Monday, March 16, 2015

Epoche Dev log: 3 The mess before the storm

It has been a while since I've put anything up on my ambitious first game Epoche, the idea of the project being to create a murder mystery where you a detective upon finding a murdered person in your train car must discover who among-st the other handful of passengers committed the act. Those of you who have found the other Epoche blog posts first might remember the brainstormed write up that included things like hunger or intoxication meters along with a diplomatic mechanic where your player must argue their case against the suspect otherwise be accused of being the murder themselves and loosing the suspect in the process, and a bunch of other fun but silly ideas that were bouncing around in the first stages to solidify what the game would be. Well I'm here to say that a good chunk of whatever you first dream a game to be or include, will not make it to the finished product, or even past the halfway point, this is not necessarily a bad thing, this is the sign of a refined design. No design of anything that functions well comes fully formed from that creative brainstorm, none. The most valuable asset to a designer and storytellers in general is the learned ability to distill and refine down the material to it's essentials while maintaining and subsequently enhancing the fundamental experience. Or, as I've heard it better stated in The Elements of Style.

Finding the underlining theme of your game and removing all parts that do not add to the players experience of that will make for that more cohesive game-feel that every design aims for. Easier said than done as that entitles understanding your piece from both a critical and creative perspective, knowing both how and what the game does as it does, something that comes out of years of experience... So don't make my mistake of waiting until your twenties to finally sitting down and working on your game, start now, start small, start making games. 

Start with pen and paper.

Here we see the start of a pen and paper version of the game. The layout of the five npc's and their interaction cards are formatted and started. As well as a brief write up on how they interact over to the side, and how the tier system of interaction works within each murder. This is how you should start every game. Why? Because you need a physical representation to start really thinking about what all the numbers and mechanics will mean for you on the computer. Had I started just building I'd have a few months of broken code and if it worked in any semblance an unbalanced game by now. On paper when you're deciding how to do a thing and you write it down you don't feel bad about crumpling up that paper and starting over if you don't really like it, but when you've just made those assets or coded that function, or put together that level, you are more likely to let it slide even when you're not happy with it. You just are. You're more likely to tell yourself you'll get back to it later and that this is just the first draft and you can always come back once the game is done, which is more or less true don't get me wrong: but after the game is done you are more likely to not come back and not revise anything you don't need to. 
This isn't coming from personal experience but from every designer or producer I've ever herd interviewed they've always said that no game comes out exactly what the designer wanted, none, they always wanted extra time to come back and tweak or even redo entire levels that they didn't have the time or energy after completing the game to come back to. The amount of time and energy you save when putting hours in finalizing that design before creation rather than redoing build after build, is immeasurable. I say this as someone whose always burnt out of steam after jumping into a project without fully designing it, I convinced myself I have a general idea and a mechanic, but then after I get the mechanic or more often then not I don't get the mechanic working, I don't care. I realize my design was a slap dash toss together of chocolate and peanut butter mechanics that don't lead anywhere and I don't think it's an interesting game, because it's not a game, at that point it's a tech-demo at best. It'd be like randomly throwing foods in a blender, you might accidentally come across a recipe for something, but you've more likely just created nutrition barf that could have been food, there needs to be a plan going into the kitchen or you're not really making anything; you're just playing with the food. When you start with a basic recipe though, you have something in mind, you know how to start, you know what you need, and you save yourself hours upon hours of being in a position of not knowing if your food might kill someone or not. Plus, after you know what you are doing, and you've tweaked it into something you really want to actually create... you've found your path and you're more energized to do it, two of the most valuable positions to be in for a creator. I've worked out the majority of what I need about the mechanics and how the game is/work so I can make good with my attempt to code the first prototype, and while it feels like half the battle is done and everything could literally just fall into place over the next month or so, I don't feel tired with this project at all. I know I don't have every obstacle accounted for in that notebook of scribbles and lines connecting dots and numbers, but I know that I have a solid footing, and I know where the problems will come up and have some ideas of how to remedy them. That is an immeasurable advantage that current me has over the me that first started this project. 


This is the sketch in class I made when I figured out the games name and premise, a moment of, YES I NEED TO MAKE THAT.

I keep this old (what the game box art might look like) sketch with me and everything because I want to remember exactly what that dream image was like and how it felt when the idea for this game popped into my head. There were five different art-styles fighting in my minds eye and at least three different color pallets I've seen in other games, plus a ridiculous number of supposedly connected and dramatically important mechanics I wanted to put into the game at that point, but underneath all of this competing forms of expression the game idea was trying to make one experience the main point, a game that made the player second guess themselves. That sounds really weird, actually kinda lame out loud, but that's what I want to do. I want to make a hard boiled mystery game that keeps the player guessing, not just until the plot twist or even until the end of their first play-through (don't know if I could write something that good) but throughout the whole game, every time they play it. Like with Agatha Christie's 'And Then There Were None if you refuse to read the epilogue and you simply sit there, reading the book over and over again trying to figure out who was committing all of those murders. Like how in games like Dragon Age or any of the other games where dialogue is interactive and meaningful, where that feeling of importance and connection to the characters matters; what if you could make a game where you're judgement of the characters always matters? I wanted to remember how much that feeling excited me to start this, that little idea is what I'm going to hold onto throughout this project. Well see how it comes out.