Design Journal 2 – Coming up with the idea

The initial spark for my current game project was a Flash learning project from one of my students. A simple, classic space shooter: shoot enemy ships, fight bosses, avoid asteroids. I felt like doing this kind of simple game too, and besides, I could practice Actionscript 3 programming on that project. I just had to find a simple twist to make the game interesting.

The Plot
I took a lot out of the world of the Meta-Baron by Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius (Jean Giraud) and from it's characters (check out some of the pages, you can taste the intensity of the writing in every drawing).  As the main character, I wanted a mercenary not unlike the Metabaron, a warrior whose might could change the fate of galaxies. This powerful player character would be contracted by different planetary factions against each other, depending on their ability to pay.

I also wanted to give the player more freedom than traditionnal SCHMUPs. In the first design, the player could jump out of a level into a mini-map of the galaxy and instantly go anywhere at any time through hyper-space travel. While on the minimap, the player could watch the flow of events between the planetary factions and decide which missions to take on. I knew I was getting more ambitious than I first intended but the idea appeared interesting. Since it would be nearly impossible to script every possible outcomes, I had to build a world that would live on its own, with discernable rules and gambits.

To breath life into this underlying political context, I started modeling a system to define the ressources the planets would fight for, their objectives and their means. The Mercenary gained the role of a tool in this game of power and politics. The planet that can afford to pay for the Mercenary's services is assured a victory, but beware of his frequent shifts of allegiance. Through his choices and his ability to achieve the missions, the player would decide the fate of a whole galaxy, but the actual “game” would be played by artificial intelligences making their own choices.

Crafting a prototype
The design was getting pretty interesting but it's commonly known that you cannot know how a game will feel before you can actually play it. So before programming anything, I had to know if my system worked. Programming AIs around untested set of rules would probably lead to a massive waste of precious time so I went on to create a paper prototype (more on paper prototypes here and here) for the underlying political game rules. I thought that if I could fix and balance the rules and make them easy to play for human players, programming them should be a breeze.

Interestingly, the political game was fun enough that I decided to pursue it as a board game of it's own. I only had two play sessions so far but, even if the game is still loaded with flaws, I saw emerging strategies and interesting player choices that are very promising. After each of those two play sessions, the game changed radically, but the core of the game remains the same. More on this later...

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