Results tagged “game design”

When the Obduction kickstarter fired up in 2013, it seemed like a good moment for adventure games in general. With Unity3D well-established and the Unreal 4 engine coming up, small teams were in a good position to produce really stellar visual environments. Then Cyan got a million dollars out of nostalgic Myst fans. Good sign, right?

Sure enough, a couple of years later, I saw several Myst-inspired projects on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.

Of those, I have now played Haven Moon (my notes in this post) and Neptune Flux (didn't have much to say). We're still waiting on Zed and Xing. (To be sure, Xing's Kickstarter predated Obduction's -- plus one point for foresight, minus one point for taking longer. Give the point back for making progress on a KS payout way less than a million dollars.)

And I have played Obduction, and now I have played Quern: Undying Thoughts. Spoiler: those are the two good ones, so far. In fact, the great ones.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Quern. Also on Obduction and Neptune Flux.)

Just as it was impossible to talk about Obduction without comparing it to Myst, I cannot talk about Quern without comparing it to Obduction. They're both aiming at the same target: a first-person adventure in which the puzzles span every aspect of the environment. They are graphical IF in the sense that I used to talk about: you must engage with them immersively, placing yourself in the world, imagining those objects around you (and in your hands), considering what makes sense to do in that physical reality.

(Note that that "Characterizing IF" post is harsh on CYOA games. That was me writing in 2002. The field has advanced.)

Quern and Obduction are both top-notch adventure games. Both have really great, creatively constructed puzzles. They both take advantage of the 3D world engine, both visually and in their puzzle design. Both are lonely worlds; they avoid human interaction (and thus the high costs of character modeling and animation). And I finished both in roughly 15 hours of play time. So those are obvious similarities.

Favorite game mechanics of 2012

I am initiating this seasonal tradition here at the Gameshelf -- which may turn out to be a singleton tradition, that's always a danger, like New Year's resolutions, but we'll give it a shot, right?

Frequently I play a game and think "Hey, that was a well-designed game." It's not so often that I play a game and think "Wow, that one design element really stands out -- and I've never seen it before! Clever." So I wanted to pick out a few of my favorites from this year.

I'm not talking about featured gimmicks here. I'm talking about ideas that other games might reasonably think about adopting. Yes, Portal has a core game mechanic, it's very clever. If you use it, you're writing Portal 2. (Or Darksiders, but let's not get into that here.) There have been a spate of these core-puzzle-mechanic games -- Quantum Conundrum and Unfinished Swan were two fine examples I played in 2012. But I want to talk about the mechanics that quietly make your game better.

Behold, my choices for 2012. No doubt I'll think of another favorite tomorrow morning.

XCOM's mastery of player complicity

Much as Fallout: New Vegas felt like an entire season or two of a solid TV series (as Matt Weise and I discussed in Play of the Light), XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels like an epic movie or miniseries. New Vegas begins with a single motivating frame, but delivers many episodic stories while the protagonist pursues it; XCOM has only one story, but it’s a war story told across a handful of discrete acts, driven forward by a course of high and low points. That alone might have been enough to have me play through the whole thing, but I find XCOM uniquely compelling in how it makes me feel like I’m playing a sizable role in creating the story, despite its necessarily pre-scripted underpinnings.

Solitaire video games have been using well-established filmic story techniques for some time now, of course; screenwriter Todd Alcott described how Half-Life adheres satisfyingly to a modern three-act story structure. But where games like Half-Life or Bioshock speak to you through a linear series of obstacle courses, XCOM gives you a wider structure of non-predetermined procedural events, with scripted plot points acting more as targets to aim for than paths to maneuver through. I haven’t quite seen this since Star Control 2, and I believe that XCOM’s design proves even more effective in providing a real sense of agency — and therefore complicity — to its player.

This happened to me yesterday:

Want to make games? Don't worry about the code.

At the top of this year, the Code Hero project launched its Kickstarter drive, quickly attracting positive attention ranging from highly visible blog write-ups to TV news interviews. Code Hero promised to teach anyone how to make video games by way of a videogame, an undeniably attractive proposition to many.

The team’s own enthusiasm for the concept effectively counteracted the fact that the extremely ambitious project was in the earliest stages of development, and they blew past their initial $100,000 funding goal. Their page remains frozen at the moment the drive ended, so you can still see their admirably bold appeals to US senators to plug their states’ educational budgets into the project, and their giddy promise that the game would transform from a single-user experience into an MMO if they could raise just a few more thousand dollars.

As winter settles in, however, the comments page for Code Hero paints a dire portrait of the project’s status: a cascade of unhappy, empty-handed backers asking for refunds, which has more recently evolved into community investigation of where their money might have gone. Clicking around the project’s Kickstarter page and the official website, one gets the picture that the project’s team went completely quiet after missing its self-imposed early-September deadline. (Though you can continue to order $13 copies of the game on its apparently still-functional order form, if you wish.)

Perhaps the team has chosen to take a hard-line approach to completing their development with no further promises or teasers, even to the point of allowing a dissatisfied-customer backlash to flourish unchecked on their Kickstarter page. I would be delighted to see the team resurface a year from now with a polished 1.0 release. But today, I do not foresee this happening.

I surprised myself by feeling a little bit angry about this development as I revisited it recently. Not simply because the project may likely fail — I have been in the software business for long enough to let Failure just keep one of my guest parking passes in its car. It happens, and we move on. But from my perspective, this particular failure helps me better see what sounded a little off-key to me about this project when I first heard during its higher-energy days. The problem, to my ear, lies right in the title: I very much doubt that an effort to teach game design or development that leads with code, or with any other technical aspect of the art, can truly succeed.

No Show videos online

Speaking of the 2012 No Show Conference, all twelve of its talks and presentations are now online for public enjoyment and enrichment. Visit its presentation page with any Flash-capable browser, and click a talk’s Continue reading button to make its video player pop up.

I attended every talk that weekend in person, and found them all rewarding. Going by the metric of new things I learned, my favorite talks include Mitchell Smallman on how economic classes affect gameplay access and Andrea Shubert on practical card game design. But I recommend the whole lot of them; this was a really well curated lineup.

Thoughts on Dear Esther

Dear Esther came out in February, but I don't have a Windows box (worth mentioning) so I skipped all the commentary and waited for the Mac port. That just showed up; huzzah! (Unironic cheer there. Three months is sharp porting. I'd love to see Fez three months from now, but I doesn't expect it.)

Because I skipped all the commentary, I won't try to do a full-on review. I'm sure it's mostly been said. Instead, you get assorted thoughts about interactivity.

Interactive fairy tales

This is a wide-open question, and historically around here the wide-open questions fall flat and deflate with a faint sad whistling sound. But I'll try it anyway.

What are the archetypes of interactive folk tales and fairy tales? I mean, what are the natural shapes of the things?

We have fairy-tale notions -- and maybe they date back no farther than Grimm and Lang, I'm no researcher, but we have them anyhow -- that if there are three brothers, then the first one gets the title and the second one gets the wealth and the third one gets to be poor and honest and goes off to be a protagonist. Three sisters (or nine, or twelve) are rarely even that lucky. You give a coin to a beggar so that he will turn out to be a wizard or the king of this-or-that; misery follows innocence and leads to triumph; and you always fail after succeeding twice, or succeed after failing twice.

(That last point should probably be tied to the observation that second marriages always work out miserably. I don't know where that one leads.)

But all of this pre-supposes a certain... certainty. Inevitability. These stories come to us in books, and there is a way the story goes. (Even if the movie then re-stitches the whole thing into a hat or a pterodactyl.)

What does a story look like when interactive tools appear, and the constraint of print and performance is removed?

Setting as Character in Narrative Games (PAX East 2011)

Part of Saturday’s proceedings at the 2011 IF Summit that conveniently adjoined this year’s PAX East.

In adventures and other explorational games, the setting is often the most eloquent and memorable character: an island, a castle, a starship. How do these locales tell stories, and how does the player character fit into those stories?

This panel discussion features independent IF creators Andrew Plotkin, Stephen Granade, and Rob Wheeler, and Dean Tate of Harmonix (formerly of Irrational Games).

Click here to watch this on Vimeo.

Jeff Grubb on Spelljammer's origins

Dungeons and Dragons design veteran Jeff Grub recalls the origins of Spelljammer, an early-1990s D&D supplement that allowed players to launch their faux-medieval fantasy campaigns into outer space.

Here is the image I pitched. A knight standing on the deck of a ship in space. He doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t blow up. He doesn’t float away. Everything that follows comes out of that one image, which is captured (with more to it as well) on the final cover Jeff Easley did. All what people have called “Grubbian Physics” with its air envelopes and its gravity planes, comes from creating a universe where that image is true.

The idea using a single image as a design cornerstone for a game (or a role-playing game’s setting) resonates with me. A single, powerful seed-image also lay at the core of The Warbler’s Nest, and was instrumental in getting me to actually complete and ship the game. I really just wanted make it real and share it as an experience; the rest of the game was almost just a delivery system for that one moment. (Which helps to explain why the whole thing’s so short…)

The Secrets Game (idea)

A while ago, Emily Short posted an online chat that I was involved in:

zarf says, "(this reminds me that I should write a blog entry about that MMO prototype that I never did anything with)"

zarf says, "the secret plan that I never did anything with was to combine the window dressing with a power law of frequency, so that the room descriptions are random but one particular random room is your home base and you see it more often"

I was referring to a gameplay prototype that I came up with back in September. The idea was for a casual MMO-RPG -- something on the level of Kingdom of Loathing or Echo Bazaar. I didn't create an online demo, though. I just wrote an interactive Python script to try out the gameplay and the text environments.

You have dreamed of this for years -- who has not? But now it's in sight. You're not bogged down in the World any more; you've reached the gates of the City.

"Welcome to Mezzohaus -- the City of Secrets."

...Or that's what's carved over the archway as you approach. You frown; wasn't this place called "Middlehorst" in the old stories? Probably vandalism. Never mind.

Why here? Because you need the City. Why you? Because you belong here: you hold your own secrets. The blood of the Martians flows in you, and that will give you an edge. You know only scraps of Martian lore; but even the smallest secret is coin here.

You pass beneath the arch, and the stink of Mezzohusse's docks rolls over you. Pheugh -- but it's a place to start. You turn, at a thought, for one last look out at the World.

There is no archway behind you. You see only a battered iron door, tight-locked, in the side of a shambled building. Fluttering on the lintel is a note, which you pull free. It reads: "The first secret is to wait and watch."

The Sarcasm Game (idea)

I tossed this out on Twitter last week: "I am now imagining a text-conversation game in which you don't choose what to say -- but you have a sarcasm dial that you can turn up and down."

That thought was inspired by a card game that I found on the Web, but am now unable to re-locate. (Comment if you know it.) (EDIT-ADD: Relationship by Zach Weiner, thank you Baf.) It was a card game with a satire-romance theme. Each card had a numeric value, and some cliched romantic sentiment ("8: you complete me", etc). Then there was a "Sarcasm" card you could play, which negated the value of the card (8 to -8).

This amused me, naturally, but then the idea got mixed in with game conversation engines. We've seen games where your choices are limited to "friendly" and "hostile", or "positive" and "negative", or some such. But of course the game then spits out a complete response on your behalf. You don't have any control of what positive or negative thing you say.

Sarcasm is a nifty compromise. Imagine the conversation is running along in real time, but you can see your upcoming line displayed as a subtitle. You can slide your controller anywhere from "sincere" to "brutal sneering sarcasm". As your lines come out, the words are predetermined, but the tone shifts.

(Tweetfriends immediately commented "That's just like screenwriting!" and "That's just like business meetings!" Message received: it's just like life.)

The Race to Expand your Dominion

expanding colony028.jpgThe only thing worse than a flawed expansion to a good tabletop game is listening to some know-it-all groan about it. Complaints about expansions, after all, suggest their own unbeatable counterargument: So, don’t play with the expansions, then! It’s not like eschewing an expansion makes the basic vanilla game suddenly stop working, right? Perhaps we don’t enjoy Knightmare Chess, but we don’t therefore conclude that the original game is forever spoiled.

So, in an attempt to turn such grumbling into an essay worth reading, let me turn it around: I hereby declare that it is not just desirable but possible to design an expansion set for a good game in such a way that actually improves the game as a whole, rather than simply making it larger. So this fact makes it that much more disappointing when a solid game releases an expansion that adds stuff, but fails to add an equal-or-greater amount of fun. Fair enough?

As it happens, I can find one example of each between two often-compared games of recent vintage. Dominion (Donald X. Vaccarino) and Race for the Galaxy (Tom Lehmann) are both quick-playing card games that have earned tremendous cachet from tabletop gamers in the last two or three years. (The Gameshelf has itself ruminated about both games, via Kevin and Zarf, respectively.) Both proved successful enough to spawn several expansions apiece; Race got its third such set into print earlier this year, and Dominion — despite being a slightly younger game — will see its fourth in stores by the holidays.

Let’s look at Race for the Galaxy’s general expansion philosophy. What comes in each of its little boxes?

Jon Blow talks about the stars in Braid

Jon Blow, author of the hit indie videogame Braid, gave a talk about game design in January 2010. The talk is short, about 20 minutes, but the Q&A that followed was about an hour, and I found it to be even more interesting than the talk. In particular, he answered a question about the stars in Braid, which is a part of the game that he is usually silent about. So I thought it was worth excerpting the question and his answer (about 9 minutes total). But, if you have time to listen to the full talk and Q&A, it's got other interesting stuff too. (He initially blows off the question and takes another question, which I edited out; that question, by the way, was about Wulfram, a team-based first-person tank shooter game with some pretty cool strategic elements that he co-wrote in the mid-90s.)

Free game | Randomness in games | IF suggestions

Wadjet Eye Games is giving away its game The Shivah (normally $5) in honor of Yom Kippur:

his weekend is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur! It's a special time of year when Jewish folk reflect on the past year. So, on reflection, we're giving away The Shviah for free.

From now until Tuesday, simply use the coupon code "FreeShivah" when purchasing and you can nab the game absolutely free of charge.

Greg Costikyan posted his talk from Austin GDC about randomness in games. Definitely worth checking out.
Nick Montfort posted his updated list of interactive fiction suggestions, games he suggests for people who have some interest in IF but who haven't played much.

Game Design Concepts | Free Games

Ian Schreiber posted his last blog entry for the Game Design Concepts course today. My Russia trip followed by actually working derailed my plans to work along with the whole course, but I plan to go back and finish it some time soon. And you can too! He's leaving the course up, and there is a lot of valuable information in the 20 posts. In his last post, he says that he plans to do a class with a similar structure next summer, but this time on game balance.

I just won my second free game from Out of the Box. They have a contest in each monthly newsletter (you can have it emailed to you or you can grab it from their website), where you usually have to solve some kind of puzzle associated with a game. They have 25 winners each month, either the 25 best answers or randomly selected from all the correct answers. I won a copy of Letter Roll a few months ago, and I was just informed that I won a copy of Super Circle Stacking. I'm not sure how fun either game is yet, but, hey, free games!

Game Design Concepts: Level 2

I'm not necessarily planning on doing a post for every lesson (twice a week for ten weeks), but I thought I'd post today since I made two games.

Today's lesson talked about what game design is, the iterative process, and the benefits of paper prototyping. The readings were the second chapter in Ian and Brenda's book and an article by Doug Church.

At the end of Chapter 2 of the book are five challenges. The first challenge is basically the same as the challenge from Monday, so I decided not to repeat that. Challenge 2 is to make a territorial acquisition game, and Challenge 3 is to make an exploration game. I did both of those, and I'll present them next. Challenge 4 is to make a game with the mechanic of picking up things by passing over them, like you would in many video games. I have the germ of an idea, but I want to think about it a bit more, since this is a bit tougher than the previous challenges. Challenge 5 is an "Iron Designer Challenge", similar to Iron Chef, where two teams are supposed to work on the same design. I may or may not get to this, as it is fairly specific (make a game about a Civil War battle without using territorial acquisition or destruction of the enemy as the primary mechanic), and I think this kind of specificity would make the resulting game interesting only if there were others to compare it to. Of course, there are 1400 people taking this course, so I may end up doing it.

Now, on to the games I made today. I welcome any feedback on the games.

The first game is a territorial acquisition game. I couldn't come up with a good name, so I'm just calling it Outgrow.

(Pictured above: The endgame of Outgrow. The four players were blue/purple, green/yellow, red/orange, and white/clear.)

Game: Outgrow

Players: Two to four

Theme: Each player represents a fungal colony, trying to outgrow the other colonies in the limited space available.

Materials: chess board, two Icehouse stashes for each player (10 each of small, medium, and large pieces)

Setup: Each player places a medium piece from his stash in a corner of the chess board. Randomly determine the first player.

Gameplay: A player may make one action per turn. There are four allowable actions:

  1. Grow a small piece into a medium piece.
  2. Grow a medium piece into a large piece.
  3. Make a medium piece spawn. Place two small pieces orthogonally adjacent to the medium piece, then replace the medium piece with a small piece (if you run out of small pieces, use a medium on its side to represent a small).
  4. Shoot off a spore from a large piece. Place a small piece up to three spaces away from the large piece in a straight line, either orthogonally or diagonally, then replace the large piece with a medium piece.
The one constraint is that you may not occupy a space that is already occupied.

Game end and winning: The game ends when there are no more empty spaces on the chess board. The winner is the player occupying the most squares. If there is a tie, then the winner is the tied player who has the larger pip count (small = 1, medium = 2, large = 3). If there is still a tie, then the winner is the tied player who had the fewest number of turns.

Analysis:I played one test game with four sides, and the final scores ended at 17, 17, 16, and 14, with one of the 17s having a medium while the other one had all smalls. Interestingly, the tied players started out by spawning their medium, and the other players started out by growing the medium to a large.

The next game is an exploration game. I've been interested in games that use a tarot deck where each major arcana has a different special ability (and this is now the second time that I'm mentioning that I intend to post about that here at some point, and maybe this will actually inspire me to do so), so I decided to make this game with a tarot deck. I didn't manage to get a special ability for each major arcana, but I think I got a decent selection of abilities. I may come back to this game idea and flesh out more powers (feel free to suggest some!).

Game: Tarot Dungeon (I couldn't come up with a decent name for this game, either)

Players: Two to four

Theme: Each player is a representative of one of four major powers who are working together to explore a dungeon and loot its treasure. Of course, each player has received secret instructions to get out first and seal the rest of the players inside.

Materials: tarot deck (can use a regular deck plus counters in seven different colors)

Setup: Separate the tarot deck into the major arcana and the minor arcana. Shuffle them separately. Put the minor deck in the middle of the table and set the major deck off to the side. Each player should choose a different suit (cups, disks, wands, swords, or whatever your deck uses). Randomly determine the starting player.

Gameplay: There are two phases to the game, going into the dungeon and leaving the dungeon. In the first phase, the starting player flips over the top card of the minor deck. If it matches his suit, he sets it in front of him and draws the top card from the major deck (he's found a treasure!); otherwise, he puts the card in the discard pile. Play continues clockwise until the minor deck is exhausted. (In the unlikely event that the major deck is exhausted, then play continues as normal, but new treasures are not drawn.)

This is the end of the first phase. All of the treasure has been found, and so players must race to the exit.

The first player of the second phase is the player with the least number of treasures. If there is the tie, then the first player is the tied player who went closest to last in the first phase. Reshuffle the minor discards (but not the ones that the players have kept) to form a new minor draw deck. The first player flips over the top card of the minor deck. If it matches his suit, he keeps it (separate from the cards drawn in the first phase); otherwise, he discards it. Play continues clockwise.

Game end and winning: The game ends when one player has collected five cards in the second phase. That player is the first to escape the dungeon, and he triggers a collapse, sealing the other players in the dungeon.

Treasures: Each treasure has a special ability. On a player's turn after he has flipped over a card (or sometimes before; see the list of abilities), that player may discard a single treasure card in order to activate its special ability. Once the active player has played a treasure card or passed on the opportunity to do so, each player in turn order has the option of playing a treasure card or passing. This continues until every player has passed in turn (i.e., there have been four passes in a row). A player may play more than one treasure card (assuming he plays one, then someone else plays one), and a player may pass but play a treasure card later in the round (assuming someone else plays a treasure card).

There are seven abilities, as follows:

  • Flip 2 - The player flips two cards instead of one. This is played before flipping. (Assign to major arcana 0-3.)
  • Denial - This is played when the active player flips a card that matches the active player's suit. That card is discarded. (Assign to major arcana 4-6.)
  • Leavings - This is played when the active player flips a card that matches your suit. You get that card. (Assign to major arcana 7-9.)
  • Counter - Nullifies the effect of the last-played treasure card. Note that a counter can be countered, which would let the original treasure card stand. Also note that Flip 2 can be countered (you go around playing or passing after a Flip 2 just as you would after a card is flipped). (Assign to major arcana 10-12.)
  • Double - If the card flipped is the same suit as the last card flipped, take the card that was just flipped. (Assign to major arcana 13-15.)
  • Weak Force - Take a card that you just flipped, even if it does not match your suit. (Assign to major arcana 16-18.)
  • Strong Force - Instead of flipping a card, simply take the top card. This may not be countered (but you might end up taking a card of your suit, thus wasting this treasure). (Assign to major arcana 19-21.)

Analysis: The idea is that the player with the most treasures will be bogged down the most, so they will be slower in getting out. For the second phase, in the minor deck, there will be the most cards matching the suit of the player with the fewest treasures. So theoretically, that player's lack of power will be balanced by their being more likely to flip a card that matches their suit. In the two test games that I played with four sides, one game was won by the player with the most treasures, and one game was won by the player with the fewest treasures. It's unclear whether the players in the middle are at a disadvantage.

Game Design Concepts: Level 1

Ian Schreiber has started his free online game design course. The first post discussed what a game is, then he asked people to actually make a game (using Brenda Brathwaite's "The Easiest Game Design Exercise Ever (Really)"). When I read Brenda's post, I didn't end up making a game, but signing up for this class made me actually make a game. It took about 15 minutes (which included doing a little Wikipedia research). It's not a good game, but it's a game. The point of the exercise is simply to get people over the hump of actually making their first game. The homework (or "homeplay" as Ian calls it) is to read the first chapter of his and Brenda's book, read Greg Costikyan's I Have No Words & I Must Design, and play the series Understanding Games, which was all interesting reading/playing.

And now I will share my little game with you. We were just supposed to draw a path and make a simple race-to-the-end game. I decided on a jagged path, which made me decide to do a game about lightning. I did a bit of Wikipedia research, but I mostly didn't use it (although I might in a future game). Here is a poor picture of the game, which I drew with pencil in a notebook:

Here's the text, which is probably too hard to read at this size:


Each player is a negative charge, starting in the cloud.

Each turn, roll two six-sided dice. Pick one of the dice and move that many spaces.

If you land on a lightning bolt, send an opponent back three spaces. Being sent back to a lightning bolt does not trigger it.

The first player to the last space hits the church steeple and wins.

The two-player version is very heavily slanted towards the first player, but the four-player version seems to be a little more balanced. Like I said above, it's not a good game, but it's a game. I'm definitely looking forward to keeping up with this class.

Free Online Game Design Course

Ian Schreiber is doing a free online game design course this summer. It's open to everyone, and you can either just follow along on the blog or actually sign up and get some additional material by email. He doesn't specifically mention the title in his post, but I'm sure the book he's using is the one he wrote recently with Brenda Brathwaite, Challenges for Game Designers: Non-Digital Exercises for Video Game Designers.

So, if you've played many games and want to get an idea of what goes into designing them, check out the blog or sign up for the course.

Designing a casual MMO based on Zork

This week's topic of "hey, look at that" among IF fans is Legends of Zork -- a browser-based "casual MMO" being developed by Jolt. (Licensed from Activision, of course. For those of you who missed the 90s, Activision owns all the old Infocom titles; it was Activision who published the three Zork graphical adventures after Infocom dissolved.)

The Great Underground Empire has recently fallen and the land is in disarray. The Royal Treasury has been sacked. The stock market has collapsed, leading even mighty FrobozzCo International to fire employees from throughout its subsidiaries. A craze of treasure-hunting has swept through the remnants of the Great Underground Empire. The New Zork Times reports that trolls, kobolds and other dangerous creatures are venturing far from their lairs. Adventurers and monsters are increasingly coming into conflict over areas rich with loot. It's a dangerous time to be a newly-unemployed traveling salesman, but it's also a great time to try a bit of adventuring.

(-- from Jolt's press release.)

A lot of people -- both active IF fans and long-ago IF fans who remember Zork fondly -- immediately started talking about this LoZ thing as "multiplayer IF", as a game that would be "like Zork" in some sense.

Yeah, no. Let's look at the first post on the official LoZ blog:

Gain experience and wealth as you battle creatures, dodge traps and solve puzzles. The game is designed to be played at your own pace, so you can log in and do some exploring whenever you feel like it. Achieve fame by challenging other players in the arena or form a group to take on some of the more difficult quests.

The card game Double Fanucci also makes an appearance, in the form of a full deck of 174 Fanucci cards that you can collect and use to improve your skills. [...]

(-- from the Legends of Zork blog.)

Experience points, money, combat, skills, buffs. This is an online CRPG. That's what they're announcing, that's what it is. I immediately said "Oh, Kingdom of Loathing with Zork monsters," and I wasn't the first one to say it, either.

So that's fine; I played a lot of KoL for a year or two. The question which I wish to tromp on today is, what kind of CRPG should a Zork CRPG be?

I am, of course, being arrogant and probably irrelevant here. LoZ is in beta-testing now; Jolt has done their design work. It's too late for me to be making suggestions, even if they had a mind to pay attention to suggestions from random IF amateurs out on the Web.

But it's such a cool question.

The default CRPG used to be rat-clubbing for gold pieces; you could be a fighter, a cleric, a mage, or a thief. That's what "CRPG" meant. D&D did it, so Ultima did it and Wizardry did it. Then there were variations (you need bards for the Bard's Tale) but that was the setup.

(Kids these days will tell you that the classes are tank, damage-dealer, buffer, healer, and controller... or something like that... I'm not a kid these days, so I'll leave it to them to explain.)

It's hard to argue that the Zork tradition is unrelated to the fighter-cleric-mage-thief quadrangle. I wrote a whole post about Gary Gygax and his fundamental interconnectedness to all things, including Colossal Cave and Zork.

But D&D style combat has never meshed well with IF. Zork 1 starts off with a swordfight, straight-up dice rolling and hit points -- and then that mechanic essentially vanishes from the Infocom tradition for seven years. The other combat in Zork 1 is so heavily plot-biased that it's essentially a deterministic puzzle: nearly impossible if you plunge straight into it, but easily winnable at the right place and time.

And that's how Infocom set up their subsequent games -- up until Beyond Zork, which had several interludes of typical RPG combat. I, like nearly everybody, "solved" those scenes by saving and restoring the game. It wasn't fun, it wasn't immersive, and it didn't fit in with the rest of the game. I don't think I'm far off the concensus if I say that those elements of BZ were a failed experiment.

So am I saying that a Zork CRPG should eschew combat entirely? Heck no. There are plenty of battles in Infocom games. You defeat enemies. But they're not D&D, CRPG, wear-down-stat-X-using-stat-Y battles. (I have another whole design screed about a combatless RPG, but I feel like I should implement it rather than blogging about it... maybe next year.)

But yet, we're talking about a CRPG here! I'd love to go off and say "Jolt should have implemented true multiplayer narrative IF," but they didn't -- as far as they've announced.

Let's stipulate that the design problem is "a CRPG with the flavor of Zork". We will have stats, treasure, and skills. The game will be about burning time on repetitive actions that crank up some numbers until you can succeed at tougher actions.

But -- it doesn't have to be arranged the same way as Ultima 1 and Wizardry. I want to see how far I can break down the traditional concepts.

Treasure. When you win fights, you get treasure. Treasure buys stuff. Okay, that's good. But what is treasure? Nearly all games have currency -- a simple scalar of how rich you are. D&D had gold pieces (and a table of other coins, roundly ignored). CRPGs followed suit, although some call them "credits" or "meat".

Zork doesn't have money. Treasure, yes. Coins, sure. Barter, sometimes. Money, no. You collect and use items, distinct and distinctive. (Even the stack of zorkmid bills is a unique item -- you never cash it in for face value.)

What if we built our hypothetical Zork game (let me stress that I'm not talking about Legends of Zork here, I'm making stuff up) on a "monetary" basis of unique treasures? We could randomly generate their names and descriptions -- that's not hard. Succeed in a quest, find an antique Dwarvish black opal. Do it again, discover a handful of silver-inlaid knucklebones. Or a rare blue faience brooch. These don't auto-convert into gold; they retain their identity.

The point is to trade these in for useful tools and items -- I'm not throwing that idea away. So there will still be an underlying monetary value. Maybe it'll say "...rank-3 treasure" on the back of the brooch. But you would still have the experience of finding something, something new and interesting. (Even if it's really generated from a template algorithm.) The game designers could throw new adjectives and templates into the database occasionally. Find a treasure that takes your fancy? Don't sell it -- put it in your trophy case to display!

And you can open a market for players to swap for treasures they want.

There are design consequences, of course. You can't pile up treasures as a reward, the way you can with gold pieces. Eighty treasures are not eighty times as cool as one; they blur together and spoil the point. So rewards become much more granular -- you might get one or two per hour. That affects the rhythm of buying (or bartering) tools for further play. That affects the way you design those tools, and the challenges that the tools resolve.

Doesn't this start to sound more interesting than yet another Wizardry knockoff?

Algorithmically generating instances of things is a good trick. Let's run with it. How about locations? Kingdom of Loathing has lots of locations, but you visit each one over and over again, and the descriptions never change. (Well, rarely.) Let's set up our game so that you enter the forest, and find a unique, freshly-generated forest clearing.

(Again, the template and random-table work for this is pretty easy. You aren't trying to fool the player into thinking that there's a human being writing this stuff. It just has to read well. As long as the game doesn't lead you past a hundred of them in quick succession, players will buy into the descriptions. My own experiments with this tool are in Hunter in Darkness, and the cave section of my web site.)

If you explore out from the clearing, you find more forest locations. New room names, new descriptions. These are just "instances", in the usual MMO sense -- but you're going to visit them frequently, first to "solve" a location, and then passing through to more distant ones. You'll remember the descriptions; they'll feel like a real environment. And if you can invite other players into your instances, they'll find your part of the forest to be different from theirs.

(Maybe draw all this out on the traditional IF box-and-line grid... Oh, I'm not against graphics here. But if you have a generic forest illustration that appears above varying textual descriptions, I guarantee that the players will read and be interested in the text.) (If you can procedurally generate interesting forest illustrations too, you're really in clover...)

I did promise to get back around to combat. The burning-stats-against-enemy-stats model is a rich and well-explored mechanic, and I'm not going to try to discard it. (Today...) But who says that a "combat" must be a blow-by-blow struggle against a monster?

The fundamental act of Zork is exploration. What if the basic quest of our Zork CRPG was exploring a dungeon? (Or forest copse, or temple...) An "attack" would be the entire act of entering a room and facing its challenge -- by stealth, or trickery, or courage, or willpower. You'd still find monsters in the dungeon -- but the rhythm of the game would not be fighting blow-by-blow-by-blow, but rather exploring trap-by-monster-by-maze.

Of course you'd have to have a rich set of "combat" (exploration) mechanics. You'd have options on each move; you'd have tools and resources to use up. Ink and map parchment? Bread crumbs? Arrows? (I smell a Wumpus...) Maybe willpower and courage and steath and cunning are your solvent stats, expended against the dungeon -- just as the traditional CRPG hero expends his hit points frugally, trying to reach the orc's last hit point before the orc reaches his. Reach the end of the dungeon, and you find a treasure.

Ooh, treasures! They come in lots of varieties, right? (Since we're randomly generating them.) So they can have properties. There's the depth we want for the exploration "combat". Treasures can bribe monsters, treasures can jam traps, treasures can be left behind to mark your path through a maze. (Very Zork, that idea.) I know, I said treasures would be rare -- but you're bartering some of them for tools, and tools can be randomly generated too. Ropes, spikes, torches. Oil and batteries, food and water, all usable as "hit points" against the dungeon.

Clues! Use up clues to solve puzzles. I'm not talking about actual IF-style puzzles. Tell the player "There is a mysterious altar here, covered with Gnomic runes." To pass, he has to expend some of the Gnomic lore or rune lore in his inventory. Instead of healing potions, you find more lore. Instead of strength potions, you find a book of Gnomish history, which enables you to understand all Gnomish puzzles better...

You see where I'm going? Starting to go? Sketching a path in the direction of going? It isn't Zork-the-text-adventure -- as stipulated. But it tells the same kind of story.


I see I completely forgot to talk about character classes, you know, the fighter and the mage...

Well, I don't know if I want them, in the traditional sense. The adventure-game experience rather assumes that you, the adventurer, go everywhere and do everything. You cast the spells and defeat the monsters and solve the puzzles. Then you go back and find all the alternate solutions too.

But there are different approaches, and maybe specialization is okay. (Sneaking, courage, etc, etc.) Or maybe those specialties should be per adventure? That might be fun. Gear up as a thief and go after that dungeon -- but if you're defeated by a surfeit of mazes, you'd try again from the riddle-master's point of view. Or the warrior hero, for monsters. "Healer" is not a concept that makes sense, given the model, but there just might be room for the dungeon master to make a few key changes for his own benefit...

From the old to the new

Another in our series of game design documents. Jeff Howard, author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives (standard disclaimer: this book was published by the company I work for, and I acquired it, but I have no direct financial stake in the book), recently started blogging on the topics associated with his book. He just posted a game design document for a game that he's going to start building, called Arcana Manor, a "3D, first-person action-adventure/platforming game about leaping, swinging, and crawling through a surreal funhouse while battling demons." You can also check out his post where he talks about his initial idea for the game, and I find it interesting to see the modifications and refinements that take place just in the two weeks between the posts. I'm particularly interested in the fact that he's going to use tarot symbolism, with the possibility of wandering through rooms based on the major arcana. (I've had this minor fascination with card games that use a tarot deck where each major arcana has a different ability, and I've been meaning to post here about that.)



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