Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Machinations of Politics


We are currently overhauling our prototype based on feedback from players and discussions between the team on the direction the game should take.  In the meantime, here is our designer Tristan to talk to you about one of the tools he uses when designing games.

There's already been a few posts regarding the technical and art side of Party Animals but none yet that looks at its design. Let's tackle the basics here first, then hopefully we can examine each individual mechanism through succeeding posts. This initial post will give an overview of the core system which , and of Machinations a tool we will be using to a great extent in designing and examining the game mechanics.

To start with the design of Party Animals borrows heavily from the concepts described in Mechanics: Advanced Game Design by Ernest Adams, and Joris Dormans, specifically the chapters on Emergence, Complexity and Internal Economies. It's a very good book which looks at the workings of games in- depth, especially those games which run on internal economies( RTS, 4X, Rpgs).

To better understand our game design process, it is best to wrap one's head around these concepts:

1) Almost everything in the game can be considered a resource. Any event which helps the player win gives him the abstract resource "advantage" for example. Resources can be either concrete(has a physical form in the game, example: gold, time) or abstract, which is computed from the current game state( I won't be explaining what game states here are sorry, look it up).

2) Mechanics in the game facilitate the interaction between these resources. Resources in the game will be converted from one form into another and will stay 'within' the game . As of the present, the only resource I can think of in the game, that is created from nothing is the gold resource, all other resources are converted or created from other resources.

3) The more connections between these resources, the more complex the game will be, but the greater possibility for emergent gameplay.

Every mechanic in the game was designed with these concepts in mind, from the event system( uses resources as triggers and checks), district actions(converts resources into other types), and Kapitans(gives the player certain advantages). Hopefully this will create for a more strategic and repayable game in the future. Also, thinking of the game in terms of these concepts make it a little bit easier to analyze it in the future(easier with the machinations tool which I will introduce later).

The player is doing sortie too much? Let's try increasing the cost of sortie. But sortie is how the player gets reputation, which in turn allows him to get bastions, which affects gold production. Looking at these chain of events, we see that the player will be set back by increasing the cost of sortie. The player won't feel the loss immediately but it will slow him down in the long run.(More on this when we come to feedback loops in the game)

Machinations


As I mentioned above we will be using the machinations tool to make quick prototypes of game mechanics that we will be adding in the game. Using the machinations tool, won't recreate the whole mechanic exactly but it will give us a peek into what to expect, or how a certain mechanic will play out when included in the game. You can check out the machinations tool here.

I also suggest getting a copy of Mechanics: Advanced Game Design, or checking out the Design Patterns Library , also located in the url above.

So now, about the machinations tool. The tool is built around the concepts I've stated above. The tool has three major parts: Nodes, Resource Connections, and State Connections. Under Nodes are the following:

Resource Pools- Collects resources. In Party Animals, the following are resource pools: gold, reputation in a district, relationship with a Kapitan. A resource stays in a pool until it is moved.

Resource Connections- Dictates how much of a resource is transferred from one node to another. In the game, a resource connection says how much gold is needed to be converted to reputation.

State Connections-Dictates how a change in one node affects another node. For example two nodes can have either a positive or negative relationship. When two nodes have a positive relationship, an increase in one node increases the other node( and vice versa), likewise a decrease in one node will result in a decrease in the other node. In a negative relationship, a change in one node will have the opposite effect on a connected node. In Party Animals, there is a positive relationship between bastions and gold production. There is a negative relationship between a player's stat in an issue and the sortie difficulty for that issue( the higher the stat, the easier it is for the player to get reputation).

These are just the basic node types in the machinations tool. Advanced node types include gates, converters, sources and drains, but those are for another day. As you can see, using the machination tool, it becomes easy to create models of game mechanics before making a full blown prototype of a game.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Fixing UX Prototype Issues

We sent out an email to our mailing list a few days ago with the first build of our Party Animals prototype.  Up until this point we hadn't shared the html5 prototype with anyone else, and the feedback that we got was very useful.  In short, our game was confusing.  Prototypes are generally cut a lot of slack by people because they are proofs of concept and only used to present the core concept of the game.  So in many cases a lot of user experience issues are not paid much attention to.  This is fine for action games, platformers, and sometimes even puzzlers, but we failed to realize that for a strategy game with a lot of data it's very important to even at this early juncture to have a UX/UI that clearly explains the important data points that the player needs to pay attention to.

Here is a sample of some feedback from Jakub, creator of the excellent indie game Postmortem (which is fortuitously on sale until August 9! I swear it was a coincidence!):

* Love the theme/humor of the whole game and the conversations. Seems like all the city leaders have their own personalities that it would be beneficial to learn and "exploit".
* I know it's a prototype but it needs more tooltips - I was confused by a lot of the numbers and labels, for instance by the High/Lows when I was contesting or educating people... is that my Low/High? Opponent? People's interest? Likewise with some other stats. 
* When I was choosing educate/contest I wasn't sure what area to pick (why does it matter? what do low/highs mean? what affects the outcome? how will it influence the votes?)
* It would be nice to know what affects success/failure rates of certain actions and what my initial stats do (I was still failing in a stat I put 5 in). 

So he likes the theme and the humor, which is good, since that's what we spent most of our effort on in the weeks leading up to the release of the prototype.  Sadly, that meant a lot of stuff was not as tended to as it could have been, including the UX.


Essentially what we did wrong was our data were laid bare and we just kind of hoped that the player would understand it as they played the game.  So for example this screen is showing your stats on the specific issue versus your enemy's stats on that issue by way of gray circles.  The filled up circles are the amount of that stat that has been "filled" by virtue of your candidate educating the population of the Kapitolyo.  The indicators next to the issue labels (ie high/normal) show you how knowledgeable the populace is about that subject, therefor affecting how hard it is to educate them.  But none of that is clarified by this screen or any other screen.  It's just a confusing mess.


So to fix that we asked ourselves, what does the player need to know? This new layout is hopefully much easier to understand (in fact if I have to explain it then we've failed) but for the sake of the blog I'll explain the changes we made and why.  First, we removed the indicators showing the player and enemy stats and the vs between them.  It's not important that the player knows that data, what is important is that they know that each district needs to have the issues that it's concerned about satisfied.  So we labeled the section on the right "Satisfaction" and made it clear that there are only 5 satisfaction circles that the player needs to fill up.  At a glance, the player knows the important information, which in this case is that they have fill up two education circles and their enemy has filled up one Education and one Law & Order.

The indicators for the districts' knowledge have been removed completely.Why?  Because the player doesn't need to know that right now.  Sure, its information that could be useful and you might argue that we might as well show it, but if it's not necessary then it's just visual clutter.  It comes up later on when it's important for that information to be known.


Here's another example of something we changed.  Democracy 3 is one of the inspirations for this game so we play it every now and again to see what makes it tick.  Democracy is such a visually simple game but there's definitely a lot to be learned from it.  For example during every term it shows you how the previous decisions you have made have made an impact on your constituents.  This is represented by a bar that shows their support for you.  If their support for you is waning an arrow pointing left shows up next to the bar, and vice versa if their support is increasing.  I noticed that my eyes were always drawn to these arrows as easy indicators of problems that need to be solved.  It tells the player "here's a problem" then the player can decide whether it's an issue or something that can be taken care of later.  It's also instantly readable, as opposed to the way we previously showed the data, which is by percentages.

I'm gonna plug the game design roundtable podcast here again because they had a recent podcast on information in games, and their discussion really helped me to suss out what ought to be displayed in the game.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bribing My Way To The Top

So I had my first fun playthrough of the prototype yesterday, which seems like an odd thing to say.  Surely if our game is good then it should be fun from the start?  I suppose with action games it's a lot easier to "get to the fun" right away, but with strategy games that take multiple mechanics into consideration it takes a lot longer.  Or maybe we're just slow.  Regardless, I had fun with our game yesterday, and here's what happened.


I started out trying to test a new dialogue mechanic we'd implemented earlier in the day.  To do that I had to suck up to Catorcio, our Casino Kapitan.  While I was doing that I noticed that a "gamble" activity in the Casino and I though "what the hey."  I won.  So I gambled again.  And I won again.  At this point I didn't want to press my luck, and in any case I'd already maxed out my relationship with Catorcio so I moved to the Port to have a chat with Alpacita.


To my dismay, Alpacita tells me that she can't speak to me because i have a "very unwelcome aura".  I knew this.  I was the one who designed her with a morality check.  But in my glee at winning in gambling I totally forgot, and now I was stuck.  Currently there are only very few ways to improve your morality (it's fairly obvious so I won't reveal them here) so I rushed around the map getting some good karma before having my second conversation with Alpacita.  This time it worked, but ultimately because of a balance issue I failed at the task I was trying to do in the first place.  Never mind I though, let's just finish this playthrough.  Then i noticed that my opponent had a huge lead.


I was resolved to win this playthrough, and made some attempts to raise my reputation.  However at -4 days to the election I realized I was going to lose if I didn't do something drastic.  So I went to the largest districts and bribed my way to victory, ekeing out a single digit win over my opponent.

So that's how I had fun with our game, and also discovered that I would be a terrible politician.

This prototype is the result of a month's worth of work, after almost 7 months of making mistakes and finally deciding to scrap everything and start fresh.  I was a little bit frustrated about that in the beginning but I console myself by saying we're just continuing a long line of indie developers who needed to make a lot of mistakes at the beginning before they finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel.  I'm personally quite terrified to be sharing it in such a rough form, but it's time to show it to people who are genuinely interested in the ideas behind the game so that they can give us feedback and hopefully help us bring it to its full potential.  If you're interested in being part of that please do sign up for our mailing list.  Anyone who signs up by July 31 (Yes, that's today) will get an email with a link to the prototype in the next couple of days.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Crow and Penguin Concept Sketches, plus Prototype Update

Recruitable Characters



We're still hard at work on the prototype, but that doesn't mean that I haven't been able to sketch out some more characters for Party Animals!  The two characters I'm introducing to you today are the first of what will be recruitable Party Animals.  Based on certain decisions you make they may decide to join your campaign and give you bonuses during your campaign activities.  Above you can see Felipenguin, an immigrant comedian from the South Pole.  Felipenguin is the stereotypical demanding celebrity, requiring 24/7 airconditioning, rare delicacies from his homeland in the South Pole, and a constant supple of yellow colored M&Ms.  His popularity cannot be underestimated, and he will increase the effectivity of your photo ops and sorties exponentially.


Next up is Franciscrow, a disgraced former Police Chief turned Private Investigator.  Franciscrow's looking for revenge on the upstart detective that ratted him out and became Police Chief in his stead.  In meantime, he's willing to dig up dirt on your rivals and give you information on how to win over the Kapitans...for a price.

Prototype Updates



Progress on the prototype has been slow but steady, and we've now implemented the simulation of day to day campaign activities.  Next up we'll be working on events, which are the storylines that create the bulk of the experience in Party Animals and will provide the moral choices that we think will make the game quite memorable.  We've been working a lot on developing the character backstories and creating events and storylines for them that will be unique, and we're excited to share this with you in a couple of weeks (yeah I know we said the same thing two weeks ago).  In the meantime, until we're satisfied with this prototype you still have time to sign up for our mailing list and be among the first to try out the game and give us your all-important feedback, so please do sign up!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Partially Healed Knees, New Maps and Animations, and A Prototype (Announcement)!

Mine
Hey folks, I know that it's been a while since we've last blogged, and that's because we've been hard at work!  Quite a few things have been happening lately, and I just want to go through a couple of them before we get into the update.  First off, I'm walking again!  I'm not sure I mentioned it but when I got back from Japan I had a knee injury that kept me off my feet for 3 months.  It was a long and frustrating road but I'm mostly recovered now and so we're gaining a lot of steam with regards to development.  I'm personally stoked and I've been hard at work tinkering with the art.

Maps and Animations



This time I've been playing with our world map.  The last time I worked on the map I made some changes to the colors and added some new landmarks.  I'd felt for a long while that it looked good but lacked something to make it 'pop'.  Well I took that to heart and turned our locations like the casino and the mine into pop-up like images.  I quite like how everything looked, and I even added some little animations to them to make them more fun when they're zoomed in.  My current favorites are the mine (seen at the top of the page), the cathedral, and the fishing village, but there's a lot more in the pipeline.  This new board game look is really starting to come together, and I like to imagine this map in Mousey's campaign headquarters as the campaign team debates their options.

Cathedral
Fishing Village

Prototype!


Second, We have a proper game designer on board!  I'll get into the details later but this guy is a friend of ours and has been around the game dev scene for a long time.  We're really lucky to have him.  That means that with me on art, Julius on code, and our friend on design, we have a solid team onboard to make the game.Speaking of which, we're working on a prototype!  I know, I know, we should have been working on a prototype a long time ago but we fell into multiple first time indie developer traps and we've only now got our act together to put a prototype together to test our ideas. This is the prototype we're showing off to publishers to try to sell them on the game, so we'd definitely love some feedback from you guys.  As a treat we're going to share this prototype to the first few people to sign up on our mailing list so if you're keen to try the game out please do sign up in the next couple of weeks!

Kapitan Relationships

The Ititerary Metaphor brought to life
You can see a sample of the prototype above.  I should say that graphically the prototype will look nothing like the real game.  On one of the Game Design Roundtable podcasts I heard one of the hosts say that they regularly make prototypes of their games in engines or languages that are entirely different from what they'll use to create the final game.  They did this to make sure that they would feel free to experiment, since they wouldn't have to worry about making sure that the code they wrote would be usable in the final product.  I think it's a great idea and we've moved forward at a much faster clip ever since we decided to do this.  Well, that's all for now, and do make sure you sign up if you're interested in trying out the protoype!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

We're Featured in Rockpapershotgun's Devlog Watch!

And we're quite frankly both terrified and motivated in equal measure.  I don't want to write a giant blogpost like the last one, but I thought I should at least acknowledge the coverage and welcome everyone who's decided to pop in because of RPS.  Welcome!  And do sign up for our mailing list (top of the right sidebar, can't miss it) to get updated on release news.  I also wanted to address one of the comments on the article where they mention that the devlog hasn't much gotten into the nitty gritty of game mechanics.  Well that's because we chucked out our original mechanics as shit and we've been trying over the past weeks to put together something that makes all of the individual mechanics that we like work together seamlessly.  I even made a diagram about it to help me think about it better!



In the meantime, I continue to build out our roster of Party Animals, and so I present to you the Platypus Campaign Manager, who was actually featured in my last post.  More updates to come soon!




Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Making Metaphors : Using the Itinerary as a Metaphor for Party Animals


Metaphors are a powerful tool that every piece of software can use to make something that is nebulous immediately understandable.  Microsoft has used the desktop metaphor to such great success that the Metro-style sliding UI of Windows 8 is having a difficult time superseding it.  Today I’ll talk about a visual metaphor that I hope will make Party Animals just as intuitive : The Itinerary.

We’ve been tweaking the game design for the past few weeks now, something that has been made more difficult because of my knee injury.  We still hadn’t comfortably nailed down how to manage the player’s movements and make their choices matter.  AP (Action Points) were brought up as the standard way of doing this in strategy games, and while I felt it was a little too videogamey (there are no real world instances where “action points” dictate your movements) I had nothing better to contribute so I agreed.

The Moment


I’m going to go on a little tangent about how I came to the conclusion that the Itinerary metaphor would be the way we represented choice and movement in the game because I think it’s an important tool that every game developer or creative can find useful in their projects.  There’s a noted correlation between letting your mind wander and coming up with great ideas.  This passage from James Watt illustrates how letting his mind wander during a long walk led to the inspiration that birthed a vastly improved steam engine:

Watt spent much time and money in making experiments, but nothing he tried succeeded. "Nature has a weak side," he was fond of saying, "if we can only find it out." So he went on day after day, following now this and now that false hope.

"One Sunday afternoon early in 1765," writes Watt, "I had gone to take a walk in the Green of Glasgow. I was thinking upon the engine and about how to save the heat in the cylinder, when the idea came into my mind that steam was an elastic body and would run into a vacuum. If connection was made between the cylinder and a tank from which the air had been pumped, the steam would pass into the empty tank and might there be condensed without cooling the cylinder. I then saw that I must get rid of the condensed steam and of the water used in condensing it. It occurred to me this could be done by using pumps."

That mind-wandering walk along the Green of Glasgow unleashed the power of steam and let loose the industrial revolution.  Centuries later it would also birth, for good or ill, the genre called Steampunk.  Our ideas will likely never be as influential as Mr. Watts’, but there’s not reason we can’t mind-wander for our own projects.

It’s important to note that you’ll only come to ideas if you are already thinking of and absorbing material about the problem that you’re trying to solve.  My own method is to just try to bury myself in stuff related to a topic and hope that something comes to me.  In this case since we’re making a game about politics I tried to watch as many shows, play as many games, and read as many books as I can about politics.  I naturally find politics interesting so this wasn’t a tall order for me.  Shows like The Wire and Parks and Recreation are highly recommended, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing Tropico and Democracy 3.


Julius also likes shows about politics, and in one of our meetings he suggested I watch the TV show Veep to get ideas for the game.  There was a scene in the second episode where the cast was discussing the schedule for the day because people kept cancelling meetings because they were sick.  It’s not a key part of the storyline, and I didn’t think much of it until a couple of days later.  I had my wife rewatch the first two episodes so that she could get caught up and we could watch together, and somewhere in between overhearing snippets of dialogue that day and waking up the next day I had my epiphany.

What’s On the Itinerary?



What’s on the itinerary?  What’s on the docket?  What’s my schedule looking like?

These are questions any high powered executive, lifehacker devotee, or presidential aspirant might ask.  Time and money are the most valuable resources in a campaign.  Time has to be managed even more carefully than money because while money can always be found (not on
trees, though) wasted time is lost forever.  So it makes absolute sense to frame actions in the game around managing that most important of resources.

As I alluded to earlier another advantage of using this metaphor is that it’s immediately understandable.  Everyone has had to schedule their day at one point or another.  The datebook I pulled off Google images is also a visual metaphor that most people in their 20s and above would recognize.  It’s definitely easier to explain to people that they need to “add activities to their itinerary” rather than “each activity costs x AP”.  Anything that makes a strategy game easier to understand is a winner in my book.

Activities



There are two types of activities : regular and geographical.  Regular activities can be done anytime whilst Geographic activities can only take place based on your location.  For example in this screen you can see that the player is allowed to do the gamble activity, which lets the player spend campaign funds in an attempt to earn more via a slot machine (An obvious test of player morality).  Having geographical activities also makes it more interesting for the player to move around the map.

I rather enjoy making maps, and part of the fun when I travel is poring over maps of an area and imagining what it might be like.  I’d like to impart some of the fun of that sense of discovery by adding more structures on the map that we can use to increase the number of activities that the player can engage in.  Additional structures that we can add to the map that might have activities would be : Radio station, TV station, Printing Press, Hospital, etc.

As you can see here each activity also take a specific amount of time.  The challenge of the game (and any campaign) will be to judge which activities will give you the best value for money/time.  In this case a Photo Op would be a pretty standard go to activity in the beginning of the game, since it would provides a small increase in popularity for a small amount of time/money.  Meeting the Kapitan is riskier, since the results will depend on your conversation with them.  Why does it take so much time? Because in people with power will make you wait as a sign of dominance over you.

The last activity is “Move”.  In most games moving from one area to another is almost incidental.  there is no cost to travel.  In our game we wanted to make sure that movement comes with a price and should be a planned decision.  Since it costs so much to move you must ask yourself what the advantages are to moving to another district versus staying in the same one.  It’s also a subtle jab at the pitiful infrastructure in the Philippines, where it can literally take half a day to get to a neighbouring city or province.

Party Animals



Originally, we named our game “Party Animals” because it was a play on words.  We wanted to make a political game with cute animals that ostensibly belonged to political parties.  We introduced the Kapitans as a way of extending that metaphor, but it still felt a little hollow to me.  Then over some email exchanges we floated the idea of collecting Animals and adding them to your party.  These animals would join you based on metrics like your morality and your connections to Kapitans, and would have an effect on your campaign sorties.

I really liked the idea of collecting “Party Animals” and I realized that there was a terrific way to tie them into the itinerary metaphor.  As I mentioned before, there are regular and geographic activities.  But now if you recruit a Party Animal to your cause, it unlocks special activities tied to them.  For example, an athlete Animal would let you run a sports clinic.  An accountant Animal could run the “Audit” activity which would streamline your fundraising and improve funds collection for a few turns.  The number of interesting and useful characters we could create is endless.  Of course the terrifying thought is that means I would have to design and illustrate each of those characters, not to mention giving them backstories.

Conclusion


It can be very frustrating when parts of a game design don’t gel together properly. In this particular case I think that framing the game with this itinerary metaphor really helped to clarify things in my head and I’m hopeful that this helps shape the game moving forward!


 

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