Category Archives: Game Design

Event Design Using Twine

And by twine I don’t mean building a game from bits of string and duct tape, but rather using Twine, the “open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories”. It’s basically a supremely easy way to build a “Choose Your Own Adventure”.

So that’s cool, but even cooler (to us) is how useful it is to designing events for Clockwork Empires. “This is madness!”, you say, but no – this is Gaslamp!

A simple event in Clockwork Empires.

A simple event from the current version of Clockwork Empires.

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So You Want To Form A Cult

We’ve been a bit coy about portrayal of cults in Clockwork Empires because we’ve wanted to keep them mysterious. Don’t show the monster. But if a cult forms in the woods and no one bothers to really tell the player what’s going on, did it matter? Perhaps not.

Add three black mana to your pool.

Add three black mana to your pool.

Aside from that, the mechanics we built made it in the player’s best interest to instantly execute anyone they suspect of forming a cult, which happens when you give people any kind of free time. Which is kinda interesting in a brutal way, but if another day of executions is the only valid response to cults, then is this not simply eldritch whackamole?

So we sat back and asked ourselves: Where do we want to go with cults? What player choice should they involve – why would a player want to keep a cult around (aside from morbid curiosity which, granted, our players seem to have in abundance)? How much do we tell the player and how much do we keep as a Fun Surprise?

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Cultivating Gameplay: Game Design in CE

Clockwork Empires is an exceedingly complex game. Each new system interacts with each existing system in ways we necessarily can’t predict. And unpredictable consequences are, to some degree, the goal of any sandbox game worth its cabbage. But there are failure states where the whole web of systems kinda slumps over to one side, repeating the same beeping noise. This isn’t interesting, so we have to poke and nudge the game back to where it does interesting things again. This is called “Game Design”.

Is that metaphor getting awkward? Let’s get to the specific example I had in mind: balancing food & farming gameplay in Clockwork Empires. This is going to go into Exciting exhaustive detail!

Farming, step one: kill anything that isn't human.

Farming, step one: kill anything that isn’t human.

(By the way, we’re doing the big monthly update of Clockwork Empires next week! The Development Progress page will be updated at that time. Details to be released soon.)

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Flora

Generating terrain for a video game is almost always done by hand, by artists, over a long period of time, sometimes even going to the lengths of placing each blade of grass that the player will see.  This visual design and implementation of large scale AAA video games is the vast majority of their development budgets, spanning tens of millions of dollars that we obviously don’t have.

So we don’t do it that way.  We can’t compete with it.  Instead, we (like many other indie game companies) cut corners by making the game world generate itself procedurally, writing algorithms for the placement of trees, grass, rocks, rivers, mountains, glowing ruins and evil monoliths.  Seriously, we have an algorithm for evil monoliths.

The Gray Man can be found among the giant horsetails on only the blackest nights when even the moon itself hides itself away from What Which Walks. No, this is something far more sinister than a quick asset scale test render in Maya.

David and I have been arguing since the last post on game terrain about the “binning” of our biomes into the 9 categories.  His argument being that it’s an unnecessarily simplistic system for such a potentially rich environment.  My argument was, of course, that at some point the simulation is growing so intricate that we’re spending time where we shouldn’t be, and that we’d be far better off improving the game-play than the terrain, but if we’re doing things right, the game-play will be pretty heavily influenced by the terrain, so a certain amount of this makes sense.

So I have capitulated, may the internet have mercy on me.  Here’s how the system works right now.  (If you don’t think that math functions are cool, this might be a little dry.  Sorry about that!)

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Technology Status Update

It’s been awhile since we checked in with the programming side of things. I put out a call this morning asking “what would people like me to talk about?” Interestingly, the main thing was the UI, and how we’d make it Not Awful. We’re not talking about the context-sensitive UI because we haven’t worked out all the details yet, but we’re working on it. Instead, let’s talk about the general state of programming.

So what have we been up to over in Programmer Town?

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States of Things: Abstract Resources & The Metagame

Our current iteration of the Clockwork Empires meta-game follows you, a bureaucrat of The Empire, on your (in)famous career.  In game terms, preceding every instance of the city-building game, you will be presented with the choice of a number of objectives to attempt to complete during the game. Completing these will generate prestige points, which is currently designed to be a voucher system that can be spent to “break the rules”, from something as simple as calling in a favour for some rare machine parts to, perhaps, an airship bombardment strike against an attacking enemy. It’s like using mana to cast a magic spell, but in a strategy game. And it’s politics rather than magic. And you’re a bureaucrat. The pen is your wand; the spreadsheet is your tome. (We can go on like this for some time, you know.)

But a downside of the system that we’ve been discussing is that this mechanic rewards only the people who actually do what the Empire wants and so penalizes people who want to do something totally weird (and possibly awesome/terrifying) that has nothing at all to do with what the Prime Minister wants you to be doing. To solve this we’re considering a system in which prestige is no longer won just from The Empire;  other factions will exist throughout the game and, say, by helping or hindering them you will open up the possibility to unlock new objectives for yourself.

Are the Stahlmarkians running dangerously low on festive lager?  Send ’em a few barrels and maybe they’ll train some pilots for you. Are the Squamous Crater Beasts running dangerously low on human brains?  You probably have a few you weren’t using anyway, and you never know when you’ll need a favor from the Squamous Crater Beasts. Maybe they’ll be so good as to eat the brains of someone you don’t like the next time they come around; Her Majesty’s Detective-Inspector from the Ministry of Extradimensional Containment, say — why, you can’t have him wasting time questioning your overseers about the digs going on beyond the Screaming Hills when there’s Important Digging to be done.

It’s useful to make friends. And they come in all shapes. Some wear pointy helmets. Some are incomprehensible to a sane human mind.

Why not produce Perfectly Safe steam via clean-burning Madness?

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Storytelling as Game Design

You’ve all read Boatmurdered, right?

A “Let’s Play” (or LP) is a narrative write-up of a game playing experience, preferably entertaining. Fans of Dwarf Fortress do this a lot – they’ll either play a game themselves and write up the events that occur into story form, or they’ll pass it between forums members with each writing a chapter for their part of the game.

This is not a recent phenomenon or one limited to the DF community. Or the Something Awful community, for that matter. Over in Paradox land, players of their historical strategy games have written up “After Action Reports”, aka AARs, in a tradition that goes back to tabletop wargaming. These probably started out as purely functional reports of the course of a game, but over time they’ve grown into elaborate alternate histories with characters and drama that don’t exist in the mechanics of the game ending up somewhere between a walk-through and fan fiction.

These stories give a look into gamers’ experience of the games they play – it’s not just what happens on screen; there’s all kinds of imagination at work especially in games that leave room for speculation, implication, and creativity. So sandbox games, building games, simulations, and even especially open-ended RPGs are perfect environment for this sort of thing. (I’ve even seen some Quake fanfic that … wasn’t terrible.) Well, it’s only natural for people to write down the stories they make & experience.

With Clockwork Empires we want to make a game that gives players just that kind of creative space and experience. And of course as game-players and creative people ourselves, these stories are just the sort of thing we love to enjoy & create.

So: could not the principle be applied in reverse? Sure, any game designer does this to some degree eg. “I want to make a game where you’re a hero and go on adventures and find a magic sword and fight monsters!” can be turned into a game simply enough; from story/theme to mechanics. Dwarf Fortress does this quite explicitly as a conscious practice; Zach Adams writes short stories that take place in a fantasy world then he and Tarn sit down and work out what game mechanics might support that story taking place.

We’ve done this too, in a few forms. On at least one occasion we sat down with a grid-mat and some dry erase pens and played out what amounted to a free-form tabletop roleplaying game of Clockwork Empires: It started with an expedition meaning to build a bridge, some wood getting chopped down, then spiraled directly out of control as a Mysterious Statue was discovered, found to spread Madness, dumped in a lake to contain it, then water from the lake used to create ale, then everyone was driven Quite Mad.

There’s a proper write-up of that one somewhere, but for now I’d like to share with you all a story of imagined Clockwork Empires gameplay I wrote while in a powerless cheap hotel in the middle of British Columbia. Join me, friends, for:

The Tale Of The Founding of New Sogwood On The Sour Coast

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Choices, choices.

Once again, we are back to knife-fighting in the pit. This is the traditional game design approach at Gaslamp Games; we fight to defend our ideas, using oversized weapons and our bare hands. Recently, however, somebody has been seen fashioning a rudimentary lathe – a troubling development that will either upset the balance of power or be absolutely useless.

So what have we been fighting about? Well, all sorts of things. Today, let’s talk about the AI. The AI Cabal – Nicholas, Chris Whitman, and myself – have been hashing things out, and what we have is a data-driven, XML-based monstrosity that is sure to please everybody. The whole goal of Clockwork Empires’ AI is to provide characters in the game (currently referred to, in-engine, as Citizens, although this is not something that makes David happy; after all, we are a monarchy) with unique, rational, and relatable behaviours. The plan is to start simply, and add layers of complexity to the game until the goals and aspirations of characters appear to the player naturally and gracefully.

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