Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Cinco Paus - dev notes

Cinco Paus (iOS appstore)

The idea came out of a conversation with Zach Gage about item identification in roguelikes. Got me thinking about partially-identified items: how can you use a tool without finding out all of it's effects? Situational effects that don't happen every time, you have to try them in different conditions to discover them. Randomly generated so it's just not a matter of spoilers.

I have this approach to design of taking a few elements from a genre and giving them enough detail to carry a whole game, maybe eventually I'll have built a game about every element of Rogue. I've done single-use scrolls/potions (Zaga-33), reusable spells that cost resources (868-HACK), weapons/leveling (Imbroglio), what else? I want items that you can use more than once (with increasing degrees of identification), but probably a limited number of times so you can't spam them and learn everything; in Rogue these are magic wands, they shoot rays affecting every enemy in a straight line path. This fits well with the idea of multiple situational effects because different conditions could apply to different points on the path, let's use it.

Decided to work in Portuguese because everyone else in my Portuguese course was working here so they get more day-to-day practice than I was sitting at home working on English-language games. More of an immersive learning environment if it's my working language too; obviously I'm not at a level yet where I can use it for everything (I'm still blogging in English!) but I'll do what I can. And it worked, for expanding my vocabulary at least - I started by using words I know (the basic enemy is a shrimp because I've eaten them here so I know how to call them) but then later I was having to look up more and more words, and now often I run into words outside that I recognise because I looked them up for the game.

I've been interested for a while in making a game in an invented language but just using an existing one that's not English still invokes the kind of textural quality I was aiming for.. less so for people who speak it (the sixth biggest language in the world) but for them perhaps there will be the "all your base" kind of badly-translated flavour? (Because, yes, I'm just a beginner in the language so not everything is correct!) Also a lot of people who play my games are in the USA where Spanish is the second language so I expect they'll get some clues from the similarities there, and a lot of people speak some other Romance language and so will pick up something at least. There's a sense of relinquishing control here; in English I know exactly what I'm doing when I misuse the language, exactly what effect it has, here I have to accept more uncertainty (and at the same time realise that this diversity of understanding is there when I work in English too even though my own command of the language is strong).

Knowing that the majority of my audience won't be able to read everything made an interesting design constraint, gave me extra inspiration about how to make everything deducible through reason and experimentation - not a bad goal anyway (as every game designer learns - players do not read the instructions)! From a few reactions I've gotten it seems like for some people it is much more upsetting to encounter a genuine foreign language than gibberish symbols or no text at all; I don't quite understand this but I find it a valuable experience to spend time in an environment where things aren't made for people like me, and if I can share some of this to challenge others then I'm happy.

I had to pick some default numbers for the first prototype. How many charges should a wand have? At least 4; use them a couple of times experimentally to learn about them and still be able to use them in earnest a couple of times. No more than about 7 to keep it a challenging constraint to balance learning about them and using them. How many effects should they have? Maybe a couple that are easy to discover and a couple that are more obscure. How large should the grid be? There needs to be space for a ray to carry and meet a few different configurations; Imbroglio's 4x4 would be too small. So to go full numerology again I just set everything to 5 to see how it went. The name came straight away here too, "Cinco Paus", it felt like it had a good sound to it, I had this already before I committed anything to paper. A few months later I found the Tarot card I'd been using as a bookmark some time before this, I was spooked for a moment before I remembered that this was the direction that makes logical sense for time to work in - I'd been using this card, I didn't consciously remember it but then the words felt like they went. And I had known that the Tarot suits were where I'd gotten the idea to use the word "pau" (literally "stick") for the wands.

So we have 5 wands with 5 effects and 5 charges, 5x5 grid, 5 hit points, 5 enemy types, 5 zones with 5 enemies on each. The grid size matching the wand array lends itself to connections, but this started echoing Imbroglio too closely so it's only on a couple of minor things. There's a progression as you gain wands / information so it makes sense to face stronger enemies later, so we need a progression of enemy strengths instead of like 868-HACK where the enemy types are differently equal. As with Imbroglio I expected they'd have more abilities - jumping frogs - but hit points turned out to be sufficient to differentiate them. 1,2,3,4.. 5 hit points is too many because then you can't take it barehanded, so the fifth enemy needed to do something different; I went for another 1-hp enemy with an ambiguous ability (not strictly advantage or disadvantage). Effects to kill a specific type were obvious, but I didn't want effects that were strictly inferior to each other and killing a 1-hp enemy is worse than simply doing 1 damage to any type, so the kill effects for those needed an extra rider.

Starting with the full set of wands instead of collecting them as you go made for a powerful simplification, put the focus on acquiring information, neat feeling to have full capabilities from the start and be able to trigger powerful effects but not be able to use them wisely yet. But then having 5 charges from the start meant you had to think about how to ration them through the game, you'd never lose on the first levels because you could blow through all your charges but then have nothing left, or if you didn't have trouble on the first levels you'd save up all your charges for the end, either way it felt a bit off. So I tied charges to progress through the zones, the extra constraint makes each discrete zone a richer puzzle and losing the possible long-term resource management didn't hurt much.

Took some time filling out different ideas for wand effects, a lot of these were very natural, some standard Rogue wands (sleep, polymorph, teleport away). At first I had more negative effects but they weren't so important, all the negative-ish ones I've kept have some occasional positive value too. Thought about whether the same effects can apply both to the player and to enemies; Nethack goes into a lot of detail with this, you can zap enemies with polymorph to hopefully turn them into something easier to kill, or yourself to maybe become a dragon or something, or your items to have a chance at getting better stuff. It's neat but it really puts a lot of constraints on the whole design that everything has to work like this. For most simple effects there's little ambiguity who you want to use it on; heal me hurt them, and with each wand having several effects I wanted to keep the effects themselves very direct. So there's no self-zapping, that will have to be a different game.

For the levels I went with an idea I've used a few times before: getting the most out of a small space by making you cross it more than once from different directions. Started with a simple version from an early Imbroglio prototype: the exit door is locked, there's a key somewhere on the level, you have to get through to the key and then back through to the door. To add score variance there's also another treasure and maybe you cross the level an extra time to collect that too. But requiring the key to exit the level put a restriction on how wild the wand effects could be; no disintegration rays that destroy everything including treasure, no polymorph rays that would turn the key into another kind of treasure, no fun. Tried just opening the door when you destroy the key; boring. At one point I had a complicated set of rules to make sure you could get another key after you'd destroyed one - the next treasure created is a key so any treasure-creation wands will get you out, otherwise the next enemy spawned is a rooster so that will drop a key if you can kill it. It got really messy so in the end I simplified it: the exit is always open and you can just go through without any treasure, it's easier to survive and the system is more resilient to silly wand effects, it's better. I still liked the way the key forces extra traversal so I locked up the other treasure in a vault, maybe you have to backtrack for it.

Other treasures, of course there are 5 kinds (including keys); at first I made them each give 1 point and 1 of something else.
* Potions (healing) felt pretty weak, I was finding I usually had enough life unless I got into a really bad situation where one hit wouldn't make the difference, then I thought of removing the rule of "heal 1 when you reach a new zone" and suddenly they became super relevant, also made it a lot riskier to grab extra treasure, more of a tension between scoring and surviving rather than just being able to solve every level. I'd started using that rule in Zaga-33 as a simplification of Rogue's healing over time to account for the lack of bad timers in that game, it became more important in 868-HACK with fewer total hit points, then fundamental in Imbroglio where there's no way to avoid some damage so the whole game is about balancing damage taken with progress/healing. So I'd just included it out of habit, I had a blind spot about it for a while but once I properly examined it I realised it had no reason to be here.
* Tomes (identification) seemed basically fine all along, helpful but not essential.
* Gems (charge) were a bit much; recharging a wand that creates or duplicates treasure maybe lets you create another gem and recharge it again (similarly I had to ban wands that recharge + generate treasure). But other times you'd get a recharge after you'd cleared a level and it was now of no use to you. So I switched to them being saved up; 5 gems gives a recharge at a time of your choice, this seemed basically okay. Later I introduced artifacts (see this post) and instead 5 gems gives a lamp that can recharge a wand once per game - or something else of similar value; now gems feel like definitely the most important treasure but I think it's okay.
* Chests (point) felt unimpressive because points have no actual value in the game, everything else tangibly helps you survive and progress. So I just tried making them worth more points (5) and it felt like it solved the problem even though it's still just a number going up that doesn't do anything? Games.

(spoilers maybe?) For the artifacts, collecting many of them or having more than one copy of the same made them feel mundane, so I put a maximum of 5 and no duplicates. It felt appropriate to give some choice about artifact progression to help deal with all the random stuff that also happens. A choice means at least 2 options, so to choose 5 artifacts there must be a total of at least 10. Could be more but I think it's good to get a chance to pick up any given artifact; you might think that a particular one is essential and a streak is worthless if you don't get it, I don't know. You can't guarantee getting any two because they might be offered as a pair to choose between.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Thinking about what to prioritise working on next:

I've been saying i'll release Imbroglio on PC for a while. This hasn't been a high priority for me; 868-HACK has sold 11% as many copies on Steam as on iOS and Imbroglio has only sold half as many copies as 868-HACK in the first place; basically I don't know if it's worth spending much time on. Does anyone actually care? I could just skip this and save myself some time and an ongoing support burden. (p.s. don't talk to me about android; ratios there are even worse.)

I have more ideas for expanding Imbroglio, there's quite a bit of stuff that I started trying out during development but I didn't fully pursue because I needed to get some kind of finished version out. But the numbers are saying it's a lot more worth my time to make a new game than to add more content to an existing one; the Ossuary expansion for Imbroglio has sold 1600 copies and PLAN.B for 868-HACK has sold 900. So unless these take off a bit more somehow, expanding Imbroglio further is just selling to a diminishing fraction of really earnest players; I guess the question is whether I can charge a bit more to make this worth working on? This is something I actually really do want to do, I feel like the game isn't quite complete yet, there aren't enough options to make a really varied possibility space, and I know what to do to get there, again it's a question of whether anyone else cares.

Aside from these, I'm definitely starting on a new game soon and, well maybe there's not too much sense trying to plan that because I'll go ahead and make whatever I end up making regardless, but still I'm curious what people would want to see from me next? I know everyone thinks of me as tiny roguelike man now and hey I have sketches for a few more of those I could definitely try to build, but I'll make anything. Imbroglio selling less than 868-HACK makes me wonder if I shouldn't keep going in that direction right now, but I don't want to read too much into it and I'll have more information on that trend soon anyway. I think I'm going to try for at least a couple more smallish games next before getting stuck into a big project, we'll see. But yeah I'm interested in (non-trollish) thoughts on the matter!