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Blending action RPG and Minecraft-style sandbox in Portal Knights

July 26, 2017 | By Joel Couture

July 26, 2017 | By Joel Couture
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video



Portal Knights is a sandbox action RPG with a Minecraft aesthetic that lets players fight together across a grand, generated world, using various classes like mages and warriors to battle monsters cooperatively. (There are up to 4 players in co-op.) It’s not just the possibility of treasures and adventure that draws players into this world, but also the promise of being able to forge a personalized home for themselves in it. Since its launch in May on PS4 and Xbox One and PC, the game has sold over 500K copies on Steam alone.

 Portal Knights features an extensive crafting system, one that will have players finding the right elements to create the gear they want to wear, the weapons they want to use, and even the domicile they wish to construct in the game’s world. 

Still, players could just find the gear they need in dungeons. They could just buy swords from a shop. Inhabit a pre-made building. Why would players want to do the extra work of making all this stuff, especially when they’re in a group? How do you even get a group of people with separate gameplay desires to come together and build? 

“We think players really like to be 'at home' in a game," says Antony Christoulakis of Keen Games, developers of Portal Knights. "Well, okay, maybe not in Tetris. But look at all these game trailers where groups of players sit around a campfire - people like to step into a separate world full of adventure.”

You’re not just meant to feel like a visitor in Portal Knights, but rather, through the elements you build yourself, that this is a place you, and other players, have carved out for yourselves.

Fostering creative play

"It's part of our core character progression. Players won't find weapons, armor, or tools as loot. They find crafting materials and new recipes."

Crafting inPortal Knights flows through every aspect of play. The dungeons the player tackles, which monsters they fight, and which field they head to can be tied to a recipe for creating a certain item or weapon.

“It's part of our core character progression.” says Christoulakis. “Players won't find weapons/armor/tools as loot, but crafting materials and new recipes. We wanted to encourage the players to set their own goals: 'I want to craft this badass weapon, so I have to find the required materials, and that involves digging for ores and hunting enemies to find everything that's needed.'”

Say the player only really wants to smack monsters around. Sure, they can do that with a basic weapon, but something a little more powerful is much more satisfying. The player is gently encouraged to look for elements of a recipe for a new weapon. Ingredients in that recipe could be scattered across the map.

The player now has some gameplay goals in mind, and in something as simple as getting a new weapon, creates their own form of progression through the world. The developer didn’t have to give them a story task to get them moving, but instead allowed the player the chance to find their own story path through the game’s world. 

“The core motivation for the game itself is adventuring," says Christoulakis. "You create a base camp where you regroup with your friends, and set yourself goals like ‘I want to craft this cool armor.’, ‘I want to finish that boss in hard mode to hang his trophy over my fireplace at home’, ‘I want to craft this new set of furniture’, or ‘I've heard in a castle in area X you can find these nice-looking statues.’”

Home sweet home

"We initially had ideas similar to Dragon Quest Builders where you need to complete blueprint buildings to unlock gameplay elements. Ultimately, we decided against this, as we felt it might limit the players freedom to express themselves too much."

Players aren’t just creating a journey in Portal Knights, though, but also a literal home within the world. “After you've gathered/defeated everything you wanted (and potentially encountered some unforeseen events), you return home, level up your stats, craft & decorate.” says Christoulakis.

There, they have a home to rest in, and things they need to do. That element of rest and downtime is important int he game. They can recharge wihile they are playfully decorating the building or just wandering the halls they’ve created.

“In the beginning of development, we thought about the idea of integrating building in gameplay systems to force players into creating buildings,” says Christoulakis. "We had ideas similar to Dragon Quest Builders where you need to complete blueprint buildings to unlock gameplay elements. Ultimately, we decided against this, as we felt it might limit the players freedom to express themselves too much.”

Imposing the creation of certain structures would make the game feel less like a home players had made for themselves, and more like a job they’d shown up for or a game with specific rules.

"We think it's great that players pick their own goals - we just need to provide enough variety and opportunities to choose from."

Luckily, players’ natural creativity has come out once given freedom to do whatever they want within the world, as Christoulakis has witnessed. “Fortunately, building comes naturally during gameplay, as it makes sense to setup a safe home base for crafting and storing loot. We are amazed to see all of these great creations from players (we look at them daily) - from the smallest hut to the fanciest castle, and crazy pieces of art.”

That’s not to say that the developer simply tossed elements out into the world and left players to their own devices. A great deal of thought went into creating the proper elements so that players could build interesting, creative structures, giving them opportunities to express themselves within their worlds.

“We tried to find a good mix of things for building vastly different constructions - a good variety of decorative block types in various colors, a wide range of props (boss trophies, statues, doors, several ranges of functional furniture etc.), and plants for farming and gardening," says Christoulakis. "We think it's great that players pick their own goals - we just need to provide enough variety and opportunities to choose from.”

The developers set out to give players many different kinds of building blocks, statues, plants, and other decorative elements to encourage players to be free in their expression of home in Portal Knights. In doing so, they’ve encouraged players to build something that is uniquely their own, again giving them that sense that this is their place within this digital world. In freeing them to make whatever home they wish for, they let them feel that they are indeed coming home when they come to it.

Plus, it’s just plain fun to tinker. “Customization is something players love, so discovering new recipes, trophies & furniture for decorating their base, or vanity equipment, is a relevant part of the fun.”

Cooperative sandbox battling

“Co-op multiplayer was always another one of our core pillars for the game,: says Christoulakis. "Building and crafting things in a group is always more fun. You can mess around with your friends while being so much more productive.”

"There are plenty of crafting stations in the game (some more class specific, some more general), so players can craft new gear simultaneously, or expand the group home while others are crafting new gear."

Crafting a home without friends wouldn’t have felt quite the same, and on top of that, the kind of crafting that would make a player feel more at home in this world is also the sort of thing that’s just more fun with friends.There's someone to witness your wild creations, or even pitch in on making something. The crafting is designed to encourage players to work together, letting them cooperatively build something, share elements to help each other out, or decide how to best work together to assist each other in their own in-game goals.

“Groups of players typically play with a mix of classes to help and complement each other (especially in combat)," says Christoulakis. "All of these classes have their own sets of unique weapons, armor, skills, and spells. Players will share resources when they return home, and help covering each others' material needs. There are plenty of crafting stations in the game (some more class specific, some more general), so players can craft new gear simultaneously, or expand the group home while others are crafting new gear.”

The developers are also pushing to let players break off even further to do whatever they like in a shared world. (It's available now as a beta branch on Steam.) “We're working on a feature where players can be on different islands, something the community asked for, so some players can go adventuring while others stay at home crafting and decorating,"  says Christoulakis.



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