Friday, April 6, 2012

Game, game and game: Alchemy Mini-games

Summary
I'm focusing on designing my game that centers on item creation (synthesis) by trying to solve problems with the world and gameplay design. This is a mixture of notes, thoughts, processes and images that are and aren't coming together to form my prototype. There are some half-formed ideas that could be something if I give them some tender loving care. Things have been haphazard in the workshop so step carefully. Once again the content of this post is a little old so some things may have changed since.

Design Aim
To produce a player experience that allows players to experiment and explore through a fantasy world via item creation.

Premise
After being duped by a fraudulent alchemist, the player is left to deal with requests from a nearby village while learning how to be an alchemist.

World Design
The game environment has to be varied so that the player doesn't get bored and provides them with goals to accomplish. The design of this environment must have something of interest that provides an activity to do or "puzzle" to solve. Puzzles are defined as areas of the environment that the player will require particular tools, items or skills to gain access to. Solving the puzzle grants the player access to additional sources of ingredients, tools, quests and recipes.

I'll be taking inspiration from Last Day of Work's Virtual Villagers series which have small game environments but also interactive sections of map that take time to solve. The following screenshots feature some of the puzzles that can be solved in the more recent games. Solving these puzzles is a eventual process as the player's villagers lack the tools and knowledge to solve the puzzle. The player also has to work out what items and other puzzles that will need to be gathered, made or solved before continuing with another puzzle.

Gameplay

Activities include:
- Ingredient gathering
- Farming
- Synthesis
- Exploration
- Experimentation

Players will need to level up certain skills or tools to explore the entirety of the world and "complete" the game. Tools aid ingredient collection, item production and exploration while improving skills increases the success rate of item creation and item quality during synthesis.

Seasons and the weather will affect the varieties of plants that can be raised, ingredients that can be found, areas that can accessed and some of the activities that can be fulfilled by the player. During rainy days, the player won't need to water plants but may need to repair bridges or other items in the area.

Tools
These are created by the player to assist with item gathering, production and exploration. Better tools can be made which increase the quantity of items gathered or allows the player to harvest higher grade items. Eg. a basic pickaxe gets you 3 pieces of copper but a magical pickaxe gets you 3 pieces of gold. I still need to work on what the upgrade curve will be like.

Farming
The player will be given a portion of land that they can use to grow plants for synthesis or to earn money. The majority of plants grow in particular seasons and have different growth and harvest cycles. Some plants may grow differently depending on their neighbours and environment. Players will need to manage their crops to ensure a successful harvest by watering their plants and learning

Greenhouse
The greenhouse allows players to grow plants under controlled conditions but players will have to devote more care towards the plants The greenhouse is accessed once the player has gained access to it by solving the puzzle of its restoration. All plants require water to grow but some may require additional items to grow and produce crops.

Synthesis
Synthesis are the processes the player undertakes to create items by mixing various items together. The items created can aid the player gather ingredients, explore the environment, supplement income and fulfil quests.

Players will have the option of synthesising using a recipe or by experimenting with various quantities and ingredients.
Recipes can be found, bought or created by the player via any experimenting with the synthesis system. Recipes are used to produce specific items but can also be used as guidelines for experimental synthesis.

Some synthesis processes are interactive which produce items of differing quality based on player's performance. Item quality will determine how much an item can be sold for but also the success of subsequent creations using that item.

The following are interactive processes:
Basic Synthesis
- Involves stirring mixture
Distillation
- Time pressure and heat to create right mixture
Pestle and Motor
- Crush things into powder or pellets, pellets require a liquid to form

I’ve been having some trouble coming up with ways to iterate on Poffin creation and “alchemy” mini-games. I’m starting to worry that any processes I come up with is going to make the game feel like Cooking Mama, which is not what I want. Making a lot of mini-games could be really time consuming and I can’t guarantee that people will think it’s fun unless I do a lot of testing.

I came up 3 basic procedures that I could begin designing and I’m worried that my initial plans are too basic and repetitive while later renditions feel too complex and aren’t cohesive in regards to the overall design.

The 3 initial procedures were:

Stirring (essentially Poffin mixing)
  • I hadn’t decided if spillage would be a factor in this
  • I was also considering including shaking of the pot
Distillation
  • The player adjusts how much pressure is applied by following indications/clues from the heating element
  • I hadn’t decided if this would be a flame colour change or build up of steam
Mortar and Pestle
  • Crush objects into powder or pellets
  • Pellets require the inclusion of liquid to form
As you can see these are pretty rough and aren’t very interesting. I dabbled with the idea of trying to get the player to use the same movements but in varying degrees. For example, a left to right motion would shake the alchemy pot but grind objects using the mortar and pestle. All this is doable but then I realised, this works in Pok√©mon Diamond and Pearl because there is a stylus to draw with. The average PC user doesn’t have this kind of peripheral.

I hadn’t even considered the Apple or PC users in my early designs and that made me do a double take, how could I implement something similar or would I need to come up with something different? I thought about condensing the above processes into 1 that required the player to do different things based on what “procedure” it was doing.

I started with the idea of an oscillating machine and thought about getting the player to “spin” it so it’d combine objects. In my head it looked like a steampunk washing machine crossed with a wooden ship wheel. It work by the player loading it with objects and then spinning it in different directions and angles to make liquids or solids.

I did consider getting the player to pack the machine in particular manner to achieve the best result but I did a bit of Googling and saw video and guides about a Minecraft mod (Equivalent Exchange) that lets you craft items. I ditched the idea as it required players to think like the designer and doesn’t really make experimenting fun.

I then considered making particular movements relate to particular processes:

Rotate
  • General synthesis (think “Will it blend?”)
Push Downwards
  • Trying to simulating added pressure
  • Maybe the machine tries to resist the added weight/build up
Left to Right
  • Controls heat
Up and Down
  • Releases steam from the machine

I don’t think I got very far from my initial idea and it’s frustrating me because these systems are integral to the concept. I did toy with the idea of a transmutation circle that the player had to create and various symbols and positions would indicate what would happen to the items placed. The player would have to either slot pieces together to form the circle or rotate them until they “fit”. I might scrap it as it doesn’t seem very interesting and it doesn’t fit with the game’s tone.

I remembered using an item creation system that was interesting and involved a level of strategy. It’s from a game called Rogue Galaxy and is best explained via video. The player would collect/buy/find blueprints (recipes) which would set up an equipment template (just lay stuff out to get the player started) in the factory and provide clues (if the recipe was difficult) to what ingredients the recipe needs.

The trick to this process was that the player had to figure out what processes and items to put together into a complex assembly line. All materials/ingredients have to be processed by particular machines and occasionally more than once. Ingredients have to arrive at the same time into machines called assemblers to be fused into the item. Each piece in the assembly line adds time so players may need to install extra pipes to delay items so they reach the assembler on time. A more complex item is created here.

I also like the fact that players had to install power cords to run the machines and that you could watch the whole thing go when ready to see what happens. Since this was an extra, players got a set number of items to discover. If I remember correctly, you could also make upgraded or additional equipment to make processing easier. This system does remind me of The Codex of Alchemical Engineering and similar games.

The ideas I have been working on go back to my one I wrote about earlier the oscillating machine.

Initially I hadn't thought about the player having to wind the machine up and do additional actions like pulling the valve to release the pressure built up as I had originally designed this as an interation to the Poffin creation system. I believe it was one of those moments where one has to step back to see what you've created. That said, there can be something appealing about having to keep a machine running while waiting for the item to be processed. This could get quite complicated if recipes require exact temperatures, general pressure levels and momentum to create their item.

This design does follow the earlier derivative of getting the player to engage with a method that encourages them to practise synthesising items but I have my misgivings about this one has it involves numerous "hot spots" and could be too complicated for casual users, as this machine requires immense co-ordination. I don't think the "chore" like aspects will appeal to casual players as it's not overly engaging and could become very repetitive. I'll be interested in seeing if this machine works at a prototype level, provided I can devise a way from making this mini-game too frantic but also keep it challenging for players.

I also considered having a basic version of the machine that would then add additional parts to its basic layout when required or when the player chose to perform a particular process. It seems less efficient to compartmentalise the synthesis as it would give players too much control over their synthesis and may be problematic if they miss out on particular items because it can only be made using a particular method.
The version was made up based on my original brainstorm and encompasses The main problem with this version is ensuring the "machine" recognises all the different movements within a set area and how to prevent the player cheat their way by just waggling the mouse willy-nilly. This will be difficult to execute and I think the movements won't work too well without getting the player to "draw" using the mouse. This one would work far better with a touch screen to get the machine to register the variations of movement.
I think the transmutation circles work best in a casual game environment as it can become as easy or difficult as I dictate. This design does lack a level of complexity as it doesn't take much tactical thinking from the player and could become a matter of routine motion (read: chore) rather than something fun. I did have some thoughts about the player having to align it under a time limit, complete two or three different circles to transmute stuff, players being given a riddle that explains that certain symbols have to be in certain quadrants to complete the circle and a sliding puzzle variant to make this mini-game a little more interesting.

I'll be working on the first alchemy machine and transmutation circle mini-games while I work on the game's overall design. Hopefully something interesting will come out of the whole thing. I'll be updating this space when new developments arise. So game, game, game and game.