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The ground gives way.

Sometimes part of game development is comparing your game with others in the same genre. Today I tried out a newly released roguelike, "The Ground Gives Way".

Level 1

I like this game. It's quite fun and the procedural parts fit together well to create a game which feels scripted, like there's a kind of evolving narrative. That's an important part of effective procedural generation, that it doesn't seem totally random. For example I got to level 4 and there were 4 exits to the next level, but all but one of them was an empty room with no access to the rest of level 5. I also found a grill, so I could cook some food if I had some meat (I didn't have any).

Level 4 and my death.

It's a pretty difficult game, but there isn't quite the steep learning curve you get with many roguelikes. It starts difficult and stays difficult. That's because advancement isn't handled through XP and levels, but through getting better equipment.

The funny thing about this game is it uses several game mechanics I had planned for my own project. So it's interesting to see how they worked out.

A giant Chameleon. Kill it, or avoid it, it's your choice.

1. No XP for monster kills. The game isn't a grind, you don't want to kill every monster and you sometimes want to run away, or sneak past sleeping monsters. That gives an exciting situation. Because you rarely want to (and honestly can't) kill every monster, there are plenty still roaming around, you have to keep in mind where they are otherwise you could run it to one while fleeing from something else (how I died above). In my own project there will be some progression, you'll be able to learn new skills and boost your attributes, but such things will come about because of things other than killing monsters. You'll get karma to spend each time you do something new for the first time, or for particularly inventive or successful gameplay strategies. You can then spend that karma either on upgrading one of your characters or to restore a badly wounded or damaged character to healthy status, a kind of get out of jail free card (at the expense of improving your character).

Food and drink.


2. Eat to rest. You need food to rest, that leads to some very interesting situations where your health is getting lower, you've got good equipment and a good chance of survival, but you can't rest, so each encounter becomes more and more dangerous. You find yourself having to use unidentified potions (I found one that turned out to be a bottle of milk = 1 food = I could rest = yay!) or scrolls and you're looking around more and more desperately to find food or some useful stuff to keep you alive long enough to find more food. All the while you know that if you die, it's for good. There's no save and reload here, death means death. The mechanic in my project will be a little different, you enter rest mode first, and then eat food to regain your abilities. So you can use a little food and restore your characters a little, or use a lot and get back to full strength. I'm also thinking of needing water before you can eat, but I'll have to test it. There will be fountains and barrels and things where you can go to top up your water supply, which will lead to natural "rest areas" in the game. Needs full testing to see if it's fun or just annoying.


3. Fleeing monsters. If a monster gets badly wounded it will try to escape instead of just mindlessly continuing to attack. It's a great complement to the earlier idea of not having to kill every monster. There's also a desire to hunt down the fleeing monster and finish it off, so it won't come back later fully healed after you've rested. This can lead to quite a thrilling chase! There are times when the player needs to run away too. I was attacking a giant crab and saw that he had a 30% chance to hit me, while I had only a 10% chance of scoring a hit. In the end I couldn't hope to win in a stand up fight so I ran away and locked the door behind me. Crabs can't open doors so I was safe enough to rest. I went back later with a wand of fire and dealt with the crab so i could pick up the items that were in the room. If there hadn't have been any items, I could have happily left him in there. Morale is supposed to be an important mechanic in my project, with characters and monsters alike fleeing when things get too tough, but I'm wondering if players won't be too annoyed at their characters running away from combat. I think It needs some work.

Over all I though that TGGW was a great game. It's pretty short, you could play a single run though in your lunch break. It has nice game mechanics which give a pretty unique gaming experience every time you play and overall it seemed pretty well done, with no obvious bugs and a nicely written tutorial to guide you through the basics of game play.

As I said, playing it has given me a lot to think about. One areas where it's made me think a lot is in the area of fear and psychological effects in my project.

Terrifying!

In The Ground Gives Way the player often decides to flee rather than risk combat. This is a player decision and feels like an organic part of the game experience. You don't feel like you are being manipulated in to running away. You don't feel like your character is out of your control. I need to think about this when designing my own mechanic because previously I wanted characters to run away from combat on their own when they become afraid (The AI takes over moving them and they are unavailable until they recover their wits). I've since changed my mind about how to handle fear in the game. Here are some of my ideas:

Idea 1.
Follow the leader. There is a difference between that project and my own and that's the fact that in "The Treasures of the Deep Dwellers" you'll be controlling a party, not a lone adventurer. That gives me a little more leeway when intervening in how the characters act. If there is a main character and followers, the followers can be made to flee while the main character won't.

You'll have to decide whether to follow your cowardly thief or stick around. Can you take the pack of zombies with just two members of your party? I like this idea, as it allows me to add more personality to the characters. But there is the risk people would be put off the game when direct control is taken away from them.

Idea 2.
The fear effect. The game is going to have a number of effects like bleeding and poison or disease and rather than having strong and weak versions of effects, they are just going to be stackable. Like you might have poison x3 or broken bones x1. Fear could be handled in the same way. Fear will give a character a penalty to their effectiveness. As your party becomes more and more afraid it would be wise to withdraw and try to rally in order to remove the fear effects.

Certain situations can cause fear (like seeing the magician get his guts spilled or having the torch go out) and some monsters can cause fear, either as a always on effect or as a active use effect (like a beastman's roar). Maybe even players can have skills that do the same thing to enemies. Giving a warcry before charging in to combat would be a fun tactic I think. The big benefit of this game mechanic is that the choice of whether to flee remains in the hands of the player.

Idea 3.
6 of one and half a dozen of the other. The other thing I can do is to combine both ideas. Fear will be used as an effect, just like poison or disease, but if it gets too strong, then finally you'll lose control of the affected character. This would be a rare case, perhaps if you're fighting a very powerful monster such as a dragon or daemon. The result probably wouldn't be total failure (the game is going to give you quite a few chances, it's not quite as hardcore difficult as other roguelikes). Rather it would mean withdrawing and regrouping, which could be expensive, but not disastrous.

There are going to be character classes devoted to morale management in the game, specifically the priest. If you don't have one of these characters, you may find yourself having to plan for a retreat more often. You'll also have to deal with stacked fear effects on your party. One thing that makes this option less attractive is that it could be in specifically those situations where you most need to stand and fight where your characters are getting up and running away. As party members die and you accidentally run in to another group of monsters while fleeing you could find your party  losing coherence at an exponential rate. Then it stops being a fun game mechanic and becomes a frustrating one.

Final thoughts...
I do want fear and other psychological effects in the game, it's something that is missing from all games, the human element. We have war games where soldiers act like robots, throwing themselves on to the enemies guns without fear. We have fantasy games where every monster fights to the death. There are lots of ways to handle these things but we always run in to the problem that when control is taken away, we feel frustrated, and a frustrating game is not fun.

It's going to take a lot of testing to make sure which ever idea I chose works well, but I think it will be worth it. It's one of the pillars of my game design document and like large monsters and weapon wear and tear it's not something that I could consider dropping completely.

Anyway...
You can download TGGW for free from the maker's website here:

(opens in a new window)

I can heartily recommend it. :)

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