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Heya Space Cadets,

“Hey guys, what do we think happens when a roaring inferno hits a Keg of 120 proof alcohol?”

Yesterday I sent out that rather ominious Skype text. If you’re a designer sitting there, hoping not to have a terribly overcomplicated game, and then someone asks for information on simulating Beverage Explosion, I think a little concern is warranted.

So right now, I’m putting together a document to act as a primer for everyone on the team to get ‘caught up’ on the design and get on the same page. This happens, the design will get away from some people unless you make sure to have daily meetings. One advantage to this is it lets you go nuts with the creativity, but unless you’re always keeping yourself tied to the ground, you’re going to get way too far out.

Designing in isolation always brings that out of people. The best thing you can do is arm yourself against it with this advice: When designing a project, imagine your creativity, time, and money as a jug of water that you cannot add more to. The broader your game is, the more features it has, the shallower it will be when you pour your jug of water into it. Narrower games are much deeper for the same amount of money, time and effort.

I don’t say this to expouse a minimalist concept of game design, but right now even big names like Chris Taylor are struggling to make enough money to put together their projects. Being able to do a good game on much less funding is going to be an essential task in the future, not because a big studio has to (they will continue to create bloated tech demos) but because a small studio with an artistic idea will have to. If you’re someone with a clever idea you want to get made, surprise! You’re a small studio artist now. The big studios will not want to make your game. They are locked in a death struggle with the other big studios and there’s no room for something clever.

So, that tidbit aside, where am I going with this? Basically, I find it really useful to try and keep myself to these restraints. When you have a good idea you should never say “Well, this would be awesome, we’ll need to add another two weeks of work, but it’ll be awesome.” You should always try to find some way to do the important aspect of that idea with the stuff you have.

For example, the explosive Dwarf Rum listed above, would be a bad idea to include on its own. But if we put this into the context of the whole game, we can see that we need a way for an enemy to tear down buildings. Since its idiotic that people with swords would smash a building down with them, I can justify not making the animations for that, which makes me happy. It also lets me justify saying that siege units are different from normal units, in that they carry the tool to break buildings. What is that tool? Well, what do we already have in-game? We have wooden structures, wooden supports, and a few big enemies that use fire. How about fire?

Fire can make sense, right? Big enemies come in with fire, set stuff ablaze, wooden supports go up, buildings burn down, that kind of thing. So now if we consider an Rum Barrel to be a structure of some sort they can react to fire. Viola! That was a fun idea, and now it seems entirely reasonable. The ‘deconstruction’ action for the barrel will just include a fireball and fuel more flames.

“Well, there you go,” was my co-worker’s response, worried that I was getting too complicated. But if we keep this from being complexity, and instead make it nothing but the natural outgrowth of sensible, reasonable systems already necessary for the game, that’s much easier to justify, and should not take more than a tiny bit of time to do. You can’t avoid having a method for buildings to fall apart, but you can easily say “No using barrels of Rum as explosives.”

Of course not, I have barrels of gunpowder for that.

Oh wait, that wasn’t in the memo? Damn.

I plan on showing off the document I’m working on later, once I’ve gotten it all done and my co-workers have signed off on it, but for the moment I’ll just go with a few snippets. Its fun to try and break your favorite games down into their core components. For us, those are:

1: Tunneling
2: Resource Extraction
3: Construction
4: De-Construction
5: Combat

I think that these five “Big Mechanisms” encompass nearly all of the gameplay. Stuff like Heroes leveling up would be classed under combat, and stuff like wood and rum lighting on fire are in De-Construction. Figuring out the smallest numbers of pillars you need to hold up your roof helps you focus on just the elements that cannot be cut. Its really, really easy to make something more complex, afterall. You could make an entire game out JUST tunneling, with no monsters or anything. It might be a puzzle game, but you could do it. So what is your roof? Try writing a statement like this:

The Core Strategic Principle of Delve Deeper 2 is Controlling the Map for the Extraction of Resources by Laborers.

Our game is a strategy game, so I identified the strategic element as the core concern of the game. If you’re making a shooter, then I would assume that your focus is on shooting. If you’re making one of those RPG/Shooter hybrids you gotta figure out what is the most important thing on your plate. Everything should support your main focus. If your game is a narrative game, everything should support the narrative. If your game is a platforming game, everything should support the platforming.

This is a goofy thing I don’t see people grasping a lot, even though its really simple. For example, Combat is an element in The Deepening, and it was also in the original. However, the original included combat as a fun thing and a consequence of mining, but it didn’t precisely support the tile-placement and map expansion mechanic.

The Deepening addressed this fact and looked at what combat needed to be for the strategic mode. First, if the strategic goal is controlling the map and extracting resources, then combat should impact map control directly. We accomplished this by going with that Swashbuckling feel, where warriors will take or give up territory as they fight. They don’t just stand and battle, they’ll go up staircases or jump across tables and stay mobile. So in this case, the Superior Combat Asset (for whichever reason) steals territory from the Inferior Combat Asset as a result of their scuffle. This allows powerful combatants to expand their player’s territory, defend territory they already have, and perform a projection of power from their safer territory into contested territory

Instead of being an afterthought, combat directly translates into territory gain. I see this only very rarely, though in Company of Heroes it came through strongly, and that game really hit all the right notes on designing a strategic RTS.

Construction and De-Construction also play directly into it, but more on that at a later date. Suffice to say, when you’re building things in your tunnels, you’re obviously contributing to a form of game where territory control is important.

Resource extraction is a big one too. I felt that one of the best ways we can actually unify the idea of territory with resource extraction is to change minerals from being a background object to a foreground object. Why do we have gold in the back when it could be in the walls?

Quick show of hands, who has seen The Fellowship of the Rings or The Hobbit? In both we get shots of Dwarf Mines being massive holes down into the earth where millions of tons of rock have been cleared away in a search for riches. Remember the idea of digging too greedily and too deep? Remember what happened to Moria when they did? Well, that’s because when you dig gold out of the wall, you’ve also dug away the wall!

So when you’re mining, you’re mining out the walls in the area full of gold. If you imagine a very simple One on One map with a pile of gold in the center you can see how this will force players into conflict with each other. Instead of having to dangle relics in pre-made tunnels down below, we’ll be able to use the map’s normal design to push players into gradual contact with each other. Best of all, it will actually force people to dig too greedily and too deep, searching for more money to spend or score with.

Also nice is that the same movement scheme can be re-used multiple times, making it much easier for players to understand how to control the game. If you want to move a hero from one place to another, you could use a waypoint system. Click one place to have them path to that place on their own, or give multiple waypoints to give them a more specific route. This also lets you queue up movements and actions, which is great. Once done, that same system can be re-used for tunnel digging, as you can click on an origin point and then a few more waypoints, assign Miners to the task, and let them work it out. That’s really nice for tunnel construction. Mining can even be done the same way, though I would suggest that mining be done on a “per miner” basis, to slow down how quickly resources are harvested. They can even mine in a similar way to how they dig, making players understand at a glance that mining and tunneling are both systems that knock chunks out of the walls and are done by miners.

So that’s several systems all united in working towards the major goal, improved and made more fun while also cutting them down and ditching less fun elements, and one easy to understand movement mechanic being used three times for three different applications and replacing the previously existing complex one. Not bad at all.

Hopefully that’ll keep people from freaking out a little.

Spacelab Signing Out

Thanks for reading this development update. It was a bit of a rambling one, but I think you’d be happy to hear that the design is coming together enough that I can make a document that overviews the entire game. In a bit I’ll probably be able to show it off, maybe for this or a later Friday/Saturday double feature. Now I’ve got to go grab some food! Designing is hungry work.

Neil Wickman makes lemonaide when given explosive lemons, and justifies them as a deconstruction mechanic..

He has been working for Lunar Giant studios since its inception as one of the lead designers and the Creative Director. Listen to him @LunarNeil on Twitter.