Lately I've been coming across a lot of indiedev porn inspired by the whole coaching movement where it's all about loud common sense, aggressive positivity, raging self-affirmation and catchy words like soul, purpose, life hack and things like that. I don't believe in that stuff all that much because we're all different, and while a small few general notions do apply to us all, they often crumble in the face of our unresolved blockages and resistances. I also find the whole coaching thing a bit self-serving but that's another story.
Yeah!!! wait, what?
So today I would like to talk about the mindset that has driven Winterfall up to this point, through 10 tenets, in no particular order of importance or meaning. I guess they're all important and meaningful to me. And there's 10 because its nifty but there could probably be a few more. I'll throw some unrelated screenshots in-between for eye candy.
Anyways, I think it may be interesting because at its beginning and for a portion of its development, Winterfall was, basically:
- A first project ever, yet very ambitious in depth and scope
- An unfunded project led by an inexperienced and untrained guy
- An unstaffed initiative started by a purely creative person without dev skills
While it ticked every box towards the likelihood of complete, rapid and inevitable failure, its design philosophy and development approach were and remained based on a select few personal tenets that ultimately gave it its die-hard endurance and keep it going to this day, overcoming all and any odds.
A screenshot of the concept build 3 months into development:
How everything began for Winterfall... sort of come a long way. But there was multiplayer!
Multiplayer with midgets.
First I will describe the mechanics currently being implemented, those of the Homecoming System, as they will provide context for some of the examples I'll be taking in this post by describing one of the larger segments of the gameplay (the "open world adventure" thing).
"The Homecoming System structures the part of gameplay that deals with integrating (or returning) a character to the House through a journey, adventure or ordeal. In so doing, both the character and the House will be augmented or altered in some way.
The concept is that the character starts from a haven or sanctuary and is tasked (or tasks him/herself) with delivering a resource to the House. The House being set in the lands of the Old Kingdom, it is thus located in what is known as the "Lower World", a land teeming with life where the call of the wild brings forgetfulness and a desire for unbound freedom.
It is against the effects of that call that the characters will struggle, by trying to retain what resources they are bringing, in the face of forgetfulness, devaluation and wastefulness"
Now, let us begin.
Volumetric fog adds nice depth to the scene.
#1 "Know Thy Self"
Any indie dev on a first project is bound to hear the words of wisdom "Start small, focus on finishing something". With Winterfall, the opposite approach was taken: "start big and keep digging". This ultimately worked out specifically because I knew what I was made of and knew that less than total commitment to a grand idea would prove ultimately frustrating to me. As I knew I didn't have the discipline and knowledge required to tackle things in meticulous order on a small scale, unambitious project, I figured that going for something captivating for which I would be passionate would keep me going. It'd be, I thought, the best opportunity for me to develop steadfastness, organization and know-how, fueled as I'd be by raw motivation. I also knew of my personality tendency to never back down from the pursuit of a victory I believe in, no matter how bleak or hard things may look.
IN PRACTICE - The idea was to carve a path of challenges and boons as natural as possible to me to maximize my ability to adapt in overcoming the hardships and to extract nourishment from the victories. 4 years down the line, I have not lost a drop of motivation (though I've lost a lot of social life, creature comforts and money) and have only grown in competence, drive and character.
#2 "Go All In & Don't Forget to Experiment"
Coming from a contemplative philosophical outlook and pragmatic approach, and loving to play with ideas, concepts and notions, I found that binding development to an arbitrary schedule and external budget would prevent this project from going where it must go. Further interaction with school-trained developers and designers showed me that time and experiment-based maturity are as important as method and training and often overlooked. That is why such a project could never be done merely 9 to 5, "on the job-only" and had to be a full-time thing: it may be that often, "on the job-only" simply doesn't give the project enough time to reach its full maturity, for its concepts to go as far as they need to to make it into satisfying, organic design and logical gameplay. Beyond this specific project, as a designer, to me the ability to "bring the work home", that is to keep a brain processing thread on for the work at all times, whatever I'm doing, is crucial.
IN PRACTICE - as an example, the original Personality Simulator was nothing if not experimental and could be deemed "financially wasteful". It also kind of sucked. But it was a crucial sketch-phase of the streamlined version we have now on which many gameplay systems in the game rest or are to rest comfortably. On the same note, I soon couldn't go outside anymore without examining mountains and rocks, taking all kinds of mental notes as to how to properly build landscapes in the game.
The fog rolls down the mountain, gradually engulfing the valley.
#3 "Mimic Life"
Life is the ultimate game. Most of us are terrible at playing it because we are unable/unwilling to see that it is a game and then because we can't find a manual that explains how this "life" game is supposed to be played. Yet, for game design, life offers the best inspiration if one acquires the ability to look at its events and processes structurally and conceptually: how do things work? What is the point? What are events trying to say? Why is this happening? What is driving a person? In that area, feelings and experiences acquired in all kinds of life situations become useful at informing one's conception of design and gameplay. That organic conception can then be properly formulated in schematical ways in the language of game design, and executed as engaging gameplay.
IN PRACTICE - the Personality Simulator we built for Winterfall came out as a byproduct of deep personal exploration on identity, personality and relationships. The "emotional survival" bias of the game came out of personal life experience. The focus on wide open spaces to wander in and in which to manage personal emotional resources and emotions came from my love of mountain hiking. We can make gamified games based on prior games, or maybe we can be a little bit more contemplative in our inspiration and draw from the original source: living life.
#4 "Design Deeply"
In my experience and preference, games with some sort of depth to their design, or games with overarching philosophical logic are always more memorable in terms of the experience they deliver, than "gamified" experiences based on loops and short-term pavlovian conditioning. Long-range consequences to minute choices, developments over the length of a game, replayability through New Game+ unlocks, gratuitous achievements & challenges, pattern breakage and twists of unpredictability make a gaming experience ultimately a lot more alive and engaging. It is not to be about checklists of things to acquire or win, but rather, through incentives, to go out and play and get exposed to gameplay situations for opportunities to experience things and formulate new goals. In that sense, exploration, assigned goals, detours and replays become a chance to "get more game" rather than being the final and finite point of the game.
IN PRACTICE - having a Personality Simulator, an emotional survival system, an inventory/item management system, exploration incentives and ongoing resource management mechanics all connected and active during gameplay make it so that it's a lot less about winning, and a lot more about running with what matters to you, and every time you get out there, those systems will interact (along with some others) to offer you gameplay and goals to pick and pursue.
And now getting fully engulfed.
#5 "Build Modularly"
I never understood why the video game industry is so wasteful of its resources. Hundreds of thousands may be spent on making one game and all that has been created for it is often lost altogether if the game has no follow-up: game mechanics, game assets, world... new and finite may mean short-lived and unadaptable. In this project's case, the idea was always to make things modular enough that they could be expanded on, but also open-ended enough that other games could be made by using the same philosophy, architecture and assets. This logic applies itself to in-game systems, assets and mechanics as well as beyond. For instance, the Personality Simulator allows us to simulate a character and its reactions and inclinations. We can reuse that system to simulate a group or faction, or anything that is supposed to have a sense of personality and a reactivity. We can use it to determine how a material reacts to stimuli, we can use it to determine the stats of an item and so on.
IN PRACTICE - Your character is an entity, so is every character out there. The environment is an entity, with its own reactions. Everything is alive, due to simply upscaling a given system to another level of magnitude while leaving its interactivity wide open. Beyond in-game scaling and duplication of a system to be put to different purposes, should the game mechanics of Winterfall, a fantasy game, meet success, why not adapt them to a sci-fi shooter universe and gameplay? Things were then designed in such a way that a few hours of dev work and a new batch of art assets would render that possible. It'd bring the novelty twists of Winterfall to another genre and from the difference in genres and settings, create a whole new slew of experiences while running on the same design and platform.
Games are based on choice, and plenty of it. The very nature of gameplay is generally about minute, split-second choices that take us down a path of consequence to be navigated with further micro-choices until victory, defeat or escape and reattempt. You can see such mechanics clearly at work notably in high frequency pvp games, where a single click or move or ability usage can mean a lot down the line. At another rate of speed and scale, you can see that also in strategy games.
On the opposite end of the choice spectrum, RPGs often pride themselves in terms of choice but those choices are often either cosmetic (customize looks and dress and goodbye) or hollow and instant (purchase upgrade to ability and goodbye). Choices are clear cut, much as they are in scenarios where the player gets prompted to act either absolute selfless goodness or gratuitous evilness. But such fake choice is simply meaningless and hard to connect with.
IN PRACTICE - It's not just about taking your character Home, but instead about how you will do it, in what shape you will deliver it. Rich and weary? Healthy and empty-handed? Strong-minded and morally bankrupt? Innocent and preserved? Or various mixes of all those? It's your call based on what it means to you, and the idea is that it will, over the long term, build up what you care about.
Within the forest, the atmosphere shifts dramatically. Gloomy...
#7 "Consequence All Over the Place"
Why not instead think of offering players to make isolated, time-separated choices, minute or momentous, that ultimately compete with one another and thus provide yet further choice? Why not letting players choose what is most important to them by giving them several non-crucial but important values to focus on? Why not giving several win conditions, not necessarily binary ("win/lose"), where the player does not feel that all should be succeeded at? Why the focus on perfect score and full checklists? Why the focus on score at all, why not scores? Why one win condition only? More choice and evaluation mechanics tend to mean a more customized game experience as the player plays in a way that he cares to, that means to him/her. This may well mean more engaging and memorable experiences ultimately. Look at strategy games. Anything but linear, ultimately made of lots of smaller victories, defeats, consequences, detours, explorations and attempts. Always engaging.
IN PRACTICE - You don't have to fight. You don't have to explore. You don't have to build relationships. You don't have to craft, you don't have to seek adventure... you can however do any of those, or all of them at once, you can focus on one or several specifically.
#8 "Making it Naturally Relatable"
Dwarves, elves, fantasy aliens, giant swords and laser beams, man-machine hybrids, furries, fireballs and magic are all nice and good, but coming with so many constraints, conventions and comparisons, aren't they a bit expensive by now? If you don't need to explain that the big bad black dragon with green fumes is the bad guy hell bent on destroying the world, it's just because you're knee-deep head first into cliche territory and that's bad. If you do need to explain, it's just that you're being pretentious. People got it. They just care about going through the motions of killing it (or maybe they don't even). If you go down the tropes route, they'll have a harder time focusing on the super-detailed world and characters you came up with if you don't put in three times more work delivering it. Either way, it's been done a hundred times before, so let's finally unsubscribe from it as the default, yeah?
IN PRACTICE - The "antiquity-inspired post-collapse dark age" setting of Winterfall is full of humans dealing with humans, history and wilderness. No elves, no fireballs, no zombies. You don't need a lot of knowledge to get into it and your assumptions may not work either. That means your mind is fully free to discover, enjoy, and build your understanding as you play.
... or diaphanous.
#9 "Integrity is Coolness Tuned all the Way Up"
As much as we like escapist fantasy, it turns out that our culture has found subjects grounded in reality or a sense of realism endlessly fascinating. It is interesting that in an age where heroic fantasy and sci fi have finally become totally mainstream, people tune in so massively to relatively low-fantasy shows such as Vikings and Game of Thrones. Everyone understands what it's about, it's close enough to not require suspension of disbelief, and with all that accumulated goodwill from the audience, you can then introduce funky stuff and they'll love it. It seems to me that starting from a simple, relatable premise gives the solid foundation that will spawn its own originality in terms of its intrinsic developments, both in world design and game design. Maintaining that integrity as a design value will tend to keep design centered on systems that logically grow out of the premise itself.
IN PRACTICE - Call of Duty in 2189 or Dungeon and Dragons with Predators is just still Call of Duty, is just still Dungeons and Dragons and then you're stuck down certain gameplay design alleys and people have no reason to care enough over the previous Call of Duty, Dungeons and Dragons, or similarly-inspired products. Whereas DayZ, simple as it may be, is so clearly defined that the game sort of designs itself from the simplicity of the premises. In Winterfall, as the premise is all about building a House, its members and its legacy in a fading age of overgrown wilderness, the design naturally formulates itself around matters of building, development, journeying, emotional survival and investigating the past.
#10 Give it its Growth Space
Ideas are great. Everyone has them and they're often a lot of fun. But what about protecting them? Because the world is so full of people who steal them, right? Well, no. It's almost become a meme by now for indie devs that ideas are ultimately worthless in and of themselves, that it's all about how those ideas are formulated and implemented.
But what I find is talked about a lot less, is how design and execution kind of have a life of their own, or require a growth time of their own. In other words, by the time you start formulating that design and implementing it, and in the long run through giving it further attention, especially in connection with other mechanics and with input from other developers or testers, it's going to change. Possibly a fair bit. Some things are just great ideas but are unworkable in practice, some things are great but don't work so well within the rest of the product, you name it. It's important, I think, to realize that the real extent of your ownership of an idea is mainly in the responsibility you have to see it all the way through its growth to complete integration. Isn't it also one of the reasons why we talk about game development?
IN PRACTICE - 3 months into Winterfall's development, Shroud of the Avatar was announced. Same concept as Winterfall. Panicked me and sent me on a tailspin. As soon as Shroud of the Avatar started showing actual gameplay, I realized that while it may be the same general concept with some similar claims in its design, it had little execution in common. Now, years further down the line both projects pretty much don't have any common trait anymore. Ideas had time to go to their full maturity. No two people will grow to complete similarity, ideas work just the same way.
Time for a bit of rest.