Friday, December 30, 2011

Article: Games Aren't a Storytelling Medium (Yet)

When I think of videogames, I think of Mario.  Most Mario games are basically the same:  you control the character's movements, defeat enemies, and gain some fun super powers that add variety, like throwing fireballs or flying.  This formula has been there since Super Mario Bros., and has continued through Super Mario Galaxy 2.

There have been many spin-offs, but at heart, Mario is a guy who bops on Goomba heads and whacks around a dragon-turtle beast.

Did I mention you rescue a princess?  Oops, I forgot.  Also, did I mention Mario is a plumber?  I guess it slipped my mind considering it has no bearing on the gameplay whatsoever.

The Princess is no more than a plot device, and serves as your ultimate reward each game, but when you play Super Mario Bros., is it even necessary?  In fact, is she necessary in any Mario game?

Bowser sure is an important character, being the boss and all, but defeating Bowser is a reward in itself.  When you beat another player at Chess, you don't need to receive a lollipop for a job well done; winning is its own reward.

Indeed, playing is its own reward, and there is no need for a story to hook you in.  In fact, consider this part of the story in the manual for Super Mario Bros.:

"The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks, and even field horse-hair plants, and the Mushroom Kingdom fell into ruin."

No, seriously.
I guess that means when Mario breaks a brick block, he's killing innocent Mushroom People.  Did you know that?  Is it relevant to how you look at the game?  I suppose if you care that much about it, you could try playing Super Mario Bros. without breaking a single block.

But nobody cares because story was not important in that game, and for that matter it's not terribly important in most Mario platformers.

Now don't get me wrong, I love Mario.  He's my favorite videogame character, the universe he inhabits is beautiful, and if there is one mascot that will forever define videogames -- not just Nintendo -- it's going to be Mario.

But Mario is proof positive that you don't need a story to make a great game.  Indeed, most early games had no story, except for text adventures.  No story necessary in Space Invaders, Pacman, Frogger.  Not much of a story to Pong, either.

These days, games have big stories, and often great stories can make or break a game.  With the depth stories in games get into nowadays, players are often participating in interactive novels.

This is, of course, quite a good thing.  Imagine if movies never got off the "let's watch a train drive by" stage.  Eventually you'd be watching "Trains Driving By in 3D!"

The leap from movies making simple "moving images" to creating a new form of stage play turned the medium from a tech demo into an art form.

But first, movies copied stage plays a little too much; they did not understand that, being a different medium, there was a whole avenue of art called cinematography which could be exploited and used to create something beyond a recording of a stage play.

Eventually it was figured out, of course, and now we have a repertoire of tricks with the camera that change the medium drastically; cinematography is both an art and a science.

When videogames first came out, they used interactivity as the thing to show off.  You played board games on your television!  It was only after some time that developers began taking storytelling seriously in videogames, getting beyond the novelty of the technology to finally make art with it.

Unfortunately, just like movies in its early stages, videogames based their storytelling off another medium.  And just like movies in its early stages, games didn't use their new technology to its potential to create art in the medium.

By this I mean that videogames either concentrated their efforts on gameplay over story, like in Super Mario Bros., or took story over gameplay, like text adventures.

The standard story-over-gameplay model today.
These days, while equal time is usually spent on both story and gameplay, they are not married, but rather are split up into different jail cells.

Gameplay is the thing the player does, which is fun and engaging in its own right; story is the thing the player watches or reads, separate from the gameplay entirely.

A cutscene, a dialogue box; these are static, non-interactive tools game developers use to tell their story, and it is understandable that, when games were first developing storylines, such devices were necessary because human civilization has pretty much kept storytelling locked in as a non-interactive, linear art form.

But now, games should have sufficiently improved their technology that stories can be interactive, through the same gameplay the rest of the game uses.  Play God of War and see that the story is clearly separated from the gameplay.  The gameplay is fighting and exploration, and the story is a study of the character's past and how he arrived in the mess he is in.

The game begins to merge the two at the final boss battle, when Kratos faces a bunch of zombie versions of himself; in essence he is confronting his inner demons, which is what God of War was always ultimately about.  The player finally gets to interact with the story through the same gameplay he's always used throughout the game, and the story (which was restricted previously to cutscenes) merges with the gameplay.

Ok, ok, it's not a perfect example, but we have so few to work with.
It's very rare that games merge the two parts of the game together.  Often, the more complicated and epic the story, the farther from the gameplay it goes.  Take almost any RPG and you'll see the divide pretty clearly.

Even games which try to give the player meaningful choices to sway the story, while interactive, don't require the same style of gameplay as the majority of the game.  Most dialogue options are like this; when a game is primarily combat-based, dialogue options are a poor attempt to give the player something to control.

Some games do much better in giving the player control over outcomes.  When characters live or die permanently as a result of the player's actions, and the option always exists to keep them alive or let them die based on the player's skill or choices during the main gameplay portions, that is as close as we've come to games truly mixing gameplay and story.

Even linear stories in games can still be just as interactive, even if the player has no control over where the story goes -- the player may not have control over the outcome, but they do get to lead the character(s) through the story.

By this, I do not mean leading a character through a room of baddies to watch the cutscene on the other side.  I mean that the game requires the player to act out the story through gameplay.

Perhaps we need to shift away from the genres we have today, as most of them do not work well to allow interactive story; or perhaps we need geniuses that can figure out ways to make the current mechanics tell the stories.

If you don't know why she didn't just get a Phoenix Down, we're on the same page.

I think there are still plenty of videogames today that maintain the classic definition of videogame; Angry Birds would fit pretty well at home in an arcade cabinet next to Pacman and Q-Bert.
But there are also many games which are technological marvels, but are half-game, half-movie.  Some want to call these "interactive movies" or "interactive stories", but they are neither, since the interactivity (the gameplay) is far removed from the story itself.  I would call these game/story hybrids, or mixed media.

We are getting closer to interactive stories as game developers try to take big risks with games like Heavy Rain, but the day has yet to come when I can use such a term on a videogame.

Perhaps the current closest interactive story to be found is LARPing, which allows players to improvise and create stories as they go, or at least change the main thread sufficiently to personalize it to their taste; but of course the LA in LARP means there is nothing digital about it.

I have no problem with stories being separate from gameplay (and most of my favorite games have separated stories, or almost no story at all), but when games actually use their primary mode of gameplay to tell their stories, that will be the day when games have truly begun to explore their medium as a storytelling art form.

Until then, we're still just mixing media.

Like this.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Article: Crafting a Massively Single-Player Online Experience

I don't like playing videogames with strangers.  Nothing ruins fun like a stranger getting in your face and calling you a n00b.  It's bad enough to see it on a screen, and all the worse when it's assaulting my ears.

Other times, like in MMORPGs, players are well-meaning and friendly, but are unintentionally harming the experience, either by role-playing just the wrong amount (too little breaks the mood, too much is hokey), or by harassing me with guild invites, party invites, requests to trade, etc.

So when I play MMOs, I either wish to personally know the player I am in a party with so we know we mesh well beforehand, or I just prefer to play alone.

When it comes to playing alone, it seems MMOs don't spend the time to craft great solo experiences.  True, playing solo in some ways defeats the purpose of MMOs, but I like think that if the option is available, time and care should be spent on it.

So this article is going to be a thought experiment in what an MMO with an ideal (or at least decent) solo experience might look like.  It won't change the game very much; it'll just take a couple of tweaks to go a long way.

This article does not fix every problem with MMOs.
For instance, let us suppose an MMO offers a standard layout of populated cities along with instanced dungeons/levels.  These dungeons would be instanced on an individual basis, so that one player does not see another while in a dungeon, but players see each other in cities, where trade and dialogue can occur.

This already happens in some MMOs, but in others this feature is surprisingly missing.

Of course, party play should certainly be allowed, but this should be an option that is opt-in.  This prevents players who want to play in parties from harassing those who don't, decreasing aggravation and wasted time on both sides.

All that the restriction feature would entail is:  players who want to play in a party cannot invite soloers to join their party.  Nothing would interrupt the soloer (in fact the soloer would have no idea the invitation was sent), and if the option were an icon, the partier would be unable to click the invite button.  If invitations were a hotkey, a message would pop up saying "This player is not accepting invites."

A simple checkbox in a menu to enable party play is all that is necessary, or perhaps a hotkey/combo that is not likely to be accidentally struck, like Shift + Scroll Lock or something.

I hesitate to say that soloers and partiers should have separate servers, because for some reason many MMOs do not allow players to switch a character's server, or do allow switching but charge a fee for it.  To me switching servers should be a free and automatic exchange, but if there is a technical restriction, I would not want a player who begins as a soloer and wants to join a guild later to be screwed.

So the option should always exist, but players enter the world as individuals and can enable guilds and parties at their will.

Beyond that, quests/missions and dungeons/levels should be designed with both solo and party play in mind.  If the designers want to create a level that requires a party, that level should be non-existent to a soloer.

A soloer should never feel left out of content because of their play choice, so party-only content should never come up.  It should seem to the solo player as though such content was never created, or solo-only content replaces the multiplayer content.

The same should occur in the reverse, so that partiers do not accidentally begin a solo quest or feel as though they are missing out on content because of their own play style choice.

This can be accomplished by that same simple checkbox/hotkey that enables party play.  Once the player enables party play, all solo quests disappear and are replaced by party quests.

Another solution, however, is to simply create levels that are designed for both, which has the added bonus of avoiding doubling the cost of development.

If a level is designed to require two players to stand on separate switches to open a door, for instance, the solo version could be identical but for an additional crate that the player can move onto one of the switches.

This is not always a feasible design, however, especially with party-designed levels that need to feel as though every member of the team is valuable, and can't just be replaced by a crate.

A possible, but terrible, solution to this is to have soloers be accompanied by an AI character that can fill the role of another party member.  This is an awful idea for two reasons:  1.) AI is not where we need it to be for a solid experience; and 2.) A soloer is not going to want an AI helper.

Any party member, whether an actual player or a bot, entirely defeats the purpose of solo play.  A soloer wants to feel as though they are a hero without a sidekick; someone who needs only himself.  Batman is so much cooler when Robin isn't tagging along.

So the best design strategy for players' enjoyment is to create levels specifically for solo or party play, and hide them when the player has disabled them; but for development costs, the best design strategy is to create levels that can do double duty.

Beyond level design, other aspects of an MMO go a long way to help a soloer get the flow:

Certainly, character customization becomes a high, high priority.  Soloers want to feel like individuals, not clones, so if a player sees a clone of his character in the game, it breaks the experience.

Okay, so there's precisely one instance where cloning is expected.
Along with that, if the game offers ways to further customize characters in-game, such as changing clothing, armor, weapons, and the like, then there should be a sufficient variety of models of the same kinds of equipment.

For instance, suppose completing a particular quest rewards a player with an armor item that adds +2 defense.  If that piece of armor were a single, invariable item with a specific name (Leather Jerkin of Defense), every soloer who completes the quest will receive the same item.  Then a soloer will spot another player in a town with that item, and the illusion of being the only one to go on that quest (and therefore a unique hero in the world) is lost.

To fix this, either offer visual swaps of the item (the player can choose between a black, brown, or red Leather Jerkin of Defense), or offer equal stat-ed items (the player can choose between a +2 Jerkin, +2 Pants, or +2 Boots).  Offering such visual variety prevents a city of clones, and helps with immersion.

For the best player experience, offer multiple types of equipment with the same stats; but for development costs, offer palette-swapped equipment.

These are only a couple of tweaks that would help solo playing and soloer immersion in an MMO.  Some of these are simple tweaks, although the best solutions require more development time.

Without features such as these, I often feel that soloers are given the backhand by MMO developers, as though they are not the ideal player, and therefore do not warrant such time and effort in developing for.

However, often players who are new to a game want to spend some time exploring on their own, or need a closed-off tutorial for a short time before entering the larger world, and there is no shortage of solo tutorial stages in MMOs.  While the hand-holding aspect of those tutorials can be eliminated, the same attention should be paid to crafting the single-player experience throughout the MMO.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Development Log: The Sacrifice - Part III: 1st Half of Level 2

After making an alpha or proof-of-concept of level 1, I decided to dive right into level 2.

To separate the look of each level, I've decided to make each have a certain color scheme and theme.  So while the first level was mostly wood with hints of marble, this level would be mostly marble, with hints of red.
The red being blood and fire.
Level 2 naturally flowed from the idea of ending level 1 in a secret chamber, where imps came out, so I decided to make level 2 a fortress made and run by imps.  The majority of the enemies here are imps, although demons, spectres, and both kinds of humans make appearances.

I am also thinking of making Barons of Hell be the boss of this level, to create a hierarchy of demons that reign in Hell.  Imps are the peasants of Hell, and Barons are, well, the barons.

Since we have a full fortress here, rather than just a church, the level is a lot bigger, and being only about 60% done, it's already much larger than level 1.

Everything so far except the really long stairs, which you can see beginning at the bottom.  If I showed that, there would be no detail in this pic at all.
But then I had to consider, what is it a fortress of?  What could it be protecting, or damming?  I decided upon the storyline that the fortress acts as a gateway between Hell and Earth.

The devil-worshipping cultists, then, while having stumbled upon something great, are still small fries.  Their only connection to Hell is the fortress, and they think Imps are a big deal.

But enough of this backstory; it doesn't come out much so far in the grand scheme of things, especially when you're playing moment-to-moment.

So the player begins by going down a very long stairwell that ends in the main circular hallway of the fortress.  There are bodies at the top of the stairs where previous cultists have gone, only to be killed immediately upon entering the unholy place.

Most of the doors require keys, but one room does not.  It is a dining room.  Or perhaps it is dinner theatre, since two men are standing on a table fighting each other when you enter. 

I pretty much ripped this right out of King's Quest: Mask of Eternity.  I have no shame.
Of course, the place goes nuts when you walk in, and everyone tries to kill you.  My hope is that, if timed right, one of the two men on the table will shoot the other one in the attempt to shoot you, and it will appear as though they were fighting each other all along.  I've been trying to use the AI to the best of my ability to create these set pieces.

Also in the dining room is a body roasting in a pit, on what is the closest DOOM offers to a spit.  This is also right by a pile of bodies, showing that imps use the sacrifices given from above as meals.  There is also a shaft nearby that the player can't see quite yet, and I would like to incorporate the shaft back into the first level, or perhaps the third, so the player can see where the bodies are dumped.

"Sorry, sir, lobster is not on the menu today."
There are also planted trees which are mostly rotten scattered in the walls.

Just past the dining hall is a torture room with a viewing area.  Although there are imps watching the torture show when you walk in the dining hall, the player probably won't see them because they hear the commotion and come running.  I've tried to block the sound so the imps don't notice until you come up to them, but the effect is more cheesy than anything, so I left it with only the implication of a viewing spot.

Although I suppose you need those little binoculars to see from the balcony.
In the torture room there are both demons and humans, all kept in separate cages, except for the center cage where demons and humans have deathmatches.  This also gives off the suggestion that Demons are wild creatures in Hell, not nearly as smart as the humanoid Imps are.

There is a secret chamber in the torture room where confiscated weapons are kept, so the player can stock up.  The torture room is meant more as a bonus area than as a necessary area to go.

There are a few more extra areas that provide some depth to the story.  One is the shaft I mentioned before, where bodies pile up, and the player can reach a previously seen but unreachable armor.

You were supposed to be one of these.
There is also a room that has a couple of imps in it, and a second, smaller room next to it with a chainsaw.  If you look carefully you see papers on a desk.

This is actually the head landscaper's office, and he has both his own planted tree and a few bottles of water (Health pickups) to it.  As well, the walls in the hallway outside his office are crawling with ivy.  I hope that this is obvious, and if not, it at least appears to be an office of some kind.

Even Hell has paperwork.  That's why it's Hell.
Past that hallway is another torture room, but apart from the rowdiness of the main torture room or the dinner theatre is a room for more private affairs, where one or two imps can get up close and personal with their victim.

This room is being renovated, however, with a new tree being planted in the wall.  There is a tree in a pot, and a step ladder to climb up, as well as a couple of imps working to get it in the wall.

Past the tree the player will discover a network of tunnels where Demons and Spectres roam free.  The player can walk behind the walls to see the dining room from a new angle, as well as find a body of a man who was hiding there.

I am considering making the cave system much larger and maze-like, perhaps with bonus detours that can lead the player to some nice loot or cute vignettes.  Perhaps the landscapers have their own little hangout here.

A very very dark cave.  Going for as much of a natural lighting feel as possible.
Eventually beyond the cave system the player will come to a place where a second tree is being planted in another huge hall.  The player can pick up a blue key here, and find his way back to the main circular hallway.

There is also a hall that connects the rectangular hall and the private torture room, with a hidden backpack.  This is the "proper" way to go, but if the player went this way, they would see the blue key and be unable to reach it.

"How do I get up there?"
After coming back to the main hall, the player can use the blue key to open another door, leading to self-immolation chambers which mimic the cultists' similar chambers in the previous level.  This is meant to provide some continuity and show that the cultists get their ideas of Hell straight from this fortress.

This is where I am, at the moment.  I have a whole other section to complete.  I've been trying to come up with some new features that seem fresh and interesting, instead of mirroring the other side of the level.  I am considering keeping with the self-immolation theme and saying that this wing of the fortress is meant for imps to torture themselves.

After that wing, the player will come back out in the rectangular hall again, and back into the circular room.  The player will then be able to open up the center circle and find a throne room which will have a Baron or two, and a red key, which the player will use to get out of the fortress, going back up the stairs the way he came.

Overall, so far, level 2 seems to be working out much better than level 1.  Not just for the detailing and the size, but for the challenge as well, due to the fact that the set pieces don't get in the way of a fair fight.  It's extremely tough, but possible if you have a good strategy, and you don't feel trapped at any point.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Deconstruction: MYST - Part VII: The Mechanical Age

Once in the Mechanical Age, the player finds a fortress that vaguely resembles a gear.

They don't call it the Mechanical Age for nothing.
The fortress is quite small, revealing only two bedrooms, a basement, and a control room at the top (in fact it always made me wonder why Sirrus and Achenar got their own rooms in most ages when Atrus didn't get his own).  However, both bedrooms have hidden chambers, which reveal more disturbing facts about what happened in this age, including an electrified jail cell in Achenar's room and a note to Sirrus about taxes.

At this point, the player should feel a sense of wariness in regards to Sirrus, but complete horror at Achenar.  However, Achenar seems to have a moral problem with taxes, but not with torture?  That seems odd, and so the player may think that Achenar only has a fixation with torture devices as a hobby rather than actually using them.

In Sirrus' room, there is a telescope, which shows a skeleton hanging on a mast.  This only occurs when the fortress has been rotated the correct way, so not many players may notice it.  But if they do, it may appear as further proof that Sirrus is the immoral brother, and Achenar just seems wacky in the blue book from imprisonment.

But if the player is wrong, they'd be trusting the wrong brother.

Looks legit.
So the player should really start to question everything, whether either brother is trustworthy, or neither at all.  But the player, judging by the number of ages left to go, assumes that not true harm can come just yet from giving another page to one, the other, or both, so the player may pick up a hidden blue or red page in this age to bring back to hear more of one brother's side of the story.

One of the problems found in this game is that the player can only pick up one page at a time, and this has a wholly negative effect of slowing the game down, making the second visit to an age tedious, and breaks flow in general.  In addition, when a second page is picked up, the first disappears and reappears where it first was found, which is completely nonsensical.

This ends up being a frustrating feature of MYST, which was fortunately corrected in RIVEN, where the player can hold an inventory.

Beyond that, there is also a fortress manipulation device at the top of the fortress, and a replica in Sirrus' room which teaches the player the audio cues to understand which direction the fortress is facing.

Would have been nice to have on the actual controls.
A second problem arises if the player goes to the Selenitic Age before going to the Mechanical Age, because the audio cues for the fortress rotation and for the tram ride are identical.  If the player goes to the Selenitic Age second, they might remember or have written down the cues and can navigate the tram maze easily.  If they enter the Selenitic Age first, they have to learn the cues on the fly, which can lead to much frustration.

This problem is not easily solved, however.  Perhaps Cyan could have forced the player to enter the Mechanical Age before the Selenitic Age, but that would have destroyed the notion of non-linearity and the option for the player to roam freely and explore.

Hold their hand or let them starve in a maze.  The decisions game designers have to make.
Excusing this (since we are still in the Mechanical Age and haven't yet truly come across this problem), the player finds some interesting objects through the age to play with, but the first real puzzle comes in when trying to figure out how to get to the control room.

Rotating the elevator with the basement control panel is not particularly difficult; however, understanding to get out of the elevator after pressing the button takes some thought.  Most people don't expect to leave an elevator after pressing a button (unless they're a prankster, I suppose), but this elevator gives an extra moment for the player to leave before the doors close, giving a clue as to what to do.

Once the player figures this out, rotating the tower with the audio cues and collecting the four symbols necessary to find the linking book is a breeze.

Once back on MYST island, the player gets a little bit more information from one of the brothers, then must go back to the Mechanical Age to get the second page.  Or, if the player has already decided which brother to trust, they may move on immediately.

At this point, if this is the only age the player has visited, the question basically becomes: which is worse, death or taxes?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Development Log: The Sacrifice - Part II: Level 1 First Draft

Level 1 is a short level that introduces the player to the hub, and gives the player something realistic and earthly before dragging them down into the chaos of Hell.

Since Sacrifice begins in the normal world, and since the hub needs to make sense as a place you would visit over and over, I decided to make the first level be the church that the cultists worship in.  So once out of the sacrificial pit, the player finds the nave of the church with wooden pews and marble altar (and a crucified body on the wall).

Church always seems to fill up from the back.
There is a mass in session, so there is a priest (one of many) giving a sermon at the altar, with the cultists in the pews.  I decided to separate cultists from priests by having normal cultists be pistol-wielding, while priests are shotgun-wielders.

The nave has a front door that requires a yellow key.

Keeping up with the theme of sacrifice, the next corridor beyond the nave has a series of self-mutilation rooms, where individuals cut themselves and pour their blood in basins as an offering to Satan.  In a way, these replace Catholic confessionals, since the cultists would have no need to confess their sins except to gloat, rather than to be forgiven.  The player finds a blue key in one of these chambers to gain access to the next area.

Like shooting fish in a... self-mutilation... barrel...
Next, the player goes up a long staircase to a tower room where the main priest has his office.  On the easiest and medium difficulties, this area remains sane, in that it seems that humans are running the show.  However, on the hard setting, imps make their first appearance here, showing that the resurrection of demons is already a lot closer than you think.

Beyond the tower room, the player winds back down and goes even further until he reaches the catacombs.

The staircases are hidden on the map because I want the player to have the sense of impossible architecture, as though the staircases overlap.  DOOM does not allow this to actually happen, but I thought the spiraling stairs, from the inside, would give off the impression.

The catacombs are in the shape of a ribcage, which the player can see on the map, with the coffins representing the empty spaces between the ribs.  The player enters and exits from the throat.  One coffin has its lid removed, revealing not only a body but the yellow key, which the player needs to open the front door in the nave.  This coffin is where the heart would be in the ribcage.

Ribcage catacombs with the player standing where the heart/key is.  Also you can see most of the level from here, except for the spiral staircases that are hidden from the player.
On medium, the catacombs are the first instance of imps, showing that, while they exist, they do not yet appear to control the cult.

The player must come back up the spiral stairs, through the head priest's office, back down the other stairs, through the corridor with the mutilation chambers, and back to nave, all of which are now crawling with new baddies.

Once the player makes it to the front door, however, I had an interesting time trying to come up with an excuse for why the player can't just leave and be done (besides that it would be a very short game).

So here comes the first instance when things aren't quite right.  The player can see the way out (so it appears), but is blocked by a switch.  I considered making the switch blockade simply a brick wall a la The Matrix when Neo gets déjà vu, and I might go back to that in the end, but I thought it might be a better tease to show that there is the gate right outside but impossible to reach.  Throughout the episode, I will be making a lot of little moments that make the player feel ill-at-ease with the logic of the world, especially considering there is so much order elsewhere.

With the original DOOM levels, the design had no logic to it, so there was no real feeling of unease at things being not-quite-right because everything was not-at-all-right.  So for this mod, I'm trying to at least start off with a solid grounding in reality (this church looks quite a bit like a church), and spice things up with surprises and odd ways to navigate the level, until it eventually becomes flat-out surreal by the end.

So the switch reveals a hidden door behind the altar which leads to the proper exit.  This brings us to the second level, which I am currently working on (I'm about half done).  Since the player is exiting through a hidden door, rather than a more logical exit, the player should wonder what the heck they're getting into.

On the easiest setting, this is where the first imp appears, as a tease of what to expect from the next level.

For each difficulty, I tried to make it seem natural for the enemies to be in the areas they are in, while still being lenient enough to have solid gameplay and great fights.  This has a secondary effect of slightly changing the storyline, which I always want to be careful about.

One of the problems I know I am currently having with this level is that the corridors are too tight and there are few opportunities for cover.  The stairwells aren't bad, because the enemy has the same disadvantage as the player, but the pit, the nave, and the catacombs all suffer from the same problem: you walk into a room and get blasted on all sides.  I'm thinking I'll need some major restructuring to get the set pieces to work for gameplay.  I think they work well visually, and the player can figure out what each room is supposed to be, but it doesn't make for fair fights.

The gameplay video you see is on the easiest difficulty setting, partly because I just want to show the level without too much trouble, and partly because the difficulty gets a little out of control on higher settings.  Sometimes I can't even beat it on "Hey, Not Too Rough", so I'm sure I need to revisit the level architecture to get something with a decent challenge without the player being handicapped by the level design.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Development Log: The Sacrifice - Part I: Overview

Sacrifice is a nine-level DOOM mod with a story and level design that works from the broad-strokes overarch to the fine granularity of individual rooms within levels.

The main thrust of the level design is to take the linear level sequence of DOOM and turn it into a hub-and-spoke design.  So levels 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 will have the player retracing their steps through a central room to get to the next spoke, while levels 2, 4, 6, and 8 require the player to go deep into a level and wind up back at the beginning to exit.

Each level and room should tell its own tale with detailing and enemy placement, as though little vignettes are taking place that the player stumbles upon.  Rather than placing enemies for the sake of obstructing the player, each enemy should have a reason for being in the location that they are in.  This also requires rooms that can serve for three purposes, since different amounts of baddies happen with each difficulty level.

Using the basic theme of Hell inherent in the enemy design and textures of DOOM, Sacrifice takes you down to the depths of Hell and back.  In Sacrifice, you play an infiltrator, gathering intelligence on a cult of Devil-Worshippers by pretending to be one.  You are a low-ranking recruit in their circle, but you hoped to rise in the chain and gain greater access to their secret information.

Before you can, however, you are selected to take part in their sacrificial ritual -- and you are the sacrifice.  You are meant to go down into a pit (so as to be closer to Hell) and shoot yourself in the head, killing yourself, since to the cult, self-sacrifice of life is the ultimate sacrifice, and Satan is pleased by such sacrifices.

This back-story gives the player a reason to start with a gun, which is something I struggled with concocting for the scenario.  It's a little convoluted, I think, and I may change it later.  (After all, it's easy to change back-story when DOOM's back-story itself takes place in the manual.)

I may have the player be a Devil-Worshipper who simply doesn't want to end his life, or changes his mind on the whole thing, or wants to raise the Devil in a different way, or whathaveyou.  Whatever I end up with for player motivations, the scenario all starts off the same: you are in the pit, and you are supposed to shoot yourself, and you decide to climb out and sacrifice some other Devil-Worshippers instead.

So you begin in the sacrificial chamber, at the bottom of the pit (I think of something like that scene from Temple of Doom without the lava).  The sacrificial pit room is the central hub which the player will come back to again and again.

There are five doors leading out of the chamber, though only one opens.  The player will discover, as the game progresses, that red flames around the doors indicate that they cannot be opened yet, green indicate the player may enter, and blue indicate the door has been previously opened.  This shows the player what they have so far accomplished and how much they have left to go in a rough way.

The hub-and-spoke idea, given that DOOM is obviously linear, means that the levels have bits and pieces copy-pasted to provide continuity and appear as hub-and-spoke.

So the Player, at the beginning of level 3, will begin where they left off in level 1, after making a circuit through level 2.  My hope is that this makes the levels appear more seamless than the original DOOM, which, through its map screen between levels, showed individual buildings clearly marked, making the levels themselves as episodic as the game.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Development Log: January Engine - Week 5

I figured out the weird keyboard error in regards to flash games and WASD controls not working.  Turns out it's Comcast's Constant Guard that messes up keyboards, changes screen resolution, crashes Google Chrome, and a host of other problems.  Now that that's uninstalled, I quickly added WASD controls back.  (You can still use the arrow keys if you prefer, as well.) 

I had thought initially that the problem was a Flash or Chrome thing, but it was magically something that you would think would be completely unrelated.  If you have Constant Guard, uninstall it immediately.  The Norton product that comes with it will still be installed and working on your computer.

Beyond that, I spent the majority of the week working on the inventory system.  I knew I wanted the player to be able to look at their cards, open new booster packs they find, hold onto cards not in their deck, and swap out cards in their deck.  The player can't swap out cards, but the rest is functional.

As I created the inventory, however, I also came up with an idea to allow the player to change the rules.  The player will find rule sets that change some conditions, such as max health, max/min cards in deck, and may also limit what cards the player may use in their deck (I'll have to revamp the card system to allow another variable or twelve that limits which cards are allowed with which rules).

At present, there is only one rule set, so it's mostly just for display at the moment.

There is also functionality for unique quest items, although I have none to test yet.

One bug is that when you pick up a new booster, the inventory menu hasn't refreshed to show that you picked one up, so you need to check your deck to clear the top level inventory menu, then click OK, then the "New Booster" option will appear.  Currently, if I fix that bug, then a new bug pops up:  if you leave the inventory while checking your deck and then enter back in, you will see the cards you were looking at, plus the top level inventory menu overlapping.  I figure the refresh bug is a nicer bug to deal with.

Also, I am sure that you can get the booster from the first NPC an infinite number of times.  That'll be fixed next week.

I find that I spend a lot of time rearranging the code as I discover it's necessary to do so to implement a feature.  Oftentimes, before I can even implement the feature, I reorder the code, then spend an hour fixing bugs that have appeared as a result of that.  This is definitely due to the fact that I'm coding on the fly rather than preplanning or engineering it beforehand.  It's a lesson for the taking.

But I'm enjoying it; I'm learning how to hack things to fit my desires, even though I'm certainly not programming as the language was designed.  I think it's because I never got a strong education in object oriented programming; most of my programming skills come from learning Pascal in high school, and I can't say I was "taught" any OOP in college, so only traces of the structure and vocabulary stuck.  I understand the theory behind inheritance, for instance, but the implementation kills me, so I avoid the headaches that come with it.

I've heard of structures called Singletons, though I never learned them (they aren't in AS3 anyway), so instead of creating one for the inventory, I just made static variables, while the overworld and battle systems act as singletons in function, if not in name.

I also want to design the engine so that the user who wants to make worlds/levels can edit one file without touching the rest of the code, so the maps, npcs, enemies, card types, and more are all in one fairly clean file of variables that can be edited without too much trouble.  I bet this is terrible practice, so I may split them up soon, but hopefully it will remain as user-friendly as I can possibly make it.


Or read on to the next log, where things get mighty different after a hiatus...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Flash game recommendations

I've been sick the past couple of days and need to recuperate so in lieu of a normal post with a dev log or something I figured I'd give a few links to some of my favorite flash games:

Awesome Dungeon Crawler:  Monster's Den:  Book of Dread
Awesome Music Game:  Punk-O-Matic 2
Awesome Platformer:  CatGrim
Awesome Racing Game:  Cyclomaniacs
Awesome Tower Defense:  Cursed Treasure: Don't Touch My Gems!
Awesome Zelda Clone:  Hero's Arms
Awesome Zelda 2 Clone:  Chibi Knight

That is all.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Five months in...

Over December, I'll just be trying to keep up with the schedule I have.  Since we've been amidst the holidays since Halloween, generating content for this blog and working on projects -- as well as searching for a job -- is all plenty enough to handle, so I won't be trying to make myself any busier.
This thing will keep me busy enough.
But I've still got two major experiments in the works, and one or the other will eventually get finished and posted for a kind of test pilot.  If either of them are successful, I think the blog will change a lot.  I don't think either will get completed this month, just because of the holidays, but I'll be trying to get something new off the ground next month.

Until then, "more of the same", as it were.  But, like my unexpected vacation in Azeroth proved, you can never plan things too well.