Merrak's Isometric Adventures -- Dimetric Dilemna

merrak

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  • Posts: 2507
Moving Forward... to Alpha Build 4. I feel like the final game is beginning to take shape. I still need to add a few engine features... and, of course, fix bugs. But most of the framework I need is there.

One thing I've noticed, and is already starting to annoy me, is backtracking through the hub area. The game looks like this

Code: [Select]
A3-A2-A1     B1-B2-B3
        \   /
         HUB
        /   \
C3-C2-C1     D1-D2-D3

I recently inserted a system of bridges:

Code: [Select]
A3-A2-A1 ... B1-B2-B3
      . \   / .
      .  HUB  .
      . /   \ .
C3-C2-C1 ... D1-D2-D3

Currently, in each of the level 1 towers maps (A1,B1,C1,D1) there is a key which grants the player access to any of the level 2 maps, along with the bridges that allow the player to skip the hub.

Now I'm thinking that I don't want to give that key out so soon. For one, there is a sharp increase in difficulty moving from the level 1 maps to the level 2 maps. I don't like games which hold the player's hand--so if that was the only reason, I wouldn't bother worrying about it. But as I'm developing the storyline and integrating it into the environment, there are more reasons to steer the player toward finishing more of the level 1 maps.

My new plan (in progress) is to assign a level with each milestone the player completes. This level will change what NPCs and objects are loaded into the maps. I can use this mechanism to keep maps that the player might have to travel through fresh. It also might mean the game changes depending on the order the player wants to tackle the towers in.

New roadmap:
Lv 1. Player completes "hub area". Objective--find the Onyx key in the media room.
Lv 2. Player selects and completes one of the Level 1 maps in towers A, B, C, or D
Lv 3. Player returns to the "hub area". A new set of enemies is present, but with better rewards
Lv 4. Player completes a second Level 1 map
Lv 5. A friendly NPC warns the player high level guards have overtaken the hub area, and a second hub opens up. I'll replace the bridges with accesses to this second hub
Lv 6. Player completes third Level 1 map.
Lv 7. Player completes final Level 1 map. At this point I'll open up all of the Level 2 maps.

The second hub exits already exist and are near the stairs to the Level 2 maps, so the second hub is far more convenient for moving between towers. The Level 2 maps can be less linear since backtracking won't be as much of an issue. Eventually the player will have to make their way through the original hub area again--which is now a "boss zone"

Code: [Select]
A3-A2-A1>   <B1-B2-B3
        \   / 
        HUB 1 
        /   \ 
C3-C2-C1>   <D1-D2-D3

<> A1, B1, C1, D1 are all also connected to HUB 2

The next hurdle will be to work out a way to inform the player what their objective is. Friendly NPCs would be a good way to do this, but I need to work out why they would be in the towers and willing to help Marika out. She doesn't have any friends here.

Bombini

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  • Posts: 1310
The next hurdle will be to work out a way to inform the player what their objective is. Friendly NPCs would be a good way to do this, but I need to work out why they would be in the towers and willing to help Marika out. She doesn't have any friends here.

Imprisoned friendly NPCs maybe?

merrak

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  • Posts: 2507
The next hurdle will be to work out a way to inform the player what their objective is. Friendly NPCs would be a good way to do this, but I need to work out why they would be in the towers and willing to help Marika out. She doesn't have any friends here.

Imprisoned friendly NPCs maybe?

That was my first thought and is probably the easiest approach. I need to be careful not to expand the scope of the game too far. It's time to get this one wrapped up and move on to the next adventure.

Bombini

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  • Posts: 1310
Very true! I am also happy to wrap things up

merrak

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  • Posts: 2507

A Friend in the Towers-- I gave Marika a friendly NPC to talk to. He will give the player some hints on where to go and fill in some backstory. More importantly, I can now easily break the game into stages. Each stage has an objective, but I had to find a way for Marika to know what they are. She enters the towers with the final objective, but the friendly NPCs can help her break it down into smaller objectives that lead to the goal.



The dialog system is very basic. There's no conversation options. I'll add a proper dialog engine for a sequel. But for now, this serves the purpose I need it to, so I won't try to solve problems I don't have.


I also finished populating all four of the level 1 maps with signage, furniture, and decorations. The old, barren rooms now look a lot better.


Bombini

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  • Posts: 1310
Oh wow!
I think this is exactly what i was missing.
I totally agree not to make a more complicated dialogue system.
This all looks very cool!

merrak

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  • Posts: 2507
Oh wow!
I think this is exactly what i was missing.
I totally agree not to make a more complicated dialogue system.
This all looks very cool!

It's also made level design a lot more fun... just like it's more fun playing with Lego when you have more kinds of pieces :D

merrak

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  • Posts: 2507
Maps Monday. Latest update--I've now (mostly) completed all maps for the game! This includes the level structures themselves and all NPCs. I do not yet have all of the objects placed, though... mostly because I'm still coding a few. These include books for skills, power-up items, and "NPCs" the player can talk to, like the prisoner (technically, these are coded as objects).

There are 15 maps total: three levels for each of the four towers, the central hub area, the dungeon (last area with the boss), and a secret map. I dropped the "bridge map" I had outlined in a previous update. Traversing the central hub isn't as much of a hassle as I originally thought it'd be, and there's a useful save point in there.

The next aspect of the game needing attention is balance. There is a steep difficulty jump between the A tower levels and the B tower levels. Most of the difficulty stems from the lack of skills.

I have 20 skills outlined, and about 2/3 of them coded. I wrote a routine that goes through all of the maps and counts how many experience points are available in them. There's a little over 209,000 exp points total. I worked out the skill costs so that the player can afford at least one new skill after completing a map. The skills available in the hub area are mostly 'qualify of life' skills (like the exploration arrows), but the rest give useful buffs to make combating the higher level enemies much easier.

Two of the skills--"Scout", and "Sneak", may end up having a dramatic effect on game play. Scout will let the player look into neighboring rooms, and Sneak eliminates any sound Marika makes when walking. Since the NPC guards are alerted by sound, the two skills will let the player sneak up on enemies.

The biggest challenge in combat is fighting groups of enemies. Since enemies get stunned easily, a single enemy, even one with a lot of HP, can be easily defeated by frequent blows. Picking off one or two enemies in a group from a distance turns out to be a useful mechanic.

I haven't gotten as far into AI coding as to have the NPCs react to light/dark. Letting the player sneak around in the dark to avoid detection by NPCs sounds like a neat idea, but I might have to explore it more in a sequel. It's just too hard to create rooms with good shadows for sneaking with the resolution I have to work with.

For Towers 2, I'd like to look into full color and taking advantage of shaders to offload some of the lighting work from the main processor. I'm thinking about doing the same for this game, and providing a setting to allow the player to choose which graphics set to play with.

And now--screenshots!

A well lit room...

Shadows working on the infamous stairs...

I snapped this screenshot too late. A horde of enemies appeared from behind those columns. Marika almost died even with 1000 HP cheat (50x more HP than at start)... but has no skills and no armor items equipped. I foresee a lot of playtesting to fine tune the balance.

Exploring dark places...

Bombini

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  • Posts: 1310
Very exciting!
I would buy this game for sure even if i would not be part of this community.
Wishing you a lot energy finishing it!

merrak

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  • Posts: 2507
Very exciting!
I would buy this game for sure even if i would not be part of this community.
Wishing you a lot energy finishing it!

Thanks! Skills are progressing nicely. Scout turns out to be a bit trickier to implement than anticipated. There are some places in the code where I assume the player is in the same sector as the camera, so I have to fix that. Frenzy isn't hard to code, but requires some more player animations.

Here are all 20 skills.

Click image for larger version

and for interested RPG developers, how I mapped out the EXP in the game.

Click image for larger version

I was working toward Alpha Build 4, but assuming there aren't any unforeseen difficulties, I might as well call it Beta 1. I still have a huge to-do list, but a good number of the items are "quality of life" improvements for me--like new features for the map editor. These items can easily wait. Others, like known crash bugs, will have to be fixed.

merrak

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1.0! A few days ago I finished the last core feature of the game's engine. Yay! It's tempting to quickly wrap everything up and move on, but those final details are important. There are still bugs to fix and polishing to do. I know I'm going to want to adjust the maps a bit more.

I now have a draft of the story line worked out. I'll post it later. I'm happy with the opportunities it leaves for a sequel. I'm looking forward to moving on to the sequel someday. There are game mechanics I'd like to explore more. This first game is much more hack-and-slash than I'd like... but I expect that it's also on the shorter side for an APRG. I'd rather the game be shorter and end leaving the player wanting more than having it overstay its welcome.

On the other hand, I also want to make sure the player feels like they're getting their money's worth. I'm planning to release the game with edmap, my map editor, so people can make their own maps if they wish. I always enjoyed level editors more than the games they were designed for, so I definitely have to include it in the package.

As for the game itself--I've trimmed it down a bit. There are  still 15 maps and 20 skills. The only AI mode supported is "AIPawn" that was originally designed to control the golems in Idosra 4. AIPawn has proven to be a reliable workhorse. Although it doesn't do anything fancy, it solves the common pathfinding problems very well. I haven't had to think about it much when designing levels, and that's exactly what I wanted out of it.

I'm also playing around with a new death mechanic. The player can find a special elixir that will activate on the next rebirth. When the player re-spawns into the game, they come back a bit stronger. The catch, though--the elixir can't be used if the player wants a perfect rank, since using the rebirth will count against it.


I also need  to work out ports. I think I can pull together a mobile version, although that isn't the ideal platform. I've decided to drop Flash/HTML5 for now. I might come back to that, but desktop is the best target. I want to do more with hardware rendering for the sequels. Both Flash and HTML5 suffer from weird bugs. Flash is sliding toward obsolescence and HTML5 is too slow. I won't rule it out, because it might turn out to be worth it... but not for the moment.

Bombini

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Here are all 20 skills.

I really like that there are a lot meaningful skills which offer the player a real value like minimap and so on.

merrak

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  • Posts: 2507
I really like that there are a lot meaningful skills which offer the player a real value like minimap and so on.

I'm happy with the way the skills have turned out. The abilities and distribution was a bit impromptu, but I think they work together well. A lot of them are active abilities--not simply stat increases. It was intentional that the first map has more to find than any of the other maps. I wanted the player to get a feeling of progress early on.

One screenshot I uploaded to Discord, but not here yet, shows how you can use Scout + Marksmanship to snipe off enemy combatants. That turned out to do well lowering the difficulty curve from the A to B maps.

Sanctuary may turn out to be underrated. It is a great quality of life boost, since it gives you one more chance to use a healing item.

Many of the skills were reactionary. When I played a map and felt like something was missing, I made up a skill to fill the void. I've gotten to the point where I'm starting to playtest the entire game, so the list isn't set in stone at the moment.

One idea I thought of was to hide maps in each of the levels. Right now the minimap just shows a blank area, but I don't see why finding a map or talking to an NPC couldn't populate it with additional information.

merrak

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Playtesting... Here's what the game engine looked like four years ago :o


I recently read an article by Jeff Vogel, the founder of Spiderweb Software and author of the Exile games my brother and I played in the mid to late 90's. Link! He points out his dislike for RPGs because of two reasons:

1. The game is often about a player who starts out very weak and learns to become very strong. The process of learning is a grind that can eat up an absurd length of the player's time
2. "Trash", or what I would think of as "Fluff": the monsters, objectives, etc., that don't have any real consequences. They're there to pad out the distance from two more significant events.

I can't say I disagree with him. I don't remember the Exile games having much fluff or long periods of grinding--but those were twenty years ago. Modern players may have different expectations--and even older players' preferences would've evolved over that time span.

Just this week I have started playing Towers of Vallas completely through. That's something I've never done, because it hasn't been possible up to this point. All 15 maps are playable and linked together, so I can finally play the whole game. It's a good time to check that the reality of the gameplay matches my visions on what the player will experience.

I've classified Towers of Vallas as an action role-playing game (ARPG). I think it's the best fitting genre, and a lot of the usual RPG elements are present in the game. I've also taken a few departures from the common RPG fare. In my mind, the most significant departure is downplay of grinding to level up.

Well, for one, there is no "levelling up", because there isn't a player level. Marika's abilities are entirely determined by skills acquired and power-up items consumed. The only hint of a level is a "Psuedo Level" that is reported in the save-game selection, and functions as a way to remind the player how far they are into the saved game.

Grinding is usually a symptom of not having enough experience points to progress further in the game at the point where the player is ready to move on to the next stage. In Towers, this doesn't happen very often. Usually, by the time I complete a stage and am ready to move on to the next one, I have just enough experience points to make use of any power-up items I have. Of course, I also know where everything is... and I've yet to see if a new player would have the same experience.

There is a finite amount of experience points in the game, so it's conceivable that if a player somehow manages to clear a stage before finding all of the experience, they will progress to later stages insufficiently equipped to face them. I've tried to make sure there's something interesting in all corners of each map, to encourage the player to explore. This will be something I'll need to pay close attention to when I move into beta.

The game is also short. I haven't yet played through without pausing, because I keep finding bugs that need attention. But I estimate that if you know where everything is, you could beat the game in about two hours... maybe even one. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. I think it's more important what a player coming in fresh experiences.

I'm happy with combat. I'm used to two characters standing and wailing on each other until the one with the highest HP/DAM/AC wins. In Towers, there's a fair amount of tactical retreat, running, and maneuvering around hordes of enemies.

At the beginning of the game, Marika is strong enough to beat the highest level enemy in a one-on-one fight, albeit with a bit of luck and no errors on the part of the player. The difficulty of a fight is mostly determined by the number of enemies and architecture of the room. The number of enemies as a factor is obvious, but the architecture surprised me. Long corridors force enemies to line up in a way that the player can pick them off one at a time. Large, open rooms give the enemies opportunities to trap the player.

Another factor that surprised me is timing. When an NPC is struck, it is stunned for a bit. In a group scenario, it is disadvantageous to strike one NPC because the others can attack while Marika is in her cool-down phase (about 1/2 second). When Marika strikes, she hits enemies within +- 60 degrees of her field of vision... so running around the room to encourage the enemies to group in front of her is a good tactic--provided the architecture of the room allows it. It also makes the skill Frenzy more useful than I thought it'd be, since it allows her to strike all enemies in any direction, although with a high MV cost.

I kinda hate to admit things surprised me, since it suggests poor planning on my part... but I like the results so far. I feel like the combat, in particular, would be more engaging with higher fidelity graphics. When Marika retreats, I'd like to have a walking back animation (the combat in Prince of Persia comes to mind). Instead, I just play the standard walk animation. There's just not enough resolution and color depth to show much else. Hopefully the graphics are abstract enough that the player can use their imagination to fill in the details I can't convey.

merrak

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QOL Tuesday. My to-do list has dwindled to a mere 30ish items--down from more than 300. Granted, some of the items aren't very quick... such as "make all the cutscenes from the game". Still, it feels like I'm closing in on the finish line.

I'm going to shoot for a beta by the end of the summer. I don't know how realistic that is since a couple of the to-do items address rendering issues. Those are somewhat unpredictable. On the other hand, I could be ready sooner.

One thing I've noticed now that I've been doing serious play testing is that there are a lot of opportunities for "Qualify of Life" skills. I've been jotting down everything that has annoyed me about the game and worked up a way to get around it.

Here's one of my favorites. The skill "Perception" enables the mini-map in the bottom-left corner of the screen. All it does is provide some sense of where the player is in relation to the map edges, which is nice. "Perception 2" adds switches. When you find a switch and you don't have the key, the location flashes on the map. When you find the key, it stops flashing. It'll disappear entirely once you've used the switch.



This is particularly useful in the first map. It's not only one of the largest in the game, it also has the most locked doors.

Another big item on the to-do list: "Make music for the game". I think I have a pretty good handle on sound effects, but I realized I'm just going to have to license music. I think stock music is going to be the way to go, since it fits my budget.

The last to-do item is to play through the entire game, from start to end. I've actually yet to do this since every time I find an issue, I tend to have to start over. Making significant changes to maps means older save files won't load anymore. So far the best I've done is finished all of the A level towers, and one of the four B levels. I feel like the difficulty curve for this part of the game is where I want it to be--so that's a plus. Also, my spreadsheet calculator I wrote up back in September seems to be working out pretty well.