Places to go

December 6th, 2009

It occurs to me that before I can talk meaningfully about any of the initial quest lines in Atma, I should give a bit of background involving the layout of the game’s world. There are seven capitals scattered around the map in which most of Atma’s character interactions take place. Due to the flow of the elemental forces through the planet, there are various hot-spots of activity for each of the seven basic elements we’ve discussed in the past. Each of the locations I’ll shortly describe is in the proximity of one of these spots, giving each region a focus on a specific element–it’s actually this close relationship with the elements that allows these capitals to “prosper” in what is otherwise a hostile environment. While Atma does take place in a world that’s been wiped of nearly all human civilization, our story picks up after humanity has had several decades to rebuild itself. The world we’re interacting with is therefore one composed of many small settlements, connected to the rest of the world via these capital cities. Join me, as we tour seven locations that form civilization’s backbone in the reconstructed world:

The first stop on our tour of Atma’s world is the waterside village, Turchin. Established where the elemental force of water begins to breach the world’s surface, Turchin is composed of a vast array of small huts and hovels built on a series of streams and canals. The village draws its welfare from the water, with fishmongers and farmers driving the economy, watermills allowing for textile production, and an intricate system of waterways allowing for easy transportation of people and goods. It is a relatively peaceful place, in a land unspoiled by any recent conflict, and its population is generally rather laid back.

Our second stop is the skytown, Lila.  Perched in the peaks of a southern mountain range, Lila was founded by a group of explorers seeking to escape a constant struggle with the fierce wildlife on the world’s surface. The town is composed of many dwellings carved into the mountain faces, connected to one another via an expansive series of “skybridges”. The elemental force of air is powerful in this region, and as a result, Lila is able to thrive by harnessing the power of the wind. Given a source of dependable energy, and ready access to the vast metal and mineral deposits in the mountains themselves, the town has become the world’s capital for technological advancement. It is through research and invention that the town continues to succeed, despite the constant risks associated with its precarious location.

The third place we’ll take a look at is the walled city, Odu. Standing firm as a solitary refuge from countless miles of harsh, unforgiving desert, Odu’s walls are composed of the very sand that surrounds them. Built where the elemental force of earth is strong, the city serves as an oasis for travelers through the desert. Odu is in a central location on its continent, which makes it a popular area for commercial activity despite its treacherous surroundings, as traders and traveling merchants are constantly passing through. This fact means that Odu plays the role of a commerce capital in the newly emerging civilization. Its marketplaces and bazaars lend it a unique fast-paced “bustling” quality.

Fourth on our list of destinations is the forest settlement, Roen. Located at the border of a grasslands and massive forest, where the element of wood is quite powerful, Roen prospers greatly as a result of its proximity to a force of growth and life. The settlement’s chief exports are livestock and lumber; the nearby grasslands make for excellent grazing, while the bordering forest offers both timber and, arguably a more important resource, protection. Perhaps more than any of the other capitals, Roen is a triumph of man’s coexistence with nature. The settlers raise and protect their livestock from the wild beasts, and the land offers them security and sustenance.

On the other side of the world is our fifth stop, the moonlit temple, Belyj. Where the previous capitals we’ve discussed have focused on more tangible exports, Belyj’s status as a world capital is the result of religion. In the perpetually snowbound northern regions, where days are short and nights are long, a magnificent temple was erected in dedication to the gods. As pilgrims gathered at this holy place, a city grew around the temple, until eventually the holy city Belyj was formed, with the temple as its centerpiece. The city features a dazzling array of mirrors and jewels laid out carefully in tribute to the gods; at night, the moon’s glow is amplified to a cloak of brilliant light by reflection, making Belyj almost as bright as day. Its strong relationship with the force of light, which has power over the region, makes this perpetual brightness all the more fitting.

The sixth location on this scenic journey is the twilight metropolis, Svartskodde. Far south of Belyj, in the midst of a gloomy swamp, Svartskodde is everything that the holy city is not: it is gritty, it is grim, and it is dark. The force of darkness presides over this region, and this is evident in both the perpetually overcast sky above, and the seedy population within. A place where men act out their sins and vices, Svartskodde is the entertainment capital of the world. With the clouds constantly blocking out the sunlight, Svartskodde is constantly shrouded in darkness; it’s fortunate, then, that the city has such an active nightlife. It has everything from pubs to brothels to casinos–Svartskodde is truly a place for hedonists and villains alike to gather and make merry, despite the dismal surroundings.

Our seventh and final stop on this tour is the Grand Dojo, Gosai. Where the other capitals may have originally formed due to convenience or a sense of camaraderie, Gosai was uniquely forged from the instinct for survival. A military nation in every sense of the word, it is held together by a sense of strict discipline, honor, and tradition. Erected where the elemental force of fire has its influence, the harsh surrounding climate breeds fierce warriors to fend off the equally fierce wildlife. Gosai’s walls were originally raised for no purpose other than defense from the outside world, but the fervent pride this nation’s people take in their martial lifestyle has lent itself over the years to the cultivation of a unique ornamental quality in the dojo’s fortifications.

A. Horner


Revised Office Hours, Volume II

November 28th, 2009

It should be immediately and painfully obvious to anybody checking up on this blog that I have not adhered to my aforementioned weekend posting schedule, this being the case for a bit over a month now. I don’t really have any excuses, aside from those I’ve already summarized in Volume I of this “series”: it’s difficult to work on Atma all throughout the week, only to have to follow that work up with even more work, in the form of assembling and publishing a blog post. This was true back when I posted it the first time, and it’s even more true now that I’ve begun writing substantial portions of content for the game. Yes, you heard me correctly; I’ve recently been writing out dialogue and planning quest lines and fleshing out the details of the elemental skill system and about a million other things that are necessary for Atma to become a reality.

In a sense, this has been quite a humbling experience for me. I knew going into Atma’s development that it was going to be a ton of work, and that the process would move slowly and painfully at times, but it wasn’t until I started breaking each component of the game down into the actual work involved that I could tell how far in over my head I was. No, I’m not giving up on making Atma. I’m not even scaling back on it, ultimately. The process will take quite a bit longer than I anticipated, but I have every intention of making this game everything I planned for it to be.

Back to the writing business, I’ll try to post on a somewhat more regular basis, but at this juncture, I’ll avoid holding myself to a schedule; I have a feeling I can rely on myself to post a bit more often if doing so doesn’t feel so much like “work”.

My next few posts are likely to be teasers for the primary quest lines in Atma (i.e., the quests that your character initially undertakes in order to learn skills for each of the elements). I say “teasers” in that I’ll be sharing a brief description of the involved characters, and the general plot for each quest, but will attempt not to give too much away regarding the direction each quest ultimately takes — after all, I don’t want all the surprises (I don’t think any of the quests I’ve designed thus far are actually completely straightforward, come to think of it) spoiled when people are finally able to play through the quests for themselves.

A. Horner


Basic Instinct

October 18th, 2009

As promised, I’m here today to talk about the Instinct system that I glossed over at the end of yesterday’s post. Before I get into the nitty-gritty of exactly what the system does, I feel it’s beneficial to give a bit of background for comparison, as the final system (at least as far as I’ve settled on it in my head) is really a combination of elements from several other games, all of which (coincidentally enough) are a part of Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy series.

The first system I’ll mention here is the Materia system from Final Fantasy VII. This system allows characters to equip “materia”, which offer various skills and effects, into slots on their weapons and armor; filling these slots gives the character access to the special abilities of the newly-equipped materia. All magic spells and summons in the game are obtained by equipping the appropriate materia to a character. Special linked slots on certain pieces of equipment even allow for a second materia to attach to the first, either amplifying or modifying its ability somehow. The interesting concept here that I’ve built upon for the needs of Atma is this idea of skills and bonuses coming from equipped items that aren’t directly related to your weaponry or armor. Thinking about it now, it seems likely that at some subconscious level, the materia system was the inspiration for the spiritwell modification I’ve mentioned in the past.

The second system worth mentioning, though I’m not sure I’ve directly borrowed any of the ideas, is the Junction system present in Final Fantasy VIII. Junctioning is worth noting as an update from FFVII’s materia system, where the materia grew mostly independently of the character it was equipped to, to a system which offers benefits more closely related to the character they influence. When a particular Guardian Force is equipped to a character, they offer that character the ability to junction magic to specific stats, modifying those stats by some amount (and often offering some special effect, a la elemental resistances and similar concepts). Thus, a character’s power is determined not only by their basic stats, but by which summons they have access to, which stats those summons allow them to junction, and which spells they have in their inventory to actually junction with those stats. As a whole, the system feels much more personal than FFVII’s, but I find the lack of interesting options (you could accomplish a lot of really neat things via clever combination of materia effects in FFVII) ends up making the final result a lot less enjoyable.

This brings us to the next stop on our trip, Final Fantasy IX’s ability system, which I’ll discuss in tandem with that of Final Fantasy Tactics, as the similarities between the two systems are quite strong. In both games, abilities are “learned” by accumulating experience while wearing specific pieces of equipment. While a particular item is equipped, the abilities offered by that piece of equipment are available for the wearer to use, and after learning those abilities through the aforementioned process, the character can use them even without equipping the associated item. The key difference between Tactics and IX lies in the fact that Tactics only allows you to equip a very small number of your available skills at once in a few categories (such as Reflexes and Movement Skills) , while IX gives you a set number of “points” which you are then free to distribute over your available skills to customize your character’s abilities — more useful abilities generally cost more points to equip. The abilities in question range from granting immunity to certain status effects, to unlocking new skills for use in battle, to granting damage and resistance bonuses against specific enemy types. Tactics goes a step further by offering passive skills that allow characters to walk on water, ignore the height of terrain, or equip multiple weapons.

The Instinct system I’ve been working on for Atma is somewhere between FFIX and FFT in terms of the abilities it offers player characters. As a quick description of what the system is all about, it provides a means for characters to obtain useful passive bonuses to their movement and combat skills. The idea of “instincts” was one that struck me as a solid metaphor for passive abilities in Atma’s world; by drawing information from the animal spirits that are bound to them, characters can train their minds and bodies to react to certain stimuli instinctually, giving them certain advantages that other characters may not possess. For instance, a character bound with a cheetah spirit would, as they trained, adjust their muscles to dealing with high speeds, gradually picking up instincts that improve their movement speed.

Obviously, a system like this one needs to have some restrictions in place, or the most powerful player characters would simply be the ones that have been around the longest — if they could experience the benefit of every instinct they’d picked up, then newer players would have no way of catching up to them. This need for a limit on the number of passive bonuses that affect a character was the inspiration for “Perception”, a stat that determines the number of instincts a character can use at one time. Perception is the in-game representation of a character’s mental capacity for monitoring and controlling their biological responses to certain situations, and as such, the amount of Perception a character is able to muster provides a limiting factor for the number of instincts that character can use at once. Perception would increase as a character gains experience (as you might expect), allowing characters at later stages of the game to equip a larger number of instincts at once, granting not only higher combat capabilities, but new options altogether, as certain instincts will work better in unison with others.

Consider, for example, an instinct that limits your field of vision while granting you much higher strength (I imagine such an instinct might be titled “Feeding Frenzy”, though I confess I haven’t given it much thought), coupled with an instinct that prevents your field of vision from being reduced (something along the lines of “Echolocation”). Granted, this is an off-the-cuff example that has no guarantee of making it into the game, but it’s an example of the sort of thing I’ll be looking to incorporate into the game when I get to that point in development. My hope is that I can avoid the inclusion of completely useless instincts, giving even the seemingly less useful ones potent partners that will make them invaluable for certain character builds.

There’s a long road ahead of me for Atma’s development, and implementing and balancing this system is just a small step along it. Regardless, I feel that, if done well — and I certainly plan to put enough effort into it to do it “well” — the Instinct system will serve well as a means of adding further customization into the character development system, granting players the ability to create and manage characters that truly mesh with their playing style, and (hopefully) avoiding the pitfalls of other MMOs where cookie-cutter builds abound due to the much more linear nature of their talent systems.

A. Horner


Dancing with the details

October 17th, 2009

Emergence, the concept of several small systems interacting to form a complex system that is “larger than the sum of its parts” is something we’ve discussed briefly before, but which I’d like to bring up for discussion once again, today. I find emergence to be one of the most fundamental elements of game design theory; incredibly deep games can result from the combination of relatively simple components. Go is an excellent example of this — there are pieces, nodes, and “liberties” associated with each node. Players simply take turns placing pieces, one of the most basic game interactions possible (the same interaction that defines such games as Tic-Tac-Toe). However, despite its rather simple structure, Go is an incredibly deep game that involves incredible amounts of strategy, and requires heavy use of both analytical skill and creativity. The reason for this? Emergence — the complexity of the game increases drastically on larger boards, as the number of potential actions to secure or capture liberties increases.

Emergence is about possibility. No matter how simple a game mechanic might appear on the surface, it can lend itself to a very subtle and nuanced system by simply interacting with other elements of the game. Today’s post will deal with a few properties of the character movement system that I’ve been working with over the past week, giving a first-person account of how a few coupled systems can lead to some fairly complex interactions.

You might recall that last weekend, I expressed a desire to make the position and orientation of characters an important aspect of battles, requiring players to consider their motions and spacing while fighting entities in-game. Obviously, it would be unfair to ask for players to manage their orientation without giving them the means to do so effectively; thus, I implemented the ability to make the player character strafe, on top of the more basic movement system I already had working to an extent (the manner in which I merged this capability with the touch controls is something I’m fairly happy with). It was when dealing with the strafing movement that it occurred to me to write this post: see, watching the character run backwards and sideways just as quickly as he could run forwards was a bit disconcerting, so I took it on myself to modify the character’s speed based on the direction he was facing relative to the direction he was moving (sidestepping is slightly slower than moving ahead, and running backwards is a bit slower than that), and the end result felt much better.

Where am I going with this? Well, what these adjustments called to mind was a system I’ve long been planning to implement for handling varying terrain types. It hardly makes sense that a character would swim as fast as they walk without some form of dedicated training, and it certainly wouldn’t make sense for a character to trudge through deep snow at the same pace they might be able to stroll down a dirt path. Of course, these are concepts that players of the two-dimensional Zelda and Pokémon games are likely well-acquainted with, as both series have used terrain to varying extents, with a good deal of success.

Even in the earliest phases of planning for Atma, I knew that the game’s environment needed to be an important element in the core mechanics; the theme of humankind’s relationship with nature would simply feel incomplete if the layout of the world had no impact whatsoever on player interactions. This led to the conceptualization of the movement ability system, something I’ve mentioned in passing before (and which I promise I’ll get around to explaining eventually), but on a broader scale, it led me to dream up a system in which the player’s capabilities strongly influence the way they traverse the world. The animals that populate our world all have unique ways of moving about — fish swim, birds fly, et cetera — that I feel lend themselves nicely to the character movement mechanics for Atma, a game which was inspired by the parallels between members of the animal kingdom and traditional RPG classes.

The idea of characters possessing varying levels of skill at traversing different terrain types lends itself well to subtly influencing how the player interacts with the game’s environment; the movement abilities (which I think I’ll discuss at length next weekend) offer a somewhat more exaggerated version of this dynamic, offering characters the ability to access entirely new areas instead of influencing more regular interactions with the world. In the same way that fish are inherently excellent swimmers, a character bound to a fish soul might receive movement speed bonuses while in the water, or a character bound to a snake might be at an advantage when moving through sandy areas. The system as a whole offers another means by which players may define their character’s role in the game world, allowing them to specialize in the exploration of certain regions.

There’s an expansion of this concept which I feel really brings the whole thing together: the Instinct system. I’ve decided to explain this system fairly thoroughly in tomorrow’s post, but as a preview, it’s something that I feel will lend itself nicely to the development of a more player-centric system for character development in Atma. I’m looking forward to discussing it.

A. Horner


The many faces of battle

October 11th, 2009

There’s one thing (well, there are several, but one which I’ll talk about right now) that’s always bothered me a good deal about most MMO combat systems, which is that character position and movement are only very rarely an influential factor. There are a few games that do some interesting things: Aion takes into account the direction of your character’s movement to grant small but helpful bonuses to particular stats during combat; Ragnarok Online offers several skills which take into account the direction characters and monsters are facing (i.e., Backstab, which can only strike an opponent that is facing away from the user). Both of these exemplify important steps in what I feel is the right direction, but it’s Final Fantasy Tactics (unfortunately, not an MMO) that hits the nail right on the head with its nuanced tile-based combat.

In FFT, each skill and weapon has its own range, defining the potential distance (in tiles) that said skill or weapon can reach. Many skills also have an area of effect, defining a spread of tiles which are impacted when that skill is used. This should all seem fairly standard for anybody who has played a typical MMO (aside, perhaps, from the “tiles”, which can be viewed as an arbitrary unit of measurement). The things I find most compelling about the combat system, however, are the manner in which obstacles in the environment impact skill use, and the influence that a character’s direction has on their defensive capabilities.

The first area of interest: in FFT, obstacles on the map (boulders, cliffs, et cetera) are capable of blocking, or at least impeding, the range of use for a particular skill; it’s always bothered me that so many MMOs allow for skills in general to simply ignore obstacles. Gears of War stands in here as an excellent proof-of-concept for “cover” combat scenarios (and a fun game, in general), in which placing obstacles between you and your opponents is an important strategical element. One thing that tile-based, two-dimensional games bring to the table is a very simple model for “line-of-sight”, and the idea of utilizing characters’ relative positions for something slightly more thought-provoking than the standard “use these skills in this order” fare should be an exciting one, to anybody who’s gotten tired of such imprecise and awkward combat as can be found in your typical MMORPG. Imagine facing off against an opponent in a hedge maze, constantly ducking around corners to stay out of their range, all the while trying to tempt them to walk into yours. Throw in a handful of skills that intentionally allow characters to bypass obstacles, and maintaining proper spacing becomes a much trickier and more rewarding ordeal.

The other promising concept I mentioned from FFT ties in with the examples I cited earlier, but does much more with the concept: the direction a character faces has a huge impact on how they dodge and defend against attacks. When a character is facing their aggressor, they have a much better chance of dodging or blocking an attack, and even if the attack hits them, they take somewhat less damage from it. Attacking from either side reduces their chances of blocking or evasion, and results in higher damage output, and the effect is further amplified when striking a character from behind. Positioning a character at the end of their turn is a question of optimizing their defensive position; you want to conceal your character’s back and sides as much as possible, and to force attacks to come at them head-on, where their chances of survival are increased. Translating this experience from the rather static context of a round-based tactics game to a dynamic, real-time system would result in a set of mechanics which force players to put some thought into their movements throughout the course of a battle.

A more heavily position- and orientation-based combat system is something that holds a lot of appeal for me, in a market flooded with auto-attacking, “noclip mode” silliness. Of course, the real difficulty with making such a system work lies in ensuring that the controls are intuitive and responsive; such combat mechanics could easily become frustrating and tedious if the game doesn’t offer the necessary precision of control. If I can perfect the touch-controls for Atma to the necessary extent, however, these mechanics could lend themselves to a much more skill-centric experience than is typical of MMO combat, which demonstrates a regular insistence on character class and equipment being the deciding factors for any confrontation.

This upcoming week, I should be wrapping up the optimizations for my sprite engine’s draw procedures, and moving on to implementing character interactions with the world map, including the general movement controls as well as path-finding, leading up to the implementation of a robust skill system. I’ll be back next weekend, with some more posts regarding the design and development of an MMORPG, and a few updates regarding the progress I make throughout the next several days. Until then.

A. Horner