Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Challenge: Be the NPC

Dean Ray Johnson (a.k.a dreamshade) over at the design forum, has decided one bi-weekly challenge isn't enough and has taken it upon himself to host an Unofficial design challenge. These challenges differ greatly from the 'official' challenges in that the winner is determined by vote rather than faceless judges who provide no reasoning or feedback.

In that regard it feels much more fair, especially since lately the official challenges have slid downhill, allowing entries that are almost double the allowed word count or are essentially just 'ideas' rather than 'designs'. It's also nice that actual quotes from voting members are posted after the challenge is over, allowing a designer to gain feedback on their entry rather than scratch their head and try to figure out why their entry placed.

The first of these unofficial challenges, "Be the NPC" just wrapped up and I've somehow managed to take first place with my "Adventure Insurance" concept, with a total of three votes. I'm surprised, because there were a lot of exceptionally good entries (I voted for this one, for example).

I decided I'd make a post about it, not to gloat (although it feels good to not only have won a challenge, but to have participated in one that isn't lame, corny or just plain uninspired), but because it's been 8 MONTHS since I've put anything up here. At least it hasn't been a year, right?

The Challenge
Make a game where the player takes on the role of a common video game Non-Player Character (NPC).

"Adventure Insurance"
In the magic kingdom of Hackmoor, brave adventurers embark on noble quests into perilous dungeons, facing monstrous evils and deadly traps, accumulating great wealth and fame! Excitement and danger lurks around every corner...

It’s all fun and games, until someone falls into lava, unleashes an ancient evil or ends up on the business end of a dragon. Ever wonder how RPG characters wake up back in town after a Game Over? As an accident recovery specialist of the Adventurer’s Assurance Agency, it’s up to you to indemnify policyholders in the event of insured loss.

In other words, you’ve got to put on your boots and slog through dungeons to bring back naive adventurous-types after they’ve bitten off more than they can chew and end up bitten and chewed inside some nasty beastie.

The gameplay is twofold; players must not only rescue adventurers from doom, but must build their agency up while facing down rival insurance agencies like THACO and GoldFarm. The business-management element takes the form of several small mini-games, while the rescue portions are reminiscent of turn-based dungeon crawlers.

Business Management:
To prosper, players must establish offices across the realm, preferably near the most dangerous (but profitable) locales. Because of their proximity to monster-filled lairs, players will occasionally need to defend them in a turn-based Worms-esque game loaded with siege weaponry and fortifications.

There’s also the matter of advertising; signs will need to be erected in the most visible areas, minstrels will need to be hired to compose jingles and songs celebrating your reliable service, and local events will need to be sponsored. This is all done via a tower defense-type minigame every market day.

Finally, players can invest their hard-earned gold in other adventure-related businesses, such as healing centers, item shops, gladiatorial games and the always-lucrative Monster Zoo.

When a policyholder bites the dust, it’s up to the player to head into the dungeons and drag them out. As an AAA agent, you’ve been given the best arms, armor and training available and can easily turn Level 60 dragons to cinder like they’re Level 2 bunnies. The difficulty lies in getting the adventurers out in one piece.

The rescue portion of the game plays like a turn-based RPG, with the player solving puzzles, defeating monsters, and dragging the adventurers out. This task is made more difficult by the very nature of adventuring. Each dungeon is unique, as are most of the sticky situations your customers get themselves into, with each mission playing out in completely different (and often, hilarious) ways.

Sometimes your customers are flesh-hungry zombies you’ll need to lure outside by assuming the role of a snack (do they make hot-dog suits out of chainmail?)

Sometimes they’re under an evil wizard’s spell and will attack you, though attacking them (as much as you’d like to) will violate the terms of their contract.

If it means tracking down and dragging back Prince Charming to wake a policyholder from eternal slumber, that’s what it takes to be the best Adventure Insurance Agent in Hackmoor!

There was also some discussion on my inclusion of the Market Day and Town Defense mini-games, as mini-games are often considered a waste of development resources that could be spent on the main game. However, I felt their inclusion was merited and gave my reasons why, which are explained below. It's a bit lengthy, so feel free to ignore it. You've already read everything important at this point.

"You used mini games in your entry a lot. I'm not a huge fan of minigames, though maybe I just haven't played a game that uses them well. I'd like to hear why you chose to put them in."
Obviously the 500-word limit is going to require cutting a lot of information, and since the Rescue missions are the core of the gameplay, that leaves the 'mini-games' a little under-described. Here's essentially what I had in mind and why;

I opted to remove any kind of non-dungeon exploration, such as a world map or overworld, specifically because the game is focused on the dungeons. However, there needs to be a way to interact with other NPCs (shopkeepers, etc) and I still wanted a way to represent the non-dungeon game world in some capacity. Thus, there are single-screen 'villages' in which the player buys and sells, gets to follow the story/interact with characters, and experience a little more satire/charm than is possible through the dungeons themselves.

All of the mini-games take place on these single-screen villages, and all have approximately the same goal and rewards; unlock new rescue missions, side-missions, and earn rewards.The two minigames are "Market Day", "Town Defense" and there's a third 'Meta-minigame', "Investment".

Market Day:
- Optional
- 3 to 4 minutes in length.
- Occurs every 7 missions.
- Unlocks additional missions.

Market Day plays a bit like the classic Pipe Dream; eager travelers arrive every market day at the main gate (at the top of the map) and flow through the town towards the exit (at the bottom of the map). Which route they take through the town is determined by what the player sets up to attract/repel the shoppers before they arrive; the player has a short amount of time before the gates open during which to set up his advertising strategy. The goal is to get as many people exposed to your advertising as possible.

There is no way to physically block the flow of people, but they are drawn towards certain things; music, bright colors, beautified green spaces, vendors and showmen (jugglers, flame-eaters, that sort of thing). Likewise, they tend to move away from certain things; dangerous-looking thugs, muddy or shady-looking areas.

The player has direct control over all of these things; they can donate fountains, hire people to mow the grass, pave over muddy spots, etc. They can gain dyes from certain monsters to brighten up the community. They can hire showmen and thugs to direct the flow of people.

The goal is to get people going where you want them and being exposed to your advertising (and away from rival ads), in the form of signs and barkers. At the end of the round, your saturation is metered and new missions unlock once you reach certain thresholds. And of course, the nicer your town is, the more people you attract; your average village might have a few simple missions, but attracting out-of-town nobles can unlock much more dangerous (and interesting) missions.

Market Day happens once per 'game week' with rescue missions taking up one 'game day'. Thus, you'll only see the game once every 7 missions. It's also designed to be very short, like a bonus round; I estimate no more than 3 or 4 minutes at the most.

Beyond the basic desire to have non-dungeon sections of the game, the Market Day game is almost a city-building game done in short, timed intervals. It allows players to sink in-game currency and rewards into each community in exchange for new missions and side-missions which can't be unlocked any other way.

The game itself is optional; if you decide to skip market day, you'll only get the missions essential to the main storyline. But that's missing a huge chunk of the game.

It also breaks up the Rescue missions a little; I have no doubt that the main dungeon aspect would be fun enough that players wouldn't want to take a break from it, but the option still exists. It also gives players a point at which to stop, by establishing the end of a game week (i.e. "Ok, I'll finish out the week and then I've got to get back to homework").

Town Defense:
- Approx. 5 minutes in length.
- Occurs as a result of player actions, but at least once a 'game month'.
- Optional.
- Unlocks side missions and yields rewards.

The Town Defense game is a Turn-based strategy game where players have to drive monsters and minions away from their town. Like the Market Day game, Town Defense takes place on a single screen representing the current village the player is operating out of.

Enemy monsters appear at various entry points on the map and head towards the town barracks where the villagers have gathered for protection. It's up to the player to stop them.

The actual combat plays a bit like Worms: each round you're allowed to move and attack in real time until your time runs out, during which you have to manually aim each attack. It makes heavy use of fortifications (to direct the flow of enemies) and siege weaponry, but Players can also use a variety of special units or weapons. For example, recovery teams to grab any loot the monsters drop (which disappears in a few rounds), masonry teams to brick up passageways, or repair teams to fix destroyed siege equipment.

Defeat all of the monsters before they reach the barracks and make off with villagers. Each monster can carry one villager away (which occurs instantly), and though the player cannot 'lose' the game, the rewards can dip significantly.

Not only does the player keep any treasure he recovers, but saving the town increases the number of villagers who show up during Market Day and allows the player more time to set up before the gates open. Lose too many villagers to monster attack and you'll get fewer missions and less time to prepare on Market Days.

Special missions are also unlocked when you successfully defend a town, usually awarded by the mayor or grateful nobility.

Monsters only attack the village if they're provoked or enraged. This can happen if the player acts too aggressively in dungeons (i.e. killing the orc chieftain when unnecessary will result in very angry orcs), but also occurs every few weeks during a Full Moon. However, if the game month has already seen a monster attack, then the full moon has no effect.

This is probably the lesser of the two mini-games, but it still has some value.

First, players can intentionally provoke monster attacks to quickly farm up some rewards. As mentioned above, players can target specific dungeon denizens to provoke these attacks, so if you're looking to increase your supply of Orc Hides, you can goad the orcs into attacking and then quickly blow them up with catapults. I liken this to the choice between Hunting vs. Buying Food in Oregon Trail. This is also a great way to catch monsters for the Zoo (see below).

Second, defending a town means the town reveres you, unlocking new missions and increasing the time you have to set up on Market Day.

Finally, there's lots of missions that can only be unlocked by defending the town. Advertising can only do so much, but standing up and protecting your neighbors will have local politicians and wealthy citizens making use of your services as well.

Investment: (Meta Game)
This isn't exactly a mini-game, but it does take place outside of dungeons and can occupy a lot of time. Between missions, players can interact with various shops and townfolk, all of which have a variety of things they want, need, or are willing to do.

Almost every business has some kind of investment opportunity, usually in hard currency. Putting money into a business allows that business to grow, which has various results; better inventories, more customers on Market Day, new objects to utilize in the other two mini games and new side-missions. For example, investing in a Blacksmith adds new weapons and armor to the town, both for the player and to lure in new adventurers. The Blacksmith may start to offer side-missions where he asks for ore or supplies while in the nearby dungeon.

You can also sponsor special events, which draws more people into town on market day, lures in special vendors, or unlocks new objects to use in the other two mini-games. Sponsoring gladiatorial games will draw in people, attract rare weapon salesmen, and allow players to add Champion Statues to your town (which can draw people towards your advertising).

Investing in the town yields greater results for everyone, and each town usually has its fair share of quirky investment opportunities. For example, one town may have a Monster Zoo where you can send captured monsters, unlocking side-missions to capture new critters. Antique shops will purchase rare goods you find while exploring (and request you bring them more).

Each town has a different setup for investment, with each town generally growing along a unique course (One town will become revered for weaponry, another for it's monster zoo, another for it's beautiful gardens of rare plants, etc.).

Again, as towns grow, more missions unlock, new equipment becomes available, and the two mini-games gain new features and benefits.

I hope you've enjoyed reading and won't hold the giant gap in posts against me; I've been preoccupied with somewhat more important things than writing about video games.

Thanks for reading.

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