Redlight – Post Apocalyptic 4X (PA4X)

This is Post 3 discussing my project greenlight process. To add a little context, I’ve been working on locking down a perfect project for IGF 2016 submission. These posts will discuss a project and why I’ve red-lighted it. At the end, I’ll make a post about why I’ve greenlit Ventura.

PA4X

PA4X is an interesting case about the deception of game development scope. As a quick summary, you can read my PA4X announcement for more details about the game. In essence it’s a 4X game (a la Civilization) with a heavy multiplayer focus; short turn times with a single moving city, simulating your peoples’ struggle in a broken world.

morning_2_build_ui

It was surprisingly easy to build many of the systems. I had Biomes working, a 4X grid, a pre-built pathfinding solution, turns, building stuff, resource generation… plenty of systems. Civilization V as a system is easy to build. So what went wrong?

  • Redlight Reason #1: Too much backend to find the fun
    This is the one and only reason why PA4X is getting a red light. Despite knowing that a 4X game is fun (I’m currently playing another epic game of Civilization V), it’s going to take a long long time to get it into a state where it’s actually fun. When you think about it, Civilization isn’t really that fun of a first play experience. It’s slow, nothing really happens (bar finding a goody hut), you haven’t got many choices. The reason Civilization V works is because it is a massively complex system of moving parts that you will get into eventually. Civ V is built on the promise of emergent gameplay based on its humongous content generating machine. Therefore my theory is that PA4X would not be fun until I have a humongous content generating machine… and that will take a long time and a lot of risk.

The number one lesson I’ve learnt from my 2 year-long indie game development project is that finding the fun early is super important. Too many times, I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole in the search for a fun game… wasting months of time and effort to eventually find nothing. Not this time. So that’s why PA4X is getting the red light.

Nevertheless, a 4X design is almost entirely Game Design/System Design focussed. This prototype proved that building the mechanics is actually not hard at all. All the challenge is in Game Design. I do like that. I like it a lot. I’m sure that one day I will come back to this prototype, as it’s perfect for my skill set.

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Public Domain Jam + Candidate 3

It’s been a while, ladies and gents!

Firstly a quick update on Candidate 2; PA4X.

I’m quite pleased with how accessible the coding is for a 4X game. As I’m not delving into AI, it’s all a lot of UI systems and its turn based nature makes bug fixing and general logic so much easier! Therefore it’s very buildable.

However the problem is with design, iteration, and a massively convoluted assessment status. Remember why I cancelled Uffizi and Bard Life? Those games took too long to find the fun. PA4X has the same problem. It will take me weeks and months of design before it’s at a stage where players can say they enjoy the game. On top of that, it’s also a lot trickier to balance and design systems for a competitive 4X than a city-builder or idle game, so it just doesn’t make much sense to continue with it at this stage of The Plan.

No greenlight for this game, I’m afraid!

 

So where am I now?

I’m 11 days before my deadline for The Plan. The Plan was created to help me find a candidate for IGF’s 2015 submission in October. June 1st is when I need to begin working on ‘The Game’. Here are the prototypes I have built during The Plan;

  • Project BR: A multiplayer survival deathmatch game where you’re given a procedurally generated character and must complete dramatic quests while attempting to survive. Status: Needs an iteration loop.
  • Grid Optimizer: A simple puzzle game based on optimizing grids. Status: Ready for initial playtests
  • Ludum Dare 32 Followup: I didn’t discuss this at all on the blog, but Ludum Dare 32 did give me a good candidate game that’s worth investigating. Status: Needs an iteration loop.
  • PA4X: See above. Status: Red Light
  • Candidate 3: See below!

As you can see, Project BR, Grid Optimizer and Ludum Dare 32 are all technically in the running.

I have very mixed personal opinions about all of them, which I’ll get into on June 1st. Nonetheless, I still want another candidate game as I’m not satisfied with this selection.

 

Public Domain Jam / Candidate 3

My final shot at a completely blue sky idea before The Plan ends is Public Domain Jam.

Candidate 3 is a game which I want to get barely playable for the Public Domain Jam deadline, but it is also much more than just a fire-and-forget Game Jam project. I’m aiming for two birds with one stone. A solid Game Jam entry as well as an IGF Candidate. Funnily enough, Public Domain Jam has brought me full circle. I’m back on Machiavelli for this one!

Remember this guy?
Remember this guy?

 

Ventura is the codename for this project, and it’s back to the Renaissance with me. Linking to Public Domain Jam’s goal of being inspired by publicly available written works, I’m using Machiavelli’s writings on the use of mercenaries in Renaissance Italy as the inspiration for this new game project.

Ventura is extremely exciting to me as it brings together so many things I find intensely interesting in the field of Game Design.

  • It is a medium-term session multiplayer contest, akin to a Dota or League of Legends. I want the game to last around 30-40 minutes.
  • It involves competing with others, but not just through combat. Economy and strategic development decisions play a massive part.
  • In Ventura you are one of 4 mercenary captains who is tasked with protecting the City-States of Italy from external threats. You compete with others to fulfil quests and contracts, in the same world.
  • It’s similar to an MMO RPG quest region, but the core game is built around the idea of making it competitive. You compete for fortune, you compete to find the greatest recruits, you compete to acquire the most powerful loot. Everything that spawns in the game is limited.
  • When PvE is done, towards the end of the match, PvP begins and you take all that preparation and strategy into a fight to prove who is the strongest Capitano di Ventura.

Like Dota, where you experience an entire RPG in a single session, Ventura gives you a similar experience; but as a distilled MMORPG.

Reading it back now, it sounds crazily ambitious, but I believe I have a lot of very simple-to-build systems that become interesting based on the context of competitive play and a shared world. I’ve also got a combat system in my head that will be very entertaining. Then again, most of it is still in my head at this point… and that’s always too early of a stage to judge viability.

From now until June 1st I will be working on Ventura. Unlike with PA4X, I want to bring back the GSD and share the dev diary style posts I was doing previously.

Then, for better or for worse, I’m picking a game project that’s getting submitted to IGF 2015. Scary times, but unbelievably exciting too!

Candidate 2 – Post-Apocalypse 4X

You’d never have thought my New Year’s Resolution was “stop making promises I can’t keep”… actually, you probably would because resolutions are made to be broken! This is a long-winded apology for not having a Ludum Dare post-mortem. But worry not, as plenty of stuff has been done.

 

Grid Optimizer

Project Grid Optimizer is pretty much done from a core mechanic standpoint. There’s plenty of room for growth, adding more variations and mechanical tweaks that absolutely explode the content (for free!). The core mechanic is there though, so it’s ready for The Playtest whenever I get around to packaging all these prototypes I’ve been building.

 

Candidate 2 – Post-Apocalyptic 4X

Last week, before I started Grid Optimizer, I mentioned that I was delaying my original Candidate 2; Post-Apocalyptic 4X. Grid Optimizer gave me some easy work so I could rest up and get my head back in the game, so now PA4X is knee deep in development!

What is the game?

I’ve got 4 core tenets I want to design for with PA4X

  • Multiplayer Focus
    The whole project spawned from the frustrating situation that arises from trying to play Civilization V online. 4X games are wonderful, they’re almost a perfect genre for me as a strategy game fan. I wish they had good multiplayer, but there are so many problems with traditional 4X design that create an abrasive experience. I want to try and fix that.

    Waiting for players...
    Waiting for players…
  • New Town Fun
    One of my favourite parts of Civilization is finding a location for a new settlement. It’s such a perfect mix of all the 4Xs.

    • Explore: You have to find the location by traversing the map and uncovering the fog of war
    • Exploit: You know how big your city will grow and what you need, you’re trying to find that perfect mix of hexes to place your city on to exploit the most benefits.
    • Expand: Cities increase your production, as well as the land you control on the map
    • Exterminate: While exploring and settling, you need to exterminate any threats along the way. Your city’s position can also be aggressive or defensive, determining whether you plan to exterminate or prevent extermination versus another player.

The problem I find with Civilization is that this fun part of the game very quickly becomes redundant. The map fills up quickly, and every new city you found has less of a return than the last (ahh, the law of diminishing returns). It also majorly increases the turn time.

All its missing is desert for Petra
All its missing is desert for Petra
  • Stories
    Endless Legend did a wonderful job building lore and introducing ideas like Quests into the 4X genre. However, Crusader Kings II is more the sort of thing I’m looking for. Not many 4X games tell the tale of your daily struggles, the personal management of your people, and the importance of collaborative teams of characters and not the ‘One Great Man’ emphasis.

I want PA4X to be story-telling machine… developing on concepts like City States and Neutral Factions in Civ V/Endless Legend, using inspiration from Crusader Kings II to develop not only interesting stories but interesting characters that make every playthrough unique.

Endless Legends Broken Lords
Endless Legend’s Broken Lords
  • Survival 4X
    4X theming has been so focused on growing massive and crushing everything beneath your might, that I feel there’s room for a game in a more survival style. I want the world to feel brutal, not aspirational, I want the people to be struggling to rebuild what they once had, not aiming for the moon (literally). While PA4X is multiplayer focused, I want it to be a struggle just to survive the game, so that even if you’re left behind by your competition, you still have a sense of individual achievement if you can make it to the end.

    Rick Grimes group in The Walking Dead
    Rick Grimes’ group in The Walking Dead

What I’m going for in PA4X is a sort of Civilization for a Walking Dead world. No zombies, because I’m sick of them, but similar struggles to lead disparate groups of traumatized people and survive in the horrible new world that has been left to them. I want players to become a Rick Grimes… or The Governor, both powerful leaders who use their own style and resources to build their version of ‘civilization’.

So with all that said, how’s progress?

The non-GSD
I won’t be GSDing PA4X because I’m trying to develop it in a 3 day burst and there’s no point in a day-to-day update.

Day 1
Day 1

Day 1 was spent hooking up Grids by Gamelogic which automates an absolute ton of work that I’d otherwise have to learn and implement for the Hex grid system. I’ve got an extremely loose generation system working and a tiny amount of content to prove that the functions work.

You can;

  • Scroll around a generated hex map
  • Click tiles to designate them for farming (this will eventually be restricted around your ‘city’)
  • End the turn to generate resources from tiles
morning_2_build_ui
Day 2

Day 2 felt much bigger although I’m not sure if I actually got more stuff in or not. It’s just nice to see it look more like a game and less a Match-3 puzzle! On Day 2 I hooked up a temporary ‘do everything’ UI that handles the unlocking, buying, and management of everything in your ‘city’. UI is always a big pain to implement in every project I’ve ever worked on, so I’m glad to have got this core functionality in.

You can;

  • Open the ‘Do Everything’ tab
  • Highlight items available to see their information
  • Click items to start the build process
  • Finish the build process (although you don’t actually get the ‘building’ yet!)
  • Highlight resources in the top bar to see some info there too

I’m actually still on Day 2, so depending on how I feel this evening I might even be able to get some more done!

One thing I’ve been worried about is just general design work. 4X games are tough to design, despite looking very simple in terms of the logic. Economic balance and scaling the numbers and mechanics over hundreds of turns (while keeping the game competitive) is my biggest challenge. I believe I have some core mechanics that really shake up the formula, and that’s what this prototype is here to test