Thursday, 15 September 2016

imbroglio notes 10 - more card

Ancient Shield
Standard RPG item effect, this was in there right from the earliest concepts. Now everything had to be a weapon and level up, so just give it a basic damage profile and withhold the hp bonus until it's leveled. There was going to be a corresponding blue item but it seemed too straightforwardly symmetric so I cut it, that effect might show up somewhere else?
It's a really subtle effect because it's not useful at all if damage and healing are evenly distributed; you have to have clusters of healing you can save up until you get a cluster of damage; how true that is depends a lot on your particular strategy. But I figured a beginner probably won't worry about that yet so it's probably not too complex to include in the initial weapon set (it helps that the first character is Harry with a power that does exactly what you need to make this useful).

Vampiric Spear
Again going through mental lists of standard RPG effects to steal ideas; life drain is obvious. Restoring on hit is too much when enemies only do 1 damage so it happens on kill. At first this had "when this levels up, restore ♢" but then I went through a campaign of adding minor curse effects to help give reasons for a variety of strategies to consider including some cursing instead of it being a clear-cut matter of "include the curse things if and only if you're building the curse board", and so it became "when this kills a cursed enemy, restore ♢". (Most of those minor curse effects added too much complexity so they didn't stay, instead curses got the default ghost effect so they weren't entirely dependent on other weapons to have an effect.) Being able to heal both colours led to stalemates where you could stay alive on a spear constantly healing by killing auto-cursed enemies, but never move anywhere; having it be red-only sadly makes the curse bonus less special but gives a critical weakness to ensure that if you can't advance from a position then you'll die in it.

Blacksmith's Tongs
My initial idea of leveling up was that some weapons would grow when they kill enemies of a specific type; this idea was a way to circumvent those restrictions. That became less of a thing when I made most weapons get experience from any kill (but is still present with Blight Broadsword) but the effect still seemed useful as a way to level your board faster. Adjacency originally wrapped around so if you placed this on an edge tile it would affect tiles on the opposite edge; this seemed arbitrary and unclear so I settled for the simpler version where those are just poor positions for it. I tried them feeding everything else in the same row and column so it wouldn't matter, but that was ridiculously fast.
Most players seem to go through a phase of thinking these are essential and overpowered followed by one of thinking they're worthless trash. Hopefully they're somewhere in between?

Blink Dagger
In my early notes the idea was a pair of weapons that let you teleport between them, maybe to a random one if there's more than two copies, but a simple random teleport was easier to implement so I tried it first and stuck. Probably better this way, it gives more board flexibility, I'd rather not have complicated rules about what has to be included together.
As with range and mana costs, a random teleport on hit isn't a strict advantage so I wanted it there from level 0. I felt bad teleporting next to an enemy and getting hit so I wanted to let you take another turn after teleporting, to have a chance to react to the randomness before it hurt you; implemented this with a "stun all enemies" hit effect - thought it was cute that this would also trigger any stun combos but that ended up pretty broken. (Stuns were overpowered in general for a while, they tended towards stalemates where you could stop enemies hitting you but they could still stop you getting anywhere, I've had to make them much less prevalent.) It was okay but later I needed an IV effect so I added in target selection and it sort of became superfluous - if you've had a say in the random selection there's no need to give an extra chance to respond to it. The IV effect let you select any tile to travel to but that was too much of a departure from the rest of the game where you're always choosing between a small number of options, so I cut it smaller but made it start at an earlier level. I like that this means it's still always a gamble to use it, its character doesn't suddenly change once's it's leveled up (I've seen someone use it on 1 life with just one enemy on the board and be offered a choice between each of the four squares next to that enemy); that risk ended up making it feel a little weak though so I gave it extra damage on IV to prop it up (part of a general campaign of giving red weapons more damage to characterise the colours).
The target selection is an exception to the control scheme of the rest of the game and goes against my philosophy of not adding extra controls and separate input modes. It would have been more consistent with the rest of the game to have stuck with just teleport + stun or something. But it just felt like such a natural way to level up the effect, and it is an interesting decision without too much extra complexity. It sort of interrupts the flow of the game, but a big random effect makes a pause in that anyway so it's the least disruptive place to have a mode-shift. Plus I've had in mind that if I expand the game with more effects then this might be an interesting direction to explore further; and if I've already introduced the concept that will feel like more of a natural growth than adding messy new things for the sake of it.

Mystic Whisk
I like the symmetry with Blink Dagger. For a long time this also had "when this levels up, teleport all enemies to random tiles", I liked the idea of stirring the board all up with a whisk, but it was messy and didn't add much.
In retrospect I'm not sure about the power balance between this and Blink Dagger; Dagger is also usable as a scoring and healing mechanism (by possibly skipping closer to the gem) while Whisk's teleport is generally safer because it doesn't leave your hero exposed - different strengths, but overall I think Dagger gets the better deal with having limited control as well. I felt okay with this when Whisk also had more damage, but I didn't end up re-evaluating it after increasing Dagger's damage (which happened very late in development). But it's still definitely distinct and useful, I don't have any changes in mind right now.

Amulet of Immortals
Before I had the concept of leveling up the idea was that this would trigger if you died in that spot, and it would only take effect once (being replaced with ashes). But then once there were levels it was simpler to just reset those than to transform the item, I was open to doing that if being able to reuse it proved too strong but it turned out fine.
At some point someone objected to so many weapons having their main effect at IV rather than being more accessible so I tried this at III, with the IV effect being to also curse everything on respawn. For a while it had extra damage too. Those versions all turned out too strong so I went back to the simplest one.

Ixxthl's Ring
Through most of development the effect was "IV: Remove all ♢ costs". It was pretty tough to design around because I had to make sure everything with a cost didn't break the game when it was removed. That's still an issue with this version but you have to set up multiple copies so you're at least paying more for the big effect, and you don't get 100% reliability (even if on average you expect a profit), plus now you do have to have the mana available to spend even if it does get paid right back. Having it as a triggered effect feels better in play too because it actively connects the Ring with its bonus every time rather than it just passively rewriting things once. I'd been testing a bunch of other rewriting effects too but they all had the same passivity problem and once I saw how much of an improvement the new Ring was I started trying to find similar ways of transforming them instead. Whetstone is okay though because its effect is visible on the board, not just in the card text.

Blinding Lantern
The old Ring made stalemates when combined with this - you could kill anything one-on-one without it hitting back, but it takes a long time and you don't get to go anywhere. I tried making it only affect red enemies to break the stalemate - unringed it's the same cost whether a blue enemy hits you or you pay to stun it. When I changed the Ring I put this back to the simpler version. You can still lock things down for a while but something always has a chance of getting through.
I like that this mostly translates into a straightforward resource exchange, pay a blue hit to prevent a red hit, it could almost read "spend ♢ to gain ♡".

Rusty Caltrops
After Witchpact Blade started counting cursed enemies I got interested in what else I could use similar counts for, so this started with "0: when an enemy moves onto this stun them for 1 turn for each cursed enemy". But long stuns were bogging the game down so was cutting down on those, and also needed to cut back on curse/stun connections in general - I'd been putting too many effects like "when this hits a cursed enemy stun them" because they were easy to make but they weren't really that interesting. So it went into the simpler form, simple and effective. It had a weird delaying effect at a higher level too but it was complicated, broken, and unnecessary.

Reaping Scythe
Hasn't changed much since I first added the concept of ghosts, the only question was whether to have the damage or the ghost effect come first. With both this and Caltrops it seemed more interesting to access the weapon's unique effect sooner, rather than just damage damage more damage and then only something special at level 4.

Morphic Mirror
I think it's easy to underestimate the value of targeting enemies of the same kind because it doesn't happen much early on, but late-game it's very likely you'll be able to hit several. And even early on, a lot of the toughest situations are when the same enemy spawns a few times in a row - so while the times when this effect pays off are rare, they're also the times you most need it. On the other hand, when it's a flood of Serpents you're up against it's not ideal because you might not have the mana to spend. Mirror was very strong under the old Ring where it basically became an ultra-Harp.

Slingshot
First version of this was a percentage chance to kill, the idea being to have a way of taking down an enemy that was otherwise too big to deal with right now. I never tied down the right numbers, 50% seemed like too much but still compared unfavorably to Crossbow which gets a definite kill in two hits rather than maybe in one, maybe in four. I decided percentages were more a blue thing anyway.
Tried "when this hits a minotaur, kill them" but what level does that go at? At IV it's too weak so it needs something else, I kept trying weird additional effects. One was cursing when it kills minotaurs; that eventually just became a property of minotaurs themselves. When I dropped "kill" effects I realised the damage could scale, so the kill effect is at IV but it's already helping you fight them sooner. Wasn't sure it was strong enough relative to Crossbow so for a while I had it affecting all blue enemies; broken. Ranged weapons are hard. I'm not too bothered if it's a little underpowered; it's a specific counter to a thing that might cause you problems and you can ignore it if it's not.

Forbidden Scroll
I tried to structure the unlocking items in a way that makes sense, maybe you see a problem first and then you find the solution later, maybe you see one piece of a combo and then find the right thing to complete it. At first I had this unlocking with Dominic because obviously you want to use it to constrain serpent spawns but I thought it would be nice to put it on the next character so that by the time you get it you really know why you might want to use it.

Dice of Omens
I just went through a list of every possible way I could think of to apply curses, something that does it automatically over time seems straightforward. The percentages are ridiculous, there's no reason other than sheer numerology to expect a 3% chance at level 3 to be the right balance. But with low integers there's not much I can do, it has to go up and there you go. If a 50% chance isn't quite enough I can push it up to 55% or whatever, but this would look awful if I went into fractions (1.5%/2.75%/3.875%/4.96875% yes).
Gave them extra damage because people were being put off by the low percentages, plus I generally wanted to strengthen cursers a bit to encourage experimenting with combos rather than sticking with safe obvious things. Probably unnecessary in retrospect.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

imbroglio notes 9 - card time!

Designing all the individual weapon cards is a huge task, I made way more cards than what ended up included in the game, trying lots of different things and then selecting down to a set that worked well together. And of course most cards went through many different iterations. Really hard to test. I gained quite a good understanding of the game by playing it a lot but I knew it would probably end up being played by people who were better at it than me and they might break it in ways I hadn't been able to. And my judgment is likely to be a bit off in some cases from having played different versions and held onto intuition from those when things change, or simply from assuming the things I did for a purpose actually succeed in fulfilling that purpose. Sometimes I really felt the lack of a team; usually games like this are made by a substantial group of people working together and I expect that really helps with thinking through the complicated problems that come up. A bunch of people helped test it and it was really useful to discuss with them but not many of them played enough to have the full perspective on high-level balance, and the ones who did still didn't have time to keep up with all my different experimental versions - so if my intuitions kept being out of date, theirs would be even more so. So it was all really hard!

Going to write about the work that went into specific weapons.

Whetstone
This was the first weapon I put in the game. I wanted positions on the board to matter, I wanted interactions between different weapons, here you go. It started with 11111 damage but dropped to 11110 very quickly to balance it with risk. It didn't used to have the restriction from affecting other Whetstones, I thought it was cute that you could counteract the penalty by stacking them in the same row, it was pretty ridiculous.

Echo Harp
After Whetstone, I thought "what would combine well with that?" - something that gives extra hits to use the extra damage more often of course. First combo, still a good combo. Used to be 10/30/60/100% but I found that a hit effect at anything less than about 25% felt bad because it often doesn't occur within the space of a level.

Wicked Thorns
Other triggers get to have lower percentages because they can occur more times each level. This used to have 10/20/30/40/50%; starting already at level 0; but it was pointed out that every single other percentage-based item started at level 1 so they all had floating 0%s in front of them which made things less clear.

Menacing Cleaver
I wanted to see if I could make an interesting and useful weapon without needing any extra rules on it, just damage. It's weird for a weapon to do 4 damage because it doesn't even matter what colour it is, it just kills everything in one hit, so that needs some kind of extra disadvantage to balance it out. 3 is really strong but it's okay because there's always an enemy type you still take hits from. I tried a damage profile of 11223 but it felt so easy to level up, 11123 presented a nicer challenge. Establishing 3 damage as a baseline with no abilities limits everything else to 2 but that's okay. I was worried nobody would play with this because it's less straightforward than cards with rules written on them to tell you what to do with them, so I'm pleased to see that it has shown up in some winning boards.

Bashing Warclub
Contrasting Cleavers slow-growing damage, I wanted a clear early-game weapon that peaked early and stayed there. For a while this was another no-rules weapon, just 12222 damage, but I ended up wanting every weapon to gain something at IV, it just felt wrong to have those levels there if they didn't do anything. Technically runes solved this problem but there was still a sense that you ought to get a thing, it feels fine for some of the intermediate levels to only give a rune but it never feels like enough for the final level. So I put "stun all enemies" which I thought was minor enough; turns out with the possibility of stun combos it's not minor at all so I cut it to "stun random" and then "stun nearest".

Blight Broadsword
4 damage with a penalty. It turned out really weak so I made it also start at 2 damage so it has some early-game utility too. Tried it with a few extra curse-based abilities but it didn't need them. Used to be called "Witchpact Broadsword"; changed the name because it was a source of confusion that the witch hero couldn't effectively use it, also because it was slightly too long and was overlapping the card borders. Jeska's disadvantage eventually changed because it was still confusing so now she can use it but I guess the name change stuck.

Dwindling Brazier
Again, 4 damage with a penalty. I tried a bunch of different effects on it, things like "when this levels up, kill all enemies", but eventually decided it was overcomplicating what could be another nice distinctive weapon with needing any text. Some people hate it; I constantly had testers tell me it seemed really bad because 0. Tried ending it at 1 but that's just way uglier because two levels have to be the same. Now it's showing up in winning boards so I think it's okay.

Vicious Crossbow
I tried things that gained range as they leveled up but it felt quite weird because it's not a strict advantage (in that occasionally you're forced to hit with it when you'd rather move). As things level you expect them to get better, it's confusing to find that something has gotten sometimes worse, whereas it feels fine if that disadvantage was built in from the start. But in the situations where range is advantageous it can be quite strong indeed, so it's unsafe to pair with other strong abilities. Giving them damage is especially strong: 2 damage at range is almost like 4 damage since you get to hit twice without getting hit back (though it does cost an extra turn). This considerably limits the design of ranged weapons.

Rimeclaws
Like range, spending mana is a disadvantage so it feels bad to gain it with a levelup. So most mana weapons follow the same basic pattern: a spend at level 0 and then something at 4 to justify leveling up. This is the first blue weapon encountered even though spending mana feels pretty complex because it's such a standard thing that blue weapons do that I wanted to make it apparent straight away. Plus all the alternatives are complicated too in their own ways.

Malign Wand
Paying to curse turns out quite weak because you're putting yourself at risk to set up a fragile combo instead of just doing damage; doing it at range is better so you at least don't get hit as well as paying. Meanwhile I wanted to distinguish blue from red; this establishes that blue weapons only get to attack at range at a cost, you have to pay the cost even if you don't care about the curse because really what you're paying for is blue range. You can get out of paying it if you or the enemy only has 1 mana, nice. By the reasoning above, both the range ability and the mana ability start at level 0, and then level 4 has to have something too.

Brutal Axe
Wanted to characterise red vs blue weapons, red weapons do more damage blue ones do more stuff, red weapons curse on kills blue ones curse with weird triggers. Turns out I had more ideas for weird triggers so this ended up being the only red curser but it fills that role fine. As usual I wanted something at IV but I wanted damage and cursing early on so I just gave it a second copy of the effect so as not to complicate things by adding something different. It used to have the same text written twice but I changed it to "repeat the previous effect" to make it more succinct and also open up the possibility of a future weapon repeating things in a more general way.

Confusion Cloud
This was a stun effect for a long time, started as "Crippling Poison: when a cursed enemy moves, % chance to stun them". Was cool on its own but made it way too easy to trigger stun combos (especially with multiple copies in play) so I moved it to stun on attack which was better because they'd at least hit you once before freezing forever. Still too effective, wearing down an enemy that's four times stunned is boring, so I removed the combo potential and went with a simple miss chance. It can still lead to slow grindy endgames where enemies only rarely hurt you but at least it's not multiplied by other things that do that.

Witchpact Blade
The idea was to have just a straightforward two-part combo: curse and then kill. First version was simple, "when this hits a cursed enemy, kill them". That seemed a little strong so I added a mana cost (before I made the rule that only blue weapons do that), then it was a percentage chance, or only at certain times of day. Then at some point I decided for reasons it would be best not to have any direct kill effects and went through and replaced them all with extra damage (see also Slingshot), but I already had an effect of "extra damage to cursed enemies" so I tried this version instead. Then as usual it needed something more at IV, and I was in need of more ways to attack multiple enemies and keep up with increasing spawn rates, so this became a thing.

Poisoned Chalice
Fairly late addition when I had too many problems with another effect and needed to replace it (it might come back one day). I wanted a bit more variety of curse interactions, different boards you could build around them. Witchpact Blade had the first effect at one point, the second effect gives a possibility to chain it even if your initial source of curses is unreliable. I've generally avoided stacking multiple kinds of costs together (e.g. mana spend, percentage chance, curse requirement) because each one cuts down the utility, but I think this is a big enough effect to merit it. Still it has been fairly unpopular on the scoreboards, I'm not sure if people are undervaluing it or if it's still a little weak; in principle once you have some cursers going it should be very turn-efficient. This initially had the "spend mana to damage cursed enemies" ability at level 1, which I said to avoid under Rimeclaws because it's introducing a disadvantage. I thought it was okay here because the curse requirement makes it a specific situation that you have to set up, but now I've patched it back to level 0.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

imbroglio notes 8 - score-o

When using a lot of random generation in a game, making things variable enough that you can play over and over again, it's easy to start thinking in terms of making something that you can play forever. Such bold dream, the eternity-game. But nobody's actually going to do it because they die, or even if they dodge that and achieve immortality somehow they can probably find something better to do tbh. The ideal is nevertheless a useful simplification because strategies for it also turn out to be pretty good ideas even if someone's just playing for a while. Aiming for an impossible ideal means trying to make something pretty good. But since it's impossible you do need to forget about it sometimes.

Testing Imbroglio and trying different possibilities there was always a question of whether you could go infinite; maybe some clever combination of weapons would exist that allows you to kill enemies faster than they spawn and heal up faster than they can hurt you. Even if not, you could definitely go quite long. How long did I want the game to potentially be? Of course the game has a finite state space; you can't go on encountering different situations forever; so something less than that seems good? (It is still pretty huge because that's just what happens if you multiply a bunch of times.) So I started thinking about putting in an ending to prevent it ever reaching a boring eternal loop. Simplest ending is just a score target, I'll do the simplest thing unless there's a good reason not to. This stops it looking like a magical "play forever" game because once you get to the maximum score there's no room to improve after that (though you can play it again anyway, same as anything). It is okay to not be for forever.

But then question is where to set this score target. If all I want to do is cut off infinite loops I could set it sufficiently high that nothing else can reach it. But then if that's something you can do, eventually enough people will probably do it and the score tables fill up with infinite loop boards, nothing else is good enough to show up. Plus they'll be pretty boring to play out for so long, maybe spend hours on one board, fully leveled up, just to demonstrate that it can keep going on. Testing endurance more than anything else. Might be more exciting to cut the tail off a bit sooner so more variety is possible. Fast builds that try to grab all the gems before the spawn rate gets too high. Builds that depend on diminishing resources, tenuously trying to stretch them just far enough to reach the target.

I wrote that it's useful to have guiding principles for a design even if they're not necessarily "right". In fact it doesn't even matter if they make sense at all, they can be wild irrational obsessions and still serve the function of pulling things together into a coherent form. So I decided to obsess over the number 4. I had a 4x4 square grid, 4 enemy types corresponding to 4 corners, how far can I take this numerology? Any time I had a question with an unknown numeric value I assumed it was probably 4. How many hit points do you have? How many copies of the same weapon are you allowed? What's the minimum number of steps to the next gem? How many kills does a weapon take to level up? How many characters? How many frames in an animation? I was prepared to use other numbers where necessary, but assuming 4 gave something to start with and see if I could make work. If something was bigger then maybe a multiple of 4 - so I ended up with 4 starting characters and 4 to unlock, 4x4 red weapons and 4x4 blue.

And like obviously this principle is nonsense! By any sensible idea of game balance or whatever, there's no way the right answer for all of these is simultaneously 4, that would be a massive coincidence. I'm not aiming to make the most balanced game, that would be a different guiding principle, instead I'm trying to make the game with the most 4s in it, and with that as my goal all the answers are coincidentally 4.

But the weird thing is that it's ended up no longer being nonsense because now it's a principle that others can use to understand the design, it makes the game readily comprehensible to players because they learn to expect 4s and then never have trouble remembering numeric rules. (Although, I saw one review claiming enemies spawn every 4 turns, which would have been nice but really they need to increase in frequency as you level up. However - the enemy waves are encoded in a 64(=4x4x4)x4 table of 4x4-digit strings so there you go.)

So I took weapons to have 4 levels, each requiring 4 kills. These numbers seemed reasonable playing it out; levels were accessible but not trivial, getting all the way to level four felt like a solid milestone. I tried other numbers, even a super fast-paced version where a single kill was enough to level up (felt inconsequential, they may as well just start at full strength), but these seemed to work well enough so I locked them in and started adjusting the rest of the game around them. So with 4x4 kills per weapon and 4x4 weapons that's 4^4 kills to fully level a board. Each gem heals two hits and each enemy might hit you once, so if we assume two enemies per gem you'll be fully leveled at 4^4/2 = 128 points. (In practice it's usually a bit later but this will do for an estimate.) It seems reasonable to let that be the midpoint, so the maximum score is 4^4=256. I tried to tune the enemy waves around these numbers; making it possible but fairly challenging to level everything / score 128, and tending towards impossibility at the point where you might be approaching 256.

Enemy waves are the least transparent part of the game. A bunch of people suggested showing more information about them, like a timer until the next enemy or whatever. But it seemed important for them to be fairly unpredictable since they're the source of chaos opposing your nice ordered board construction. A lone enemy is usually trivial to deal with so they have to sometimes come close enough together that you're dealing with groups, but if they keep coming that fast you'll quickly be overwhelmed, so they need to spawn at an irregular pace. Also sometimes they'll be an even number of spaces away and get the first hit, it's bad if this happens too often, so the irregular spawn delays need to be sometimes odd and sometimes even. So there can't be a simple display like that imagined "every 4 turns" clock, displaying a spawn forecast would be way too much extra information on the already-packed screen, simpler to keep it hidden. Very common suggestion has been to show the turn count, because regardless of specific details of wave patterns the general principle is that it's getting worse over time so you want to know how much time is passing. I tried it and it was deeply unpleasant. Extra piece of information taking up screen-space and changing every time you act so you're constantly noticing it, creates a sense of pressure, takes up space in your mind when really you don't need to know it, all you need to know is that spending extra turns is bad. Also it just becomes a very large number, I try to avoid large numbers to keep small ones feeling meaningful. Scoring 100 feels like less of a milestone when there's a number in the thousands nearby.

I think a nice thing about having a maximum score is it gives a clear goal to aim for. High score tables can be pretty discouraging for a lot of players, people see that someone got 50000 and think "I'll never get that, might as well not play". This doesn't make sense; nobody thinks they shouldn't go swimming just because they'll never compete in the Olympics; but somehow it is a reaction we are seeing with videogames. Or alternatively if someone's not looking at the top scores they might set a fairly low target for themselves based on what seems plausible within their current understanding of the possibilities, rather than challenging themselves to go deeper. Here I think the 256 goal is low enough not to be discouraging while still being high enough to demand a solid understanding of the game.

I wrote last year some thoughts about putting unlocks in the game; that's mostly still valid. I was having trouble managing the expectation that a game will never give you access to more than you can take in at once. I think as the game started to feel finished people became more willing to accept how it was as being how it was meant to be. There's a line you cross making a thing when it starts to feel self-consistent, then there's a lot more freedom to break conventions because what's there is strong enough there to establish new ones. Good place to be. I think maybe because of the rule complexity or the graphical style Imbroglio took longer to get there than I'm used to, I think the specific point where it really got there was when I put in the animations for damage/restoration/collection. Other games it's different things, never really know in advance what it's going to be just working at it and then one day the thing you're working on happens to be the critical piece and then suddenly it's alive.

I ended up setting 32/64/96/128 as goals to unlock 4 characters each with 4 weapons. This avoided the problem I was having with other unlock systems where people were feeling pressure at having new things before they'd fully understood the old things, because the focus is on the character and that is just one new thing. The new cards are very much de-emphasised, there's not even an announcement screen saying "well done have these new cards", they just quietly show up.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

imbroglio notes 7 - black sword black sword

My relationship to game violence is pretty weird, I dunno, I'll say I want us to do better and represent other parts of life but then when I turn around and actually make a game it's just like kill 1000 things. Like I'm not getting excited about super detailed gore but even at the level of symbolic representation, it's weird to spend all this time on murder simulation. I think there's a good argument to make that it serves some positive role in terms of venting violent impulses but it's not clear that it doesn't actually nurture violent impulses instead? Like probably intense physical exercise is probably a better way to vent really. Also I don't feel like I have a whole lot of repressed violence that I need to get out, maybe that's only because I already healthily release it through simulation or exercise but it's not really feasible to stop those and see if something bad builds up. But yeah I tend to think of myself as pretty pacifistic. Although on the other hand if you threaten someone close to me it turns out I will instinctively use force to stop you, I think that's pretty normal? Anyway I think it comes up in games pretty naturally, you have some kind of challenge, it's simplest to frame that as a conflict, it's simplest to frame that as violence. Pieces are being eliminated? Call them dead. Really hard to break out of this pattern when trying to do elegant design.

Anyway yeah I actually really enjoy some pretty generic fantasy settings and for a while I've meant to get around to making an RPG-type game with more like that kind of context, I actually started making lots of games with orcs and swords and it feels like mostly coincidence that those weren't the ones I ended up finishing. Imbroglio really seemed to make sense for that kind of setting, it simplifies some of the rule explanations. But it's a setting where the violence is more explicit, you can't hide behind debugging weird computer glitches or whatever. So I felt a bit unsure about that. Also the RPG mechanic of leveling up by killing things is basically messed up, it directly encourages optimising the number of things you kill, even going out of your way to kill things that you otherwise wouldn't. Even if I'm okay with violence for a nice reason, this doesn't correspond to anything you could have a hope of justifying. Something I was pretty pleased with in Zaga-33 is how the rules strongly discourage getting into fights; you have to kill some aliens because they're obstacles to your progress, but every fight costs you limited resources so the optimal way to play is to minimise the number of kills even if that means going quite far out of your way; just with the game rules it makes a clear statement that violence is sometimes necessary but is best avoided where possible (which really confused some players who just went through blindly clearing every level and then wondering why they couldn't survive past the third). But Imbroglio forces you to kill everything that comes your way, and to think about maximising the value you get out of each kill, wtf.

So I thought okay this game is pretty dark, the hero is not only put in a context where their survival is dependent on ending hundreds of other lives, they're explicitly using those deaths as a resource. Maybe I can play up that darkness, make it clear in the game's context? Make it feel really awful that you're forced to kill or be killed, frame rpg leveling/grinding as a dark compulsion. Thought about Michael Moorcock's Elric stories as a reference, with his demon sword that drinks the souls of anyone it cuts. Vampiric weapons that grow more powerful as they're bathed in innocent blood. A tragic, haunted hero driven by a curse he cannot control, trying to do good but ultimately dooming all he loves. A power that demands a price, helping defeat your enemies but betraying you at the last moment to take the life of your dearest friend.

Those are the ideas I had going into it, but then I made it and it's not exactly what came out! I think there's an edge there of that darkness but overall it's a lot lighter than I'd envisaged, which is probably for the best since I've had to live with it. I could have probably done more with words to make it hurt but I find it dangerous to use many words in a game, people will skim past them and miss essential rules; Imbroglio already had a lot of rule words.

This ties into the graphical style. The main constraint there was functionality. I went for a high resolution style because there needed to be a bunch of text you could read, and identifiable tiles that display information about experience, damage, abilities and are still visible enough when there's something standing on top of them. Thinking about inspirations from 70s and 80s pulp fantasy novels and RPG settings I was trying to get towards the styles of illustrations in those, people like Erol Otus, background the colour of the pages of an old second-hand book (not representative of their original vision but of my relationship to it). But with all the layers of game it didn't work to fit everything into this style, ended up doing the characters more solid and bright to stand out on top of the book-sketch background tiles; functional, contributes to it feeling less dark.

So yeah idk games are weird.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

android

Whenever I release a game on ios immediately people start demanding it on android. Some of them are polite and friendly but some of them are real dicks about it, like they feel it's their right to have me do work for them, it's really weird. The numbers I've heard from other game developers suggest releasing on android pays quite a bit less than ios, like 5-15% as much; shouting at me "ra ra ra why haven't you done this yet" doesn't really incline me to do what would essentially be charity work. Please don't do that.

Anyway a few years ago I did try porting Glitch Tank to android and gave up for a bunch of reasons. It did turn out to be really a lot of extra technical work, required some major hacks to get it to run at all, and when it did there were problems with the framerate, too much input lag for a quick action game, I completely failed to figure out what the problem was. Seriously I'm here to design games and make art not to do all this technical crap, I'd pay someone else to do it for me if I had money.

I mean it's not like ios has been great either, they've thrown away some of their advantages. When I started on this there were two devices to support - telephone and tablet - with predictable hardware, sensible resolutions / aspect ratio; now they keep changing that so there's no effort saved there. Every major ios version has broken one of my games and it's sometimes quite a lot of work to figure out how. But I'm kind of making enough money to live on now so hey it's still better than a lot of people's work.

Anyway yesterday I tried running Glitch Tank on an android again and it seemed to run fine?? Same device. Maybe an os update fixed the input lag thing somehow? Waiting until the problem goes away is my absolute favourite way to fix things. So I released it. Haven't tested on a bunch of different devices because indie so maybe there'll still be framerate problems or whatever for some people? But someone got it and said it ran fine for them so there you go.

This is not a commitment to android anything else. But of course I will pay attention to numbers when I am working out what to do.

Glitch Tank on android thing
Glitch tank on ios

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

imbroglio notes 6 - meditation

In these roguelikes I've been making the trend has been to move away from epic sprawl towards smaller games. Partly this is practical for making them but it's also about valuing "interesting decisions" in games; increasing the decision density by cutting out bits where you're not making decisions or the decisions are easy ("pick the weapon with the highest number"). I've found some effective methods towards this and I think 868-HACK expressed it well. Shrinking the grid minimises time spent navigating from place to place and forces game elements closer together so they interact more often. Directly linking abilities and resources to tile positions adds extra dimension to tactical positioning. Reducing the length of games means each decision carries more weight towards the outcome.

Imbroglio continues some of these trends. Grid is even smaller. Abilities are even more tightly linked to position. But as it started to take shape it became clear that it wanted to be a longer game. This caused me some concern, since one of the principles I'd been working with was basically "shorter is better". I value games being short, it makes them easier to fit into life, they get to the point sooner, it's possible to play them more times, trying out different possibilities, there's a clearer connection between decisions and outcome.

How did it end up being longer? I hadn't imposed an explicit boundary on it (like 868-HACK's 8 sectors), instead leaving it as an open-ended scoring game. This was a deliberate move to create a different structure, to get away from just remaking a previous game. And the system of leveling up weapon tiles required a certain amount of time to separate the levels, tuning those numbers to what felt right was pushing up the overall length.

I value interface simplicity, complicated control schemes with all different modes and menus are clumsy and also I don't like programming them (good justification). You should be able to fit everything on one screen, usually if it doesn't it means people have just shoved in any idea they thought of rather than doing the work of selecting which ones actually fit harmoniously; lazy design. So I really like the classic roguelike system of attacks being triggered by moving towards an enemy, accessing movement and combat with just one set of arrow keys, lovely simplification. And I really don't like the classic roguelike thing of using every key on the keyboard for something different and also having twenty different menus for items and spells and skills and levels and. Zaga-33 and 868-HACK each had movement arrows and just one flat menu of extra abilities; excited about Imbroglio going even simpler by having only weapon effects: you attack with the weapon you're standing on so the movement controls suffice to select a weapon as well as to activate it. Giving these weapons different automatic and passive effects and leveling them up when used packs really a lot into minimal controls. Ended up with one extra button to activate hero abilities, for some heroes at least - Masina/Bob/Johnny's abilities are triggered with the movement controls too and I would have loved to do this with every hero but decided it was too limiting.

But this limited control set ends up working against decision density. Each turn you're only selecting from 1-5 possible inputs, this can still be interesting since they can give quite different outcomes in terms of what options you have available in future turns, but that requires there to be enough of those future turns to make a difference; length. In 868-HACK for comparison, each turn you could run a sequence of progs (up to ten different ones, and you can use the same one repeatedly) without ending the turn, before you move/attack/siphon/wait - potentially hundreds of different combinations; breadth. So there's a direct conflict of values; decision complexity depends on number of decisions made and number of options in each of them; interface simplicity reduces the number of options and so to maintain complexity the number of decisions must increase, increasing game length.

These kinds of values or principles are useful to guide a design towards something new; you do things for a reason rather than just because it's what you've seen done before. Principles don't have to be "right" to be useful, whatever that would even mean. But there are lots of different things we want out of our designs and it's complicated, only a very simple value system is likely to be consistent. Each design is a compromise, as idealised values meet the reality of bringing something into the world. Until two values are tested against each other one doesn't necessarily know which one is valued more; each new design creates fresh opportunities for conflict.

Another value I'm thinking about is holism, feeling like all the parts work together as a coherent entity. This sometimes aligns with simplicity as it is harder to make many different pieces fit together as one, but it is certainly possible to have many parts without any being extraneous, and sometimes carrying through an idea as far as it goes does require adding more, incompleteness is inelegant. When I talk about Imbroglio "taking shape" I am gesturing at this concept; I look at the piece I have made so far and try to envisage the whole it is part of. Not a fully rational process, letting things make themselves through me and justify it afterwards. However much I plan things and make declarations about what I intend to do really I just make a thing and find out what it is along the way.

Thinking about the opening of Imbroglio. I definitely liked that in 868-HACK you could optionally face a serious challenge right from the start, depending what you siphon, here you can't really - or, you kind of can by kiting around while more enemies spawn but it doesn't gain you much. Some suggestions for making it shorter, what if I cut off the opening, like what if some weapons start already leveled up, maybe you choose that as part of your build? But leveling 16x0 to 16x4 is a complete arc, hopping off the start to 12x0+4x1 or whatever feels clearly incomplete. And you are doing stuff and making choices in those early turns even if there is not much risk, it is very fuzzy to try define which is the first turn that matters, if I could say for certain that the first ten turns have no effect on the outcome (or like 0.00001%) but the eleventh turn has 2% then that might be a good argument for starting the game there, but maybe every turn matters because of the subtle effects on where you are and what you can do in subsequent turns, maybe nothing matters at all because it's just a game and we're all going to die. Also it depends which hero, some of the disadvantages are harder to deal with at the start so there are more risks early on, and I was trying to tune the balance for all of them at once; giving the harder ones enough space to survive meant leaving the easier ones unchallenged at first; I could have had different enemy waves for each hero but it felt more coherent to have everything the same apart from the two explicit rules for each hero, no hidden extra rules differentiating them. I eventually concluded that I'm okay with there being a ritual opening to the game before you're really at risk if it keeps it holistic. Different games, different conflicts, different compromises. Like maybe from the perspective of 868-HACK's values it's a worse game but it should be what it is in its own terms.

Also there's the question of board construction, there's a basic challenge in all pre-constructed-deck-type games: the choice of deck has to matter and there's only a limited amount of matter to go around so the decisions made after that matter less. But it doesn't matter! These games can still be really good, it's just something to be aware of that the turn-by-turn decisions are going to carry a bit less weight. Here also there's kind of a third layer with leveling up weapons; it also interacts closely with the turn-by-turn tactics but draws some attention away. I'm pretty satisfied with the balance of these, they do all end up being relevant. Was very excited the first time I found a board where playing it the way that (at the time) seemed obvious performed worse than leveling things up in a different order; makes the choice to share boards along with highscores interesting because the board alone isn't complete information, you can't necessarily replicate someone's score just from their board if you don't also know their strategy and tactics.

All the talk about decisions comes down to valuing play as intellectual challenge, I also value play as meditation. A game can be the object of my apparent attention while my mind processes other thoughts and feelings, regenerates itself. And this kind of requires the game to not be all the most difficult decisions all the time, it needs to leave some space, actions that occupy enough attention to maintain some kind of focus while leaving enough free to wander. So again there's an apparent conflict of values, but on consideration many of the games I meditate best with I've first appreciated as intellectual challenges, then learnt some patterns and heuristics to guide less intellectual play. I think part of what makes this work for me is shifting attention demands, games that sometimes occupy all of my thoughts but then fade back into semi-autopilot until the next critical juncture, guiding the meditation between external and internal focus. And this kind of play I think Imbroglio achieves fairly well; you can zone out for a while - but not disengage completely, a couple of bad spawns can always kill you pretty quickly so you still have to maintain awareness of possibilities - and then you zone back in, ebb and flow of attention. (And this is important for making the game work as constructed deck game! When there is a gap in attention you can think about how to adjust the board for next time using the new information you have from playing it out.) Whereas 868-HACK you couldn't (/shouldn't), it really is full-on all the time, which is great but kind of stressful.

Optimising decision density is sometimes expressed in terms like "don't waste the player's time", but this is very narrow in how it defines certain kinds of activity as being a valuable use of time. Valuing the player's time doesn't necessarily mean making them do the maximum number of things with it, trying to pack in as much game as possible into every moment with no room to breathe. Guiding a meditation isn't a waste of time. Thinking about board games, even when the decisions you make every turn are beyond the computational limits of the human brain, usually there's some downtime between turns, maybe this is important? I had thought they were an intrusion, a problem happily avoided by single-player games because you don't have to wait for anyone else and you can just get back to work straight away, but maybe they could be a valuable part of the game's rhythm. And it is a kind of labour, playing these games, enjoyable though it can be. I've sometimes approached for-money-work the same way, trying optimise my time to do as many things as possible, pressure to succeed, rush rush rush the money's running out. Easy to fall into in our society where you have to work more than you can afford to just so you can afford to sometimes not work, and then we'd better use our free time as efficiently as possible too because it's a limited resource. You burn out that way, have to learn to take things slow.

Anyway all this rambling maybe seems a bit silly because what I ended up with is still fairly short as games go, has hard decisions, doesn't really waste time. But along the way I felt conflict!

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

portugal

just recently moved to portugal, Tara has a job here for ten months (longer would be nicer but welcome to academia).  living somewhere again is weird after more than a year, getting some old possessions out of storage.  the Proteus artifact edition just arrived (it's lovely) and it's surprising that hey i can just keep this here, have it around to look at when i want to and not worry about it the rest of the time, not having to aggressively minimise the weight of everything i carry.

portugal seems pretty good.  i don't have the language yet so that's a bit of a barrier but i can hopefully fit in a course sometime.  (i really regret not having gotten more german out of the year i spent there but at the time i was stressing out burning myself to make a game nobody wanted anyway, bad times, i'm left with a complete vocabulary of german food but nothing else.).  speaking of food, it's really good here.  fresh vegetables from the supermarket, very cheap and very good quality.  especially the fruit, like wow it is just so reliably amazing, in the uk i was just hardly ever buying fruit because it's often poor and sometimes terrible, here every fruit is delicious and also cheap.  and like i just bought some locally grown cumin and it's so aromatic you wouldn't believe, it would be worth living here just to cook with ingredients like this.  also there's cool music and stuff here, Owen recommended checking out Tribal Baroque who are amazing street musicians but just walking through the city centre there'll be something cool any time.  also we saw Radiohead last week.

portuguese team won at sports a couple of days ago, it's not something i pay much attention to but it was kind of nice hearing all the expressions of joy around, nice sense of living in a community even though i don't really know anyone here yet and language barrier.

don't have a home internet connection yet so that's slowing me down some.  it's hard to find something that's not demanding a 24 month contract, maybe ok for people who get to live somewhe long-term but extra annoying when you already have the inconvenience of being temporary.  typing this on my ipad at a cafe, my pc wouldn't connect here for some reason.

blues dance scene here is tiny and infrequent so we were thinking of getting into another style?  went to a balfolk weekend which was cool but then their regular local thing felt way less welcoming and also had volumes set to physically painful levels.  went to one kizomba class but it was gendered as heck, really offputting.  and again, painful.  (seriously i like loud music and i'm often listening to it at volumes that will probably cause long-term damage but there's a difference from that to being immediately unpleasant.). there's a queer tango group so we'll try that, it could go either way, just want somewhere /safe/.  blues isn't immune to theses problems but it seems like they're way way bigger in other partnered dances, wtf people

started working on an expansion for imbroglio.  turns out to be even more work than i'd expected, i had a lot of unused effects partially implemented and i thought i could just throw those in but actually constructing a reasonable set of things that work well together is a big deal and the complexity ramps up a lot when there's more to choose from.  so yeah this won't be that soon (which is fine because people are still figuring out the game itself).  i had some more design posts to write too, i'll get to those once i have more internet.

thinking about starting a new project too.  feels like way more of a commitment than it used to when i was making something new every week or two; spending months or years of my life to work on something plus unknown amounts of support work afterwards when platform controllers break everything.  definitely want to make something /new/, i have more dense roguelikes i can make and i will eventually but not straight away especially with work still going on the last one.  i've learnt and grown a lot since i last started making a game, maybe i want to reflect that somehow but maybe i shouldn't try, just see what comes out.  kind of want to remind people that i don't just make one kind of thing, kind of want that to be true again.  but also intensely aware of financials, now i'm known-ish for roguelikes i can kind of sell roguelikes, that doesn't translate to selling anything else, i'll make something new and amazing and everyone be sad it's not rogue again (hello helix), but hey that's still better than when i started and got no response at all.  eh probably i'll agonise for weeks what to make, finally calculate the right answer, then accidentally make something else instead.

some good progress on shoulders, they're still a bit confused what to do if they're not hunched all the time but they're getting somewhere.  some knee pain though, think i injured them a bit dancing on a concrete floor a few weeks ago and then my jandals slip a bit on the stones on lisbon footpaths so i end up holding tension in my legs all the time walking around here.  the paths are actually fantastic for bare feet, lovely uneven surface, but people here sometimes get very upset and once a mall guard even threatened physical violence so i was trying to be careful.

ok this all for now