Mech Game redux.

This is a brainstorm.

I have stuck a link collection to the top of my blog because I find it simultaneously inspiring and sobering with regard to game development.

It also makes me think of a couple of the intrinsic problems with the mech game.

First is that I want to be a successful developer.  By successful, I mean able to feed, cloth, and shelter my family using revenue generated from my games.  I would also prefer that my games be fun.

In the first Zeboyd link, Robert Boyd says

Focus on what the big publishers are missing

“Since we can’t compete directly against huge companies since they have far more resources than we have, figure out what they’re not doing that’s within our reach,” states the Zeboyd designer.

This came down to a few different pillars of focus for the Zeboyd team. “In our case, that meant a focus on comedy (despite the success of the Portal series, there are far too few funny games being released these days), fast-pacing (most RPGs are huge epics that take a long time to get to the “good parts”), and accessibility without sacrificing depth (again, most RPGs these days have a very high learning curve but if you look at most classic 16-bit RPGs, they were very easy to get into).”

Now, there is, in fact, not a huge number of mech games of any sort being released.  There is Airmech, which does everything our game would do and more… but never mind that.  The thing is, our game, at this point, is a twin stick shooter, like Zombies.  Unlike Zombies, it is meant to be competetive rather than cooperative.  And that brings me to my next bit.

How is the game even a game?

Consider:  I have a twin-stick shooter with multiple weapons.  Against hordes of undead, that makes sense.  I could have a spread shot that will take out multiple zombies at once, or a laser that mows down a line, or all sorts of things.  But in a multiplayer competitive game, the weapons have to balance with one-another, and the only real gameplay mode (especially if you have slow, hulking tanks we’ve planned) is to lumber along while keeping your weapon aimed at your foe.

So far, the game doesn’t rise to the level of Rock-Paper-Scissors.  It is barely a game.

Another factor is the principle brought up in the Mechanics as Metaphor videos.  Let me put it thus:

  • Journey is a journey, very much in the form of a five-act play, with a pair of dark moments leading to increasingly glorious climaxes.  The mechanic is the character’s mobility, which increases in good moments and decreases in bad.  You feel the progress of your journey in how high you can jump, how fast you can run, how long you can fly.  In the good moments, you are surfing down a wave of sand, in the bad you are dodging from cover to cover, fighting strong winds, and trudging ever more slowly and painfully through the snow.
  • Halo is a fight against impossible odds.  The desperation is reflected in mode that shows up in the last couple of games:  firefight mode, where you survive waves of enemies.  It is also reflected in your need in all the games to defend the marines you have with your character.  Finally, it is reflected by the core mechanic of battlefield supply:  you advance by taking your enemies weapons and using them.  You move from place of momentary respite to swarms of moving foes.
  • Bioshock is about choice and will.  The story revolves around whether your character is free to do as he wishes (and thus, the two games alternatively explore extreme capitalism and extreme communism), the weapons and powers are customizable, and the plot changes based on whether you choose to act in your own interest, or make sacrifices for the sake of others.  Fable also does this, but very ham-handedly.
  • Sonic CD and Sonic 1, 2, 3&Knuckles are about motion and speed.  You try to find the quickest of multiple paths, effectively playing a pinball.  Sonic Adventure and SA2 also captured this fairly well.  Others have not.
  • Metroid is about exploration.  Your character is lost and alone, sneaking through the forgotten caverns surrounding an enemy base.
  • The Dishwasher games are about violence.  You have pointy things, you use them to smash stuff in clever and explosive ways.  The movement system, which uses teleportation, is designed to get out of the way of the violence, allowing you to simply smash things.
  • Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness III takes the classic story-telling genre, the JRPG, and uses it to tell jokes.  The classes and combat are also jokes (with classes like Dinomancer that allow you to turn into dinosaurs), and the combat system is built to force you to move fast, allowing you to get to the story sooner.  Also, it’s easy to get into, but geared around allowing you to use your special powers instead of forcing you to ration them like a traditional JRPG, which means instead of hitting monsters with your fists all the time, you spend turns summoning swarms of rats to make your enemies into hobos.
  • Portal takes a non-standard mechanic (making portals) and sets it in a psychotic testing facility run by a deranged robot (complete with messages in blood by a former tester, hidden behind panels).

In each of these games, the story, mechanics, and art crystallizes in a single theme.  AAA games can get away with diluting their themes, like most shooters, most platformers, and so on, but an indie game, to succeed, really needs this kind of thematic purity, especially at the level you see in Journey, Bioshock, Portal, and the Dishwasher.

So the questions before me (well, before us, really), are:

  • How can we make this more of a game and less of a stick-aiming exercise?
  • What should the theme and feel of the game be?  Can the answer to that question be used to answer the previous one?
  • How can we offer the players meaningful choices?
  • How can I accomplish these things with my current skill set (preferably in a couple of weeks.  As if.)?

Starfighter X is not a great example of answering these questions, but it does have a few points in its favor.  Its feel is retro, and so has a text and cube-based interface, movement and shooting that is slow (as opposed to most shooters today, which are frenetic), and a decision-making process that involves weighing time and accuracy bonuses against your need to heal up from attacks and your enemies’ ability to also heal.  Like Space Invaders, the drama comes not from your attempts to find the safe spot in a screen full of pullets, but your decision of when to skip out and take a potshot.

Well, more or less.  Starfighter X is not anywhere near as polished.

Greg’s original concept was that we should just throw this game together in a week or two, get everyone behind a project.  But now that I know a single screen worth of gameplay is going to eat a couple of months (if I get a function character on screen today, I can expect to finish around Halloween at best, Thanksgiving if I’m able to keep things tight).  So where is the juncture of viability as a company project and suitability for the skills and talents of the participants?  To quote Derek Yu, from Finishing a Game:

I’ve found that there are three types of games that pique my interest: games I want to make, games I want to have made, and games I’m good at making.

Games I want to make are games where the process itself seems really fun. Maybe the mechanic seems really fun to experiment with, or maybe there’s a character I really want to animate.

Games I want to have made are games where I’m more interested in the result than in getting there. Maybe it’s a “no-limits” concept (“OMG, GTA meets Final Fantasy meets Starcraft meets…”) or just a really neat idea that’s not necessarily any fun to implement.

Games I’m good at making are games that are suited to my personality and which I have experience in making. Perhaps there’s a certain genre that you naturally gravitate towards and which you understand the rhythm and flow of very well.

In my opinion, the ideas with the most potential (to be finished, at least) fall into all three categories and also satisfy the requirement “I have the time and resources to actually make this”.

My big question, then, is this:  How can I force the mech game into these criteria, preferably while also making it a game with a crystal-clear feel?

I think one option is to have a single-player mode that pits the player not against mecha, but against creatures of some sort.  This sort of justifies the stick-shooter approach.  [chuckle] Of course, with the result that the initially desired multiplayer might seem tacked-on rather than central.

Another thing is that if the mech is slow, the weapons systems should also be slow, to make maneuvering into position a possibility.  Also, having hit locations that make maneuvering meaningful is also a strong possibility.

Nnng.  I kind of want to go back to the game with the psychotic interviewer dropping you on a flying island full of monsters…

Slow moving tanky things reminds me of pirates and ships and broadsides and stuff — naval warfare.  Robot-smashing, on the other hand, has always gone well with cowboys to me.  On the other other hand, Battletech works well with its hexes and stuff (mechs walking on a giant hex-map?  Could be done.  Battletech isn’t the only hexmap war game).

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