Making things, and making things better

I decided a few weeks ago that a lot of the stuff I’m doing on the side–including this blog–are really done with the intent that one day I’ll be in a position to actually make some games myself, so I mapped them all out into a spreadsheet and started logging the time I’ve spent writing/reading/prototyping/playing etc. (The specific process involved with that is material for a different post, someday.) Then I showed it to Wawro, and he said something along the lines of “Why do you want to do that, anyway? Is there actually a game that you are worried won’t exist if you don’t make it?”

I thought that was a funny question for a few reasons, least of which is that I don’t necessarily do much of anything for fear that if I don’t do it, no one else will. But it did remind me of something Brandon Sheffield says when people ask him why he got into games: “I felt that everyone had already said everything interesting there was to say with film, and that wasn’t the case with video games.”

I’ve mostly been playing Skullgirls for the last week or, and it’s not really the kind of game that says anything “new” at all. Of course, it’s a fighting game, and those tend to be not really the kind of place to “say” anything at all. What Skullgirls does do is take disparate elements of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Guilty Gear XX and distill them into a comparatively more simple product. Sticking with only 8 characters and introducing an optional team-based mechanic (you can choose to pick 1, 2, or 3 characters, and more characters means each one is weaker) let the designers put more work into creating interesting matchups and team dynamics per character. There is no Pandora mode, no X-Factor, no gems, no Custom Combos, no Burst meter, no Faultless Defense, or any other relatively frivolous mechanics. In some respects, it’s very stripped-down, and I like it a lot for that.

To be sure, the art is beautiful, the music exquisite, there are a ton of gaming/Internet in-jokes, and a lot of other things to love. But at its core, Skullgirls shows what you can do with subtraction, rather than addition, in game design, and I like it a lot. There is something to be said for making things more simple when they need to be more simple, and ultimately making things better

I’ve had an idea stewing in my brain more or less since I stopped playing Starcraft 2 with any regularity. Right now, SC2 is more or less synonymous with real-time strategy; anyone who would have been playing Command and Conquer back in the day is probably playing SC2 or maybe one of the many MOBAs. I will always have a place in my heart for the Starcrafts, but the real-time strategy game that made a dent on my heart way back when was Myth: The Fallen Lords. 

For those who never played Myth: Shame on you. 😉 It was more “tactics” than “strategy”, I guess–you played on a 3D map, and there were no structures or bases of any sort. Instead, you started each game with a set amount of points, and could choose a selection of units with those points (each player had access to the same units, which varied from map to map). Once the game started, you ran around with your army trying to win at whatever game mode you had chosen–capture the flag, king of the hill, last man on the hill, body count, etc.

Compared to StarcraftMyth is simple, fast, and a bit more elegant, I think. Each map and game mode combination is basically its own gamewith its own balance and design (thanks to the map creator’s ability to select which units are usable on that map). To be sure, the skill ceiling is undoubtedly lower, which is fine with me. Ultimately, what I want is an RTS game that I can play in 5-10 minutes.

The game I wanted to make (and tried to prototype in the SC2 Galaxy Editor, until I got frustrated and gave up) was even simpler; there are only three unit types. Basically, the game would start like Myth, except you’d use your points in the beginning to pick an assortment of light, medium, and heavy mechs. Light mechs are basically Terran Marines, Medium mechs have an AoE attack, and Heavy mechs move slowly but use a long-range attack that can hit about 3-4 times further than they can see. Cost for cost, Light mechs beat Heavy, Heavy beats Medium, and Medium beats Light, though the better you micro your army (splitting Light mechs up, maximizing Heavy mech range by using Light mechs as spotters, ambushing your opponent’s unguarded Heavy mechs, etc.) the more cost-effective your army will be. (The fundamental combat design is somewhat similar to playing Marine/Tank TvT in SC2.) Now combine that with the kind of game types Myth used (Capture the Flag and so on) in 1v1, team-based, and FFA variants, and we’ve basically got a noob-friendly, simplified RTS–something like the NBA Jam of real-time strategy games. (Anyone wanna make this with me?)

Fact is, there are plenty of things that this hypothetical game wouldn’t be better at than Starcraft 2. It probably wouldn’t make as good an eSport, and there are specific elements in SC2 (the race mechanic, for instance) that make SC2 a lot of fun to watch and play. But when it comes down to it, this game is one  I’d play a lot more than I play SC2, because I could fit it in my life, and right now, I can’t/don’t want to fit SC2. In that respect, I think that would qualify as “better”.

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