Square-Enix’s misadventures in porting are a joy to read. And a little bit of a headache.
Square-Enix’s misadventures in porting are a joy to read. And a little bit of a headache.
I love making RPGs, but it’s true. The RPG is a ramshackle colossus of systems, each one stitched onto the other, and all forced to interact to produce something resembling a cohesive play experience. Exploration, dialogue, combat, character advancement, item usage, inventory management, party management, crafting, stealth... even the most focused of RPGs is guaranteed to have at least three or four of these systems, each with its own attendant design demands and opportunities for bugs to show up.
But forget those design demands for a moment–because the truth is, it’s the content demands that are the real killers. An RPG with a play time of less than 20 hours is unacceptable to the market, and ideally, you should aim for 40 hours or more. You need to create so much art, and so much writing, and so many encounters to fill up those hours that even the most basic, old-school, stripped-down RPG can easily take years upon years to make.
A developer with limited resources at her disposal, staring down the barrel of a half-decade development cycle, might be inclined to wonder: “Is there some way that I can design my game’s systems to alleviate the burden of producing all that content?”
Well, I have good news! I’m here to tell you that you can: by designing your mechanics for scalability.
This is a pretty solid piece by Craig Stern on designing content in such a way that the content continues to be relevant for the entire game: for instance, avoiding palette swap monsters ala Final Fantasy by instead making enemies that can freely level up in much the same way characters can, so that maybe that level 1 Goblin isn't much of a threat anymore, but when he's level 25, watch out.
Linear stat progression is also touched upon, for making items from the beginning of the game still at least partially relevant towards the end - the example Craig uses is the humble Vulnerary from most Fire Emblem games; it almost always restores 10 HP - vital in the beginning, but never really not useful because hit point totals never really het that high.
Atelier Escha is a sincerely and genuinely pleasant fantasy JRPG about being a municipal public employee who, in addition to the fun stuff like killing monsters, spends her time doing research and paperwork.
It’s hard to make something like this game; its restraint in not being awful is incredible, which would be damning with faint praise if more than one in a thousand games seemed like they could help themselves, because this is video games, and video games are urgent and consumptive and demanding and Atelier Escha just fundamentally isn't, on a deep mechanical level is paced to be generous and respectful and sincere about creating a relaxing time. That’s just so incredible to me that no matter how airy and saccharine the game sometimes, it is paced so carefully it feels like actual kindness.
I freely admit that in the past, I have bounced extremely hard off of the Atelier series of games. They all have a lot of similarities that a past me seems to have chafed under, but which I find appealing nowadays - a certain gentle sensibility. The stakes are all lower; you're not saving the world, you're fixing a windmill. Everyone's important to the story, no nameless chumps here (as the article states, Atelier Escha & Logy makes the "kind of brilliant design decision to make every shop owner and person you have to talk to frequently for gameplay reasons a main character with their own story arc" - something that, now that I think on it, is also done to decent effect in Stardew Valley).
I couldn't tell you what brought the change on to where this kind of thing appeals to me now, but I'm really curious both to try and maybe make a kinder, gentler game myself, and also to try and pick up the Atelier series again. Talk about overwhelming, though - there's a lot of them, huh? And the idea of pleasant characters and a simple story lead to the third read, which I had to find via the Wayback Machine.
Tim Rogers' review of Dragon Quest V is, like most of Tim's reviews, a love letter to the game itself for all the things people aren't going to necessarily pick up on right away, like populating a world with characters who aren't just there to be part of your quest, but who are living little lives of their own:
That brings us to the first accidental pillar of Yuji Horii’s game design: the non-player characters are the world. Far from the penguins telling us that we can press the A button to swim while we’re already swimming, the NPCs in any given Dragon Quest game are their own self-contained human beings, each painted with a single delicate brushstroke. They’re as simple as a woman standing in the middle of a town who tells your hero that her son is a guard at the castle, as intermediate as a soldier at the castle saying he’s worried about his mom back home, and as complicated as a man at one end of a bar who says the woman in the red dress at the other end of the bar looks lonely: in the case of the latter, if you talk to the woman in the red dress, she says that she’s tired of men asking her if she’s lonely. There you have it: a world made of people. When we press the Action Button, it’s not just to search drawers or pots, it’s to talk to NPCs, and realize that they are, in fact, people. That, nine times out of ten, what one NPC says doesn’t make any difference in the main quest is part of the point; that, one time out of ten, what one NPC says does make a difference in the main quest is the other part of the point.
There's also a lovely bit about using the mechanics to tell a story, and little touches to make a player's experience with parts of a game pleasant, but you'll have to read those on your own.
I'd been toying with the idea of using something like Scrivener to organize nascent and future game development work, development logs, and so on - but I'm a bit loathe to buy something sight unseen, and especially something I can't use at work if I need to (for various reasons, I have to use Linux at work. I know, at last, it's the year of Linux on the desktop, woohoo). However, at some point this week I got turned onto Notion and I'm giving it a shot - I encourage you to do so, as well.
The best way I could describe Notion (which comes with a range of desktop apps, mobile apps, and a website) is something like a cross between Evernote, a wiki, and Google Docs. Everything in Notion is a block, even the most top-level element (a page); blocks can be text, an image, a quote, a table, or nearly anything. There's lots of tagging and interlinking options, hierarchical abilities through subpages (pages within pages!), and lots of templates if you're bad at dealing with the tyranny of the blank page and need a little kickstart.
Notion can also import from a lot of other tools, and has a pretty generous free trial - 1000 blocks, for free. It’s at least worth a look if you’ve got a smattering of things to organize and something like Evernote seems like overkill, but textfiles in a folder in a cloud service is too little.🎮
After watching a speed run of Daniel Remar's Hero Core recently, I was thinking maybe trying my hand at some kind of shmup game for a first project - well, second project, if we're counting Everything Happens So Much - might be something fun to do. (Side note: EHSM recently got played for a few minutes by indie gaming evangelist Jupiter Hadley in her Twitsy Jam part 1 video.)
Hero Core is interesting to me because of how it seemingly blends the Metroidvania and shooter genres; as I think Dragondarch points out pretty early in this playthrough, if he were going for an Any% run instead of a 100%, you can fight the final boss of the game almost right away (though doing this leads to the worst ending, whereas the 100% run he does here in an impressive time gives you the good ending instead). So I started looking into other shmups with branching paths, or alternate endings, or exploration aspects, and this is a list of things I have been looking into.
The most obvious example of these is The Guardian Legend, which features an overhead, Zelda-like overworld and vertically scrolling shmup "corridors" as the titular Guardian, a shapeshifting gynoid with human and robot forms, attempts to stop the alien-filled planet-prison of Naju from colliding with Earth - by triggering its self-destruct sequence.
Another example, which took me some time to remember, is HAL's Air Fortress. This one's a little more straightforward, and just offers a linear alternation between side-scrolling shmup sequences when approaching one of the titular Air Fortresses (though aren't they more of a Space Fortress...?) and exploration sequences inside the Air Fortress in which the hero must find their way to the central reactor of each Fortress, blow it up, and then find their way to their awaiting ride (which looks like a flying sled, if we're being honest) to get out. None of them are laid out the same, and there's a timed aspect too in that you only have a limited amount of time to escape the Fortress after blowing up the reactor, or else it'll self-destruct with you in it; interestingly, there is no visible timer for these segments - instead, the lights immediately dim and the music turns ominous once the reactor's blown up, and the screen shake and distant explosion noises gradually get more violent as your hidden timer runs out.
This one's much shorter because there's not a ton to think about here; an obvious example is Hyper Dyne Side Arms - boy, that's a mouthful - which seems like a pretty obvious inspiration for Hero Core with its ability to fly in any direction but shoot in two, left or right, depending on the button. That, in turn, reminded me of the Fantasy Zone franchise, specifically the extremely dramatically named Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa. The Fantasy Zone series is surprisingly dark for how cutesy it is (the very first one forces sentient spaceship Opa-Opa to confront the enemy armada invading the titular Fantasy Zone, only to discover that his own father was in charge of the invading squadrons). Fantasy Zone II added the concept of sub-zones within each level that you have to enter, rather than just freestanding bases in the main area to destroy.
A few obvious names to bring up: Capcom's Section Z, Tecmo's Super Star Force: Jikūreki no Himitsu, and Treasure's Radiant Silvergun. Section Z doesn't do a whole lot with the concept, despite having anywhere from 26 to 60 branching levels (depending on which version you're playing), though the NES version is another good example of bidirectional fire - the arcade featured the fairly clumsy "one button to fire, one button to swap directions" approach, while the NES changed it to "one button fires left, one button fires right."
Super Star Force seems like a straightforward shoot-em-up, but interestingly the branching can happen at multiple points in mid-stage, and are jumps to different stages but also to different time periods, forward or backwards. The player must jump to each time period and retrieve a particular item in order to receive the good ending; beating the game without it leads to a "but the future refused to change" style bad ending. It doesn't add a lot of depth to the gameplay but it's there. Interestingly, the game uses your score as a mechanic - it's sort of your "time fuel" to jump forward or backwards; you need more points to go further backwards or forwards in time, whereas jumping to neighboring periods require less. Something to think about.
The grandaddy of them all for shmups trying to tell a story, even if there are only a couple branches, has to be Radiant Silvergun.
It's got time travel, it's got ridiculously huge bosses, it's got an intricate weapon system based on chaining attacks against the same color of enemy over and over, and the pre-boss screens are practically a meme in and of themselves. Oh, and you start in the middle of the stages, and the stages prior are a prequel that you experience as a flashback.
BE ATTITUDE FOR GAINS
(Warning: spoilers for Digital Devil Saga 2.)
One of the more fun things to do with tabletop games is borrow elements from RPG video games. A lot of times the audience overlaps in interesting ways, so that some players end up smiling and nodding and thinkings “aha, I know where you got this idea from,” and others are presented with something totally novel that seems super creative in the moment but with less creative prep work needed on your part. It occurred to me this morning that Digital Devil Saga 2 (and to some extent, the first game too, although that’s a different story) is basically a post-apocalypse, and I started wondering what elements you could borrow from it for a game of Apocalypse World. (I’m currently in the midst of a game of Apocalypse World in real life, finally, so it’s on my mind a lot.)
Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2 both offer a lot of unique ideas that could be applied to a tabletop game, but the most obvious one seems like the phenomena in DDS2 that sort of kicked off the whole series: the Black Sun. There’s a lot to it, involving weird religious science, but the gist of it is that one of the few humans capable of talking directly to God accidentally sent a massive amount of corrupted data — loaded with her own heartbreak, anger, and feelings of betrayal — to God, who in his fury turned the sun black and caused it to unleash massive amounts of corrupted data back in order to exterminate the human race.
The vast majority of people exposed to the Black Sun contracted Cuvier Syndrome, which was incurable and resulted in petrification; extended exposure was inevitably lethal. The bigger problem is the people who are immune to Cuvier Syndrome, because they’re touched with Atma, a different virus caused by trace amounts of demonic data that always came from the sun. These people manifest visible brands on their body and manifest a second, demonic form, often one that goes berserk because those with Atma brands have a never-ending urge to devour humans and demons for magnetite.
Now, the obvious way to integrate this with Apocalypse World is to discard some of the more series-specific trappings like demon forms and incurable hunger and use the Black Sun as the visible manifestation of the world’s psychic maelstrom. Nothing is a more obvious sign that the apocalypse has happened and everything is fucked than the sun turning black (but still emitting heat and light, because it’s a wasteland) and maybe it turns people to stone still, so you’ve got people who hide out underground because it’s safer. Troglodytes, man.
This has another interesting side effect to consider: what is opening your mind to the world’s psychic maelstrom in this case? Are you tapping into the flow of data, corrupted and uncorrupted, still streaming from the Black Sun? Or are you talking directly to God?
You could, of course, also integrate some of the “demon form” and hunger stuff, if you wanted — that requires a load more work in that you probably want custom moves for the weird elemental stuff that demons can get away with, producing fire at will and all that. Or maybe you don’t! Maybe it’s all just flavoring — who cares if it’s a fireball or a gun, other than for ammo tracking? — and one of your options when you go aggro on someone is just to turn into your demonic form and flat-out eat them. Maybe when you roll a six or less, you go berserk and your team has to restrain you, join you, or get the hell out of your way.
Hey man, it’s your apocalypse. Don’t let me stop you.
When Persona 3 came out, I actually managed to miss it entirely somehow. I didn’t catch onto it until 2008, when I was browsing RPGs in Gamestop (remember physically going to Gamestop for anything besides the used game sale at the end of the year? Wouldn’t you like to put five bucks on a preorder? Wouldn’t you??) and the girl who worked there, who I frequently chatted about RPGs with, mentioned Persona 3 FES had just arrived and was downright shocked that I hadn’t heard of it yet. I was super stoked to see one of my unsung classic franchises revived and so I bought it immediately, having nothing but the word of a hyperactive game store clerk to go on to guarantee it was good.
What I got was what people now think of as modern-day Persona: a colorful cast of high school misfits who wake up, go to school, then save the world. Dungeon crawling with visual novel elements that then fed back into the dungeon crawling. It’s like someone read my mind. However, along with this came the weird decision that came with all versions of Persona 3 that weren’t portable: the inability to directly control your AI party members.
Granted, I understood why they did this on a sort of “well, I guess” level: your party members aren’t extensions of you, and you’re not even really in charge like you are in P4 and P5, so why would these more experienced Shadow hunters listen to you? But the AI in that game was…. wonky.
(Fair warning: Persona 3 spoilers follow.)
Everyone likes to make fun of Mitsuru.
Frankly, however, her predilection for Marin Karin, while annoying, was at least predictable. I want to say it never got me killed, but (a) that’s very unlikely and (b) is probably just a result of perpetually crushing on Mitsuru and yet finding her the hardest person in that damn game to date. Instead, what I have is The Junpei Story.
So first off, understand that I spent most of P3 FES kind of perpetually underleveled. I don’t know why it happened — well, okay, yes I do; in my effort to cover as much of Tartarus as possible, my trips often consisted of the following pattern:
So by the time I got to the very tippy-top of the tower again and was fighting the final boss of the game, Nyx Avatar, I was running pretty well below where I should have been, and my party was honestly only hanging on by the skin of their teeth. I think I was running with the main character, Yukari primarily on healing duty, Mitsuru, and Junpei mostly for his melee attacks and self-sufficiency with his constant regeneration. I’d been in this fight for way too long and we were running out of everything — items, SP, items to restore SP, items to restore anything really.
Now, one quirk of this system is that even if you were out of items, your NPCs seemed to carry around an endless supply of their own really shitty healing items — including Medicine, which heals roughly 50 HP and is worthless by the end of the game. This is an important fact.
We’re all pretty bruised, but Nyx Avatar is getting low on health too, though, and is down to the point where it is about to cast its “you took too long” super attack a second time. I input my last spell and pray, knowing that if this lands and everyone hits a melee attack, we’re golden.
Yukari goes first and shoots her bow at Nyx Avatar. It connects! I figured this was the point of failure — her accuracy was pretty lousy in Persona 3 FES — but we were through it. Whew, I thought.
Mitsuru cast Marin Karin — just kidding. Mitsuru landed a melee attack because she didn’t have the SP to even cast a single Marin Karin. Magnifique.
My spells goes off and does the majority of Nyx Avatar’s remaining HP. Based on my quick googling once we entered the last phase, it’s sitting at around 50 HP or so. All we need is Junpei to save us. All Junpei has to do is swing the bat.
Junpei looks around at our HP totals, decides I’m too low, and uses a Medicine to heal me for 50.
Nyx Avatar promptly kills all of us, wasting the last hour of my life.
THANKS A LOT, JUNPEI IORI🎮