Gold Leader: Mechanics

This is part of a series of notes on the development of Gold Leader, currently being shopped around to game portals.

Conceptually Gold Leader organically evolved—arguably, devolved—through three distinct phases.

The original concept was much more of a strategy game, turn-based but with underlying shooter dynamics and conventions.  This would be somewhat similar in mechanics to Steambirds or the earlier Wings of War boardgame but different enough to be interesting.  In some part this was motivated by the narrative theme of a large scale conflict.

Mostly that got set aside just because I was starting with almost no infrastructure, writing all of the underlying game framework in addition to the game itself.  That concept seemed quite likely to rapidly become a project doomed by its own ambition and never completed.  Hopefully I’ll come back to some of the original ideas though, I think there’s interesting things to do there.

Alongside a desire to scope down the project, the underlying action gameplay being developed was actually kind of fun.  So, the game converged rapidly into being more directly a shooter but keeping some of the original concepts.  In particular, the AI pilots that fly through and help you out in the final product were originally a much larger part of the game, with a lot more player interaction.

They came out pretty good as they’re used right now; some of the later set pieces when they appear are definitely among the best moments of the game.  However, I couldn’t easily get them to work well as co-pilots like I originally envisioned.  After a lot of prototyping and playing, that component as well eventually got scoped way down, and I wound up with a really fun but classically patterned shooter.

Gold 4 flies in to help save the day in the minelayers objective.

Fortunately, I do think Gold Leader has maintained a couple small twists on the shooter genre.  For me there are really three things players need to learn how to do well to succeed:

  • Use the screen wrapping to get in and out of tight spots, strafing targets and then getting out of the way, or flipping around rather than flying all the way across the screen to hit a critical target.  The latter especially is important.  It requires slightly different spatial reflexes than most shooters and takes some time to coach yourself into it.  Interestingly, this way originally adopted for the much more prosaic rationale of being a mechanism to maximize screen real estate on small mobile devices.
  • Taking short pauses in shooting as you move around to continuously regenerate a couple shield points, rather than keeping the shoot key mashed down like in most shooters.  Originally shooting reduced your energy so you were more vulnerable the longer you shot, but this was not actually much fun to play.  The current design is a good balance of standard shoot-em-all-up and more nuanced tactical flying.
  • Waiting to use upgrades until they’re needed, but not waiting so long as to get overwhelmed, die, and lose them.  In keeping with the idea of being a simple game ready to just jump in and play for a couple minutes, as well as having limited art resources, I really wanted to stay away from cliched upgrade shops and other common shooter conventions.  Many reviewers wish the upgrades were more plentiful, but I’ve adhered to the idea that upgrades should be special, and you should be forced to think about how best to use them.

Nothing earth shattering, but I think those are different enough to be interesting twists on standard shooter gameplay.  That’s backed up by the polarization they’ve produced among the beta testers.  Something like 125 people have tested Gold Leader up to now, and maybe two dozen have given direct feedback.  Among those, there are a good number that really disliked some of those mechanics.  Just as many though really appreciated the little bits of new tactics they create.  As a designer, I’m really happy to be able to say “Well, it’s a super simple, classical shooter, but here’s three ways it’ll challenge how people have become ingrained to play these games, and force them to learn new intuitions and tactics.”

Gold Leader: Narrative

This is part of a series of notes on the development of Gold Leader, currently being shopped around to game portals.

Themes

As discussed previously, one of the main inspirations for Gold Leader is Ender’s Game.  One of the things that really grabs me about that story is not actually explicitly present in the book much at all: The fleet.  Somewhere, way out in the black, there’s a whole host of ships and crew actually prosecuting the war, carrying out seemingly arbitrary orders from command, fighting and dying.  Lots of those people are undoubtedly very much necessarily just wrapped up in surviving their little part of it while all sorts of maelstrom swarms around them.

Gold Leader… ?!?!

Another largely implicit aspect in the story is the notion of a grand slam strategy: You’re on the brink, about to lose everything, and your only chance is to fight through incredible odds and deliver a knockout blow from out of nowhere to completely reverse the momentum and crush the enemy at their strongest.  You bank everything on the hope of hitting a grand slam.  The ability to explore and embody this kind of attitude and situation is something that has always, always drawn me to gaming.  You can see it right up under our logo in the main motto of Rocketship Games: Fortune favors the bold.

Those two themes are what I had kicking around my head motivating Gold Leader.  Now, it’s a classical shooter, so story isn’t really a big part of the draw.  Further, I quite consciously worked to keep it strictly focused on the action: No cutscenes, no animations, no dialog, just action.  The closest thing to a cutscene is the tutorial component at the start, literally ten seconds long as you play with the controls.  There were many reasons for that design approach, including:

  • I was purposefully working toward a retro feel to go with the art, and fancy cutscenes and elaborate story definitely do not say “retro shooter.”
  • I absolutely did not want to develop more art, to support storyline or otherwise, and walls of text don’t really work that well in faster paced games.
  • I myself mostly play videogames as a few minutes’ diversion while waiting for a download or compile, or thinking about next steps.  There’s probably a lot of people out there like that in the Flash game audience.  Those minutes are precious, and need to be spent on gameplay.

Between the retro feel, art limitations, and gameplay time maximization, I wound up working toward a really minimal artistic aesthetic—a super stripped down in-game UI, very basic text updates, etc.  The story line is almost completely invisible.

Plot

But it is there.  Here’s the basic plot:

  • You’re a starfighter pilot, just one person lost among a huge conflict.
  • Your ship travels through farspace under centralized control while you’re in some kind of cryo stasis.  Upon arriving at a mission/target, you’re just warmed up, woken up, and thrown into it with almost no background.
  • The mission that opens this game game seems fairly standard at first, picking away at an enemy sensor grid.
  • As you clear the grid though an incoming invasion fleet is discovered.
  • The invasion is disrupted.  Seizing the moment, your faction presses the attack while the enemy is over-committed to the now-failed invasion.
  • Your faction throws everything into the thrust, but only you make it through to the critical showdown with the enemy’s command and your chance to win the whole conflict in one small blow—the grand slam.
  • You and the other pilots are all clones, possibly not even recognizably human or able to exist outside your ship, just organic—or not?!—combat processors.  This is all you ever do, hero of the galaxy or not.  You’re put back into stasis and farspace to the next mission.

A lot of this is sketched out in some of my very first design notes for Gold Leader:

Some original brainstorming ideas for Gold Leader.

Implementation

How all that shows up in the game is not very prominent, but sub-consciously shapes the experience.  These are some of the ways that narrative is captured:

  • The starting tutorial is very much that sequence: You’re woken up out of farspace and thrown into a mission.
  • The “mission text,” the unadorned white text as opposed to the boxed tutorial texts, is all ostensibly central control telling you what to do, wired right into your mind.
  • The mission objectives vaguely carry the storyline above, and definitely carry a feel of progressing deeper into enemy territory.
  • There are no explicit levels or mission breaks, just brief quiet periods to recover before the next phase.  This keeps the momentum going and carries the feel of rushing to opportunistically exploit an unexpected opening.
  • Throughout the game there are other pilots from your faction that come through, helping you out but mostly doing their own thing.  This represents that notion of you being just a cog in a larger conflict.  Further, their number and frequency increases as the game goes on, following that idea of your faction throwing resources at an opening, and everyone trying to get to the central command.

So, the narrative is there, and hints of it really shape the game.  More importantly, having just a bit of a narrative helped me stay on track and develop a coherent game.  Having a story I was invested in, that I wanted to develop, was also a critical motivation in finishing the game, even though it’s almost completely submerged in the final product.

Gold Leader: Inspirations

This is part of a planned series of notes on the development of Gold Leader, currently being shopped around to game portals.

There are really three inspirations for Gold Leader.  One is somewhat obviously mid-90s shooters like Raptor: Call of the Shadows and Tyrian, both of which I played a lot of as a kid.  For what it’s worth, I am more of a Raptor guy.  It just felt like a much more realized universe; I loved flying over forest clearings and riverbanks discovering little roads, buildings, trucks, and so on.

Raptor: Call of the Shadows.

More immediately, I randomly came across a really good spritesheet on a stock art website.  That’s almost entirely what you’re seeing when you play Gold Leader.  I hadn’t seen anybody else use it, there were just enough components to make a full game, and I really loved the look of it so I started thinking about building a game around it.

Finally, my wife started reading Ender’s Game.  I am actually not a fan of the book in practice.  It’s immensely popular for precisely the reasons I dislike it:

  • The characters and their interactions are all fairly simple and predictable.  There’s a reason good young adult fiction is so popular with adults: Just complex enough to be engaging, not complex enough to really require thinking.
  • It’s power pornography, a fantasy for every downtrodden nerd out there.  The repeated narrative of the story is: Ender encounters some insurmountable problem.  Ender whines about how insurmountable the problem is.  Ender applies his limitless abilities to surmount the problem.  Wash, rinse, repeat…

So, I think most of the actual text is boring and annoying.  But many of the concepts are great, and I really like it in theory. **SPOILER ALERT** I’m particularly fascinated by Ender’s closing realization that he’s been consigning real people to their deaths the whole time, let alone just wiped out a whole civilization.  The brief moment he spends at the end pondering the faith and duty of the ships and crew that have been blindly following his often counter-intuitive and suicidal orders largely redeems the whole book for me.  **END SPOILER ALERT**

Gold Leader… ?!?!

Those three just happened to impact together in my head, and I started thinking about a narrative and backstory driven by some of those themes, and slowly started working on Gold Leader.  Looking back it’s almost kind of funny: I’ve got a great spritesheet featuring a little gold player spaceship, I see a book laying around the house with a little gold spaceship on it, next thing you know we’ve got a game!