A game by Heather Logas and her friends

Dev Diary 5 — Simplify!

Good evening!

I got some good things done today. I finished writing up the opening scene, which is a lovely little nightmare to get flighty potential players engaged. I then skipped character creation (for now) and moved on to the first scene in the story proper.

Today was a big day for the game structure too.

In my long-ago thesis project, I based the choices that players had access to on a hodge podge of their personality traits. My method was basically to write down all the choices I could think of at any “node” (where you need to make a decision) and then assign which personality score levels I thought would map well to those choices. Sometimes I would break the game by not allowing certain players with certain personality trait combinations to have any choices at all. Then I would have to re-wire things around to make sure that the player always had at least two choices at any given time, regardless of their stats. Bleah.

My new approach, I decided, was to make each decision be based on only 1 stat scale. (The scales I am using are compassion to selfishness, courage to discretion and lawfulness to chaotic). Then I would make three groups of three choices each. One group would correspond to the left-most of the scale, one to exactly the middle, and one to the right-most of the scale. If a player’s stats were more middle-left or middle-right then they would draw two choices each from the two groups closest to them. This way everything would nicely overlap and there would be no concern about skipping someone who had some odd stat combination.

Once I started on the first “real” scene today however, it became clear that my on-paper approach wasn’t going to cut it. For one thing, trying to map it out mired my brain in a pile of goo (which may well have been your reaction on reading the above description). Then there was the fact that it just didn’t make much sense.

I am a huge proponent of organic game design. In a story-based game, I want all the mechanics to feel natural. I want the mechanics to assist the telling of the story, not detract from it. At Telltale I always pushed for the mini-games that felt like they were an organic part of the story that was happening.

So when I started coding the first scene, I quickly realized that I was artificially creating a structure that didn’t map to how players would expect things to behave. If you see a girl crying by the road, you may want to approach her for a variety of reasons. Maybe you want to help her, maybe you want to hurt her, maybe you just want directions. These three options fall all over the compassion scale, so why would I only allow you to walk over to the crying girl if you had a very specific compassion score?

To make a long story short, I have adapted an approach that is easier both on me and the player’s sense of suspension of disbelief. I am still using (primarily) one stat per node, although an extremely high or low stat in something else may let you see an additional choice. I am still listing out relevant choices and assigning stat thresholds for them, but instead of my weird over-lapping method I am trying to allow two (or more) choices to be more neutral, perfectly reasonable actions that wouldn’t feel odd for almost any character to do. Those choices won’t require any collection of stats. Then there will be more choices that will be available based on the character’s personality traits. Bonus choices, if you will.

The key to actually shipping a game is to simplify, simplify, simplify! Or as Dan likes to say (constantly) “Make it smaller!”

Oh one more thing. If you have been checking out the forums you will note that I have posted a topic called “What Would You Do? (#1)“. From time to time in my game making process I find it super helpful to ask others what they would do in the fictional situation I’m working with, since my brain is only one brain. So I encourage you to post what you would do as if you were reading a choose your own adventure book, playing a role-playing game, or talking to your therapist. There will be more of these popping up so keep an eye out. Thanks!

Tomorrow: Scene 1 must get done!