Saturday, April 7, 2007

SpaceCute: First round of prototypes and new graphics

The initial round of SpaceCute prototypes are in and results are encouraging. Both basic movement and some initial combat was prototyped. Each one of these guys is a prototyping superstar. It is educational to see all their different interpretations of the starting concept. You can download their glorious efforts here:

New graphics

I've also provided a new set of graphics that include more 'cute' faces and one new ship (inspired by Vorlons.) You can mix and match hair and and accessories to get the look you desire. Download the latest set, complete with PNG and original .design files here:

Answering the big questions
You can think of prototyping as a pseudo-scientific process of experimentation. For each prototype, you are looking for the following:
  • What is the main question the prototype is seeking to answer? Often you'll think you have a good game mechanic, but you don't actually know until you try it. Postulate a question that you hope your prototype will answer. For example "I think using mini-golf game mechanics will make movement in a strategy game more enjoyable and interesting. Is movement fun?"
  • Did the prototype succeed? Test the prototype and answer your initial question! These should be simple Yes or No answers. One of the most common problems with design is that we come up with intricate theories and then fail to test them until the very end of production. Play test early and play test often.
  • Lessons learned: In reality, prototypes goes through dozens of iterations and the designer tests out many different ideas. These lesson help you understand what to keep and what to kill.
  • Opportunities: Were there any interesting opportunities that emerge that cause you to want to make more prototypes and test addition issues? Games mechanics are almost always complex systems that operate on the fuzzy boundary of our limited human ability to predict their behavior. If an unexpected behavior of your prototyped system delights you, it will likely delight players if wrapped in a proper set of feedback and rewards.
With this framework in mind, let's look at the prototypes. Our two big questions are "Is moving fun?" and "Is combat fun?"

Is moving fun?
I think the answer is yes. I spent far too much time flinging space craft around the board despite there being little reason. This is one of our lowest level game mechanics so it is important to get it right.

Moving lessons
  • Harold added sound to the movement. This increased the pleasure of flinging ships about quite nicely. Multi-channel feedback is good for increasing the impact of feedback.
  • Short pull distances that result in long throws were more enjoyable than long pull distances with short launches. It adds a bit of unexpectedness to the actions.
  • Dragging small amounts hides the cursor under the character. Making the ship semi-opaque fixes the problem. So does setting the 0 point past some initial distance from the center of the ship.
Based off the various prototypes, it feels like movement is pretty solid. There was one interesting variation suggested:
  • Pulling back vs. pulling forward. I hear that Bonder is working on a sample to try this out. I'm looking forward to seeing it. This also would solve the hidden cursor problem. You should watch out to see if there are problems interacting with walls.
Is combat fun?
In general, combat is only mildly fun. Ships bonk into one another and slug it out, but player choices don't seem all that interesting. Combat suffers from a typical problem that strikes almost all prototypes at some point:
  • Outcomes are highly predictable
  • Player choices are limited.
  • Riad's simple AI is quite vicious. It pursues you and whacks you at full force. It is a good stub for now. Harold implemented a variation where a random ship is chosen to move each turn. This avoids some of the dogged bash fests that occur when the AI select only the closest ship.
  • Mutually assured destruction isn't fun. When both tokens are hurt in a collision, the optimal strategy is to let the other guy bash himself against the planet. :-) In Ben's model, you don't take damage if you attack. This feels better.
  • Momentum transfer: Harold has also been playing a bit with the elasticity of collision so that when an attacker rams into a ship, you stop and the defender gets most of the momentum. This has promise for creating chain reactions.
  • Planning complex collisions is also hard. You can't see exactly where pieces are likely to collide. I may need to reworks the graphics so that this is more obvious. Ben implements a nice transparent circle that could highlight on those tokens within reach of the selected ship.
  • Folks are using 100% thrust most of the time: There is no reward for using subtly
The obvious step for most of the prototypes is to make combat enjoyable. Folks are building up some lovely engines that are capable of all the basics such as collision, movement and state changes. This is where the engine programmers get seperated from the game programmers since most of the upcoming work deals with very little technology and a whole lot of tweaking of game systems.

I chose the following opportunities for combat based of these two criteria:
  • Give the players interesting choices
  • Introduce surprising complexity into the outcomes.
Add a turn button: I perhaps simplified the initial design too much. It is worth prototyping up a turn button that allows you to move all or some of your units during your turn. Does the players strategic options increase dramatically?

Collisions need a little pizazz: Currently collisions don't let you know that something interesting happened. Having the unit flash red (and fade back to normal) or having particle spit out of the collision point could help. Mordraks particle effects or Ben's floating heart are great ideas that could be extended to the collision feedback. The sound effects help immensely. Is collision feedback delightful?

Every Extend style explosions:
Let's introduce a new type of ship that explodes when it comes to a complete stop. The explosion expands in a radius and damages ships caught within. If the bomb ship hits another ship, the explosion will fizzle. If the bomb ship hits a planet or wall, the explosion does not fizzle. Are skilled placement of shots, including bank shots, useful?

For the explosion, you can use a simple expanding circle with particle effect. Be sure to make the ships give the user feedback when they are hit. Woot, unit type number 2.

Resources and Powerups: One common technique to make a mechanic interesting is to tie mastery to the acquisition of a tool or resource. Imagine that ships spit out stars when smacked. These stars are sucked up by close by attacker ships and act as resources. Get enough resources and one of your ships randomly gets a powerup for a turn or two. Simple powerups include "super mass" that sends enemy ships (and planets!) flying, or perhaps "Astroglide" that lets you zoom extra long distances.

Now we have an interesting opportunity for rewarding combos. When players do multiple points of damage, they get star multipliers. When a ship finally loses all its hearts, it bursts into an explosion of stars. That means more powerups and more interesting choices.

Other notes
  • Folks feel violent combat doesn't quite fit the SpaceCute setting. I was imagining combat in the Mario sense of the word. Stars fly out, not blood. There are some conversation and questing meta-mechanics I'd like to see, but those are or much, much later.
  • The use of a text file for storing all variables was of great use in rapidly testing different configurations. The XML based file used by Riad was particularly promising since it allowed quick and rapid iteration of map design as well. This allowed me to test a 10 enemy scenario with relative ease.
I'm sure you have other ingenious ideas. Go for it! Post them in these threads. If you haven't submitted your prototype yet, no worries. Steal the best ideas from the other guys and try your own twist on the concept. There are tons of options that haven't been tried. And above all, play the is a great opportunity to give some real critiques of games in progress.

As a side note, SpaceCute didn't exist as a search term a little while ago. Now Google has 308 references. I figure I'll just keep making graphics and pimping your prototypes as they come in. My hope is that overtime SpaceCute is only going to get bigger and more pervasive. (Isn't this is a lot of fun? :-)

take care
"Space is cute."

PS: The original challenge