• Denis Buslaev

A handful of prototypes

For the last couple of months I’ve been mostly working on prototypes for the next game to make after Factorees. The idea was to find a great game worth making, preferably bigger than anything I’ve done before, but still clean and elegant. I haven't succeeded in this task, but it was an interesting and fruitful period. Hope some of you will find this read entertaining or educational.

Match-3 Killer

I feel that the following structure is still underutilized in mobile gaming:

The broad idea is that we play a puzzle or a card game at the lower part of the screen, while at the top there is a metagame level (or a 2nd gameplay level, the terminology is lacking here) which is determined by the results of the first game. Notice the arrows and their sizes. Core gameplay heavily feeds into the metagame level, but the feedback is weak or rare.

This has been done many times before (especially in the match-3 genre), but I feel that this is still an underexplored area. So, after fiddling with some old MTG-cards for a few hours the basic structure for the puzzle layer was set up.

This has a nice idle feel to it. Adding tiles one by one helps to build up board without overwhelming the player at the start. Merging looks nice, but with gravity in play matching is ultimately better (more tiles will fall and have a chance to be matched again). It's easy to add a combat layer on top of this. We have Attacks/Blocks/Special for our Hero. And then negative Enemy tile, that we don't want to match most of the time.

Here we can "dodge" enemy attacks by breaking an ongoing match. This is certainly a unique take, although, in this version the time window for dodging is too narrow.

Overall, this attempt felt very solid. Most of the time there are 10-15 tiles on the board which is not a huge number by any stretch. That means we can infuse additional meaning into the tiles. Shortly we had attack tiles that don't do damage, but add stronger attacks instead, tiles that blow up other tiles, tiles that move every turn, tiles that deal damage every turn, tiles that do something when the board gets full etc. And it all seemed flexible. You can see in the first gif in the upper right corner that the level setup is nothing but a deck of cards (tiles in this case). That means we could potentially use many rogue-like tricks to achieve depth. Adding/removing/upgrading tiles, various enemies, bosses requiring narrow strategies to beat - all of that seemed to be available.

It got to a point where Alex get interested in the game as well so he even did a round of sketches (and he will kill me if I show them to you, so I'll show only one in hopes he'll only quarter kill me).

At some point I realized that the game has become too demanding. With tiles doing different things real-time has become too punishing. You had to pay attention to abilities and know all the tiles by heart or otherwise you'll be doomed. But without that additional depth there wasn’t enough meat. It’s just an overcomplicated merge for no good reason.

Hold on, did someone say overcomplicated merge? I’m in.

Overcomplicated merge

So we needed to slow down. Get rid of the real time. And maybe change the meta and the theme. Who cares about dudes killing monsters anyway. Gathering resources and exploiting the nature’s riches is our thing now.

And who said, that matching 3 of the same thing is the only way. We can match whatever.

So the idea was to make a merge-3 game with non-trivial merge rules.

3 Water tiles merge into a Fish tile.

2 Water tiles and a Fish tile merge into a Fisherman.

And, finally, Water + Fish + Fisherman creates an end product (food/fish, whatever).

This was a terrible idea. The only good thing about it, is that it took only 15 minutes to kill once it was coded (that's why the real-time is still there).

Matching different things simply doesn’t work. Or does it?

Matching different things.

We know from the game Little Alchemy and it’s numerous clones that we can merge two different things and it is fun. The fun doesn’t come from the gameplay though. There is basically no gameplay in there. The fun comes from the exploration.

Exploration is all good, but it’s an ultimate content treadmill. Base game of Little Alchemy 2 has 720 elements. That’s a lot. So I was very cautious with this one from the start. But I kept working on it for several days just to indulge myself.

This gif was made a day before (spoiler alert) I dropped the project. It’s more buggy than usual and shark didn’t eat the fish which really bothers me. But it captures the flow.

In my book this was an improvement over the Little Alchemy’s formula. It’s compact. It’s a bit more game-like. And it forces a player to reuse formulas that they have already learned. But still, there were no direction, no goals, no rewards. Only exploration for the sake of exploration and a dull stalemate at the end of it.

I tried a few things to fix it. For example creating an intricate achievements system, or add numbers here and there. But eventually I just sat my son to play it for a bit and scrapped the project 5 minutes after.

Half-time break

At this point I had to take a big break for some chores in the real world, which mostly consisted of lifting heavy objects and driving them around the country. We moved to Moscow with my eldest son where he had started at a new school. It took some time to settle down, but everything is out of the way now. The school turned out to be awesome, so it was worth it. And I found myself with a lot more free time than I have had for the last 5 years.

Morale was low, though. So I decided that keeping myself engaged with prototypes would be the right choice for the situation. And to make it even more fun for myself I decided to return to the thing I love the most - the card games.

Deck builders, deck builders everywhere

So I’ve been dreaming about making a deck builder for quite some time now. Of course, I’ve already tried it a few times. Those attempts weren’t very successful but with most of them I haven’t left the pen & paper realm, and has been doing mostly theoretical work with occasional paper prototypes.

This time I was confident that once I start working in digital, there will be so much unexplored territory, so I’d be able to find something just lying on the floor, waiting for me to pick it up. So I started writing a general framework for a generic deckbuilder, which took about two days to get going.

While I was coding all the boring parts my brain kept nagging about all the great things we are going to build with this. And how every game could be turned into a card game. And do you know that all your favourite games from the past few years are secretly deck builders. What about Loop Hero? It’s definitely a deck builder. Adding locations along the road is a deck building in it’s purest form. Items progression could be expressed as a deck building progression. And even meta progression with buildings and resources could be represented with cards and feed into deck building mechanisms nicely.

At some point it had became unbearable and I had to set Loop Hero as a direction for the first deck building prototype. This is the first result:

This one is probably very confusing to look at without an explanation. Cards at the top half of the screen are drawn from the environment deck. This is your forests, roads, portals and creepy castles, all of which can spawn mobs and/or influence the combat.

Once the monsters have been spawned combat starts. Blue cards are dealt from the Hero deck and player gets a chance to rearange them to their liking. After that we resolve lane combat left to right which is more or less standard.

Killing mobs will grant XP which will lead to improving the Hero deck. Cards also added to the Environment deck every time the deck is shuffled (“deck loop”), which increases difficulty and rewards. It all is bound to work, because this structure works in Loop Hero.

Few days later while discussing it with Alex we stumbled upon the idea that the game could be about protecting the caravan (the legendary “корован” - for my Russian-speaking readers). That means we can fill the Hero deck with units which makes the game more symmetrical.

I think this variant is much much better, although it relies heavily on fairly standard combat. There is an interesting twist with card stacking. Pikeman deals one damage and then rotates to the bottom of the stack, so retaliation strike won’t hit him. Alas, It’s not always that transparent and fluid. This type of combat requires a lot of upfront effort from the player. You have to be able to predict all the lanes in advance and without that ability you simply won't be able to optimize (notice how long it takes to make a move). This is essentially the same space where Inscryption and Legends of Runeterra operate. And both of those games got to popularity not because the card battling mechanism carried them.

So, I pushed this a bit further until it started show its ugliness and limits in certain places and decided to call it a very solid attempt and leave it at that. I still think that the double deck building mechanism of Loop Hero is a borderline genius idea and it could be turned into something awesome in the right hands.

Back to basics

At this point I decided to step back and look for the purest form of a deck builder with auto resolution. Luck be a Landlord is as pure as a tear of Donald X Vaccarino, so I thought lets make a card version of it and see how it feels.

This transition is not natural because "blank" cards are no fun, and in Landlord you are starting with 15 blanks and 5 basic cards (they are not cards, but whatever). And the first 15 choices aren’t added into the deck, they upgrade blanks instead.

Then at resolution all 20 "cards" get revealed. We are, obviously, not going to do that. Instead, we can try adding them in waves.

Here, the game doesn't really work yet, but Cat-Milk interaction was already interesting enough to branch out from here and go for something different.

Slimy… yet satisfying

This one was supposed to explore the space of cards eating other cards, and then pooping out new cards. Slimes (from Slime Rancher) is good source material for that idea, and here is what I've got after a couple of less successful attempts:

Slimes eat cherries and, ahem, produce "plort". Robot explores lands and collects plort. From this point, it seemed expandable, but in reality, even a second slime color produced many tough cases. I still like the idea, especially the fact that in this form the game is self-contained. Your goal is a card (Robot) and all the resources are right in front of you in a card form. It is beautiful in this sense.

But three days after this gif was made I'm still not sure that the core design holds the weight of adding different colored slimes with unique behaviors and rations. The version of the game I have right now is so messy that I'm not even going to show it to you.


That brings us to the end of September. Looking back it’s a bit weird that I’ve spent most of my productive time on these silly prototypes that seem to lead nowhere. My son trolls me almost every day when he gets back from school by asking “how’s the most awesome game ever doing?”. My wife doesn't say anything but she's got to be concerned about it on some pragmatic level. And it all seems a bit childish and irresponsible. I could've finished Factorees in those two months. But the reality is that I could have not. These prototypes kept me from falling into depression and gave me something to care about. They kept my mind occupied even when I wasn't working on them, and it's a great feeling to go to sleep thinking about features you want to implement tomorrow and wake up knowing that you have something to do that's important to you.

They also helped me to understand better what kind of games I want to make and why. And while I've been writing this post I felt a bit proud about myself and the work I have done. None of these prototypes are great, but at least half of them are solid, and they are by no means dead. I can build something more easily on top of them. And the knowledge and experience that I gained can't be taken away from me unless I hit my head hard or something.

But right now I think I have had enough fun. The search for "the most awesome game ever" is not over, but I need to ship Factorees this year. And there are many real life issues that a looming. The indie dream is dead anyway at least for now, so I might need to get a proper job or find a colobaration opportunity that wouldn't suck. We'll see.

Take care and thanks for reading.