Scrap Titans

September 21st, 2012

With Tumble Fortress now firmly out of the way, I’ve started at long last to work on a sequel to Scrap Metal Heroes. I now feel I’ve been trending far too much into the casual side of things, and it’s about time to get back to making something closer to my own tastes as a player. Naturally, I’ve been a bit discouraged by the modest returns on Scrap Metal Heroes and Swordfall, but I don’t think the answer is necessarily to start making simple, casual games en masse. There’s no automatic riches to be found there either. In fact, that segment of the market is getting pretty heavily saturated. And perhaps most importantly for me, it seems much harder to pin down the prerequisites for success. Why does Angry Birds rake in the millions while thousands of other block collapsing games make barely anything? The answer of course is a complex combination of timing, marketing, polish, and some particularly adorable juxtaposition that’s just too amusing not to poke at for a few minutes. Birds vs pigs? Hilarious! Zombies vs plants? Oh, the delicious absurdity!

What might come next? Vampires vs penguins? Perhaps. They do both look good in black. The big problem though is that it’s really hard to tell what exactly might capture public attention in this fickle arena. Casual games in this sense are a lot like viral youtube videos. Some small slice of simple-minded amusement that’s different enough from what’s come before to put a few minutes of your time into. Who on Earth would have expected that some kid twirling a pole, pretending to be a jedi, would become a smash sensation? Impossible to predict what might click like that with the current zeitgeist.

On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to quantify quality in core games. Absorbing narrative, challenging gameplay, difficult choices, a meaningful sense of progression; these are all readily recognizable qualities. When a core game fails it tends to be over clear systematic problems. It might simply be glitchy, way too easy, or possibly much too hard. It might end up having a poorly conceived, easily exploited combat system. Maybe the AI is utterly incompetent, ruining any sense of immersion and challenge. Or it could be incredibly linear, taking away any meaningful choice from the player. Of course, none of these issues will be received the same way by different players, but they are easily identified.

So, what does all that mean for Scrap Metal Heroes? What are its strengths and flaws? The core mechanic of building robots is certainly fun. Some of my favorite games are ones where you can come up with your own unique ‘build’ of some sort and then test it out against the competition. TCGs and tabletop wargames are founded on that basic idea. As, to an extent, are many RPGs. Total War multiplayer has some of it as well, but the territory really hasn’t been explored all that much. Is there a mainstream strategy game out there that lets me design my own robots, spaceships or monsters, and then compete against other players’ creations? Not really. Or at least the pickings are very slim. All the robot-building games I’ve seen always involve one-on-one combat rather than strategy. It doesn’t help that the robot creation is often incredibly complex, to the point where you almost feel like the whole thing is just an exercise for actual robotics experts.

Scrap Metal Heroes, however, is weak in other areas. The combat is definitely its greatest weakness. It’s rather spammy, with not much in the way of pacing, and most importantly there just isn’t much decision making required. No control over movement, targeting or priorities. Just spawn, spawn, and spawn some more robots. So that’s the first thing that needs to change. No more lane combat whatsoever. In its place I want a fairly traditional RTS control scheme that actually lets you move units around, capture strategic points, and target weak enemies. Of course, I originally went for the lane system because I thought standard RTS mechanics were too complicated, particularly when it came to AI and pathfinding. But I now think it’s perfectly doable, if I keep it simple enough. Especially if I manage to obtain a basic engine from somewhere. Naturally, this would make the most sense with a top-down viewpoint, even though humanoid robots unfortunately don’t look that interesting from above.

So, what else needs to change? Well, I’m not too fond of the way Scrap Metal Heroes lays out levels into two distinct linear paths. I’d much rather have an open map with a number of different interconnected territories and cities, each unlocking something different. At the moment I’m planning to essentially present it as a conquest game with three different factions, all gradually expanding their territory, until they clash. Mechanically this conquest aspect will be pretty rudimentary compared to Swordfall, but it does give you some options and provides a bit of context.

Another issue I have with Scrap Metal Heroes is part progression. Higher rarity parts (indicated by name color) tend to be strictly better than more common ones, making the vast majority of parts obsolete by the late game. This really hurts design diversity, and makes it hard to both remain competitive and make robots look like you want. And part progression with an item pool of this size (about 250 parts total) isn’t really worth it. There’s only four tiers of power in Scrap Metal Heroes and it doesn’t take all that long to zoom through them. RPGs manage item progression by having thousands of different items, but I have no chance of making that much content. So the only reasonable solution is to have a relatively small pool of balanced parts. Though even so I may still aim to give rarer parts a slight edge, without making them strictly better than common stuff. I think the trick is for the more common parts to be plain, straightforward and efficiently priced, while the rare parts can be more specialized and expensive. Rare parts can still have the biggest, flashiest abilities so that they’re fun to discover, but their power is balanced out by some drawback, such as situational conditions, narrow role, limited ammo, high build cost, etc.

To keep that sense of power progression, I may add a technology tree similar to the one in Arkeia that boosts certain abilities and part types. Although this time I don’t think I’ll hide any of the techs. It might even make sense to allow any of them to be researched right from the beginning.

Well, I think that covers all of my plans so far. Tune in at a later date to see some early art.

– Peace and robot builds



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