Archive for March, 2011

The Realpolitik of Game Design

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

OK, so let’s get down to the nitty-gritty details of game design.  Today I’m going to discuss what I think of as the “Realpolitik” of game design.  Realpolitik is a political term that means making decisions based on practical expedients rather than on moral or idealogical grounds.  It’s all fine and well to dream of a perfect world (or in our case, a perfect game), but these aspirations inevitably get horribly mangled when they meet with a cold and unforgiving reality.  Von Moltke might not have been trying to design a computer game when he said “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” but the idea is surprisingly similar.

The example I want to discuss today involves the first “chapter” of Curses & Castles, where my main character must escape a dragon-guarded castle (there will be no plot spoilers below, unless you consider the fact that the princess eventually does escape the castle to be a spoiler). The original design document called for an aged an embittered princess, prisoner for 100 years, who would become youthful again once she escaped the reach of the curse that bound her there.  I felt when I wrote this that “a second chance at life” would reinforce the theme of redemption that I was trying to convey: it would give an edgy sense of purpose to the princess’s actions, explaining her selfless obsession with redeeming her country as well.  It had meaning, it had narrative power, and it helped to explain the magical mechanism through which the princess could be redeemed if she met an untimely death during game play (so as not to have to bring the player out of the game world if they wanted to retry).

Then I sat down to actually build the game, and ended up scrapping most of what was mentioned above.  The main problem was that the “old lady” princess  effectively amounted to a second main character that would require all the standard animations (walking, climbing, picking up, talking, falling, spell-casting, etc.) to be needlessly replicated.  The escape sequence wasn’t long, just a quick segment that served to get the player hooked and get the plot rolling, so it really didn’t make sense to double my workload for such a brief amount of game play.  The 100 year prisoner also didn’t add anything to the gaming experience that a 10 year prisoner couldn’t, and I felt in retrospect that an old crone limping around probably wouldn’t make for the exciting first impression that would lure gamers on.  Also, since successful games have characters that gamers can strongly relate to, the bitterness (later redeemed) was probably a good way to turn players off.  Finally, the magical mechanism for undoing death (a magic hourglass that can slightly turn back time), while clever in that gamers wouldn’t have to leave the “game world” to retry a sequence, added further complications to an already complex plot.  As I was trying to cram an explanation of its properties into an already bloated introductory script, I realized that the gaming experience would probably be clearer, if not quite as immersing, if the magic hourglass was scrapped altogether in favour of a simple “retry” prompt.

The result of all this carnage was a leaner game.  I easily saved 100 hours of drawing and animating, and also streamlined the gaming experience in the process.  I think the game is mostly stronger for these edits, but it did leave one gaping hole: my character’s motivation.  I think I’ve mostly solved this, but there is still some rewriting to be done to shore up the remaining gaps.  Whereas the aged princess was bitter at her lot (being helplessly captive for so many years), the teenage princess would suffer from melancholy.  Just as we can marvel at how a disengaged youth can become a passionate young-adult, I feel the princess’s newfound sense of purpose will leave the player with a feeling of hope and empowerment.

The lesson here is that in reality it takes a lot of effort to actualize an idea.  Bad ideas become especially costly to the game developer as they not only suck up time to implement, but might also put off would-be players.  Even good ideas can make for bad realities: a lot of time working for little real benefit.  The harshness of reality is the best editor, in that stronger and more justifiable components of a game inevitably demand more time and resources than hollow and superfluous ones.  In order to take advantage of what reality is saying, the effective game developer must be prepared to be flexible.  Sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice parts of the project in order to save the whole thing.  Realpolitick can be a messy business, but it has one overwhelming advantage over dreamy idealism: it gets things done.

Curses & Castles Announced!

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

This happened elsewhere on the internet a week or two ago, but due to technical difficulties it’s been while coming to the web log.  Nevertheless, I think it important to outline the project here so that the following discussions will make more sense to you, my loyal readership.

Curses & Castles is the story of Porphyra, a well-meaning princess imprisoned in the ruins of her castle home along with her lazy uncle the king (now transformed into a frog).  The agent behind their desperate condition is an evil enchantress, who has hexed the realm with five evil shrouds that enslave the minds of those that bear them.  A dragon guards the castle, himself the slave of the first shroud.  Porphyra must slip past the dragon to escape the castle, at which point she discovers the extent of the curses that beset her realm:  a virulent pox (2nd shroud), a fleet of goblin pirates (third shroud), an army of thieves (fourth shroud) and a plague of rats (fifth shroud).  Somehow she must uncover the secrets of the shrouds and destroy each in turn in order to save her people.

Princess Porphyra must use her wits and whatever is at hand to escape the castle ruins.  The screen shot is just a mock-up (you can tell because the candle already appears in your inventory despite not being picked up yet!) and I intend to make several modifications before release, not least of which will be that floor. The purple interface (at bottom) displays game options, items you have picked up so far, a spell-book for spell-casting (always a matter of combining three items), and your ever present frog-uncle companion.

This epic quest is conceived of as a full-length point & click adventure game, which by the standards of the genre means that there will be several hours of game play.  The graphics are vector-style, and the game will be fully animated.  I am the only person working on this project: I am writer, artist, animator, and coder all rolled into one!  It’s hard to gauge at this point exactly where I am in the process, but I reckon that I’m roughly 1/5 done and am on schedule to release the game sometime in late 2012.  The project is ambitious, but I’ve put a lot of thought into the planning stage and, based on past experience and some strategic experimentation, I think it is feasible for me to bring this game to fruition.

Well, feasible if I don’t spend all my time on this web log:  I’m off to draw.

Tree Rock Pixels Web Log Launched!

Monday, March 28th, 2011

I hereby happily announce the launch my game development web log: Tree Rock Pixels! The purpose of this web log is twofold. Firstly, it is meant to document the game development process behind Curses & Castles, an epic fantasy adventure game that I am currently building from scratch. Secondly, it is meant to generate enthusiasm for the aforementioned game so that it will be highly anticipated when it is finally released. As such, the plan is to pepper frequent web log entries with lots of teasers and graphics, so check back often for new content!

And what about that name, Tree Rock Pixels? It is partly to commemorate my roots in North Ontario and the many seasons I spent in the bush, partly to show the incongruity between my rural surroundings and the high-tech art of computer game design, but mostly it is meant as a metaphor for the implausibility of successful game design as an independent developer.  Like the tree growing out of the solid rock, without soil or shelter or water, I am aspiring to succeed against all odds.  Wish me luck!