Dungeon League: A Quick Update

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Dungeon League – the fantasy football board game I’m working on. Since then we’ve made a lot of progress on all fronts. So, it’s time for a quick update:
We did a lot of playtesting and as a result the rules have been refined multiple times and now count more than 5000 words plus explaining images. Until now it’s a simple Word document and the final layout in InDesign still needs to be done.

DungeonLeague_Regeln
Florian Haeckh joined our team to color all the characters Lena is drawing. We’re extremely happy with his work, which you can see in the pictures below.
The player cards are finalized and I’m very happy with the result. It captures the fantasy theme nicely while presenting all necessary information in a clear and neatly arranged way.

Cards_printed
The football field got an update, too. The energy bars as well as the score display and the bar to keep track of the played rounds were added to keep as much info as possible on the game board itself.

Dungeon League_02
And just recently we have launched a website for Dungeon League.

DungeonLeague_Website
This was just a quick overview of what has happened on this project in the last months. We’re now working on finishing the rest of the character art (till now 8 of 35 players are completely finished), on the club cards, all the tokens and of course testing and balancing also keeps us busy.
If you want to get updates on Dungeon League more regularly, please visit the website or follow us on Facebook.

2013 or: How I Learned to Love the Indie(s)

The last level of 2013 is coming to an end. There’s only one last challenge to overcome (eating all the Christmas food without bursting) until we can lean back and enjoy the firework during the end titles. So how was 2013? How was the gameplay? The graphics? The story? Here are my six (a number much more likeable than 5!) most favorite games of 2013:

Rayman Legends

A level perfectly choreographed to Eye of the Tiger! Do I have to say more? For this and the other music levels alone Rayman Legends would have made it to my list. But there are so many more levels in this game that are chock-full of creative ideas. Every time you think “Okay, now I’ve seen it all” the next level will introduce just another gameplay element that fits perfectly to the underlying mechanics. And then there are the 8-bit bonus levels. Again, I thought “Okay, these are just the previous levels in a slightly different look”, but Ubisoft proved me wrong again. These levels are simply insane – in a completely positive way!

Rayman Legends is the first Jump ‘n’ Run in years in which I came back to levels I already completed, because they were so much fun. One of the foundations for this level of enjoyment was the incredibly smooth learning curve. Yes, people who claim Super Meat Boy would be too easy might not be challenged enough, but I think the designers have done a great job in training the player: Taking him from really simple to really hard without touching the spheres of boredom or frustration.

And best of all: Rayman Legends has a really well-done co-op mode. My wife and I played the game on the Wii U. Most of the time she was controlling Murphy via the GamePad – clearing all the obstacles out of the way – while I was doing the jumping and running. For us this worked much better  as for example the co-op in Donkey Kong Country Returns, where usually one of us was slower or faster than the other and thus had problems to stay within the field of view. In Rayman Legends we both had our tasks that didn’t interfere with each other. The only interfering took place in the level selection screens – the sound of slapping each other is just too damn good! *slap*

The Stanley Parable

This game will probably appear on a lot of “Best of”-lists this year and it absolutely deserves it. There hasn’t been a game with such intelligent and self-reflective humor before. As a designer who thinks a lot about storytelling in games I cannot praise The Stanley Parable enough for portraying some of the most recurring flaws in interactive stories in such a perfect way. This parody is the ideal learning course for aspiring game designers as it makes you feel the pain of players whose decisions are not at all respected by the game.

TheStanleyParable

Did you unlock the achievement “Click on door 430 five times”? I did, of course, while continuously shaking my head and thinking: Isn’t it scary what people do for a stupid icon of 50 x 50px? The Stanley Parable does not only criticize games and their designers, but makes fun of the players at the same time.

While criticizing fake choices in game design The Stanley Parable itself offers an impressive amount of “real” choices. I tried to open every door, interact with every object in every room and I was really surprised what the game had to offer. Climbing circuitous over desks to jump out of a window = breaking the game? Nope, it’s all part of the experience.

Gone Home

As game designer it can be very hard to get immersed in a game without thinking about its underlying mechanics all the time. Gone Home made me forget my analytical thinking for a while – something not many games accomplished in recent years.

GoneHome_small

Gone Home has the most mature story in a game I have ever experienced. Homosexuality, parental conflicts and even suicide are topics that Gone Home touches in a very emotional way. But what I like most about Gone Home is its clever usage of environmental storytelling. The game might have only one (relatively small) level, but this house is so brimful of story that at the end of the game – even though you never met any of its inhabitants – you seem to know all of them better than any of your neighbors in real-life. The intensity of its narrative is achieved by the way Gone Home lets you explore all its tiny story bits by yourself. Instead of serving a complete plot the game just provides you with small fragments and leaves it up to you to connect them and draw your conclusions, which leads to a level of involvement otherwise impossible.

And for those of you arguing “But it’s not a real game!” – Here, somebody fixed that for you:

GoneHome Weapon_small

Image source: Twitter

But honestly: Who cares what we call it? It’s a great interactive experience and that’s all that matters for me.

Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons

While The Stanley Parable and Gone Home were discussed nearly everywhere Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons didn’t quite get the attention it deserved. And that’s sad, because it did so many things right. First of all and most obvious it looks extremely good. A unique and very consistent art style, wonderful lighting and great level design make you feel like you fell right into a book of fairytales.

Brothers A Tale of Two Sons_small

The Stanley Parable and Gone Home had great stories without showing any characters. Brothers even set words aside. The characters communicate in their own pseudo-language and still you understand everything simply through their tone and gestures. The same goes for the intuitive puzzle design – there’s no need to explain things. After understanding how to control the two brothers individually with the left and right thumb-stick everything else feels completely logical. It’s nice to see how everything else in the game is centered around this innovative control scheme.

Grand Theft Auto V

A lot was said and written about GTA V in the last months, but whether you liked the torturing scene or GTA in general, everybody has to agree that the amount of highly polished content in this game is simply astonishing. Bringing all these pieces together to create such a vibrant and consistent game world deserves respect. But there are better reasons why part V is in my opinion the best installment of the series.

GTAV_small

First of all, the main characters finally fit perfectly to the destructive gameplay. In previous installments the characters behaved completely different in cutscenes than they would during the interactive parts. Michael and Trevor with all their obsessions and psychoses may be a bit over the top, but in the context of GTAs gameplay they are the most believable characters I could imagine.

Second, the parody of modern western lifestyle is just brilliant. The GTA-version of a Facebook office. The elderly British stalker couple. All the hipster talk between Michael and Trevor. The Yoga teacher. Michaels kids. The TV show Fame or Shame, basically the whole fictional city of L.A.

And last but not least GTA V uses methods of episodic storytelling to great success. A lot of the main missions reveal just a little bit more about Michael’s and Trevor’s past or at least give you some new hints, while also bringing up new questions at the same time. This overarching plot ties the missions together nicely and holds up tension and interest throughout the whole game. It’s clever “information management”, which TV series are already doing for years. And as I explained in a previous post I think these structures are a perfect fit for games, too, so I’m happy to see them in action.

Papers, Please

Last on this completely unsorted list, but definitely not least: Papers, Please – for me by far the biggest surprise this year. As a colleague told me about a game, in which you play a customs officer and basically just stamp passports all day long, I laughed and said it sounds like the most boring thing I could imagine. But he really seemed to have fun with this strange game, so I took a look at some screenshots. This didn’t help to convince me, either. Then came a steam sale and I finally overcame my doubts. And well, it’s just brilliant. If I would be in the position of handing out awards, Lucas Pope would definitely get the one for most innovative game mechanics. Turning such a boring activity (no offense, customs officers!) into something this fun is genius!

papers-please_small

Papers, Please stresses you out and puts more and more pressure on you. Every day you receive new orders. Does the traveler have all the required papers? Does height and weight fit the numbers on the passport? Are any of his papers expired? Does he even look like the guy on the passport? Ok, let him pass. Oh no! He was on the list of wanted criminals that was hidden by all the other documents on your desk! You messed it up and receive another penalty decreasing your mingy salary – another night without enough food for your family. And believe me, even though you never get to see any of your relatives it feels horrible whenever you fail to earn enough to pay for rent, heat and food.

Papers, Please is not a game that makes you feel powerful, the contrary is the case: You feel like a very small number in a giant bureaucratic system. Some travelers will beg you for help, but the consequences for your family always make you think at least twice before breaking any rules. It’s really a moral dilemma.

Looking at it from a rather practical standpoint makes you also admire the whole user interface. You have to do everything manually. Placing the documents on the table, turning pages in the rule-book, selecting information that don’t match, fetching the stamps, stamping, handing all the papers back to the traveler – the mouse-cursor is constantly busy. You want shortcuts? Well, work hard enough and you might be able to buy a few. What sounds like against all rules of good usability works perfectly to bring you in a state of flow.

I could go on like this for quite some time, but in the end Papers, Please is a game you have to play for yourself to fully understand its brilliancy.

2013 or: How I Learned to Love the Indie(s)

When I look at my list and compare it to what I would have expected it to look like at the beginning of this year, I’m quite surprised. SimCity, Tomb Raider, Dishonored, BioShock Infinite – these were the games I had on my list, but The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, Brothers and Papers, Please stole the show. They all prove that it’s not just the budget that makes a good game. And most importantly, they all show that indie games can be so much more than procedural-generated content and pixel nostalgia. In the last years I often struggled with indie games as I’m not a big fan of just another pixel-art platformer with a slight twist and a learning curve screaming “I’m so hardcore!”. This year more and more indies seem to finally break free from resurrecting “good old games” and try to discover new routes instead. A smooth learning curve, a polished user interface and great storytelling don’t have to be exclusive to AAA titles. I highly appreciate this development and hope to see much more in this direction in the coming years.

Aristotle was not a Game Designer

This week gamesindustry.biz published an interesting article by legendary game designer Warren Spector, in which he talks about universal rules for game design. Even though the text doesn’t contain completely new findings or revolutionary statements, he addresses one problem that I find is worth some more attention. In his last point Spector writes about the issue of “time” in narrative games:

Obviously games can tell stories. So, let’s start from the premise that all that Aristotle stuff applies to us. Agreed? Okay, now let’s talk about the one narrative problem Aristotle didn’t talk about – the one we have to solve that other media don’t. I call it the Act 2 Problem.

First off: I don’t think that Aristotle took games into consideration when he wrote about the structure of ancient Greek plays. Doesn’t it make a huge difference, whether the audience watches a play or movie or reads a book passively or if they actively take part in the story? This, for me, is still one of the biggest problems when it comes to story in games. We try to impose established story structures on games without properly adapting them to our medium.

ThreeActStructureFlatImage source: http://bit.ly/1atY4Yw

We’re fine setting up a story (Act 1). And we’re pretty good at ending one (Act 3). We do denouement well enough. Our beginnings and endings tend to be fairly linear and brief.

Are we really good at this? And if so, why? Because we rely on techniques of another medium, namely movies, to present a stunning cutscene? From my head I can remember exactly one really good beginning and one really good ending that were not just cutscenes: The beginning of The Last of Us and the ending of Red Dead Redemption. Of course there are some more beginnings and endings that are quite ok, but to me it feels like cheating when most games don’t even try to bring some interactivity to these particular parts. So in my humble opinion we as an industry still have a lot to improve to create intros and endings that embrace the key strengths of our medium.
But the main problem, and that’s where I totally agree with Spector, is the part in between:

But Act 2? The part of the story where, having established the hero’s problem and gotten him up a tree you throw narrative rocks at the poor schmo? That part, we’re not so good at. And we have trouble with that for one simple reason, I think:
Time.
For some reason I have never been able to understand why players expect games to fill up 15 to 100 hours of their lives. No other medium is like that. Even a short game is the equivalent – in commitment of time on the part of the user – with the average television season. Think about that – a single game is roughly equivalent to an entire season of television.

This could be one of the reasons why so many players never see the end of a game. We lose their interest in this never-ending second act. Personally, I hate it to not finish a game that I started. But I get so bored by games like Assassin’s Creed – that stretch their narrative over dozens of hours without letting the plot make relevant progress – that I did not finish any of the series’ last installments.

While I fully agree with Spector, I think it’s kind of funny that he doesn’t see an answer for the problem, even though he mentions one briefly. He compares the scope of games with seasons in television. And this comparison hits the nail on the head! Due to their expected length games are much closer to TV series than to the average 90 minutes Hollywood movie or a typical stage play. Which brings us back to the three act structure and Aristotle: It simply isn’t made for stories of this length! Television has found much better structures for this purpose over the last decades. Daily soaps and prime time serials like Lost, Breaking Bad and many others are using them with great success. So, what’s the difference to the three act structure?

tieredImage source: http://bit.ly/h8eRXD

Modern television serials use some kind of tiered narrative structure. Episodes have self-contained story arcs, that bring a regular element of closure , while also providing series-long arcs and multi-episode arcs that join several episodes together.

This model makes the act two problem completely irrelevant as it basically offers an act one, act two and act three in every single episode. Instead of building up tension for that one climax after 40 hours of gameplay, this structure would offer a climax for nearly every play session. This needs much more work on the narrative side (that’s why television series usually have a large team of writers), but it would fit the time schedule of the average player so much better. Telltale already proved that this narrative structure can work for games pretty well, even though they didn’t dare to go beyond mini-series of at most five episodes.

Just as disclaimer: I don’t think that all games should be delivered episodically. They don’t have to be published in episodes to take advantage of a serial story structure. Breaking Bad, Lost and all the others are also extremely entertaining when buying all seasons as a bundle and watching them one after the other.

So, all I’m saying is: if we want to learn from established story structures, we should learn from the ones that fit our medium best. Games deserve more than just three acts! Nobody (at least nobody I know) plays through 50+ hours of content in one or two marathon sessions. Players consume games in small chunks anyway, so it would make a lot of sense to establish narrative structures that support this behavior. And by the way: Levels, missions or quests are already structures that go into that direction. It just often feels like they are randomly scattered throughout the game world and not linked to each other or the overarching plot in any way. But methods for linking story arcs together, for providing closure and climax points regularly are already out there – just look at them a bit closer the next time you enjoy your favorite television serial.

Welcome to the Dungeon League!

In my last post I wrote about the beginning of a new project: Dungeon League, a fantasy soccer board game. Yes, the baby got a name! I got tired of calling it just “the game” and surprisingly the name “Dungeon League” – which blends the soccer and fantasy themes perfectly – seems to be unused so far.

I was thrilled how fast the first prototype was ready to play – remember? Well, now the progress is slowing down drastically as we are knee-deep in the asset building process. But the enthusiasm remains!

Before talking more about the creation process, let me give you a rough overview of the game’s rules. Dungeon League is a competitive two player game that combines a tactical board game with the feeling of a typical trading card game. Both players assume the role of a trainer/manager. The game begins by choosing a club. Every club comes with a specific bonus and a special action that can be used only once per game. Next comes the player buying. Both trainers need to buy ten players with a given amount of money. Every player has different stats and a special ability. Choosing the right team is very important. If you have a perfect striker, but no good provider who can hit a precise cross, it can become very hard to score.

When both teams are complete, the game begins. Seven players (including the goalie) are simultaneously on the field, while the other three players are put on the bench. The reason why it’s seven vs. seven and not eleven vs. eleven is simply to avoid the timesink that would occur, if the trainers would have to choose actions for so many players on the field.  SpielbrettIn every turn a trainer can let all of his players perform up to two actions. For example a player could perform two move actions or one move and a pass. Every action costs energy. If a player runs out of energy, it becomes very likely that he gets injured. Managing the energy level while finding the right strategy to get through the opponents defensive is a key element.
The following actions are at the player’s disposal:

  • Move
  • Sprint
  • Short range pass
  • Medium range pass
  • Long range pass
  • Cross (pass to a striker in the penalty zone)
  • Protect the ball
  • Shot on goal
  • Header on goal
  • Tackling
  • Foul
  • Man-to-man marking
  • Regenerate

Some actions are always a success, e.g. regenerating energy cannot fail. Other actions require a successful dice roll for one of the player’s stats. And yet others require both trainers to roll a dice to determine the result. That’s it in short. I will explain some of the game mechanics in detail in the following posts.

As I said we are now mostly working on all the player cards. Every player needs a name, a unique artwork, balanced stats and an interesting special ability. For the final product we are currently aiming for at least 35 unique player characters. That alone is quite a lot to draw and balance. On top of that there will be at least 12 different clubs. To manage all that information articy:draft comes in quite handy:

articy_draftYes, this is shameless advertising!

Our short-term goal is to get all assets to a state, where we can use them in playtests without letting the assets spoil the fun. Pieces out of simple paper for example are more than enough for a quick playtest at home, but they don’t provide a good haptic experience and can lead to an overall bad impression. Another example are abbreviations that only the creators understand. Definitely hindering in a real playtest. So icons, texts and the basic layout must get to a level where we don’t have to explain others what they actually mean and it makes sense to print them on some better material.
Here’s a first glimpse on a rough sketch for the player cards:

FontTest_Gentium

Designing a Board Game: New Love for Paper

For a few days I have been spending most of my leisure time designing a game. I must admit: that’s nothing particularly unusual for a game designer. But this time it’s different. Usually I’m working on concepts and ideas for computer games. And while this is a lot of fun and good practice, it most often tends to result in concepts too big to be completed by just one guy working on it in his free time. Code, art, sound, animation… computer games simply require an enormous amount of work. Not to mention my lousy art and animation skills that absolutely don’t live up to my own standards. So, this time the goal was clear: Finishing a game with just the available resources within a relatively short time span.

Motivated by the research for a lecture about Paper Prototyping I was giving at the SAE Bochum, I decided to do something non-digital this time (even though I never was a big fan of working with scissors and paper in the past). But the advantages are obvious:

  • No need to code or animate
  • No setup time for choosing an engine, etc.
  • Full focus on the game mechanics

Of course a board/ card game also needs many, many iterations and assets, until it can be called finished, but (at least with my skill-set) it’s incredibly more likely to bring it to completion.

I came up with an idea pretty quick: A game about football set in a fantasy world with a good dose of humor. Yes, I am aware of the fact that this might sound similar to Blood Bowl by Games Workshop. But there are some important differences:

  • This game is about real football (not the rugby-like American variation!)
  • This game is aimed to be much simpler in its rules

The huge differences between American Football and European football (or soccer) would already be more than enough to lead to two completely different board games. But more important are the differences regarding the target audience. While Blood Bowl clearly aims at hardcore players, this game is also for casual players, who don’t want to measure ranges with rulers or read a 80 pages handbook.

The first prototype with a too small playing field. Btw: Settlers of Catan pieces can be used for nearly everything.The first prototype with a too small playing field. Btw: Settlers of Catan pieces can be used for nearly everything.

So, the overall design goals are clear:

  • The rule-set should be simple enough to get new players into a match quickly…
  • … while still leading to highly tactical gameplay
  • The game shall include all the interesting parts of football like spectacular goals, clever passing, precise tackling, tactical fouls, wrong referee decisions…
  • … while leaving out the parts that only slow down the game like the ball going over the touchline or offside positions

With these goals in mind I created a very rough first prototype. While I was surprised how “playable” the game already was, the first playtest of course revealed a lot of flaws. In my attempt to keep it simple, I had designed a playing field that was way too small. This made it nearly completely unnecessary to move players in possession of the ball. It felt a bit like the famous soccer match from The Simpsons.

But this – along with a lot of other issues – was fixed quickly and the next playtest already was a lot more fun. One round in particular contained all the emotions of a good football match: My attack was stopped by a nasty foul that was not seen by the referee. The counterattack began. A really far and difficult pass to Mara Donna, the gnome striker waiting right in the center of my penalty area, was a success. I still didn’t worry, because my best defender was right there and did a nice and clear tackling. But Mara Donna used her special ability to dive and (of course!) the referee fell for it, so she got a (completely undeserved!) spot kick. It was extremely close, but my keeper couldn’t prevent the goal. I was outraged, while my wife celebrated the success of her completely unsportsmanlike behavior!

The second iteration of the playing field - much more fun!The second iteration of the playing field – much more fun!

I retained myself from doing the hooligan. Mainly because she had agreed on doing the artwork for the game’s player cards and finding a new artist would be quite annoying.  So while I’m further tweaking and optimizing the rules, she is busy drawing the first player characters.

The sketch for Mara Donna. She's really fake!The sketch for Mara Donna. She’s really fake!

In the end I really developed a new love for paper in the last days. The fact that I produced a fully playable prototype in just two days, was a motivating start. That the second iteration clearly showed progress and was already quite a lot of fun, made me even happier.
In my next post I will describe the game in more detail and report about the next playtests and balancing steps.

Online Game Design Course

I’m currently preparing a lecture called “Principles of Game Development” for the SAE Bochum. While doing some research I stumbled across an awesome blog by Ian Schreiber called Game Design Concepts. The author calls it an experiment in game design and teaching. In 20 comprehensive posts this blog provides tons of useful tips for beginners in the field of game design, covers a lot of theory and even suggests exercises to train one’s game design skills.

For all aspiring game designers out there this is a must-read! But even if you’re already working in the industry it’s worth a read, simply because it’s very well written and sums up so many important game design topics in such a compact form.

The Deadline in GameStar 11/2010

Our student project “The Deadline” was mentioned in a short article within the latest issue of GameStar (11/2010). Final conclusion of the GameStar editors: “Play it!” [German: "Unbedingt spielen"]. It’s great to see that a well-established magazine like GameStar recommends our game so strongly.

GamesStar_TheDeadline

If you haven’t played The Deadline yet, go to 4Players.de start downloading and have fun defending a building against intruding zombies in a very fresh Tower Defense-like way!

“From Daily Soap to Monthly Game”

Written in two months, counting over 20.000 words and taking into account more than 60 references – my bachelor-thesis is finally done, printed and submitted! As I already wrote in an earlier post the topic of my work were episodic games or to be more precise: “From Daily Soap to Monthly Game – Gameplay and Story Structures for Episodic Games”.

DailySoap_EpisodicGame

After analyzing all episodic games released so far I took a closer look at structures of TV series, especially of soap operas and prime time serials like Lost. My thesis shows that there are a lot of television structures that could be used as well for episodic games as long as some adjustments are made to take the interactivity of games into account. Finally I also pointed out that there are gameplay elements that could be used to create the same serial character as for example story cliffhangers or to enhance the effect of such serial story structures.

I’m really curious to see where the episodic format will go within the next years in the medium of games. In my opinion it has an enormous still unused potential.

Article in Making Games Magazine

The one and only magazine for game development in Germany, Making Games, celebrates its fifth birthday this month and I had the honor to contribute an article to this anniversary issue. It’s a post mortem for The Deadline and deals with the issues of developing a game in only six weeks with the Unreal Development Kit.

MakingGamesArtikel

Get your copy of Making Games and go to page 64 to read the whole story. Happy Birthday Making Games and keep up the good work!

Hero to the Downtrodden, Vanquisher of Evil, Dispenser of Justice…

The last days my girlfriend and I played DeathSpank and had a lot of fun with it! So much fun that she even was inspired to draw this:

deathspank

As you probably already guessed she played as Sparkles while I was DeathSpank! Hero to the Downtrodden! Vanquisher of Evil! Dispenser of Justice!

P.S. I once slayed a dragon. Well… I didn’t really slay it and it wasn’t technically a dragon. What I meant to say is… that I once kicked a cat!