The Brooklyn Game Ensemble meets once a week for a full day of development work. This once-weekly schedule means that we have to fit our design discussions, production work, playtesting, debugging, and other activities into a single workday each week.
Typically we begin with a group discussion to get our heads back into the project and touch base on the day’s tasks. Sometimes these conversations are production-oriented. Other times, they are more design-focused, as we question what is and isn’t working in the game.
To give you a sense of our process, below I’ve pasted our Google doc notes from today’s design conversation – one in which we decided on a large number of changes to the game. Last week was a bit of a crunch getting the game ready for submission to the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, so this week was a chance to take a step back and evaluate things.
Some details may not make sense out of context. But hopefully the design notes still make interesting reading. Here are a few hints that will help you parse them:
- Each book in our library space has a single word that floats out of the book when you get near.
- Each room in the library has books with similar words (animals, music, love, etc).
- The player uses a number of processes for locating particular books, such as the SEEK action which creates a number of synonyms onscreen that float through the library towards their respective rooms.
Enjoy this peek into our design process.
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Today after the EGW crunch from last week, we did an overall assessment of the state of the game design and development. Our conclusion is that these are the areas where we need to work:
- Usability: picking up and throwing books, moving, action interface, etc.
- Aesthetics: changing fog to white, adding floor texture, better characters, etc
- Level framing: refining the start of a level, the quest for 3 books, etc
- Tuning: balancing and refining what we have: more power words, better level layouts
- Flatness: Addressing the flat nature of the feeling of the game
We decided that while we will eventually work on all of these, addressing the feeling of “flatness” in the game is our current biggest unknown. The rest of the changes all represent things that we know how change. So we need to focus on solving the problems that we don’t yet know how to solve.
The flatness comes from the fact that game levels do not have an arc or trajectory. They don’t get harder or easier as a result of player action. While we are finally getting a good sense of short and long-term goals, they aren’t structured in a way that makes sense for the player or makes the level as a whole fun.
This focus for our next design steps led to an extended brainstorming session, where we hammered out the following as possible next steps to explore with the design. These next steps are outlined below (and as tickets in Redmine). Some of them address needs 1-4, but most of them address need 5.
- Turn on book lines. The programming tool that drew straight lines of color from the center of a room to every book in the room looks cool enough that we want to include some version of it in the game. So for now we want to turn it on. Not only does this add more color and life to the game, but it helps players parse the structure of rooms which otherwise can be hard to understand.
- White fog of war. Instead of the fog of war being black, we are going to switch it to white, so that the unknown parts of the level fade into bright whiteness. This is maybe a better visual metaphor for information uncertainty, as opposed to spooky darkness.
- Color books. Currently the books are black and turn white. The new scheme is that books will start white (hidden in the white fog) and turn to a color when a player gets near. The colors of books will relate to their semantic identity (ie, their room).
- Red books as a texture. Because books will now be colored, red books (our weapon books) will have a texture on them. We’ll use punctuation for now, with an exclamation point as the weapon texture. [Note that eventually we plan to get rid of weapon books and other “special” categories of books and instead make books weapons in the proper context – ie, because you have the right book at the right time.]
- Tablet word definitions. When a player stands on a tablet and requests a book, the definition of the requested book is also shown. This helps players find books based on words they do not know. Implementing this means adding a freeware dictionary to the program in which we can look up and display definitions.
- Book stack words. Currently, the word that appears in a stack when you walk by a stack is the top book. To give variety, we will make the word that appears cycle through the books in a stack, so that if you stand by a stack, new words will bubble up.
- Auto pickup. Rather than having to pick up an inkwell by clicking on it, the player will just have to walk over it to pick it up.
Lost books functionality
- Basics. We want to add a new task to the game that represents a low-level, “constant” activity that a player can attempt to complete as they work on bigger things in the library. This activity is finding books that are “out of place” in the libary (in the wrong room) and returning them to their correct room.
- Setup. When the program creates a level,  pairs of books will be swapped from their locations in rooms with other books. These swapped books will retain their color and word, and should look out of place. They also will be marked with a special icon (a question mark).
- Returning the books. When a player finds a lost book and returns the book to the right room (anywhere in the room), the player gets a reward of  letters. Note that only specially marked lost books can be returned – this keeps a player from taking a book out of a room just to return it immediately.
- Why? Lost books gives us another use for the seek functionality, which is currently one of the most interesting aspects of the game. It also gives us another way for a player to earn letters. Lost books also feels right narratively – the player is returning books to their place in the library, which rewards the player for fighting disorder in this way.
Power word books
- The problem. Right now, power books don’t feel quite right. Because they are there just sitting around waiting to be discovered, they feel “cheap” and uninteresting. Plus, because books are now going to be colored, they can’t just be green books sitting in a room. Lastly, it’s not clear why power word books are sitting in rooms full of books on another topic.
- The idea. Power books will be another kind of book that is “out of place” like lost books. So if players notice that a book word doesn’t fit in, it may be a power word book. We want to reward players for noticing that a book word doesn’t fit in.
- Finding power word books. Not only the power book, but other books nearby will also not fit into the room’s topic. This might be the stack of books that the power word is in, but it might also be a few adjacent stacks as well. This will help browsing players notice that something is wrong.
- Picking them up. The power word book has an icon on it that identifies it as a power word book. It might be that an entire stack of power word books has the icon on it, or that only one book in the stack has the icon. In any case, once the player picks up the book, the other adjacent out of place books will disappear. Perhaps those books turn into letters that can be picked up by the player.
- Potential challenge. While we love the idea that players will be rewarded for searching for power word books, the one problem with this scheme is that the difference between lost books and “out of place” power word books might be confusing. For example, why are lost books a different color while power word books are the same color as their surrounding books? We’ll have to experiment and see what we can do.
- Overview. We like the dynamic feeling of dust in the game, but there is still some work to do in getting the interaction with the player and identity within the economy to feel right. The changes below are meant to sharpen the identity of dust and also make it more interesting to interact with dust. Rather than dust just being there or being gone, these changes give dust a state that can change over time.
- Dust changes books. When dust moves over books that are colored (books that a player has been near and discovered) then the books change back to white. In this way, dust is the natural enemy of the player and of order and knowledge in the library.
- Change dust color. When a player throws a book at dust, the book changes the color of the dust from neutral (gray/white) to the color of the book that touched it. This also makes the dust not as harmful. If the player touches the dust when it is colored, the dust gives the player letters (and possibly disappears). This change might be temporary – the dust may return to its dangerous state again after a range of [N1-N2] time.
- Other features. We may have dust do other things, such as damage beasts when it is in a color state, but we are not sure. First we’ll try this more basic functionality to see how it feels.
- Pathfinding. Improve and smooth beast and player pathfinding. The beasts should not walk through books when they are not searching for the player.
- Weakness. Rather than being damaged by weapon books, each beast has a weakness which is a particular color/topic of book. The beast will advertise this weakness, perhaps by being made up out of that color or word type, perhaps by leaving a trail or just bubbling off its weakness. The player can then find books of that color/topic to injure the beast.
- Ramificiations. If this is the only way to combat beasts, we probably will have regular books temporarily stun beasts, just to have some way for players to deal with beasts. We also might introduce small beasts than can be attacked with books, so that players get some satisfying combat. Beasts with weaknesses might then become more rare boss monsters in the game.
- Overview. To add a sense of life to the somewhat undynamic levels, game, we want to implement a system by which particles and letters would flow through the space. This would be done for aesthetic reasons, but also to give players new sources of information and new strategic options.
- Riverbeds. When a level is made, we will create snake-like “riverbeds” that flow in a single direction and flow through a level. These riverbeds will carry particles and letters. The riverbeds may or may not be visible in the level.
- Particles. Elements of the game will give off particles. By following these particles upstream, players may have a sense of where things are located. For example, imagine that a beast sheds off inky black particles when it moves. These particles fade over time, so that if a player sees a bunch of black particles coming down a riverbed, the player knows that a beast is nearby in that general direction. Similarly, a power word book might shed occasional letter or particles and the player would be able to see this and try and track down the book by moving upstream. We want to give players a sense of hunting or scouting by scent, where they are rewarded for noticing the flows of particles and coming to know the flows of “wind” through a particular level.
- Ink and Letters. As part of emphasizing the flow of particles in a level, we want to make the player resources of ink and letters more like substances and less like abstract resources. For example, if a player receives letters (such as for returning a lost book), the letters will appear onscreen as little letters, and the player can pick them up by touching them.