New Ideas

August 09, 2012

So I was rocking the California vacation the last couple weeks. True to vacation form, I didn't get much of anything constructive done.
A little bit. But not a lot.
My main accomplishment over vacation was finally 100%ing The Binding of Isaac expansion (a long, sordid tale of pain and misery). Well, that and rage-quitting a game of Twilight Struggle at 4 in the morning, because, well, it was 4 in the morning.
But, yes, I wanted to talk about The Binding of Isaac a bit. Well, actually, I wanted to point to someone else talking about The Binding of Isaac because that way I don't have to type as much: http://gameological.com
So this article made a lot of sense to me as a gamer and really got me thinking about the draw of randomly generated games and why I have played The Binding of Isaac for 262 hours (according to Steam). I don't know how I feel about that number, but there it is.
It seems to me that the beast of random generation has certain advantages in entertaining players over choreographed affairs, but has very distinct challenges to overcome, as well. Let us consider the problem.
So first of all, the main advantage of randomness is the idea of exploration. Let's say I'm playing Zelda for the first time. There is a great thrill in stepping into a new dungeon and not knowing what is ahead of you, but that feeling is only going to happen once (per dungeon). Once you've explored the dungeon, its going to be the same experience every time you come back to it. Random games offer the possibility of infinite replayablility. If you enjoy the mechanics of a game, then you are happy to play it over and over because you will experience something new every time you do.
Of course, with this ever-shifting terrain can come a distinct lack of progression. Yes, when you play video games, you're essentially just moving pixels around on a glowy box and not exactly curing cancer or solving the economic crisis in Europe, but still, you want to feel a sense of accomplishment. Progression makes the player feel good about themselves. Even if you enjoy a game's mechanics, if all you can do is sit down for a half an hour, play through a randomized dungeon and get nothing in return, you'll stop playing the game relatively quickly.
So we look at two kinds of progression. The first is an advancement of a player's knowledge of the game and the player's skill set used to overcome the game. The harder the game is and the more diverse its randomness (the more items, monsters, bosses, etc. the random generator has access to throw at the player), the more this type of progression becomes valued, i.e. the more progress a player makes of this kind, the better that player will feel about playing the game. I could offer examples, but it's late and I'm getting tired. The gist is, from my perspective, the harder a game becomes in the sense of "skill difficulty" as opposed to "just plain mean difficulty," the more enjoyable this type of progression is. However, random games don't really have an advantage here, as a normal game can have very similar and equally rewarding difficulty curves (just look at Demon/Dark Souls for a good example).
The second kind of progression one can find in random games is the concept of achievements and unlockables. These can be insignificant (most Flash games I've played) or mostly non-existent (Spelunky), but truly great progression derived from achievements happens when you add something new and exciting to the randomly-generated world as a reward for the player accomplishing some important task. And I think this is really where The Binding of Isaac excels. Starting a fresh save file of Isaac, the dungeon isn't that big and your available item possibilities are relatively few. But the more you play and the more you accomplish tasks, you unlock a small horde of new characters, increase the size of the game by at least 2, at least triple the number of items you can possibly get, and as you learn more and accomplish more, you also unlock new and harder enemies and bosses to keep you on your toes. All of these things add immeasurably to the replay value.
Another thing to consider is adding as much diversity to the randomness as possible so that it truly feels like a new game every time you play it. Again, look at The Binding of Isaac. Not only are the dungeon and monsters randomly generated, but the items the player gets are also highly randomized such that you never get the same build twice. And they all have a great impact on how the player interacts with the world such that a different build leads to an entirely different game.
Also, the key to entertainment in a random game is the thrill of exploration. It's exciting because you don't know what's around that next corner. So you have to do everything you can to make exploration of the randomly-generated world as quick, painless and fun as possible (while still keeping the actual game play challenging of course). I'm thinking of Dungeons of Dredmor here as an example of what not to do. That game takes so long to move around, explore everything and kill monsters, if you die or finish the game, there's no desire to start a new game and do all that drudge work again. And even within a single playthrough of the game, every level feels exactly the same as the one before it, just with a different background. Yeah, I guess that's what I'm trying to say. Bottom line, exploration shouldn't feel like repetitive drudge work. Of course, different people like doing different things, so I guess drudge work is kind of a relative term.
Anyway, I guess this big long speech is leading up to me saying that now I'm thinking of another game to develop, possibly in conjunction with Gathering Storm. It would feature the same 1st person dungeon exploration and turn-based combat engine as Gathering Storm, but within a randomized dungeon that uses all the ideas outlined above to make it as enjoyable as possible. I've got a lot of specific ideas about how to make that possible, but we don't need to go into that yet.
I'm just really excited about the concept. I think with the proper work it could be really great. I've just gotta get Lazy Robots pounded out already so that I can go back to that original fossil. Speak of, I have a short list of things I am trying to accomplish with Lazy Robots before I am going to make an alpha version available for people to test.
I think I can get everything crossed off the list by the end of the weekend, so stay tuned for that.


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