Balancing the action and using a classic for inspiration

Designing HTML5 arcade games with JavaScript has become something of a theraputic exercise. The combined thrills of pixelling, coding and designing the various elements of the action are proving to be quite useful in the stressful run up to Christmas.
Yet despite this I now find myself in that unavoidable “crunch” mode on two projects. I also set a target to finish these two projects by the new year.

A laugh at it now but I shelved my first project as it approached completion to pursue a fresh project. It was of course a diversion. I was deliberately avoiding the pain of that final 10% that takes an agonising amount of time to complete. Now I have doubled the pain!

It’s not all bad.
The discipline of developing arcade games has evolved and tightened over the years to become almost formulaic. This in itself isn’t always a good thing but it can be useful to have a blueprint for design when it comes to balancing, testing and code fixing.

For the most part at this stage I find that the raw code is cut and I’m largely playing with numbers. I play the games A LOT and talk to myself as I’m running through them – always making notes. Here’s such a conversation :)

There’s just not enough to challenge me here. The player character moves too quickly to be threatened by the bad guys. The bad guys need to target the player more. There’s too much room to move. The player isn’t developing any skills in his movement and bullet / entity dodging!

I kid you not. This was a recent note I took.
The beauty of all of this is that everything in the game is defined by numerics. The player’s movement is defined as a speed parameter that allows his co-ordinates to increment each tick. Similarly the other objects in the game perform against the same calculations. In the driving / shooting game (which I currently call Road Rage) the room in which the player has for movement is defined by the road object’s width and height. I applied a .nextthink attribute to the road container which ticks down every game tick. At zero I make another decision on how to scale and move the road.
With this method I can shrink or expand the road with ease after an elapsed amount of time. As a result of my testing and observations above I could see that the road needed to narrow more frequently. The player’s car going “offroad” results in a lot of damage and consequently Game Over so a shrinking road is a real challenge to the player.

HTML5 arcade game

As you can see in the screenshot the road is divided up in to slices. Each “slice” is an object that contains parameters for the ground texture, the road, the road’s verge and the lines that run down the middle.
The only artwork on display per slice is the ground and verge. The other two elements are solid colour blocks.

The tree decorations that overlay the ground are sprite objects and behave in a default sprite behaviour. i.e. emerge off screen, run the length and disappear without any collision detection.

Developing the shifting road wasn’t really much of a challenge. You could almost imagine the process as a series of around a dozen rectangular cards placed in order. By altering the x position of each road object as it is spawned off the top of the canvas (and subsequently allowing the object to increment its co-ordinate) you can create a satisfactory rippling effect that simulates the shifting road. The road width (the solid colour area) is known and therefore I can plot x co-ordinates for the overlayed verges.
Similarly any sprite object that sits on the road can be tested to see whether it has over-run the verge in which case I apply damage to it. Too much damage and it is destroyed. The impact on the random military vehicles in the game is a key part of the appeal as the player’s gleaming red sports car (modelled on a Ferrari 458!) can bump them off the road with a few well timed swerves in the right direction :)

For a long time in the early days of development I was playing the game and struggling to find a core mechanic for it. That vital element of the game that forms the player’s goal or goals. I knew that arming a sports car with rockets and allowing it to shunt other vehicles off the road would be fun, but as always I wanted an intensity to the action that meant there would be a ton of rockets and bombs on the screen. This can cause design problems in terms of setting a challenge since firing a huge amount of rockets and lasers only works if the stuff you’re aiming at is destroyed! It’s no good if the targets just bounce around a bit and are unaffected by your gunfire.

So I dabbled with all sorts of mechanics including collecting valuable items and avoiding oil slicks. They just didn’t work. The thrill of the game is in its pace and causing the car to spin or forcing the player to swerve and collect items just didn’t add up to very much fun. It needed to be a high octane experience with shooting, dodging, turboing and explosions set against an underlying need for speed.

So I fired up Out Run for a little inspiration. A wonderful game from the 1980s in which you drive a car at speed across an undulating terrain whilst avoiding other road users. The game is divided in to stages such that when you cross a checkpoint you are rewarded with a little more time to play.
This did it for me. It was obvious. A game in which you drive a car has to be a challenge of beating the clock.

I could still get away with blasting the bad guys I just needed to ensure that the core goal was to complete each stage in a set amount of time. Adding a timer was simple. I set it to 30 seconds initially and ticked down every second. At zero the car exploded and the game was over.

So the next question was how do I speed the car up and slow it down without having specific controls overlaid on the touchscreen.
This was a no-brainer. I implemented a turbo accumulator. The destruction of cars and military vehicles spawned turbo collectables that bounced around the screen. By collecting several of these the player built up their turbo bar sufficiently to engage a short (10 second) turbo mode in which the car’s speed doubled. The faster the car the quicker the player zoomed through each stage. So there was plenty of incentive for the player to destroy the other vehicles and go collecting the turbo shards.

But this wasn’t enough of a challenge. I wanted to add an element of dodging to the game so I stuck with the idea of the other vehicles launching missiles at the player. One hit and the car was destroyed! Unlike off-road damage or bumping the other cars, missile damage didn’t reduce the player’s “health”. It just wiped them out.

So I’m now confident that I have the game that I was after. As I play it now it’s pretty close to the original design and with the injection of the pulsating soundtrack and over-the-top sound effects I think it’s easily the best arcade game I’ve made to date.

I look forward to sharing it within the PlayStar Arcade shortly.

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