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Game Design

Letting players cheat

I'm tempted to add cheats.

When I was young, I couldn't beat Grandia II because it was too difficult. So I chose to restart the game with a hacked save file where the main character had max stats. Every monster was easily destroyed. A substantial part of the game was completely invalidated, and yet I loved it.

My game, Notes From Province, is probably too difficult. The battles are tuned for the hardcore RPG enthusiast. Some of my testers are not hardcore RPG enthusiasts, but still love the game as long I press the debug button that kills all monsters. There's a lot of value in exploring, solving puzzles, and talking to NPCs, and I don't want players to miss out because they keep losing battles.

Players should be able to cheat. How they cheat is still undecided.

Cheat Option A
If the player loses too many battles, they are given an item that can arbitrarily boost stats. There is no penalty for using this.

Cheat Option B
Players can freely increase or decrease stats from a "Difficulty" option in the main menu. If you increase stats beyond your current level, you will be unable to challenge the endgame bosses, but can still complete 99% of the game, including the story. Players are warned that increasing their stats will permanently lock them out of the most difficult bosses.

Cheat Option C
No cheats? A completely different method? Not sure. Any feedback is much appreciated :)

Game Design

I've learned to hate the gimmick/puzzle battle

I've learned to hate the gimmick/puzzle battle, which is strange considering this game is essentially entirely gimmick battles.

So recently I've been playing Faeria, a card/board game mix that looks like this:

I've been playing through the single player missions which start simple, but eventually introduce a battle specific gimmick that you have to build your deck around. For example, one mission greatly buffs high cost creatures while another benefits spamming low cost minions.

It's clever and well implemented, but I hate it.
It's just not what I want out of the game.

I want to build a deck and slowly tweak and fine tune it as I collect new cards. Then I want to take my optimized deck and dominate the field. In Faeria, you take your deck, get destroyed by the battle's special gimmick, then build a one-off 30 card counter deck, and repeat for the next battle.

Now the worrying part is that Notes From Province works the same way. While playing, you collect accessories (similar to cards) and build a "deck" by filling the character's limited equipment slots. Each battle introduces a new gimmick that the player must counter.

Striking the balance between encouraging interesting build craft and turning each battle into a chore is difficult to find. I want to outline a few Notes From Province design principles that will hopefully make an enjoyable game.

Every battle can be beaten on the first attempt
This has been a core design principle since the start. Each character can change equipment once per battle, giving players a chance to scope out the enemy threat and make adjustments without having to die and restart. Additionally, party members can be swapped mid-battle.

Most battles can be beaten with the same "deck"
Encounters make the players adapt and use the tools they have in new ways, rather than forcing the players to bring a new toolset.

Multiple solutions to puzzle battles
A battle won't revolve around a single item or character. A battle may require something specific, like heavy poison removal, but there will be multiple ways to achieve it.

It's okay to have a normal battle
Sometimes players just want to beat monsters without thinking. It also gives a good chance to focus on learning the character's skills.

Save the puzzles for the Coliseum
In the Coliseum, there's a feature called "Challenge Battles" which have the specific purpose of creating encounters that players have to go out of their way to figure out. It's a place for this type of gameplay that doesn't block progression.

Game Design

Character Design

My original approach to skill design was to come up with clever ideas that thematically fit the character. It was around the 100th skill re-design that I began to think maybe this isn't working.

The new approach is every character follows a simple set of rules:
  • The character is good at two things: A and B
  • Doing a good job at A makes doing B more effective
  • Doing a good job at B makes doing A more effective

I'm calling this Character Gameplay Circles. If this is an actual concept with a proper name, please let me know.

The idea is that A and B are combat roles unique and thematically linked to that character. Limiting to only two things helps focus the skillset and gives players a clear objective for what that character should be doing in battle. Having the feedback loop between A and B rewards the player for successfully accomplishing that objective.

Previous character iterations felt messy. They had cool things to do, but didn't feel purposeful and ended up with a lot of wasted skills. Here's the new (and hopefully final) designs.

Kyme the Swordsman
Kyme protects allies from taking damage and makes enemies bleed, a damage over time debuff.

Since most of his damage comes passively from bleed, he's free to use his turns protecting allies. When blocking damage, he triggers a random bleeding enemy to suffer an additional tick of bleed damage. Once Kyme has used all his MP on protection skills, he can then use his base attack to regain MP based on the amount of bleed damage the enemies have suffered.

Sita the Brawler
Sita's good at buffing her damage and evading attacks.

Every time she evades, her critical hit chance is increased for the rest of the battle. Each critical hit gives her a stacking damage buff, and at the end of her turn, the remaining damage buff is added to her evasion rate.

Ezekiel the Priest
Ezekiel's specialty is healing and high damage, long cooldown attacks.

After using his attacks, they go on cooldown, which frees him up to heal. For each ally at full HP, Ezekiel gains a stacking damage buff on his next attack.

Rick the Thief
Rick's focus is applying poison and debuffing enemy defense.

When an enemy takes poison damage, they receive a stacking defense debuff. When Rick attacks an enemy at the maximum debuff stack, he applies poison for free. When he applies poison to an already poisoned enemy, he immediately deals poison damage.

Emith the Magician
Emith can deal damage over time by burning and deal heavy direct damage by using lightning on wet foes.

Emith is a bit different as his A and B directly conflict with each other (wetting a foe puts out burning). He must balance between water and fire to regain MP and continue casting spells.

Brave Wind the Archer
Brave Wind supports allies and deals damage through critical hits.

By supporting allies, he gains adrenaline. He can then consume all adrenaline for a series of guaranteed critical hits. Once all adrenaline is gone, he gains a HP regen buff that he then shares with allies whenever targeting them with a support skill.

Umbra the Necromancer
Umbra can leech health from enemies and boost party damage.

By sacrificing HP, she can increase the party's damage. When an enemy is attacked, Umbra heals a percent of HP based on how much damage was dealt. The more damage the party does, the more she can heal, which gives her more HP to sacrifice to boost damage.

Progress Report

So I'm actually playing my game

It's been 2 years since I last played from the beginning. I'm at a point where everything the game needs has at least a rough draft, so the plan is to play from start to end. When I reach a part that's still a draft, I'll finish it before continuing, and by the time I reach the credits, the game will be done.

First Impressions
(and random thoughts from the developer)

Day 1
This game is dense. Three hours in and only explored half the town. Spent an hour exploring the business district, and half the shops are closed. The game needs to push the player more towards the main story, because without it, things feel aimless.

Credit to the one person who long ago recommended adding a clothing system. It was a feature I always planned, but was going to cut until I remembered someone out there was going to be disappointed. The clothing options that made it in are super simple, but it's totally my favorite part of the game right now.

Day 2
Six hours in and just about to leave the town. At this point, I think I'll purposefully never leave town and see how far I can go. Have to test every possible play style, right?

Finally made it to the first few main story quests, and I must say one of those early scenes was fantastic. Normally I wouldn't compliment myself, but it's been so long since I made that part, I feel like a different person.

I must have fixed 200+ bugs so far ranging from typos to crashes. Overall enjoying things, but most excited to get this game out for other people to try. No promises on when, but I'm making a big push to actually finish.

Game Design

Introducing Balance World

I wish I thought of this sooner, and wanted to share with anyone who doesn't already do something like this.

Balance World is the entire game compressed to a single map.

There's no dialog. No exploration. Only combat.

In Balance World, you walk up to a dungeon, fight it's battles back to back, then receive all the treasure inside. Plus, I have a few quick events setup for adding party members, boosting levels, and spawning certain tiers of gear.

This setup has been crucial for me, given the game's non-linear nature and variety of combat setups. I can quickly play through the game with different party members, equipment loadouts, and dungeon ordering.

It's also easy to add battles at any point in the game. I have a stockpile of saves for different level ranges and simply load the appropriate one when adding new encounters.


Balance World is simple, and you probably have something similar, but if you don't, consider it. I wish I had this from the start.

Progress Report

I almost forget I was making a game

Nothing kills my momentum like writing. I was making good progress filling in content and actually completing dungeons, but then I had to write a dreaded main story scene.

I'm at this awkward point as a writer where I know what I have doesn't work but don't know how to write it better. And the scene I was writing had to be good. It's the critical transition between the first and second half of the story.

Now most of the game scenes are random, one-off nonsense which is fine to write, but there is an actual story woven through there, and when I have to tell that, I freeze. Combine that with my best lines coming to me at random times (like brushing teeth), then I put off writing for the next day, hoping that the dialog will just come to me. But it doesn't. So I put it off for the next day. And then I don't touch the game for 3 months.

But I'm back, and work is actually happening. I sat down and rewrote the outline for the second half. Then I filled in each scene line by line. It's there. It's done.

My momentum is back, and I'm hoping to keep it. There's only a few dungeons left and would love to finish this game.

Game Design

I'm getting better at game dev and it's ruining everything

I've been working on Notes From Province for 4 years, and during that time, I've gotten much better at making Notes From Province.

Which sounds awesome. Except I've been making the game chronologically. So middle of the game is much higher quality than the start, and the end is higher quality than the middle. And you can't have the start be the worst part of the game. That's when you hook the players. So the solution is obvious. I go back and remake the beginning. But you can't have the middle be the worst part of the game, or else player's won't stick through it until the end. So the solution is obvious. I go back and remake the middle.

If anyone knows how to not get stuck in an infinite development cycle while maintaining a consistent standard of quality let me know. For now, I have three ideas.

Prefer adding rather then remaking
If we add new, better content in between the old, then the average quality rises. I'm lucky with this as the first area has noticeably fewer dungeons than the later zones, creating some gaping content holes.

Define what "good" content is
Some earlier blog posts described a list of rules for making good puzzles and encounters. With something concrete to point to, I can objectively tell if a part of the game is below standard and needs reworking. If it meets the rules, leave it.

Develop with the intention of remaking
Not sure yet if this is a good idea or a horrible one, but I'm developing the rest of the game as if it were a draft. Placeholder treasure and monsters between unfinished cutscenes. Leave out the things that were likely to be remade anyway and once the game exists in it's entirety, come back and fill them in.

Game Design

New Progression System

Here's the idea: forget leveling up. Characters gain EXP towards various progression rewards, which include stat boosts, new skills, and passive abilities.

If you haven't read part 1 of this post, I'll summarize the balance issues I've been struggling with.

  • Being able to take on battles in any order led to poor balance
  • Skills and passives being unlocked at fixed levels made it hard to set new party member starting levels
  • Leveling up turned into noise - it happened after every battle and you didn't really care

With progression rewards, stat boosts no longer come every level. I can balance all encounters in a region around a specific "stat level" and know that whatever order the player picks the fights in, they won't be over leveled. By the time they've cleared the region, they'll have enough EXP to earn a stat boost that makes them strong enough for the next area.

Skills and passives are no longer tied to a specific level. Instead of earning a passive at level 10, it's now earn a passive as the third reward. With everything relative, character's don't have a starting level to cause a problem.

I'm loving the system so far. Rewards are unique per character. Some characters are defined by their passive abilities, so a new passive is their first reward. Others characters care about MP, so they'll work towards a big MP boost. I'm tempted to add items and gold as rewards, but I worry it makes no sense from a world-building perspective. Like, where did that extra gold come from?

Game Design

Balancing open world games is hard

For those who haven't played the demo, Notes From Province is an open world game focused on boss-like battles. It's structured like this: there are three battles you can take on at level 5, in any order. Beating those three will get you to level 10, which makes you strong enough to take on the next three battles, which gets you to level 15 for the next set, and so on.

Now this sounded like an awesome setup to me at first, but the more the game developed, the more I realized that wait, this is actually horrible.

The first battle of the set is well balanced and engaging. Then you level up. Battle two is a bit easy. No need to pay much attention. By the time you reach the last encounter, you're strong enough to force your way through without even knowing what made the encounter interesting. Despite my best efforts, two thirds of the game ends up being poorly balanced.

Finding an answer

The classic open world solution is enemies that scale with the player. That's fine, but it's not the game I'm trying to build. The best moments in this game are when you discover an enemy far outside your level, get destroyed, come back an hour later, and then do the destroying. I want imbalance, but it needs to be few and far apart. Plus, there's this dynamic difficulty system implicit to an uneven world. If a player wants an easier time, then beat all the encounters in your level range before moving on. Players wanting a challenge can take on enemies from a higher range.

There were a few other solutions I considered. Like having no stat progression at all, with the characters getting stronger by gaining more options in combat. So you'd be rocked by a confusion heavy battle until you found the confusion curing equipment. Another idea was to take an approach seen in the Guild Wars series, where players reach max level quickly and the majority of content is balanced at max level. I'd still get that imbalance in the leveling phase, but all content after would be smooth.

Ultimately, I decided that instead of gaining stats every level, the player only gains stats every 5 levels. This probably sounds like the dumbest solution, but it plays really well into a revamped progression system I'm building to solve other issues.

Balance problems, round 2

Characters choose a passive every 10 levels. It's a great part of character building that can change up the feel of battles. The game is more interesting the more passives you choose, but 10 levels doesn't happen often.

So I bumped the leveling rate. You gain a level or two each battle. I'm using the Yanfly Victory Aftermath screen that shows a cool progress bar towards your next level, and when a character does level up, they get a special screen where they say something cool. But when you level each battle, this aftermath turns into watching seven progress bars fill up, then showing the level up screen for every character. It dragged the end of every battle. That's a mess.

Next problem: character starting levels. It's an open game. I can't accurately predict when players discover and recruit new party members. The best I can do is predict a level range, and have the new character start near the upper end of that range. Like you might find a character anywhere between lv 14 and 20, so he'll start at 18. But you gain a passive at level 20. Two levels isn't enough time with a character to know what passive to choose. So characters can't start too close to a multiple of 10. That's a mess too.


I wanted to talk about a new progression system that cleans up my messes, but this article is way too long. So this blog post will just be me ranting about the woes of game dev. I'll make another soon actually talking about the new system. Hang in there ;)

Game Design

Designing battles like a Mario game

Mario Odyssey scored a perfect 10/10. So did Galaxy 2 before it. And Galaxy 1. It's clear Nintendo has mastered platform game design. What's not clear is how we steal their brilliance and jam it into our RPGs.

Luckily, there's a video detailing Nintendo's design philosophy:

The basic idea follows a four step narrative structure, with each level telling the story of a single mechanic. The mechanic is introduced, developed, twisted, and thrown away.

From platform level to RPG dungeon

This structure resonated with me as I found my game introducing a new mechanic in nearly every battle. I worried players will get confused by the changes. I worried the best mechanics would go unappreciated and forced them back in later battles to be sure the player noticed. But Mario 3D World has a constant stream of new challenges and throws them away without fear. And it works.

If I can take Nintendo's design and apply it to Notes From Province, then we're in an awesome spot.

Let's bridge the genre gap by making a parallel between a level in a platformer and a dungeon. The level features a series of jumping challenges, and the dungeon features a series of battles. These battles should tell the story of a combat mechanic unique to that dungeon.

The guiding rules of battle design

Similar to the puzzle design blog, I'm hoping to use this article to spell out a manifesto for combat encounters in the game to reference.

1) Battle mechanics should be taught, developed, and twisted
The first time the player encounters the idea, they shouldn't be punished for not understanding. By the time they fully understand it, introduce the mechanic from a new perspective to show the player they don't fully understand.

2) Battles should be grouped
Whether it's the encounters of a dungeon, or a linked series of one offs, there needs to be enough battles featuring a mechanic to follow the first rule.

3) Don't be afraid to throw away mechanics after the story is told

Innocent flowers

In the game, there's a short dungeon featuring three battles. The first is an encounter against two flowers. They only thing they do is heal, which doesn't matter as they die in one hit.

But once they die, the monster buried beneath pops out. This hidden enemy is pretty deadly, but the party can comfortable handle two.

The second battle features two more flowers of a different color. The yellow ones turn into monsters that deal high lightning damage, and the purple turn into ones with heavy poison.

The boss encounter is six flowers. Now the player has to care that killing a flower creates a monster and that living flowers heal allies. Based on the player party, they might care about lightning damage vs poison.

And ideally, once the dungeon is done, so is the flower mechanic.
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