Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Space Crack: The Space Opera

How I stopped worrying about ludology and learned to love game plots

This is part 12 of an ongoing game design document written as a blog. Be sure to catch up on previous posts. In the last installment, we talked about creating a component bible for all our art assets. Ah, game design 101 is over! This time we'll have a bit of fun looking at the concept of story and how it really fits into a game from a mechanics perspective.
Drama matters
Combat is the resolution system that determines what happens when a ship moves onto a planet. This is the most exciting element of the game for the player. The attacker is the protagonist and the defender is the antagonist. A long history of building, scrapping together resources and journeying across a dangerous landscape give each character depth and meaning. Two ships enter, one leaves.

In terms of pure mechanics, the combat code will calculate a resolution based off the properties of the two ships. The statistical engine does its thing and an answer pops out. Everything else is merely drama.

But drama matters and here’s why.

Plot: A theoretical underpinning
I’ve participated in the debate about whether story or game play is more important to a game. Inevitably there is the Final Fantasy addict mumbling to themselves in the corner, “It’s not a real game unless it has a story. Like FFVII”.

Being a bit bored by the whole discussion, I got my hands dirty and broke apart a bunch of popular games to see how plot was used to enhance the psychological effect of the game. Pretty much every successful title had the same pattern:
  • Perform an action.
  • Give the player a dose of story.
  • Player is emotionally stimulated and wants to find out more.
Now this maps very nicely onto the risk / reward sequences I’ve been using to document various actions within the game. The actions are our verbs and the doses of story are our rewards.

Why we should use plot as a reward mechanism
Stories have some rather unique characteristics as a reward mechanism.
  • Plot is great emotional reward: Plot is one of the few rewards available to game designers that can tweak a wide range of player emotions. Surely it is nice picking up a coin and seeing a pretty sparkle. But this provides a limited emotional response compared to a plot reward like “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
  • Individual elements of a story have a high burn out rate: For example the plot element, “He fell in love with her” can be quite powerful in the appropriate context. But having the next plot reward say the same exact thing is simply annoying, good evidence of burnout. “He fell in love with her.” See…annoying.
  • Hand crafting stories is expensive: Writing an extensive plot is rather expensive if your game contains hundred of reward moments. It is often not cost effective to use unique elements of plot as a reward for a frequently occurring risk / reward sequence. This expense is why many older games reserve plot only for end of the level rewards. Games that attempt to use plot more frequently (KOTOR and Half Life come to mind) suffer from larger budgets.
  • Archetypal stories have a lower burnout rate: How many times can you watch an archetypal “Hero’s Journey” before getting burned out? Hundreds, perhaps thousands of times?
Algorithmically Generated Micro Stories
I can’t afford to write or animate a unique bit of plot each time someone takes over a planet, but it would be nice to leverage a bit of the emotional zing.

However, instead of writing a static story, we are going to create a system for algorithmically generating micro story. A micro story has all the elements of a static plot and packs a surprising emotion wallop. However, in terms of work, it is a very thin contextual layer on top of our heavy investment in game mechanics.

The techniques are straightforward:
  • Leverage the existing game systems
  • Add contextual elements that provide the narrative slant to player actions
  • Add meta-game mechanics that reinforce the emotional rewards and penalties of the micro story.
One of the best examples of a micro story that I’ve seen is in Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. The designer, Rich Carlson writes “The main idea at the time was to make a very quick-playing game that still felt sort of like watching a couple of seasons of your favorite space adventure series (except that you'd actually fight the space battles)”

Great idea. Let's borrow it for Space Crack. :-)

The Space Opera
Space Crack is a miniature space opera.

Imagine a massive character driven drama set against the backdrop of intergalactic war. Young pilots emerge from their home worlds, ready to defend the mother world from imminent alien invasion. One heroic captain, Captain Jack “Planet Killer” McDaddy works his ways up through the ranks. His skills (and his kick ass vessel of massive destruction) are all that stand against complete alien domination of the universe.

This is a Horatio Alger story of a rag tag band of saviors and the turmultuous trials and tribulations that define their epic tale. We've got war, lust, love, deceit, betrayal and sun-shattering explosions. Complete with extra cheese.

The elements of the micro story
To pull this off I have to complete the following items:
  • Define the characters: Who are this characters and what is their history? Is there a protagonist? An antagonist?
  • Define the conflict: What is the source of character conflict? Are there alliances? What actions stoke the combat?
  • Illustrate the conflict climax and resolution: How do the character’s meet and resolve their conflict?
As a side note, I’m going to borrow liberally from the concept of a Hero’s Journey (http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20001127/dunniway_01.htm).

Characters: Space Captains!
Ships make poor central characters. But a space frigate piloted by the Captain Jack “Master Blaster” McDaddy perks up my ears. We add a simple system for classifying stacks by giving each stack of ships a name.
  • Rank: Ships start out as Peons and slowly grow to become God Admirals
  • First Name: Randomly selected from a list. Both male and female. This is a space opera after all.
  • Nickname: Ships that complete certain tasks get nicknames. Special power ups are associated with each nickname.
  • Last name: Randomly selected from a list (perhaps players can add their own)
These names are built up over a period of time. You are the grand strategic ruler of your world and don’t have time to worry about the peons in your army. You might learn the last name of a character after his second or third battle. He might get a first name when his ship reaches a certain size. Finally, he’ll prove himself in some dust up and be given a nick name. If stacks are merged, the stronger captain name is always kept.

The idea here is a well equipped stack is more than just a potent game token. It is portrayed as a character. The fact that the player has invested time and thought into keeping this particular ship alive gives each mature Space Captain character emotional significance.

The other player is doing the same with his top ships. This leads to natural protagonist and antagonist relationships. For each player, his Captains are obviously Luke and the enemy who keeps eating your planets is obviously Darth Vader.

This is a fun design idea. Don’t spend time creating a character that strives to be interesting. Watch what the player does and decorate as characters those tokens that matter to them.

Conflict: It's a fricking war out there
Conflict is easy since we are building a war game. Your captains are the good guys and the other captains are the bad guys. Rather straight forward, really. We can add a bit more emotional impact to this situation with some meta-mechanics.

Meta Mechanics: Enemies and Lovers
In essence, we can add emotional variety to the story line with small bonus quests. If a particular ship completes a task, they get a bonus. Some example quests include
  • Rivalry: Your top Captain must defeat the top enemy Captain for a bonus.
  • Save my family: Keep a planet under your control or else the powerful captain from that planet gets a penalty when his family is turned enslaved in the enemy Thorium mines.
  • Rescue: If a captain’s family world has been captured, he can get a bonus if he personally regains the planet.
  • Lovers: A captain that emerges from the same planet as an existing captain may be classified as a lover. Both captains get a bonus. If one captain in the pair dies, the other captain gets a large penalty. If the ships are merged, the bonus goes away. There can be different degrees of love, ranging from childhood friend to brotherhood to full on romantic love. These relationship bonuses stack.
  • Lover’s Vendetta: If a bereaved captain defeats their lover’s killer they get a bonus.
  • Secret mission: A planet deep within enemy territory has a secret technology. The ship that conquers the planet gets a bonus.
Quest locations can be easily shown as blinking on screen icons whenever a ship is selected. The player really doesn’t have to pay much attention to keeping track of everything since they can easily mouse over items to get an update.

Quests acts as additional risk reward sequences that operate on a slightly longer time scale than our core game mechanic.
  • Action: Complete the quest goal
  • Reward: Gain the quest reward. More importantly, gain an emotional reward for helping your character play out his very human desires.
  • Failure: Lose the quest reward. More importantly, be emotionally punished for killing a character or denying them their personal dreams.
This all may seem melodramatic (and it is), but the truth of the matter is that players will end up identifying with their ships if you build the correct contextual structures. You don’t need a lot of structure to make people really care for those valiant little Captains who are going out and saving the universe.

Final resolution
Ultimately, your game must end. Either your ships are vanquished or you are triumphant. The structure of the game is that there is always one final battle in which the last major captain is defeated. The rivalry mechanics will tie into some interesting end of game "conflict accelerators" that I'll be unveiling to make this a literally earth shattering event. The game is over and the credits roll.

In the end, every player ends up with a list of their heroes. These are the brave leaders who fought and will go down in history. Their names are recorded in a data-base and if the player plays again, perhaps some of their favorite heroes will emerge anew.

To summarize, I’m finally starting the process of adding context to my game tokens. No longer do we have generic ships and planet. Now if someone asks me what Space Crack is all about, I can say with a completely straight face. "It is an epic space opera set in the midst of intergalactic war. It stars Captain Jack "Alien Duster" McDaddy. He is one hot sexy hero. With a big ship."

This is so much better than coughing and whispering "I'm making a turn-based space strategy game that will involve a 'Go'-like token capturing system." And just in case anyone asks I am indeed painting a 50's style space pin-up girl as a Space Crack promotional poster. Barbarella has nothing on my moon booted femme fatale. (Ray will blush.)

Notice what I’m not doing:
  • I’m not adding new graphics, elaborate cut scenes or animation.
  • I’m not writing extensive static plotlines.
  • I’m not designing static characters with extensive histories.
Instead I’m focusing on the game mechanics, meta-game mechanics, and shallowly contextualized tokens.
  • I’m focusing on new meta-game mechanics like the quests.
  • Where I add extra content like the naming system, it has an informational element to it that gives the player feedback.
  • I use contextual clues to turn abstract rewards into emotional rewards.
Again, the reason I do this is because of the constraints of the design. Micro-story mechanics offer lots of replay at low marginal costs. This design makes the conscious effort to build a reusable system instead of investing piecemeal in low cost, high burnout rewards like plot.

Future directions
Adding a setting and the start of a plot does wonders for fleshing out a relatively simple game system. The archetypal setting ensures that we'll have an endless stream of ideas for upgrades, random events, and captain quests. Already my brain is buzzing with ideas for long lost civilizations, alien saucers, evil Admirals, captured nova princesses, grudges from the Space Academy, alien trysts and more.

Til next time,


  1. I like your ideas in this article (despite the space boobies) and think that your approach is pretty decent. In fact in my superhero tile game design (that I showed you way back), I'd more or less done this same exercise, breaking the game mechanic into basic functions and then giving almost random elements meaningful names, so that the story is generated in an almost random order, superhero teams form, and break apart, some go evil, some stay good, according to the "Angst-o-meter", all the while you try to take down villains.

    I think another way of creating more flexible stories (especially with origins and computer generated backstories) without a lot of work, would be to create a sort of "Madlib" origin. (With superheroes, that tend to follow a preset set of possibilities (Mutant, Alien, Industrial Accident, or Psychological Trauma... Take your pick!).

    For my design it became an exercise in manipulating massive databases of game elements... Villains created doomsday devices out of random elements provided by the game... Heroes defeated villains by using random elements... Even the settings were random... And it didn't have to make sense either, because it added a kind of douglas Adams type of humor to it, to have a supervillain named "Evil Egg" trying to corner the world's supply of "grapefruit" so he could blow up the "Grand Canyon" and could only be stopped if "Captain Destiny" could locate a "Blue Scarab" and combine it with the "Golden Spatula" on the top of "Mount Darkness".

    Best regards,


  2. Depending on the exposure and audience of your game, plot and story can also be the factors that (in leiu of copycat gameplay design)
    imprints the game company in the minds of players. RPG's today are the best example of this - there are hundreeds out there from many different studios, most of which only tweaking the basic mechanics of the generic RPG, but whomever comes up with the most entrancing story is the "better" company. Square locked itself in with the whole Playstation crowd before all other RPG makers with FF VII, solely because they tapped that emotional spot in the minds of teenage gamers before anyone else could. As for myself, FF VI tapped me first and this it will always be considered the "best" one in my opinion (ah, the power of nostalgia!).

    Always Enjoyin' The Articles,
    -Appreciative Reader

  3. Hi Danc,

    you've had another great idea for Space Crack! I'd just like to highlight (i)a potential problem (ii)an opportunity.

    (i)the potential problem: balancing the side quests system will be a real pain! Although it will be time-consuming, I strongly suggest to prototypate them during early development stage;

    (ii)the opportunity: focusing the microstories on ships'captains is a really cool idea. And I think the dynamic "at first only his last name, then his first name" should be expanded to include bit and pieces of our captain's "past life" as he proceeds in his conquests.

    waiting part 13,

  4. Side quests will be a play balancing pain if I make them too exception-based. At first it will be a rather tightly bounded system.

    One thing about plot is that it is very easy to write 'outside' the capabilities of the game engine. For example, I could easily jot down a quest "Save the world from a nuclear bomb that will wipe out planets in a 10 unit radius". The only problem is that I've introduced a whole new game token (the nuclear bomb) with unique abilities. That's fine if you have the resources to waste on this custom effect, but in my experience programmers hate exceptions.

    The trick is to write meta-game rules that manipulate existing game mechanics without introducing exceptions. The quest system might seem deep on the surface but ultimately it can be generalized into:
    - When a token changes state
    - Give player reward or penalty.

    I'm a lazy designer so heaven forbid I actually write a real plot.

    take care

  5. More cool beans, Danc. The captain naming idea is brilliant -- simple, but effective. Keep up the good work -- I'd love to be a beta tester! ;-)

    A couple comments: to keep the emotional attachment of the randomly-generated captain names, the source lists must be long enough to prevent recurrence over a short period of time. Also, I think it would be good to prevent names from being shared across players during a given game; otherwise you end up with Joe "Super Defender" Rocket up against Jim "Super Defender" Rocket. (Though that does suggest an interesting possible intra-family rivalry? Hmm...)

    P.S.: Congrats on your engagement. Other than this comment, I'm resisting the perv in me that wants to ask you for a pic. ;-) (What do you expect when you post something like "Hot Girl"?)