monster types like Ogres or Harpies. Other situations may be more cerebral, for instance you may have to trick a supposedly invulnerable enemy into defeating itself; such as luring a Vampire into sunlight or finding a way to ensnare and imprison the invincible Tarrasque. More situations still may need you to take out something gigantic and city-threatening, which may take on a possible "Shadow Of The Colossus"-style route but will more likely involve vehicles or heavy weaponry of some kind. I haven't yet decided if the protagonist belongs to an agency equipped to deal with these things (like the one in Hellboy) or if they are a freelancer who needs to fund missions with the bounties on various monsters' heads. The latter seems less derivative, but money is a feature that doesn't generally go over too well in FPS titles (though Deus Ex was more than OK).

Not every monster will be represented with their own mission. There are almost 50 of these creatures in the series, and more if we count the older generations (which would put us up to around 200). Subsequently, many of the monsters may be hidden or otherwise secondary to the mission's "target monster". An in-game bestiary will inform you of gaps so you can retake missions and hopefully find the missing entries. Of course, these bestiaries will have representations of the monsters killed as they appear in their M.I.M.P. forms. Various monsters in the series are well known for their coyness and unwillingness to encounter humans, so your work should be cut out for you in discovering them. There may even be a photography subquest to take pictures of these less threatening monsters instead of killing them, these photos can then be exchanged for cash for more effective monster-hunting equipment (or alternately just a higher overall score which could unlock all sorts of in-game bonuses). This is a little too close to Beyond Good & Evil's nature photography side-quest though, so that idea may be scrapped in the long run.

I'm hoping the mix of mindless swarm-style violence, problem-solving puzzles and the change of tactics required for some of the bigger targets will make it an interesting - and fairly different - addition to the FPS genre, whose fans are always calling out for something other than the usual generic shooters. I know for a fact that there aren't as many mission-based shooters as there used to be.
You know, the ones that don't follow a continual, linear series of set-pieces through the game without letting you revisit or reattempt your favorite levels. Looking at you, Half-Life.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Design Genres #11: Party Games

The Party Game genre is a little hard to pin down, but it is essentially a multiplayer game you play with a party of people (that is, more than the usual 2 and anything up to the double figures). It also has a second meaning, as a game you'd play at a party or box social or whatever it is kids are doing these days. Presumably instead of getting drunk until they pass out like normal people.

Taking in account these two possible definitions, a good party game is one that has more than two players, either simultaneously or in turns, that is fairly easy to pick up, sort of aimless (so no one player gets attached to a playthrough when everyone else is bored of it) and is a lot of fun to play. Games that present themselves purely as "Party Games" include Nintendo's Warioware and Mario Party games, but there are many other games that fit the mold such as multiplayer "LAN party" FPS games, sports games, games like Mario Kart and Super Monkey Ball and video game conversions of popular board games. In fact, Nintendo's starting to emphasise this kind of fun togetherness experience (as opposed to the more isolated online multiplayer experience) and the Wii especially will probably be taking full advantage of the market of casual gamers with this kind of lifestyle.

Today's ideas will include one board game that is sort of "jazzed up" for its video game conversion, as well as a board game that has yet to appear as a video game.

RPG Monopoly: A lot of the modern TBS (Turn-Based Strategy) games were inspired by epic board games such as Monopoly and Risk, especially when you consider the resource management aspect, so this idea is sort similar in vein to something like Heroes of Might & Magic (or Master of Magic, even) and really a way for those sort of games to pay back their original inspiration by lending it their trademark fantasy element. Players are replaced with wizards, money with mana, street properties are replaced with sites of power and miscellaneous properties such as the utilities (now Sky and Sea), stations (the four elements) and the jail (which I'm thinking could be the magic-zapping ice prison that Merlin found himself in during the Excalibur movie) all have their new equivalents. Buying houses is now buying guardian monsters to defend sites you've enchanted, and anyone passing through them will lose mana (which doubles as a wizard's lifesource) with the magical traps/guardians set up there. A wizard that loses all mana, including that which comes from life-stealing from his various owned sites (mortgages, in other words) is defeated and banished to.. I dunno.. Detroit.

Despite these minor cosmetic changes to the game, there will be a few modifications to the core rules; but not too many, since Monopoly is already as solid a game design as you're likely to find. The Chance and Community Chest cards will be changed slightly to reflect the new game system (no beauty contests for one thing). The Free Parking rule will be optional - in this game, "banker" mana will come from the empty cosmos and return there, though a wizard on the Free Parking (maybe Stonehenge?) spot will be able to channel that lost mana. There may be minor cash prizes along the route too (which appear as magic ores) for any player to find, which shouldn't effect the game too much but still be an interesting bonus. Obviously all game rules that aren't core to the original game will have options to toggle them on/off, so that the option to play Monopoly in the classic sense will be available.

I figure a semi-cliché fantasy setting will make the game far more appealing to players who have long since considered the normal version a boring family experience thing they used to do as kids, despite the fact nothing has really changed with this version. There would also be some room for video game effects and CGI animation as wizards pass through unfriendly enemy territory and fight off the dangers there (which in Monopoly terms would be landing on a property owned by another player). Of course, player interaction would still be limited to rolling the dice and making decisions about buying/selling properties, but it could still look boss to have an animated sequence where a powerful wizard fights off the equivalent of a Hotel (which would be some massive demon thing, based on the magical alignment of the character who summoned it).

My second idea was going to be a simulation of one of those board games that are actually fun, like Fireball Island, Operation or Mouse Trap, which have way too many pieces to give it a meaningful value of longevity for a five year old receiving it at Xmas. In fact, the sheer inconvenience of missing pieces is why simulated board games (and jigsaw puzzles, come to think of it) are becoming more popular than their real-life counterparts. Or at least they should be.

Instead, my second idea comes from an old favorite of mine: Kings & Things. The game is essentially a fantasy war-mongering board game similar to Risk, but with a much more advanced "random" element, especially when it comes to recruiting fantastical creatures for your army. The board itself is also randomly created out of several dozen hex tiles, that are randomly assigned to a hexagon-shaped map in a circular pattern. You can then choose a nationality based on your starting tile (a Jungle hex tile would give you the Zulu-esque tribe to control, whereas the Plains would use a more classic medieval kingdom) and build your armies and power by invading adjacent hex tiles, eventually taking on the combined armies of your human opponents.

Although it sounds fairly complicated - players have a 12-step turn, as they go through what they've earned from their land, recruitment and mobilization stages and so on - the presence of a computer AI will make it a lot easier to get to grips with. What you're left with a fantasy strategy game that's built for multiplayer, has a lot of weird and wonderful creatures to encounter and recruit - including some very bizarre heroes, ranging from multicolored knights to folk legends, the recruitment of which uses a similarly random "coin flip" system - and is different every time you play. The game also has a sense of humor about it, with a detailed history about dwarves getting annoyed every time a new race moves in, a legendary bandit whose legacy and reputation survives and flourishes through his (often female) descendants, and an infamous assassination of an important figurehead by a disgruntled penguin with a crossbow. Many of the recruitable creatures and heroes are similarly bizarre and amusing.

Since armies both randomly recruited per turn and hidden from other players, it's sometimes a matter of simply bluffing your opponent with a high stack of terrible units (like brownies) to take over crucial land without retribution. Adversely, a small force of powerful entities could wipe out a much larger army but remain undetected because of its small size. Instead of regular "true" stategic games, which tend to be grounded in "what can this player with this amount of experience do in this amount of time" sort of rationalizations, the game could go either way for a player at any time, provided the losing player can fool his opponent into thinking his game is less hopeless than it actually is. That way, although it'd be possible to lose one seemingly easy campaign, it would be equally possible to win a campaign that seems impossible. I think these factors would make a video game version of this board game pretty popular indeed with new-comers and veterans of TBS games alike.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Small Update: Randomized DS

Short one today, might do a longer blog sometime later this week though. I am trying to get more than one done a week, but it's pretty difficult coming up with new stuff without retreading the same genres or simply modifying old ideas/games with new settings. Most of the famous designers just specialize in the one genre after all (usually FPS if we're talking about a famous games designer in the western world).

So anyway, I was considering the randomization thing again. Readers of the blog know I tend to go on a bit about the ol' random generators, talking in past blog entries about using barcodes, music CDs and the recent Spam Mail update. I figure there can be a relatively simple one for DS games too: A squiggle. The game can take co-ordinates from a squiggly line someone scribbled using random points along the line (different random points every time I mean, so no-one can figure out a system and cheat) to generate the necessary stats or what have you.

In fact, I just remembered it can do the same thing for recorded sound too. I'm sure those in the music industry and sound technicians specifically know how to generate all sorts of numerical values from a single noise which will go on to be used by the game in the same way as the above scribble method to create stats and things. It would be a pretty cool feature on something like Pokemon, where you would be given a starter Pokemon based on a noise the player records at the start of the game. You could do a bad impression of your favorite real-life animal and the game will probably give you its animal counterpart (so doing a cricket noise will get you Nincada, probably) by comparing the noise you made with all the various electronic growls the game has recorded on the Pokedex.

These sorts of random stat generation tools are sort of trivial for the average player, but it's a little more fun than simply clicking a button that says "randomize". At least this way there's the illusion that they're contributing directly to their characters' development.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Game Idea: Interdimensional Bandits

OK, so I should probably start this Game Idea by citing its influences: Sly Raccoon (PS2 series), Time Bandits (movie), Suikoden, Kingdom Heart's World Map system, Gain Ground (several 8- and 16-bit consoles) and an old D20 game system called "Tales of the Floating Vagabond".

The premise is thus: You control a legendary team of highly effective bandits - taken from various historical eras and fictional worlds - which your father put together after discovering the Nexus. The Nexus is a floating mass of land surrounded by interdimensional portals to practically every other realm of reality that could possibly exist, including eras in the past and worlds which have been imagined; providing them with a basis to exist. Your father has long since retired with his earnings, taking most of his team with him to an unknown "retirement dimension". He has left you his foreboding base of operations (the Skull Citadel) in the Nexus with which to carry on the legacy of his thief gang. He also left a few portal destinations on the Citadel's all-powerful computer system Omega.

So that's the outlandish premise, so how does it play? Well, since I'm sort of skirting around Kingdom Hearts and Sly Raccoon territory, I'll downplay any platformer element to it. It doesn't necessarily require an RPG element either, but I like those so we'll include some. I'm currently thinking of presenting it as an old-school top down isometric-based game, as those were always my favorite when playing a game that required sneaking around. The various angles and vectors used in isometry makes it perfect for judging lines of vision and the effective range of hiding in shadows and the like. It's a math thing, and one that's very important when it comes to the stealthier side of gaming. I tend to find with FPS and Platformer Stealth games that it is much harder to judge those kinds of variables with the POV you're given.

Obviously, if I am to use this sort of graphical system the game will be regressing somewhat to a simpler age, which will make it more ideal for a handheld like the DS or PSP. But as the excellent Contact (DS) has shown, games using this almost obsolete 2D system can still look and play beautifully even compared to more modern fare.

Now, I'm not saying the game will be strictly stealth. There will need to be a combat option for instances where the player might not want to steal stuff by sneaking around all the time, and the system that makes the most sense is a turn-based system based on Fallout's GURPS or the standard D20 ruleset. Because of the sheer scale of the project (I plan to make the amount of time eras you can visit immense in number, to make up for the shortcomings of the 'classic' graphical style) there will need to be a strong (and therefore existing, to save on way too much testing and tweaking) set of rules governing things like lasers vs longbows. Each stage will have a clearly defined goal (some legendary treasure of that area) with several ways to make intermediate funds in the process, rewarding players who take on extra challenges and explore thoroughly which tends to be something pretty much all my games tend to reward. Sort of a burgeoning eccentricity of mine, really.

Now, onto the actual artistic style of the game. I was somewhat inspired by what Kingdom Hearts 2 did with the Timeless River stage, set in the world of early Walt Disney cartoons complete with black and white 30s renditions of the main characters and scratchy music. It would be awesome to do something like that on a grander scale, allowing each time era or world to have its own artistic style and drop the often alien components of your bandit team in there for their latest caper.

I'll lay out a couple of examples of how a player would find a stage, take it on and how it would play out:

Egyptian Stage: You'd receive word from your supercomputer Omega (which may need a better name) that a gate has been stabilized to Ancient Egypt in the "real world" section of the Nexus. You would assemble your team, perhaps unknowingly leaving behind a computer expert and laser grid disarmer (most of your units will have their own, albeit not unique, specialities) and instead assemble a few warriors to back up the infiltrators, the hero character and perhaps an acrobatic thief chick you picked up sometime in the modern era to avoid the booby traps of the Pyramid you're about to rob.

As soon as you get there, you discover that this era of time had actually been taken over by aliens (sort of a nod to Stargate) and they have all the same laser-grid and computer technologies that you were hoping to avoid dealing with. You can choose to escape to retool or continue with the team you have. Using the isometric view of the nearby desert, you decide to fight your way to the pyramid (since you can't easily hide in open desert) and allow your two thief character inside while the warriors stand guard. Between the two of you manage to find the artefact you're after and regroup with the warriors outside, making a mad dash to the Nexus before the aliens use their full force against you (which would be a UFO with a particularly lethal looking death ray).

Alternately, there would also be a few side-quests available to you based on whether or not you want to spend that extra effort (or are particularly skillful at this point). For this stage, you could find a way to infiltrate the UFO from the Pyramid and take it out, saving the denizens of Ancient Egypt from becoming slaves and perhaps recruiting one of the temple guard NPCs you befriended there to assist you as new muscle.

Film Noir Stage: A hyper-realised version of a Prohibition-Era US, inspired by many film noir movies and books. The artistic style will mean everything except your team will be in greyscale, making them more obvious looking. It may be possible to have greyscale characters from other areas too, or something like a Ninja which would dressed almost entirely in black, either of which would benefit from being in a greyscale world when it comes to interacting with people or blending in.

The target treasure in this case will be in a guarded Mob Boss location, which means a preference for characters with firearm experience and possibly an explosive expert with which to storm the place (you don't need to worry about body count since this is a non-historical area and the mobsters are all violent criminals). Side-Quests could include smuggling alcohol from other dimensions into the Noir universe (which could get you all sorts of interesting goods), robbing rich citizens (which would have an effect on your morality score) or assisting a mobster assassin to take his girlfriend to safety (through the Nexus) so the Mob boss won't be able to use her to blackmail him into killing rival mobsters: thereby acquiring both him and the girl.

As a final design note I'll describe a feature the game will use
that monitors two aspects that define your personal method of completing heists:

1) Morality or "Honor Among Thieves": This will effect character progression and hiring new people with different ethical perspectives (i.e. good guys and bad guys), sort of like the ubiquitous Dark Side/Light Side factor in many RPGs similar to this game.

2) Time Elasticity: This is a little more out-there, and will be hard to implement, but the game would be so much cooler with it. It's basically the idea that if you bend time a little (to steal some insignificant artefact, say) it'll snap back and there won't be any major changes to the future. Change it too much however, and the timeline might be irrepairably changed. This would only effect stages based in the past, but if you were to break the time elasticity by doing too many things out-of-character for that era or killing too many people you would fail the mission by causing a time paradox and destroying the Nexus: It's pretty fragile since it has portals to universes which need to stay constant, and losing the Nexus means pretty much losing your entire base, your crew, your computer and stranding you in whatever time era you're in. Which would be bad.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Design Genres #10: Football/Soccer

The beautiful game is one of the most popular genres of video game in my home continent of Europe, possibly due to the relative ease of play and popularity of the sport itself. I have to admit to a strong disliking to these sorts of games, mostly because I believe they're a design black hole: Nothing new ever seems to be made for the game from a design perspective. There isn't really much to add besides the occasional management option. The only things that do get changed between one year and the next are a slight graphical improvement, a sleeker engine and the names of all the new fixtures.

That said, working on one would probably be easy street and a good second start to my career, so whatever.

I'll go on a bit about the major players in this arena first of all. There is, of course, the ubiquitous FIFA series that has been running strong since the 16-bit era with FIFA '93. It's as generic as they come, but it's weathered itself through three generations of consoles due to its sturdy gameplay. You also have Pro Evo Soccer, which I have been told is very good though I have yet to try it. I did, however, play its predecessor International Superstar Soccer; or more accurately the Deluxe version which I believe was an N64 title.

On the opposite side of the seriousness scale you have niche titles like Nintendo World Cup, Megaman Soccer and the original Sensible Soccer before the recent, critically-panned incarnations. Soccer also permeates itself in many a non-sports game through some kind of penalty kick mini-game, something that has shown up in game genres such as Pinball (the paddles make good goal-scorers), Platformers (various puzzles that involve moving a small object around will invariably have a point where you need to punt it to a target area of some kind) and even games like Pilotwings 64 and Bomberman have included it in the past.

So, my idea then. A bit cheap this one, since not only did I borrow the name from a forum colleague over on NCN (see the side links, but I wouldn't recommend looking anywhere but the VG forum) but it comes from a well-established series for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. I am referring to a modern technology version of Mutant League, in this case Mutant League Soccer.

A small recap for the brief few who are unaware of Mutant League, before I go into the details: Mutant League games resemble the original sport but are far more violent and brutal, often with the deaths of the players being a natural part of the game (and sort of expected). The playing field is often littered with pitfalls, booby traps and landmines to trip up unsuspecting players (as well as blow them to bits). Instead of humans (or just humans I should say) various mutated races also feature, which I'll go onto describing when talking about Mutant League Soccer.

First off, it has to use the Soccer label because Mutant League Football already exists, and is probably the better known of the two Mutant League games to be released. Second, like the original Mutant Leagues it'll run off an existing engine from one of the major competing Soccer game series, so the designers (i.e. me) can concentrate on the destruction side of things without worrying if it'll play as a decent soccer game as well.

All the myriad races of Mutant League return, and they all have their favored positions (though it's more likely teams will be comprised entirely of one race, with the exception of the All-Star teams); The heavy-set Trolls will play Defence and Keeper, the lithe and deadly Aliens will play Midfield and Wingers, the tough and fast Robots will play Defence and Midfield and the quick Skeletons will play Forward and Wingers. Humans, being the all-rounders of the game, can play any position equally well. All the same dangers litter the field, and getting permanent injuries from a sharp "tackle" (which may well include being pushed onto a mine or kicked in the face with the spiked football) are par for the course. There won't be the play-by-play tactics of Mutant League Football, of course, but there'll be general tactic options available at the start and half-time parts of the game, including an aggression rating (if you want your players to be rather unfriendly with the opposite side for the chance of lowering the amount of players they have through injury) and regular formation and offensive/defensive settings.

Best of all, the yellow card in this game will actually fire acid at the offending player, lowering various stats of his for the remainder of the game. The red card simply opens a fissure into Hell beneath the player's feet, sending him off in the most final way possible. So, obviously, trying to kill the opposing side for an easier game has its very literal downside.

The fun part, for us designers anyway, will be all the punnish names for the new teams, based on famous existing International teams. Such as Chestburster United or Slitherpool.

Since I'll be getting Wii Sports with the console hopefully around launch day (only a month or so away now for us Euros, wheeee), I figured I'd preface it with a few sports Design Genres, just to show that something new can be done with them instead of the same old recycled [Sport] [Year] combos.