The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet


Recognise this? Yeah, it’s an energy card from the Pokémon CCG.

I mention that because there are similar symbols used in my game — you’ll see things like that red ball with a stylised fire image on it. They don’t mean the same thing, of course, since I’m not making a Pokémon CCG (though maybe I should — I hear there’s money in that!); when you see them in my video game, you’re probably looking at a weapon, a piece of armour, or a combat skill. They mean fundamentally the same thing in different contexts, but we’ll go into a bit more detail about exactly what that is. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume that there are two types of symbol: the red fireball symbol (which represents fire) and the grey sword symbol (which represents "normal," or "physical," or "BONK," or whatever the fuck name I settle on). Furthermore, I’ve made crap images ( and ) to represent them.

Now, say you have a weapon. We’ll be totally bland and formulaic and call it "Longsword," to indicate that this is your most basic of swords. This weapon may have a line on it that reads to the effect of "Damage: ." What that means, in a nutshell, is that a hit from this weapon does two points of normal-type damage to the target. A more interesting, but still entirely formulaic, weapon, say, a Flametongue Sword, might have the following line instead: "Damage: ," thereby indicating that it does two normal and three fire damage on hit. Why use dots instead of a line like "Normal: 2 Fire: 3?" It’s more intuitively understandable. The length of the dot row tells you how powerful the weapon is in general terms, and it’s easy to compare the widths of different sections of dots to tell which type of damage the weapon is stronger in (I bet you knew the Flametongue did more fire than normal damage before you even counted dots, for example). This metaphor can break down if the numbers inflate, but I’m intending to keep them low.

Armour, as I say, uses the dots as well, but in its case they represent the damage that piece of armour will negate. If you have, say, leather armour, and it has "Blocks: ," then you’ll only take one point of damage from that Longsword, and four from the Flametongue. If you have some type of chain mail that has "Blocks: ," though, you’ll take no damage at all from the Longsword. You will take three damage from the Flametongue, however, not the two you might expect at first — the chain mail blocks only the normal-type damage, and can’t block the fire-type at all.

That’s pretty much the gist of it. All offensive and defensive items and abilities have a set of dots on them representing the damage they do; the total damage is a simple matter of subtracting the defensive dots from the offensive dots.

June 23rd, 2009 Posted by | My secret project | no comments

Fundamentals of game design: Limiting the player

In thinking about my earlier comments in this section, I realise I’ve taken a few things for granted, and assumed that the readership would understand why I was doing what I was doing without my actually explaining it. So I’m going to take a digression into more basic principles of design to try to add some life to my earlier comments. Let’s start with when I said this:

"The attack must be successful to cool anything, as in it needs to hit a mob and do some damage (this is to prevent the situation where standing in a corner and swinging your sword between fights just replaces waiting for your magic meter to fill)."

So, wait (this is me being the Devil’s Advocate, so picture me with pointy red horns and a forked tail and possibly the darker, sinister version of a copy of all the news that’s fit to print and pertains to gays), why not just have all attacks at all times cool skills and give players the option of standing around and doing essentially nothing between fights if that’s what they want? It’s a free country, and here’s this greasy motherfucker telling me I can’t stand around and swing my sword?

Fact is, if that were allowed, it would create a situation where the optimal play is to waste time doing nothing between fights. Why is that bad? I mean, isn’t the optimal play in Final Fantasy to wander around fighting imps outside Coneria until you’re level 99? The difference is scale. Nobody but complete loons will grind to max level on the easiest mobs in an RPG because it would take goddamn years. I know — I did that once in Zelda II. But if you set up a situation where killing thirty seconds between pulls improves your situation greatly, nearly nobody will be able to resist the temptation. Who wouldn’t trade thirty seconds for full power? And, sure, if you do it once, no big deal. But over and over again? Now the impression people will take out of your game is "well, that’s kind of a neat game, but what’s with all the damn waiting?"

This is a problem inherent to all games that use a time metric for the resource system. It was a problem in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (less so in other recent Castlevanias because they’re just really easy), it was a problem in Final Fantasy XII, and (I’ll come right out and say it!) it’s a problem in World of Warcraft (though alleviated somewhat by food and water). The fact is that waiting isn’t fun. Everybody knows that. And if you create a system that encourages waiting, then players are going to do it, just to get that edge. And you have to balance the game expecting that they’ve done that. Every encounter needs to be designed and pitched expecting the players to have full command of all their resources.

This is why it’s important sometimes to prevent the player from doing certain things. By limiting the player’s ability to do boring things, you make the game more fun. And one of my primary goals with my resource system is to make every step fun; I want using skills to be fun, and I want recharging them to be fun.

May 29th, 2008 Posted by | My secret project | no comments

Secret Project update!

This category’s been quiet for a while; that’s partly because my large-series-post energy has been somewhat redirected to the villains series, and partly because I’m working on the best way to present the next things I have to present. But it’s not done by a long shot; I have a whole lot more design prepared, and a whole lot more posts forthcoming. So just a heads-up.

May 13th, 2008 Posted by | My secret project | no comments

Secret Project: Spells in-depth

I’ve been using this "skills and spells" term for quite some time as though the two things were distinct but related concepts, but I’ve refused to admit that they’re exactly the same thing with different names. Today we explore why that is.

You’ll recall from yesterday’s skills in-depth that skills don’t deplete any type of magic meter. This they have in common with spells. Also, the broad skills and spells post mentioned that they’re both used in the same way — target with the pointer, then pick them from a radial menu. This is just about the whole list of things skills and spells have in common. So with that out of the way, let’s talk about how they differ.

Whereas skills are specific to each character and gained at level up, spells are not. Instead, when raising levels, characters will gain spell slots into which spells may be placed. The spells themselves have to be acquired — they come in book form, and can be purchased, found in dungeons, given as quest rewards, or dropped from mobs. In town, you can set up your spell slots with any combination of spells you want (you can take the same spell multiple times). Every time you return to town, your spell slots are automatically restocked the way you had them when you left (to reduce "bookkeeping" bullshit).

Spells have no resource meter and no cooldowns. Instead, you can cast each spell one time and then it’s gone until you return to town. So you can expect the spells to have rather varied and powerful effects — in addition to the obvious damage-dealing, they can be used to heal, to restore cooldowns, to apply various buffs to you or debuffs to mobs, and for various other crazy things. There is no way to add or restore spells while in the dungeon, so what you enter with is what you get.

Spells are designed to have a pretty substantial impact on the game when they’re played, so don’t expect to have very many slots at any given time, though the number does vary by character — the more magical characters get more spells. There will be some rare spells that are in hard-to-find places or dropped at a low rate from mobs and whatnot, but these will emphatically not be the real "staple" spells that you’ll have a bitch of a time getting through the game without. You basic heals, cooldown resets, and whatnot will all be easily available. Once again, we’re aiming to reduce the grind while still leaving a wide range of neat things to find.

April 9th, 2008 Posted by | My secret project | no comments

Secret project: Skills in-depth

We’ve talked about skills in terms of the actual mechanical means of activating them (including discussion and suggestions in the comments — exciting!), but we haven’t said thing one about what the hell they actually do.

First, let’s talk about what they don’t do. First and foremost, they don’t deplete some damn magic meter. If there’s any mechanic that’s more hackneyed than that, I’m not coming up with it offhand, and that’s not even to mention several serious design problems with it (if you’ll permit the digression). If you have the type of magic meter that replenishes on its own, then you create a situation where the "optimal" strategy is to kill a mob and then stand around and wait for your magic to come back. If it doesn’t replenish, then you have a situation where the players are bottoming-out on resources as they get to the end of a dungeon — which is, of course, where the damn boss is. This is the exact tangle that leads to designs featuring magic pools of restoration or whatever right before boss fights. And of course, either way you slice it, you’ll end up with most of your skills being pretty much worthless since, in most cases, there will be something more efficient or powerful to use.

So where does that get us? It gets us to a situation where there’s no uniform resource that’s consumed by skill usage. Instead, they’re kept in balance via a cooldown system — once you’ve used a skill once, you can’t use it again until it’s cooled (most MMORPGs have a system like this). But doesn’t that just lead to the waiting game again? It would, except for one thing: our skills don’t cool over time. Instead, skills are cooled by the use of other skills — every skill has a value by which it cools other skills.

This is a little confusing in a block like that, so let’s look at it in practice. A skill description looks like this:

Ultra Mega Ass-kick 3000: Way kicks ass, cools 5, cooldown 20

So you have a skill called "Ultra Mega Ass-kick 3000" that tells you its cooldown is 20. You get attacked by a Viscous Moldmonger and you need some of that goooood ass-kickin’, so you use it. Now it’s on cooldown. You want that skill ready again, but it needs to cool; you have this other skill, though, called "Punch Inna Mouf" that says it "cools 3." When you use it, your Ultra Mega Ass-kick 3000 cools down by 3 points to 17 — still a ways to go before you can use it again, but, hey, it’s a start.

All skills have a cooldown, and almost all of them have a cooling value. This interplay keeps you able to do something frequently while preventing you from simply spamming a high-powered skill over and again. But what happens, you ask, when all your skills are on cooldown? There are other ways to cool skills. First and foremost, every successful normal attack cools 1 — note that the attack must be successful to cool anything, as in it needs to hit a mob and do some damage (this is to prevent the situation where standing in a corner and swinging your sword between fights just replaces waiting for your magic meter to fill). Also, it’s possible to get from the "common drop" pool (as mentioned briefly here) a minor cooldown replenishing pickup. It’s also possible to use a spell to cool skills — more details on that when I cover spells.

This system should keep skills interesting and viable, while also making "less powerful" skills more useful than they often are — since the weaker skills may be on shorter cooldowns and/or may have higher cooling ratings themselves. In fact, there exists a skill on one of the characters that’s nothing but a melee attack that does less damage than normal, but has a high cooling value. So there’s some potential for flexibility here.

Be sure to tune in next time if you want to know what all this nonsense about spells is, and how they’re different from skills.

April 8th, 2008 Posted by | My secret project | no comments

Secret Project: Characters

As I’ve alluded to in the past, there are multiple playable characters in the game, and you don’t commit to one at the beginning of a game; any time you return to base, you can switch to a different character. Each of the characters is sort of a stock fantasy archetype, and each has different strengths, weaknesses, and skills.

One of the major design goals in this game is that it should be possible to complete sticking to one character the whole time if that’s the way you want to do it. It might not be as easy that way, since different characters will be better suited to different tasks, but it will be possible at the very least. There are, however, going to be certain tasks that can only be accomplished by certain characters, along with secret areas and hidden treasures that only certain characters can reach. So it’s best to say that it’s possible to beat the game using only one character, but it’s not possible to complete the game 100% unless you switch it up.

A good comparison for the character system would be Super Mario Bros. 2 — you can’t switch in the middle of a level, but you can switch between levels. Each of the characters has different strengths and weaknesses, and are better or worse in different situations, but all of them can get through the game. That’s the same story here. Oh, except that I don’t plan on having Luigi be hilariously overpoweringly better than all the other characters like he was in SMB2.

April 6th, 2008 Posted by | My secret project | no comments

Secret project: Progression

By request (seriously) I’m using today’s column to go into more detail on character progression. I hinted before about it but wasn’t very clear.

There are levels in the game, and there is progression among these levels (you know, obviously), but it’s somewhat nontraditional. There is no XP awarded for killing mobs, thereby removing the "grinding" that usually goes along with raising levels, and also allowing for more flexibility in design; it’s more viable to avoid or disable the mobs as a long-term strategy since you won’t be missing out on valuable XP (there are still the drops, but missing out on some drops is a much smaller impactor than missing the XP).

So if it’s not from mobs, where does the XP come from? Quests. But not all quests. As I mentioned in my first post on the subject, there are both major and minor quests (or "primary" and "secondary," or whatever terms I eventually decide on) — only the major quests award XP, and the XP for lower-level quests is less than that for higher-level quests (meanwhile, it takes more XP to advance the higher you already are). This is prevented from being overwhelming and confusing by flattening the level band; there are only four character levels.

Raising a level results in an increase in stats and some new skills, and also allows you access to the next level’s dungeons and quests. Levels are per character — if character A goes up to level 2, the remaining characters do not. XP, however, is shared in a pool; you don’t need to level the characters you used to complete any given quests. The XP can be stored and spent at will, but you need at least one character at the level of a quest before you have access to it. So you can’t complete the game without getting at least one character to level 4, but you don’t need to level all of them if you don’t want to. Hell, if you want a challenge, you can keep your play character at level 1 and just promote a character you don’t use.

This also (meaningfully and not unintentionally) avoids the situation where you can no longer develop any other characters because you completed too many quests with the same one and there isn’t enough XP left for everybody else. There will be enough XP available if you do all the quests to get every character to level 4.

April 5th, 2008 Posted by | My secret project | no comments

Secret project: Skills and Spells

Say you’re chopping some type of mob, and you want to do something other than ordinary old chop-chop-chop with your giant monster-chopping flamberge. What do you do? Well, if you’re playing Final Fantasy VIII, you select the GF command over and over and over. But in my game, should you happen to point your magical wiimote targeting cursor at something and chop the B button, a few things will happen. First off, the action will pause; since you won’t be able to act for the next few seconds, it seemed only fair that the mobs would suffer the same limitation. The more interesting component of the process is that a radial menu will open around your target.

I know what you’re thinking — holy shit yes, a menu! But it’s more exciting even than that makes it sound. From this menu you’ll be able to select (also via Wii remote pointage) the skill you want to use, and then use it! What are skills, you ask, not unreasonably? Skills are special combat abilities you’ll gain as you level up, and they can and do vary by character. In case you missed it, I just subtly revealed that there are multiple playable characters available in this game — that’s just how completely freakin’ crazy I am. That’s like an extra bonus update.

So what about spells? No, spells aren’t just what we call skills when your character is wearing a dress instead of armour. They’re a totally seperate mechanic, but they’re accessed through the same means; the nunchuck stick can switch you from the radial skills menu to the radial spells menu. The exact mechanical differences between the two will be the subject of a later post; for now, suffice to say that there are non-trivial differences.

Once you’ve selected your skill or spell, well, that’s about all there is to it. Recall that through the magic of the Wii remote’s pointer functionality you’ve already chosen your target and the whole thing becomes clear; your skill or spell executes targeted on whatever you were pointing at (also what the menu opened around). If that target’s out of range? No worries — that skill or spell will be "redded out" and unavailable. No problems with accidentally wasting something or any confusion about whether or not you can use it. Just a fluid skill-usage system designed to reduce the time you spend playing with menus and get you back to the choppin’!

April 4th, 2008 Posted by | My secret project | 3 comments

Secret project: Controls

When designing a video game, it’s always important to bear in mind that players will be interacting with it, and make sure you don’t make that a game that sure looks like it would be fun if only it were playable (Editor’s note: a 7.0 on Gamespot is roughly equivalent to my rating of 1.5). So while designing my game, I’ve tried to keep in mind how players will play it and make sure I’m not expecting them to jump through any extraordinary hoops just to hit an orc with a damn sword.

At present, I’m planning my control scheme around the Wii remote and nunchuck, because I have to design it for something and that offers the exact functionality I have in mind. The main feature of peculiar Wii-ness that I’m using for the game is the pointer; as such, it would be relatively straightforward to redesign / port for the DS or the PC, and only marginally more difficult for a platform without a pointing device, though I think the game would be ideal as a Wii Ware title. At present, I’m planning to use the pointer, the analogue stick, and the A, B, C, Z, +, and – buttons. That may seem like a lot of buttons, but I think the use of them will be simple enough as not to cause trouble.

The control stick is used for primary movement. 360-degree movement is possible, terrain permitting, and various levels of pressure will vary movement speed.

The pointer is used for targeting and menu selection. If the pointer is not pointed at the screen the game will continue to function, but any actions requiring a target won’t really accomplish anything until you point the damn thing where it should be.

The A button is the primary input button, and is the button that will be pressed most often. A is the button you want to use to talk to people, to read things, to open things, to pick things up, and to attack. It’s also the button of choice for confirming menu selections.

The B button is for using skills and spells, and for cancelling menus.

The C button is for jumping.

The Z button is for defending.

The + and buttons both pause the game; both buttons share the same function in order to accommodate people holding the remote in either hand.

So as you can see, it involves several buttons, but most of the game’s button-work is done on just one of them (A). This seems to me to be a fairly simple but still full-featured control scheme, and we’ll be taking advantage of the Wii remote’s pointer functionality to allow some pretty cool interaction. But that’s a tale for another day; I’ve run on long enough for now. Be with us next time when we’ll discuss skills and spells!

April 3rd, 2008 Posted by | My secret project | 2 comments

Welcome to the projects

Now I feel like a rapper. Excellent.

I’m using this category to discuss — nay, rap about — my pending game design project. Sure, maybe I’ll never get the damn thing developed and published, but game design is my passion. It’s what I do, and I’m doing it whether or not it’ll ever see the light of day. But game design isn’t something that can be kept to oneself — games, like all art, are to be shared. So if I can’t turn my design into a living, breathing game, I can at least turn it into a series of dull-ass blog posts. And who knows, maybe an anonymous internet billionaire will see this blog, become enthralled with it, and offer to finance the development before heading to his top-secret subterranean crime-fighting lair. Maybe I can even get his autograph!

Oh, note that these are blog posts, and will be written conversationally and probably with both jokes and swear words. I’m under no misconception that this is an actual proper design document, and you shouldn’t be either. Unless you’ll pay me, in which case feel free.

The game I’m working on is a dungeon-crawl-type action game; the closest analogue I’m thinking of is The Legend of Zelda. I’m presently envisioning an isometric style; this is largely because I’m trying to be bounded and realistic and assuming that I shouldn’t go for full 3D in my first-ever effort, especially if I’m hoping to find a handful of interested parties and go forward with this. Ideally, I’m looking for the game to play primarily in two dimensions (XY), but with limited interactivity in the third dimension (Z), such as ledges and staircases and pits and such. There is an overworld, which is a bounded section of a larger world (room for expansion / sequels); the plan at present is to treat the overworld as a "level select" screen rather than having free roaming, thereby reducing backtracking, since the game is structured as a series of "missions" involving going to a remote location, performing a task, and returning to base.

The base of operations for the players is located in a typical video game hub city, complete with shops and NPCs to talk to and whatnot. The players will spend some time in town gathering supplies and information, and then locate "questgiver" NPCs with major quests for them. Once they receive a major quest for a particular dungeon, other NPCs may have minor quests for that dungeon that offer extra rewards. To avoid the problem of having to talk to every NPC over and over again hunting for quests, we’ll implement a system like the "question marks" in World of Warcraft to indicate which NPCs have a quest you can pick up, and which will have a quest to give you once you’ve found the requisite dungeon. Once the players are done in town, they head out to the map, choose the dungeon to head to, and get started spelunking.

Play in the dungeon primarily involves making it past obstacles, traps, and monsters to acheive the goal set out in the quest. On the way there may be placed treasures to find in hard-to-reach places, in addition to treasure drops from mobs and (of course) the rewards for completing quests. I’m thinking of a mob loot system similar to that used in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where there will be a pool of "common drops" (simple things like health restores or small amounts of money) that can drop from any mob and drop rather frequently, along with more interesting (and less common) drops that are per-mob. It is of course important that the game furnishes sufficient fixed loot and quest rewards that it can be completed without necessitating the "farming" of mobs for certain items, but beyond that, hey, treasure is fun.

That’s the broad overview; I have a lot more designed and ready to talk about, but I don’t want to blow my whole load on one epic 30,000-word blog post. Please, if you’re interested in reading more about this, let me know in the comments. And if you have any questions aboud anything, by all means ask. I’d love to talk about it.

Next time, assuming I don’t get any particular requests that need to be addressed first, I plan to talk a bit about the mechanics and controls. Stay tuned!

April 2nd, 2008 Posted by | My secret project | one comment