Sunday, September 21, 2014

Prototype Version 2 coming soon!

The mockup (and I must stress it is just a mockup) above should be familiar to anyone who's played Crusader Kings 2 or indeed any game that used Paradox Interactive's Clausewitz Engine.  In this blog post I'm going to go over some of the new directions our next prototype is going to go, taking a lot of inspiration from the aforementioned games.

Prototyping is all about figuring out what works and what doesn't.  this is something we're learning the hard way by prototyping our way to a version of Party Animals that we're happy with.  After we released the first prototype last month for feedback, we had another meeting at the Glorietta 4 food court and decided on a few changes.

Adding Campaign Staff

We'd discussed the idea of recruiting "Party Animals" into your campaign before, but we decided to give them a more prominent role in this new prototype.  Instead of all the actions being taken by your candidate, you now have campaign staff that can travel around the island to do actions for you.  This gives the player a lot more flexibility in terms of decisions.  Whereas in the previous prototype the player was restricted to doing actions only in the district where they were located, now your staff can prepare a district for your arrival even while you're conducting a campaign in a far off district.  This means a wider range of strategic options, which is ultimately more entertaining.  Additionally having the staff front and center plays to the name of the game.  Choosing the right "Party Animals" now becomes central to your strategy.

Getting rid of the itinerary

While I thought that the itinerary system was quite clever and fit the theme of the game very well, it became quickly apparent that filling out a scheduling form is just as boring in games as it is in real life.  It also introduced difficulties when trying to reconcile it with the addition of campaign staff, so we ultimately decided it wasn't worth keeping.  We're replacing it with a much simpler calendar that tracks the time it will take for actions to resolve.

Shifting towards a strategy audience

If Paradox Interactive's motto is to make "smart games for smart people" we went into Party Animals wanting to make "smart games for regular people", the idea being to combine the depth of the games we love with a more humorous, approachable look and feel.  When combining two disparate elements there's always a risk that you will end up with a product that pleases no one, and we noticed that with the first prototype there was strong polarization between people that liked it or were bored by the game.  The people who really seemed intrigued by it were the kind folks on the paradoxplaza subreddit who if anything thought the game was too simple.  So we're shifting towards that audience by creating the deeper, more strategic gameplay that they enjoy.

The new prototype should be up very soon, and if you're interested in trying it out, please do join our mailing list!  

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)


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)!

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.

Fishing Village


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!


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