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evolutional

Of Mice and Wingmen

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NPC Wingman support in a top-down 2D space shooter game Wingmen - reliable, dependable, someone who gets you out of a scrape. The typical space shooter game has grown to depend on the concept of Wingmen; from the early days of Wing Commander to the modern gameplay of Freelancer, the Wingman has been an important feature in space games. Their presence serves many purposes; they make space seem smaller and less isolated and pull you out of a scrape whilst being attacked by swarms of enemies. You look out for your Wingman as a friend, a companion in the game - sure in some games they come and go, but each one brings something different to the game. Remember Wing Commander, how you'd hate Maniac for being reckless, but respect Knight and fear Hunter's deadliness? The thing was, you remembered these guys, you cared if they died - you wanted to look out for them as they tried to look out for you. Manta-X is a top-down 2D shooter based on Uridium, but blending aspects of Wing Commander and Star Fox. The traditional gameplay involving flying to the end of a level and shooting the crap out of everything in sight has been scrapped. Instead, there will be simple objectives to complete, from taking out space fighters protecting a huge enemy crusier - to defending a weapons platform from enemy attack - to traversing minefields hunting for communications relays to destroy and many more. Most top down shooters pitch you as the only hope for a certain faction's victory, but now this concept is old and unrealistic. The question I want your feedback on is this; how do you imagine NPC Wingmen to be used in a top-down shooter game? Would you care as much for men on your flank, that fly alongside you and help you acheive your goals? Would you come to their aid as an enemy wing latches onto one with intent to kill? Or would you ignore them and try to play the game as you would a traditional top down shooter? I value any ideas and feedback anyone has on this idea.

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I guess it would depend on how the game is run, do you mean a top down shooter like Raptor?
If you do:

I don't really know how you'd impliment it, but I think maybe a wing man in a top down game might cause the game to be a bit easy. Most games like that, that I can think of are you versus the other ships.

Also, I don't really know how much you'd be willing to help out your wingmen. With a top down shooter I think the objective is more as long as you don't get hit its all good.

I think it works in a 3D environment because there is a lot more space to work with.

If you mean more like a Starfox like game:
I could definately see it working, I remember I would always try to keep my wingmen alive in that game.

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Have you thought about doing a system similar to mech warrior 4? In that game, the NPC's can be given commands, and they follow them. Some of the quick commands that I remember are shutdown, attack my target, defend my target, wake up, flee, and there were some more too.
I suggest you have them act independantly for the most part until they either complete the task you have given them, or they find the task uncompletalble.

You could give each particular one a personality, and that could determine how well they follow commands or perform in battle.

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Yes.
No.
Maybe.

Whether or not the player cares about his (or her) wingmen will be completely dependant on how you design your game. You need to introduce elements to make the player care about his wingmen, and think about them as more than a few AI stats and a bitmap.

Think about the ways that Wing Commander made you care for your wingmen. Between missions, you would watch cutscenes with interaction between your fellow pilots. This, and their comments during missions, gave you a sense of their personality. Thus, you would tend to regard them more as real people.

Also, I disagree with Terlenth. The viewpoint of your game shouldn't affect how well wingmen work. Top-down or full-3D-space doesn't matter, as long as you are able to make the player care about his wingmen. Interaction (i.e. giving orders) with wingmen is probably a must, if even on a minimal level (Help! or Attack my target!).

Giving your NPC pilots personalities will greatly increase the atmosphere of your game, just as it did in Wing Commander.

- Mike

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The game is very much top-down, but it scrolls in 4 directions, like Uridium, so you do have some 'space' to work in, it's not straight once screen fixed rate scrolling. The player has a lot of range in their motion.

I was thinking of the situation of issuing commands and I liked it a lot when I was thinking of it. The idea for some levels is based on Uridium, you take down the local enemy cover for a huge capital ship, flying over it's surface, blwoing up gun towers and such. In the original Uridium, you landed on the deck, you man rand out into the ship and the ship exploded. Pretty crappy. I was liking the idea of calling in the bombers once you've cleared the space and this idea tossed around the idea of manually calling for help.

I'm having little or no in-game powerups, you select your weapon configuration before the mission - moving away from traditional shooters. So there may be times you need your Wingmen to help your through, maybe you didn't pack missles but your Wingmen did.

As for making it easier, I was thinking of throwing even more enemies into the mix. Because I'm not bound to single speed scrolling or a screenful of enemies, I thought it'd be good to have tens of enemies bombing at you, turning round and coming back at you. The aim is to bring back some frantic action in the form of dog fighting the enemy, whilst having some different mission styles within a story.

I guess people who are expecting your traditional shooter will be a little miffed?

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Quote:
Original post by evolutional
I guess people who are expecting your traditional shooter will be a little miffed?


Is your goal to make a traditional shooter or more of a top-down Wing Commander-style game? If you treat it as a top-down sim (or sim-lite, anyways), people will expect to customize their ship's loadout before the mission, and then spend their time in the mission attacking specific enemies and formulating some strategy. As long as you don't tote your game as a Galaxian-clone, I don't think people will care about the lack of power-ups or having to give orders to wingmen.

- Mike

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It would be neat to do something like Rainbow 6, where your partners don't just follow you around. You can assign them jobs or routes, or sections to clear or something like that. You can track them on a radar, and they will signal for help sometimes or whatever.

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Thanks for your input so far, it's proving a very useful thinking point.

Quote:

Interaction (i.e. giving orders) with wingmen is probably a must, if even on a minimal level (Help! or Attack my target!).


Quote:

You could give each particular one a personality, and that could determine how well they follow commands or perform in battle.


I like these idea, it reminds of Wing Commander in the way that Maniac wouldn't care about your orders and ended up blazing into combat without thinking. I've been planning the Wingmen aspect for a while and wondering if it'd work in practice for a TDS game, I like the idea of sending orders to the Wingmen. In Manta-X the Wingmen will follow you around in a loose(ish) formation until you tell them to break or attack/defend a target. Having hothead or cautious wingmen would show up here, people ignoring your orders or staying too close.

Quote:

Think about the ways that Wing Commander made you care for your wingmen. Between missions, you would watch cutscenes with interaction between your fellow pilots. This, and their comments during missions, gave you a sense of their personality. Thus, you would tend to regard them more as real people.


I think this is a crucial point and one that I will have to concentrate on getting right. Whilst I have my story planned out, I think I'm going to have to find a way of conveying this sense of personality so that you get to know your wingmen.
Being a one-man team with a minimal budget, there wil be no FMV and little voice acting. But then, Wing Commander (the orignal) didn't have any of this and still got the point across.

I have a couple thinking points to explore a little more, does anyone else have anything to offer?

Thanks [smile]

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I think for this to work, you need to have constant appraisals about your wingmen's status. Ideally, some part of the GUI would be dedicated to looking at them or at least presenting the basic stats - number of enemies currently attacking, damage remaining, fuel, weps.

I think you also have to consider a much less fragile ship than is normally used in a TDSS, since you'll want to have time to go help them. This means, in turn, that the battles are extended in length, and then your enemies are also going to have the same characteristics, presumably. This, in turn, leads to content bloom - in order to make longer battles more interesting, you're going to have to provide more things which can go wrong. This last point isn't a huge deal, since you're already increasing the amount of content needed by expanding the scope of play, but it still bears detailed consideration.

In addition, your wingmen obviously need to communicate with you. This can get really annoying, as witnessed in WC3 & 4, so I'd say stick with text or icon messages if you can do it.

I played most of the wing commanders, and I found that the original two, by keeping it simple, made a much more effective case for the inclusion of wingmen than did the later, more complicated efforts.

I'm thinking at this point that given you're already upping the ante, you might play another classic wingman card and start the PLAYER off as a wingman, graduating to squad leader after a relatively short indoctrination period (during which, of course, the mentor is killed/captured/what have you).

There are definitely lots of possibilities with style of play. The key, as has been mentioned, is to give the player reasons to invest in the wingmen. As I've tried to make clear here, I think the tools for doing that are pretty well-defined - effective communication, simple character development, and an eye-in-the-sky to allow you to keep careful track of their progress. There are probably other elements you could add - Ogre Battle style character leveling comes to mind - but I'm sure you can come up with fun variations on your own.

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Quote:
Original post by liquiddark
I think for this to work, you need to have constant appraisals about your wingmen's status.


Good point, I'm thinking that such stats will remain hidden until the wingman is in danger or the player chooses to view them.


Quote:

I think you also have to consider a much less fragile ship than is normally used in a TDSS, since you'll want to have time to go help them.


Yes, very much so. I don't usually like the idea of one-hit TDSS games, instead preferring some room for error in the form of shields and hull damage. Enemies will be suitably beefed up to accomodate this, although sometimes you'll have many small, weak enemy craft to encounter as well as a tougher opponent or two.

Quote:

This, in turn, leads to content bloom - in order to make longer battles more interesting, you're going to have to provide more things which can go wrong.


One thing I was hoping to glean from this style of gameplay is the notion of an enemy 'Ace' being present. Again, very much like Wing Commander - I rememeber hearing the rumours about a tough enemy in the system and actually feared the encounter. So I suppose the logical flipside of having known wingmen is to have some enemies that you actually fear, maybe they fly a tougher ship - maybe they're more intelligent or fearless - the idea is the same.


Quote:

In addition, your wingmen obviously need to communicate with you. This can get really annoying, as witnessed in WC3 & 4, so I'd say stick with text or icon messages if you can do it.


I was planning on having text/icons as the primary way of showing communication, mainly because I doubt I could source the resources for voice acting.

Quote:

start the PLAYER off as a wingman, graduating to squad leader after a relatively short indoctrination period (during which, of course, the mentor is killed/captured/what have you).


That's an interesting idea and one I'd not considered, I think it's definitely worth throwing into the mix.

Thanks :)

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I'd say try to give the wingman a face or a voice for personalization. Taking Escape Velocity Nova as an example, the smooth female British accent of a pilot (as well as language) versus the gruff voice of a Confed pilot can make all the difference to the imaginative, even if they're just acknowledging orders or the face is static.

What would be nice is

1) Wingmen are assets with different strategic tradeoffs, like you mentioned with personalities, and you have to husband them like you do ammo in a FPS.

2) You can order quick formations with the touch of a button, and wingmen are better or worse at complying

3) If guys can go off screen, you can set the damage threshold for which point they leave

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Quote:
Original post by evolutional
Being a one-man team with a minimal budget, there wil be no FMV and little voice acting.


I will have to solve a similar problem with the SF RPG I am working on. However, if you do it right, pure text (and possibly some character art) could work just as well as the FMV, while keeping the player's focus (and your game development priorities) on the gameplay.

You should check out the old top-down arcade shooter Solar Winds. It is a small shareware game by Epic Megagames, but it has been a big influence on my game development aspirations since I was in middle school (or earlier?). Anyways - check out the conversations the player has with NPC ships. Basically you see a paragraph of text with an animated talking head in a "communicator window". While your shooter probably won't have a deep dialog trees, you could still use the talking-head-in-a-litte-display-screen element for talking wingmen.

Quote:
Original post by liquiddark
I'm thinking at this point that given you're already upping the ante, you might play another classic wingman card and start the PLAYER off as a wingman, graduating to squad leader after a relatively short indoctrination period (during which, of course, the mentor is killed/captured/what have you).


This is a great idea. In addition, the number of wingmen the player has under his control could increase as the player gains rank/experience. After a while, maybe you could even throw capital ships into the mix, with the player having the authority to indirectly control the heavies. The new game Starshatter does something like this, I believe. Of course, this would be tossing logical military authority out the window (a figher pilot giving orders to heavy cruisers?!?), but it is only a game, after all.

- Mike

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I'm thinking that the little pop-up head nodding and moving whilst some text is displayed alongside them is a must now. This was a feature I was considering as an extra, but now it's upped it's priority and is moving towards being critical to the character development.

I like the way FreeLancer does it, small head there in the side of the screen moving around whilst some dialog is being played. Nothing big, nothing flash, but effective all the same. The cut scenes (after missions, etc) will be something else. I'd love to be able to crank up 3d animated characters, but I doubt I have the resources - I'll find a way I think, that's the beauty about hobby game coding - we find our ways ;)

The indirect control of capital ships wasn't something I had on the agenda per se, but there is the element of you calling in the bombers once a capitial ship's fighter cover is down. I'm going for the feeling of you being part of a larger picture here, not just the lone gunner saving the universe, but part of a team fighting for a common cause. I think Wingmen will be crucial to this idea.

Thanks for all of your input so far :)

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