This is part of a series for the Out of Phase game project that reflects on various stages, covering pros and cons of the creative process and implementation of the game. The first post can be found here.
Deciding what type of game you’re creating can be difficult while the concept is in its infancy. There’s so many ideas you want to use, and many of those may conflict with each other at first, requiring some compromise in order for them to gel
In Out of Phase, there was a struggle to combine puzzle and action mechanics.I was trying to integrate elements from the two genres that I knew were successful by themselves, but incompatible with each other. To resolve this, I had to consider what experience I wanted to give the player and how the mechanics from each genre would contribute to that experience.
Some ideas I had to let go of, as they were too far from the vision, and other ideas had to be reworked to fit the core game concept. Here’s a reflection of that journey.
First I’ll start off with what kind of puzzler this is not, but what I originally thought it was going to be.
Some of my favorite games are point-and-click puzzlers, such as Myst or Escape the Room games such as Crimson Room. In these types of games, the player can progress at their leisure. While there may be action sequences, they usually don’t require interaction from the player, though there are some exceptions where the player must make a timed decision during the action sequence. The timing is typically pretty lax however.
Games like Myst, Crimson Room, or even The 7th Guest are what I would consider leisure puzzlers. They are typically slower paced compared to an action game and focus more on immersion and an experience. Death in these games are pretty rare, and are based off of a decision and not action, so the player is given a high level of safety while exploring the worlds. The focus of these games is on immersing the player into a fantasy world, and death or abrupt twitch mechanics tend to draw the player out.
While these games are fun, they weren’t the style I was looking for. Instead, I wanted to go with something more real time and physical, like Maniac Mansion or the more recent Ib. I wanted to give the player a different feeling of tension that they may need to react fast to avoid getting injured or killed, which deviated from leisure puzzlers.
This was a point of conflict in my early design brainstorming, because I liked the pacing and immersion of the leisure puzzlers. However, every time I tried to settle on removing action from the game, it felt incomplete. So I moved onto a different type of puzzler, one which was more physical and time sensitive.
In the first prototype I started with a very basic series of chambers and hallways that contain puzzles. This is what was implemented at the the Global Game Jam, and I had the beginnings of what was like a Portal clone, with pressure plates and objects that could be pushed onto them.
Where it differed from Portal (besides no portals!) is some objects and parts of the maps would be different between the players, in some cases requiring the players to communicate and discover the difference in order to complete the puzzle.
There would be furnished rooms with interactive objects, like a record player that would play music, light switches, and paintings. The player would need to interact with certain objects and in some cases complete a sequence in order to progress through the game.
With these ideas, this game was becoming more like Ib, where core gameplay involved adventuring through the levels and discovery. There would be some action sequences, but the player had to evade dangers, opposed to attacking those dangers.
The game concept already sounded fun, and there were so many possibilities for puzzles. Yet, there were some things that didn’t feel right. I didn’t want the player to be totally defenseless, I wanted to let them fight back. I also needed something that gave the game some replay value after the puzzles were figured out, so my focus began to shift.
Action games test the players ability to make reactive decisions in the moment. In many games, reaction is not only taking action, but also inaction as part of a strategy to avoid damage or gain a higher score. Hand-eye coordination may be a factor in some of these games, but not all.
While figuring out what type of action I wanted to incorporate, I tested out a hack’n slash style. The player was given a health meter, and mechanics were introduced where the player was challenged to physically avoid hazards and attacks using their skills of timing and precision.
Just as the puzzle genre has different subgenres, action games also has many variations. For Out of Phase the challenge was finding the right focus, and balancing this with puzzles. This was a challenge, partly from accepting that certain types of puzzles,pacing, and action mechanics would be to difficult to combine.
So for a time I let go of this being a puzzle game and explored what type of action would and wouldn’t work.
On one hand, I wanted a fast paced game that was like Diablo III, in the sense that the player has a consistent and smooth experience of encountering mobs with little interruption that forces the player to shift gears.
On the other hand,there were experiences I wanted to include which would interfere with the Diablo III style pacing, such as sequences where the player needs to sneak around to avoid NPCs, and various puzzles to unlock areas or acquire objects/gear. Both of these would interrupt the Diablo III style of hack’n slash pacing.
Trying to describe what kind of game I was making was difficult while I tried to hang on to two types of gameplay with no idea how they would mesh together. It’s important for the game designer to be clear on what they’re making, otherwise when they pitch they’re idea their audience will be as confused as the designer is.
Gaining a clearer understanding of what type of game this needed to be was a matter of weighing the experiences I was striving for and letting go of some that were obviously intended for a different type of game. Here I decided to focus more on the action genre and let puzzles be a secondary genre, and as a result the game became an action/adventure RPG that incorporated puzzles into the adventure.
Unfortunately, this is still a pretty vague description of what type of game it is, and the game play style is something that is still being felt out. However, there are some influences and another game that turned out to be pretty similar.
Action RPGs that integrate puzzles aren’t uncommon. Legend of Zelda is a good example, and Darksiders seems to have its influences from Zelda. These are games that make you pause and think a little about what you need to do to gain better loot, draw the next wave of baddies, or sometimes even when facing a boss.
Zelda and Darksiders Comparison
Zelda and Darksiders approach puzzles differently, which give a different experience and appeal to different types of players.
In Legend of Zelda, you’re required to obtain most, if not all of the gear to complete the game. Each item is used to progress through the game by unlocking previously inaccessible areas and defeating bosses. Players often are presented with a challenge, such as crossing a pit, accessing a blocked area in a room, or defeating a boss with little explanation. They are left to their own devices to figure out how to overcome that challenge, which is puzzle-esque.
By contrast, Darksiders is more focused on action, but still has puzzles to engage the player cognitively, breaking the mindless hack’n slashing. The more difficult puzzles that will stump some players are optional, but have special rewards as an incentive.
Unknown to me at the time, there was already a game that was doing something similar to what I had in mind. That game was Forced. What’s interesting about Forced is the puzzles themselves are based on action, and the player is challenged to figure out puzzles while they’re fighting. Something I thought would have been disastrous, but was pulled off well.
Finding the right balance of mechanics that cross over different genres of gameplay is challenging. It’s easy to implement something that doesn’t mesh well with another genre and in turn negatively affects the player’s experience. Finding that balance is a matter of putting some thought into what experience you want to give the player, as well as trial and error.
While trying out new ideas it’s important to remember that players establish an expectation for different aspects of the game, a few examples include the theme, the type of game, and pacing. Throwing in something that isn’t inline with the core game design can be jarring, disorienting, or otherwise frustrating to the player.
It’s good to look at existing games to see what worked, what didn’t, and why certain design decisions were made. There’s often interesting reasons behind design decisions that will up during interviews with the designers and developers. In some cases there’s not a black and white right or wrong, but what caters to the audience the game is intended for.
As an aside, Atsushi Inaba held a session at GDC 2016 where he covered game design for action games. In addition to the tweet below, there’s also a write up by Gamasutra with more info here.
— Gamasutra (@gamasutra) March 18, 2016