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Blazing the Trails - Best in Show!

This time last week, my third and final game project for the semester, "Trailblazers", was awarded Best in Show at the MSU Game Development Showcase. It was an incredible honor, and I am very proud of all that I was able to accomplish this year. If you'd like some context for this post, feel free to download Trailblazers here. But for now, I'm going to talk about how this game idea was developed.

For our final game project, we were given a choice of three genres: Building, Strategy, and Sports. Strategy immediately appealed to me because of my long background playing (and developing) strategy games, though a building game also sounded interesting. When we first got in groups, we had tossed around a lot of ideas. One was a survival RTS game where you play as a caveman providing for his tribe. Another was a sports game where the players controlled omniscient beings who messed with the game from afar in a variety of ways (meteors, dropping walls, explosions, etc.). We bounced over 10 different ideas off of each other, and it seemed like there was always a problem with one of them, whether it was a lack of clarity or too large of a scope. However, I quickly noticed one pattern that was emerging - everyone REALLY wanted to work in the idea of "Sabotage".

The idea of doing things to screw up your opponents was incredibly compelling, and we really wanted to see what we could do with it. One of my group members was presenting an idea, and the game he was imagining had a lot of similarities to this game that I had played a few weeks earlier.

"You mean like 'Ultimate Chicken Horse'?"

We all agreed. Yes. That is what we want our game to be about.

I wouldn't say that our game was trying to copy Ultimate Chicken Horse, though it definitely took a lot of inspiration from what they were trying to accomplish. 'UCH' is one of the only "Level-Design" games out there, and the main comparison between us and them was that we were also trying to make a "Level-Design" game. We did, however, make a few huge distinctions between us and Ultimate Chicken Horse.

The main change we made to 'UCH's formula was that we wanted asymmetrical levels. UCH has a lot of great things going for it in the "Level-Design" department, but what it lacked was a clear strategy for players to aim at. If you make the level too hard, neither player can beat it. If you make it too easy, both players can beat it. So, what are you trying to do? Make a level that you can beat, but your opponent can't? That kind of makes sense, but it runs into a few obvious problems. For one, how can I assess what my opponent's mechanical strengths are in a 2D platformer? Am I supposed to figure out that my opponent takes an extra tenth-of-a-second to jump, and I should find some way to exploit that? The differences in play from one person to another (aside from sheer skill level) are incredibly minuscule, making the idea of 'customizing levels for only you to beat' null and void. The other argument is that you're trying to set up interactions that your opponent can't see, which is a weak argument as well since most objects are pretty obvious in what they are trying to do.

Given these things, we knew that we needed to provide a clear strategy for the players. They were trying to make their course as "X" as possible. Asymmetrical level design lets us do that.

We knew, however, from that moment on that we were stepping into somewhat uncharted territory. We were taking a pretty big U-Turn from our previous inspiration, and we were about to run into a lot of design challenges that UCH never tackled.

Right away, we started asking ourselves what kind of experience we wanted our game to be. We envisioned a multiplayer party game, based around multiple friends sitting around a couch, screwing each other over with their various obstacles and ridiculous courses, and tons of banter to go around. We wanted every course to feel different from the previous ones, and so we turned our attention to the obstacles. With different obstacles come different courses, and the more unique and entertaining their effects, the more creative players could get with their courses, which meant the larger the variety of experiences our game could provide.

One concern, however, was in regards to players making the course TOO difficult. In a multiplayer race game, players need to be able to finish the courses, or else the game will go on forever. We quickly implemented a spacing system so that obstacles couldn't be too close to other obstacles. This means that players have some room to maneuver while running the courses, and was an easy modifier to change if racing became too easy or too hard. Closer obstacles meant less reaction time and harder courses.

The other concern that was raised was about the "Level-Design" genre in general: Is the enjoyment of our game based on how good the players are at level-design? In other words - can someone who is terrible at designing their course still enjoy the game? We quickly found the answer to be "yes", but we still focused on making all of the obstacles individually powerful, yet synergistic with others as well. This means that players who have no focus on strategy can still design courses that are inherently challenging, while the master strategists can sequence their obstacles in the most devious ways possible.

One of the final big concerns that came up was in regards to obstacle balance. Obstacles for each player are randomly generated at the start of the round, and so players don't get to choose which ones they want. People were initially concerned that the obstacles would be unbalanced, and some would be too strong. With the random assortment, we prevent the problem of "dominant strategies" emerging because certain obstacles are too strong, but we still leave the game up to random chance. We did our very best to make each obstacle a roughly balanced power level, and in the future will be looking at analytics to see which obstacles are winning the most games. We also made a feature where the player can sometimes roll their own course to discourage players from making their courses impossible.

All in all, I am incredibly proud of Trailblazers and how it evolved. We took a step into uncharted territory, and emerged pretty successfully. It was very rewarding to see a game that invents its own genre, and was innovative enough to stretch the horizons of where many games have gone before. I plan to continue working on Trailblazers, because I believe that Trailblazers has the potential to be something much bigger than a 5-week class project.

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