Some people make a 200 page design document for their indie games, and that becomes the major part of the design process for them. Personally, I have never seen one of my games end up becoming exactly what I envisioned when I started out making it. There are many reasons for this.
Partly it’s because I have a very light prototyping phase and instead opt for making rapid changes to the actual game. I can afford that as a single-person team – if I had more team members depending on the design I would have had to stick to the original plan, which would have led to a longer prototyping phase.
Another reason is my limited art resources. I don’t know any artists willing to have a close cooperation, so I have to outsource the artwork – and that means that I’m limited in the scope of art I can include in my games. If I realize that a minigame requires an animated piece of art or a custom background I’m often forced to skip that minigame or try to make do with efforts of my own. That’s one of my biggest disappointments with Wildhollow, for example. The game could have been greatly improved from having more art, allowing it to have more interesting minigames and breeding mechanics.
As an example of this evolutionary design process, let’s talk about my upcoming game Spandex Force: Champion Rising. The game was originally meant to be a Princess Maker-like game where you raised your superhero’s attributes and watched him grow into a good or evil character. As you can see in the screenshot below, three “resource” meters were present to the right: happiness, stamina and time.
An unhappy hero would get lower ethics, which in turn would lead him to the dark side. Ways to make the hero happy was to ensure that his stamina doesn’t run out, that he gets nice superhero toys to play with, and that he performs interesting superhero actions.
Another thing to notice in the screenshot above is the small city map. For some reason I was envisioning the game as requiring no scrolling. Everything would occur on single screens. That soon changed, as you can see below.
Here, the city is zoomed in and you can scroll around the map. In retrospect it’s easy to see that this is better – but for some reason it never struck me in the first design of the game. Another thing you can see is that there’s an active quest in the upper left. At first I didn’t want to have any quests, and instead let the player do exactly what he wanted. But that led to too much confusion and too little guidance.
The GUI elements are also overlayed instead of fixed in a panel to the right. Eventually I removed the happiness/stamina/time meters and tried to minimize the GUI as much as possible. I removed the happiness and the stamina at the same time as I made a fundamental change in the game design. For the longest time I had tried to keep the game statistics based. When you worked, you gained X amount of money depending on your current happiness and stamina, and you gained Y amount of attributes while you decreased Z amount of other attributes. This works wonderfully in Princess Maker and other similar games, but I could simply not get my game fun!
Part of the reason for the lack of fun was that there wasn’t enough positive feedback to give the player. Watching a number grow is really…not that intense. I wanted to award the player an animation for example – but I had no artwork for that. I experimented with minigames for each job, but that never felt good. In the end I decided that the game was lacking a core mechanic, so I introduced the hex-based puzzle gameplay that you can see in the current version. This gave the game a stronger focus, and increased the appeal of the game (as far as I can determine).
When it comes to locations, for a long time I wanted each location to have multiple actions available. You could feed pigeons to increase your happiness, or rest to restore stamina, or work to earn money, or talk to various people.
Above is an example of the Vegemite Park location. More actions would become unlocked as you progress, and some events would be dependent on the time of day, or the date. I still like this idea, and I think it would be a really good mechanic – but for art reasons and simplicity I decided to skip it. But not before I had gone through some design changes.
The first change was to make each location a full screen with limited options (see above). People to talk to would show up at the bottom, and available jobs/training possibilities or actions would be at the top. After some consideration I decided to skip this simplified location screen as well. It was too hard to show the player what was available in each screen on the city map. If he’s looking for a job it’s really annoying to have to dig through a lot of locations to see where that particular job was. I experimented with icons on top of the locations to show what was available, but it simply looked too cluttered. I also experimented with having one active job at a time – but that was also hard to incorporate in a way that made sense to the player. Also, all of these experiments would have required additional art work that I didn’t have.
In the end I opted for one action per location instead. This simplified the player experience and streamlined the game. There can still be multiple events at each location – but each happens in order of priority. First, any quest related actions. Second, any special events. Third, any normal actions that always occur. Each location event/action is also triggered from the game map instead of going to a separate screen now. This serves the purpose of focusing more in the city – making it the natural navigation hub it should be.
Regarding player choice, things have generally taken a turn from multiple choices to a more streamlined experience. As an example, the very first quest would originally give you three options of jobs to attend – in order to let you customize your hero completely from the start.
But as you can see in the image above, it’s just confusing to the player to have multiple options right at the beginning of the game. I still allow the player to pursue his growth as desired, but I provide one single path of progression as a suggestion to new players.
In other changes, the game was much grimmer with a lot of dark humor in the beginning. The player had to sleep on a park bench to regain stamina until he could afford a hero base. The insults between the hero and his mentor was much more acidic and less good-humored. This is visible in the title design as well – it was much darker in the first version.
Eventually I had second thoughts about the grimness and dark humor. It could still be a fun game to do, but it should be for a separate game where the player has the option to become truly evil. Who knows, maybe I’ll do a Spandex Force: Villains if the current game is well received.
In general, I decided on a few design choices for Spandex Force: Champion Rising to ensure that the game delivers that elusive aspect called “fun”:
- The player must always progress; no reduction of skills and attributes
- No happiness / stamina mechanic is necessary – it introduces too much micro management
- The tone should be sarcastic but happy
- The player must always know what to do next
- The game is centered around a core mechanic: hex based puzzle gameplay
Finally, to show what the game has evolved into, here are some screenshots of the current version. I hope you agree that these look more appealing!