Making Skyline: Making it fun

So, yesterday I wrote about the limitations on the Atari. While these are going to end up defining what kind of a game I can‘t make, it doesn’t point too far as to what I can make. So, let’s think about that, for a moment.

Skyline is going to be a tile-based, top-view, adventure game. We’re going to focus on a plot with characters that have some dimensions to them — a bit more “rounded” than, “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.” I’d like to include some interesting puzzles, and I don’t want to fall back on fighting — nor even “competition,” by itself.

Slaughtering endless waves of critters? Play Gauntlet for that, pershaps, or Space Invaders — there are certainly lots of options there. But the Atari doesn’t lend itself to something like Gauntlet or Galaga, where the critters are all moving independently — a lot of games, like Bezerk or Adventure have it stripped down, to have a very few enemies at a time, in order to work within the limits of the system. Many screen-by-screen or room-by-room games, like Sorceror, just limit it to one (or one cluster) enemy at a time, for that reason.

There’s certainly room for a good turn-based RPG; the action of Pokémon or Final Fantasy could surely work well on the Atari, and Skeleton shows some insight in that vein, but that’s not really something I like to play …

So, it came down to an adventure game, like Adventure or The Legend of Zelda, but with more dialog, more interaction with other characters, and perhaps some more zany items to learn how to use.

Really, that’s the thing that those two games, in particular, are about. Adventure, for example: there isn’t necessarily a “right way” to win that game. What there are, are strategies. I started playing Adventure more than 20 years ago and it’s still fun, because it’s about learning how to work within its rules, not mimicking some optimal behaviour or guessing the solution to some problems.

What makes it fun? Well, it has hard and fast rules, but things are all in motion, all the time, so it’s hard to keep track of where things are. The bat, the dragons, are each doing their own things, and in order to win, you have to keep an eye on them, but also learn the lay of the land, and more importantly, learn how to use the different items in the game to your advantage.

From Zelda, though, I’d steal an additional curve: “item-based leveling.” You see, in the original Legend of Zelda, you can just wander wherever you like, and that’s mostly a good thing, but you might wander into a “high level” area and get squashed quite quickly, and that can be disheartening until you discover where are the “safer” areas. In later games, though, they would sometimes “hide” some difficult areas in a way that required some item to get through. Really, they were just “keys,” but they let you into various areas once you had demonstrated your skill at the game.

And that’s what I was (long-windedly) trying to explain here, is the thing that I love about good ARPG’s like these, is that they aren’t testing your character’s stats and they can’t (always) be cheated by a walk-through. The real thing is that you’re being tested on your own ability to learn a skill.

I’m not pretending that “fishing for swords using magic magnets” or “stealing butterfly pendants from moblins with a hook-shot” are at all practical skills. Certainly there are better things to be learning, like integral calculus and how to make Jell-O parfaits. But within the game world, your ability to progress should be a test of your own skills at finding the things in the game, and applying what you’ve learned. Also, hopefully, there should be enough going on that you can’t just follow along with something you saw on YouTube, to skip puzzles.

So, there are some soft, framework-y ideas. How to implement them…?

What do you think? Add your comments →