Lead Designer @ Dinofarm Games
Lead Designer @ Dinofarm Games
It’s been awhile since I posted a real nitty-gritty game design article about AURO and what’s going on. Right now, AURO is stuck in development hell, as we’ve mentioned, largely due to two factors: the fact that we didn’t build the game with serialization in mind from the get go (we’re a bit bush league), and the fact that we are using Haxe, which it turns out has caused a ton of technical problems. Anyway, this isn’t a technical programmer-y post, because I’m not a programmer and I really don’t know enough about that stuff to speak in more detail about it.
What I want to talk about today is AURO’s game modes. Partially, I’m writing this for my own benefit, so that I can clearly state it out loud for myself and make sure that everything makes sense. With AURO’s development being held up, I have some time to think about these modes and hone them. In particular, I’m proposing a change to TRIALS mode – the other two modes are pretty much locked down and have been for months.
This mode is probably the easiest to explain and understand, which is great, because it’s also the first mode players should play. It functions as both a tutorial (actually, there is an optional hand-holding tutorial in there too), and also an easy, explanatory mode. The player has to travel through nine dungeons, meeting monsters who talk, getting advice from Quillsh, with several cutscenes along the way. There’s a final boss battle at the end, and then a final cutscene. If you’ve played videogames, you know the drill.
The goal in this mode is completion, and it’s designed to teach you how to play the game, be the most visually impressive (you see the most environments, special monsters, cutscenes, etc in this mode), and generally introduce you to the world and mechanics of the game. Therefore, once these things have been accomplished, it makes sense that you’d move onto other modes. So Story Mode, while still technically infinitely replayable (it still has randomized maps and such), is designed to be played once or twice, and then moved on from.
This is the primary way to play AURO. In Match Mode, you start a game on a randomly generated level. The levels generated by Match Mode can be really crazy – they can be something as simple and benign as a few rats, or something as horrifying as 2 Yetis, 3 Liches, 3 Curse Kids and a Troggle. That sounds pretty unfair, until you realize that this mode is actually a multiplayer mode – well, sort of. It’s multiplayer in the way that golf or bowling is multiplayer. The randomly generated map that the game makes for you is saved, and the game uses a match-making algorithm to find an opponent of similar skill. Then, it sends that opponent your same game, and he plays on that map as well. Your scores are compared, and a Round Winner is pronounced. Then you do this again, with the 2nd player now going first. The first player to get 2 Round Wins is the winner of the game.
The game has an online leagues/ranking system similar to that of other popular online games. You can challenge friends for fun, play pass & play games, or even play a Practice Game that isn’t recorded.
The goal in Match Mode is competitive. You’re trying to beat another player, and rise through the ranks, just as in Starcraft or Street Fighter or something. Also pretty simple and easy to understand.
It’s interesting. Trials Mode is actually the classical mode that we had always envisioned being the primary mode of the game, but ironically it’s actually the hardest system to develop good rules for. What I had been planning – and what may still ship with version 1.0 given that we’re already like 1,000 months behind schedule – is that it’s a simple “beat your highest score ever mode”. So if 3 years ago you got a score of 379, you’re still sitting there now trying to beat that high score. I have a few problems with this approach, though, which is why I’d like to change it.
For one thing, I don’t think “beat your highest score ever” is a reasonable goal. Once you get a super-high score, you may simply just never be able to win again. Also, there’s actually a bit of a weird thing where any points you get above your previous high score, are actually just kind of screwing you over in future games. One person pointed out in some forums the fact that it’s kind of optimal in a weird way to beat your score by 1 point and then kill yourself. I agree that’s weird.
I also think it’s bad because it necessarily means that players who get better get punished by having longer games. A long, long game isn’t a problem because AURO isn’t a blast to play. It is – but the fact remains that games tend to have some ideal length based on the length of their longest arcs… and AURO’s arcs are generally very short. AURO is a super tactical game, and not a very strategic game. So we want games to last somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes – not hours.
So because of this, a much better solution is actually to have the goal always be “Get 100 Points”. But how do we do that in a way that’s evergreen? Once the player gets 100 points, what else is there to accomplish?
I’ve designed a system, which I’m using in AURO, EMPIRE, and also another unannounced future project, which uses an RPG-ish experience points system to turn a single-player, score based game into an evergreen competitive thing.
Basically, the game generates a really easy game for you, and says “get 100 Points in this!” If you do so, you gain experience points. If you reach a certain threshold of experience points, you “level up”, and then the game starts generating a harder game for you. Basically, there are infinite Difficulty Levels, which you don’t get to choose, but you move up through by playing and winning games. Losing – failing to get 100 Points – also will result in losing experience points, so if you lose a few games in a row, it might de-level you to an easier Difficulty Level. So basically, it’s like “dynamic difficulty adjustment”, but before the game begins, so none of that silly punishing-you-for-doing-well business.
The game gets harder as you level up by increasing the number and variety of monsters – not by increasing the target number of points. In addition to this, points that you get above 100 will give you some bonus experience.
Interestingly, I learned this lesson after releasing EMPIRE, another game I designed for another company, and we’re working on that problem for version 1.2 of that game. You can read about that over at the EMPIRE blog.
Anyway, them’s some thoughts on the matter of AURO and what’s going on with it. In other news, I’m working on some of the last music I have to make for the game, and Blake is as well. He’s also re-doing our title-screen art, crazy enough, to make something more dynamic, since we have a bit of extra time.
Blake and I did an interview with the nice people at Purchase College (where we met, actually, in music school) to ask us about what we do. (Note: I fixed the names, in the actual magazine, our names were flipped) Check it out!
Hi everyone! Sorry that there wasn’t an update last month (although I did write an update to our Kickstarter supporters just to let them know what was up). Anyway, let’s get to the updating.
The game has actually been somewhat out of my hands (and Blake’s) and completely in the hands of our two programmers, who are working hard at doing a ton of back-end stuff that’s taking way longer than anyone expected. The issue is largely serialization, which as I understand it is largely organizing the game’s information in such a way that saving and loading is possible. This is apparently a lot of work normally, but a colossal amount of work if you do it at the end of production instead of at the beginning. So, Mike is working on that. Serialization itself is actually done, but now there’s a bunch of work on something called “object marshaling” for saving/loading and match mode.
So, this stuff has been going on for a full month now, much longer than we anticipated. With that said, Blake and I are using the extra time to make the soundtrack and Blake is even re-visiting some of his older artwork from the game to clean it up a bit. He’s even working on a crazy new illustration which we may use as the title screen art.
Anyway, things are moving as fast as they can. We’ll definitely never make the mistake of not dealing with serialization up front again. Yikes!
- AURO will be appearing at the PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference at NYU this Friday-Sunday(15th to the 17th). Lots of serious-business game designers will get a chance to try the game out. Oh, and I’m speaking there, too, btw!
- The other reason I’ve been quiet is that EMPIRE was released last month – to much critical success – , and I’ve been scrambling to do press and balance patches and stuff. The game is not a Dinofarm Games game, by the way – I was hired by Crazy Monkey Studios to design it. EMPIRE is currently available on iOS, Android, PC(at Gamer’s Gate) and a few other places. Oh, and go support our Greenlight submission, if you would! And come get involved on the forums – we’re having in-depth strategy/balance discussions there.
I have some other new things that will be happening soon, but I don’t want to go into detail on them yet. Thanks for your patience everyone. When AURO comes out, I really think it will be amazing, and worth the wait.
I realize it’s been over a full month since the last post, so it’s time for an update for our fans, Kickstarter supporters, and anyone else who might be interested in our progress. In short, things are going well, but we have suffered some delays over the past month, which have now been resolved.
For a number of reasons which we won’t get into here, we had no choice but to part ways with our previous programmer, Andrew Furst. The first week or two of August was spent looking for a replacement, and then once we found our replacement, it took another couple of weeks to get him acquainted with our game and codebase.
The new programmer’s name is Michael Helms, and he’s actually a personal friend of mine (we’ve been playing boardgames together for years). He’s a total professional who does programming for a living, and quite frankly, he’s so experienced that he sort of makes us feel a bit bush-league in comparison, which is of course a good thing. We’re super happy to have him on board.
We’re also getting some additional programming help from one of AURO’s most helpful and prolific beta testers: Daniil “Dasick” Golubev. You can hear him with us on the Game Design Theory Podcast, episode 7, by the way.
Finally, we just hired another person to help with a variety of tasks. Benjamin “blox” Loxley will be helping us with QA, marketing, and some web administrative duties. In general, Ben is a super smart guy who has been helping me as a beta tester for awhile, so he’s sure to help move us along even faster. Oh, and he can also be found on a number of GDT podcasts, too.
How much time did we lose exactly, and where are we in the process? Well, I can tell you exactly what needs to be done still:
- Match Mode, our online play mode, needs probably 2-3 weeks of work.
- Story Mode needs further playtesting and polish, but probably not more than another week or so of work.
- Various bugs and polish will probably take another week.
So, given the fact that things generally take longer than you think they will, I’m thinking that we should be able to make a November 1st release. That’s what we’re gunning for.
As usual, no one is more let down that we didn’t make our August release than we are. We are seriously so proud of this game, and we know everyone’s going to love it. I can’t wait to get it in the hands of people. But with that said, we’re not going to rush it. When you pay us money for our game, you can be damn sure that you’re getting a product of the highest quality possible.
Trials Mode – the basic single player mode that we’ve been most focused on for the past two years – is very well balanced so far. One of the good things about this delay is that we got some time to “mull it over”, to see how the game holds up after many, many plays. I can tell you that it’s holding up extremely well, and I’m still excited about playing it.
While this past month was a little bit scary – changing key personnel always is – it has worked out, and I’m feeling extremely optimistic about where things are going. I should also mention that Blake, having finished basically all of his art duties, has now switched over to doing his half of the music (I’m doing the other half). I’ve heard some early mixes, and it is some top-tier orchestral music. He’s been working on these melodies for years, and I think that when people see our opening cutscene and hear this music, it will be abundantly clear that AURO is something special.
To anyone who read through this – thanks for sticking with us all this time. Game development is hard. It would be much easier if we didn’t really care that much about what we were making. But we’re almost there. Expect another update in the next few weeks.
Hi everybody! We just LAUNCHED a new phase of the AURO Beta! You could call this the “AURO Story Beta”, because a big feature of this version is the inclusion of the much-fabled STORY MODE.
Story Mode is what it sounds like – a linear (although still has mostly random maps) set of levels that takes you through a simple but hopefully charming coming of age story. Essentially, the plot is this:
The young prince Auro is a very spoiled, lazy, impatient and troublesome youngster who also happens to be the prince of some super important magic fantasy kingdom. It’s Auro’s 12th birthday, and he’s supposed to do some crazy thing like kill a dragon to prove that he’s worthy of the throne. But everyone knows Auro couldn’t handle that, he’s completely behind on his magic studies! So, they think, let’s just get him to go down and fix a sewer pipe, which HE definitely clogged up in the first place by jamming it full of dead squids. He loves dead-sea-life-based pranks.
Then all kinds of crazy stuff happens!
As of right now, we’re taking the beta off of our website, and we’ll only be supporting the iOS versions. This will mean more iOS versions coming to our iOS testers. Also – we’ll almost certainly have Android versions coming soon too.
But basically, what we really need to find out is: does story mode adequately teach people how to play the game? We’d love it if our testers can get the game in front of friends and family, have them play Story Mode with the tutorial, and see how they do. What do they understand, what did they have no idea about, etc etc. Please let us know about this stuff over at THE DINOFARM FORUMS!
We’ll be responding to Story Mode issues, but our main task now is to finish MATCH MODE. So in a week or so, we’ll send out versions that have a fully functional match mode ready to go.
After that, we enter POLISH THE GAME phase. This is where we make the game all pretty. Then, we have BUG FIX PHASE, where we get rid of ALL of the bugs.
As it stands now, we expect to get the game out by September 1. Wish us luck!
Hello everybody, from the Dinofarm Development Barn! I’ll make this update quick, snappy and to the point.
According to our schedule, AURO should be feature-complete in about a week! Crazy! Art-wise, we’re done with all of the monsters and tilesets – After that point, we’ll have about one month to do some last minute polish, balance, and bug fixing. We’re officially in crunch mode now.
Since we’re so close, we can now give you some more details about what the game will ship with:
I’ve written numerous times about why many people tend to not care too much about scores in videogames. In these writings, I explained that the reason for this is that videogames score systems suck. While this is completely true, I didn’t realize that in videogames, even the way we use scores is flawed.
If you haven’t read those articles, let me sum up the basics so that you’ll be able to understand where I’m going with this article:
- A game needs a single, clear goal that is achievable. So, the goal in Tetris can not be “survival”, because at what point have you survived? The answer is never – no game end would result in survival, so it’s unachievable.
- In an evergreen skill-based “single-player” game, score is a good way to measure performance, because it can rise perpetually (effectively perpetually, not literally) with the skill of the player
- Scores should be small, preferably under 100, because we need to feel like we own our scores, and human beings are really bad at comprehending numbers well above 100.
- For the same reason as above, the way points are dealt out should be extremely simple and not involve weird behind the scenes math or hidden information. A good model for score is sports, or European designer boardgames, both of which keep their scores under 100 (often under 10!)
I’m sure some people would like to fight me on some or all of those points, but for now you’ll need to take them for granted to understand the next thing I’m about to explain about scoring in AURO.
Imagine if you decide to play a game of golf with some friends. You all go out and play a full course. Then you tally up the results, and hey, it looks like you had the best score of everyone who was playing! Great! Except, wait – the goal was to beat Uncle Ricky’s score from 2007, when he played that one amazing game. So, since you didn’t do that, actually, you lost.
In sports, we have “the score of the current match”, and we have “the world record”. The former is what is actually used to determine winners in a game right now. The latter is, essentially, trivia. Yet in videogames, this is how we tend to operate. Some guy hits some amazing score, and it goes up on the scoreboard and stays there, and in order to “win” you have to beat that score, which for many players is nearly as impossible as the logically impossible “survival” goal.
Sure, some more modern score based games will wipe their score board from time to time, or have a “best scores of this week” section, etc, but none of these solve the problem.
The problem is that we’re confusing “world record” and “score of the current game”.
I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as a single-player game. When I say this, I of course am referring to game as in my definition – a contest of decision-making – also known as a “Strategy game” or “competitive game”. What we need to be doing in score based games is creating “matches”, exactly the same way that Golf is played. What this means is in a system where the objective is beating a specific target score, it’s inherently competitive. So this is what we’re doing in AURO.
When you start the game, you’re given three gameplay options:
Now, we’ll still have “world records” so that players can see who has achieved the highest score ever, but this is no longer the primary source of competition. It’s more like some Baseball stat for some guy that pitched a perfect game – it’s neat and cool to know, but it is not really what baseball is about.
The Major Takeaway
And that’s really the major point that I realized. Getting some freak astronomically high score once isn’t what AURO is really all about. What we really should care about is “how good is this player at this system in a broad, holistic way”, as measured over many games with many different circumstances that come up. So, our Quick Match system does that.
I’m really happy that we’ve figured this out before it was too late to implement, because as I’ve said all along, it’s not good enough to do a good score system. We have to fundamentally change the way people even think about score in videogames. This shouldn’t be too hard, since people already think the way we’re asking them to think with regards to sports.
Of course, we’ll have other modes in the future, and I really welcome your feedback in terms of what I’ve written above.
As the lead designer on this project, the thing that has been taking up 90% of my time in the last few months has been the abilities – balancing, testing, and redesigning them. Really, since the beginning, this has been a huge task, but we want to have them finished this month. Specifically, we’ve set a date for “gameplay lockdown” on April 20th – 8 days from the time of this writing. I happen to feel really good about where we are at the moment, though, so I think we can do that.
Before I get into the game designey stuff, though, but still on the topic of “stuff taking a really long time to do”, how about we take a look at some of what Blake, our lead artist, has been working on.
To the left and above, you can see the portrait for the Foxy Mama. She will come onto the screen and taunt poor Auro while she throws rocks at him. In those situations, you’d see her on the top right, where you normally see your tutor, Quillsh. read more »