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Robin S

Hard sci-fi adventure game concept: criticism appreciated

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Hi everyone. Some years ago I created this thread about a game idea I was developing. I'm not sure whether I should have just asked a moderator to reopen it; I haven't visited for a while and was never a regular member, so apologies for this or any other forum etiquette -related faux pas. Anyway, my thoughts have progressed in fits and starts over the years - I'm the sort of person who's obsessed with an idea for a while but ends up abandoning it only to return to it with renewed enthusiasm months or years later, often multiple times. Maybe not the sort of person who should be trying to work on as demanding a project as creating a computer game, but I figure I've got little to lose by at least thinking about the idea. So, I've revamped my plans for the backstory: a civilization (human or otherwise; unspecified) has sent probes with a strong form of artificial intelligence to investigate other solar systems. These probes travel at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light (but not relativistic speeds), so their journeys take on the order of a few centuries. They are not equipped for interstellar communication, so once a probe leaves its solar system of origin behind it's on its own. The probe visiting this system, however, is at most a secondary protagonist. The player controls a member of the resident early Bronze Age (or equivalent) civilization, modeled roughly on Mesopotamia of the late 4th millennium BC. A number of small cities and villages, the foundations of early city-states, exist within a day or two's walk of each other and are the main setting for the game, along with the routes between them. Politics and religion are intended to play a part, and hopefully the game will provoke a few philosophical thoughts in its players (though not so many as to be distracting). Basically, my plan is for the game to play out roughly like a pen-and-paper RPG might - but without some of the features normally central to the RPG genre, such as experience curves. Diplomacy and "roleplaying", to the extent that such is possible in a computer game, would be important. Maybe plot / setting immersion would be a better term. Combat would still play a part but players wouldn't use it to "level the character up"; advantages would be gained only through allies / party members and superior weaponry. In particular, I'm hoping for some degree of realism which is why I'm looking to eliminate features like the experience curve. These are still partially-formed thoughts and ideas. I'm posting here because many of you have far more experience than I do in how to make a game work. I'm not asking you to write the game for me, but for constructive input, reading material and general criticism and suggestions. With thanks, Robin

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From the point of view of the game itself, your backstory means very little, and sounds more than a little like Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. It really has no impact on the game play itself, it is merely the setup for "this is why the game starts the way that it does". Once the game has started, the player generally won't give it a lot of thought, as he will be dealing with whatever in-game challenges he is faced with.

Similarly the setting is ultimately unimportant to the game play. Yes, it decides what weapons, armor, and other items are available, or at least what they look like, and what the general look and feel of the game are, but it does not really impact game play as much as you think.

You state that the player controls a single entity, but you show a dislike for experience point systems. You will have some sort of progression system, and whether or not you call it experience points, the general outcome is the same. You might have a series of better and better equipment that the player can purchase once he has earned the appropriate amount of money, but that simply makes money the experience point, and doesn't really change that you have an experience point system. Sure, you might not have levels per set, but a particular set of equipment is tantamount to a "level" of sorts, meaning that there is a particular toughness of enemy that one can deal with. As a game progresses, there must be some way of incrementing challenge.

You also state a desire to include politics and religion. It is my guess that this will involve some sort of dialog tree interaction system that keeps track of attitudes that the player has evinced through his words.

Basically, analysis of your design is this: you have an idea for an RPG that doesn't use experience points(but will have some other sort of progression system) and will generally be a dialog tree and close combat game.

Also, you indicate inexperience in game development. This sounds like an ambitious project, one that I do not think a single developer of any experience level could tackle well.

You indicated in the historical post that you also considered it a potential story for a novel or other work of prose. Let me encourage you in that, as you wrote much more about back story and setting than you did about the game itself.

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Thanks for your quick response.

You're right, this is an ambitious project as it stands. I'm aware of a few small-scale homebrew games, and my thought was to try to build a simple, proof-of-concept system with a smallish setting / playtime (compared with a commercial RPG), partly as a learning exercise and also for fun. I agree that this is still a major undertaking, but I want to see what I can achieve.

I have somewhat more experience in coding than in game design, though I wouldn't consider myself hugely accomplished there either; on the other hand, I also have rather limited experience in writing narrative, and enjoy picking things up as I go along. The reason I focused on the backstory in my previous post was that, so far, it's the main thing I've developed and I wanted to highlight the difference in premise from that in my original post, for what it was worth. Since it requires only creativity and can be developed in one's mind whilst doing other activites, I reasoned that backstory and plot were easier to come up with before a more in-depth development of mechanics and other aspects of gameplay.

Here's the situation, then. I have a setting, and a backstory. I am not a skilled writer, or artist, or programmer, or game designer, so I don't have a product that can be enjoyed by others yet - but I am keen to learn. I could try to write, say, a novella, but I'm not convinced that it would be any easier, or the end result any more entertaining based on my current level of ability. I enjoy playing games as much as I enjoy reading; I like the interactive element, and the immersion and sense of control it provides the player. I have some concepts for gameplay, which admittedly need to be fleshed out, but equally the vague thoughts I have for a plot would need to become much more detailed for a written story.

A particular comment on the situation with equipment that you described, money replacing experience points. You might well be right, but I want to clarify that I plan to avoid exponential increases in a character's abilities whether it be through stats or equipment. For example, a person with a sword will often beat an unarmed person, but even this depends on differences in competency which are unlikely to be reversed over the course of a few weeks. Certainly, in a bronze age setting, you're unlikely to encounter another person who is completely impervious to your attacks as is often the way in RPGs. That's why I titled the thread "adventure game".

On the other hand, the game will as you say need to present an increasing challenge. This may be partly military, and partly diplomatic, depending on how I develop my ideas and how the player chooses to play the character. To face these challenges, the player will have the weapons of diplomacy and alliances, but these things are harder to quantify and can easily go down as well as up.

Anyway, I'm happy to build up towards this as a project. Are there any recommendations you can make, for reading or projects, to improve the specific abilities needed to develop this sort of game?

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Quote:
Original post by Robin S
Basically, my plan is for the game to play out roughly like a pen-and-paper RPG might - but without some of the features normally central to the RPG genre, such as experience curves. Diplomacy and "roleplaying", to the extent that such is possible in a computer game, would be important. Maybe plot / setting immersion would be a better term. Combat would still play a part but players wouldn't use it to "level the character up"; advantages would be gained only through allies / party members and superior weaponry. In particular, I'm hoping for some degree of realism which is why I'm looking to eliminate features like the experience curve.

Some play on diplomacy: What is it that makes a 3-player game different from a 2-player game? It is possible to take sides and team up against one player. So it could be interesting to make diplomacy the art of shifting the relationships between enemies, as well as cultivating a good relationship with enemies.

Diplomats might be given some sort of point system that lets them move the current relationships. Maybe the Red player worsens the Blue player's relationship to the Green player. How effective the Red player was could be modified by its relationship to the Blue player, other PR campaign type technologies, agents in the field, planted/bought off officials, and so on.

For an n-player game, there are n*(n-1) relationships which can be placed on a 2D grid, with the intersection giving the war-peace number from one to the other. It's n*(n-1) instead of just n*n because the middle diagonal represents a relationship with self.

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I like the point-based idea. It could make it easier to have a nonlinear storyline, reducing how complicated the dialogue tree needs to be - important, since there are quite a few political entities of various sizes - and making gameplay closer to that of a strategy game (though still with the first-person adventuring element).

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Consider starting out with a pen & paper, card or board game as your beginning framework. As someone often plagued with nebulous concepts (wouldn't it be nice to be possessed with the desire to just make an FPS, and only an FPS???) I find that nothing snaps things into focus faster than the demand to create the play space, the tokens which embody the player's actions and the rules that will govern how those actions will be judged or resolved.

It's certainly possible to do a small scale, skeletal game that embodies the core concepts you're interested in. I think it's important to zero in on what aesthetic you're going for-- is it supposed to be an epic struggle, or an adventure which reveals some mystery, or what? Personally I've found that really giving attention to this question is vital because if you do not you may waste lots of time designing gameplay which ultimately does not result in the feeling you were going for. If, for example, you really want to tell the tale of a great mystery being unraveled by a primitive people and you make a miniature Alpha Centauri-type game, you'll likely have succeeded in making a strategy game whose mechanics are more about war than about mystery.

Another important point when you have both intermittent focus and limited resources is to find that core and get it put together as soon as possible. When your fire dims you'll then be able to go back to your working prototype for inspiration, even if it's just a mocked up board game.

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Coming from an avid gamer perspective:

I think that Americans have certain levels of expectations from games. From what you are describing, the idea of advancing in levels solely through dialogue, choices, relationship advancement, etc; this sounds like a Japanese RPG type of thing to do (I'm not telling you what your target audience should be, but without a really large budget I can only imagine how tough it will be to promote it overseas as well as other arising complications within.)

Regardless, you have more than enough ideas at the moment and you really need to put out a prototype if you haven't already.

My .02,
Jesse

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I like the idea, im not sure exactly what the RPG would entail but the environment would be an interesting exploration or even a little RTS involved maybe be fun.

I like the attempt to remove the experience level up curve. Have you thought about doing a megaman approach, where through your choices you obtain "abilities" that will help you later on or not later on but for other areas?

I wouldnt make it FPS, its overdone.

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For diplomacy, why not just have a sliding scale from -10 to 10, or bigger if you want more 'specific-ness'. -10 is hatred, 10 is pure love/adolation/etc.
Have a big database of events that could affect this depending on your response to them.

City A has asked your Village to become an ally. If you accept then relations got to 9 and you have their protection. But this makes all other relationships go down by 1, except with current allies and the cities allies.

Events could be semi-random, based on criteria ( e.g relations above 0, not at war with each other) or player triggered (you have asked Genericopolis to be your ally).

EDIT:
Seeing the results of your actions is something most gamers love. Not just ina Fable way either, if you try Rise and Fall (free- USAAF sponsored for some reason) then you get to walk through cities you built in RTS mode as a 'hero'. Watching, and taking part in, battles that happen because you ordered your units to attack someones city is really rather awesome.

Damn, I love that game. No one else seems to though..... hrm.

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Thanks, everyone, for the input. I'll try to respond to all your comments and provide a few of my own - apologies in advance for the length of this post.

First, an indirect response to PlaysOnDrugs: to avert any potential confusion, I am not a professional game developer; I'm not even looking to market this game. Rather, it's a personal project that I'm hoping to use as a learning experience as well as a source of enjoyment for myself and others. One of the great things about independent game development is that you're not as constrained by market expectations. When it's nearing completion, I'll set up a website, let my friends know about it, mention it here and a few other places on the Internet and hope it picks up a few downloads. I think that would be reward enough for me.

Wavinator: I think you are absolutely right about creating something like a tabletop model for my ideas. I'm not going to have time for another couple of months, but I plan to start working on it once I'm free for the summer (I'm an undergraduate student at the moment). It should help to solidify the various concepts I have floating around.

The focus of the narrative is one of discovery and asking questions - perhaps not quite a mystery (for me, that word carries some connotations of uncovering deceipt, as in a murder mystery), but certainly "the unknown" is a heavy element. The setting as I currently envisage it is an isolated river plain with no outside contact - maybe animals have not yet been domesticated for the purpose of transport - so the world beyond the natives' borders is "mysterious" in some sense, let alone the concept of a universe beyond their planet.

In addition, this is a civilization that is only a handful of generations old; the concepts of politics and organized religion that I mentioned in the original post of this thread are still new and developing ideas. The population, too, is in its early growth stages; the land is nowhere near its carrying capacity, so control of territory is more important for the social aspects than command of resources - and socially and culturally, the burgeoning city-states have a lot in common. The arrival of the probe, however, might throw a spanner in the works. The probe itself, remember, has its own personality, and in a sense the game is also intended to tell its story, from a third-person perspective.

TacoGrande: To my shame, I haven't yet played any of the Megaman games. What you seem to be suggesting sounds interesting, though it would need to be adapted to a non-platforming context - one possible example is transfer of technology from allies or conquered cities, although this couldn't be taken too far: there might be differences in what inventions have occurred in each city-state, but they're all going to be at roughly the same level.

Bear in mind I also don't want it to end up as the sort of Civilization-type strategy game that Wavinator described - this is primarily a story of discovery, diplomacy and intrigue on the level of individual characters. Anyone who's played a tabeltop RPG involving politics - something like Legend of Five Rings, a partial inspiration for this concept - will hopefully know roughly what I'm talking about.

At any rate, I certainly wasn't planning to make the game anything like an FPS. To the contrary, given that I'm a one-man team with limited experience I expect it will be sprite-based.

JamesPenny - the sliding scale is a good starting point, but by itself it's too simple to support the sort of mechanics I'm visualizing. Representing those dynamic relationships in a way that's easily interpreted by the player is certainly important, though: a separate interface or menu for this would be too immersion-breaking for my liking, but I think it should be doable using NPCs "in-game". As for the combination of random and action-based triggers you describe, I also imagined the system working something like this.

Finally, your point about players liking to see the consequences of their actions - you are of course completely right, and the NPC-based "relationship updates" I mentioned above would hopefully go some way towards fulfilling this role, in addition to providing news of events which were of a more random nature, or beyond the player's control. However, the player character, while not an insignificant peasant, is no legendary hero or king - he's a cog in the machine. The game will depict his personal journey of discovery, as well as the player's discovery of this fictional world (and, to an extent, the story of the probe as hinted at above).

Finally, a couple more comments of my own (sorry, I know this post is getting a bit long). I'm thinking of taking another leaf or two out of the books of the tabletop RPG's game master: in particular, what I'll call "narrative cuts". As an example, take pretty scenery. For all its prettiness, it rarely occupies as much as even a minute of screentime in non-interactive media without something interesting happening (some books may be an exception, but then it's not exactly "screentime"). And yet in video games, players often find themselves spending a frustrating length of time just walking places with only the scenery to hold their attention, or doing other mindless activities that require no decision-making and do little to enrich the gameplay experience.

In tabletop RPGs, this problem is done away with entirely by the expedient of "we walk to the inn" or even "we ride for several days to the castle". Many RPGs have a world map which can be navigated in faster-than-realtime to remove the tedium of long walks. I would take things one step further - I still haven't worked out all the details of how this would work mechanically, but I'm imagining a system whereby the player can indicate their intention to go somewhere and, unexpected encounters aside (I'll come to that in a minute) there will be a convenient screen cut to their arrival.

The encounters, random or otherwise, that I just alluded to are one example of the player being presented with a decision or information that they weren't expecting. It is my opinion, and some of you may disagree, that such events - those where the player is given new information (or a possible lead to new information), or is required to make a decision of some kind, are really what the player is playing for. They don't want to spend a dull afternoon walking along an empty road to the next city or sweet-talking a monarch, except where the details therein involve interesting decisions: does the player have reliable directions to the city? How much is known about the monarch's plans and motivations? These sort of questions really only become relevant at a few discrete points - to take the tabletop RPG analogy again, "you reach a fork in the road" or "after half an hour or so of compliments, exchanging of gifts and small talk, the king happens to mention the new shipyard his workers have been constructing".

If the character is, say, wandering through the city streets near the temple then opportunities for such events are likely to crop up with enough regularity that no "narrative cuts" will be necessary. But there are plenty of places where I think it could make a positive difference to gameplay.

To take a further example, suppose your character is injured and will need weeks to recover. That's fine - and what's more, interesting plot developments can occur while he's incapacitated. Perhaps, during that period, a piece of news will reach him which is so urgent that he may make the decision to leave his bed, even though his injuries have not completely healed. Taking this to its logical conclusion, the character might die. Even without savepoints, this needn't be too frustrating for the player - furnish him with another one, maybe from a different city and with different background information. Die enough times, and the game can become like a jigsaw puzzle. I realize this is fairly unconventional, and of course it will only work if the player's attraction to the story is stronger than to the character. If, on the other hand, there is the option to restore a saved game-state then some of the random events will play out differently, ideally leading to some sort of butterfly effect (and hence replayability).

As always, your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated. Sorry once again for the wall of text.

[Edited by - Robin S on April 8, 2010 9:52:08 PM]

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