Jeff

A little while ago I dug out Game Maker: Studio, brushed the dust off my programming skills (or lack thereof) and started messing around coding a little prototype in my spare time. I wanted something that would be relatively simple and realistically do-able on my own…so no MMORPGs or anything lol This is partly to get back into coding, and to teach myself how to go through all the boring stuff in programming (porting to different devices, learning how to set up in-app purchases, getting my game from Game Maker to the Apple store, etc.). I’m pretty good with coding game logic in general but all the technical stuff is way above my head right now and I’m sure my code is sloppy and unorganized compared to a legit programmer but hey, best way to learn is through experience right? If I keep the project smaller in scope then I should be able to learn as I go without too many tears soaking my keyboard lol So here’s a video of terrible “programmer art”:

So to clarify what’s going on: You switch between two Modes (red and blue right now) as the Color lines and Hazard come at you. If you touch a Color line and you’re in the Mode that matches, you’re rewarded with the Charge Meter filling up slightly, and if you’re the wrong Color (or you hit a Hazard) you’re “hit” and the Charge Meter empties. The Charge Meter is constantly draining, so you have to try to match in quick succession to max it out. Once you max it, you automatically enter a third Mode where everything speeds up and instead of dodging the Hazards you now want to hit as many of them as you can because they deflect back across the screen to the side the enemies are on and damage them. Eventually your Charge Meter empties out and you return to the normal gameplay to begin building your Charge up again.

Here’s a flowchart of the main game loop (made with Lucidchart, which is free and easy to create these with):

I have no idea how to make a proper flowchart...am I even using the diamond ones right?? lol

Since I started working on my own game, in my spare time I’ve been consuming all sorts of game design talks, articles, videos, books (if you’re a gameDev, you need to buy The Art of Game Design…this is a MUST read). Extra Credits is one of my favorite series and I’ll be linking a handful of their videos as I go because I’m actively trying to apply the principles they talk about in my design and I want to talk about how I’m tweaking the design around these ideas to try to make something engaging.

This video on Depth VS Complexity was a big influence because I want to keep the game small in scope so I don’t have a ton of programming to do, but I want the mechanic to have a lot of flexibility so I can keep the player engaged and on their toes and thinking of “how can I use these mechanics I’m familiar with to solve this new twist?”. I also like the idea of teaching the game through the design instead of with a tutorial, so you feel like you’re learning/improving right from the start so I’m planning to try that as well.

Here’s the video on Depth VS Complexity, it’s a great concise explanation:

Another key video I’m trying to guide my design by is this one on Choice and Conflict. Their breakdown of Mario’s mushroom is a great eye-opener and the concept of forcing the player into situations where their long-term goals and short-term goals are in opposition and the player has to make a choice in the moment:

So for actual application of these concepts: My game’s mechanics are really pretty simple. You’re just switching Modes and moving between 3 pre-determined locations. You avoid Hazards until you match enough Colors to power-up and then you chase those same Hazards until the power-up wears off. I realized after I was working on this that this is the same thing Pac Man does…you avoid the ghosts until you find a Power Pellet, then suddenly the tables turn and now you chase the things you used to run from, until it wears off and you have to avoid them again. There’s a little bit of satisfying “aha, I’ve turned the tables on you!” revenge feeling in that moment that I’m trying to give the player.

Now the depth and choice/conflict parts come in how I’m playing with that simple mechanic to create different challenges for the player. Some examples:

1) the Charge Meter drains faster the more full it is. So your first few matches will be easy to get, you can take plenty of time between them with no real consequence. But as your Charge Meter reaches 50% the speed it constantly empties starts increasing. So at 20% full your meter drops, say, 1 block a second, but at 95% full your meter drops more like a block every 10th of a second. This adds a nice bit of pressure because the closer you get to your goal (filling the Charge Meter), the faster you have to play to achieve that, but the faster you have to play the more challenging it is to not hit a Hazard or be in the wrong Color Mode and lose your entire Charge Meter. If the Charge Meter dropped at a constant rate there would be no difference in emotion between collecting your first match and your final match. This should give the player a constant up and down emotional ride between almost succeeding and epic failure, and it makes the pay-off (when you finally max the Charge Meter out and enter Mode 3) all the sweeter. In the end I’m getting a whole bunch of sweet gameplay tension added to that one mechanic, just by simply decreasing a timer.

2) I tried out having no Mode switching, so you would just have one type of thing to touch making the game just “dodge this object and collect this object”, but it didn’t feel complex enough. It was a little too simple and mundane because it reduced a lot of the possible chance for error on the player’s side. Extra Credits mentions that “Depth is bought with Complexity, but complexity also restricts Depth” So I look at this like I didn’t have enough complexity to allow much depth. By adding a bit of complexity, by forcing the player to switch Modes, now they have to stay engaged in what’s going on. At the same time I tried adding multiple Modes, like 3 or 4 different Colors to collect, but that became too cumbersome and frustrating. When the player dies because your game feels too complicated, they blame the game and it feels unfair…when the player dies because they messed up what felt like a simple mechanic, they blame themselves and feel like they wouldn’t have failed if they hadn’t made that miscalculation and they feel like they can do better the next time.

3) With that same core mechanic of “match your Color Mode to the next Color line you touch”, I can increase/decrease the challenge the obvious way of simply changing how frequently Color lines appear and how fast the row itself moves, but because I added the Mode switching I can also increase/decrease it by changing the variety of Colors appearing. So 10 blocks in a row of one Color with wide gaps between them would be extremely easy to deal with. 10 blocks of predictably alternating Colors (blue-red-blue-red-blue) with the same spacing would be slightly more difficult. 10 blocks of unpredictably alternating colors (blue-red-red-blue-red) would be more difficult. 10 blocks of randomly alternating Colors with little spacing between them would be even more difficult. And I can vary things up, so on the 3 rows maybe one row is travelling slower or less frequent than the other 2 rows, but is spawning more complex sequences of Colors, so you have to decide “do I want to risk the trickier sequence to fill my meter quicker (which I may HAVE to if it’s near full and draining faster as discussed in point number 1 above), or do I want to stick to the easier rows and deal with enemies being alive (and risking my life if they’re in an attack mode)?”

I could also create enemies that alter those Color lines, so one enemy blocks off a row entirely with, say, fire that will kill you, so you have to stick to just 2 rows which will add tension until that row is free again because now you can’t bail out to a safe empty space as easily because you don’t have that third row. Or some kind of helper or powerup item could change all the Colors to the same Color so for a few seconds you can match the Colors easily. By combining point number 1 up above and this, I could have a level where no Color lines are spawned, but there’s an enemy or boss who spits out complicated random sequences of 5 blocks at a time…because your Charge Meter drains, the only way you would be able to max it out to attack the boss would be to successfully complete two of those complicated sequences in a row. And when you get him down to almost no health, he may just spit out random complicated sequences of 10 blocks at a time, at a fast speed, so that the only way you can max out to finish him off is to pull off a tricky fast sequence.

So I’m getting a ton of potential depth out of just that one “match your Color Mode to the next Color line you touch” mechanic combined with point number 1 above. The player is only using the same skillset they learned at the very start of the game, but now they’re forced to ask “how can I use these mechanics I’m familiar with to solve this new twist?” which is what I want. Maximum depth with minimum complexity.

4) In the video above, you can see that the big boss monster is constantly moving away from you, but every time you match a Color, he’s pulled back toward you. I’m thinking of having some enemies be affected by your matching Colors like this. So in this scenario, if you don’t keep matching Colors, the boss will get away and you lose. But when you match Colors he’s pulled back toward you and covers up the visuals, so if you pull him in too close to you the game actually becomes more difficult because you have less reaction time to see what Colors or Hazards are coming at you. So as the player you would figure out “okay there’s a sweet spot here, I want to try to keep him toward the edge of the screen but not quite off of it” and have to strategize when you match Colors and when you AVOID matching them. At the same time the player should start piecing together that the best strategy would be to not haphazardly match Colors because the boss will end up too “in your face”, but should instead be to go for maxing out the meter every time (so there’s no wasted pulling-in of the boss before the player enters Mode 3 where he can attack) and letting the boss back off slightly if they aren’t successful at maxing their meter.

Other ideas playing with this “matching Colors affects enemy behavior” mechanic would be the opposite type of boss, one that is constantly coming toward you but matching Colors pushes him away to give you breathing space. Or a boss that “short circuits” and can’t attack for a few seconds if you match enough Colors in quick succession.

5) When you’re in Mode 3, it’s almost like a second game because now you’re able to dole out damage and you have to now chase down the Hazards you were previously avoiding so there’s an opportunity to add depth there too. What if there’s an enemy who acts like the classic RPG enemies that go into a defensive shell mode for a minute and not only can’t be damaged but if you attack them your attack comes back at you twice as strong/fast? So if they enter that defensive mode while you’re in Mode 3 you end up having to alternate between collecting Hazards and dodging them based on the enemies’ state. Or you may see the enemy go into his shell mode and choose NOT to attempt to Max out your Charge Meter until the enemy is about to come out of his shell mode and THEN you want to quickly match enough colors to Max out your Charge Meter so that you’re entering Mode 3 right as the enemy is coming out of his shell maximizing the amount of time you’re in your attacking mode and he’s susceptible to attacks.

I’ve got a bunch more ideas, but the thing I wanted to point out in all of this is that even with all these points written above the core game mechanic is still that simple just “avoid Hazards while you match Colors till you max your Charge Meter then chase Hazards” minor complexity I started with but I’m milking it for a ton of depth and in terms of actual programming I’m not adding a lot to the code itself aside from enemy AI design because I’m not adding more mechanics I’m just tweaking how they interact with enemies.

Still reading? Here are concepts for a space girl and an evil goat for making it this far lol:

I have no idea what I'm doing with sci-fi design but I think this'd be a fun project to practice it on.

Why goats? I have no idea lol I was doodling monsters and aliens and a goat just came out.

So I feel like there’s something in this that would make a fun game. The prototype itself doesn’t have much to it but the idea is there and playing it DOES tap into that feeling I’m trying to create so I think I’m on the right track.

I’ve already been working on revamping this prototype into a cleaner version which I’ll show next time, but I’ve missed writing about game design and gameDev in general so I wanted to start from the very beginning. I’m trying to approach this from a very methodical standpoint where when I’m studying all this game design stuff I’m thinking “okay, how would I apply this to my game? Is there a place for it? Is there something I should be tweaking to align closer to a core principle of game design? Is there stuff that adds complexity for no reason or does everything have a purpose?” I’ll be talking more about this kind of thing in the future as I narrow the design down in detail.

Hope you enjoyed the long read! Check in for more next week, and go watch all the Extra Credits videos while you wait for Santa to bring your copy of The Art of Game Design lol

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