Steven Peeler (of Kivi’s Underworld* and Depths of Peril fame) has begun work on the next title from Soldak entertainment, and is looking for ideas, suggestions, and feedback from the community. The official forum thread is here, and from there you can branch off into a number of interesting sub-topics. I hope he’ll forgive me for poaching a bit of the discussion and posting my thoughts here.
* I’m still working on my review of Kivi. No, I haven’t forgotten about it.
As I said in my introduction to Kivi’s Underworld, I don’t think dungeon-crawl gameplay got a fair turn. Unlike (say) adventure games or shooters, the genre fell out of favor long before the possibilities had been exhausted.
|It came out in 1990, but I didn’t play Eye of the Beholder until 1991. I didn’t have one of the sexy VGA cards like the kind used in this screenshot. I played this game in four color CGA mode. Also: Uphill! Both ways!|
This isn’t so much a list of suggestions as a list of observations from these games over the years.
These games are not generally about story, and they suffer when you try to shoehorn in too much exposition and intrigue. (Plus, that sort of business can get expensive if you try to do it with cutscenes.) On the other hand, the boilerplate, “Bad guy is thirty levels down and wants to kill us all. Go get him.” is hopelessly dull, cliche, and lazy. It front-loads the story with exposition and then doesn’t have anything interesting to say until the end.
I think the “mystery” foe is a nice compromise here. Send the player into the dungeon in search of the source of the evil / corruption / plague / rash of high golf scores, but don’t tell them what they’re dealing with. At regular intervals you can give them another spoonful of story which answers one question and introduces the next, leading up to the big reveal of the bad guy and his plans near the end. It entices players with a question or a mystery, it spaces the story out, and it keeps the story doses small so that they don’t break up the flow.
The presence of shops in the game actually dictates whether or not looting is part of your game. Without the ability to sell stuff to an NPC, found items become very binary. It’s either something you want to use, or it’s worthless. Looting adds a dimension to the gameplay, and the lack of a system for turning useless (to the player) loot into resources makes the game very combat focused. Personally, I think loot is probably a lot easier to implement than combat, from a game design perspective. (To be fair, I’ve never authored either.) So leaving out loot is leaving out a lot of gameplay for not a lot of work. (Relatively speaking.) I love the moment-to-moment choices posed by found items. If you’ve ever hit your encumbrance limit in an Elder Scrolls game and been paralyzed not with burden but with indecision, then you know what I’m talking about.
When it comes to leveling, I am a spreadsheet fan, but I’m not a fan of shoehorning paper-based systems into computer games. I love the complex SPECIAL system used by fallout. I want choices and variety. On the other hand, that sort of thing can really kill the flow of a dungeon crawler. Ideally, the system should be easy to grasp and not take the player too far out of the game.
At the heart of leveling is the fact that players are choosing some reward(s) when they ding. This choice should be meaningful and a little difficult. The player should be presented with several things that they want, and be allowed to choose one or two. Do you want more hitpoints / greater carrying capacity / more darkvision / more speed / more secret-finding ability / more lock opening ability / more damage dealing / more magic mojo.
A lot of games focus on the combat – centric skills and overlook the fun of resource management skills. The ability to carry more stuff, consume less stuff, and determine the value of found stuff should not be overlooked. These games are often called “third person looters”. Loot is an important part of the game, (to me, anyway) and the in-game skill set should reflect that.
I really like games where you work your way deeper and deeper into a single dungeon complex. I realize it’s absurd to have the city sewer system be a maze. With lights. And traps. Four levels deep. And it doesn’t make much sense for those “sewers” to happen to join (and be above) a prison, which leads to some caves, which lead to inexplicable underground ruins, which lead to different caves carved out from an entirely different
tilesetrock, which lead to boiling magma chambers and the lair of Satan’s bigger, meaner nephew. It makes no sense, but damn it, this is what dungeon crawling is all about. There is a purity to this approach that I find deeply compelling.
So… what suggestions do you have for the Soldak team? What gameplay elements are crucial to these types of games? What do you think would make them better? (Either the Soldak games specifically or the genre in general.) You can leave a comment here – I’m pretty sure Steven will stop by – or you can stop by the forums and join the existing discussion.