Thursday 24 May 2018

imbroglio notes 13 - phlogiston

I discussed the genesis of "charging" in episode 4 - it was originally a status attached to the player which some weapons would spend for an extra effect. But it was more interesting to attach a status to enemies to create more variety of possible situations, so it went away. (Plus it overlapped a lot with the concept of spending hit points for an extra effect.) Working on expansion, I came back to the original thought and hit on the idea of attaching the status to weapons instead - also creating more possible situations than the binary player charge. And the basic charge effect can be extra damage, which is always good so we're not dependent on a whole suite of weapons saying "if charged, do this". But it still takes up a lot of space so I dropped it from the first expansion so there was more room to build on the elements already in the game.

Bennett felt that extra damage was a boring effect and suggested bouncing to hit multiple enemies instead. I don't agree that it's boring - it's the difference between needing 1 action or 2 which is massive, not like RPG where it's 20 or 21 - but I did need more ways to hit multiple enemies to deal with end-game situations and this gave a nice general solution which could fit on lots of different weapons. I kept both effects because the multi-hit is very rare through most of the game but the extra damage is always relevant. Went through a few different versions: at first it just hit all connected enemies with extra damage but this was too strong and also meant the weapon's base damage didn't matter very much. So I went instead for a hitting a path through enemies losing 1 damage each time, adds some unpredictability when there's multiple possible paths (incidentally giving Molly something extra to control). This felt slightly too weak so the final version hits the first for +1 damage then all the rest at base damage.

I had a whole mess of different charge weapons with different effects, thought about separating out the different kinds of effect to organise them a bit more. Maybe the first expansion only has self-charging weapons, then a second one can charge other weapons, a third one has combo effects. Ended up dialing back combo effects because charging any weapon already allows a huge number of interactions, and any extra side-effects stacked onto charges end up insignificant because mainly you're damaging them to kill them anyway. Only self-charging weapons felt a little limited, and realistically "wow you thought weapons could only charge themselves but now -" is too obvious to be a surprise. So I went with red weapons self-charging (because red weapons do more direct damage; charging themselves is a way of doing that) and blue weapons charging others (combos). Self-charging still felt a bit plain so I brought back some of the charge combo effects as one-off effects for these weapons - rather than "all charge attacks arc diagonally", "all weapons can hold an additional charge" we get individual red weapons that interact differently with charges.

Thunderbolt Jade
Obviously I wanted a charging hero so the first power needed little consideration.
The disadvantage comes from a separate design branch. I'd been trying to think of more central systems (like "cursing", "charging", "spending") that could power a whole group of weapons, I had this idea of event cards that maybe change every gem or so and give an ongoing effect - like weather, seasons, environmental conditions, astrological phases. Maybe that's too much like hero effects, maybe we just roll a die for a symbol that modifies some weapon effects. Simplest version - only two states, maybe day and night, alternating. So for a while I had several weapons with distinct "night" effects, they can have bigger effects than usual because they only apply half the time, but ultimately they felt too arbitrary because you need to be standing on the right tile with the right configuration of enemies and have the right parity of score. But the "night hero" effect was worth keeping because you have to constantly take it into consideration. I really like the different tactics it brings out with trying to race for the gem in the "night" phase and preferably deal with the enemies during "day". It shifts the equation of when to collect the gem - usually you prefer to take a hit first to get the most out of healing, but taking a double hit just to heal one is no better than skipping the heal and only taking a single hit.
It wasn't obvious that these effects went together because I was thinking of them as separate systems - the "night hero" and the "charge hero". But since both give extra damage (to hero / to enemies) it ended up making sense.

Oko the Gnome
In early design I thought each enemy would have a special ability like 868-HACK, and one idea was a ranged attack with mana cost. And one idea for hero disadvantages was to boost specific enemy types, like Dominic's serpents, so I came back to this: one enemy gets range. But it didn't come up often enough because it relies on specific positioning (unlike Dominic's which almost always matters), so I extended it to all enemies. It works differently for each type anyway because they have different amounts of mana to spend. (And then the "one enemy type gets range" ended up back in 868-HACK for the PLAN.B expansion!) This one also makes some really interesting shifts to the tactics.
The "delay spawns" power doesn't have much thematic connection, they're just two weird effects I wanted to include that didn't fit on anyone else so I mashed them together. I think it ends up okay, he's the weird guy with weird rules? In principle it can deal with any enemy situation - you just need the foresight to use it before the situation actually occurs so there's a nice skill challenge there. At first I didn't have it blocking enemies that have already spawned but not entered and it was even more challenging to use well but I think this is better - if maybe a little too strong now.
One bug that came up: enemies spending mana would trigger Ixxthl's Ring, which would then heal the player. One side-effect that came up that I decided wasn't a bug: enemies spending mana can charge Cosmic Battery.

Storm Hammer, Quicksilver, etc.
All of these charging weapons went through a lot of different versions, I'm not going to record everything here. Mostly a matter of trying to figure out which charge triggers were strongest and shuffling them around with damage and side-effects so that each weapon has its own merits.

Cosmic Battery
See Repercussion Drum: that was a red weapon that spends blue mana to enable Ring combos with less pressure on the blue weapons. Now here's a red weapon that's activated by spending blue mana next to it; same principle.
I considered storing unlimited charges but it turned the combos with Eye and Alembic from something cute and interesting to something boringly strong.

Sacrificial Altar
Had the concept of an altar taking a blood sacrifice when moved onto for a while. Initially it gave a rune, this seemed a nice trade-off, lots of extra risk from the lost hit points but runes giving a lot more ways to get out of bad situations. Ended up way too strong with some heroes, so many runes. What about scoring gems - obviously "spend #r to gain #g" is too much because the gem heals you right back but maybe fractional gems? Attracting them like the Dream Wheel (i.e. giving 1/N of a gem when the gem is N steps away) feels too much like just a copy of the Wheel. Giving them on level-up (so each experience notch is a 1/4 gem) could work, you'd have to loop it so it doesn't just give up after 4; but ends up feeling a lot like a Wheel again because kills advance it too. I didn't want to add a whole new tile property just for this one effect. What about using charge as a way of counting half-gems? If uncharged: spend hp to charge, if charged: spend hp to discharge and get gem. This scores too fast so I just dropped the second part and had a self-charging weapon that was interesting on its own. It's a bit like a red Claws except you pay in advance. It stays charged until used so it wasn't murdering you all the time just for walking around like earlier versions did - probably a good thing.

Esoteric Prism
Basic charge combo, paralleling Witchpact Blade's curse-counting. Also after Altar stopped gaining runes I wanted some other alternative source.

Polymorph is one of my favourite of the classic Roguelike effects; it's a huge part of Nethack, it became a significant ability in 868-HACK, and it's now a significant effect in Cinco Paus too. So of course I tried it in Imbroglio, one of the early weapons was a polymorph wand that transforms what it hits. But often it would transform into something that couldn't survive the damage it had already taken, so rather than an interesting polymorph effect it felt more like a random kill effect. I tried a version with 0 damage but that was an awful trap. It made more sense as a hero ability; this ended up (in simpler form) being Ixxthl's power. But making an alchemy-themed expansion I came back to the idea of a "proper" transmutation effect and realised it would work better applied to other enemies than the one you're attacking. It fit well with other concepts in this set too: charges arcing around make distant enemies more likely to be damaged and thus vulnerable to being killed by the transformation; plus I named it after an electrical component (though Leon really doesn't like that I've used an electrical name for something that doesn't directly mention charges).
It's a highly random effect so like Blink Dagger I level it up by giving some control over the outcome. It felt weird when there was only one other enemy because it would always automatically select that one so I gave the option to select none. Also felt weird when it killed multiple enemies in one turn (e.g. if it was charged) because it would transform everything, pause to let you select something to transform, and then invalidate that by transforming everything again, so I made the first effect "once per turn".

Extension Cord
Leon's suggestion (note the electrical theming matched with a charge effect). It's a fairly minor effect but I thought it was cute and I gave it early damage to compensate. Might buff this later.

Golem Gauntlet
Unapologetically the charge version of Blight Broadsword. Originally it only leveled up when you charge it but I thought the text "only devours charges" was ambiguous and people might interpret it as eating charged hits too - and maybe that's better anyway because it gives it more flexibility. It's nice that Susannah can use this version without needing a blue weapon to charge it.
The IV effect was "every turn, charge this" but because in general it's faster to level than the Broadsword I reduced it so "when you collect #g" so it's not at 4 damage all the time (plus that was too much of a combo with Alembic).

Lightning Rod
When I classify red weapons as self-charging and blue as other-charging, what should happen to this that does both? I didn't want to get rid of it because I'd really enjoyed playing with it, setting up an engine where something gets charged then I step-by-step position my battles to bring the charge down where I want it. I could have skipped the middle step: discharge above to charge below; but that wasn't as fun (and also didn't give separate tiers of effect as it levels up). Eventually decided it was acceptable for blue because the intention is clear that it only charges itself in order to charge something else.

Spark Plug
Simple charge effect.

Agony Fuse
Hit on this idea by thinking through a list of electrical components to see if any of them inspired effects. A fuse made sense, stopping a circuit if the current exceeds a reasonable limit = stunning enemies if too many are attacking at once. Losing levels to save your hero makes it a bit like a mini-Amulet, but it's a sufficiently different implementation that I think it's okay. Added the second effect to appease Leon.

Ectoplasm Capacitor
Wanted something to tie charge combos into curse/ghost combos. Originally the first effect cursed but it was very minor; killing is better.

Someone suggested a hero that benefits from overhealing, so they wouldn't feel like the gem heal is wasted when they collect it at full health. That doesn't really fit into the model the heroes follow, as it's neither a disadvantage nor a rune effect, but it works as a weapon. Made the trigger blue because it's most likely to overheal with the common enemies being red.
I wanted more different ways to charge weapons so I went through each weapon thinking "is there a way a charge can fit into this concept" and came up with an effect that mirrors the healing - too much blue hp overflows into red hp too much red charge overflows into blue charge. Nicely broadens the red weapon charge effects that only charge themselves, also works with other blue charging effects if they're aimed at red weapons.

Alchemist's Eye
I go through every effect I can put in the game to see if it makes sense to have a version that spends mana. Spending to charge was an obvious effect, I tried several versions - charging self, charging random, charging target. Charging the target works well with range because it gives more possible targets. This proved too strong a way to charge things, especially in the early-game because it didn't need to be leveled up (I don't like to put mana spends after leveling up because then you have to keep track of whether a weapon has acquired a disadvantage).
I also tried a weapon that spends mana to level up other weapons - like a blue Blacksmith's Tongs. This also works well with range. One problem with it was that after those weapons have leveled up it stops doing anything interesting. So I combined the two! Putting the charging at level 4 stops it being overpowered early on without having the weapon acquire a disadvantage later on - you start spending on charges when you stop spending on levels.

In an early prototype I was looking for ways to make different combos, I thought of some weapons generating an enemy type that acts as a resource and other weapons using that resource in different ways, so right away I put in Cauldron as the simplest way to generate those enemies and Mask as the obvious way to make them useful. This combo dominated early versions, several playtesters became obsessed with it - I think because it was easy to spot and obviously strong, it was quite fun but also frustrating to get started. I wanted it in there but I didn't want the frustration to be people's first experience of the game so maybe I move it to unlocks.
It's nicer if a component can be used in multiple different combos, and that wasn't true of Cauldron. Most of the other ways of creating ghosts were useful on their own - converting an enemy into one that's easier to kill. And the Mask is useful with any ghost source. But the Cauldron on its own is mostly a disadvantage - you kill the ghosts to feed weapons or for on-kill effects, but these interactions weren't good enough to be worthwhile alone. I tried giving it extra effects to make it worth the risk of dying to ghosts, but that just made it even more overpowered when the Mask inverts that penalty. In the end I kicked both items out of the game in the hope of maybe solving their problems later. Making Mask only affect one ghost at a time made things a lot better so I put that in the first expansion. I decided to split them up so people would explore one without getting fixated on the particular combo. Cauldron first could be intriguing, it poses a question - why make ghosts? - and then you answer it later. But the first expansion really needed good possibilities to build different boards with, not bad cards that might get made viable later.

Philosopher's Stone
For expansions I wanted to enable more weird combo builds, and alternate win conditions are a classic way of creating those, so I thought about different methods of scoring points. The initial game focused on the one method of moving around to collect gems, with cards that might help with survival (so you have more turns to collect gems in) or speed (so you get more gems per turn), and one special scoring effect with the Wheel.
In early design before I'd pinned down the main scoring system, I had the concept of weapons being worth points as they level up. Like Dominion where victory cards take up space in your deck, maybe Imbroglio would require trading strength against scoring in board construction. So I tried a bit of this again, maybe a basic red damage weapon with points on top, this was functional but ultimately not very exciting - it's easy enough to level that it couldn't be too major a component of scoring, and for weird alchemical combos I was really looking for a Magnum Opus that would have a significant effect.
Looking for more mana-spend effects, I tried cards that trade hit points for real points. This doesn't really work because scoring a gem heals back what you spent on it straight away, but maybe it could cost 2 mana? Or what's worse than spending mana - how about spending it permanently?
The maximum score is 256, so with 4 copies of a card that's 64 each, or 16 per level. I really enjoyed making the card text display ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦; it feels proper big. Of course you're not going to level 4 of them, even leveling one of them all the way kills you (but it stills count as a win if that gets you to 256; dramatic!).
I think this version is slightly too strong, but the other versions I had were slightly too weak and in general I've come to feel like it's better to err on the side of the player. If I release something overpowered then people have fun breaking the game but don't mind if it gets nerfed later, if I release something underpowered people complain that it's useless and then complain again when I buff it later - I don't understand why. I particularly think of Festerfang Venom which I spent a long time testing different version of that were all too complicated or ridiculously strong until I found a simple version that's on the edge of being useful but doesn't play itself and automatically kill everything - and nobody likes it, probably I should have just released one of the stronger versions and let it be a bit broken, why not?

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Phlogiston preview

Imbroglio: Phlogiston, the second expansion for Imbroglio, will be released next week! It is an alchemical laboratory filled with strange experimental equipment and dangerously mutated creatures.

The main "shiny new thing" to be introduced is the concept of charged weapons: a weapon tile can become electrified to empower its next attack with bonus damage and chaotic energies that arc through adjacent enemies as well. This is like a new resource to gain and spend, but instead of a number that goes up and down it's stored on the tiles on the board. It creates a whole new range of possible board constructions. With the extra damage it's kind of an alternative to Whetstone; hitting multiple enemies it's kind of an alternative to important board-clearing weapons like Echo Harp and Witchpact Blade; and with a variety of effects triggering off it it's kind of an alternative to curses for building combo boards.

What kind of combos? Time for some EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW CONTENT oh no!

The Lightning Rod basically moves a charge from something above it on the board to something below. (You might as well put it in one of the middle rows.) What goes on top? Something has to create a charge in the first place; this is strictly a combo weapon. What goes underneath? Pick any weapon, maybe there's something you think will benefit especially well from becoming charged. And in the middle - it charges itself along the way so that's a bit of extra damage too.

And of course we have also a new alchemist hero who can manipulate charges, empowering her weapons for extra damage:

"At night" is just a fanciful way of saying "every second screen". Remember how the walls are darker sometimes? That's night-time. At one point I thought this was going to be a whole big thing, I was designing all these cards that had special night-time effects, but honestly "this doesn't work half the time" isn't a very exciting hook so forget it. But for an enemy bonus it's solid, it creates a rhythm alternating between business-as-usual and fleeing-in-terror, it totally changes the tactics around when you want to score a gem. And with both the hero and the enemies boosting damage the stakes are high; this is a challenge for skilled players.

Most of the new stuff revolves around charges, but there's a few other weird little toys to play with too. Alternative ways to score gems, to level up your weapons, to play it safe or to gamble everything.

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Cinco Paus has been incredibly well received; a lot of people are saying it's my best game yet, reviews are consistently highly positive (nobody on the appstore has rated it less than 5 stars), everything I'm hearing from players is great. This has not translated into many sales; it doesn't seem to have spread much past the circle of people who are already following my work. Weirdly there have been quite a few new people buying 868-HACK - it might be that people are hearing good things about the new game and then buying the old one instead because it's somehow seen as an "entry point" to my work? I guess I can't complain about this but they are very different games and I suspect for a lot of people Cinco Paus would serve as a more accessible entry point - it's more immediately fun, with less technical resource management, also it might be a better game. For similar reasons I'm a little surprised by the lack of recognition from the IGF - 866-HACK and Imbroglio were both design finalists and I'd hoped that with this one having a bit more immediate accessibility it might be the one to have a chance at actually winning - but I don't really know what's going on there now that Design, Nuovo and Grand Prize have all merged into the same category. Anyway, not to worry, I'm very happy with the response from people playing it and it's okay if sales are a slow burn.

I discussed my thoughts around expanding/porting Imbroglio. I've had an expansion just about ready to release for months but kept delaying it because I felt like it should wait until after the PC release. But I've realised part of what's been getting in the way of me porting it is that updating it with expansions becomes a bigger task the more platforms it's on, and I want to keep being able to do that in the background while working on new projects. So I think the answer is to keep it just on iOS for now, expand it there, and then eventually do a full PC release with all of that content included once I'm done meddling with it. Sorry I know that's not an ideal solution for everyone but it's one that works for me.

Started messing with a prototype that might turn into yet another tiny roguelike, not sure yet if the concept works, it's a slightly awkward one that needs quite a bit of stuff built up first before I can really test it. This might just be a bad sign; I usually get the best results from ideas that I can prototype super-quickly, but I don't want that to be a limitation on what types of things I can ever make so I'll sometimes try the tricky ideas anyway. I'll hopefully be able to reuse some things even if the main idea doesn't work out.

From thinking about what's seen as an "entry point" to my games, I'm wondering if I really ought to prioritise making something that might establish a new entry point, and I think the way to do that is to make something that is perceived as somehow "bigger". It's really nice that 868-HACK continues to sell and reach new people but it won't be enough to keep sustaining me. I'd very happily continue making games on the same kind of scale that I have been, but I know part of why they're hard to get attention for is that they're "small". Imbroglio was really quite a large project but a lot of the work was paring the design down to essentials and making it work in a tiny space, work that is unappreciated in an industry obsessed with BIGGER and MORE. So the challenge for me now is to find how to make something that will fit that perception of being "bigger" to get that attention on it, without completely throwing away the design principles that make my games good by making them small. Let's see what I can do.