March 30, 2009

Alternex 1.1 Goals

With 50 days left before the deadline, it's time for me to get started on revising Alternex, my game for the Imagine Cup competiton. Here's what I intend to do:
  • Improve the menu graphics by adding depth (possibly with a 3D tubes look).
  • Add a border to the game window. For some reason this seems to add a lot to a game; it takes it from the realm of the OS window to its own context.
  • Lower the information density of the main playing screen by converting some of the floating-point numbers into other graphical cues.
  • Add more "juice" into the user interface.
  • Build extra levels to play, and possibly new difficulty settings
  • Finally allow the player to replace plants in one action rather than sell and build separately.
  • Refine the endgame scoring system. Right now, it's just a barebones system, and I worry that it isn't satisfying. Perhaps a high-score list.
  • Find a way to notify the player of important goings-on without using the current in-game popup windows. They annoy people and break the action

Three New Prototypes

Stuff I've been working on / playing with:

1) Auralstride:

An echolocation game. The player tries to navigate a maze strictly through audio cues (though the game will graphically display the player's orientation). I'm thinking of having the player go through the maze collecting limited-frequency bands of audio tracks that can be combined into a full song after they've all been collected. I worry, though, that this mechanic is too shallow. If I want to sustain the player's interest over several levels, I need to gradually increase the difficulty of this task, and simply making the maze more complex won't cut it.

So far I've got a working prototype of the basic echolocation gameplay in a maze composed of squares, but it's a long way from a functional game.

2) Maestro

I've written about this one before. You move the mouse to match a song's waveform. My goal is to smooth it out and fiddle with the data until that's fun, and then to allow the player to input any MP3 song to play. It's showing promise, but this sort of thing might be above my skill level. Look at Audiosurf and how imprecise its game-to-song matching is. Maestro works very well for some songs and very poorly for others.

It's currently the furthest along of any of these prototypes; in fact, I shouldn't even be calling it a prototype at this point. I'm still trying to find a good way to display the waveform and such graphically (since just displaying it as a graph seems inelegant), but the basic gameplay and song-importing works fine.


Imagine a simple conversation game wrapped in the skin of an IM program. MUTE is a backronym for Madup University Text Express, since I imagine that the first conversation will be set in a college social context. Nothing's been implemented on this one, to my shame, but I've been working out the conceptual design since the idea came to me. The basic gameplay is simply picking a response from a preset menu.

The big flaw in any branching-conversation game is the amount of text that needs to be written. It increases exponentially with conversation depth if (as I intend to do) you avoid looping back to earlier parts of the conversation. But I'm hoping that this will be a plus, since I hope to flex my writing muscles and possibly to bring in other people to do writing (maybe within a custom-built authoring tool).

There are a couple of basic features beyond the basic conversation gameplay that I'd like to include. I hope to have several computer actors that you can initiate conversation with, as well as actors that will sign on to the IM program and contact you. I'd like to have persistent game-wide variables that can be turned on or off within the conversations, such that an ambitious author could expand the game into one involving concrete goals. And I'd like to programmatically ensure that no conversations in the game will repeat dialogue within the same game session. The point of putting this in a mock IM program is to build immersion cheaply, and I don't want to throw that away.

March 20, 2009

Imagine Cup - Round 2

Earlier, I entered the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition.

I'm proud to say that my team, Epsylon Games, which comprises me, has advanced on to round 2.

The leaderboards suggest that about 600 teams from around the globe entered into the competition. 150 continue on to round 2. When you consider that I was a single-man team (others had up to four members plus a mentor) and that I started my game three weeks before the deadline, I'm immensely satisfied with achieving semi-finalist status.

My prize is a 12-month XNA Creator's Club Premium membership and, more importantly, two more months of development before I have to turn in the final product. The teams will be whittled down to six finalists for round 3, and those teams go to Egypt and get a shot at some nice prize packages.

I've started putting together a list of extra features and alterations I'd like to add to the game in these precious months. I'd like to add depth to the graphics, get rid of all the floating-point numbers, add in mouse wheel-controlled map zooming, fix the game's balance, and flesh out the playable content through additional levels and possibly level progression.

Somehow, I'll fit this all in amongst the other three small game projects I'd like to do, new work in the Dartmouth Tiltfactor lab, and three college classes.

March 8, 2009

Fast and Slow Strategy

I've noticed a gulf in the RTS genre. Some games, like Sins of a Solar Empire and Supreme Commander are going big and slow; they tend to advertise an epic, never-before-seen scale. Others, like Command & Conquer 3 and World in Conflict are going small and fast; they market the de-emphasizing or total lack of base building and the high-action tactical battles. Both share an ancestry in the early RTS games, but these games are getting so different that people are trying to exile them into separate "RT4X" or "Real-Time Tactics" genres. This schism intrigues me.

I should start by noting that I'm a complete partisan here. I played and loved single-player C&C and Starcraft and Age of Empires back my formative gaming years, but my skillz have waned while my hunger for strategic depth has intensified. I was really upset that Warcraft 3 put such a heavy focus on heroes and small unit counts. World in Conflict is keeping me entertained through spectacle alone so far, and I didn't even bother buying C&C3 after so many of my friends praised its fast pace and quick-to-the-punch action.

The simplistic explanation of the schism is that it's all based in differences of pacing preference. Some of us prefer a faster, more exciting experience, while others can't take the heat and thus prefer a game that lets us adequately prepare before stepping into the strained-metaphorical kitchen. To be certain, pacing matters. And I do prefer a game that supports some real, large-scale back-and-forth.

But I think that there's more to it. There's a substantive change to the "strategic" aspect of the gameplay when you are thinking on a time limit. A while back, I wrote about time limits and puzzle solving: "In Portal, the player generally has infinite time to figure out how to proceed. Experimentation is encouraged, and the player can try out whatever and still feel creative when the puzzle is solved. Shadow of the Colossus introduces a major danger factor. You can't sit and try to analyze the colossus for weaknesses because if you stop running, you'll die."

Similarly, in a game that focuses on rapid base-building and battle tactics, the biggest determining factor of victory is the player's skill in getting a base up, running, and producing fast. In games that forgo the base-building, the most important element is maneuvering individual units. Both of these involve important tactical decisions, but it always requires a high degree of mechanical skill on the player's part: knowing the interface, clicking the right buttons in the right order at the right time, and knowing the right instant for each action. Too often, this skill aspect overshadows the tactical one, with many games having a clear "correct" build order or tactical outlook, with skill as the only differentiation between knowledgeable players.

The slower pace of "slow strategy" games allows for a more contemplative match. Discerning the enemy's strategy ahead of time matters much more, for without an effective counter, the match is lost. There's more time to alter strategies or take time to think and plan. Moments are rarely precious.

Keep slowing down the strategy, and you end up in the realm of turn-based games. Perhaps that's where I belong; Civ 2 is calling my name right now. But I also enjoy the action and flow of a real-time game, and the need to stay consistently focused (if not anxious) can be enjoyable. Games like SupCom and SoaSE offer a happy medium in the very wide "strategy" genre.

But if we so readily discriminate Turn-Based Strategy from Real-Time Strategy, I think it's time that we acknowledge that fast and slow RTSs are diverging just as significantly. I know it's getting a bit ridiculous to subdivide a subgenre, but I'm sure that I'm not alone in my likes and dislikes. Fast strategy games may as well be in the action genre from my perspective, and I'm sure that the fans of such games can't stand the snail's pace of my favorite RTS games. A new set of labels might help.