Developing a new HTML5 game with a few lessons from Doom

I’m currently working on a simple corridor shooter with a mutant / zombie theme. It’s called Area51 ( at the moment ) and as the title suggests I want it to feel like a cross between a 50’s B movie and an episode of X-Files.
The perspective of the game is fixed to behind the gun. So a little bit like Doom in that sense but none of the scenery moves.

Area 51 - HTML5 arcade shooter

The goal of the game is not yet defined although I keep coming back to the idea of simply escaping from an over-run laboratory complex. It’s just that when I put it like that it sounds horribly cliched and a bit dull. So I’m still trying to figure that out.
The point of this post though is not the game’s story as such more the thinking behind the design and the order of events if you like that I typically go through in arriving at a “final” game. More importantly I’m challenging the way I’ve always designed my games.

Ordinarily I like to take an idea and play with it until it feels so natural and fun that it quite clearly belongs at the centre of my game.
I did this with every game so far and perhaps most notably with Galactians 2 in that I was determined to have the alien bugs “splat” on collision. This is my centrepiece. A core to the game if you like. Everything else in the game will be built around the simple concept of shoot & splat.
I played with this idea for days before it actually became a game.

As with all my shooting games I like there to be an intense feeling about the combat. I like lots of bullets and a fair sprinkling of bombs and bad guys to aim at.

So here I am with Area51 and I’m trying to find a direction based around my “core” concept.
The core concept in this case is quite simple – spray bullets down the corridor at the advancing bad guys and watch them squirm and spray blood until eventually they splat.
Fill the room with such monsters and essentially repeat the above until all monsters are defeated.
I was hopelessly in to Doom almost 20 years ago and it is this cartoon splatterthon style that I aim to replicate. But there is a subtle difference between the 2 experiences ( not including the obvious visual differences ) and that is in how the game is controlled.

Doom

Doom

In Doom you had to point the marine in the right direction then pull the trigger. In my game you simply aim a crosshair at the bad guy and the rest is done for you.
Actually swinging the viewpoint of the marine around in Doom is quite a skill and therefore something to be learned before the game can be successfully beaten.
Simply moving a crosshair across a static scene is not so hard. So although Doom and my game have a similar core concept – shoot the hell out of bad guys – they are in reality a million miles apart in terms of the experience.

What I need to do is find a balance between the thrill of shooting stuff to hell and applying some kind of a challenge and skill curve.

As the father of modern video gaming Nolan Bushnell put it all those years ago, games should be easy to learn and difficult to master.
So far my game is simple to learn and simple to master. Watching monsters explode in a sea of bullets will only hold our interest for so long if there’s no challenge.

So I added another dynamic – ammo.
Rather than just spraying endless rounds down the corridor I wanted the player to have the concept of ammo protection. To aid this I started hurling supplies in wooden crates down the corridor. When shot the player could tap health or one of the two ammo types to collect.
My game suddenly became as much of an exercise in ammo conservation as it did a shooter. Much like Doom. I was happy.
But still the game was a little too easy. So I looked again at Doom in more detail.

The weapons in Doom ranged from pea shooter to a rid-the-room-of-everything gun.
The action was staged such that you didn’t get the Big F* Gun until later in the game. In between that and the poxy pea shooter you had such things as a shotgun ( never bettered ), chain gun, rocket launcher and plasma rifle. Progressively more deadly and intense and progressively more thirsty for your precious ammo. Better still if you let fly with a rocket within 10 feet of a wall or monster it tended to smart a little.
Looking at Area51 I realised that I needed a similar constraint on weapon usage.

Although I’ve yet to implement the changes I suspect that the two weapons that I have that use Plasma might be benefit from being a little volatile at close range. Quite possibly useless against a certain monster as well. Not sure yet.

Finally, the bad guys in Doom shot back. From fireballs, to magic to just plain bullets you had to duck for cover around every corner. I need to find a way to force the player to protect himself against attacks. Perhaps using a shield or some such physical barrier. Clearly I can’t display the viewpoint changing to be behind a wall or ducking for cover so I need to be a little creative.

So the point of this rather hasty blog post is that it’s not always such a great idea to use a “fun” mechanic as the centrepiece of your game. At least not without giving it some serious consideration.
The game’s design, i.e. the challenge that you ultimately want the player to overcome, should always be your main focus. Otherwise you wind up trying to squeeze a game in to something that you become quite unhealthily precious about.

Although I will keep the concept of blasting monsters in a cramped space I will adapt the game to be much more of a challenge. Hopefully without taking away any of the skills required to complete it.
And that’s the point. Unless your game has skills to be learned in order to overcome your challenges your game is going to be pretty flat.

 

 

Tell me a story but not too much…

I love my RPG games. I particularly love those games that focus on combat in a very visually satisfying way. A game that ticked all the boxes for me was Dungeon Siege. I’ve blogged about this briefly before.

Dungeon Siege

Dungeon Siege

What I love about such games is that they don’t ram the story down your throat.
I very much enjoy being left to my own devices to manage a game. Dungeon Siege is essentially an arcade game with loose RPG management thrown in. And it’s this that makes it a winner.
You are fed a small amount of story and then hurled in to the action. Such is the nature of the game you are left to fight your way through each stage and then gather your thoughts and strengthen your party in the “down” times. i.e. the towns and villages.
The game isn’t without its failings but generally it’s a real treat for someone with an over-active imagination.

My tendency to drift off in to my own dream world at the best of times means that the ability to dive straight in to the action and carve out my own imagined adventures is an incredibly good quality for a game.
Often I find that the story is so detailed, so rich and so rammed down your throat that I have little or no room left to add my own spin on it. I enjoy that bit. I enjoy taking the outline for a story, a backstory or a general theme and working on it in my own mind.
Not wishing to decry the efforts of the story teller at all. On the contrary, such is their skill I have no room to flex my imagination.

What games like Dungeon Siege allow me to do is quest in a very satisfying hack and slash style, save progress and then pick up from where I left off instantly. Where, for me, Dungeon Siege 2 fell down in that regard was in its use of the hub. Teleporting to a spot is not nearly as satisfying as just loading a game up and finding yourself in that same woodland clearing or rocky outcrop from your last episode. For me it allows me to “pretend”.

This seemingly immature approach to gaming maintains my interest in games in general. I like to form something of a personal bond to a game. A bond that is lost somewhat in multiplayer arenas. Multiplayer games have rarely floated my boat. Not even Quake. Not even World of Warcraft.
In WoW I made it my mission to fight alone and do all missions as best I could alone. I made it a goal to finish up in as “safe” and visually beautiful place as possible such that when I re-entered the world the next day or week I would feel as though it had been my home for a little while. Sad but true. Such is the bond that I enjoyed forming with these games.

I’ve always been like this. It’s really nothing new.

Back in the 8-bit days one of my favourite games was Mercenary.
With its wireframe visuals and paper thin story it was a perfect world for me to visit. There was enough there to feed my imagination and send it in to overdrive.

Mercenary

Mercenary

Wandering the wastes of Targ and entering numerous hangars and buildings was a great thrill. By todays standards it’s a pretty awful experience but back when games were small and generally the efforts of a one man team this kind of game was enormous.
I loved Mercenary.

More recently the graphically rich worlds of Doom and Quake allowed me to “pretend” in more detail.
Doom’s story was so light you pretty much didn’t care for it at all. For most it was a blastathon with an incredible multi-player aspect. For me it was an intensly rich single player experience set against the backdrop of a story that I had imagined.

Quake

Quake

Same goes for Quake. In fact more so with Quake since it had the hint of a Lovecraftian setting and all manner of hell wandering its corridors.

What all these games have in common is their urgency to have the player playing the game. There is little or no stop-start to tell you the story in tremendous detail.
For me games that do this risk a serious amount of failure. If rich stories in games is your thing then you’ll disagree. But this is intended to be a personal reflection of what I get from games.

Looking for inspiration again with old fantasy games

The last couple of times I’ve tried to create an original game I’ve ended up taking the seeds of a game off the shelf and completing it. I’m determined this time to actually explore something new.

I’ve been digging around the web ( well, YouTube mainly ) for some of the games that I enjoyed playing on friends home computers back in the day. There are some classics ranging from Elite ( still an astonishingly complex game ) to Knight Lore to Boulderdash to countless platform games to… well just about everything.
Something that struck me was the way that games were named back then. There was a certain romance about the title and the image that it conjured in your mind. Even if the actual game didn’t quite live up to the dramatic title.
It wasn’t uncommon to be buying games called “The Castle of Terror” or “Haunted Citadel”. Proper fantasy titles with action that centered around the exploration of dungeons and the hurling of magic and such.
I loved those games and have done my best to honour them with my earlier games. e.g. Castle Adventure.

 

Atari Gauntlet

Gauntlet

I’m quite intrigued by the notion of “buddy” games. Golden Axe, Gauntlet and other such titles. It’d be pretty cool to pick a character to control from a selection of, say, four characters. Then once you’re in the game the CPU controls the other three.
I’ve blogged about my love for Gauntlet before in some detail.
I like the idea of ridding randomly generated dungeons of all manner of hell beings and then counting up the gold at the end. Possibly with a shop or something to power your team up.

 

Atari Gauntlet

Atari's Gauntlet - screenshot

I’ll enjoy opening up Photoshop and doodling some character designs. Just to get a feel for what such a dungeon game might look like.

I’d also like to research putting the game on to Facebook and getting a multiplayer angle to it.

I can see the benefits of it. Imagine the following scenario.

You’re on Facebook and 3 of your friends are also online. You send them a quick message “Hey, let’s go play Dungeon Adventures” ( or some such title ). The game populates with 4 players and away you go !

Better still you could form a party that the game saves based on your Facebook login so next time it’s even easier.

All just ideas right now and quite exciting.

Defining the goals in a scrolling HTML5 shoot ’em up

Allow me to think out loud for a moment. I’m trying to figure out the best approach for Rebel Rescue.
The elements to the game that I know I want to keep are

  • constant stream of lasers
  • one directional scrolling landscape
  • rescue the rebel pilots

The elements to the game that I think I want are

  • maintain the decaying energy bar
  • rescue a set minimum amount of pilots per stage

The problem I’m having is that it has no real direction.
So I’m trying to figure some kind of a formula for defining the core challenge in an arcade shooter.
Perhaps I’m looking for something that isn’t there. I don’t know. But it’s a useful exercise in stretching the brain cells in an afternoon !

In the earliest days of arcade shoot ’em ups the goals of the game were quite simple: shoot and don’t get shot.
But in the games that immediately followed Space Invaders and Galaxians we saw a secondary goal added.

Scramble

Scramble

In the case of Defender this goal was to prevent the humans becoming mutants.
In the case of Galaga this goal was to improve your firepower.
In the case of Scramble this goal was to manage your fuel.
So on and so forth.

The first Galactians game had a simple Space Invaders style premise – shoot and don’t get shot.
With Galactians 2 I added the ability to improve your ship’s firepower as well as including more things to avoid.
With Rebel Rescue I’m torn. I know that I want the game to be about shooting stuff and I know that I also want to have the goal of rescuing the pilots. But I really cannot decide where the fun is.
Rescuing your fallen comrades ought to be satisfying and a real challenge but it’s not. Not at the moment anyway.
And I’m very conscious of just littering the screen with crap to prevent you from getting down to the surface to collect the pilot. I want it to be more entertaining than that.

Defender saw pilots kidnapped by aliens before being turned in to rabid mutants. I’m not sure I want that because I have to make a decision regarding the controls.
Just now I have one-directional action because I don’t like the idea of swiping to change direction.
So when the rebel pilot appears on screen the player gets about 3 seconds to do something about it. It’s fairly pointless having the pilot kidnapped since it’d be off screen left before the player had time to react.
So I very much want the pilot rescue aspect of the game to be more of a bonus. But then how do you define the goal of the level ? What do I want the player to achieve to get off the level (or Stage if you prefer) ?

One idea that I had was to provide a finish line. Quite simply a marker in the snow that signalled the end of the level.
At this point the game tots up the number of rebels rescued and provides a points bonus. Bonus points are awarded for the amount of fuel that the player has left in the speeder.

But then I’m not sure that there’s enough in there for the player to want to push himself in the next level.
“Oh right, so I just do it all again do I but this time aim for a bigger bonus ?”
It just won’t work for this sort of game.

So there’s a fine line here to be drawn.
For every challenge I want to present to the player I have to think carefully about what the most that I could do to derail the player’s plans for achieving it are vs what the most entertaining way to prevent the player from achieving his goal is.
There’s a balance to be struck.

In Defender the player was given a window of opportunity to rescue the human and the method of rescuing was to blast the alien to bits. The player then had to collect the human and set him down safely. When achieved this was hugely satisfying.

In Scramble the player was given a small window of opportunity to destroy the fuel depot before it disappeared stage left. More fuel depots would come along but there were only so many that you could miss.
In Galaga you were given a small window of opportunity to jump inside the alien tractor beam. You then of course had to go and shoot it to recover your fighter and boost your firepower.

Falcon Patrol

Falcon Patrol

In the excellent 8bit game Falcon Patrol (another side scrolling shooter) you were charged with taking down a set number of planes whilst managing your fuel and Air to Air Missiles.
This game was quite hard and like Defender a bi-directional affair. To replenish your fighter you would land on the landing pad. The aircraft in the game employed VTOL a la the Harrier “jump jet” so landing was a simple case of lining up your fighter with the landing pad.

Perhaps then I should employ the idea of the speeder flying between rebel outposts. I could include a radar to show just how close the speeder is to the base. When the speeder arrives at the base it lands and the rescued rebels are counted up and a bonus awarded.

This would give the player a welcome period of down time to prepare for the next level when I throw a bit more at him.
This has some mileage.
I’m still not convinced that the player will be encouraged to progress with such repetition but the important thing is I have something to try.

So back to the code to see what I can conjur up. I will probably spend the next 3 days just playing the game to see how excited I am for it.

Thanks for listening ;)

Designing arcade games – a quick guide

So I was thinking about designing arcade games over a coffee earlier …

Game design is often seen as a very exact science. If you learn some “rules” you’ll suddenly be a game designer. I’ve heard and read all sorts.

“As gamers we strive for patterns and repetition.”
“As gamers our primary focus is on ‘tidying’ the screen.”
“Games should be about challenge and reward.”
“Games are at their best when they teach us something.”

The list goes on.

You know what, each is probably true but sometimes I think those in the business ( i.e. selling books ) of game design can be a little too pretentious. Such a high-brow attitude to making games can be quite a dull thing to have to pore over so I’ve knocked up what I call ( well I do now ) my short bullet list to establishing the core to an arcade game.

Here you go. See what you make of it.

  • Create a cool central idea. e.g. blast stuff to hell
  • Create a cool avatar for the player to control and protect
    • Make sure the avatar appears:
      • fun to watch
      • alive !
      • vulnerable within the game’s environment
  • Give the avatar an obvious primary action e.g. shoot, jump etc
    • Feel the action. Don’t just let a bullet lazily drift up the screen. THRASH it up the screen and let whatever is in its way know about it ! Don’t just let your avatar jump lazily up and lazily down – change the pace. Walk,BA-BOING, down again. Bend ze knees. Let the avatar look alive.
  • Create a fun control mechanism for your player’s avatar
    • Understand the target platform’s limitations – auto-firing of bullets is always an option on mobile devices
    • Play with the numbers
      • Don’t just settle for a basic jump or bullet shot. Explore the fun in a super high jump or a screen full of bullets. If it’s more fun stick with it and build your game around it.
    • Feel the fun
      • On touch screen explore the ability to “swipe” or even control the avatar with just one hand for the ultimate in casual gaming
      • On keyboards select the best key for the maximum amount of reward in player feedback. ( Is the space-bar really the best “action” key for your game ? )
  • Give your avatar something to pitch its abilities against
    • Action > Reaction > Consequence e.g. Shoot, Destroy, watch for the bonuses
      ( Mario does it best. Jump, bonk, bonus )
    • Start easy and allow the player to learn the limitations and boundaries within the game and his avatar. e.g. Small swipe = small hop, BIG swipe = BIG jump, don’t touch the edges of the road etc.
  • Consider everything to be rewardable
    • e.g. bonus items, points, the firing of a bigger laser, the ability to jump higher and farther
  • Consider everything to be a challenge, no matter how easy or difficult you perceive it to be. Note: controlling your avatar should never be a challenge
    • Scale your challenges in line with the abilities of your player’s avatar

Beyond this you are firmly in to the realms of staging and level design. I think the underlying theme for what I’m trying to convey is that the first time you implement a feature isn’t always the best way to present it. Play with it. If you’ve built your game efficiently you’ll probably have the ability to just play with numbers. Change the gravity setting from 1.0 to 0.8. See how stuff responds. So on and so forth.

As a rule I build my games to be very simple to operate. I generally imagine that all players have access to the basic arcade stick and single action button ( fire button ). In most cases however the action button is replaced by either an on-screen action trigger ( e.g. the jump pad in Danger Ranger ) or automation ( e.g. the lasers in Galactians 2 ) such that the player is left with the relatively simple exercise of controlling their on-screen avatar.

Consequently many of my game’s challenges involve player collision at their core. Either in the form of dodging on-coming enemies or collecting moving bonuses in order to better overcome on-coming enemies.

If I had to write any kind of strict rules down I’d probably opt for “everything has a score value”, “when you think it’s the most fun it could probably be, just play it a bit more”, “make dying / loss of life / turn / whatever you want to call it a visual treat and for god’s sake restart the action promptly” – watching people play arcade games I often see a tremendous amount of people abandon the game when they lose a life, “imagine the guy playing your game has just 2 coins in his pocket and he spent one of them on your game”.

Above all of course. Have fun. If it isn’t working out shelve it and go and try a different idea.

A short survey about mobile gaming

Just a quick update to mention that I created a quick survey to try and gauge some opinion on your preferences for playing games on your phones and tablets.

Check it out by clicking here.

Feel free to add some comments.

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