Some of you may know that my full time job these days is director of Necrosoft Games. We're making four games simultaneously, and part of my job is to make sure all those projects are living up to our own quality expectations, as it can be really easy to get lost in the day-to-day of what you're doing, and miss the larger picture (especially for me).
In order to make sure I'm on the right track, sometimes I like to ground myself by playing games that have similar systems or elements to what what we want to achieve. Here, then, are the top 5 games I played for research in 2014.
We're making a driving game called Oh, Deer! It's about hitting as many or as few deer as possible with your station wagon, as you make your way to grandma's house. It's proper pseudo-3D, ala Road Rash, with camera tilt like a modern 3D racer, and we've got a pretty excellent drifting model, to boot.
But my job has nothing to do with all those cool things - my job is to create the tracks, and frankly, so far, they've been "just okay." It is very difficult to make compelling race tracks, at least for me! I push them this way, I pull them that way, and they just wind up pedestrian. In order to revitalize myself, and remind myself what a truly compelling track can be, I play Outrun 2, or Outrun Coast 2 Coast.
These games have amazing arcade-style drift mechanics, and simply lovely, lush, and exciting tracks all the way through. There are a couple segments that are less interesting than others, but each of them only uses three types of turn, plus straightaways, and centers each segment around a large visual set-piece. There's so much to learn from these tracks that I can't describe them all, but reminding myself what one can achieve if one applies oneself can be massively helpful.
Okay, this is two games, sorry! But they both live in the same mechanical universe as our current prototype for a game we call Magicops. It's a versus puzzle game about retro future police cadets who are also mages. Hey, it's my company, I can do what I want, okay!?
We have some unique and interesting mechanics in this game, but one that is not unique, just rather rare, is the magic attacks. Essentially, once you build up enough power from combos, you're able to unleash a game-changing magic attack that either does something devastating to your opponent's field, or something beneficial to yours (or both). A few Japanese puzzle games have done this over the years, but two of the most fun are Tetris Battle Gaiden on the Super Famicom, and Puyo Puyo 4 on the Dreamcast.
In studying these, I made the decision that "fairness" is not necessarily all it's cracked up to be. The powers in these games are not fair. They are not even. But they are silly, they are fun, they are foolish. They make you have a good time, and not take the game so seriously. When your opponent suddenly reverses the inputs on your controller with a magical strike, it's hard not to laugh. And I'd like just a bit more laughter in games, thanks very much.
Lately we've been prototyping a small tactics game for iOS and Android. Tactics games are generally known for their more complex and interlocking systems, but I'm quite interested in distilling that down to its purest forms. Galcon is one of the only new-ish tactics games I can think of that does that. In Galcon, you are trying to capture planets -- and you only have one interaction: send half the ships from your currently selected planet(s), to the planet you select next. Meanwhile, your opponent or opponents are trying to do the same. It's amazingly simple, but each motion is a tactical decision. It's a very smart game that I wish I had made myself, dang it.
While our game is very different from Galcon, the main tenets are the same. Capture territory, and gauge whether your units are stronger than your enemy's. Playing Galcon simply encouraged me, when I was worried I'd never hit upon the right idea, that if there's one idea out there for a small tactics game, there can be another.
The research I did with Luftrausers is quite specific. You see, when we ported our first game Gunhouse to Windows Phone in October (it's free, with no ads! You can just have it!), we added a lot of stuff, compared to the PlayStation Mobile game we released earlier in the year. One of those additions was screen shake.
Who are the champions of screen shake? Definitely and decidedly Vlambeer. So I played Luftrausers to get an idea of where and when we might want to put screen shake into Gunhouse. We didn't quite get to the sweet spot, I will admit. What we have is more of a "better than nothing" sort of solution than the masterful shaking that Vlambeer's games exhibit. I guess I need to study this one a bit more.
Boy do I ever love Windjammers. Data East's versus tennis/frisbee game has been one of my favorite eSports since before I knew what an eSport was. Currently, Necrosoft Games' main project is Gunsport, which is basically cyberpunk volleyball with guns. It's team-based, and different from Windjammers in that you must shoot the ball into goals rather than grabbing and sliding around with it.
But Windjammers is still very influential, for its feel, for its precision, for its speed, and its general tone. The timing of strikes and slides, and the responsiveness of movement is excellent, and a good reminder of how an arcade action game should feel.
On top of that, I like how the limitations of your character can have an affect on whether you can get to the ball (or frisbee) in time. If you're up on top of the court, and the ball goes low, and you're not expecting it, you might not physically be able to get there. It feels like a near miss, and even if you lose it, it's still a good feeling -- because you made that heroic dive for it, and you knew you couldn't get there, but still you tried. You make the character's limitations your own, no longer blaming the computer for your own error. That's a sport.