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Designing Pure Heart's Gameplay

  • Aldu
  • 10/30/2020 12:26 AM
Pure Heart was originally a collaborative effort for a 2 week beginner’s game jam. I was in charge of the story and graphics while my partner worked on programming and music. However, due to conflicts working with each other, we decided to go our separate ways. Unfortunately, I had already spent a lot of time designing the characters and writing the first draft of the story. To make things worse, it was already one week into the game jam. I had three options: 1. Quit the game jam, 2. Find another team at the last minute, or 3. Continue working solo for the game jam. I decided to challenge myself and continue working on Pure Heart alone. For the next 7 days, it consumed my life. When I finally released the game, some people were impressed with the gameplay given the short amount of time. I decided to write about my thought process during development as a self-reflection and to anyone who might be interested in reading.

Choosing an Engine
When I was working with a partner, he used Unity to make the project. Unfortunately, I’m not experienced with Unity or C#. I considered using Game Maker Studio 2 because I know C and JS, which GML has similarities to, but given the scope of what I envisioned for the project, that wasn’t an option either. I decided to use RPG Maker 2003 because it has the framework / functionality to help me quickly build the game, the low resolution will make it easier to design pixel art, and I was already comfortable with using it. Ultimately, the limitations of the engine gave me a chance to be creative.

Battle System
I had a long debate on whether I should use the default battle system or create a custom battle system. In the end, I decided to make a custom one even with the risk running out of time. My reasoning was simple: I didn’t want people to view my game as an RPG Maker game and it’s tricky to use a traditional RPG format for a game that’s going to be less than an hour long. I considered making a battle system similar to Ys I & II Chronicles where Adol touches the enemy to auto attack. However, that would cause maps to be huge since I needed room for combat. That would result in more time invested in map design. I also considered making something similar to Half Minute Hero but I didn’t want any grinding, even if it was quick. I looked at what I wrote for the story and I thought to myself, how would the Lementians fight? Since they had the power of the four elements, it gave me an idea. I spent the rest of the day figuring out a system that’s easy to pick up but adds depth to it. It resulted in an action based combat that occurs on a separate map, with each elemental attack possessing a different behavior. I tested to see if I could scale it based on the player’s stats but then I realized it wasn’t necessary and it only made things more complex from the development side. At this point, the combat was easy, predictable, and didn’t feel fun. I needed to add some type of limitation; this resulted in adding AP (ability power), which increases passively in battle. It made the combat a bit more interesting because you couldn’t just spam attacks. However, I noticed that the player could theoretically wait and then spam attacks. That’s where I added a maximum of 5 AP. As I continued to test the battle system, something felt like it was missing. Even though the player was constantly dodging attacks, there wasn’t really an “intense” moment. This is where I came up with the idea of two types of attacks, one for bringing down the HP, and another for finishing off the enemy while it was in a “weakened state”. If the player couldn’t finish off the enemy on time, it would recover half of its HP. As the player, it meant two things: you need to conserve enough AP for the final attack otherwise you wouldn’t be able to kill the enemy and having a limited time to kill the enemy while dodging obstacles created that intense feeling I was looking for. Then came another problem: it felt weird that the finishing move was only used once during battle. So I decided to split the HP into lives aka hearts. It ended up working out well because I could use each heart as a different stage of a boss fight. I was satisfied with the overall battle system because I knew that I could scale the difficulty by testing out a different combination of attacks and behaviors. That’s how the battle system was born.

When I played the game, I noticed how dull and boring it was to travel from point A to point B. I decided to add small puzzles into the game. I drew inspiration from Golden Sun, one of my favorite RPGs. There were parts in that game where you would jump over platforms to find the correct path. Thinking about it, it made sense. If you’re exploring a new planet with a different gravity, who wouldn’t jump around? I already knew jumping wouldn’t be enough to add complexity to the puzzles so that’s where I came up with Phase Shifting, an ability to go through walls (it’s based on the mathematical term and has a similar functionality). It made designing maps interesting because I could trick the player into passing by a path they should take otherwise. It also made backtracking easier in areas where you previously didn’t possess the ability. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get much feedback on Phase Shifting because most people stopped playing Pure Heart after the Lady Bora fight, which is when you obtain it. I didn’t really mind. Thinking about it now, the functionality is similar to breakable walls in 2D Zelda games so I assume players would respond the same way.

As you play through the game, the puzzles will gradually get harder and help the player think differently about how they approach the correct path. So for Lake Chrysta, the final area and only dungeon in the game, I thought of it as a test for all of the techniques you learned. I drew inspiration from Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. Without spoiling anything, there was an area in the game where the entire map felt like a maze. It was stressful, but it felt rewarding to figure it out. My goal was to replicate that feeling. This was also where I introduced the final map mechanic, which are Teleport Crystals. It just teleports you to another part of the map. While I was designing the dungeon, I felt that there should be objectives rather than just finding the right path to the final boss. That’s where I added switches to open the pathway. Using a combination of jumping, Phase Shifting, and Teleport Crystals made the overall dungeon challenging.

Optional Cutscenes
A lot of games have optional content and I wanted something for my game as well. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure how to approach it because 1. There wasn’t an inventory system or items to use in battle and 2. I felt like I’ve already exhausted all of my ideas. When someone from the beginners community tested my game, he told me he wasn’t a fan of the cutscenes. Originally, I was upset because I worked so hard to create my first story for this game, but I learned that feedback is important, even the ones that hurt the most. It sparked an idea; there were conversations I scripted between Yuki and Varius that weren’t relevant to the plot but I could switch to as an optional cutscene. Then I can add a trigger for those cutscenes within the puzzles as an optional objective similar to chests in traditional RPGs. I added an optional boss battle and increased max HP reward to those players who watched them all. In the end, it worked out great.

Final Thoughts
When you’re playing a video game, you don’t really know how much effort there was to build it. Since I made Pure Heart, I learned a lot about myself, the stress of game development and the difficulties in polishing and balancing your game. I also learned that I shouldn't take feedback to heart because that's an opportunity to create something out of it.

I didn’t expect to write this much so thank you for reading this far. I hope it gave you more insight and something to think about.



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toiling away in the makerscore mines
I love in depth stuff like this!!!
I love in depth stuff like this!!!

Thanks! :) I love reading in depth stuff as well since there's always something you can learn from other people's experiences. I recently read a book called, "Blood, Sweat, and Pixels" and I highly recommend it.
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