Archive for October, 2008

Work Progresses In Hell

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

Just a quick blog post to inform the faithful that work is progressing quite well on Solium Infernum. If you have read this blog before then you probably know that I’m a frustrated systems engineer. In that spirit I’ve been quite pleased to have finished my second pass on all the major system components save one.. the rituals system. I’ll be taking that one on this week and the law of unintended consequences has created some nice trouble spots to focus on.

One big thing is some of the complexity for special rules that only becomes apparent when you are working through other systems blocks that are involved. I realized while working on the standard interface for selecting a target from a list whether it be a legion, praetor, relic or even another player that some of my rituals were going to need a second pass. One ritual for example that I have mentioned before lets you place dummy icons on the board to confuse and misdirect your opponent. That’s all well and great until an enemy legion needs to be targeted and you choose to do so from a list rather than clicking on the icon on the map. How do you represent the dummy icons on the list…. multiple entries? I’ve chosen to hide the random selection aspect under the hood when selecting from a list. The legion’s name is highlighted in an unusual color… right now a purple since red usually means “no worky, not a valid choice.” So when you select the legion name on the list you are saying choose a random target from the entire group of icons with that legions name. If you prefer to be more precise you can always just choose a specific icon on the map by clicking on it. But the point is that sometimes unintended consequences pop up from what seem to be clever design decisions. Right now I need to go back and arbitrate all the rules and interface collisions from this type of thing.

Fun work this is not. But it is necessary. It also highlights in my mind why probably 95% of indie games never see the light of day. Putting your head down and churning out the second, third and fourth passes is tedious. The mind wanders and the song of the Sirens of new game designs beckons. The allure of starting fresh with an idea or theme that has caught your fancy is almost irresistible at times. The infatuation of that new relationship where you are creating something fresh and open, the untrodden path is very powerful. It takes discipline to continue down the well worn muddy rut you have been plodding down for 12 months. Luckily I have enough wax in my ears and good old common sense to know that if I leave the path and glance back over my shoulder, those new designs will indeed never see the light of day.

So Solium Infernum is moving along. The more I step back and admire the design the more proud I have become. I’ve been influenced by everything from Conservation Laws to Symmetry to basic game theory of interactive decisions while crafting all the major game components.

Here is a brief description and picture of the Dire Dissipation Ritual that crowns the top of the “Destruction” discipline that an Avatar gains levels in. It’s the most devastating direct damage type power in the game and in order to use it you usually need to be in Vendetta or Blood Feud with the owner of the target legion….a special deceit ability lets you target any opponent and frame somebody else in case you are wondering what the exception is.

Dire Dissipation Ritual

Dire Dissipation:
Target an enemy legion belonging to a player with which you are in Vendetta or Blood Feud and permanently damage its hit points and attributes if it fails a resistance roll versus destruction. Hit points are reduced by the power level obtained in the discipline of the player performing the ritual. Attributes are reduced by a random d6. Both the hit points and attributes are permanently reduced and cannot be restored.

Dubious Wisdom

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

Bill Harris has a great post from a couple of days back on the “Consolation of Gaming.” It really struck a chord with me. Not the self-assembling girl friend from Korea part but all the other stuff: The stress of all the events in the external world, the struggle with a deteriorating middle aged body and the escapism that gaming offers.

My rehab problem doesn’t sound anywhere near as difficult as Bill’s but it’s still annoying. Two months ago, spurred on by my kids burgeoning soccer careers, I decided to play in some adult pick up games. I hadn’t done anything like this for over 20 years. The last time I’d touched a ball in a game was when I played Div III college soccer in the Fall of 1987. The outcome of this mini-middle aged crisis was ugly. My mind thought it was still 21 but the body would not comply with its demands. The end result was some type of tendon injury in my heal. Now every morning I have to stretch the darn thing out.

My only twist on Bill’s story is that now that I have started working with computer games for a living, I’ve started having problems losing myself in the games. Not the worst kind of problem but also one that a pill you buy via an internet pharmacy can’t solve. The issue is twofold. First, I work at home so I always feel like I should be working. Punching the clock is a psychological effort not a physical one. It helps to have a family with schedules that pull you away (soccer, gymnastics, school etc.) but there is still the fact that my “office” also doubles as my sanctuary. Second, after so much time spent sitting in front of the computer working on a game, it takes a huge effort to get excited about “playing” something else. Its a combination of mental fatigue and media overload. That’s probably why I have gravitated more and more to board gaming over the last few years. There is something to be said for having to move to the kitchen table, set up all the components and chat face to face with real people. The physicality of it is refreshing.

Now don’t get me wrong. I still love PC gaming. It still scratches a mental itch and offers an escapism that other forms of entertainment just can’t match in the same way. But the binging is gone and probably for good. It’s both a casualty of age and the work choice that I’ve made now. It was something I could see coming even when I was making infotainment CD-ROM’s a decade ago.

This all brings me to something I’ve been thinking about that relates to the strategic direction of Cryptic Comet. When I’m brain-fried and can’t think about coding anymore for the day my mind wanders to the type of projects that I’d like to take on after Solium Infernum. I’ve got a notebook full of such things and 4 solid ideas in various stages of cannibalized board game mock ups. I’ve definitely decided to pick the one that falls into the “Light Adventure Strategy” category. I build things things not just to sell them but because I want something for myself to enjoy and after this development cycle on Solium Infernum, I’m feeling like I need a light time waster…. something like a Puzzle Quest or Solitaire. In the board game space it would be something like Lost Cities/Ticket to Ride….thinking along a single dimension. Something that requires mindless thinking if you know what I mean. That’s the type of engagement that I’m finding very therapeutic.

Events And Scripting

Friday, October 3rd, 2008

Soren Johnson of Civ and Spore fame made a recent post on his Dev Blog “Designer Notes” about the Seven Deadly Sins of Strategy Games. His first sin on the list was too much scripting arguing that used unwisely (as a core feature) scripting undermines the rules set/mechanics architecture by dirtying up the decision space aesthetics with lots of exceptions… like triggers and other “story hooks.” I tend to agree with him on this point. Over at QT3 there’s a good thread discussing the whole list and the first sin in particular.

I’m very interested myself in “Emergent Narrative” in strategy games as it’s often called. The ultimate idea would be to have a text/image based story produced at the conclusion of the game that chronicled all the important decisions made by the player and the outcomes of those decisions as well. I think that the old canceled space opera game “Stars Supernova Genesis” promised an HTML type newspaper to be generated during the game and at its conclusion. This would be the Holy Grail of emergent narrative for me. Just how much effort it would be to accomplish something like this is something I’m not exactly sure of. With my limited resources and time I’m not about to take this on…. as the famous saying goes “Don’t look at me. I’ve got my own problems.”

A good question that arose in the QT3 thread is “What are some examples of scripting done well in strategy games?” I’d like to think my Cults of the Wastelands free mini expansion pack could stand muster. Basically the idea was to augment the free form random sand box of the vanilla AE game with some scripted narrative elements…various cults pursuing some type of special agendas. The payoff was the ability to force players to make some interesting decisions like the confrontation with the messengers of the Great Kabaagh. The downside was that once the script has fired the surprise is over and the repeat enjoyment value is diminished.

What triggered off this whole blog entry was a combination of Soren Johnson’s post, the discussion on QT3 and my own work over the last couple of days on Solium Infernum. I’ve returned the the Events system and have been fleshing out some of the more involved and intricate events and there’s a huge scripted element with some of them. For a little background on all this you can read this post here where I discuss my original intentions to have some type of event system for Armageddon Empires. The short of it is that I cut it to finish the game but when I took up the design gauntlet for SI, I was intent on working the events idea into the games mechanics.

So in Solium Infernum events are actions that are played by the players as one of their possible turn orders. You can’t just play any old event though. You draw an event “card” each time you are named Regent, an honor which passes from player to player as the game goes on in a clockwise direction. You can easily see who is the current Regent by looking at your Diplomacy tab or reading the turn log entry that is generated each turn making the formal announcement. Depending on the level of your Prophecy power you can keep one or two event cards in your “hand” at any time. If you have a full hand and draw a new card you’ll have to choose one to discard.

The events fall into a range of categories and costs. Generally the more targeted the event’s effects, the more it costs to play. Many events don’t cost any resources at all to play because they affect all players or a random player (sometimes including the player who played the event). The effects are also usually doubled edged swords with a “screw you” twist. For example, many of the events are posed as “Decrees of the Infernal Conclave” which as a Lord of one of the Great Houses of Hell you are compelled to comply with. The “Infernal Legion Tax” decree forces every player to pay a tribute card for each legion that it controls on the board or lose Prestige points accordingly. Not a bad event to play if you have a warlord neighbor who has put together a large collection of legions and you only have a few to whip the Lemures into shape.

Some of the events are more involved and this is where the scripting comes in. For example you can play the “Angelic Host of Divine Retribution” event and a host of angels will descend on the board and start causing trouble for the players with the most prestige points. The challenges here were very similar to those I encountered with the Great Kabaagh. Pick your targets, do the pathfinding, dish out some retribution, check your status and when your mission is accomplished fly back to Heaven. Special scripted events like this often get their own piece of artwork. Here is the art for the Angelic Host event

Angelic Host