December 28, 2008

Evolution of Meridian

Meridian is nearing completion. Just menus, game saves, and polishing left to do. Now is as good a time as any to share how the game idea came to be.

I'd like to think I was originally inspired by the idea of a game set along a single line of battlefields, with those further back supporting the troops at the front, but in fact I was inspired by the title Meridian. It's a really cool word. Sorta like "asp".

Originally, a major part of Meridian was going to be managing public opinion on your home planets. You'd have renewable and nonrenewable resources on each planet. Using up nonrenewable resources hurt public opinion, unless they were near the front of battle and desperate. Losing and winning battles both caused the people to clamor for war (either for further victory or for revenge). If your people thought too little of you, you'd be kicked out of office and lose the game. Perhaps opinion would also affect your industrial efficiency. I also toyed with the possibility of having the option of negotiating for peace with the enemy leader, but your people would always prefer that you scorn peace and fight for glory. Peace was difficult, but the only real winning option. It would offer a (simplistic) message through gameplay.

But as I thought about the actual battle system and simulated the ruleset in my head, I came to realize that the whole public opinion aspect belonged to a different game. Meridian was, at its core, a game of managing resources and pushing an enemy further and further into a corner. Perhaps later I'll make a diplomacy game, but this is not it.

Raph Koster advised designers to figure out what the game is about and then do nothing that does not support that core game. I decided that Meridian was about "pressure": you had to methodically push back the enemy forces while they tried to do the same to you. If you push them too fast, they'll summon reinforcements in order to ensure a fighting chance. I wanted the feeling of a slow but desperate arm-wrestling match. More and more pressure until one side broke.

The basic setup was easy to imagine. I love hex grids, and the organization of forces into fleets of arbitrary size was fairly simple. I originally thought that you'd set a certain "tactic" for each fleet that would affect when they would retreat from battle, but I quickly discarded that idea and handed retreating control to the player. During the first few weeks of development I would lie in bed and imagine the game being played. I discovered a whole slew of small refinements were necessary in order to get the game I was hoping for. One critical aspect of the gameplay was hit and run attacks. Smaller fleets needed to be able to chip away at larger fleets in safety. This required that fleets be able to retreat, have the capacity to move two spaces in one turn on occasion, and have an initial first strike before the retreat. The battle system had to be just right, and it took me a while to figure out the current system.

The game takes place on only one solar system at a time, trying to fight towards the more distant systems. Originally, moving from system to system was originally going to take several turns, and both sides would bide their time before invading a new system (which might have made for an excellent interest curve). With this setup, the newly built ships of the losing side could get to the active solar system faster (since it was closer to their home systems). In order to turn this into a true advantage, ships were given an accuracy rating to represent how effective they were at destroying enemy ships. Newer ships had better accuracy ratings than older ones, so the losing side would have the most modern ships in play.

Later in development, I decided that having interstellar travel take time was not very significant from a gameplay perspective. The accuracy difference barely made a difference at all, since there were so few new ships in comparison to the total number of older ones. Instead, I went with the system that was easiest to program: interstellar travel is instantaneous and only takes place when ships are built. If I needed to, I could justify this with in-game fiction, but Meridian is not much story-based, so I didn't bother.

It wasn't until a few hours ago that I realized that with this simpler system in place, there was no longer any reason to maintain the changing accuracy ratings. Their main influence on the game was to clog up the UI with hard-to-understand percentages. If I just keep accuracy ratings static, the only important information to show in the UI is fleet size. I should be able to really clean things up.

There were a lot of other design changes during development, of course, but these were the most drastic and/or instructive.

Meridian: Coming Soon!

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