Monday, March 5, 2012

Game, game, game: Alchemy - Prototype II

I'm prototyping a game that focuses on item creation and am running through its second iteration. I'm trying out newer and revised systems that encourage more strategic gameplay and developing content that supports what I'm trying to do. This version, entry and future progress owes its existence to some very helpful fellow designers. A gigantic thank you to Jasmine and Inicus qvist for your help and guidance.

I've made some changes to the playable areas and have started testing the inclusion of tools and farming which has led to some developments that are helping me realise the flaws and positives to this particular design.

The World

I've changed areas and tried to design them as areas that aid completion of player's goals by being sources of ingredients and recipes, pathways to different activities and areas and providing instructions and hints.

I had planned that at the start the player would encounter a character that forced them into becoming an alchemist by making the first player objective: learn how to create an item. This mentor character would give players additional instructions once they performed particular tasks and then at the penultimate moment skip out of town; leaving the player with an unfinished education and a stack of requests from townsfolk.

I have no idea how to script this series of events so I've got a less effective way (read: lazy) of trying to set the scene for the player.
It's not as effective as it depends on the player noticing the book and then requires additional coding to include events that encourage you to use the recipes found in the book or including blatantly obvious hints from villagers.
It also harks back to problems from the earlier version where recipes and objects aren't very obvious and demonstrates a lack of player guidance.

The following is a Work In Progress (WIP) shot of an area that the players can source materials but also gain access to various areas by clearing pathways. I think this area needs more work as it has limited interactions and activities and makes ingredient gathering simplistic.
The world is taking shape but I do think that will be getting too big, boring and doesn't encourage exploration. I'm going to be researching and thinking about a better designed world that prompts players to explore and experiment.

Like this space below, it's only use at the moment is to provide the player with chances to find seeds and ingredients but not much else. What it lacks is additional items or activities that are found and completed in this area.
This area (and game) would be more interesting if the player could find seasonal items to sell or synthesise with but also solve problems or puzzles using tools and items. A problem like having to create pathways through areas to gain access to elevated areas or clear trees by using tools or creating items like rope.

The inclusion of seasons and real time changes to the game world would be an interesting dynamic to include and one that I'll be considering for later iterations. These changes would be interesting as they'd offer additional stimulation and incentive for exploration by the player.

Farming is a newer addition that is meant to provide players with extra benefits but the system has some flaws when executed.

It took me a while to get this coded but players can grow plants in a specified area at their home base. I've added a few variables into the growing system so players have to put more work into growing their plants.
To grow plants players need:
- A hoe
- A watering can
-Seeds or bulbs
I originally was going to have two plots, one for "normal" plants and one for "magic" plants but then decided that the player needs to have more freedom over where and what they plant. At the moment, the harvested crop is a random plant because scripting for additional types of seeds, bulbs and plants takes more time than I'm prepared to allocate at this point.
Having random harvests works at this prototype stage because I don't have any short or long term player goals but I imagine that it would become frustrating and limiting not being able to strategise one's harvest.

Above the piece of script that's called when crops are harvested.
$Items = ["I:019,2|25","I:020,3|25","I:021,2|25","I:022,1|25"]

This is the code that randomises the harvested items for crops. In English it reads: $Items = ["Item: Item ID, quantity | probability (%) of item being called].

I've also encountered some problems with providing the player with seed and bulb sources. The sources in the game are village shops and random drops in the woods. Ideally players should get more seeds and bulbs through harvesting their plants or from digging in the ground. I'll be including this at a later point but I'll be making it a random chance to avoid making farming too easy.

Some problems have cropped up with my current method of planting. Without specialised sprites, it's a little hard to know where you're planting and what the plants' statuses are. I thought coding ploughed land as unpassable would enforce the player to think strategically about their crops but it causes confusion and frustration.
Plants require some work from the player, they will only grow if they are watered. To stop players from constantly watering plants (and get them to do other activities), I've put in a delay factor after each watering. I do want players to work a little for their harvest but not too much so they'd feel like they're performing a chore.
I'd like to add additional areas that allow players to grow different plants based on particular conditions like a greenhouse that can cultivate plants if the "heater" is left on. I'd like to think that this might be an interesting way of implementing experimentation if plants grow with particular traits which develop into interesting items. It's still something for the drawing board.

I'm also trialling rewarding them if they plough a particular number of times against finding an item buried in the ploughable area. I think both options work but the former does function as an achievement while the later would work better as an exploration reward if I made additional areas that can be ploughed.

I've been testing out the process of creating and using tools and my observations have brought up a number of things.

The main problems that I've come across with implementing tools have been:
- Rates of accessibility by the player
- Finding the problems solved by the player possessing the tools

I noticed during my playtests that I was able to create tools rather quickly and made me wonder if I had to do some scaling to make the game harder. Here's some of the solutions that I came up with to try to solve this problem.

- Increase quantities needed to make tools
- Reduce quantity gathered
- No tool, player receives lower quantity
- Tool, player harvests a higher quantity
- Add additional step to creation of item
- Player creates metal and then creates tool+

I didn't implement the first solution but I did try the second and also included a delay factor because I was worried that players would easily spam the system. The delay involved delaying the resource's respawn and disallowing the player to use that particular source until it had "recovered". As more playtesting and discussion discovered, my anti-spam decision was deliberating gameplay.
One of my fellow designers suggested a far better solution, tools can be upgraded or the player can create higher level tools which when used increase the quantity of the item harvested or reward the player with a higher quality item. This method encourages players to use the tools to gather ingredients for synthesis of items but also gives them additional goals to work towards.

It'll take some time to work out a smooth curve for the tool levels/upgrades but it will be happening. I haven't implemented the inclusion of an additional synthesis step where the player creates metal and then uses that with other ingredients to create their tool but it will be happening at later stages.

This brings me to my other problem, what advantages do tools give the player and what can the player do while they're aiming to get tools? Not a lot as my playtests showed. In their current state, tools only offer two advantages. They can clear pathways to additional areas that have more ingredient sources and they increase the quantity of items gathered. Some tools like the hoe and watering can grant access to the farming feature.

As outlined before, tools may need some additional uses like helping the player solve problems like gaining access to different areas. I think the main problem with tools is the way they are earned in the prototype. The prototype requires players to create tools in order to earn enough money to buy recipes to further their progress. I had removed the free delivery of tool recipes for the player and now they must purchase them.
I did this as I spent a lot of time thinking about tools and what players could do without them. When I realised that they couldn't do much, I tried to come up with solutions to fill in the gap. I think players need some encouragement and guidance to realise that tools do have benefits. This could be something as simple as scripting an event where they see a character use tools to get an item or even a NPC commenting on the ease a tool brings into his life.

My current planned solution is to provide the player with ways of making money, getting recipes and rewards play by appealing to a sense of achievement. One of the problems with this prototype is that it doesn't encourage players to do anything and I need to find a way to encourage them to play the game but also help them discover what can be done. I'm still working on viable methods for this but I'm hoping that quests might provide some answers.

I realised that the player does have a limited range of materials available to them so I'll be coming up with recipes that allow them to make use of these ingredients. The items produced by these recipes aren't worth much in terms of cash so to integrate these simple recipes, I'm considering using quests that act as tutorials but also require the player to synthesise these early items to get rewards.

Rewards are likely to be a mix of money, items and recipes. I'll need to start planning a difficulty curve and a scale for rewards. I imagine that quests would be better integrated if I included the scenario with the player being duped by the mentor character as players can make the decision to complete their training.

One of my planned scenarios involved players accepting a quest to supply the Library with paper and ink which would allow them access into it and then eventually reach the Catacombs. The Library is still in progress but I'd like to use it as a place where the player can research recipes, create ideas and discover additional information to help progress.
I'd envisioned the Alchemy Guild to be a place where players could find jobs but also as additional source for recipes and ingredients.

I'm still considering the usefulness of the Library and Alchemy Guild as sources of recipes and quests as I've yet to include a quest system and I'd like to design and implement a slightly different synthesis system I have place holder events associated with these places but I'd like to do more with these places in later iterations.
I'm still having problems working out how to deliver recipes to the player. Leaving them lying around for the player to find is rather lazy method and doesn't guarantee the player will find it. Shopping for recipes isn't too bad but I have to ensure the player will want to earn enough money to purchase said recipe.

I could script additional events where players get clues from characters and then "find" the recipe in a location but that's rather boring and doesn't achieve much. Quests are a better solution as it involves getting the player to play and gives them a goal to work towards.

Recipes and item creation taps into a need to create and collect everything but it doesn't encourage experimentation or exploration as well as intended. I'd like to develop a synthesis system that encourages players to experiment with item creation by just combining items together and coming up with interesting and strange combinations.

Rather than punishing the player for experimenting, I'd like all combinations to return a result even if it's just something like: "You made a strange gelatinous mess...." which the player could then use to make glue or some other product. Finding uses for all these items may take some time but it could be done with careful planning.

I'd still like to incorporate recipes and ideas into the system which would lead to players having an understanding of what items can be made, the possibility to make recipe variants and the development of clues that would lead to expanding their knowledge base.

In my head, ideas would take on the form of notes. For example: if the player reads a book on herbs, they could then choose to research an idea for a healing balm and then experiment with that idea.

I'd also like to incorporate interactive process into the synthesis system much like the support systems for Pokemon contests found in more recent Pokemon games. For those unfamiliar, players can create items that increase particular stats of their Pokemon. To create these items requires work from the player, you can see the creation of Pokeblocks and Poffins to get an idea.

The creation of these items is rather challenging and your performance affects the quality of your produced item. I think processes like this would inject additional gameplay into this design and induce the player to become more involved. It's also a gameplay feature that involves the player's developing strategies to maximise their result and experimenting with ingredients.

Capping Off
I've learnt that I am still making similar mistakes across the two prototypes but there's still a few more ideas up my sleeves. I'll be taking a step back and going over both my prototypes, ideas and trying to work out a cohesive design that is more interesting to me and utilises some of the changes I've outlined in this post.

I'll be discussing these changes and a good deal more with my fellow designer Jasmine so watch this space as we game, game, game.