Header image by Fabio Gismondi.
I’m designing a game at the moment. It’s called Guardians of Africa, and it’s being put together by a small team, and I’ve been brought in to consult on the core design of it.
GoA is an RPG-lite fighting game for iOS, and job one was to overhaul the combat. I figured I’d break down the individual weapons that the player could use into broad classes of weapon, then define powers – i.e. heavy slow attack, quick weak attack, etc – from there.
AN ASIDE, RE: STARFISH
When I write games, by the way, I embody something I call the STARFISH design principle. You like the way I capitalised STARFISH? It makes it sound like an acronym. Maybe it stands for Start Tenacious, Arrive Receptive, Finish Iterating, Shoot High. It doesn’t. What it means is I design games like a starfish eats dinner.
Do you know how a starfish eats dinner? They find their prey, and generally their prey is the sort of thing that gets outrun by a creature that moves at an average speed of nine metres an hour so we’re not talking gazelles here, then they sort of sit on top of it and vomit up their whole stomach on top of it, like, FUCK YOU, MIDDLEMAN. MIDDLE… MOUTH. Whatever.
Then they digest it, and suck the stomach back into their bodies, and honestly it’s super-gross and something I can’t recommend you even read about, except here we are.
Anyway – that’s how I write games. I vomit on them. No – I write down everything at once on a big sheet of paper. (I got an A3 pad especially for this purpose.) I just write down any old shit I can imagine on it that’s at least broadly relevant, and keep doing that, and sometimes I circle something in red pen because it’s less godawful than everything else, and then I stare. I have a good old stare and a think.
I sick my brain up onto that sheet of paper and then draw it all back in, and usually there’s something half-decent in there.
GET TO THE POINT, GRANT
I wrote down five weapons – a big axe, a pair of knives, a spear, a bow and arrow, and a sword. Pretty basic stuff. The great thing about using identifiable weapons is that we all already have a pretty good idea how all of these weapons work. You have no idea of the mechanics behind my game, but you can probably take a stab (snerk) at what they all do.
The big axe is heavy, obviously, so it’s high-damage, but it’s slow. Obviously. The knives, conversely, will be quick, but inflict less damage. The spear is long and traditionally viewed as a defensive weapon, so it’s probably lets you fight defensively or use the reach to avoid attacks. The bow and arrow lets you shoot at people, which means you can stick back out of melee. The sword…
Well, the sword lets you hit people, right? Except – all the other weapons do that already.
The sword was the first one I wrote down. It was the baseline. Swords are standard, though. Swords are the point you work out from. I sketched out a few sword powers, and they amounted to –
HIT A PERSON.
HIT A PERSON HARD, BUT IT TAKES LONGER TO RECHARGE.
HIT A PERSON REALLY HARD, BUT RISK GETTING HIT YOURSELF.
HIT A PERSON REALLY REALLY HARD, BUT IT TAKES AGES TO RECHARGE.
FASCINATING STUFF. And on the other side of the paper, the axe is calling out to me, saying “Ooh, Grant, don’t you want to work out the effect of a properly reckless roundhouse swing?” And the bow and arrow is saying “Hey, Grant! How about we shoot someone RIGHT IN THE EYE as a special move?”
So I grabbed my red pen and just scrubbed out all the sword moves, then pulled swords out of the game entirely. Normal wasn’t worth it. Normal didn’t excite. Normal was taking up valuable space that Special dearly needed.
CUT, CUT, CUT. ALTHOUGH NOT WITH A SWORD, OBVS
It’s not as though every other weapon is a grab-bag of special effects and unicorn farts; they do their jobs just fine. But the sword wasn’t one thing or the other. It was middle ground; it was me showing my working, except I was shoving the scrap into the final design for the game and trying to pass it off as interesting, and the middle ground is not interesting.
As game designers, we’re building worlds, and we can gloss over the idea that the middle ground is, in reality, pretty popular because it covers a load of bases. The middle ground is a concept borne of necessity. I hadn’t clocked it until now – until I’d actually had to build a combat system in a game that wasn’t just an exchange of dice results.
Make me choose between fast and slow. Make me push for offence or defence, for safe or risky, for black or white. Set the middle ground on fire and watch me run to the boundaries, then see if my experience isn’t better, richer, more vibrant because I made a difficult choice and committed instead of playing it safe.