Sunday, May 27, 2007

CuteGod: A prototyping challenge


It is once again time for a prototyping challenge! The rules are the same. You are an elite programmer that wants to make something fun without spending ten years in art school learning how to draw stick figures. I provide some easy-to-use graphics and an intriguing game design for you to riff upon. Send me the links to your masterpieces and I'll post them for folks to enjoy and critique.

This time, we are tackling an ancient, yet still fascinating, genre that is long overdue resurrection: The God Game.

Back in the day, there was a game call Populous where you played a god. You mucked about with the land, zotted unbelievers and created a verdant landscape populated with bustling villages and happy followers. This week's design, CuteGod is a god game on a smaller, more casual scale. I've reworked the mechanics to be more prototyping friendly, but the spirit is the same. You play a simple village god who seeks to make his people happy by fulfilling their heartfelt prayers.

I've divided the challenge up into two sections. The first is the core mechanic and the second challenge adds a bit of depth to the game. We are using the PlanetCute prototyping tiles and the set has been updated with 20 new objects in preparation for the challenge. You can download them from the resource section of the post.


Challenge Part I: Core Mechanics
Have you ever experienced the simple joy of sorting your Legos? This is a broadly enjoyed activity for many folks whether they express it through a love of beading or shopping at Organized Living shops in the mall. The core mechanic in CuteGod is one of sorting tiles and completing simple patterns.

As with all mechanics, the written design is a starting point. Prototype, experiment and see what works. The idea is to create an activity that is intrinsically pleasurable and can act as a foundational activity for other game mechanics.

The map
The land starts out with randomly sorted PlanetCute prototyping tiles, piled up to five levels deep. Tiles can stack up on one another to form hills and valleys.

There are several types of tiles:
  • Basic tiles: There are a few basic tiles, grass, dirt, water.
  • Rare tiles: Each basic tile has a rare analogue such as emerald, ruby or sapphire. There may be a handful of these tiles in the entire level and are used to create advanced patterns or increase the completion bonus of existing patterns.
  • Immovable tiles. These stone tiles create the foundation of the level.
Player action
You can drag tiles around. Tiles can be dragged on top of other visible tiles. By dragging tiles, you rearrange the map to Your liking.
  • Picking a tile plays a cool sound effect and the tile is sucked up into the air.
  • An indicator shows where you can drop a tile. As long as you can touch it with your cursor, you can drop a tile there.
  • Dropping a tile has a quality clunking noise. The tile drops into place with a small bounce.
The villagers
Sad villagers wander about the map looking for a place to live. If you click on them, a thought bubble appears showing you a pattern of tiles they need in order to build a happy home. This pattern is known as a prayer and acts as a mini-mission. It is your job as a god to do something about such heartfelt desires. Clicking on the thought bubble automatically accepts the prayer.
  • Finding villagers and accepting their prayers gives you a small amount of points. A small animated heart floats up from the villager to let you know this is a good action.
  • The prayer pattern flies over into the prayer list.
Patterns
Patterns are a set of tiles in a prearranged order. For example, a simple pattern might be a grid of 4 dirt blocks arranged in a square all at the same level. Completing a pattern builds a structure and gives the player points.

Prayer list
Along the side of window is a list of patterns that various villagers want you to build. This helps you keep track of all the requests.

Partially completing a prayer
As you build out the pattern, the tiles glow when they are assembled in partial patterns. The appropriate prayer pattern also glows. This intermediary feedback lets the player know that they are progressing along the right path.

Completing a prayer
When you complete particular pattern, the tiles glow, the villager smiles and bounces over to location of the pattern. Blocks rain down from the sky and assemble the house. For each block that falls, you get points. When the house is complete, particles go off and flower spring up around the house.
  • The finished house will pop out the villager upon completion. He will be happy.
  • Some advanced patterns will also pop out a treasure box upon completion.
Simple levels and winning conditions
CuteGod is about playing in a sandbox, not so much about winning. However, it is easy to add levels to the game to give the prototype a sense of completion.
  • Each level is a new initial configuration of tiles and patterns that the user needs to build.
  • Each level has an overall goal of reaching X points, where X is might be 10,000, etc.
  • When the goal is reached, a 'win' message is shown.

Challenge Part 2: Treasures and Spells
Once you have the basic engine running and the gameplay feels good, here are some additional mechanics that should improve the rhythm and addictiveness of the game.

Buried Treasures
As you dig about, you’ll discover buried treasures. These are magic chests that contain a variety of interesting and useful things.
  • Click on the box to open it. The box fades out in a glorious burst of particles and the item inside pops out.
Buried mana
Some treasure boxes simply have bonuses of buried mana. Bonus points increase the user score for no additional work.

Buried spirits
You can also uncover buried spirits in treasure boxes. These are ancient villagers from ages past that require truly opulent homes. They give you a new mission and extra bonus points if you bring them back to life.

Buried Spells
You can find spells in treasure boxes. These are special actions that give you useful tools for manipulating the environment.

If you click on a spell icon on the map, it activates. If it requires targeting, your cursor turns into the appropriate spell. Click on the spell again to cancel. If it does not require targeting it becomes active immediately.
  • Boom: You can blast a house to pieces. This allows you to build it again for more points, or you can get to the stuff underneath. All the house pieces disappear. You can also use the boom spell quickly dig through a hill.
  • Find Tile: Finds a block of a specific type. For example, ‘Find Grass’ would cause the top level tiles wherever buried grass tiles are located to glow.
  • Find Rare: Highlights any rare tiles.
  • Bonus: Increases the bonus that you get from completing houses in a particular amount of time.

Future ideas
If the core mechanic is interesting, we can introduce additional layers of complexity and rewards. The future ideas section is a brainstorming list to get your creative design juices flowing.
  • Economy: Points are really money. :-) As you gather them, you gain the ability to purchase more land, more villagers, visits to other maps, tiles, rare patterns, clothes for your villagers, etc.
  • Additional prayers: Some villagers will become unhappy again, even after they get a house. They request gardens, bath houses, etc. You get loads of bonus point if you assemble these touching their existing abode.
  • Marriage: If you put a man and woman’s house next to one another, they will fall in love and you’ll get a marriage bonus. If you wait long enough, they’ll have a small child who can request a house of his own.
  • Stacking objects on villagers: You can stack tiles on a person. This allows you to keep track of the tiles that a particular villager requires and gets the tiles out of your way.
  • Complex patterns: Advanced patterns can be quite complex. We’ll have to see if this is an enjoyable avenue of advancement.
  • Fast completion bonuses: If you complete a pattern quickly after receiving the prayer, you get a bonus.
  • Minimum number of moves bonus: If you complete a pattern within some number of moves, you get a bonus.
  • Time sensitive prayers: Instead of prayers just waiting for you to click on them, a prayer starts floating up in the sky. If you don't catch it in time, the prayer is lost and the little villager is unhappy.
  • Scrolling maps: Larger scrolling maps gives the user more things to think about.
  • Water: You can drag water onto crops to soak them. This will cause some to grow and yield new treats like mana or spells.
  • Pests: Pest come through and damage crops and buildings. You can drop rocks on them or pick them up and drown them in water.
  • Player on the map: It would be possible to add the player as a character on the map. This gives the player someone to identify with and adds more gameplay possibilities. It also gives a focus point for scrolling. To move, just drag your avatar to a new location and the screen scrolls accordingly.
  • Web-based play: It would be great if this was an online game with instant access and no install. Other players could come visit your realms and chat.
Long term vision
CuteGod is a paintbox game. Ultimately, the user should be able to organize and paint the world that they desire. By carefully managing their tiles, collecting the right patterns and spending wisely, they can create a little living world that is their personal space.

Conclusion
This challenge is an interesting exercise because you get to see the craziness that happens when you prototype an original design. In my limited knowledge of games, the dragging and arranging of tile patterns to satisfy the prayers of little villagers is an uncommon mechanic. There aren't a lot of example to fall back on when something isn't working.

That means much of your prototyping time will be spent balancing and exploring with the new game system. Build the initial game, but don't be afraid to take in new directions if you discover interesting sources of fun. If you end up with something that is truly, horribly unenjoyable, certainly share it! Everyone will learn from both the dead ends and the successes.

For those of you who wonder why there aren't more original games, this can be a great learning experience. The first lesson is that original design isn't usually constrained by technology. I've intentionally kept the engine requirements rather low tech. Instead, the biggest challenge becomes the mental shift from 'implementing a spec' to 'finding the fun in a new game system.' These are two very different skills. If you merely implement an original design, you'll often end up with unplayable garbage. Instead you have to dig for the fun.

In today's risk adverse game development culture that focuses on rapid implementation of a spec, many game developers never master or know how to manage the process of finding the fun in a new game design. It is a process that requires slack time in the schedule to experiment and balance your game. It requires tight collaboration between design and development usually in small groups, not large silos. It requires the ability to try out multiple things at once and pick the best option, not the only option you have time for.

So here is an opportunity that only a few commercial game developers get a chance to regularly engage in. Have fun. :-) I'm very much looking forward to see what you make!

take care
Danc.

Prototyping Resources
Download the PlanetCute tiles: I've added over 20 more tiles and objects. The shadow system is improved, you can build full houses and there are hearts, gems and stars.
Shadow Tile Placement: One of the first problems that prototypers run into is that their lovely work doesn't look like my mockups. This is because my mockups use the miraculous height improving power of the shadow tiles. I updated them in the latest .zip to be even more effective. If you haven't downloaded the PNGs lately, I recommend you do so since some of the graphics and some of the tile names have changed.

Use the diagram below to write your clever algorithm for automatically placing shadow tiles appropriately. (It is an endearing puzzle all by itself)
  • Tile A is on level 1
  • Tile B and C are above Tile A on level 2
  • For each of the 8 directions of the compass, tile B will cast a shadow on tile A. In order to simulate this effect, I've created 8 shadow graphics. If you are Tile A, check the rules. If a rule is true, place the appropriate shadow tile. You can have multiple shadow graphics on top of the same tile.
  • Special case A: When two tiles are on the same level in the diagonal pattern shown below, you need to place Shadow Side West.
  • Special case B: When a tile is at the very top of the stack and there is nothing north of it, you can reused the Shadow South graphic to give the edge more emphasis.




Populous: The original God Game. This genre eventually morphed into more mundane sim and building games, but the fire and brimstone original concept has rarely been revisited. This game was a formative part of my youth. The mechanics of CuteGod are slightly different, but the setting remains an homage to one of histories great original game designs.