Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ultra Geist Diary # 1

As I prepare to get back to work on our new feature film, and requiring a small diversion to fill my time between my last big gaming project and my next one, I've decided to make a quick, small, experimental game. In this case, "quick" likely means I'll be done with it in two months instead of seven, but so it goes.

This project, Ultra Geist or Ultrageist (haven't decided which yet) draws its inspiration from a number of sources. As is often the case with my games (and the films I make with my wife, for that matter), the kernel for each new work is often contained in its immediate predecessor. With Side Saddle 2, I strived to be as accessible as possible-- offering hints for each boss, explaining precisely how each trophy was to be earned, and making it fairly easy for even the greenest of shmup players to unlock all the bosses. And so, with this game, I thought it might be fun to go the opposite route-- to make the game as inaccessible as possible, allowing the player to discover pretty much everything on their lonesome. (In fact, I'm very seriously toying with writing instructions-- in Esperanto.) There's a tricky balance to strike here, and I'll probably talk about my efforts to do just that as work on the game progresses.

Side Saddle 2 features a bonus game, a "three minute shmup" named after the second boss, Metal Nautilus. Since Side Saddle 2 is a bit more methodical, I wanted Metal Nautilus to be a simple "blast-the-hell-out-of-everything-and-dodge-their-bullets" shmup. Each new stage is unlocked when the player reaches certain score thresholds, and the player is given three minutes to progress to the final boss stage by earning a 1,500,000 points. This is accomplished by using your weapons to rack up combos; racking up high enough combos allows you to skip entire levels/waves of enemies, thus maximizing your play time.

I like this basic mechanic because it encourages sequence-breaking, which encourages the player to look deeper at the game on a systemic level, which in turn helps them become better at the game and feel that sense of achievement. In Metal Nautilus, however, the mechanic isn't delivered on in a really deep or expansive way (nor is it meant to); the system is really paper-thin and doesn't require much strategy outside of "shoot things and don't run into the bullets". I think with Ultra Geist I can build a system that rewards the player's deepening understanding of it, a system with a number of "loopholes" to "exploit" built right in.

Which brings us to another influence: New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and, in fact, most of the 2D Mario games. A famous consequence of the "domino-effect" scoring system in the original Super Mario Bros. is the turtle on the staircase in 3-1; you can jump on the turtle over and over again without touching the ground to rack up dozens of lives.

The creators of New Super Mario Bros. Wii take this loophole, extend it, and build levels around it-- even going as far as to create videos to show players how to rack up "infinite 1-ups" through various feats of incredible skill. That is, they're encouraging the players to step up their game.

What I'm endeavoring to do, then, is to create a quickie shmup that revolves around this sort of "meta-gaming", around discovering and exploiting "mistakes" and "unintentional" consequences. We'll see how that goes.

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