Saturday 28 May 2016

imbroglio notes 2 - blood and mana

Building a board of different weapons, there needed to be reasons why the weapons would be useful in different situations and you'd not just always take whichever does the most damage. Maybe some do less damage but build up resources so you use those against weaker enemies to prepare for stronger ones. Maybe some do more damage against specific enemy types, maybe like a system of elemental resistances and vulnerabilities? This is a FIRE weapon it does 25% more damage to ICE enemies but 25% less to STEEL enemies blah blah blah.

I'd been playing Magic with the recent-ish set that used Poison/Infect and finding a lot of joy in the moments of choosing how to block when some attackers are poisonous and others do regular damage and you can't stop them all. Just quite nice to be choosing between different kinds of damage, having to estimate which one will come closest to killing me, much more pleasant than the standard of "the biggest number is worst". They're good moments, maybe I can steal the system of damage types and put it in a new context. Life and Poison function differently - Life is lost / Poison is gained - but that's unnecessary, losing is just winning backwards.
(tools: just keep stealing from Magic it has more stuff than it needs anyway.)

Also talking with Jonathan Brodsky about Nightmare Cooperative and trying to articulate what makes roguelikes work, that thing of being presented with random situations and having to choose which resource to spend to deal with them. Just having random situations isn't enough on its own, you need an option to bypass some of your choice. And you want that choice to be unclear else it's a pure optimisation puzzle, acting under uncertainty being part of the pleasure of strategy games (in principle you could work out all the probabilities and pick the one with the highest survival chance but in practice you can make it sufficiently complex that some estimation is required). Usually the choice is broadly between using the basic combat mechanics (spending some number of hit points) or invoking a limited-use secondary system like items or spells.

Having different damage types would put more of that resource decision into the basic combat mechanics. Flanked by two enemies, the choice isn't just "use an item or take damage", it's which one you want to deal with first while taking damage from the other. Conventionally this is a simple calculation, one value to optimise, kill whichever one would do the most damage. But with two hit point values, you can't locally optimise, you have to estimate how much of each you'll be taking afterwards too.

I think this is a really weird and technical idea! It's already complex in Magic but I've extended it to enemies that move about on a grid, and to everyone having the two hit point meters (not just the player) because half the point is that your weapons can deal two kinds of damage too to give reasons to use different ones against different enemies. Wow so complicated, double the numbers everywhere. Then I start to implement it and realise it's just the same old red and blue life bars from every single CRPG ever. Oh !

Yeah so actually it is nothing special! I thought I was being clever in how I took pieces from different games and recontextualised them to make something new, instead I just made something old. Basically every game ever has blood and mana as separate resources. Usually the second one you are spending yourself rather than getting hit in but sometimes there are energy draining undead monsters hitting it so all I'm really proposing is to have more of those. So conventional game. (Also I may as well just make some weapons that spend mana too because it'll be plenty intuitive, everyone expects it.)

Anyway! To make it an interesting choice which kind damage to take I want to make the things that threaten them be actually different. Not just red and blue flavours of the same enemy. Enemy design is probably a separate post but here it suffices to say that giving them different strengths and weaknesses will probably complicate that enough, make it non-trivial to estimate which ones your board is best able to handle in the immediate future. Spending mana for positive effects also adds a nice twist; if you lose it in damage you can't afford the bonuses.

I've noticed that players very quickly grasp the idea that enemies are weaker in one colour so it is advantageous to hit with weapons of that colour, but then often they internalise that as a strict rule ("you always have to hit those ones with a blue weapon") and will go out of their way to use the preferred colour even when it's very unsafe to do so / costs a lot more turns. There's definitely situations where it's better to use the "wrong" colour.

Also, different amounts of damage of each colour, whole matrix of possibilities. I had a weapon that did one of each but dropped it, important for everything to have weaknesses. I really like the way having weapons do different amounts of damage can create "combos" already before any extra rules come into play: an enemy has 3 hit points, you can hit it once for 2 damage and then finish it off with a 1-damage weapon, combo! Much more elegant than the labelled combos of "apply a status effect to an enemy" / "trigger off enemies with that status effect" though it's nice to have those too.

Friday 27 May 2016

imbroglio notes 1 - inventory management

Ok I'm going to write a series of posts about Imbroglio design, actually a bunch of this I wrote already but I didn't post because I didn't want to explain the game too much before release. Probably going to be a lot of words but you don't have to read them it's okay.

Initial idea came from looking at inventory management in RPGs. Lots of differently shaped items but it doesn't tend to matter all that much because there's so much space. You're not really forced to make exclusive choices ("this platemail takes up so much space in my pack that I can't fit many potions"). Maybe some games do this but mostly in what I've played the constraints are loose enough they don't matter.

(Really weird thing Neverwinter Nights as shown in the screenshot above: as well as the space restriction which is intuitive and doesn't matter, there's also a weight restriction which is much less clear but does matter. )

So I thought, what if we put this on a smaller grid, then it would start to matter. Maybe the platemail takes up half your pack so it really limits what else you can carry. Force some difficult decisions about what to take.

Usually what's in your pack doesn't do anything, as well there's like ten different active slots to equip things, armour and cloak and bracelets and shoes and rings on every finger. On this side you are making exclusive choices; you can only wear one armour, you can only wield one weapon; but these choices are all between things of the same kind, you can't tank up by trading a weapon for double armour. But if we're making pack space management matter, we may as well drop the active slots and just have one small grid of active equipment. Maybe some unrealistic abstraction there but these games are full of that already. And now weapon size and shape actually matters, daggers don't need complicated extra rules to balance them against broadswords, they just take up less room.

Make the grid small enough relative to the items and you can get some really interesting exclusions. Warrior sword takes up the full horizontal width of the inventory grid, wizard staff takes up the full vertical: suddenly really obvious that you can't have both. This was the central idea I started with and thought was really cool, fitting awkwardly shaped items into a grid and their shapes really mattering. Played around a lot with fun shapes that exclude each other. Grid sizes I tried were around 5x5 to 7x7, it depends on average item area - 49 1x1 potions is too many, but 4 3x4 suits of armour is very manageable.

One idea I'd thought about was: what if some of the items affect the playing area based on their position? The level would be some sensible size like 20x20, much bigger than the constrained inventory screen, but if they're the same shape it could scale up to cover it (or maybe tile I don't know), and then some items could give you a bonus just when you're in the matching area. A bit weird but if I'm generating lots of items it could be a plausible mechanic for a few of them.
So I just had this design idea floating around for ages until with 868-HACK my conception of what constituted a plausible playing area dropped to within the same range I'd been considering for the inventory and suddenly "items affect corresponding play area" became a lot more natural because they could just be the same space. I started prototyping a 5x5 version where each item had one global effect (e.g. extra hit points) and one action you could do in that spot. Some of the actions needed resources and others were more like simple "wait" commands. There were different item shapes but my implementation of those was pretty broken, not important yet because I was just trying to get a feel for how the game was going to work. I had this lovely super-low-res style but it had huge problems with communication, trying to fit into a few pixels all the information about global and local effects and also enemies and their hit points and so on, urgh, it became pretty clear that the game wouldn't work at all at that resolution, maybe not even at a medium resolution like 868-HACK.

I put it on hold for a while making other things, when I came back to it I still didn't want to fix the item shapes so to avoid that I came up with the very convenient idea of just building it with single-tile items "for now". Of course I was going to get to it eventually because the whole point was it's cool how you can't have both a staff and a sword because they're tall and long. (Which really is a cute idea maybe I will come back to it?)

I wrote a big list of all the ideas I had for items - armour for hit points, amulet to save you once if you die in that spot, bow giving a ranged attack in that spot. Most of the active effects I had felt too much like just repackaging 868-HACK so I backed off on that, a lot of the cooler ideas were positional attack modifiers so - what if every item is a weapon? Plenty of possible hit effects, plus I could still use global passive effects on weapons with just a basic hit. Rewrote my list to all be weapons, seemed good.

One weapon was DRAGON SWORD, with the unique effect that it gets stronger if you use it to kill a dragon (or insert enemy type once I have them). Playing out the game in my head (without a digital prototype of new stuff yet) this seemed the most interesting item because you're trying to lure enemies to fight at a specific place rather than just using whatever is most efficient nearby, and because it created a progression not just a cycle where you use one weapon to gain a resource and then another to spend it. So - what if everything levels up like this? This turned out pretty important to give the game some shape, starting with everything already equipped would makes a really complicated opening and then not much variation. I had been assuming a typical structure where you're collecting better items and slotting them into your inventory as you go but this worked without that.

- steal ideas from another game and try to fix them
- always make the grid smaller
- save up weird ideas until they naturally fit somewhere
- write down all different ideas and then fit them all into a consistent structure
- simplify the design to avoid work you don't want to do
- abandon your original idea, it was just scaffolding

Wednesday 18 May 2016


Imbroglio on iOS appstore

Yet another roguelike. It shares some recognisable elements with Zaga-33 and 868-HACK but I don't think it's very useful to think of it as a sequel, it has a pretty different philosophy.

It's on a 4x4 grid, as I continue to get steadily smaller (from Zaga's 9x9 and 868's 6x6). I first prototyped it at 5x5 but that was way too big. (See also Diego Cathilifaud's Amber Halls for 5x5, and I see now he's gone as low as 3x3 but I haven't checked that out yet.)

Compared to 868-HACK, individual plays are longer; it amused me to fit an epic-scale RPG leveling system into a tiny grid. But each play is self-contained, there's nothing like the streak scoring system tying multiple plays together. And there's less randomness in each game because you construct your build at the start of a game rather than assembling it from random pickups along the way. I've described this as "deck-building"; that might be slightly misleading but I think it's a useful analogy; the wall generation provides the "shuffle".

You can see I've used a different graphical style to some of my other games. Don't worry I haven't abandoned rainbow glitch pixel chaos for good, just the amount of stuff that needed to be communicated in terms of the card effects called for a higher resolution display. I'd been thinking for a while about using this kind of hand-sketched style for something and it fit here. Had fun drawing a bunch of wibbely monsters and stabby swords.

As usual, chances are a bunch of new bugs will show up now that it's released. Let me know and I'll get to work fixing them.

I hope you like it! It is always a bit anxious to release something new especially when it is hard to explain. I know for some people it will be too different and for some it will be not different enough, but it is its own thing and there you go.