Category Archives: Game Design

AURO’s Game Modes and the Single Player Evergreen XP System

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.

 

Story Mode

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.

 

Match Mode

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.

 

Trials Mode

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?

 

Introducing the Single Player Evergreen XP System

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.

OTHER NEWS:  100 Rogues just had a nice update that fixed a lot of bugs and level generation!  If you haven’t played it before, now’s the time to go check it out!

AURO Update for April 2013

Foxy Mama

Foxy Mama

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.

 

 

New AURO Artwork!

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 »

AURO: Ability Redesign Process

It’s been several months since I tried to put one of my little triangle diagrams together.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably remember that I’ve posted about my philosophy for designing abilities for AURO before.  I haven’t been doing this for some time, because as I’ve also mentioned, we’re in “let’s get this game finished” mode (in fact, we just launched our Closed Beta a few days ago), and I don’t want to rock the boat if I can help it.

I’ve been having another crisis of conscience regarding some of the abilities, though, so it seems like a good time to do another.

 

State of the Abilities

I’ve taken to calling Auro’s magical tactical spells “abilities” recently, instead of “disciplines” which I had been using for awhile.  Probably, I’ll just end up using the word “spells” because it’s the most clear option.  Anyway, we’ve been getting a lot of really good feedback from our testers, and the recently launched beta only helped the matter.

From everyone’s response, as well as my own copious testing, here’s the current consensus:  the game is fun enough as it is, but there are a few key problems.  Namely, some of the abilities are just… kind of crappy.  All of the abilities have some great kernel of an idea to them, and it takes a lot of playtesting and tweaking to find out of that idea actually works or not.  I think that we reached that point with a number of the abilities possibly as long as a month or two ago, but I think I was also hoping that implementing more functionality would make them come together.  Well, we implemented, and it didn’t help!

 

Some examples of problems were:

  • Abomination (Ice T3) didn’t have the killing power it should (instead it’s just a “clear the room” move with a huge cooldown)
  • Chill (Ice T2) doesn’t feel good to use, is confusing and kind of un-exciting
  • Currents (created by Air abilities) are placed in unproductive ways and just aren’t that powerful or interesting
  • Fire in general just isn’t fire-ish enough, kind of flat.  I’ve been very afraid of it becoming too powerful, I think
  • Ice in general is not becoming the “construction set” area-builder that I’ve always wanted it to be
  • Air is also missing its identity, largely because it doesn’t have a really useful “independent actor thing” (like Flames for fire and Blocks/Floe for ice)

 

There’s quite a few more.  In short, though, I just really had to start from the ground up and get down some abilities.  So I started making one of my triangle charts.   In making this chart, I realized one of my problems:  my chart had been the wrong shape all along.  Actually, over the years (yes, AURO has been in the works for *years* now), I’ve tried a number of shapes.  Most recently, I was trying a triangle.  Makes sense, right?  There’s three trees, and they’d each fit into one corner of the triangle.

Tonight, I realized that that was the wrong way to think of it.  Each “pro” quality, such as being good at killing, needs to have a con side as well.  So the opposite of “killing” would be something like “creating more monsters” or possibly “buffing monsters”.  I’m reminded of Robin Walker, of Valve Software, talking about how when designing the TF2 classes, the weaknesses were even more important than the strengths.

It’s not easy to determine what the basic core strengths and weaknesses of abilities are in this game, but I think I’ve done it.  The strengths of the abilities are:

  • Killing:  Does this ability help you kill monsters?  Example:  Meteor!
  • Mobility:  Does this ability help you move around the map quickly or give you more movement options?  Example:  Jump!
  • Control:  Does this ability allow you to restrict enemy movement or move monsters?  Example:  Floe!

From that, we also get the three negative qualities.

  • Hurting Auro:  Does this ability have the potential to hurt Auro?  Example:  Flame!
  • Immobilizing Auro:  Does this ability reduce Auro’s movement options and possibly even trap him in?  Example:  Chill!
  • Chaos:  Does this ability cause some random or hard-to-predict effects to occur?  Example:  Flame!

So with that in mind, there should be 6 sides, not 3 (a hex!). I also realized that it would make much more sense to have each tree take on two of the good qualities, and those two good qualities straddle one bad quality.  This seems like a really good way to balance the trees out and to be able to hold onto a bad quality while designing.

Don't worry, I didn't cut out the Air tree, just didn't finish doing this before I realized another problem. Click to full-size.

While making this chart, I realized some other problems with this entire layout style.  Where do I put Floe?  Floe is kind of a balanced ability, that has killing power, mobility, AND control – at least a little of all three.  This kind of a layout doesn’t allow me to express that.  So, I tried something entirely different.  (Note:  I also swapped around who gets what traits).

The Ability Value Chart

Instead of a visual hex map, I would now use a numeric chart, with positive and negative integers representing the level of value that an ability has in different ways.  Check it out:

 

You're probably going to want to click to full size this one

The colored areas are the areas that this tree should focus on.  Now, you can see that Fire is sort of all over the place.  It has high numbers in all categories, bu the downside is that it has a ton of… well, downsides.  Fire is spreading all over the place and burning poor Auro around every turn!  Notice that the totals on the far right aren’t all exactly equal.  Firstly, as long as they’re close this is OK because the values themselves are totally rough abstractions anyway and probably aren’t 100% correct.  Secondly, we always have knobs to tweak, such as cooldowns and durations and such.

This restriction really helped me in my design work a lot, and I think that more designers should do this kind of stuff to help them organize their thoughts.  Breaking a game’s actions into useful categories is really the only way to make sure that they retain their identity.

This also helped me come up with some really cool new abilities.  For one, since I know now that the Air tree should have a lot of chaos associated with it, I can now ask the question “how”?  My answer is to change how currents work.  Currents now move about randomly, they don’t paralyze monsters (they can still move, act, or do whatever if they’re on a Current, including walk off the current), they move a monster with them if they move and one is on top of them (that’s the big one), for starters.  Also, you can Jump onto them even if they’re over water (although you have to jump right back off, as if you were jumping on a Pillar).  Gale now produces a bunch of Currents randomly when used.  Rush creates a current in front of you, instead of behind you.  Finally – and this is an experimental rule I’m not certain about – but if Auro walks onto a current, the current dissipates and gives AURO a bonus to his AIR ability cooldowns.

I also came up with an Ice ability that I think is just freaking fantastic.  The new T2 is still called Chill (for now), but what it does is turn all Floes into Ice Blocks, and Ice Blocks into Floes.  It also has a very short cooldown.  In my testing, this ability is awesome.

More stuff to come.  We’re probably not going to make our 2012 deadline, it’s looking like, but hopefully late Jan.  Important thing is that AURO is the best when it does come out!  Thanks for reading!

New Game Design-Focused Site

Hey everyone!

We wanted to announce the creation of a new site:  http://keithburgun.net/ !  It’s going to be the site where I’ll be publishing future articles on the topic of game design theory.  If you’ve been a fan of articles such as Games Hurt Stories, Stories Hurt Games, On Score and the like, you’ll want to tune in over at the new site.  In fact, I’ve even re-posted my latest game design article over at the new site.

Another thing that will be moving and getting renamed is the Dinofarm Games Podcast.  This will re-surface under the name The Game Design Theory Podcast over at the new site.

In the future, dinofarmgames.com will be focusing on reports about AURO’s development and other games that we’re working on.  Fans of Blake’s ART BARN column needn’t worry, as that will be staying!

Thanks for reading!

My Book is Here!

Those who pre-ordered copies of my book, Game Design Theory, will probably be receiving them in the next few days.  In my excitement, I took a few photographs to prove that yes, it really is real!

 

The book's cover!

 

The book's back cover

 

The book and its proud author (me!)

 

Thanks to everyone at CRC Press who made this book possible, and were really great to work with.  Also thanks to the great Dr. Reiner Knizia for his lovely foreword!  Here’s the book on Amazon – go pick up a copy!

EDIT:  I just got word that the book will be made available in eBook form very soon!

What’s Different About AURO?

It’s a valid question:  what’s really different about AURO?  At first glance, it may appear to be just another Roguelike.  It has been compared to something like Zaga-33, or Desktop Dungeons.  In fact, AURO is not like any of these, and is an earnestly new game in dozens of ways.  I get asked a lot, so for my own convenience I’ve decided to put what makes AURO special here in one place.

AURO is a game where you combine your abilities to creatively build situations which are favorable to you and unfavorable to the monsters.  This gets progressively harder to do as the game goes because of a larger variety and quantity of monsters.  There may be flames about, slippery ice floes, exploding bomb bats, air currents, and bouncy slimes that will launch you into the water, which the map is surrounded by.  Push other monsters off and snake your way to the exit as quick as you can, getting points for both combos and speed.

AURO is free of vestigial D&D/RPG/Roguelike noise – there’s no “map exploration”, which often is a “false choice” in games that it exists.

AURO has no complicated system of stats – There’s no strength or constitution ratings, or rising hit-points or damage as the game goes on.  In fact, AURO doesn’t get stronger at all as the game goes on, but the levels do get harder.  This means that the player must simply play at a higher level to excel.  Without these complicated stat systems, the game is much easier to learn and at the same time, less noisy.  The player is able to focus on the real decisions rather than wondering whether adding .5% damage reduction is worth losing 3 Dexterity points.

In AURO, your attacks don’t deal damage, and almost all monsters have just one hit point – Instead of being a game that’s about “dealing damage”, it’s mostly a game about positioning.  Your attacks knock actors back, and one of the primary ways of killing monsters is knocking them off the edge of the stage and into the water.  Some abilities, particularly fire abilities do cause damage, but at a significant risk to yourself.

AURO is very, very concerned with not wasting any of your time – animations will play out independently of gameplay, so you don’t have to “wait for them to finish” before you continue playing.  The text prompt at the top of the screen which gives you useful information also happens asynchronously from gameplay;  you never have to wait for it.  Levels are small and tight, and overall the game is pretty instantaneous about getting you into making difficult, interesting decisions.

AURO is free of LOOT! – There’s no +6 Sword of Grognak in this game.  In fact, there is no equipment or items system at all.  There’s one type of item – a “scroll” – but it merely is a one-time-use ability, much like those that you learn.

AURO is all about a small amount of super-deep and interactive content, rather than a huge amount of uninteresting content – most games advertise things like “500 spells!” on the backs of their boxes.  However, not only is a system with 500 spells impossible to balance, but it means that each spell will have very little identity.  In AURO, we have 9 spells (plus a few scrolls), and about 12 monsters.  These have been designed, implemented and redesigned over and over over the course of nearly two years, to the point where they are extremely refined.  While there’s a small amount of content, you’ll find that it emerges into way, way more.

AURO has no “spoilers” – All of the information about what monsters or abilities do are all readily available in the game.  There are no surprises about how things function, but there are surprises about how these elements may combine together into some sort of emergent surprise.

AURO isn’t about any kind of meta-game “collection” – There’s no skulltulas, jinjos or jubileejoos to collect which unlock some thing which makes the game easier.  Why would you want the game to get easier once you’ve played it a lot more, instead of harder?  This makes no sense.  Further, this is exhaustible, and…

AURO is designed to be played forever – because AURO is score-based, there is no reason why you can’t continue to master the system for many, many years.  So, it’s more like Tetris or a multiplayer game than it is like a “play once and throw it in the garbage” videogame.

 

There are other things, of course, such as the fact that it is SUPER cross-platform (iOS, Android, Ouya, Windows, Linux, OSX, and more), or the fact that it has an original, thematic soundtrack or high-quality animated pixel art.  I probably forgot about a few other things, too.  If you haven’t seen our gameplay video, make sure to check it out to get a good glimpse into what playing AURO might be like.

What Is A Game Designer?

Racism – does it exist in the modern western world?  Probably few of us would say that the answer is “no, it no longer exists”.  Yet, where are all of the people coming out and earnestly saying “yeah, I’m a racist, so what?”  Racism, sexism and other isms that are generally maligned in our culture almost never come right out and rear their head.  So much so, that it’s almost exciting in a way in those rare times when it does.  When someone suspicious, someone whose motivations seem like they may be racism-influenced is finally caught muttering an epithet or some other such thing, people who are suspicious of them get a bit excited; or perhaps relieved.

Now, don’t worry – I’m not about to compare racism to the subject of game design.  Obviously the two are totally unrelated and one (racism)is obviously a far more serious issue than the other(game design).  I’m also not here to try and to generate pity for game designers, who, as far as I’m concerned, have the greatest job of all time.  What I’m pointing to specifically is a certain kind of “a-ha!” moment that happens when some dark element of our culture finally comes out where it can clearly be seen.

The question I want to ask is this:  do most people in the world of video games recognize game design as a discipline?  I think if you took a simple yes or no poll about that question, you’d get an overwhelming “yes” result, I’m pretty sure.  But I’m  suspicious that that’s the reality.

 

“The Idea Guy”

Recently on reddit, there was a bit of a commotion about an advertisement I put up in looking for a new programmer.  A pretty common thread that we’ve gotten since the beginning is something like “you guys shouldn’t get paid for your work on the game, only a programmer should get paid”.  I have to wonder if it would be OK if one of the two of us was the lead programmer – then is it OK to pay ourselves?  But this isn’t a post on Kickstarter or the bizarre psychology surrounding it (although I’ll certainly be addressing this topic in the coming days). read more »

Hey! I wrote a book!

Some readers may be aware that I’m not only the lead designer here at Dinofarm Games, but I also write for a few other sites, most notably Gamasutra.  What you might not have known is that I am now an actual author of an actual book!  Huzzah!

My first book, Game Design Theory:  A New Philosophy for Understanding Games, just went up and is available for pre-order from Amazon.com.  There’s no e-book version yet, so if you want one definitely click on the button on the left that says “I’d like to read this book on the Kindle”.

Anyhow, this book is the culmination of about a decade of work in developing and honing my own philosophy of what games are, how they work, and how we can do them better.  As I talked about on last week’s podcast, I think that the current status of games – particularly digital games – is extremely unhealthy.  I think we’re extremely misguided on a few key fundamental ideas.  Because of this, my book seeks to break down the current understanding and then rebuild a new possible future.  I hope that designers and players alike will get something out of it, even if they don’t agree.

And by the way, did I mention that it has a foreword written by Dr. Reiner Knizia?  I consider him to be probably the world’s greatest game designer, so that’s pretty great!