I am about to do a little bit of free-form game conception here. This is less an exercise in brainstorming and more about thinking big inside of a little box. I’ve blogged in the past about my interest in atmospheric games and this is the first step in that direction. If the stream of consciousness below makes no sense, don’t worry, that’s just how my brain jumps through time and space.
I’ve always been a big fan of Metroidvania games and I’ve always liked how the game was less about dialog and more about exploration. I don’t think that shying away from dialog was any kind of intentional design on the part of creators such as Gunpei Yokoi but it certainly lent itself to a subtle kind of story-telling. It allowed people to see more than what the creators intended, allowing the imaginations of young gamers to craft a much larger world.
I’ve had an idea floating around in my head for some time now. I’ve thought about dipping my toe into the deep and murky waters of the Metroidvania genre. To be honest, it absolutely scares me though. Games built around exploration imply that you have a world to explore, a museum of assets to showcase. Some game designs simply are not meant for small teams or lone developers.
Most modern game designs seem to be moving further and further into the high production cycles, leaving little guys to scrap for the niche markets. Even platforms like PC and mobile, as well as business models like free-to-play and budget pricing, are becoming these AAA productions, muscling out the auteur in game development. It will become increasingly difficult to compete in what appears to be the last frontier when everything looks like Infinity Blade or better. It’s been said, since the start of this generation, a lone developer will never make a big splash. And though iOS has slowed that prediction, it is seemingly become more of a reality in recent years.
As an engineer, I have certain restraints. I do my best to work within those restraints, creating mostly arcade arena shooters. I’d like to branch out someday, to find a way to create a Metroidvania that is less of a museum to put pretty things and more about the human condition. To put it more clear, I am struggling with the question; can I substitute exploration for something in my set of skills.
I see a character like Samus, in a game like Metroid, and I see a number of things:
- Samus is a silent yet strong protagonist.
- Samus is almost human in the beginning.
- Samus slowly augments her abilities to god-like power, rewarded through exploration and confrontation.
- In the vein of other exploration titles (ie: Zelda) each ability is unique and purposeful. Often a single ability is used to solve multiple problems.
- The story is unfolded by unlocking previously unreachable areas, now made obtainable through newly found abilities.
- The environment is a character, a puzzle that is solved in onion layers.
- The environment is visually distinct from area to area, allowing navigation of the world with little use of the world map. There are landmarks placed throughout the world to give it character.
- The environment is nearly seamless, broken into large areas. Each area is broken into smaller rooms with carefully scripted encounters.
- Most encounters are repeatable (re-spawning enemies), with the exception of boss battles or plot battles.
- Enemy variations are many, broken into classes of patterned AI behaviors.
- The music and sound design play a large role in building atmosphere and conveying the mood without explicitly telling the player.
The list of features within a game like Metroid frankly are too many to list. I had to stop somewhere, and this was it. The idea of this exercise is to create a list of substitutions that might still allow this game to become a reality. We want to reduce this list, not continue to expand upon it. Here we go…
My strengths and general capabilities might rest somewhere in this list. As someone who’s programmed games and written stories, I’m fairly confident in crafting something that will keep players interested. I certainly have the skills to deal with the typical array of programmer problems; rendering, animation systems, physics, resource management, input handling, UI programming, enemy behaviors, and so on.
Graphic design (UI) as well as any other general asset creation (concept sketching, models, textures) are easily my Achilles’ heel. They take me at least 10x-40x longer to create something that is a fraction of the quality of any talented professional. A blank screen would make for a terribly uninteresting game, so I should focus on doing more with less; much less.
Samus is a silent yet strong protagonist.The protagonist is free to have a voice if it serves the story. Not having a large environment means that protagonist might need to become a stronger voice in the game (literally). Decent VO performance is also something that might be easier to find than affordable content creators. I think that the game may be scolded if it used text boxes. Millennial generation gamers don’t read… Samus is almost human in the beginning.The word Human needs to be redefined. The protagonist should be human as you and I define our self to be human. It should not be a measure of his/her physical strength or combat capability. Samus slowly augments her abilities to god-like power, rewarded through exploration and confrontation.Exploration is likely off the feature list. Confrontation is a big question. Though confrontation is a possibility, it opens the door to many other issues listed below; namely the need to design and create a wide array of enemy variants and classes.
- …each ability is unique and purposeful. Often a single ability is used to solve multiple problems. I like the idea of a single solution used to solve multiple problems. I like the idea of having singular items that can be acquired. The question is, can this server a purpose if there is no confrontation? This is starting to sound more and more like an adventure game. I suppose Metroid is an action-adventure game, so that would make sense.
The story is unfolded by unlocking previously unreachable areas, now made obtainable through newly found abilities.The concept of unlocking an ever-growing landscape is tempting but the axe has to fall somewhere.
- The environment is a character, a puzzle that is solved in onion layers. I don’t know for sure if I could fully realize this but it is interesting. The idea of re-using an environment and using new items to see that environment in a new light could be a rewarding endeavor. It does sound a whole lot like backtracking, which has an undue stigma attached to it. I have yet to see a game celebrated for using this mechanic.
The environment is visually distinct from area to area, allowing navigation of the world with little use of the world map. There are landmarks placed throughout the world to give it character.Ugh.. that sounds like a lot of art… The environment is nearly seamless, broken into large areas. Each area is broken into smaller rooms with carefully scripted encounters.Ugh.. that sounds like a lot of art… but maybe there is a way to simplify the art design, to create a hand-crafted world that doesn’t look like a programmer made it. Minecraft and Terraria are charming games, but there are SOO many clones in the works that I am already tired of the low-tech block worlds. I still need an answer to this, a way to create something visually interesting without spending 7 months to model an empty room. Most encounters are repeatable (re-spawning enemies), with the exception of boss battles or plot battles. Enemy variations are many, broken into classes of patterned AI behaviors.Is confrontation even on the list anymore? Without it, there would be no need for enemies. The AI does not concern me, it’s the models and textures and animations that would consume an excessive amount of time. If the game I want to make can be done without a single bullet fired, then I’ll do that. I think that the small encounters in Metroid served as just enough of a challenge to keep the player awake. They were fun and interesting, even after the 10th time you passed through that room. It does add a lot to the game; shooting stuff is always gratifying. I am torn, and a lot will depend on the size of the world. If we are talking about 1-5 rooms for the entirety of the game then I don’t know if confrontation should be any kind of focus. Otherwise it may devolve into yet another arena shooter.
- The music and sound design play a large role in building atmosphere and conveying the mood without explicitly telling the player. I’m okay with this… Music moves us and sounds trigger memories from our own experiences. If I can help shape a player’s emotion through cheap tricks like Hallmark jingles then I’m not above that =).
Wow, what a glorious mess…
After all this, it seems like I’m trying to compress Metroid into a single room. And the more I tweak the formula, the more it begins to feel like a classic adventure game. There is potential here however. If there was a strong focus on narrative and character, the world would become less important. It might be possible to create an experience that feels as memorable as Metroid, but maybe for different reasons than what we remember of kids. I do wonder how tolerant players would be to a game that was more story than interaction, or to an experimental game that was entirely based on conversation instead of gun slinging bravado. I can already hear my inner 14 year-old screaming “lame! where is the rocket launcher?” =) but who knows. There are still options to explore here…