Friday, October 17, 2014

Turn-Based vs. Real-time Mechanics

I have a lot of love for turn-based games.  You only have to experience that "I love this game, but I can't make it past this level" feeling once to realize that "twitch" games have an inherent weakness that turn-based games don't have: the need to cut people off.

For a "twitch" game to be satisfying, it has to be challenging.  But by that very definition, it means that for someone, the arcade aspects will be too difficult to continue.  Otherwise, it wouldn't be challenging to anyone.

If you love a game, and can't get past that one level, then you're essentially blocked from the entire remainder of the game.  For me, that was this room in the "Palace of King Midas" level of the original Tomb Raider:

I can only conclude that King Midas was a huge jerk.

See those pillars with flames on them?  You can pull a lever to turn them off for, like, ten seconds.  Then you need to run across the pillars, jumping from one to the next, until you get to the far end.  If you do not execute this flawlessly, you either fall into the area below (and thus have to start over) or you get lit on fire when the flames resume.  Back when I was playing the game, I had the luxury of time – I could play it over and over and over and over again until I finally got it right, but I lost count of how many times I actually executed the jumps to land on the far ledge only to realize I had barely been too slow and got lit on fire.  Eventually, I did get it, but it was only after several sessions that ended in rage-quits.  Nowadays, I don't have that kind of time (or patience) to invest in playing games.

And that means, even though I really enjoyed the game, I would never pick it up again.  Because eventually, I'd hit that room and be stuck.

I see this screen way too often.
I've reached that same kind of stopping point in Rogue Legacy.  It's a fun platformer game, with some roguelike elements (procedural death labyrinth, random stats, permadeath of sorts, etc.), but it has a mechanic where, after your character dies, you can use the money he earned during play to buy upgrades for your future characters.

That's all great, except for one thing: you can basically only spend what you earned on the last run.  There's no accrual of gold over time, and I've reached the point where I reliably die before I can make enough money to buy any upgrades.  So I'm just spinning my wheels now.

In both these situations, it's clear that the game has a lot more to offer, but I'm just not good enough at the games to get past those walls.  Given enough time, yeah, I could probably power my way through them, but at some point, a large time commitment is indistinguishable from being simply inaccessible.

So, yeah, turn-based games are a favorite of mine.  There are certainly things that can block you from progressing in turn-based games, but rage-inducing, throw-the-controller-through-the-monitor type walls aren't one of them.

All this serves to explain why even I was surprised when I began considering making Lone Spelunker have some real-time elements.

A spelunker about to disturb some bats.
It started when I added bats to the game.  As you might expect, you can find caves where bats roost in the game.  And I wanted them to go flapping around the cavern if you get too close.

In the original incarnation of the game, I had that working, but as it was a turn based game, you'd get near the bat, and he'd move one tile and hang there in mid-air, waiting for you to move.  Then you'd move, and it would move one tile.  It was extremely unsatisfying, and didn't convey the flapping and fluttering I saw in my mind's eye.

But I was loathe to give up the turn-based mechanics of the game, so I fought against the reality of how unsatisfying that first solution was for a long time.  Then, one afternoon, I just decided to unhook the animation of the bats from the player's turns.  Now, when you move up close to a bat, it detaches from the wall and flits around the room, as you might expect.  I was shocked how much more satisfying it was.  So it stays.

That opened the door to some more real-time effects.  I'm pretty determined to have the game be "basically" turn-based, though, in the sense that I don't want there to be "Tomb of Midas" style blocks to people enjoying the game.  Most of the real time effects are for ambiance - bats flitting around, waterfalls animating, etc.  They don't affect gameplay at all.

There are some real-time elements that do affect the player, however.

The first is falling.  Falling in a turn-based fashion was never in the cards - even the early iterations had a special case where you'd fall in real-time and then go back to turn-based if you survived the fall.  This doesn't affect gameplay - if you fall and die in a real-time or turn-based fashion, it hardly matters.

The second is oxygen.  When you're underwater, the oxygen meter ticks down steadily, even if you're not taking turns.  Originally, I had oxygen measured in turns, but again, it felt unsatisfying and unrealistic.  So I'm testing out a real-time version.  However, unlike most "twitch" games, I made sure to give a pretty generous amount of oxygen and make sure that there's an eminently readable meter onscreen for it.  As long as you don't get lost and turn back before you get to the halfway mark, you should be fine.

The final element, though, is going to be a little more controversial: shelf stone.  Shelf stone is a place where a thin layer of horizontal stone has formed over empty space - typically because it used to be, or still is, the surface of a pool.  It's dangerous because it can look solid, but if you walk out onto it, it cracks and buckles and leaves you falling into the area below.  That could drop you an inch or a hundred meters - who knows?

The big experiential effect for this comes from the fact that it is unexpected and you need to act quickly.  Making it turn-based would sap all the excitement out of that, but I don't want it to turn into a "Tomb of Midas" moment for players, either.

What I'm currently doing to address that is to (a) make the shelf stone visibly different, and (b) give you a good long while of cracking and other visual cues that something is amiss before allowing the shelf stone to break.  As long as you are paying attention, it shouldn't kill you, because it gives you ample warning before it breaks AND you can know whether a surface is shelf stone before even setting foot on it.  I'm also making it pretty rare, so the chances of it ending your expedition should be low.

Ultimately, you can't get away from real-time effects if you want to convey an environment.  Too much of our understanding of the world hinges on continuity of motion.  But that doesn't mean it has to make the game unplayable.  In carefully-chosen doses, it can be used to enhance the immersion in an otherwise turn-based game.  At least, that's the hope.  We'll see how well people receive it when the game is released!

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