Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Setting aside some gorgeous character sprites created by a very talented chap who goes by the handle Captain Ricco, Sequence Breaker is still in the wire-frame, big-ugly-blocks-in=place-of-art stage of things, so you'll forgive me if I withhold any actual screen-shots at this point in the process. I do, however, have this:

It's a room-by-room layout of about a third of the game's first level. At the moment, the game is divided into two missions, one being relatively small and somewhat linear and the other being much larger and free-form-y. The second is really the heart of the game, the first more of a tutorial, as it were. More on that, and the challenges it presents, in a later dev. journal. Right now, I'm going to go room-by-room here and, without giving too much away, try to explain how I'm designing two games at once. I hope this isn't too boring or wonky, but if it is, my apologies.

To state it simply, the first game presents the player with a sequence and the second dares you to break it. That first game and its sequence unfolds as follows:

Positioning ourselves in the room labelled START/MAP, the reader can probably deduce that the room is both the point in which the player starts the level and that it contains a map indicating your current position and that of your objective several floors down. To get from this top-floor to the bottom, you have to travel two rooms to your left, but the very first adjacent room contains a long bed of spikes. The player's radio-assistant explains that the force-bridge that should be covering the gap has been cut off, and that the switch to activate it, in classic video game fashion, is at the other end of the floor.

And so, the player embarks to the right, confronting her first enemies. These enemies are shorter than the player, thus necessitating that you position yourself on a lower platform before firing. With the most basic type of enemy, a small, unmoving blob without any kind of attacks, this is a piece of cake. It's a little trickier for his slightly-larger brother, who, while still stationary, spews out bullets that fling upwards before fluttering down at his sides. To defeat him, the player must get into position, fire rapidly, and then get out of the position before its bullets hit you.

The next screen takes this basic principle but ratchets it up considerably, also adding those sort of annoying moving-around-a-block-type enemies into the mix. On the previous screen, there was a health power-up (ala a Zelda heart container) at the end of a passageway the player couldn't reach; that passageway continues through this screen.

On the following screen (third from the starting point now) the player can see a way to access this passage, but it, too, is blocked by a bed of spikes. Perhaps the player can reach it after they turn on the switch, which is now tantalizing close. There's more to this screen, however; in order to progress to the right once more, the player must use a sort of spin/feathering move to extend their leap.

A brief digression: my earliest conceptions of this game had at its center an extremely nimble and athletic protagonist, able to wall-jump, wall-slide, dash through crevices, and a host of other parkour-y kind of things. I scaled it down considerably, not because they presented particularly difficult programming challenges (for wall-jumping and even ceiling clinging are vital parts of Run Jump) but because they gave the player too many options. And, don't get me wrong-- giving players options is the idea, and it's part of what the meta-gaming at the heart of the concept is all about-- but I realized I would be spending so much time explaining all these moves and turn the first level into one boring "now test this skill" after another. It might also overwhelm the player; if you give the player a dozen different moves and then say, now try to break this sequence, it can get pretty frustrating. But if their repertoire is intuitive and easy-to-grasp, they'll spend less time scratching their heads and more time figuring things out.

And so, I took away the wall-jump, the wall-slide, the dash-move, all the sort of parkour/free-running cliches. Now, it's just the basics: run, shoot, jump, with one simple-to-grasp wrinkle-- tapping the x-button in mid-air will execute a spin-move, slowing your descent.

Since I want to make sure the player is aware of this skill, I needed to put it fairly early in the first sequence. This particular spot, after the first two action-rooms but before the first mini-boss, also gives the player a bit of breather. I don't think it's usually a good idea to put a mini-boss right after a tricky bit of combat; the change-up gives the player a chance to relax and also builds up a subtle sort of anticipation.

And so, the next room is the mini-boss, which asks the player to move from a safe position to a dangerous one, attack, and then move back. The mini-boss has thirty hit-points, more than one would usually assign for such a creature, and there's a reason for that, so hang onto it.

After the mini-boss, we find the switch for the force-bridge. In that same room, there's a very small and easy-to-avoid bed of spikes. And you might ask, why put a tiny bed of spikes in this room with the switch? The reason is, as soon as you pull that switch, all the spikes in the stage are bridged-over. Whenever the player pulls a switch in a game, he or she should be able to see the results instantaneously. This is important, so I'm going to bold-face it in case you're just skimming along:

Whenever the player pulls a switch in a game, he or she should be able to see the results instantaneously.


Now the player back-tracks, and as we all know, back-tracking can be a pain. But it also can be a lot of fun, and it can be used as positive reinforcement. Now that the player's pulled that switch and the threat of the spikes are neutered by the force-bridge, she can take the high-road, breezing through the screens, avoiding enemies, and nabbing that health power-up, boosting their max HP. It further rewards the player for accomplishing this particular task, has them feeling good before they get back to the spike-bridge they wanted to cross in the first place.

Crossing the bridge, the player can now descend to the second level, only to find, one room over, another obstacle: a glowing barrier. There's no assistant this time to tell you where to go, because, this being a 2-D sidescroller, the only other choice is to go left.

Passing the elevator, there's another map room. Since I'm going with maps built into the physical terrain instead of in a menu, it's important that I include at least one map on every floor/wing. More than that, though, it tells the player that the room below is a dead-end, meaning that it probably contains the solution to that barrier.

And, voila!, it does, in the form of a laser or ray weapon. In the room with the power-up, there's another barrier, and on the other side of that barrier, another health booster. Firing into the barrier dissolves it momentarily, allowing the player to pass through it and get that health boost-- by now, she's doubled her hit-points. And, again, I put the barrier in the room with the weapon power-up so that the player is immediately aware of what it does and what it can do.

For the same reason, I put a couple of the enemies from the first floor in this room. While they took a few shots apiece before, a single laser-beam cuts both of them down in one fell swoop.

Taking the elevator back up and moving back to the first barrier, the player then finds themselves in a timed puzzle room revolving around firing the laser at the barriers. This is intended to further acquaint the player with the weapon, and to mark this floor as "the laser beam-heavy section of the level". I find that such a theme gives a game a better sense of flow and of place.

I also want the player to feel powerful with this laser beam, which is why the next room has a whole score of low-level enemies that can be taken out, every one of them, with a single shot. The following room pits the player against not one but two(!) of those thirty hit-point mini-boss creatures from the first floor. And they, too, are downed in one fell swoop. That's why I gave the first one so many hit-points. He was difficult, frustrating, time-consuming, and now? Now, he's reduced to a mere goomba by my laser-beam.

Having taken you through all this at some considerable length, I hope I've not only demonstrated some principles that could be useful to other independent game designers, but also given you some idea of the time, effort, and thought I've put into this first game-- the game that actually only exists to create a context for the second, for the "real" game that tasks the player with finding a smarter, quicker, easier way.

And, indeed-- it's possible to get the laser-beam before fighting that first mini-boss. It's possible to get to the third floor without flipping the switch or gaining the laser-beam at all. It's even possible to get through the entire first mission without picking up a single item or killing a single enemy.

All these things are not only possible but actively encouraged; when you first come to that pit of spikes blocking your access to the second level, your radio-helper will tell you about that switch on the other end, as I've already established, but he'll also say, "though I think you can probably figure out a better way if you put your mind to it" (or something to that effect). I also plan on implementing a trophy/achievement system that challenges you to, say, "clear the level killing no enemies" or "getting zero percent of the items" or "in less than one minute". And the player, confronted with that, will hopefully say to themselves, "Okay, so let's figure out how I do that."

The trophies, the dialogue, the title, and the steep enemy/platforming difficulty inherent in playing game number one is all intended to encourage the players to get good at game number two. And that couldn't and wouldn't work without having a playable, reasonable, well-paced game number one in place.

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