Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Game Idea: Choose Your Own Video Game

OK, my game idea is particularly meta this week, possibly even downright postmodern.

It starts with the concept of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were all the rage 10 to 20 years ago. Maybe they still are, I don't know. Like I know what kids are into. iPods and Youtube and "Weblogs". With this kind of generation gap humor, I'm so close to a syndicated comic strip I can taste it. But I digress. In these books you started at Blurb #1, and very quickly found yourself making decisions that would affect the course of the rest of the story, turning pages until you discover the results of the latest monumental decision. Then you had the morbid kids like myself who would just scan the book for all the end-game scenarios that resulted in gory death. Like, not even to cheat, but just to read about how the dude fell down a dark hole and was eaten by a grue.

Anyway, this idea sort of takes that concept and exaggerates it. I'm not talking about branching storylines so much; they're everywhere in video games already. Instead, what this game does is judge the decisions made by the player and changes the genre of the gameplay accordingly.

You start with a simple third-person 3D Platformer format, since that is generally the most basic and easily modifiable (when adding subgenres) of modern game genres. You are given a basic plot hook (rescue the princess; save the big diamond; defeat the bad guys) and set off on an adventure. The levels will be episodic like a normal 3D Platformer, with self-contained worlds and various goals to achieve in them. The first level will be mostly tutorial in nature, giving you the controls and instructions of the current "basic" form. However, you'll reach a small, somewhat ominous area before the next level where you'll receive the first power-up of the game.

And, of course, this power-up will be based on a multiple choice decision.

You have a table with three items: a sword, a gun and a staff. Choosing the sword means that, subconsciously (or at least this is how the game will interpret and promote its gimmick), you want to play a game with lots of hand-to-hand fighting and beating up bad guys in close-combat, setting up the first Fighter beacon (a system of beacons will be used to demonstrate what genre you're heading towards: I figure they'd be like the batsignal, but with an icon that depicts the current genre focus in the light beam instead). The next level for the sword guy will feature far more enemies than the previous, which will be fought in a Scrolling Fighter-type smashfest. However, since this is only the first Fighter beacon to go up, the gameplay will still mostly resemble that of the original Platformer, just with a few "A, A, B, A" fighting combos. If you continue making "Fighter game" type decisions, the game will adjust the gameplay to match the hack-happy thought process behind those decisions.

Similarly, choosing the Gun will shift the game's genre to a TPS (third-person shooter) game, which also share the same kind of "horde attack" of the Fighter scenario but with more TPS-unique situations (like using cover, or switching to different guns depending on distance/accuracy/necessary firepower for bosses). The staff will hint that an RPG is more your thing, which subsequently gives you arbitrary stats and changes your health bar to a numerical "HP" amount. These stats are completely irrelevant and are more for display after the first RPG beacon goes up, but getting more RPG beacons will change the game world and your character's abilities to match these stats, and may even eventually start making everyone move in turns like proper well-behaved RPG antagonists.

Each level, after its completion, will give you another chance to shift the game based on the unconscious desire for the type of game you really want. A future level's decision might ask you what tactic you plan to use for assailing the enemy's stronghold: Sneak in? Go in the front way by gung-ho force? Find a way to magic yourself in? Find allies? The first decision may start adding Stealth-elements to the gameplay, while the fourth could add an RPG party (if you're focusing on RPG elements) or some kind of squad-based shooter (if you're focusing on TPS elements).

A factor of this game is the collectible items: In Platformer games, this secondary goal is generally a capricious collect-fest of useless knick-knacks. As the genre "evolves", they start to mean something. If we have a bunch of common yellow items and a rarer red item or two, this could translate in the TPS world as "bullets" and "new guns". In the RPG world it would be "money" and "new equipment". In the more spartan Fighter games, maybe just "bonus points" and "food/heal items". This way, the levels can be generally the same (the layout will be more or less equal no matter what the genre, but the content will change) without too much manipulation.

Another thing about the levels: Although most of the early stages would be the same (for the purposes of not having to make a unique game for every decision made) as soon as a solid genre is decided upon by the gamer, they can start to move away from this linear progression. Subsequently, if you've been deciding on a majority of TPS beacons/decisions, you'll eventually reach the TPS version's endgame which would be a series of levels based on the TPS genre and culminating in a proper TPS end of game boss (a giant fellah that needs several good rockets to the face would be my guess). Likewise, the RPG genre version, once realised enough with plenty of RPG beacons/decisions, will turn into a proper dungeon crawl with a Lich or Dragon as the end of game boss.

One last note about this system is the cross-genreing that could go on with indecisive players who started with a Fighter but wants to switch to the gun-happy TPS mode: You get a chance to do so. The game will keep the hand-to-hand cronies, but also introduce bullets and guns as the collectible items. Thus, you can start shooting away at the burly gang-members that affront you. Choosing "Fighter" again at the next decision will take away the ammunition lying around and replace them with "Fighter" items (but not the guns you already have, giving you a slight but only temporary advantage), and choosing "TPS" again will take away the burly gang members with chainwhips and replace them with gun-toting enemy soldiers. Likewise, you could make decisions to change the fancy schmancy medieval RPG scenario into a Fighting-fest, allowing you to spin kick the cliché blobs and skeletons until a more solid bias can be made between the two conflicting genre types.

As well as the TPS/RPG/Fighter decisions, as you progress with one specific genre in mind, you can add subgenres to it with future between-level decisions. For instance, both the Fighter and the Shooter can be given Stealth elements if you choose to "sneak into" the enemy stronghold. This will make the enemies both more dangerous but less alert, prompting you to take them out without too much backfire. It'll also give the enemies things like line of sight and hearing, so that they stop unerringly honing in on your position (like most confrontational action games) and start walking around a set pattern allowing you to get past them /take them out with careful planning. You could instead introduce the idea of a sniper rifle to the Shooter genre instead of the shotgun, making the patrolling enemies far more nonchalant with a reliance on their powerful weaponry (hence needing to snipe them safely from a distance) than the bloodthirsty (but relatively less damaging) hordes you would mow down with your close-combat pump-action or chainsaw bayonet.

This is my favorite part: After every game playthrough, you can save the finished product of your ADD genre-mixing and start the game from scratch with this hybrid genre in effect right from the get-go. If you found the perfect mix of action and strategy with a Fighter/TPS mix with squad-based combat thrown in at later levels, you can play that game right from the start without all the decision-making interrupting the gameplay. As you unlock each of the end-of-game scenarios (remember, they branch out into a unique few levels and a boss towards the end), you'll have more choice over what the perfect version of the game would be like. Stealth? Fighter? RPG? Maybe even a Racing element or some kind of regression back to the initial kid-friendly Platformer mold (which will take some very mild decision making, such as letting the captured bad guy from level 5 off with a warning instead of putting his head on a banner to lead into war with a la the more violent game modes available.) You could even choose to send your RPG hero into the world of tough TPS action, once both scenarios have been completed, giving you a bizarre playthrough as you duck for cover to block enemy gunfire as you fireball their asses.

Obviously a multi-genre game of this magnitude would be a little resources-heavy to pull off, not to mention the sheer dissonance between game styles and the subsequent lengthy playtesting that would need to be done with each genre-merging, but it's not entirely out of the question with a developer that's crazy enough to take it on (sounds like a bad movie tagline..). Not only would it be a kickass game for someone who doesn't know what they want or isn't always in the mood for the same type of game each time, but it would also be a cool thing for obsessive completists like myself who wants to see each end of game boss and each possible combination, with the evolution of the main character from Regular Joe to gruff army colonel or effete spell-lobber or a badass kung-fu bandana dude or shady ninja or an anthropomorphic cartoon character of some kind... or even some mixture of the above.

Damn, I've never been more excited about a game idea that couldn't possibly work since that one where 50ft-tall cheerleaders take over Manhattan.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

More RPG Hybrids

OK, I'm three days late, so I'll do three game ideas today to make up for it. I think that's fair.

Continuing on from the previous Design Genres article, I wanted to come up with more ways an RPG subgenre can be latched onto games that traditionally don't feature any kind of in-depth character development.

Idea #1: RPG/Pinball

Video game Pinball has come a long way from the simple bonuses and buttons on one or more highly-realized pinball tables (because why not just play the real thing?) to franchises like Pokemon Pinball, where you have a separate goal beyond just breaking into the highscore table to find and collect as many Pokemon as possible and evolve them, completing the in-game Pokedex. Also, and more relevant to my own idea, are the Odami and Metroid Prime pinball games, which have enemies on-screen that you must defeat with the pinball to proceed with the game.

The RPG Pinball idea is similar to the Worms/Strategic 2D Platformer idea last time as it involves a PC (player character) wizard who uses the pinball itself as a sort of magic missile to defeat enemies. Exploring a dungeon, which may be four or five "tables" in length, you can defeat the guardians to proceed further and unlock all kinds of treasures and equipment to use. You may even gain additional powers, allowing you to adapt the regular pinball into something more damaging (like a fireball or a cannonball) to do more damage or unlock specific hidden bonuses - you could shoot a fireball into a tapestry, burning it down and revealing a treasure chest.

The game would have XP (experience) and GP (gold) like a regular RPG, and between dungeons you can use these values to purchase new skills or power-ups to use in the field. Your XP will also dictate what dungeons are available, as tougher ones will continue to open up as you climb XP levels. As well as the pinball spell and variants (fireball, etc.) you can use special spells such as Lightning Bolts (which bounce around the arena at random, damaging enemies sometimes deflecting the pinball) or Time Slow to stop faster enemies from moving around too quickly to hit. Instead of one or two highly-complex tables to work off, there would be several smaller ones with their own traps, bonuses and enemies to take care of. They could range from normal castle-like dungeons to natural (maybe volcanic) caves to goblin fortresses to ancient marble temples full of undead.

Idea #2: RPG/Sports

Now, this one sounds a little daft. First off, I should point out that there are many sports games
that allow your players to gain stats and get better between games by training or what have you. There are several managerial franchises that depend on this sort of development from a young potential signing to eventual star player.

However, this is where the "daft" comes in. The game is set in a vaguely Middle Earth type world where demons are spilling out of dimensional portals and generally causing a ruckus. A group of wizards have found a feasible way to create magical anomalies (which are in various shapes) that will close any portal it is sent into. There are special conditions for each one, however, which means each dimensional portal can only be closed in a specific way.

You control the leader of a group of mercenaries/adventurers who will transport these anomalies to their portals and try and get them past the defending demons to seal the dimensional portals forever. Each of these scenarios will be played out like a sports game, where the demons are actively trying to recover the anomalies you've made and destroy them before they can close their gate to this world. The adventurers have to pass/kick/throw the anomalies between each other to get it out of the demons' way and then somehow get it to the "goal" to finish the match. As you move around the world, you will have to play a different sport for each new area. For instance, in the cold arctic north, you may need to play Ice Hockey. In the aquatic island region it could be something like Water Polo or Volleyball.

Obviously the game would have to be a little tongue-in-cheek to adhere to the respective sports' rules, instead of just having the team of adventurers kill the demons and reach the portal like in a normal RPG. Maybe some kind of magical gaeas or something. As well as traditional sports stats such as endurance, strength, reactions and speed, you would also have a miscellaneous RPG trait or two. For instance, your winger could be an Elven Archer who could shoot an attacking demon if he's about to tackle another player, distracting him long enough for the player with the ball to get past him. In which case, he would need an accuracy stat for his bow. Likewise, you could have special attacks and tricks for other players in the field: An Illusionist could recreate a clone of the player with the ball, potentially fooling a demon into going for the fake one. A Dwarven Berserker could take the ball and charge downfield ignoring attacks made by the demons. You would have to configure and train your group of adventurers and use them for the appropriate sports. Casualties are to be expected, so make sure to heal often and hire new talent to replace those lost.

Idea #3: RPG/Katamari Damacy

OK, it may seem like my desperation for trying to come up with three different genres to attach an RPG element to is becoming evident. But this is as far from the truth as you can get. Maybe. The goal of Katamari Damacy is to build one's Katamari as big and as quickly as possible. It really doesn't need an RPG element, since the gameplay is nearly perfect in its simplicity as is. However, I'm not one to shy from a challenge, or at least a chance to ruin a better game designer's great idea out of spite.

In each Katamari level, there are various hidden or rare items that may take a modicum of searching or a bigger Katamari than can be feasibly expected to roll it up. These items give you a big "happiness" bonus, as they happen to be one of the King of all Cosmo's "favorite" things about Earth. More often than not, these bonus items will be pictures, sculptures, origami models or engraved coins which all feature the King himself in some way (the modest type that he is).

Let's take the usual first stage of a Katamari game as an example; someone's living room or bedroom. As well as the usual objects, there are five of these special "King" objects; A coin (which is inside a box full of other items), a shampoo bottle (which is high on a shelf), a statue that resembles an Oscar (which would be very heavy/big and therefore need a large Katamari to find), a novel about the King (which would be on the bookshelf with other books, so you'll need to roll them all up) and a child's drawing of the King (which is underneath a box or something on the floor). All of these objects would be hard to find/reach/roll-up, but they'll give you a bonus at the end of the level.

These happiness bonuses can then be traded in for powers and accessories, sort of like those available in the second game. Powers include: Iron Prince, which stops you losing so much from the Katamari when you get hit; Eye For Taste, which allows you to spot hidden King items when you're close enough; Camaraderie, which lets you identify what cousins are available and where they are in a stage and Magnetic Personality, which allows very small items to actually be attracted towards the Katamari.

In the levels where success is determined by the type of items you rolled up over the sheer quantity (such as that level in We Love Katamari where you needed to roll up expensive items), the King items would be worth considerably more than others. Finding all the King items from every level may even unlock a surprise or two. The King is a very vain fellow, so pleasing him with all these fan items will no doubt have beneficial consequences.

Well, three more ideas about how specific game genres could employ an additional RPG trait. Of course, whether or not these games would actually prosper with this RPG aspect is entirely academic.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Deconstructing Qix

Something a little different this week. I will take a classic arcade staple (in this case, Qix) and discuss the core elements of its gameplay, and how those core elements can be transferred or integrated into other games and game genres. I am able to do this because the core gameplay of Qix is a free license, if not the name itself (which belongs to Taito), which is why there are so many Qix clones around that aren't called Qix.

First, the fundamentals of the Qix gameplay: The goal is to fill-in portions of the screen by piloting your ship from the safe-ish border to draw squares in the "danger zone" before the enemies in the unshaded area can attack you or your unfinished line. Successfully reaching the border again with your line will fill/shade-in the percentage of the screen you managed to box in. If your line gets hit midway, you lose a life. Filling 75% of the screen will complete the level, though sometimes this goal % can vary. The game's system demands a fair amount of caution, but also the occasional bold move to cover a large percentage in one go. There are also various techniques you can employ, such as making a bridge of safe small boxes from one side of the screen to the other in order to trap the wider area above/below this bridge.

Second, I'll discuss how this system can be translated or integrated into other games. The most basic way, obviously, is to transfer the entire thing as-is into the core game as an optional mini-game. In this case the victory conditions and the game itself are the same, it's just a game-within-a-game with little relevance to the actual game in which it appears. Compilations of Taito arcade games often feature Qix in its entirety. Sometimes there's an arbitrary beneficial effect for the main game in which Qix is a minigame, such as in Rockstar's Bully, where the Art class is a Qix-based minigame that grants you bonuses to your character's skills depending on your success. In this case simply achieving Qix's usual victory conditions is sufficient for the main game bonus, which is unrelated to the minigame.

However, the game can be integrated even further into the game's engine. For instance, say you were playing a futuristic hacker game and that the password to an important computer system was hidden inside a virtual portrait (which has a computer chip in it). You would have to "hack" the portrait in a Qix-style minigame while avoiding the anti-virus protection software, which would be represented by the usual Qix enemies of a large, central enemy and various smaller ones that crawl around the border. Successfully completing the Qix minigame means that you've hacked a sufficient amount of the virtual portrait's memory file to recover the required password.

But it doesn't have to stop there. Let's say the game you're playing is an RTS. You fire a bombardment missile to a specific square in the enemy's territory. The purpose of this missile is to bomb regions it will "paint" (a military term for targeting an area) from the sky, while the enemy tries to shoot it down before it can destroy anything major. As soon as the missile is fired to a map square of the controlling player's choosing, the player then controls the remote missile in a Qix-style minigame. For every enemy building it can box in, that building is destroyed. Similarly, it can box in stationary/moving enemy units to destroy them also. All territory that the missile has currently boxed in will be on fire (as it drops a sort of napalm) and impassable until the missile is either destroyed or fulfills a 75% quota of the chosen screen, in which case it returns to base to get refuelled. While this is going on, the enemy can either try to shoot down the missile by firing at it from outside of the chosen square (the enemy player won't actually know the specific boundaries of this square) or risk shooting it down from within the square that is being attacked. Alternatively, the enemy can attack the other player's base while he is distracted with the minigame, if he believes the buildings in the bombing areas are an acceptable sacrifice for a surprise attack. The player runs the risk of using this devastating weapon at the cost of being distracted while he's busy with the Qix minigame. He can abort the missile at any time if the enemy decides to take advantage and attack.

Here's another example using one of my own ideas; specifically, my Item Quest idea from a few weeks ago. I mentioned that one of the many items you can pick up are Portraits. Well, occasionally, you may find a "cursed portrait". These are portraits which used to be valuable but now have a hex on them, changing their original, beautiful image into something twisted and unpleasant. Subsequently, the value of the portrait has dropped considerably. If you wanted, you can pay for a sort of "uncursing exorcism" to change the portrait back to what it once was to hopefully increase its value substantially. This will be done, again, with a Qix-style minigame, where you have to draw in the "real" portrait by boxing in cursed areas and purifying them, all the while avoiding the evil spirits that have possessed the painting. As soon as a specific % of the painting has been recovered, the rest of the portrait is purified and you have a much more valuable portrait in your hands. If your little exorcism spirit dies, you have just wasted the money it costs to summon it. You may even lose the portrait itself, destroying it utterly. The risk of failing the minigame would need to be equal to the potential gain, though one could simply boost the difficulty of the minigame if the "real" portrait is much more valuable than usual. The Item Quest idea could benefit from all sorts of "uncurse the cursed item" minigames, which would take a lowly treasure you may find earlier on and turn it into something highly collectible that you can later brag about. Of course, if you're playing as an "evil" character, you might prefer the aesthetic of the cursed image.

Anyway, there's some ideas about how an old Arcade game that people are familiar with can be integrated into modern games in a much more immersive way than simply dropping the whole thing in there, untouched and unmodified. If there's a definite gain to be made in the core game from successfully completing a few levels of a Qix minigame (or Pacman, or Yar's Revenge, or Space Invaders..), then people might start getting addicted to these old games all over again.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Game Idea: MoM in Space

MoM, to the uninitiated, is Master of Magic, a game I'm always singing the praises of. It's Civ with magic. That's pretty much the shortest statement one can make that adequately describes the game.

I'm not too sure how many turn-based strategy games are out there that involve intergalactic warfare as opposed to just the regular international variety, but I figure there must be a few because of how easy it would be to knock the classic system up a notch. Instead of towns/cities, you have planets. Instead of units of spearmen or phalanxes you have units of cruisers and starfighters. Instead of monsters, you have space monsters (which are a lot bigger). Instead of dungeons and other cool shit, you have mysterious space phenomena that can be explored. And finally, instead of a boring 2D map you have a 3D map which picks out planet coordinates and does all that calculation mess for you when figuring out distances. You could link planets together with space-gates, which can warp ships from one side of the galaxy to the other (like roads). Pretty much anything you could have in Master of Magic could potentially be translated to space with the scale of it boosted appropriately. Why rule one world with your powers when you could rule many?

So, in a sense, this could be the sequel to Master of Magic. After ruling the twin worlds of Arcanus and Myrror for many hundreds of years, your legions of loyal followers have progressed and prospered in the peace resulting from your ultimate leadership to the point where they can now construct starships and the like, and Arcanus as a whole becomes your first "town" on the galactic map. What next?

Well, your power reserves can now be powered up by tapping planets and become even more powerful - able to reach the furthest areas of space. Other planets tend to have one or two races controlling it, and taking it over adds to your army power, food and cashflow. These planets often are primitive or at a technology level far below yours, in which case you can use it for food or mining production. If they're around the same technological level, however, you can use it to build new ships.

Like the nodes of the previous games, jungle planets (earth), nebulae (sorcery) and stars (chaos) can be tapped for their magical energies, but you'll need to defeat the local beasties first. This can be done with the traditional MoM battle system, sending in smaller units to empty the place of danger before a magic spirit can be melded to it (which can safely travel through space like it could over sea and land).

As well as smaller units, you can produce certain larger units too. These will mostly be things like cruisers and starships which can transport smaller units between planets. Some of the summoned monsters will be colossal larger units though, and will be able to enter large-unit scale battles. For these guys I was thinking of something like Lovecraft: huge monstrosities that float about space and are maddening to look at. The large-units would appear with the smaller units but look much bigger than them, since I'm pretty sure modern turn-based strategy technology can handle having titanic-sized units and small units on the same screen.

The spells are all accounted for. Most will be changed to reflect the larger scale, so city-spells will now be planet-spells. Summoning spells can produce both small and large units. Your enhanced powers will allow you to fire spells halfway across the galaxy, like how you could do so from half a continent away. Since most of the regular scale battles will still exist, most of the spells are still relevant too. Of course, there'll be several new ones especially designed for outer space exploration: maybe a spell to allow normal units to travel through space quickly, or a spell to summon a black hole next to an enemy planet
(which would work like Call the Void) to throw a spanner into their gears.

I dunno how amicably the high fantasy and sci-fi worlds could be merged, but when you consider similar attempts have been made in the past (take the D&D module of Spelljammer; a sort of fantasy space-faring system that uses the d20 D&D rules) it could be pulled off if we keep space as interesting as what's going on planetside. For instance, the Myrror version of space could be a lot different from the outer space we're used to...

Nothing too radical would need to be changed about the core gameplay, and with this you'll be able to load old save files from the previous game and let those powerful wizards have a whole galaxy to conquer. Alexander wouldn't have needed to weep about having no new worlds to conquer if he had figured interplanetary travel out in time.