“Evergreen Games”

I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with “evergreen” games. That is, games that can “stand the test of time” by resisting solution and maintaining playability and interest over a long period of time.

Image via Wikipedia

I’m talking about games of strategy, not necessarily contests of skill; you can find many examples of contests that date back to very early human history, like racing and wrestling, and more recent examples of video game contests with some level of staying power, like Street Fighter or Quake. As an aside, although you can point to examples of decision making in both Street Fighter and Quake, I would argue neither is PRIMARILY focused about decision making. There’s also a class of games that are primarily contests of luck, like many ancient dice games, and decision making certainly isn’t the primary focus in those games either.

ANYWAY, Common examples of very old strategy games still played today are Chess and Go. Less commonly known are games with Mancala mechanisms, and I think with the doubling cube, backgammon can even squeak in as a game with some long term strategic staying power.

It should be noted, I think that all of these games are multi-player games. This helps A LOT with strategic staying power, because opponents can provide a bit of depth themselves by performing moves that are sub-optimal in a broad sense, but have other benefits like surprise, and moving your opponent into unfamiliar game states (see: Donkey Space).

However, the neat thing about video games, is that the computer can provide unfamiliar situations for the player to tackle via randomly generated levels, or situations, or slight random aberrations in enemy AI, etc. etc. This is a cool thing about “roguelike” permanent death and randomly generated levels (the permadeath is just so you can’t use memorization). And as long as you keep the randomness constrained to mostly Input Randomness, you can maintain strategic depth without having the outcome become arbitrary (i.e skilled players will still perform better and be able to measure themselves against one other in a useful way).

This is ESPECIALLY interesting when you consider the idea of something like a “single player ladder”. With a solution like that in place, you suddenly have the opportunity to create a very new type of game design: an “evergreen” single player game. A game that can be played and explored solo, and yet can be used as a test of skill in a broader context. A few games are scratching at the surface at this kind of thing, and I think its a very rich and rewarding area of game design. 

We have the potential to create game experiences that can stand the test of time, and if they are single player, they can be considered, interpreted and explored both alone and with our game-playing peers.

THIS IS EXCITING.

Strategy Prototype Solo-Jam

Figured I’d explain the images and progress updates I’ve been posting for the last little bit. I’ve been designing one or several turn based strategy game(s) in my head for a while now, and been coming up with a bunch of mechanics that may or may not be interesting for a series of design ideas including:

1) A game in which you control a single unit with 4 spells that have turn-based cooldowns

2) An Advance Wars like game where you control various units through the use of “order” or “command” cards from a deck that you build over the course of the game by building units and capturing locations (more cards=harder to command any particular unit)

3) A game where you manipulate an environment of blocks and holes to give strategic advantages (block stops movement and projectiles, hole stops movement, block + hole = regular terrain)

So basically I have decided that I want to break down the various mechanics from these ideas, and implement them all, seeing which “stick” or feel deep or fun or just interesting! The mechanics include:

Active Time Battles
Control Points that Confer Advantages
Units with/without health
Various unit movement abilities/attack patterns
Archers/Counterattacking dudes
Deckbuilding
Blocks + Holes
Spell cooldowns
Command whole army VS command x units VS decided by cards/hand limit
…and a bunch more that I have written in a notebook somewhere.

So that’s what I’m doing/what I’m going to be updating this blog with whenever I can until I latch onto an interesting mechanic (or set of them!)

TL;DR I’m trying a bunch of turn-basedey things and seeing what sticks.

Throw down a quick comment if any of this stuff sparks an idea.

Influence for Next Game

Ever since bumping into Keith Burgun’s perspective on game design, I’ve wanted to create a “game” as he defines it – a contest of ambiguous decision making. It seems that this kind of game is extremely uncommon among video games. In fact the types of sensibilities he describes are much more in line with hobby board games. (For more info on what that means, head to http://www.shutupandsitdown.com/videos/v/intro-boardgaming/). 

To that end, I’m learning the Grids Pro library in Unity, because it seems eaiser to create this kind of thing in discrete space (a square or hex grid probably) and likely in discrete time as well (turn-based). Here are some of the games I’m likely going to be riffing on.

Spelunky
Hoplite
Advance Wars
Endings
Hexcells Infinite


Also!

Games that look like they’re probably influences but I haven’t played them yet.
Invisible Inc
Auro
Close Castles

Roguelike Progression and Saving

Reading the most recent News Post from Tycho at Penny Arcade (http://www.penny-arcade.com/news/post/2015/08/05/) when I noticed him talking about a game called “Galax-Z” and how you are only allowed to “save” when you complete a complete 5 level “season”. When you break it down, this is what games like Spelunky are doing with the tunnel man system, or as Tycho points out, as From Software is doing in Dark Souls with the bonfire mechanic. You can have players run though your procedural system many times getting better, and have a strict cap on the amount of in game “progress” they make that the game keeps track of.

In this way, maybe its possible to avoid the problems inherent to a regular RPG level up or upgrade system (emphasizing grinding over skill improvement, which is boring), while retaining a bit of their stickiness factor.

Even Ori and the Blind Forest has been playing around with saving as a limited resource lately, and I think this is a very interesting design direction to take.

Achievement Unlocked!

Finally managed to deliver the key all the way from the mines to the end of the ice world in Spelunky! I really like how the tunnel man challenge encourage you to play the levels with a slightly tweaked objective.

An especially nice part of the tunnel man challenges to deliver the shotgun and the key is that it creates a naturally fluctuating intensity curve for the runs. On runs where you don’t find the required item, the intensity is low. Grabbing the item jumps up the intensity, which then steadily increased as you approach your goal and your resources deplete.

The fact that the different runs evoke very distinct feelings on a natural cycle from a single elegant goal is very cool! The key challenge even changes a successful run length from 4+ levels to 12+! (Through mines/jungle/ice world instead of merely through one of them)