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Game Design

Shark Tank(ing)

Most of the characters in I&V have skills that combine together in fun ways, but aren't particularly unusual. For some of the characters though I wanted to do some crazy stuff. This is one of them. The first tank character you get on your team.

Permelia is a creepy little girl ghost. This all works together wonderfully because:
1) Her ghost characteristics make for some really unusual tanking ideas
2) Creepy little girl ghosts make the best ghosts, FACT
3) The idea of an eight year old barefoot girl in a nightgown being the tank for your party of action movie heroes is hilarious to me



If she's hard to see, it's because she's semitransparent. The dark background I'm using for my game page makes it hopefully not too bad, but here's a fake screenshot of what she would actually look like in battle in the game:



You can't actually get her in that dungeon, but I don't have the enemy graphics finished for any of the dungeons that she really is in, and showing those dungeons off isn't the point of this blog post.

The way her tanking works is somewhat bizarre and I'm still working on it. Especially I'm still working on representing it visually, but also on trying to come up with a few more interesting skills she can use to interact with it. The basic idea is that Permelia is a ghost, though. This means:

Permelia is totally immune to physical damage, under normal circumstances.
This is the part that seems wildly unbalanced, when taken on its own, considering the large number of battles where enemies will not use any magic at all. However, countering that...

Permelia always counts as dead, for the purposes of a Game Over.
I mean, she is dead. Literally. But this means that if she's the only party member remaining, you get a Game Over immediately. If an enemy only uses physical attacks, she'll never become unable to fight, which is a huge advantage, but you can still lose.

Permelia can't be healed under any circumstances.
She has more HP than other characters to make up for this, but it's definitely a penalty. She'll rely on defensive buffs to survive, and you may have to turn on and off her tanking strategically to keep her from dying too soon. You get fully healed and revived after each battle, but it won't be unusual for her to get KOed a lot more often than other characters. She'll almost never last through a boss battle, but she'll be extremely useful while she lasts.

Permelia can possess other party members, taking damage in their place and gaining access to their skills.
Here's the tanking part. She can possess one character at a time. She gains access to their primary skillset when she is possessing them. The possessed character can still act also and isn't limited in any way. Any offensive skill that would hit the possessed character hits Permelia instead (including area attacks). She can release the possessed character any time she wants, which refills her MP.

Physical attacks can hurt Permelia when she's possessing a party member.
She has a body at this point, so she does actually take damage. I mean if the enemy is shooting at James's or Veris's body with bullets, SOMEONE should be taking damage, right? She's the one who takes the damage. This sort of draws on the popular video-game mechanic that, when someone in your party is possessed or mind-controlled by an enemy, you can stab them in the face until they get better, and they often suffer no negative effects from your assault.

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So, for example, if Permelia possesses Veris, she'll be able to use his blue magic spells, but not Meditate or Analyze, which are special commands. As long as Veris is possessed, you'll have two characters capable of using Thunderbolt (to keep the enemy lightning-weak much more reliably), two characters capable of using Restore (though neither Permelia nor Veris will need it cast on them, since Veris can't be hurt and Permelia can't be healed), and two characters capable of using Guard (making it possible to keep the entire party buffed with this defensive spell, which is usually difficult due to its duration). If an enemy attacks Veris it'll hit Permelia instead, and if they use an area-attack it'll hit her twice since she'll take the hits for both Veris and herself. After five or six rounds she'll probably run out of MP and need to relinquish her possession of Veris.

She has some other skills of her own that she can use, too, but so far they're kind of dull. I might replace them if I come up with cool ideas that make more sense thematically.

Right now I'm still working on visually representing the possession. I have her moving to the same spot as the character being possessed, and then disappearing. When she attacks, a ghostly version of that character moves out from the possessed character's body and attacks while the possessed character stands still. When she's struck, you can see a ghostly version of Permelia being briefly knocked backwards out of the possessed character's body, and then getting back in. I think it gets the point across but I'm open to suggestions of how to show this better.

Game Design

The death of pixels

When I started making the Shark Factory I had every intention of using nothing but found resources in this game. And I valued having a wide variety of neat stuff to be able to put in my maps far more than I valued the graphics looking cohesive. My typical process when making a map would be to first decide what structures and objects and surfaces and layout I wanted, and then to search through my 12 GB of downloaded miscellaneous resources until I found those things, and then add them to the tileset, and then add them to the map.

This, unfortunately, led to a lot of very badly mismatched graphics. There were at least eight different very distinct graphical styles in the Shark Factory alone, and probably more if you have a better eye for pixel art than I do.

Over time I have tried to edit or replace some of the graphics, mostly the ones that were the most severely mismatched with the others or the ones that were rips from commercial games.

Here are some of the graphics I've redone. Old versions on the left, new ones on the right.



I am not a good pixel artist, and I'd prefer not to be a pixel artist at all, but I am pretty gosh-darned competent with Photoshop. So as you can see, the style I've tried to push everything toward is tiles with photorealistic textures. This is a style that I am capable of making tiles with. It's also a style that's very easy to convery the existing tiles to in most cases. If I can find a photo of a similar surface that doesn't have much glare, I can copy and paste the texture onto a piece of pixel art to create not-pixel art. You can see that's literally exactly what I did for the dumpster and the wheely cart at the bottom there, as well as the file cabinet, the meat hook and the chain roller higher up. I think the result looks pretty good.

Are the tiles on the right better? No. Not really. In several cases they're definitely worse, in fact. But they match each-other. And they will match most of the walls and floors, and hopefully, eventually, most of the other objects. So using the new tiles will make the game look better. Even in just those dozen or so objects, you can see five different graphical styles on the left column, and hopefully only one style on the right (maybe one and a half if I'm honest with myself).

This is all vastly less interesting to me than balancing damage formulas or writing AI scripts for boss battles, so some of the crappy tiles will undoubtedly remain in the game until the heat death of the universe (or until I win the lottery and hire an artist). But at the bare minimum I definitely plan to replace all the graphics I "borrowed" from Tales of Phantasia and Suikoden II (and whatever other games I took enemy graphics from).

Progress Report

Rayna, the buster of ghosts

Recently, I've been giving this game a little love.



I've gotten some help from Unity, who created the map for the final scene in the demo, and also made some graphics for me. Among those is the sprite for Rayna, the third playable character.

Rayna is a slightly eccentric paranormal detective. She's curious, obsessive, missing a few screws, and nerds out when encountering new supernatural phenomena. She's attracted to the mystical artifacts that James and Veris have stolen, and initially meets them after using a homemade device to detect the energy James's sword is emitting. Then she somehow convinces them to go hunt ghosts with her.



She carries around an arsenal of ridiculous gadgets and even worse plans, which have no right to work anywhere near as often as they do. A few of the things she has in that giant backpack are useful in battle - you can obviously see her firing some sort of ray gun there, and the bottom animation is her using an artifact called a Hex Grid to cast magic spells, which is where most of her abilities come from.

Announcement

New Beta Download - New Playable Dungeon

I've been working the last couple months with Unity, who's been helping me with some graphics and some ideas. I want to show you guys some of the progress and start talking more about this game, both to drum up interest and to get myself motivated, so you can expect this blog to become more active pretty soon.

But in the meantime, since it's been so long since I did anything you guys cared about, I wanted to do something big. So I've released a new beta version of the game.

Go ahead and click that big fat Download button up there.

This version includes a new playable dungeon, the Prison Transport Ship, which I've talked about in the blog in the past. This is the first dungeon that includes both James and Veris fighting together in the party, and it's also the first dungeon that really starts to feel like a big puzzle to solve instead of just a series of hallways to walk through with enemies and traps in them. There are some other smaller changes also, like the addition of a shop at the end of each dungeon where you can buy consumable items and upgrades.

Progress Report

I'm not dead yet! I feel happy---

After four or five months of quite frankly barely touching this project, I've recruited some help from Unity and resumed work. Order of business number one was to create the transitional cut scene between the prison transport ship and the following dungeon, the haunted courthouse.

The cut scene in question for your viewing pleasure. I would give some context, but... it seems pretty self-explanatory, honestly. The giant red button mentioned is the one in this screenshot.



With the prison transport ship finally totally done, I'm focusing on the haunted courthouse now, so expect some screenshots of that hopefully coming soon. It'll involve one new major party member, Rayna, who's basically a ghostbuster, and one new minor party member, Permelia, who's a secret for now.

Game Design

Elements

Been contemplating removing elements from enemy attacks, and removing equipment that protects against elements. And then also giving every piece of equipment the same PDef as MDef. So it would basically be impossible to protect yourself from anything before a battle, except to the extent that you build yourself for defense vs. offense vs. hp vs. healing. In-battle protective buffs would still exist.

The logic: You cannot tell what elements enemies will be using before a battle starts. You can't change equipment after a battle starts. This type of "preparation" doesn't reward any kind of skill, it requires clairvoyance on the part of the player. Otherwise known as "bullshit difficulty." I already decided against having any kind of status immunity equipment for the same reason.

The counterlogic: Death is relatively painless in I&V. You respawn right before the battle. Long cut scenes are even shortened to one or two lines if you've seen them before. So if this equipment requires dying first to realize you should use it, is that strictly a bad thing? As long as you don't actually need the equipment to survive, it makes the game easier for people who died once, without making it easier for people who don't need the help.

The game design process would go faster if I didn't keep second-guessing myself, but it would go WAY faster if I worked on the game more than a couple hours every other week.

Progress Report

Bugs solved, dungeon 3 in progress

There were a couple minor bugs and one major one in the demo - the major one was that if you flipped the switch in the room with the acid vats, and then left the room before lowering the ladder, it would become stuck and unable to be lowered. This was fixed through the magic of using scripts instead of stupid events to modify when things are shootable.

In between working on UOSSMUD and pretending to work on UOSSMUD while I'm actually playing World of Warcraft, I've been working on outlining the third dungeon, the prison transport ship. I had a general idea in my head, but sketching out the general flow of the rooms and puzzles before I start mapping is becoming more and more important as the dungeons get more complex. I ended up moving a couple of the puzzles around after I'd placed them, so I'm glad that was just a matter of dragging an MS Paint picture of a switch around instead of redoing the puzzle events and scripts. At this point in the planning, the third dungeon looks something like this:



Forgive the terrible, terrible quality. I promise the actual dungeon will look a little nicer than that image. Like, it might be that image plus three fog overlays and a lightmap. ;) No, but seriously. You can see the first two rooms of this dungeon at the end of the demo!

Announcement

Demo Released

Last night I meant to go to sleep by around 1 AM. Instead I got a little carried away, and stayed up until 6:30 AM. As a result, the new demo of Iniquity and Vindication has been released; it's more than twice as long as the original one.

Some highlights:
- After the Shark Factory, take control of a second character, the detective Veris Cardei, who has been working with James. After James is removed from the fray, you must fight to save him.
- Veris uses blue magic to fight; his powers of observation allow him to learn magic spells cast by human enemies.
- The main plot starts in earnest as you infiltrate a naval base and discover what got Veris and James in trouble with the government, and learn about eldritch secrets that the military is researching.
- Improved equipment system which will (eventually) allow for some character customization.
- A more coherent, less spritey graphical scheme.

http://rpgmaker.net/media/content/games/2931/screenshots/DetectiveAgency.png
http://rpgmaker.net/media/content/games/2931/screenshots/DetectiveAgency2.png
http://rpgmaker.net/media/content/games/2931/screenshots/Naval_Base_Room_1.png
http://rpgmaker.net/media/content/games/2931/screenshots/Naval_Base_Room_2.png
http://rpgmaker.net/media/content/games/2931/screenshots/ICBM_Cabinet_Meeting.png


As always, I definitely appreciate feedback and suggestions from any player.

Game Design

Dungeon Design: Puzzles and Tools

Puzzles in an RPG? Not that big a deal.

The idea of adding puzzles in RPG dungeons is as old as RPGs. It's not exactly a novel gameplay system, but it's also not one that all RPGs do - especially not in a major, pervasive way. Most RPGs have a puzzle every few dungeons. Because the puzzles are rare, there's no need to build a gameplay system for them - each one can just involve interacting with the environment in a way that you can't do anywhere else.

I chose to fill my game with puzzles, and even go so far as to give the player "tools" - abilities, essentially - that he collects over the game to interact with environments in more and more ways. The fact that you use each tool many times helps its role get established in your mind, which lets me make more complex puzzles without having to teach you new controls for each puzzle. Puzzles here aren't just an occasional chance of pace to break the monotony, like in most RPGs - they're something you're engaged in constantly.

I didn't go the heavy puzzle route in I&V this just because it was "neat." I also didn't do it just because I liked Zelda and wanted to mimic it, or because I felt like puzzles were expected in RPGs. I did it because there was a hole in the gameplay without the puzzles, and this was the best way to fill it.


Let me explain my thought process a little.

Iniquity & Vindication is pretty linear. You can't go backwards - or at least, there's no reason to. You can't re-fight enemies to train and earn experience points. There aren't a bunch of quests you can go do. There's basically going to be no exploration at all. I'm going to try to add some optional side-zones and some places where you can pick what order to do things in, but by and large the game is going to keep you moving forward, with pacing more like an action game than a traditional RPG.

All of these things are being done for good reasons, but when you add them together you get a feeling, like in Final Fantasy 13, of being pushed down a tube by the game designer. And I know people don't want that feeling, for the most part, even people who prefer linear games. Maybe for specific segments, but not for more than 90% of the game. Plus, though I tried to make the combat really engaging, and I think I succeeded, you can still only fight so many sharks in a row before you start wanting something more. So I wanted to add something to make the player feel like he was in control, just a little.

But making the player feel like he's in control and giving the player control don't actually have to always be the same thing. A big part of game design is psychology - which I'm mostly incompetent at, but I've picked up a few tricks along the way. So instead of giving the player multiple paths, I give him one path, but make him work to reach it. If you feel clever for figuring out how to progress forward, you won't want to go other ways anyway - you'll want to go the way that you earned by being clever. By adding a puzzle before it, the trio of battles against acid sharks feels like a reward for your problem-solving skills, instead of layer 9 out of 382 of an endless wall of battles.

A railroaded game with puzzles is also just inherently less linear than one without puzzles, because even if you know you're going to go to room 12 after room 11, you're still making choices. You're choosing between a right choice and a lot of wrong choices, but that's still very different than just holding the control stick forward to move forward. No one ever complained that Portal was too linear, right? (No one I care about, anyway.)


You're unlocking the exit, not finding the entrance.

I've said this before on the forums: I don't like a lot of adventure-whatever hybrid games, because I don't like feeling like I have to search for the gameplay before I can play it.

Zelda does this a lot. Metroid does this a lot. They give you a whole world to explore, and you can unlock more and more of it as you go. A major part of Zelda and Metroid is discovering secrets and finding places you can go. Some of the things you find are immediate rewards, while at other points you actually have to spent time searching the world for the dungeons you're supposed to enter. There's a lot of memory involved, too: "Now that I just got the bombs, where have I seen bombable walls? I should go back to all those walls and bomb them." There's nothing specifically wrong with that type of gameplay, but it's not the type of gameplay I want to make in this game. So in I&V, you won't spend ten minutes looking for the path, but you might spend ten minutes thinking about it. Is that better? In a way, I think it is. You're more likely to get frustrated, but you're less likely to get bored. A trade-off, but in my mind a good thing overall. Overcoming my frustration makes me feel like a winner - overcoming my boredom just makes me feel like I can finally get back to playing.

I'd say the tools I give the player probably have more in common with Lufia 2 or Wild ARMs than with Zelda or Metroid. You use old tools on new environments, but you never use new tools on old environments. You never have to remember where you've been, or figure out where to go. You know exactly where to go: the door right in front of you. You just have to figure out how to open it.

Progress Report

Call for backup!

Minus some bugs, I'm now done with the second full dungeon. (More than half a year later than I should have finished it, but that's better than abandoning it.) It includes three bosses, like the first dungeon did. I think that's probably going to be pretty typical.

The second and third bosses, as well as several of the normal battles, involve enemies that summon more enemies to the battle. Since you only have one party member in this dungeon, there's no reactive targetting for healing or buffs, so the summoning and the invulnerability buffs help add some reactive targetting for offense instead. I'm really happy I was able to get the summoning to look nice in the Chrono Trigger style battle system. I have some that appear in a flash of teleporty light, and others that run in from off screen.

It still starts lagging sometimes when summoned enemies die, and I cannot figure out WHY, and it's driving me insane. It's not even normal lag; the framerate doesn't drop, the CPU and memory usage don't go up, but the ATB slows down slightly and most of the player's keystrokes are ignored as if they didn't happen. Doesn't happen consistently, though! Spent almost twelve hours on this problem already and still no solution. It'll probably come to me when I'm trying to sleep or something.
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