Friday, 17 May 2013

The Solution To All Your Problems

Modern video games are easier than their retro counter parts. The Brainy Gamer posted an article some time ago on the topic of problem solving in modern versus classic video games. He concluded that games today coddle and instruct far more than the games he grew up on, showcased by a modern generations inability to use their intuition to solve certain aspects of the game. Now, I don't want to drop the player into my game with no instruction, no understanding and expect them to have fun, but in a game about survival, exploration, and discovery, I want to leave some features a surprise.

Building Solutions

At the risk of this becoming a theme in my writing, Dwarf Fortress takes this approach to the extreme. Tarn Adams drops you into a complex world with complex rules and expects you to figure the game out by yourself using the manual. Although an incredibly frustrating experience, once you learn how to carve out a plot in the side of a mountain, the fruits of your frustration will bear.

This isn't quite the approach I want to take with The Wanderer. By the nature of the game, Wanderer is far more intuitive than Dwarf Fortress. The WASD key movement and mouse aiming abides by the standard set by decades of game development and innovation. In contrast, there has been decidedly less innovation in the genre of "dwarf colony simulator".

No, I want to leave certain aspects of the game world a surprise, not the basic rules of game flow. A more appropriate example from Dwarf Fortress would be the ability to construct complex mechanisms and how to apply this to other game mechanics such as agriculture.

When I first started playing the game, I quickly realised that farming would be a necessary task in order to sustain a thriving, healthy (Ha!) fortress. I had a problem, the crops I wanted to grow in my farm plot could only be grown under ground, where it doesn't rain. In order to irrigate my crops, I needed to channel a pond into my underground plantation without drowning the crops. I did this by constructing levers and applying their function to opening and closing doors in order to allow and halt the flow of water.

This example showcases the sort of application of abstract game mechanics to practical problems I want to encourage in the Wanderer.

Predicting Risks

A second problem I encountered with my irrigation system was drainage. I channeled a tunnel out of the side of the mountain in order for excess water to be expelled. I figured that this was a genius solution and soon my fortress was producing cave mushroom meals, liquor and goods. Cave mushrooms might as well have been subsidized.

Unfortunately, my problem solving skills did not account for the risks of an ambitious farming project. My fortress was laid siege to by a vast army of goblins. I felt safe in my impenetrable fortress filled with traps, mazes and a capable military. Well, impenetrable except for one irrigation tunnel.

This is an example of how game mechanics are not explained but follow intuitive thinking. Of course creating an exit from my fortress also created a second entrance. Of course I put myself at risk by not weighing the risks. The game wasn't at fault for improperly preparing me for this issue, I had only myself to blame.

Perhaps with The Wanderer, shooting a trader will allow free access to far more powerful weapons. Maybe trying to sell this new, powerful weapon at another trader will alert them to your crime. I want the player to learn this mistake for himself instead of needing to walk the player through each possible outcome of their actions. Consequences should follow logically from actions.

Logical Flow

Another example of consistent game logic can be found in Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game. One can prime explosives and set timed delays for their detonation. This leads to the conclusion that the timer carries over when the explosive is dropped from inventory onto the ground. Once the item is dropped and the delay expires, the explosive detonates. An unrelated game feature includes pick pocketing Non playable characters. Once you discover that you can take items from other characters you realise that you can place items in their inventories as well. These two conclusions lead to a third conclusion, if you place a primed explosive in a non playable character's inventory, they will explode (With a brief instant of shock, surprise and an understanding that "you got them good this time.")

Never is this taught in the game tutorial, manual or suggested during game play. This is a game mechanic entirely discovered through intuition, problem solving and logical conclusions.

I want the same logic to carry over to The Wanderer. Perhaps instead of being caught when selling the fallen Trader's weapon, you can instead give it to a second trader to equip. Once equipped, the other, non playable characters believe this second trader is the real culprit of the murder. This would be the logical conclusion of the trading and murder game mechanics (Assuming the second trader knows how to keep his damn mouth shut!)

The Yang

The most important aspect of this mechanic design is keeping conclusions logical. There are numerous adventure game puzzles featuring the combination of cat hair with a nail file and a comb to make a lock pick and equally absurd logic.

These puzzles need to be intuitive. The player has to be able to come to these conclusions by themselves without any explicit instructions. Not every player needs to be able to discover this feature but every player needs to be able to accept it as a realistic ability in the game world.

If the player is shaking their head or their neighbours can make out the expletives shouted violently after discovering your game mechanic, you've done something wrong.

Golly Gee Williger

Game mechanics like the ones described above have lead to the most interesting discoveries in my experience with games. Discovering new ways to exploit the game universe is an interesting way to add depth to the game but keeping things realistic and logical can be difficult.

These are the experiences I want to create and hopefully it will help make The Wanderer a unique and entertaining journey.

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