Haunted by the ghost of endless iteration… new traps appear!!
Hey everybody! Thanks for your patience these last few weeks. Things got pretty crazy around here. We launched our new company Finji, and then that dovetailed with the ominous spectre of preparing for GDC and all that that entails. We’re also busy trying to find another team member for Overland, which is a weird/interesting process in and of itself. BUT, most of that is done now. While we won’t be completely back on schedule here for another week or two thanks to the aforementioned game conference, we should be done with the gaping month-long absences!
SO: what have we been up to?? Well, as you can see above, we’ve been working on doing a new pass on the in-game trap design. At this point I have probably designed… 200 traps? 300 maybe? The vast majority of these traps were unusable of course, but still, it’s a lot of sketchbook paper. Or maybe not that much, given how central these are to the gameplay? We’ll talk about this process more in just a bit.
We’ve also been fixing a lot of bugs, adding iPad support, figuring out how the world map will work, refining some plans for the final graphical approach, and trying to decide what mechanics and level designs to explore next. I’m still really happy with our progress though, and still feeling really confident that we actually did find the Good Version of this game back in February. AND, don’t forget that Portico has its public gameplay debut at The MIX on Monday, which is exciting/terrifying!
Continue reading for some insight into the latest round of trap designs.
TRAPS TRAPS TRAPS
Now that I’m writing this out, I’m realizing that actually we’ve only publicly shown two of our trap iteration phases. We had an old old set of placeholder traps back in the real-time version of the game, and then I painted a new set when we switched to turn-based. After that I made two or three more sets of traps but I don’t think they ever even made it into the game… but those design passes happened regardless.
I’m definitely wary of over-working or over-iterating on designs and ideas, but like our basic enemy monsters, the traps are a really pervasive part of the game. They take up a decent amount of screen real estate in every single level in the game. Which means players will be looking at them a lot, which at least for me puts extra pressure on getting those designs to be as solid as we can manage.
But there are a lot of … goals, or objectives, that we are trying to achieve with each trap design, and they are often in tension with each other. This makes them an interesting problem to solve, but also naturally pretty frustrating from time to time.
One of the most basic objectives is gameplay clarity. The designs need to obviously stand out as the main thing players interact with. They need to be distinct in some obvious way from everything else in the game. It’s really just a practical UI concern. In Portico, it’s almost like players build their own UI, and so the need for clarity is quite prominent.
At the same time, it’s really important to us that the traps obviously be part of the game and part of the game world and setting. The traps all have their kind of systemic behavior or value (e.g. “shoots a projectile horizontally”) but that needs to be encapsulated in something that fits in with the rest of game setting. For example, our game world is a place full of ancient ruins, and so using very sci-fi or high-tech traps can feel quite strange or dissonant unless it is done very carefully.
Based on these two needs or issues, it seems like the solution to how to design the traps is quite simple – we make big stone blocks (that fit in with the ruined-temple world) and then we put a big button on the side of them. On the button, we put a drawing of what the trap does. Voila! Clarity of purpose, and a design that fits nicely in the game world.
The only problem with that approach (and I tried it!) is it is Super Boring, at least in Portico. It’s not enough to just fit in with the game world and make sense to the player; we want each trap to have… a personality, almost. A memorable silhouette, and an interesting, preferably mechanical action.
That is not just important aesthetically, for the sake of the game being more fun superficially. It also plays a huge part in the way people learn a new game or a new task – coming up with a metaphor that makes sense and fits in with everything else helps a lot. For example, one of our traps attacks horizontally as far as it can before hitting a shield or a wall. That abstract behavior could be dressed up a bunch of different ways, but it pays off if we can figure out a way that makes intuitive sense to players and is fun and fits in with the game world.
Of course, it still has to adhere to the gameplay and clarity of purpose objectives that we talked about early, and balancing all that stuff starts to get Just Plain Tricky after a while!
Our solution for this latest pass of traps involved the following:
Make the traps more physical and mechanical, and less abstract, even though this makes them stand out from the other parts of the game a little less
Try to compensate for that by adding a large glowing-white button or rune to the designs
Build them into the environment more, make it look like they are displacing stone and block.
Limit the technology level as much as possible, focus on simple, physically obvious functionality
Create a color scheme that helps unify the traps while also making them somewhat distinct from other game objects
When possible think about the trap designs from the perspective of the inhabitants of the fictional world. what would THEY have built, with the technology they have, and the sorts of organisms around them?
I’m not 100% confident that these are the exact designs that will ship with the game, but it does feel like they are a good step in the direction of “less stupid to look at”, and “easier to understand what they do”.