Thursday, December 27, 2007

Design Genres #17: FPS

Seems odd that I've covered 16 of these Design Genres without covering the noble FPS, possibly the most popular (and most populous) of the genres aimed for the Western market. The appeal is immediately apparent: FPS puts you directly in control, point-of-view and everything, of the game's protagonist - giving you an unparalleled level of immersion. The commonly high amount of violent content also helps sales somewhat. Milestone games include Castle Wolfenstein 3D, the Doom series, the Half-Life series and server-inundated online FPSes such as Team Fortress and the incomparable Counter-Strike.

There's two reasons I've given this genre a wide berth in this blog until now. The first is that I don't much care for it on the whole. While the games mentioned above are classic staples of any gamer's library (god knows I've played and owned most of them) there are many, many examples of the genre out there, most of which are mindlessly derivative and not all that great, frankly. Which brings me onto the second reason: there's such a huge market of these things that innovation is hard to come by and, thus, harder still to come up with without some important technological breakthroughs (Half-Life 2 wouldn't have mattered so much without its iconic Gravity Gun, for instance).

Now, the difficult decision when coming up with an FPS game idea is whether to take the simple route or the complex route. A reason why the FPS genre is so strong is its relative simplicity: you simply point at a bad guy and press a button until he goes away. As such, it's almost a form of relaxation for some people: a way to blow off steam for a few minutes either against the combined forces of evil in one-player mode or a bunch of friends on multiplayer. So making it simple would appear to be the best course of action, perhaps even shortening the range of weapons and enemies you might meet to minimize confusion. Games like Halo pride themselves on their microscopic range and lack of innovation - choosing to focus instead on the bare essentials and multiplayer, thus becoming the beloved of all casual gamers the world over.

On the other end of the spectrum, players don't feel challenged unless there's a new gimmick or, perish the thought, some sort of thought process required. Games like Rainbow Six give you a somewhat realistic level of health (that is, one round in the chest or head and you're done for) and so some amount of strategy and forethought is needed in order to come out unscathed. Games like Gears of War will kill you quickly and mercilessly unless you regularly take advantage of cover. Mass Effect, a game I very much enjoyed recently, even bases an RPG system around the combat, allowing you greater control with your weapons upon levelling up and even providing psionic attacks (called Biotech in the game) and various clever less-hazardous methods to take out the enemy (like short-circuiting a robotic enemy). Bioshock, Deus Ex and the System Shock series are all examples of an "intelligent" FPS game.

I'll quickly outline two game ideas that respectively adhere to the philosophies above. In other words, an idea for a brainless slugfest and an idea for a complex shooter with more going on than meets the eye.

IDEA #1: Now, the main feature of a game idea like this is to simply make it fun and highly playable, something which is usually provided with sharp and accurate programming. On the design side of things, all a designer needs to do is make sure the levels aren't too complex, don't require a lot of backtracking for keys and the like while configuring the amount of content to keep it a minimalist paradise. At the same time, they need to direct most of the action, keeping the game constantly exciting with a series of action set pieces and a plot that never waivers too much or gets too complex at any given point.

What this pre-idea prattle all means is that it is hard to simply come up with an idea for a game such as this without writing the entire game's story and claiming that as the game idea. In this blog I always tend to concentrate on elements I would feature or a trend or gimmick I would employ, rather than create an entire game world and story from scratch. So for Idea #1 for this genre I'll outline some kickass scenarios an FPS game could follow:

A) You're a space marine who.. wait
B) You're a regular marine who has to fight off an alien incursi.. wait
C) You're a regular marine who doesn't fight aliens at all, but instead has to fight the undea.. wait
D) You're a regular marine who doesn't fight any kind of fictional fantasy creature, but instead must take on Nazis in Normand.. wait
E) Vietcong? ..No?
E) No aliens, undead, Nazis, the VC, ninjas, conspirators against the presidency, pirates, scientists, mercenaries or evil penguins. Instead, you're in this underwater city that.. oh damn it all, I give up.

IDEA #2: Here we are, gimmick county USA. Right at home. For this idea we'll imagine that there's some novel scenario that we're following. The gimmick is that one of your weapons can disintegrate tiny objects if you shoot them with it. While mostly useless in busy firefights, where firepower and running around like a crazyman until everything else is dead is the objective to success, it becomes useful at certain points in long-drawn out battles or pre-battle sneakery. For instance, a giant robot would have several smaller parts that it requires for movement and blasting at you. A tiny cog in the right section gets disintegrated and ol' Devastator is in a heap of trouble. Likewise, dissolving the correct piece of minor machinery in an automatic lock would allow you to get past. It works on organic creatures too. Can't get past the body armor? Disintegrate one of the dude's eyes. That should keep him distracted for a few moments.

This weapon, though powerful at the right moment, would require such precision timing and aiming to be effectively useless in most situations. But the situations where it can be used.. oh me, oh my.

Another gimmick, preferably in a game where you can slowly regenerate, is realistic body part damage. If you manage to fuck up your foot in a mine trap, your speed is lowered. Bust your arm and your aim goes down. Bust up one hand bad enough and you may need to switch weapons, also lowering aim (if you don't happen to be ambidextrous). I have a feeling there are games that have done this in the past and were a complete pain, especially if you had to limp slowly to the nearest health pack. Hence the insistence of a regeneration feature.

A third and final gimmick is one where the gravity suddenly cuts out (so presumably this is in space, then) and you're suddenly drifting. Shooting anything, if sleeping through Physics has taught me anything, would propel one backwards from the force, since the recoil would be sufficient enough force to move a large mass (such as an armored trooper) in zero-G. Your first priority in that situation would be to either turn the gravity back on or find some way to stop floating around like a loon. Again, something like this has probably already been done, though I don't know if that game turned it into such a fun little "how the hell do I stop floating around?" puzzle to figure out first.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Game Idea: Carnage in Candyland

Kind of a low-brow game idea this one, but it's for the kids and kind of suits the festive season anyway. At least it does if you eat as much sugary stuff as I do over Christmas.

The game is set in one of these worlds that is brought into existence from the shared imaginative power of kids the world over, sort of like Santa's workshop. However, it has long been out of the hands of its childlike progenitors, either because the kids have forgotten it or have grown up to become moody adults with issues and the like. As a result, the Candyworld has become sort of a dark and violent place, but still with all the coma-inducing sweetness in every corner of the land and its inhabitants. Currently, the various tribes of the world (which are typified by the type of candy those tribes are comprised of) are in the midst of a bloody and endless war for supremacy.

You are a member of a new tribe that has shown up because of a candy-based innovation in the real world. As such, you not only have to survive with the limited support of your fledling tribe, but also grow powerful enough to take over the other tribes too. Fortunately, as the newest and therefore most technologically advanced form of candy matter, you have an advantage over most of the other tribes, which feature--but aren't limited to--beings made out of marshmallows, chocolates, lollipops, boiled/hard sweets and the always terrifying fudge tribe. The player's tribe I haven't decided on yet, but I'm thinking it'll be some kind of space-age candy that is able to take on the attributes of any other candy, to create some sort of power-acquisition-based progression in the game (taking over one tribe's territory allows you to use their strengths, for instance).

The game itself is a third-person squad-based shooter, though I've yet to decide on an "over-the-shoulder" view system of many recent squad-based games, or the slightly more convenient bird's eye view. The world itself will be a little like Crackdown or GTA, in that the politics of the world is dynamic with the NPC tribes scoring various victories and losses against each other in real-time - these battles, if you're not actually in the vicinity of them, will be calculated using randomized figures for casualties and who ends up getting more territory out of it. If you are close by, the battle will be going on all around you and you can use the warring (and therefore distracted) tribespeoples to your advantage. These tribal wars are mostly random, but constant, so you should find yourself entering several by accident. Of course, you'll also want to make an effort to join them as soon as one occurs if you want to take down the enemy's numbers quicker. There'll also be various attacks on your home base which you may want to be present for (though your tribe should be able to handle most minor skirmishes). You'll be given the choice of systematically destroying one tribe at a time, or using your intel to take down large numbers of opponents at the most opportune moments (the aforementioned tribe wars).

Ideally, you should want to find a way to acquire the abilities of one tribe and use them on another tribe that may be weak against them. Sort of like the Mega Man bosses. If you take out the Warheads (extremely hot-flavored candies) you can use their firebreath to melt the marshmallows and chocolate factions, who are considerably strong against other forms of damage. Because there's no blood (but lots of jelly filling), the game can be as gleefully violent as it wants. The cutscenes can be gritty as all hell (especially if they involve cotton candy) and the various deaths of the candy tribes can be pretty explicit, since it's just candy and all.

I will admit to two things while coming up with this idea. The first is that the general premise (violence in candyland) came about from this Perry Bible Fellowship comic (great comic series by the way, if you didn't already know). The second is that this is sort of an example of how to get incredibly violent games into the hands of youngsters without too much controversy. See, it'll be violent and bloody (well, jelly-y) but there won't be any swears or bad polygon boobs to make it unholy filth. Perfect.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Game Idea: Dumbgeneers

This idea kind of builds on various elements of other ideas I've had, which is shorthand for "after ripping off so many other game designs for ideas, I'm now resorting to ripping off myself for ideas". Only pretend I didn't say that. I'm innovating. That's what's going on here and that's all that's going on here.

We zoom out so our token party of adventurers are shrunk down and we (the player) are able to see a large cut-section of the dungeon the adventurers are about to explore. Now, the gameplay's focus (and much of the humor) comes from the fact that these entirely computer-controlled adventurers are dumb. They will wander into pretty much any impossible situation without a thought and quickly perish. They do have some amount of combat ability and magic between them, but their ability to apply it effectively is limited. So, as is usual in these scenarios, it's up to you to try and keep them out of trouble, while still procuring for them enough treasure to make the entire ordeal worth it.

The adventurers will level and haul treasure around like they do in any other hack and slash, but generally their role is minimal. You, the player, control a guardian deity of sorts that is using its diminishing divine powers to keep the small gaggle of true believers alive long enough for them to start influencing others and restoring your strength. The fact that these morons are the only worshippers you have, who in actuality only wrote your name as their patron deity on their Adventurer License application forms to avoid requiring a referral from any of the established churches of the land, is causing you some grief. You have some limited amount of godly powers in this role and can directly influence parts of the dungeons for the benefit and safety of the goonish heralds you're stuck with. These powers include forcing stone passages to open/close, increasing the water levels, flooding chambers with poisonous gas and other powers based on any given dungeon's natural attributes. A volcano dungeon (I always use a volcano as an example for some reason, strange huh?) might allow you to raise/lower the level of deadly lava, but only while you and the adventurers are in that dungeon. An ice dungeon wouldn't have lava, so you can't use the same power there. That's just an example, the point being is that every new dungeon will have its own tricks and related powers, and it'll be up to you to explore and experiment with what you can do before the adventurers tumble along into whatever trap is set along their path.

Which brings us to the core gameplay. You have to ensure that the adventurers get into as few traps and fights as possible (they can survive some, granted that the traps aren't too deadly and the monsters are well in their league) while acquiring as much treasure as possible (it'll be important for influencing others to join your religion, boosting your power reserves with their prayers). The best way to do this would be to keep the adventurers out of trouble while eliminating the monsters in the dungeon with your powers. If possible, think of ways to eliminate the monsters guarding some treasure without also destroying or blocking off said treasure, then allowing the adventurers to come across the now unguarded booty. Keep in mind that the adventurers have no idea that you're actually real (why would they? They used your name as a convenience) and that if a dungeon appears to be blocked off to them (when really it's just you temporarily blocking the passage to protect them), they'll leave. Similarly, they'll panic if you see your powers in action or somehow find themselves trapped (which might be something else you'd consider doing if you didn't want them wandering off). This panicking could cause them to run around aimlessly and be even dumber than usual for a while. While every attempt will be made to keep your adventurers lovably stupid, there will be some situations where they might just end up annoying you slightly by doing something unbelievably idiotic that they end up destroying both themselves and your progress in acquiring a clergy. Hopefully this kind of thing can be kept to a minimum.

Like my previous Lemmings-ish Hack-N-Slash game, what I'm really interested in messing around with is scale. So giant monsters will end up really big, appropriate to the scale between them and the heroes. No simply using human-sized enemies to keep to conform to a specific sprite size, no sir. Monster AI, too, is something that needs a strong focus. The game needs to repeatedly demonstrate that most of the monsters are actually far superior in mental agility than the dumb treasure-hungry humanoids invading their homes, which is why your input is so necessary to keep them alive. You have no qualms about destroying any kind of lesser life, as a god and as the player, so feel free to wipe out whole civilisations of sentient, peaceful but potentially-dangerous-if-riled monsters to keep your followers alive long enough to demonstrate that having you as a patron god might not be such a bad thing. In fact, if other, slightly more competent adventurers start taking you on as their patron god, you can go help them and simply abandon your current bunch of dumb assholes to the inevitable grisly fate that they've dodged for so long. I guess I should note that the deity you're controlling is not necessarily the benevolent type.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Design Licenses #8: Heroes

For the one or two of you that don't know what this show is, it's basically X-Men plus a bunch of other superhero comics set in a "real world" universe and how the super-powered characters deal with their powers and each other. As someone who follows most of the references (read: theived material) and is addicted to the show regardless, I generally make it a point to make fun of the show and its various flaws. Because I'm going to be watching it next week anyway. Sort of a love/hate thing.

Anyway, there are already many games being made for Heroes and they'll probably all be cash-in license games with little originality or charm. They'll also follow the show closely without revealing anything new. Which is fine enough, I suppose, since not all the fans of the show will be willing to play these games for some vital answers to any of the concurrent plotlines going on in the main show.

So with my idea I'll take it in a different direction. Instead of controlling one or more of the protagonists of the show, the game will instead follow a couple of "morally grey" agents in the shadowy anonymous company that is dealing with all these super-powered anomalies. To make sure not a whole lot is given away, the game will follow a newly recruited rookie with a similarly fresh super-powered partner (as is policy). Both of these characters will be new to the universe and you'll control both in turn, depending on the situation. You'll go about business subduing super-powered humans as they're identified by the company's research department (whomever they might be) and follow orders like you're supposed to. Of course, eventually you'll start to ask questions and get involved with the internal politics of the company and the game will start to focus on that after a while - though, again, without giving away too many secrets that will be revealed eventually in the show but also making sure the game gives you some closure on its own story at least. Maybe a non-canon section leader of the company that's gone corrupt will be the game's main antagonist.

The gameplay will be pretty standard, at least in coming to terms with the controls and such. It'll be either a 1st or 3rd person shooter that is set up as a series of missions with targets to be captured in a (preferably) stealthy manner, sort of like a non-lethal Hitman. Of course, most of the targets will either be dangerous (either to you or, indeed, to themselves and bystanders) or are particularly evasive and you won't get the benefit of the deus ex machina that is the Haitian (memory wipe and power nullification? that's a little bit too good, really) to stop them. Your partner's powers will help though (I have yet to decide what these will be, or those of the non-TV show super-people you'll be tracking down). The game will build a database as heroes are brought in, and there'll probably be various hidden collectibles (like XIII's dossier files) that reveal what the company knows about other, more famous characters.

Obviously, you'll be seeing a lot of the show's main characters, either trying to bring them in for testing/tagging/whatever it is the company does or just as cameos in the background or something. Maybe you'll get roundly defeated by one or more of them in fights you're not able to win, because everyone loves those in their video games. Or maybe they'll be tough optional battles in some kind of "non-canon" mode where you can imprison or kill all the show's main characters, continuity be damned (let Hiro go back in time and sort it out afterwards).

So that's just my interpretation of a Heroes video game. Something a little more interesting than simply reliving events of the show with various cast members. My other choice would be a Fighter game, since the powers format and large cast is perfect for one, but that would be a little obvious I think.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Game Idea: Identikit Heroes

In a lot of RPGs, you have the ability to select your character's model and appearance. Generally, this doesn't affect the character's abilities or stats in any way, but does give you the chance to personalize the character and let him stand out in multiplayer. In this game, you have a whole team of such characters that are created by combining body parts. These parts all have inherent stats and characteristics, with the resulting complete hero being literally a sum of its parts.

The head is the most important element. It contains that character's knowledge and personality, so is the default "core" for any new identikit hero. If the head's a wise-cracking joker, so will the resulting hero. The head also contains all the abilities a character knows, but these abilities can only be earned by using the right combination of other body parts. So you can't learn any sword-fighting abilities until you have an arm holding a sword - but once you have learned that ability it'll stay with the head from then on. So you can actually switch a head's body after it learns a lot of fighter skills, for example, to allow it to start learning magic skills instead. Of course, some abilities can't be used without the right body part equipped (you need a sword to use some sword-fighting moves), but most abilities will be available even after changing the body part that you learned the ability from.

The torso is another vital component and comes right after the body's head in the hero creation process. The body defines a large part of that hero's eventual hit point and armor scores. It also provides the lion's share of the character's stats. The arms define the character's profession, since some arms are holding weapons (equipping those allow you to use that weapon and learn abilities associated to them) and others are able to conjure magic using hand gestures. The legs contribute a large part to the character's overall speed and agility. Finally, you also have a "bonus" body part, which can be various additional body parts such as horns or wings or a tail: These are optional (you can make a hero without one) and the character can only equip one at a time. The arms, legs and bonus body parts also contribute to a character's HP and armor, but to a lesser extent than the torso. There's also a weight factor too, where heavy body parts (those that are better armored) will slow down the resulting character's speed. All body parts (besides the head) can have abilities attached to them that you can learn: the arms tend to have most of the martial ones, but the legs can have dodging skills and the bonus parts can have special abilities included as well. You get a bonus for forming a "pure" hero (one where all the body parts match) but these heroes tend to be limiting in the long run: you'll earn more abilities and powers by mix-matching. Don't be afraid to break up your pure fighter if a stronger body part with a useful ability comes along.

The game itself uses these combined heroes as a group to pillage and loot the various locales of the game, in part to discover new body parts which you can use to construct even more powerful units. Gameplay-wise, it'll play like a large-team RPG strategy game, either real-time or turn-based: despite my usual preference of the latter, I think the former might actually work better for this idea. Some body parts are rarer than others and therefore tend to be more powerful. As well as body parts of corresponding RPG classes (armored knights, robe-wearing magicians, forest-gear wearing rangers and so on), you can also find body parts of humanoid monsters which often provide higher stats in some areas. A cat-like humanoid race's legs might be considerably faster than a regular human's, for instance. These humanoid abilities might also have unique abilities of their own (a troll body part might be able to provide the Regeneration ability) for you to learn. Eventually, you'll discover many rare body parts that don't correspond to the vaguely-medieval setting of the game, with anachronistic body templates such as cowboys, ninjas or robots. All of these body parts can be found in either treasure chests or taken from the bodies of your defeated enemies.

Eventually, you'll have a huge number of body parts with which to create a very eclectic-looking bunch of heroes. Experimentation will be the key to find the ideal combination of body parts for any one character and because the heads' personalities are all different, you may find some body parts work better for one head than it does another.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Game Idea: Fire & Ice

Okay, so you have this other world that's overly big on prophecies and religion and whatnot. The most prevalent of these prophecies is that the Gods will return to the planet once it shines brighter than the stars themselves, as that will be the signal that the denizens of that world are finally ready to receive them. What follows, as is common with these sorts of religious fanatics, is that the world basically splits into two opposing factions that disagree on how the prophecy is supposed to be interpreted.

On the one hand you have the Infernites, who believe the prophecy can only come true when the world is burning brighter than the nearby sun which--as the people of this world all know--is itself a giant burning ball of flame. Their holy mission to is render the world aflame so that it can be seen as clearly as the stars, fulfilling the prophecy. They theorize that because such a conflagration would likely be the end of all life on the planet, they are demonstrating to the powers that be that they are not afraid to destroy everything and anything dear to them to appease said powers. Such an act of sacrifice is what the Gods demand.
And, of course, the mercy of the Gods will grant them a new planet to live on afterwards. They hope.

The Auroralites, however, believe that the resolution of the prophecy requires the exact opposite: that the world needs to reflect the light of the sun to become the beacon needed to call the Gods home. In order to do this, they need to transform the entire planet to ice to achieve the maximum amount of reflective properties. By turning the world to unmoving ice, they bring about an era of peaceful silence and beautiful shimmering lights, both of which will prove to the Gods that the people have abandoned the loud aggressive ways that caused the Gods to leave in the first place.

Their ongoing struggle has been in stalemate for years, since both factions are about equal in power and number. Which is where you come in. You lead one side in this fantasy-based RTS and reclaim the world from the other cult. Both sides have an arsenal of specific weapons: The Infernites depend on machinery and explosives, devastating the continents with their flame-based weapons of science. The Auroralites depend on water and magic, specifically Ice-based, and produce and maintain the world's many seas, rivers and lakes to use against the Infernites and their structures. The Infernites also base most of their structures and units around metal, which can be endlessly melted and reformed, while the Auroralites mostly use wooden structures which can be quickly and easily grown and regrown with nature magics.

A typical Infernite mission would be to destroy all the resources of the nearby Auroralites, including the various sources of their magic (as well as pumping stations and dams) before they can retaliate. Scorching the various forests to cinders will eliminate any chance of them growing new trees in their place. Their missions therefore can be to either destroy the Auroralites operating in the area or simply turn enough of the map into unusable ash.

A typical Auroralite mission would be to eliminate an Infernite stronghold either by opening a river so it will flood a region or to simply freeze and destroy the Infernites and their structures themselves with their powerful magic. The Infernites depend on metal, which is far harder to procure for them than wood is for the Auroralites, so managing to freeze over an ore mine will cripple the Infernites operating in the area.

Both factions can also win by the brightness/reflective index, which measures how much open fire/ice is on the map at any given time (based on a % of the map covered) and awards victory to whichever side qualifies first. They will need to keep that percentage for a few minutes before a victory will be declared though. Depending on the map and various other factors (such as how bright the sun is on this map, or how cold/warm it is), these indices can often be unbalanced towards one faction, making an "index victory" for them far more tempting. If the Auroralites create too much forest (for their useful lumber), then there's a chance the Infernites can set the whole forest ablaze and achieve an easy victory. There'll be several instances like this where the index victory may jeopardize or interfere with the regular mission.

As is usual with this sort of game, defeating the game with one faction is not enough: Both campaigns must be fought through and won. Only then will the third side be unlocked: the combined forces of the various peace-loving denizens of the world who are tiring of this pointless and destructive war and wish to end it by removing both of these cults before they can enact their respective apocalyptic scenarios. Which leads to the inevitable "peace was the solution and the Gods return after heeding the spiritual brightness radiating from a harmonious world and its peoples" 'true' ending. Obviously this third side would be at a severe disadvantage on most maps, with their small numbers relying mostly on subterfuge, sabotage and making sure both sides are taken down at the same time, which is why you needed to have played through the campaigns of both cults and gained the experience first.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Game Reviews: Valkyrie Profile 2 & Super Paper Mario

Special birthday edition, since I only ever seem to get games on my birthday these days. I know, your hearts are bleeding and struggling to play tiny violins with their various arteries and veins. Man, that's actually pretty messed up. Perhaps you should visit your local surgeons or something.

Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria

The Valkyrie Profile series has earned its reputation from being both fantastically fantasic and also over-complicatedly complex (new birthday thesaurus is working great!) and nothing has changed in this sequel. Or prequel. I've always meant to check if prequel meant "to be viewed sequentially after the original but set chronologically before the original" or not. I'm going to assume yes, because this game makes a lot more sense if you've played Lenneth (aka Valkyrie Profile 1).

Most factors remain the same, so this review will just assume the reader has played the original. If not, stop reading this blog and go do that mess right now. If you've just come back from playing it as per my suggestion, than welcome back and I hope the last few months have been kind to you. Regardless, the general crux of these games is that Odin (the big cheese) has somehow cheated or wronged the Valkyrie that the game is centered around and she's on a mission to right the situation. Throughout both games, you find disembodied spirits clinging to some material possession of theirs from before they died, which the Valkyrie materializes in the form of an einherjar: the "glorious dead" of the Norse religious mythos that are fated to fight alongside the Aesir in Asgard during Ragnarok. If none of those words made sense, don't worry about it. They're basically just dead warriors who died noble deaths that will fight alongside you.

The combat system of this game is what I wanted to talk about. A bizarre hybrid of real-time and strategic turn-based action, where time only moves when you do, you're able to plan out the battle by standing perfectly still and predicting where to go. Any action uses up Action Points, which don't regenerate unless time is flowing (or if you get hit) so you can't simply stand around lobbing spells at distant enemies. If you trigger a combat, you are then able to manipulate your four player characters into fighting an opponent. Using the right attacks in the right combination (so a leg sweep that would knock the enemy down should be followed by a downwards strike) is key to doing the most damage that are you able to do.

What I found really cool about this system is that you can use your attacks to concentrate on a body part of the enemy, hacking it off once it reaches a certain damage limit. These hacked off pieces can sometimes become items that you can use as accessories, or to sell to shops for a tidy profit. In fact, there are times when I would go out on a "butcher run" to collect a lot of valuable dismemberments that would be useful for some project or other. It's a brilliant example of something that appeals to both the insane power-gamer type ("So, if I aim for this piece in particular I have a 15% chance of getting this item I really need..") and the relaxed casual-gamer type ("Whoaaa, that arm went flying off! Awesome!") in equal measure.

I'll just end this review by mentioning that the super-difficult bonus dungeon is actually worth spending time on in this case. For serious. Not only does it have some of the most imaginative puzzles (and, unfortunately therefore, most frustrating) but there are several hilarious instances of the main game getting parodied (there's a notice to say that you should go and finish the game first to avoid spoilers). Finally, after each of the floor's bosses in this mammoth dungeon, you'll receive some of the player characters that ended up leaving your party permanently due to some story event. If you really liked the warrior guy that just happens to end up betraying you halfway through the game (this is an example, so not spoiling anything) then he'll rejoin you after a particular boss so you can continue using him - at the unfortunately low level he left you at of course.

Super Paper Mario

Considering the new Super Mario Galaxy has just appeared with rave reviews, it's likely that Mario's first Wii effort (it's always difficult in the morning..) will be overlooked by the European crowd as they - due to some messed up timing by Nintendo HQ - get both games almost at the same time. Nevertheless, it's an entertaining mix of both the Paper Mario RPGs and a solid, standard Mario platformer. The range of powers one receives, either through the other player characters or the Pixl fairies which grant various powers, means there's always something new to explore or check on a previous level, should you be so inclined. The sheer level of depth, so to speak, is a welcome fixture of the Paper Mario stable which I'm glad to see has not diminished one iota for this semi-"dumbed down" entry of the series. In fact, I'd dare say the puzzles are even more fiendish than usual. The only issue I take is that it doesn't seem to use the Wii's motion sensor very effectively, allowing only a "what is this?"-style pointing to ask about objects or enemies (and sometimes uncovering invisible objects) and a weird little bonus you can do by jumping off an enemy and performing a special move if you wiggle the wiimote at the right time. Of course, there may be more powers to come that use the Wii's unique effects, since I'm only about halfway through.

So I'll probably be picking up Mario Galaxy before too long, as well as hopefully Metroid Prime 3 and some more PS2 RPGs. Or failing those, some more games currently stuck in backlog hell. Until then, then.

Design Genres #16: Quasi-3D Dungeon-Delvers

Yeah, yeah, a little late this week. Which is why this post will be immediately followed by a game review, free of charge. Friggin' winter maladies.

What I mean by Quasi-3D Dungeon Delvers is that popular RPG system on home computers in the late 80s/early 90s where you walk around a 3D dungeon in four directions. Though these games usually had the depth of a 3D game (in the literal sense) in that you could see a monster down the corridor moving towards you, it was by all practical metrics a 2D game with sprites instead of polygons. Dungeon Master was probably the first and most prevalent of this genre, seeing how it sold like hotcakes during its original production run in 1987 on the Atari ST (1988 for Amiga). It was followed by other highly acclaimed series like Eye of the Beholder and Captive (a sci-fi variant). A game called Dungeon Hack, which was released some years later in 1993, was the first of this genre to feature Rogue-like randomly-generated dungeons based on an algorithm that the players could edit before starting (such as editing how many floors the dungeon would have, and the overall difficulty of the monsters they would meet).

I have a couple of ideas for making a new instance of this genre that would be sufficiently different from its predecessors to avoid a basic rehash. The first is incorporating Disgaea's Item World system, using a randomly-generated dungeon to represent the inside of that item where you would find additional treasure. This would work by creating a dungeon in the shape of that item. So for a helmet's Item World, it would be a dungeon with a map shaped like a helmet, with each square room on the grid representing a pixel (since most of the graphics in such a game would be presented as pixel-based sprites). Obviously, the more ornate the helmet (like having horns, or an elaborate visor) the more varied the resulting dungeon.

The second idea, and one that I didn't just steal wholesale from another game, is to have a fully 3D map which is represented as a cube. At certain points within the dungeon, you can flip the square rooms on either of its four sides and continue going. While potentially too complex to figure out initially, a decent difficulty curve (Such as starting small, with a 4x4x4 cube) and an imaginative and helpful mapping system (such as only highlighting the 2D plane you're currently on and shading out all those above or below you) should alleviate most of the discomfort. The sheer potential of these cuboid dungeons means that you can boost the exploration factor several times over. I think this system would also make a trippy Escher-esque avatar system for some kind of social networking site, like Habbo. Special cliques could be formed for people who walk on the ceiling, as they stare bemusedly at the newbies milling around above their heads. Well, it's an idea.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Two Mini Ideas

Still kind of stuck on the ideas front; that list of 100 kinda took up a year's worth of material. So instead I present a couple of smaller ideas, which can be shoehorned uncomfortably into a generic game model of your choice.

Palette Swapper

Since time immemorial (well, the NES and early home computers, but that's about as far back as you can go in this case) RPGs have used the cheap-as-heck method of palette swapping to create new enemy sprites out of existing enemy sprites. The reason being, of course, that enemy sprites take up a considerable amount of the sprite artists' time and short-cuts are necessary to meet deadlines. Since we've come along a ways and now have more sophisticated ways of editing a second similar enemy's appearance (such as adding a couple of horns or something), we can warmly homage this ancient practice with this new feature.

In this scenario your odd, occasionally fourth-wall breaking additional secret character learns an attack where they can change the palette set of an enemy they're fighting. What this does is entirely dependant on the enemy and the palette colour/scheme you give it. If you have the "Red" palette attack, for instance, in most cases the enemy will become a fire-based enemy. It'll also occasionally turn them into a much stronger/weaker variant of that enemy class, which will either increase the difficulty for a better reward or make the battle slightly easier in exchange for a lesser reward respectively. A sneaky design team might even hide special, powerful items by making sure an enemy drops them only when they've been turned a specific colour that boosts their stats. In fact, a lot of the earlier dungeons may suddenly become home to many potentially devastating enemies and the inevitable fantastic rewards that come from accepting such a challenge. Old-school RPG fans (in fact, they don't even have to be all that old-school because games still actually do this) will appreciate the meta reference too.

Clone Spell

A lot of games have tinkered with the idea of a clone spell or an effigy of some sort, in which you'll have something that will take damage for you or distract the enemy while you're busy elsewhere. In this idea, you have the ability to create shades of yourself that can only do one of the many things you're able to do. So in a dungeon, you're able to use a shade that can open chests but nothing else - no jumping, no fighting and no disabling traps. But you also have a shade each for all those things too. You might also have a few dummy shades that can simply be fodder for whatever trouble you might face. They can only be used once per dungeon, and it's up to the player's discretion to use them at the appropriate moment.

The twist is that these shades can be powered up if you use them right. If you use the chest-opener as an enemy distraction since you're pretty confident you're able to open all the chests in this dungeon without its help, it won't earn any experience as it is not fulfilling the role it was meant to fill. Levelling your specialist shades will allow them to surpass you in their given speciality. A chest-opener in this case will find better treasure or more money than you would have normally. A fighting shade will be stronger than you and perfect for bosses or otherwise particularly tough bouts. Choosing to squander or ignore even the most mundane of shade abilities (like a shade that can only jump up a small cliff) may have unexpected consequences later on (in the example given, that shade will eventually be able to jump a huge, impassable cliff in a later dungeon and activate a footplate that will lower a ladder).

Obviously, we can't penalize players too strongly for choosing not to do something at an earlier, now-missed stage of the game, but we can take nice rewards away from them for not playing ball. Because we're asses like that.

Okay, so, maybe there won't be a cop-out post next week. No promises though.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Game Review: Riviera: The Promised Land

Thought I'd write about this neat little GBA RPG I've been playing recently. Created by Japanese company Sting and localized by those amazing fellows at Atlus, who appear to be leading a one-company campaign to release all the awesome Japanese RPGs that the western market missed the first time, Riviera is a RPG with a turn-based battle system and cute anime graphics. But that's pretty much it for the cliche stuff. The rest of the game is very different.

For starters, the main game outside the battle system (known as the Quest Mode) is very much in the style of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel, where you can make decisions to explore the surroundings with various consequences or just walk on past. You may be asked to perform a reaction-based minigame to disarm a trap, or come across hidden treasure in otherwise mundane background dressing. Since you have a limited number of TPs, or Trigger Points, which are necessary to search or explore background icons, you have to choose wisely. Or simply remember which choices you made the first time and explore a different group of objects on the next playthrough. You gain TPs from the battles, with particularly well-fought battles gaining you more TP (for a maximum of 4 per battle).

As well as this intriguing Quest Mode, the battle system offers many interesting features also. For instance, all the weapons in the game bar the Angelic weapon your hero comes with has a durability limit. Though horribly constricting in earlier applications of this system (thinking of the GB Final Fantasy Legends in particular), it actually works much better here. You won't run out of 50 charges for a basic weapon any time soon, since you'll only be in about six or seven battles before something better comes along, and the super-powerful game-spoiling items have a very limited lifespan which is more than fair. A great little addition is that all five of the characters can use items in different ways. A large sword, for instance, can only be used effectively by the main fighter (this sword being his prime weapon type), though it can be used to a lesser extent by three other characters. The fifth can only throw it at the enemy, causing low damage with a low chance to hit. Other items, like magical artifacts or armour, can also only be used by certain characters. Things like potions or food tend to be usable by all five characters, though occasionally one character can do something special with them, such as turning healing herbs into a potion.

In fact, it's these different applications that present the game's level-up system. You don't gain XP for winning battles, but you do gain weapon points for using weapons continually, which eventually levels up the weapon and gives you a much more powerful attack you can perform with it. At the same time, the character gains hit points and stats like a regular level-up. This is where the game's Practice Mode comes in: A random battle system that won't use up a selected weapon's durability, allowing you to level-up weapons in peace without them breaking away from the main game.

If I have to give the game a list of cons, I guess one would be the Love/Trust system the game uses. Since all the player characters bar the hero are female, you can get one to like you more than the others by treating her better (or treating the others worse). This will effect the ending, as you will end up with your chosen girl at the end. It's a bit harem-ish and Dating Sim for my liking. Practice Mode can get a bit repetitive if you have to level several weapons at once, which can often take a while. It's necessary grinding, unfortunately, because enemies can start to get tough if you don't have the HP to survive their special attacks (called Break Outs, which occur when you've sufficiently pissed off the enemy side with constant attacks and fatalities). Otherwise, this is a fantastic game with a lot of humor and exploration elements (which I adore) and is sufficiently different to pretty much any other RPG I've played to keep me interested. The longevity is boosted by wanting to try all the things I didn't on the first playthrough, due to a lack of TP, so I imagine I'll be playing through it a few more times before I'm done with it.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Design Elements: Non-Linearity

[I figured this was more of an element than a genre thing, since non-linearity can apply to pretty much any genre.]

The concept of non-linearity is a constantly developing idea within the world of video games. In the earliest games, you didn't need to worry about plot or any kind of progress, and you'd simply repeat the same bit of addictive gameplay over and over until you died and wrote A.S.S. in the high score table. Later, as games created all these varied stages to follow, you went along for the ride to see where it would take you. Arcade staples specifically, like the Beat-Em-Ups and the Rail Shooters, would just be one long road between the start point and whenever you ran out of quarters.

Games started experimenting with the idea of having different paths to take around this time. The earliest factor, and one that is still relevant today, would be the risk vs reward element, where you could choose whether or not to go for a bonus item for a higher score, despite the increased danger that going for that bonus would present. It is non-linearity in its most basest form: the first factor besides simple endurance that allowed a skilled gamer to rise above his inferior peers score-wise. This is what I call the "Bonus" or "Basic" model of non-linearity, where you purposely go off the easier, pedestrian track for a potentially higher score or a potentially earlier "game over".

The second is the also familiar "Branch" system, where you are offered choices and dilemmas which affect the rest of your playthrough. A classic early example would be the "go right? go left?" conundrum of the original Pitfall. Other, non-stage-based platformers (so excepting Donkey Kong, Manic Miner and Lode-Runner et al) would also frequently have alternate paths to take. The Mega Man series is famous for presenting all eight of its early stages simultaneously, and asking the player which stage/robot master he wishes to take on first. There's usually a "correct" path, which would lead to you getting the weapon from one robot master that is strong against the next one in the sequence, but most players had to figure it out on their own or would otherwise experiment with their own sequences. The Branch system is by far the most prevalent form of non-linearity, though how much it can deviate from the norm will often depend on the game: having to choose between doing two levels and then doing having the level you didn't choose right after, for instance, isn't deviating a whole lot.

The final system that is used with frequency and certainly more often in recent games, is the "Freeform" or "Sandbox" form of non-linearity, which started with the Roguelikes and continues with the ubiquitious MMORPGs of this era. In these games, you can pretty much do anything you want, or at least anything you want from a list of options that are available to you. If we're talking one-player games like GTA or Oblivion, there's usually a string of story-vital missions and quests that you must follow (eventually) to bring the game's main story to a close. Otherwise, you're free to explore the world and its many side- and sub-quests. A lot of 3D platformers are the same too, with collection subquests taking you all over the place, often extending the game's longevity in an entirely optional extent.

A concept that hasn't been explored much, or has so far only enjoyed minor success, is time non-linearity. So far in RPGs and the like, you can have a hero at level 1, follow any career path you choose, explore dungeons and missions in a random order until the hero reaches level 100 and is some kind of unbeatable super person. The many branches and paths create a strong sense of freedom, but the otherwise linear progression of time is still an ever-present ball and chain. Common narrative devices for dealing with a non-linear timeline, such as flashbacks or starting a game in media res, are accounted for, but true non-linear time hasn't really been dealt with much in the video game world. I guess for good reason too, since no-one wants to see their character suddenly become 5 years younger and 10 levels suckier. The few examples I can think of include the SaGa series, which were generally confusing as hell, and the frequent mental trips into the past with Lara Croft's younger self, when she had far less experience and acrobatic/martial ability and so you had to rely on nothing but youthful enthusiasm to escape danger.

I should probably end this article with some novel idea in the realm of non-linear gameplay. A concept that I'm tinkering around with is having episodes of a game played through in a random order, just to create a kind of jigsaw puzzle that comes together the more you play. If you have the one hero, or better yet some non-combative underling/overling that links all the episode threads together, and follow a group of heroes taking out a bandit fortress or ice dungeon or what have you in each episode. As well as receiving treasure - which you won't keep between chapters, and will probably end up going into an overall pot or some kind of "episode score" at the end of that episode - you'll also receive clues and items that will come in useful for some other episode. For instance, you may receive a Ruby Key in a crypt which actually opens a door in the volcano dungeon a few episodes ago (or a few episodes down the road). You may also see part of a combination in an abandoned mine which opens a safe in the bandit fortress.

This game would have around 50 (or maybe 49, since that works as a 7x7 grid) such episodes/dungeons, with the cast lists of each varying depending on who survived a previous episode. If you have an axe-wielding dwarf at level 10 for one such random episode and keep him alive, he may come back in a different episode at level 30. If you help one lovestruck hero find a piece of treasure to win over his potential sweetheart, she may appear alongside him as an additional hero in a later episode. Likewise, interesting things start happening if you go back in time. A hero that dies in one episode at level 40 by falling into some lava might mention during another episode (where he's younger and still alive) how much he dislikes extreme heat. Okay, that one's a little silly, but you might be able to do things that shouldn't have happened according to the timeline you're establishing, causing a red mark to appear on an episode you've already completed but somehow messed up by killing a character earlier on that was still alive when you originally did that episode. The repercussions of which I'm not too sure about yet: it may dock you on your overall score, if I decide this game has one, or it could simply allow you the choice of repeating the episode with all this new information in hand.

There are other things too, that may alter the future of some of the episodes. If you're particularly antagonistic or fail to adhere to the whims of a certain hero, he may not come back in future episodes. Inversely, treating a hero with a lot of care and attention may make him return in future episodes in which he wouldn't have otherwise appeared. If you have a favorite character, or one that you despise, you may want to keep an eye out for ways to make them want to come back or stay away. If you attempted a high-level episode but only had a bunch of weak characters and got wiped out, that high-level episode might look a bit different later on if you've befriended a bunch of power-gamer type characters in the meantime. The game really does offer all kinds of choices and decisions, plus a cast list that never stays static. You might want to aim for a hero to show up in almost every episode (which some kind of bonus for creating a regular character). Alternatively, you might keep killing heroes off to make new ones appear. There could be a collectible sidequest (there I go again) for the cast list, keeping in mind all the triggers that will cause them to eventually appear, such as finding an egg and keeping it so it'll hatch into a friendly monster player-character a few game years later.

Well, that's kind of a wild(ish) idea for a new(ish) type of non-linearity. Episodic non-linearity, I guess. If we could convince developers to stop trying to equate a gaming experience to sitting through a movie, we'd hopefully see more games that are open to weird and varied non-linear storylines just like it (I'm thinking the high sales figures of GTA and Oblivion should help).

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Game Idea: Sky Citadel

Part Sim, Part RTS and Part RPG-style exploration, Sky Citadel has you lead your own flying fortress in a world where the ground is a distant memory. There are a few floating islands around which people make their home, but they tend to be sparsely spread around the known world, making trade difficult. Most people live in flying ships of some kind: Some are new, built at great expense with the limited resources available while others are ancient relics, created in a more prosperous time, that have been recovered and recommissioned to meet demand.

You are one of the lucky few to have discovered a Sky Citadel, an entire floating city supported by elaborate engines and propellers: A true treasure of the ancient era. Fortunately, for your benefit, the citadel is also heavily fortified from the constant attacks you'll suffer as you defend your prize from jealous rivals. As well as maintaining the citadel, you can also upgrade it, build on it and house a large population of citizens looking for a home to call their own. The citadel also has various means to be self-sufficient, including a massive grappling hook for salvaging all sorts of items from the unseen depths.

This is pretty much how the game goes: Chase down rumours of treasure below the skyline or hunt after pirates that have gotten rich off the suffering of others, make money, expand on your citadel and continue to grow as a presence. Explore the world in your own way and collect any refugees that appear like they could be of some use to your operation. There'll be an overall plot involving an evil empire, with their own sky citadels, but the main plot won't be as obtrusive and railroad as in other games of this caliber. Get around to it whenever.

Just to go over the three game modes:
Overworld mode, which is where you'll move your citadel to the next destination, or look for treasure with the grappling hook.
Citadel mode, where you'll build all the additions, when they become available and when you have the resources/cash to build them. You can also configure the existing populance, assigning them quarters inside the citadel and jobs to perform (such as Repair or Engineering).
Battle mode, when you find yourself attacked by enemies. You can actually fight back in two ways: by assigning NPCs with a high accuracy score to the citadel's cannons and letting them take down the enemy as you move the citadel around for best coverage, or you can assign yourself to a cannon turret and take down the enemy personally in a FPS mode. There are also other ways to fight back, including magic and occasionally with the grappling hook, if you wanted to capture crippled enemy ships for their valuable resources.

There'll also be a captain's log for keeping up to date on your recent exploits, plus rumors and clues you find that will tell you where to head next. There's also a giant ancient map of the world that you'll be able to follow - and often need to edit as you discover changes made since the citadel was originally created.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Game Idea: Abyss Divers

Back to good ol' traditional, long-winded game ideas this week. This one is another experiment in combining RPG features with a separate genre that rarely, if ever, employs them.

Set a moderate amount of time into the future (wow, how non-committal) and mankind is exploring the galaxy with faster than light travel. Which is possible in the future. But it wasn't an easy ride to get from light speed to faster than light speed, and we kind of goofed up a few times along the way with mad scientist-esque techniques involving powering through alternate dimensions and creating warps in the fragile space-time continuum. As such, there remains many, many minute tears and anomalies throughout the explored universe from that turbulent time. Occasionally, these tears manifest themselves as dangerous portals to universes we'd rather not have any encounters with. Which is where you come in.

You lead a squadron of starfighters, specially-shielded from the bizarre energy signals and various cosmic radiations created by these fabric tears, whose task it is to reconnoiter these rambunctious irregularities and find a way to close and/or repair them before too much undesirable alternate-dimension "warp-product" finds itself in our galaxy. This generally involves travelling to the anomaly as a group, defeating all the elements that managed to escape, heading inside and splitting up into two teams: one to fix the tear from the inside with some kind of laser (I guess) and the other to defend the repair team from outside interference from that universe's usually hostile (but not always) natives. Once the tear has been repaired sufficiently enough, it starts repairing itself on its own and this is your cue to get out of there. After which, you need to eliminate all the entities that escaped into our universe during the mission.

Gameplay-wise, I want it to be one of those old-school PC space-sims where it's all in first-person. I expect the various alternate universes and their inhabitants to be as bizarre and unsettling as possible, and this effect would be exponentially increased if you were seeing it all first person from your miniscule starcraft. As well as the usual hell dimensions, pink whirly dimensions, eldritch elder alien dimensions and "everything is the same but evil and with moustaches" dimensions, I also want to occasionally go all the way to crazytown. Like one dimension is a colossal recreation of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, where Chairy is several thousand miles tall and
Globey is actually the size of a planet. Or another dimension is made out of chocolate, with chocolate starships and starfighters. Big mystery with that universe is how their ships can use a propulsion system that won't melt them.

I mentioned RPG elements, so I'd better deliver. Basically, we're following the "make money to spend on improvements" system, which can increase your fire power, shielding, and also buy various luxuries like a fuel funneller (to refuel your ship on the cheap using natural sources like suns or whatever weird energy things the alterno-verses use) and a tractor beam. The tractor beam opens up a secondary means to earn money: collecting souvenirs. Rare altero-verses items can fetch high prices with collectors, though poaching these items are generally looked down upon by the various space authorities out there, what with their desire to close these things as quickly as possible to stop their content leaking into our own. But then you have to pay for these upgrades somehow. As your department gets better equipped and gains more renown, more pilots (far better ones than the "darn it, they're trying"-level volunteers you start with) will ask to join you. You'll eventually start getting famous explorers, bounty hunters and even space pirates of the universe accompanying your team to help out, some with their own specially-equipped starfighters. Find the best combination to use when heading out to a new anomaly.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Game Feature: RPG Boost Wagers

So I promised you a game idea, and I have one. Of sorts. It's actually a feature that any RPG could use, but for my sake let's say it relates directly to one of my other console/non-linear RPG ideas. So I don't sound like a big liar.

Boost wagers are specific tasks given to you once you level up which, if successfully accomplished before the next experience level, may give you an additional bonus to a specific stat or even a new ability (or even strengthen an existing ability). You get a short list of randomly generated tasks and challenges which you can try to fulfill before levelling up again. I have a few ideas about what these tasks may specifically ask you to do, but they will all fall into one of two general categories: Digital or Analog.

Digital boosts will have a simple "yes/no" victory condition behind them, where you either reach it or you don't. Killing a certain number of level-specific enemies for example (or killing a number of any kind of enemies in a certain way, like shooting them with a bow). You can either reach the target amount and receive the boost, or you don't reach it and get nothing. Analogs are a little different as the victory condition for those will be on a sliding scale. For instance, if you're told to take as little damage as possible for a boost, you will still receive the boost (probably to HP) for getting hit a moderate amount, but it won't be anything like the boost you'll receive for barely getting hit at all.

These boosts won't matter a whole lot to the actual game's plot, being as they are randomly generated, but it will certainly make proceedings easier and will give you a healthily competitive character to use for online contests. The tasks will always be possible for characters of that level and they won't start getting really taxing until the higher levels when the player is a little more experienced and the boosts can make the difference between the game being a challenge or being a cakewalk. Obviously, the strongest bonuses for each level will also be the hardest to achieve. A list of the current boost wagers available (keep in mind that old ones get deleted - whether you achieve them or not - once you reach the new XP level) will be kept alongside the regular Quests and Side-Quests in the game's log/journal or equivalent.

The reasons why anyone would want to adopt this system are twofold: First, it gives the player different ways to play the character. If they want to raise their character how they choose they're entirely free to do so, but if they're also given varied tasks to do for additional boosts it may be worth their while to factor in a style of playing they're unfamiliar with so they can net those boosts. If they're a distance whore, keeping back and taking everyone down with arrows, a significant strength boost wager for taking out enemies in close combat could come along and may convince them to change tactics for a short while. It'll certainly allow them to get more out of the game and stop it from being too repetitive (at least in the "how will I fight these guys?" respect). The second reason is so the type of players who want to be competitive and have a character that far exceeds its peers can actively chase down every one of these boost wagers before levelling for all the potential benefits out there. Plus, that same gamer can start over and have a completely different set of boost wagers to follow for the new character. If they get a character with a super-rare or super-powerful ability that takes a really difficult and esoteric boost wager to achieve, it'll be like a trophy for them and will certainly give them an edge in any kind of online competition that the game might have.

So there you are. Boost wagers. Entirely optional, but entirely worth your while to chase after.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Random Update: CDGs

Dang, haven't updated this in a while. Ol' idea well's still burned out (though there will be one next week for certain) and I can't really follow reviews with more reviews.

This does give me an opportunity to go over one of the increasingly prevalent design features of RPGs in recent years: Character Development Gimmicks (using gimmick to mean a device in this case).

In the olden days, when your RPG characters approached a new experience level, there were two basic systems in place. The first of these is the "you get what you're given" system; where you were arbitrarily handed new powers and stat bonuses upon reaching milestone experience levels. Several games that have low memory and/or deal with many player-controlled protagonists at once (Pokemon is an excellent example) will use this system to keep the level-up bonuses mercifully simple, though at the cost of removing all player interaction with their character's continuing development, besides simply not getting them killed between levels. The second usual system was giving the players a choice of options upon levelling, which were generally reliant on the character's profession and current skill level. The D&D system is well-known for this, especially with the introduction of Feats with the third edition. Even something as minor as rolling your new hit points created a perception of being directly responsible for the character's growth.

We then come to the intermediate systems, where players are encouraged to be actively involved in what characters learn which skills and abilities and when. A rudimentary example would be the AP (or JP) that various console RPGs use as a separate experience point tally. They either go into the currently selected job class (FF5, Blue Dragon), a weapon with an innate ability to be learned and used by the character (FF9, Vandal Hearts 2) or the points can be used by players to "buy" the abilities they like the look of (FFT). Certain games will level up the skills and weapons you use the most, offering an incentive for players to focus on what they'd like their characters to excel in; a system used by the Grandia and Elder Scrolls series and many others.

Then there are the advanced, slightly convoluted and always initially daunting systems that games spend a lot of time during the design aspect of development in producing. These tend to be unique and are especially made (at a reasonable expense one supposes) to give the game an equally unique character. Final Fantasies, after VI, tended to make systems as purposefully confusing as possible, reaching a zenith with FFX's Sphere Grid (after which they kind of cooled down a bit).

I'm not sure which is the best system to use, as a designer. Obviously you want the players to have as much control over their characters as possible, but on the other hand you don't really want players to be spending 10 minutes going over options every time you level up. Especially if there's like three rooms left in a dungeon and it's getting close to 2am or something. RPGs are beginning to fan out into different sub-subgenres within their already under-established subgenre-classification system: such as the confusion with what exactly makes a Console RPG/PC RPG, when you have Anachronox on the one hand (a PC RPG that uses common Console RPG traits) and Champions of Norrath on the other (a Console RPG series that's very much in the Diabolo/Rogue PC RPG mold). Perhaps one day we'll see an additional "complexity" score in the reviews of these games--along with graphics and longevity and what have you--to help those who want an in-depth character-development-driven RPG and those who just want to hit something and see numbers fly off them to let off some steam figure out if the game's for them.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Buncha Reviews

OK, back on Fridays now and after that long, arduous peregrination through the realms of creativity, I'm kicking it with some reviews instead. Usual Supertacularness review system: I only care about the game features. Pretty much anything else (sound, graphics and so forth) you can figure out yourself from looking at a screenshot or watching the trailer.


Flavor of the month, current Big Daddy doing the "best game evar" rounds. System Shock 2, only underwater and in the '50s.

* Easy come, easy go Ammo system - A common institution in most FPS games, sure, but somewhat of a rarity in the realm of the "scary shooter", where you're told constantly to conserve your ammo and just run/sneak past the hordes of enemies. This game makes even the most powerful ammo fairly common, if you know what vending machine to hack.
* Plasmid/Tonics/ADAM - Provides the game with a neat collection thing that directly benefits the player with various power-ups, both Active (Plasmids) and Passive (most of the Tonics). They can be generally bought by harvesting the ADAM (sort of like XP/AP building points, where EVE is the MP needed to use them) from the rather unsettling "little sister" enemies. Other power-ups need to be sought out through detours, which gives the game a neat exploration angle that most FPS games eschew.
* The Setting and Atmosphere - It's obvious that someone went to a lot of trouble with the plot and setting of this game. I wasn't really into it all that much, but as a Designer I can respect when someone goes a long way into describing every little thing (through a series of optional audio diaries) without really needing to.
* This shouldn't really matter, but the Achievement scheme for this game is about perfect: You can get half of them just by playing through the game, giving you a nice amount without really focusing on it (which can often detract those on the first playthrough). The diehard completists will still take their time to get the full 1000 available. I suspect that soon, if not already, the difficulty/design of a 360 game's Achievement Points map will become an additional factor to consider when purchasing/renting said game.

* The length of the game is pretty short, despite the various side-missions and collectibles. Can't really be helped due to its FPS nature, but it doesn't really have much replay value either if you got everything the first time around.
* Respawning enemies are a pain. It does make you wonder where they're all coming from, since people appear to be trapped in separate areas of the city by an almost defunct bathysphere transportation system.
* Likewise, the various cameras and turrets get tired fast, especially when there's several crisscrossing a wide area. Being able to hack into them and turn them against your enemies almost absolves this though.
* The hacking minigame is fairly uninspired. I played it back when it was called Pipe Mania, and I also played it as a hacking minigame back in Anachronox.

Blue Dragon

An RPG, made especially for the XB360 by a team comprised of RPG aficionados, with Final Fantasy's creator Hironobu Sakaguchi leading the pack. Traditional "bunch of kids save the world from ancient terror" scenario.

* Lord help me, but I loved all the searching. You can search practically anything, for various rewards that get less impressive as the game progresses. You can quite literally spend an hour in a new town or city searching every single pot and item. Best of all, the game has a secret subquest that gives you various powerful items for all the otherwise disappointing "Nothing"s you find, which is such a great idea that I'm going to steal it one day.
* The Job System, liberally stolen from FF3 and FF5 (but that's coo' since the FF dude is the one in charge), has been polished to reduce the amount of jobs one can train in for the benefit of more powers and abilities to unlock for those jobs. Some of these abilities can have a distinct change to the tactics you employ, as they all start to become very powerful.

* Very, very cliché. This was intended to give the game a nostalgic appeal, similar to what Final Fantasy 9 was meant to do to that particular series to recover from Final Fantasy 8. There's nothing really wrong with repeating the same instances over and over, per se, especially for those new to the genre (or gaming in general, since it is aimed at a younger audience). But for the type of genre fanboy (hi there) who would likely buy this game it'll probably be a disappointment.

Rogue Galaxy

Sci-fi planet-hopping RPG from the makers of Dark Cloud 1&2, only a bit more traditional than that iconic series.

* Those boys haven't lost their taste for side-quests, which a whole bunch more that almost triples the game's playthrough time. As well as following your mission objectives (which are handy little star indicators), you can also fulfill bounties (optional bosses and specific totals of lesser enemies), compete in an "Insectron" tournament (which parallels the fishing minigames of the DC series) or create new items in a factory simulator, which mixes Pipe Dreams (a lot of that going around lately) and the Georama system of the DC series. In fact, if you liked that game (as I did), you'll probably like this too.
* Continuing the comparisons, the battle system is also heavily based on DC's: You have to fight in a real-time environment, using either your main or sub weapons and a bunch of powers you unlock through something called a Revelation Chart. This power-up system is sort of similar to the License Grid of FFXII, only you need to trade items instead of XP points, with rarer items unlocking stronger power-ups (the items are subsequently unavailable until later in the game).
* The teleporter system makes getting around a breeze. You can travel to anywhere you need to within seconds, though the transporters all need to be unlocked first. Most games use a similar system, but I found Rogue Galaxy's to be extra convenient. Plus you can save and heal at them too.

* If it shares DC's plus points, it must also share its negative points too. The most significant of which is the amount of tedium one can feel by traversing the large dungeons that are scattered throughout the worlds you visit. Added to which is the decision to use random encounters (of the "they weren't there a minute ago" variety), which occur often when trying to move between places.
* To be fair, a lot of the subquests above are less intriguing this time around. The Insectron Tournament in particular, since catching the things, spending the time and cash to raise and breed them until they reach a respectable level of power takes hours and hours to accomplish. Similarly, trying to defeat 30 particular instances of a monster that NEVER EVER SEEMS TO SHOW UP can be a little frustrating. They are optional, and I appreciate that, but for the diehard completists (another shout-out to you guys) it isn't as great. A bit of time to mark certain areas as hotspots for otherwise rare monster encounters to alleviate the waiting time for those who care to seek these areas out would've been a nice touch.

Back to ideas next week. But only one at a time. I've had enough of lists for the time being.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

100 New Game Features X

Whoa, Game Features X. Gives it an impressive-sounding aura. Soon dispell that.

091. Ancients
This game is based on that age-old Jap RPG premise of an ancient civilisation wiping itself out from its hubristic attitude concerning its devastatingly powerful technology. You are a high-ranking official of this ancient (currently present) government, plagued by nightmares about the extinction of your way of life, and struggle to convince your peers about the dangers that lie ahead. Unsure of what will fail first and how, you decide to put together a squad of highly trained and capable agents and put them into a deep stasis, far enough below the Earth to survive the imminent calamity that will burn the world to cinders. When the agents awake, they are to discover how exactly the world fell (by finding the now ancient ruins of their world and checking for clues left behind) and to broadcast back in time to the official, so that they may somehow prevent it from happening. The game is split into two modes: a standard RPG system that follows the agents on their trevails in the post-apocalyptic future and that of the official, as they use both legal (using their governmental powers, which will slowly shrink in stature the more they interfere with government sectors that don't concern them) and steathier illegal (which is the faster and, soon enough, only) means to prevent the disasters that the agent team in the future are able to identify. It always seems odd in these games that a civilisation that can do anything are always powerless to prevent their own destruction, so this game aims to give them a fighting chance for once.

092. Animal Cussing
OK, this isn't so much a game idea as just changing everything the animals in Animal Crossing say (nicknames for you and such) to swears. It's pretty juvenile. How about Animal Kriss Krossing? Including a Jump-Jump minigame and the option to wear pants backwards. Animiller's Crossing? "I can't live... I can't live out here in this little house in the woods! Like a dumb animal! Look in your heart!". Um, let's skip over this one.

093. Shakespeare Game
There aren't enough games based on Shakespeare's plays. Disregarding all the "hey nonny nonnys" and "oh shit, am I learning something? to hell with this game!" disputes for a moment, the Bard's plays are pretty darn violent and filled with potential XPs for the hack'n'slash crowd. A game would probably go something like Kingdom Heart's episodic nature, though far less cutesy of course, where you'd join up with a hero of one story to see it through to its proper conclusion and then move onto the next tale. And in the case of something like Hamlet, loot all the dead bodies before leaving. Plus, Kenneth Branagh can be a recurring boss!

094. Sinistar Remake
Man, just imagine this: A fully 3D space-sim based on Sinistar. Think how many times more menacing Sinistar would be as a gigantic ass skull space station thing in its full 3D glory. You'd be given an arena (more like a big cube of space to fly around in) like usual, filled with asteroids that you have to harvest the Sinisite crystals from to build your Sinibombs before ol' Skullface's minions can rebuild their master, who you'll be able to monitor mid-construction in the center of the little quadrant you're flying around in (complete with space-scaffolding and what have you) due to how friggin' massive the dude is. Like the uncompleted Death Star of Return of the Jedi, only even more pants-crappingly intimidating. Play with a friend to defeat Sinistar and his goons, or play against them as they help transport the Sinisite back to the Hungry One.

095. Special Wizardry And Tactics
A Fantasy-based SWAT team in other words (based on the one seen in the Hawk and Fisher novels. They're good readin') that take on dangerous illegal fantasy elements in all shapes and sizes. Have a group of werewolves barricading humans inside a building? Call SWAT. Some kind of mystical ancient being escaped from its eldritch bonds? Call SWAT. Escaped mental patient with a Wand of Turning Inside Out? Call SWAT. And a cleaner too, while you're at it. You'll configure and train your own SWAT teams, replacing casualties and making sure you're well stocked on fighters, healers and wizards to tackle any problem the city throws at you. And you thought the regular SWAT teams had it bad.

096. Consciences
This is something a satirical cartoon-based game could use as a mode of getting into small places to find a key or some other useful item. When presented with a small opening that the main character is unable to pass through, there's an option to ponder the morality of what you're currently doing. This causes two extra characters to appear: Your tiny "good" self, with halo and wings, and your tiny "bad" self, who wields a fork and horns. Your Good self can pass through the opening and use his extra jumping skills (thanks to those wings) to get around the passage and find what you need to find. The Bad self can't jump as high, but his attack power is considerably higher and he'll be able to fight any monsters that might be hiding in that small gap. Use whichever's appropriate for the type of obstacles you'll be facing. Plus, performing good or evil deeds will power up the respective figment appropriately, enhancing their stats and possibly giving them new powers to use.

097. FPS Spoof
This could be based on something like Hot Shots Part Deux or Sledge Hammer or a dozen other spoofs of overly violent shooter movies. Basically, everything seems to do way more damage than it actually should. If you shoot anything, it'll explode. If you shoot some dude he'll fly backwards 50 yards and spastically go all ragdoll on the way down. And then explode. You gain points for sheer carnage and eventually the plot evaporates in a series of non-sequitur cutscenes that vaguely point you in the right direction to the next series of explosions. You also get a one-liner generator to use, hitting the right function key for it at the right time after killing someone will deliver an apt pun based on the situation for bonus points. There's no ammo or reloading, since this is an action movie spoof, so fire away.

098. Instances
While exploring a new space phenomenon, your explorer/hero character ends up getting trapped within the phenomenon's considerable gravitational pull and he and his ship fall into this space anomaly. He emerges unscathed, only it appears he is now in six different areas of the galaxy, approximately the same distance away from the anomaly in six opposing directions (imagine faces on a cube to understand what I mean). All six instances of the hero are linked, meaning you control all of them sort of simultaneously (though for game purposes, you control one at a time). Furthermore, since all six ships are actually just the one, anything that happens to one ship will happen to the other five. You must shift between the instances and get them all back to the anomaly so they can merge together back into one entity. Ships in fortuitous conditions (like being in friendly-owned, explored space) can seek repairs for fixing the damage done in situations that less fortunate ship instances find themselves in (such as enemy space or some weird corrosive gas cloud). One ship in particular is flying near a black hole, distorting both nearby space and time, which means you're unable to free him from the vast gravitational forces holding him in place until the ship is upgraded. Focusing on an "easy" instance until it comes back to the anomaly and then switching is one plan, but if that easy instance is within the range of easy repairs and stock resupplies, it might be best not to call on it until its needed. Inversely, concentrating on one "hard" instance until he gets home (to get it out of the way with, sort of a common gaming thing) will make the game far more difficult than it needs to be, since you can help get him through his tough battles easier by finding ship upgrades with the other instances. Since they're all moving simultaneously, you will effectively pause one instance's progress when switching over to another. This example should hopefully explain how the game uses it's shared timeline to switch between instances: If you take instance #3 for 30 minutes and switch to instance #4, you'll be back at 0 minutes on the shared timeline since instance #4 hasn't done anything yet. If you want to go back to instance #3, it'll continue from the 30 minute point on the shared timeline. The downside to this system is that if instance #5 upgrades their weapon banks for more damage at the 3-hour mark on the timeline, all the other instances will only receive their weapon upgrade at the same mark, meaning they all need to be 3 hours into their journey back before it'll happen. So obviously, those in a difficult situation may need to go on the defensive until some other instance can get the upgrades needed to continue. You can fast-forward time at will to eliminate long waits, though keep in mind that having nearby enemies will make this feature potentially hazardous with frequent use.

099. Turn-based Powers Tennis
OK, so the first impression you might get with a title like that is "Huh?" followed closely by "Won't that be unbearably slow?". Well, the tennis in this game is slightly different. It follows a super-powered, RPG type of system where powerful serves and volleys are accompanied by various magical powers and special attacks. You need to find the best way to get to the ball, aim for the spot you want to hit the ball to, and let it fly. You get the choice between power (lowering the ability to return your shots), speed (getting to the ball quicker) and finesse (misdirection and things like spin), as your character will be superpowered in any of those three fields. You'll be defeating opponents like the Trickster, who can create illusionary balls along with the real one, forcing you to choose. There's also the Pyromaniac, who can set the balls alight, forcing to only return the shot once the ball's flames have gone out after bouncing once. The whole tournament will be crazy like this and you'll need to use your chosen character's strengths to progress through the competition.

100. Protagonist: The Ultimate Video Game
In this game you assume the protagonist from a great many classic video games, forcing yourself to evolve your graphics and become bigger, stronger, faster and more colorful and better rendered. You start as a pong bat and need to earn enough points to evolve yourself into an arrow, becoming the star of Asteroids. Or you can focus on your bat form and turn into the hero of Arkanoid. Further upgrades in the arrow direction will turn you into a crude spaceship for Galaxia/Galaga, while further evolutions of the bat form will allow you to become Snake, that long, apple-eating line that adorns many a mobile phone. You'll pass through the early arcade era, to the 8-bit era and the 16-bit eras and finally turn yourself 3D. You can stick with vehicles, passing through the arcade shooters and reaching various RTS and Space-Sim games, or you can evolve yourself to become a human being (or humanoid), and take part in early adventure games like, well, Adventure or Manic Miner, using Pacman as a bridge between "random shape" to "person on a mission". Any games you unlock through your transformations will be replayable and you can go back to any previous transformation at any point to try a new path, or to simply gather evolution points at a game you're good at. Find the ultimate evolution of each form, unlock every game and become the perfect video game protagonist.