Friday 24 January 2014

Airship Dragoon Post-Mortem Part 1

Airship Dragoon Post-Mortem: Part 1

... or ...

I Made An Indie Game And All I Got Was 1D100 Sanity Points Loss: Part 1

Part One: Design

I was so disappointed when the monster on the cover wasn't actually in the game ... but I guess that's what cover art and marketing are for ... :(

UFO: Enemy Unknown ... apparently branded as X-Com: Ufo Defense in the Yoo Ess of Ay for reasons I never bothered looking into ... but generally known as X-Com to everyone who played it ... was the brainchild of @julian_gollop and just one of the series of his turn-based tactics games. I had unwittingly played Laser Squad and Lords of Chaos without drawing the link between their creator. UFO established X-Com as a brand and franchise with numerous sequals, Terror From The Deep being more of the same but underwater, and then a few more games in different styles/genres which I never liked the look of and thus didn't play. It also spawned a slew of inferior imitators such as Sabre Team, which was a lesson in how not to design an interface ...

Sabre Team: Interface Y U Needlessly Take Up Nearly Half The Screen!?

Having been a player of "hardcore" strategy and tactics games such as Steel Panthers - World War 2 and modern conflicts 1946-2020 with free, low-res versions here - which featured a dizzying array of weaponry, equipment and real world mathematics of projectile to angle of attack to armour penetration - casual games have never offered me any appeal. Why do something for a few minutes if you like it? I'd much rather immerse myself in something thoughtful for a few hours.

Steel Panthers: Teh H4rdc0r3z .. whatever that means ...

And so the concept for titleless game codenamed Badger Of Doom before quickly becoming Royal Corp Of Dirigibles was born ... which underwent various name changes over the 2 and half years of organic development (more on that in Part 2) before I woke up one morning with a jolt and the title Airship Dragoon in my head. It was faction neutral (no Royal, they're the Brits in the game), described the aesthetic/world genre as steampunk (Airship) and described the troops who get dropped off at the battlefield via dirigible (Dragoon) ... and it was 2 words which was more memerable. So I set about the design of my X-Com styled tactics game which shall now be forever known as a Golloplike ...


First up, steampunk. I had ummed-and-ahhed about a science fiction setting - too much like X-Com and it turned out someone else was doing their own (and apparently much more literal) X-Com remake (Xenonauts - by someone who appears to know a hell of a lot more about marketing and garnering attention than I do) which was soon joined by Big Business making an actual X-Com reboot. I had also briefly considered modern warfare but that was easily dismissed as far too limiting - and it appears that Arma have now gone down that route. So, steampunk ... an absolutely freeform, make it up as you like, genre with no limitations. Want to make a sci-fi BFG laser weapon? No problems, just give it a silly name like "Atomic Death Ray". Don't really want to have it all set on Earth in a Victorian science fiction age? No problems, throw in an amusing backstory about creating an interdimensional gate to go steal all the coal in the parallel dimension of ancient earth on the super-continent of Pangea!

Design-wise, I wanted  a utilitarian look, devoid of unneccessary frills as long as everyone had a hat, some sort of goggles and exquisite facial hair. Aesthetic-wise I wanted to steer away from realism and grey/brown to go for something bright, colourful and stylized.

And so on to the problems I always had with the original X-Com ...

Tons Of Equipment But Everyone Ends Up The Same

X-Com had lots of equipment. You could research and manufacture new weapons and alien artifacts. There was plenty of variety ... but here's how it went ... you upgrade to laser rifles, you recover an alien heavy plasma rifle. Everyone gets a heavy plasma rifle, 1 heavy plasma rifle clip - there was so many bullets you wouldn't run out, an alien grenade, and the best armour available. Except for a couple of guys with Blaster Launchers and a Psy-Amp added to their load, everyone had the same kit, because it was the best kit. The huge variation in equipment was largely needless, and after one play through you knew what to prioritize for research early on and what you sould forget about.

The obvious way to combat this and make a variety of items and weaponry meaningful was not just to create upgrades but also distinct classes. I settled on six classes, each with 4 upgrades, and a general class of items anyone could use. Class based weapons and equipment would have negative modifiers if used by other classes.
  • Fusilier - light infantry, close combat
  • Grenadier - heavy infantry, larger calibre weapons
  • Gunny - heavy weapons guy, big guns, lots of bullets
  • Marksman - sniper, long range accuracy
  • Recce - scout, close range, can spot boobytraps
  • Sapper - engineer, explosives, spot, lay and diffuse boobytraps
  • Militia - not really a class, what recruits are before they get promoted to a class
Sapper was originally envisioned as a two fold class, for laying, spotting and diffusing boobytraps as well as being portable anti-armour with their various explosive weapon upgrades. Initially I had envisioned 3 classes of tank (light, medium, heavy) - well, Assault Guns, which are basically a tank without a turret - but initially testing proved for them to completely unbalanced. The low upgrades of explosives meant that it was far too difficult to either get close enough to be in range or were too inaccurate to be used at long range. The higher upgrades of explosive weapons rendered tanks fairly obsolete. It got to the point that which ever side lost their tank, would lose the battle. Having found no way of balancing them, tanks were dropped as a feature early on, and the protective value of personal armour was increased to compensate and give the more powerful upgrades something to get their teeth into.

Rookies ... Darkness ... Everyone is going to die ...

Individuals And The Rise Of The Ubermensch

Troops in X-Com were individuals, having their own identities and statistics. In many ways the beginning of an X-Com campaign was lesson in failure, you'd equip your rookie troops, send them out on a mission against a numerically lesser but technologically superior alien force ... and then watch them get cut down on mass, see the survivors panic and run around like headless chickens ... and then watch them get blasted with plasma too. Eventually, with ever rising fatalities you'd overcome the enemy, and the survivors would gain experience, rank and upgrade their stats. Soon you'd have a few veterans and those veterans were discernably better than everyone else. Whilst shooting was done as a percent of action points, movement always cost the same, so a veteran soldier would soon transform into some sort of superhuman sprinter that Jesse Owens could never hope to catch, leaping from one side of the map to another. Health also went up in the same manner until a soldier could survive a single blast from a Heavy Plasma Rifle - with huge but not total health loss - whilst a new recruit would be instantly killed.

I never quite liked this approach to superhumanism and early on had decided that all troops, regardless of rank and experience should have the same ability in movement and an equal susceptibility to bullets. No matter how good you are at something ... you don't suddenly become bulletproof. Newly recruited troops would be given a class based on their stats, and each class would have it's own stats for troop upgrades. Troops would level via their rank through 10 levels and only class based stats (primary +10, secondary +6, tertiary +4) would be increased.

I did love the idea of morale and troops panicking, going beserk and being routed - something which also happens to the enemy - and went as far to call it "Moral Fibre". Troops suffering "shell shock" during the first half of the previous century were said to be "LMF". In game, a sudden loss of comrades can cause all hell to break loose as troops flee from danger or put suppressing fire down on anything they can see - sometimes with astonishing effect as they drop enemies left, right and centre ... sometimes with horror as they mow each other down in the crossfire ...

"Bottling It" (lacking bravery in English slang) has a less clinical feeling than saying routed ...

The Footslogger Not The Armchair General

Strategy and squad tactical games have traditionally had a tendency to viewed from directly above (Steel Panthers) or isometric (X-Com), with the camera freely able to move over the battlefield in a sort of God's Eye View. However I wanted the primary focus of the game to be on the troops themselves.Whilst you do very much play Troopee (Troop Commander) the actions which you order and done via the individual troopers, the camera centred upon them as they move. When they come under fire the bullets whip past them - and also past the camera. It creates an immediacy of presence. Regardless of the player's ambivalence to the individual's life, when they are cut down in a hail of bullets with a scream, fountain of claret and collapse to the ground, it is very much in the player's face, not viewed in some disconnected manner.

In X-Com there was an endless supply of troops with whom the player could upgrade, swap and change for each mission. You could literally have scores of troops sitting around and slowly try to get them all more experienced. I decided to limit the number of core veterans the player could have to just 16. Suddenly losing veterans meant something very immediate. Veterans can only be replaced by Militia survivors (who there is an endless supply of) but there class is predetermined. You can very easily be wanting a sapper or recce to prevent your troops from walking into unseen boobytraps and may have to take the decision to retire one of your better veterans to make room for the new one. Marksmen are also rarer than other classes, intitially much rarer but for the sake of balance I changed that in an update to make a little more available.

Other Stuff That Isn't Getting It's Own Header

I'd liked the day/night cycle and different environments of X-Com and decided on a randomized weather system. I was also tired of playing games where battles were fought at very close ranges. If you take the average FPS, let's say CoD for sake of arguement, firefights with high velocity rifles have a tendancy to take place at 20 feet, and a sniper rifle is doing well to strike a target 100m away. I wanted a clear difference between weapon types, classes, and their ranges. Snipers and Gunny are clearly long range classes, their weapons reflect this, with Fusilier and Recce both being light, close-range classes, and all others being medium. Clipping long range battles at 300 metres gave plenty of scope for tactical movement covered by fire support, whilst preventing both teams firing into each others' spawnpoints/deployment areas.

It was during this point that I gave the troop classes their own ranges for opening fire in the enemy's turn. This provided an extra tactical dimension were Fusilier and Recce could be used to protect the other classes at close range, and vice-versa. In bad weather long ranges classes become less useful, but more useful in clear conditions.

Ammunition was another thing I've noticed disappearing games in the pursuit of casualization. Bullets are heavy things which automatic weapons devour. Take your average real world 7.62mm machine-gun, it can fire 750 rounds a minute, 750 cartridges weigh 25.5kg - that's 55lb. That's what I have on my weights bench ... for a single minute of intense shooting. I wanted bullets - and the troops ability to carry them - to have a strategic value. It's quite easy for a trooper to blaze away at half hidden targets and use up plenty of ammunition in the support role. Which is why you should be navigating an assault team around whatever cover is available whilst the enemy are pinned down.

As an example, I once fought a great battle where my troops and the enemy had met each other on open ground, inflicted casualties on each other before retreating into cover, blazed away at each other from it before both sides rushed forwards into no-man's land to throw grenades at each other whilst looting the dead of their ammunition. It's just how the battle panned out, and it's the sort of example of emergent gameplay which is what I wanted Airship Dragoon to be about.

I've been typing this up all day ... :S

Coming in Part 2: Organic Development And Why No One In Their Right Mind Would Do It!

And as ever ... Greenlight votes very much appreciated! :)


No exact date for writing/publishing part two as I am working on the next update and mod tools. Here's a quick video of mocap animations and camera shake on when fire that will be in the next update.