I was never a big fan of The Wheel of Time series, but I liked the actual game quite a bit.
The notable parts:
— The title largely revolves around the player’s armament of Ter’angreal, ancient artifacts that grant magical powers. They’re grouped together into numerous categories — offensive projectiles, homing attacks, shields, immobilizers, summoners, magic nullifiers, etc. — and encompass gameplay modifiers that are usually presented via inventory items.
Many of the Ter’angreal are also only used to solve in-level puzzles, while others are strictly limited to multiplayer.
— Many of the enemies have an annoying habit of instantly sidestepping incoming projectiles. It looks awkward, wastes precious ammo, and often forces the player to aim at the ground in order to cause splash damage.
Aside from this odd quirk, the enemies themselves are quite varied. They have drastically different amounts of health, fire numerous types of projectiles, can deflect or absorb the player’s attacks, and even possess special abilities such as teleportation.
— The vast amount of Ter’angreals makes it difficult to properly use them in fast-paced battles, but when the interface doesn’t get in the way, they work quite well.
Here’s an example:
I entered a small arena where I encountered a magic-wielding boss. I immediately threw up a magic-dissipating field, activating it just in time to dissolve a barrage of incoming projectiles.
As the field’s timer began to count down, I queued up a Reflect Ter’angreal and activated it when the field wore off. It batted back an approaching Soul Barb, a homing Ter’angreal that damages its target whenever it attempts to use any of its own weapons. The Soul Barb struck my foe, and I went on the offensive with a Decay.
Decay is useful for boss battles as it homes in and damages enemies over time, but it’s also quite slow. My opponent was able to bring up her own magic-nullifying shield before the projectile reached her, but since the dissipating fields work both ways, she was unable to counterattack.
I used to the time to retreat and heal up, and as her field was about to expire, I launched a Freeze. The projectile reached my opponent right after her shield went down, encasing her in a solid block of ice. I immediately threw out an Earth Tremor, an area-of-effect Ter’angreal that causes continuous damage, and started blasting away with other offensive spells. My immobile target screamed as the ice slowly melted, and victory was mine.
Of course at other times you round a corner only to be hit by 2 Fireballs and die instantly. It’s a flawed system that encourages quick-saving/loading, but when it works, it does a good job of making combat feel like a magical duel.
— Many of the Ter’angreal are also used exclusively for puzzles. They’re placed very deliberately so that there’s never much experimentation, and the puzzles themselves are usually straightforward, e.g., using a fire shield to walk across a furnace, but there’s a handful of more interesting ones as well.
One of my favourites revolves around getting across a vast chasm between a rampart and a fortress.
The rampart contains an opening that provides a view of the fortress, complete with a metal shield adorning one of its walls. The shield can be struck with a projectile, creating a loud sound that summons the guards. Once one of the sentries is visible, the player can use the Swap Places Ter’angreal to teleport into the fortress while jettisoning the enemy back into the isolated rampart.
— The overall level design is quite good with interesting environments that take advantage of 3D to loop in on themselves. Progression is still fairly linear, but with enough twists and turns (and optional passages) to feel fairly open while still guiding the player.
There’s some scripted sequences here as well, but they’re pretty sparse and clunky when compared to something like Half-Life.
— WoT contains a large amount of destructible objects, traps, climbable areas, lever/pressure plate/key based puzzles and a handful of scripted triggers that collapse floors, walls, etc. When combined with the aforementioned puzzle-Ter’angreals, these components make for pretty interactive levels that help breathe life into the world.
As an interesting side note, Balefire, the BFG of WoT, can disintegrate various props that are not part of the architecture. These objects do not regularly react to weapon use, imbuing Balefire with an added sense of power.
— Shadar Logoth is a destroyed city haunted by a deranged evil. It’s notable for its unique enemies that attack the player and his foes, as well as a monstrous boss called Legion. Its main attraction, however, is the Mashadar fog.
The first time I played the game, I started anxiously looking around when I heard some soft hissing. I couldn’t spot anything coming down the hallway facing me, so I decided to hunker down and wait in ambush in case an enemy appeared.
That’s when the screen became a white haze and my character started screaming in pain.
I scrambled around, desperately firing off Ter’angreal and trying to get away from whatever was hurting me. That’s when I realized what was happening: the puffy mists I passed earlier on weren’t just an ambient decoration, they were a vicious threat!
The ethereal fog snaked out of its hole and coiled around me, mindlessly following my character like harmless prey. My panicked counterattack actually hit the fog, forcing it to retreat, but there was no way to actually kill it. Soon the hissing filled the air, and I ran as the fog followed.
— Shador Logoth ends in an interesting mission that takes place in a large arena. The level is filled with numerous Ter’angreal and a never-ending onslaught of enemies, and its main goal is simply to survive until daybreak.
The main character is joined by a handful of NPCs, and although the powerups don’t seem to respawn (requiring a lot more exploration than in a typical Alamo standoff), the gameplay is similar to current-day multiplayer modes such as Gears of War 2′s Horde.
— Following the brutal assault on the White Tower, the player is tasked with recovering her arsenal of Ter’angreal and retrieving a special artifact in the citadel’s vaults.
The mission makes sense within the narrative as well as the gameplay, and provides a nice change of pace from the intense battles that preceded it. The level lacks enemies of any kind — except for an end-boss — and is filled with traps and puzzles that take advantage of various Ter’angreal such as Seeker and Levitate.
— The Ways are a series of stone walkways floating in a dark void that serve as shortcuts throughout the land. In one of the levels, the player character is forced to traverse them in order to pursue the antagonist. In the process, she encounters the Machin Shin.
Staying within the Ways for an extended period of time summons this infinite wall of ghostly heads that scream and whisper as they approach. It’s a very striking event, and one of the most memorable parts of the game.
If the “Black Wind” envelops the player character, the small amount of lighting in the level — including the Light Sphere Ter’angreal — is subdued as she is slowly killed.
The Ways are also used as a clever framing device. The player must periodically exit the ways to avoid the Machin Shin, each time facing a new challenge. These mini-levels force the player to find a way to re-enter the gateway, or simply survive long enough for the the Machin Shin to recede.
— The second last level is another Alamo standoff, but this time the player is forced to protect injured NPCs. An interesting twist here is that the map is filled with portculli that the player can control, effectively funneling the enemies while setting up traps.
A neat touch is a lever that opens up a floor grate above a pool of acid, and a Whirlwind Ter’angreal located just beside it. This allows the player to toss in various enemies while staying out of harm’s way.
— The audio in WoT definitely stands the test of time. The majority of the sound effects are very fitting, and the unique soundtrack (here’s a taste) does a great job of enhancing the atmosphere.
With the recently announced Deathless Kings update, I figured I’d take a quick look at the extremely popular Infinity Blade.
— The entire game consist of only about a dozen or so “pit-stops” along a short but branching path. Each stop can include any of the following: a one-on-one battle, a treasure, a fork in the road, or any combination of the above.
— Traversing the environment is automatic, with the player’s avatar walking along a rail from one pit-stop to another. These segments can be fast-forwarded, although they represent opportunities to collect extra loot via a hidden object minigame. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of randomization to the placement of objects, resulting in the player quickly memorizing all the potential treasure spots.
— Combat is timing-based and includes dodging (pressing either the lower left or lower right area of the screen), blocking (pressing the lower middle area of the screen), parrying (swiping in the opposite direction of an incoming attack), casting spells (tracing magic runes on the screen), and attacking (tapping/swiping the enemy itself).
— Although blocking is the easiest of the defensive maneuvers, each subsequent attack degrades the equipped shield and can eventually destroy it.
— In order to score hits reliably, the player must create openings by successfully dodging/blocking/parrying incoming attacks. The player can even stun the enemy with a well-placed counter, initiating a slow-motion effect complete with a hotspot that can be stabbed for extra damage.
It’s a small feature, but it works well as it prevents the player from swiping around as quickly as possible in order not to miss any opportunities to deal bonus damage.
— Occasional segments where the combatants’ weapons clash add further variety. These result in a tug-of-war that has the player rapidly tapping the screen in an effort to overpower the enemy and score a few free hits.
— A big frustration of the combat is that slowdown seems to be randomly attributed to the monsters’ attacks. This prevents the player from learning their timing as the same animation can play out very differently in each encounter.
What exasperates this issue even further is that the animation slowdown is almost identical to the successful-counter slowdown effect, suckering the player into attacking when they should be avoiding on the defensive.
— The battles progress through phases accompanied by cinematic transitions, e.g., an en enemy retreating over a bridge and away from the player’s onslaught. When an enemy is defeated, it goes into a stunned phase that allows the player to score a bunch of free hits (each one granting an extra bit of experience) before being dispatched with an auto-executed fatality.
— Infinity Blade has a bit of a Demon’s Souls vibe, both in aesthetics and gameplay. The visuals and the God King’s speech are somewhat similar, as is the ability to retain one’s stats/equipment after dying (admittedly, though, Infinity Blade is much more forgiving than Demon’s Souls).
— The enemies level up with the main character, and although the encounters are always the same, the opponents’ armaments change with each subsequent playthrough.
— One final note of interest is that each equipable item gains experience along with the player. This not only encourages equipment-swapping for visual and physical improvements, but also to maximize the rate of advancement. In a game that’s largely loot-based, this works great as an additional motivator for seeking out extra treasures.
I had a few issues with Chair’s breakout hit Shadow Complex and its plethora of mechanics, but I found Infinity Blade a very focused and enjoyable experience.
When I initially sat down to design Trudy’s combat, I wanted each unit to have a unique feel. Different attributes and abilities were a good start, but to truly achieve this, all entities had to behave in a distinct fashion.
To begin, I brainstormed a variety of scenarios I wanted to see in-game. These ranged from the somewhat common (an area-effect unit preferring to target foes clumped together) to the more original (a Steampunk robot trying to activate random machinery and only attacking when provoked).
Once I had a list of these, I came up with some character types that would facilitate each case.
Below are three examples of our finalized units, along with a short description and their AI routines. The AI is a bit simplified from the code, but shows a sorted priority of possible behaviours.
The Corsair is quick and agile, preferring to take out enemies from afar. Due to his mercenary nature, he has a tendency of sidetracking to grab extra treasure and retreat from a fight if it gets too dangerous.
- If badly wounded, randomly alternate between the following actions:
- Retreat to closest exit.
- Head for a healing station, if available.
- Take pot-shots at closest enemy in range.
- If defending, take pot-shots at first enemy that approaches.
- Grab any nearby treasures.
- Man any nearby turrets.
- Use saw-blade if upgraded and surrounded by 2 or more enemies.
- Attack closest enemy that’s weak to the flintlock rifle.
- Attack closest enemy that’s low on health.
- Pursue closest enemy until in flintlock range.
The big and burly Bruiser is slow to act, but capable of travelling great distances once he’s rolled up into a ball. As the muscle of the Underworld, the Bruisers pride themselves on their reputation and never run away from a fight.
- If badly wounded, randomly alternate between the following actions:
- Put up defenses and wait.
- Retreat to closest alarm station to call for backup.
- Don’t move if current position blocks projectile attackers from hitting team members.
- Roll into closest enemy by a wall in order to push them back and cause extra damage.
- Roll into any nearby enemy.
- If upgraded, follow up a rolling attack with a ground slam for extra damage.
- Activate closest alarm station if requiring backup.
- Retreat from flying units that can’t be targeted with the roll attack.
- Pursue non-flying enemies out of range until adjacent to them.
The Sewer Slug
The Sewer Slugs mutated in the slop cocktails of the Underworld, slowly filling with acid and becoming living batteries. Although they’re naturally docile, they’re considered a dangerous nuisance as they don’t avoid human habitats.
- If dying, explode in an acidic burst that showers the surrounding enemies in corrosive fluids.
- If badly wounded, randomly alternate between the following actions:
- Retreat to closest nest if flying-charge is ready.
- Use self-healing ability.
- If not attacked, simply move between closest nest and hatchery.
- Fire electric goo on closest enemy to damage and stun them for one turn.
- If flying-charge is ready, move toward closest enemy.
- If flying-charge is not ready, pass to regain it.
This highly autonomous behaviour means that there’s no “field general” controlling the entirety of the opposing force. Instead, the combat takes on a gang-skirmish feel where each unit follows its own whims.
For quick, small scale battles where the units are all predefined, we found this to be a generally more fun approach.
In my previous post, I took a look at the various level designs lessons gleaned from Super Mario Bros. 3′s first world. A lot of them naturally dealt with introductory tutorials, but I wanted to take a slightly different approach with this article.
SMB 3 is filled with great levels, so I decided to pick out a bunch of clever, fun or simply unique moments from the game that originated with its architecture. I skipped over a lot of possible examples trying to keep the list down to 30, but I think I came up with a good collection that complements the original post.
Over at Incubator Games I am currently working on a title called Trudy’s Mechanicals.
Trudy’s Mechanicals is a “tactics” game set in a Steampunk universe, and we’ve been plugging away at it for a little while now. Since I’ve yet to announce it on my blog, I figured the new year would be as good a time as any.
In an effort to create some extra exposure for the game, I’ve also decided to start cross-posting my articles from the Incubator website. First up is a design overview of Trudy’s Mechanicals entitled “Planning a Tactics Game”.
Tactical games are something of a sub-genre that’s a bit difficult to nail down. Plenty of Tactics games have been released over the years — on both PCs and consoles — with many similarities and differences.
Despite a loose definition, a common thread among them is a focus on turn-based battles between individual units. These conflicts usually take place on wholly isolated maps and center on moment-to-moment maneuvers rather than the long-term goals of strategy games.
Our whole team has always enjoyed these titles, but none of us have worked on them in the past. As a result, we had to do some research before diving into production on Trudy’s Mechanicals.
We played a bunch of the most notable entries that fall under the Tactics banner, and took some high-level notes on “the good” and “the bad” of each title. Here are the highlights of those lists:
- Units possess unique abilities and physical attributes that provide various combat options.
- Maps are varied aesthetically and can grant passive modifiers, e.g., it’s harder to move through mountainous areas, troops can hide from long-range attacks behind buildings, etc.
- Units tend to grow stronger as the game progresses, creating a steady stream of rewards while modifying how the battles play out.
- Bonuses for side/back attacks and elevation are intuitive and fun to exploit.
- Where available, fog of war creates a strong need to explore the map while facilitating ambushes and other tactics.
- Outsmarting the AI by utilizing all of the above factors is extremely satisfying and a key component of the genre’s appeal.
- Controls rarely accommodate for the most common use case, e.g., it often takes as many actions to use an antidote (rare) as it does to launch an attack (common).
- Terrain is usually static and non-interactive, e.g., it’s not possible to blow up bridges or set forests on fire.
- Movement and attack ranges can only be checked for one unit at a time, creating a lot of busy work where the player needs to cycle through all the enemies in order to pick the optimal location for his own unit.
- Attack animations — especially when presented via separate screen cinematics — are quite lengthy and devoid of any interaction.
- Unit types and abilities are often duplicated from game to game. For example, in a fantasy-themed title it’s common to have a melee warrior, a long-range archer, a spearman with an extended reach, a mage that casts destructive spells, and a generic healer. This approach makes many of the games feel too derivative while missing the chance to introduce possible new tactics.
- Conflicting variables make it hard to predict battle results, e.g., rock-paper-scissors unit weaknesses are combined with terrain modifiers, facing directions, weather, time of day, zodiac sign, faction allegiance, etc. As a result, some games feature an attack preview that informs the user of the likely outcome. This works well enough, but presents another manual check and input-step that interrupts the overall flow.
As an iPad game, we’re aiming to make Trudy’s Mechanicals as quick and accessible as possible. Using this goal as a filter, we paired down the above points to what we considered appropriate for our own title:
- The most common actions should only take one touch/swipe to execute. For example, tapping a valid enemy should make the current unit approach it as close as necessary in order to attack (preferably from the side or back if possible).
- Visual indicators should be provided for range (which enemies are in the current unit’s range, and which enemies can also attack that unit), health, “elemental” weaknesses, and any other metrics necessary to plan the optimal course of action.
- Fog of war might be an interesting concept, but it’s not very intuitive and should be avoided alongside any other potentially confusing mechanics such as terrain modifiers that contradict facing/elevation bonuses.
- Usable and destructible map objects should be sprinkled throughout the levels in order to add extra combat options and make the world feel less static.
- Unit levels and inventories should not be implemented in order to avoid extra micromanagement and potential multiplayer issues. To compensate for the removal of the leveling-up reward stream, each successful mission should provide the player with a permanent upgrade such as a new recruitable unit or the ability to use more in-level objects.
- Attacks should take place on the same screen and appear quick and vicious in execution. In order to achieve this, an attack’s kinetic impact and visual effects should by styled after action games instead of abstract strategy titles.
Of course there were also numerous other considerations: Should the maps be 2D or 3D? Should movement be grid-based or more organic? Should randomization elements be added to extend replay value?
Eventually a lot of these questions answered themselves, but a solid mission statement really helped to lay down the groundwork and guide future design decisions.
For more concept art, design talk, programming approaches, etc., head on over to our website.