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.