Codename:Ghosts Pre-Mortem Megapost


Welcome to the Codename:Ghosts pre-mortem! (I figure if “post-mortem” no longer requires the project to have been a failure, then “pre-mortem” deserves a similar treatment, language abuse be damned.)
This is a long post because Ghosts has been under dev for awhile, but it tells you the majority of the basics behind Ghosts. Hopefully you find it interesting. :)

Game Overview

The Ghosts of Your Pleasure and Contempt is an abstract puzzle RPG about low-level magic manipulation. You play as a wizardfolk individual, finally come of age and ready to enter the Lyceum and truly master magic.

The Lyceum is an unusual structure: each wizard that enters finds themselves in a different maze, for the Lyceum is a physical representation of the wizard’s magical ability and innate talent. Changes to the Lyceum change your magical ability and vice versa. If you unlock a new technique, you will find that the Lyceum has grown a new “disc” to accommodate and represent that technique. When you reach the center of that disc, you can start using that technique to solve other puzzles. Unlocking/exploring rooms and placing relics or curios in rooms will actually augment the associated techniques.

For example, early into your exploration of the Lyceum, you might see the following pair of views. On the left with a black background is the Lyceum itself, and at right with the light blue background is sort of a “mind’s eye view” of your skills.

Partially explored Lyceum.

Partially explored Lyceum.

Mind-view, made with GIMP.

Mind-view, made with GIMP.

Puzzles!

The core gameplay is solving the puzzle-locks of gates throughout the maze of the Lyceum. At each gate, you will find several sources of magical energy and a set of magical devices that must be activated to unlock the gate. When a gate is opened, you can follow a hallway leading deeper into the maze allowing you to further improve your abilities and find more shiny lootstuffs!

When you first enter the Lyceum, you’ll find yourself in a maze formed by a trio of discs representing the three basic techniques for manipulating magic and solving puzzles. These are skills you picked up back in your village through more mundane means: study, practice… lectures.

These techniques let you:

  • tap a magical source to access its energy flows,
  • guide that energy flow to where you want it, and
  • sink the flow into a device or artifact.

Early on, devices in the Lyceum will respond to pure magic. That’s great, because that’s all you’ve got! Using the techniques you start with to guide magical energy to the devices will unlock them. As you explore deeper and deeper into the maze, though, new devices will appear that require magic to be precisely converted to and from mundane forces (light, sound, heat, etc.) in order to be activated.

You won’t be in the maze long before discovering new techniques, including the ability to separate energy into its constituent elements (earth, fire, air, and water), to divide a given flow of energy (to create precise flows), or to merge flows of different strengths or elements. The maze holds many other techniques for an aspiring wizard to unlock!

Your ability to utilize each technique depends on how thoroughly you have explored that part of the Lyceum. Unrefined techniques are quite inefficient, causing parts of the involved magical flows to be lost to the aether. This inefficiency may make some puzzles too difficult to solve. Fortunately, the conquering of the maze, you can perfect each technique. Bringing these mastered techniques to bear elsewhere will let you solve more and more complex puzzles, and unlock the secrets of the maze and, indeed, your own mind.

The Maze(s)!

The shape of the Lyceum is deceptively simple: just rooms, hallways between them, and puzzle-locked gates. Oh, also, lootstuffs like powerful magical techniques and arcane artifacts that can drive your magical abilities higher and higher. Those are important, too.

Lootstuffs!

Scattered throughout the Lyceum, you can find a few main types of loot. Each of these is intended to have a qualitative effect on how you explore the maze. Usually this means no minor numerical bonuses like “You’re 0.8% better at summoning widgets!” but instead something more along the vein of “Your widgets are now permanently wreathed in fire and intimidate your enemies by humming ‘O Fortuna’!”

To be clear, as a puzzle game, quantitative effects in Ghosts can have a qualitative impact on the game, so I won’t simply avoid numerical boosts. Instead, I intend to make sure they do have that big effect so that after finding them, the game plays a little bit differently.

In order of descending rarity:

😯 Artifacts are rare magical devices that enable you to do things you couldn’t do before. Perhaps one is a portable and inexhaustible source of magic. Perhaps another lets you perform a certain technique above 100% efficiency. These have the potential to completely redefine how you interact with the Lyceum.

😎 Relics are rare physical objects that can be used to enhance the Lyceum as you see fit. Because each room in the Lyceum directly represents a particular part of a technique you know (or will soon learn), changes to those rooms create changes in your mind as well. Relics can provide significant boosts to your abilities if you’re lucky enough to find one. Use them wisely.

πŸ’‘ Glimmers are insights gained suddenly. Are they remnants of the lessons and skills of previous explorers? Maybe unexpected thoughts of what could be? Or perhaps unseen beings whispering in your mind? To the Lyceum, it doesn’t matter: whatever the cause, the maze will grow to encompass the new insight, waiting for you to take the knowledge within for yourself.

😐 Curios are weaker versions of relics – although much more common – and are the closest I get to offering quantitative rewards. They can be used to enhance the Lyceum and augment your abilities in more simple ways. Each curio placed in a room directly enhances the existing effect of that room. Curios also serve as conduits for the power sources in a room, and once you’ve learned the proper technique, that power can be tapped from anywhere, allowing you to act as a mobile power source yourself!

The Echo

Locked gates keep you from wandering through the Lyceum freely, but it isn’t the only maze you can explore. There is also an endless magical maze-world known as the Echo, full of challenges and rewards similar to those found in the Lyceum.

Much as the Lyceum mirrors your magical skill, the myriad separate mazes found in the Echo represent the traits of the magical objects and spirits you find within the Lyceum. By visiting a specific echo and solving the puzzles within, you can strengthen and purify that object or spirit.

The size and difficulty of the maze found within an echo depends on the strength of what it represents. A curio might have only a handful of rooms and hallways, easily explored, while a powerful relic may be massive and full of puzzles that will haunt your dreams. Whatever the size and challenge, exploring an Echo will strengthen the object or spirit it represents.

The Avatar Technique

Within the Lyceum is a technique that lets you place a magical copy of yourself inside the Echo. That copy knows every technique you know, but at first you may not be any good with them. As you master the technique, you’ll be able to bring more of yourself into the Echo, and eventually bring some of the Echo back with you.

Because of this limitation, you may have to return to a particular echo many times before you are able to finish it completely, but it’s worth persevering: removing the impurities in an object or spirit will dramatically improve its power. Moreover, as in the Lyceum, the harder the puzzle, the greater the reward for solving it!

Mimics!

Occasionally when exploring the Lyceum or the Echo, you will encounter playful spirits. Known as “mimics”, these spirits make a game of imitating you, but they’re not just playing around: they will work hard to succeed!

You can use this imitation to your advantage: mimics can be directed to perform simple tasks for you, and they’re a bit obsessive about it.

Though mimics will continue a task until told otherwise, they do have the sense to know if a task isn’t possible anymore and will find other useful things to do until you return to give them different instructions.

One unusual trait of mimics is that they operate on real-life time. You know, clock-on-the-wall time. I.e., the same time as you sitting here reading this. The obvious downside of this is that they usually aren’t going to get a lot done while you’re playing. However, they will keep working when you leave, even if you leave for a month or a year. Whether they keep working through a game reinstall depends on whether you enable cloud support for your saves, but otherwise they’re pretty driven. (Also, I’d like to offer the option to receive notifications of mimic activity on notification-aware systems.)

Another unusual trait is that mimics are capable of being combined into larger entities, if you learn the proper technique. Combined, mimics are more effective at some tasks, and also gain more powerful abilities that smaller mimics (and even you!) can’t perform. It’s up to you to determine whether to do this, as having a lot of smaller mimics might be more appropriate for your play style.

Like other things found in the Lyceum, mimics have an echo that you can enter and explore. As usual, doing this will enhance that mimic, making it more effective all-around. When mimics combine, however, their echo grows significantly. The echo mazes of two mimics combine more or less directly, taking the best parts of each. Each of the discs grow slightly, enabling additional power, and the mimic may even gain a new ability (and associated disc) entirely.

mimic strengths combining

Two tiny mimics combining strengths and growing larger.

Mimics have many abilities, some of which you may lack. The smallest mimics can:

  • continuously search for curios hidden out of view in the Lyceum
  • gradually estimate the difficulty of puzzles you haven’t solved yet, helping you guide your exploration
  • gradually refine and strengthen magical sources, enabling some puzzles to be solved that couldn’t be before
  • follow you into the Echo to do these tasks while you’re exploring there

Eventually you may find a technique that allows more skillful, intentional guidance of mimics. This can enable you to:

  • send mimics into the Echo without you, helping you refine those objects even while you’re elsewhere
  • improve mimic efficiency in general
  • assign mimics smarter tasks (requiring less direct intervention)
  • combine larger and larger mimics

With mimics helping you, the possibilities are endless!*
* Possibilities not actually endless.

Sources of Design Inspiration

Ghosts, like every design, incorporates a lot of prior art, either directly or indirectly. I thought I’d share some of these, to help explain where I’m coming from and why some of the designs look the way they do.

Magic Circles and the “Sphere Grid”
The “Sphere Grid” [GIS] layout/mechanic from Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy X title is one that I’ve heard a lot of love for over the years. Sometimes it’s the mechanic itself, sometimes it’s just the look and feel. A more recent incarnation and one with a more deliberate design can be found in the expansive skill tree of Grinding Gear Games’ nifty ARPG, Path of Exile. I decided to use these as inspiration for Ghosts’ maze layout, and so far it’s treated me well.

Additionally, the circles/spheres/curved lines/etc. commonly found in magic circle [GIS] designs have been a big influence, though at this point their influence is a bit muted. I really like the thought of those magic circles actually being functional spells, but for now that’s a bit ambitious.

Redstone!
Minecraft’s redstone is, obviously, red. And I, you might have guessed by now, love red. What more need be said? (That rhymed.) (That didn’t.)

Well, plenty more can be said. Redstone circuitry has been one of the most fascinating gaming phenomenons of the past few years, and is undoubtedly a huge part of the rocket fuel behind Minecraft’s explosive growth. Ghosts originally started with a kindred intent: to give players a “programmable magic” sandbox. I’ll certainly return to that with multiple future titles, and perhaps for this title, but for the initial release it’s been scaled down to something manageable.

Most of the core concepts survive, however. The puzzles feature power sources, connections between them, circuitry-style operations (splits, merges, etc.), and devices to be powered. However, for the time being the layout is not likely to yield any programmable pianos, if only because it would be unbelievably tedious. I’ll try to introduce a more sandbox-y scenario after release, though!

Disgaea

disgaea_bluuueee_yellowwwww

Tragic screen grab courtesy of LPArchive

If you’ve played Disgaea (or its brethren), the ability to enter and purify an item or mimic probably reminded you of Disgaea. To be honest, I accidentally found myself in that design space while solving some other conundrums, but I’m sure Disgaea is part of why I got there, even if subconsciously. If nothing else, Disgaea does a good job of mixing up the concept of character/power growth as a physical exploration action as you’ll find here with the Lyceum. I think that’s pretty cool.

“Kage-bunshin”
Popular ninja anime show Naruto featured a surprisingly interesting concept that inspired early versions of the mimics and the Avatar technique. Kage-bunshin (“shadow clones”, pronounced roughly kah-gay boon-shinn) are a shadow version of the creator, though each has the same personality/skills/etc. The show uses them in a variety of ways, but the most interesting one to me was as a way to parallelize practice. By creating 10s/100s of clones, a ninja could practice 10s or 100s of times faster than someone else, enabling great feats.

This concept of being able to parallelize yourself is the impetus behind mimics, though obviously it’s not as robust as in the show. There’s just something really fascinating about being able to create time in a game. Perhaps in a future game I’ll have a more robust sandbox to play in so I can take this idea and really run with it. Hopefully players enjoy the mimics as they are, even if they’re but a shadow of their inspirators. (Sorry. Leave no joke behind!)

Publicity/Marketing Plans

I’m on a shoestring budget here so my plans are admittedly mediocre and haphazard.

I think it’s well-known that indie studios need to be beating the marketing war drums for months (if not years). I was aware of this, but there’s some kind of evil force looming over nascent first products that prevents it. That’s the only explanation. πŸ˜‰

Anyways, if the release is roughly on target. Ghosts will have a month or two? Good luck, SRG! Good luck, Future Chris!

The “plan” is as follows (including both publicity and releases/etc.):

  1. Blogging here (dev blogs) and on The Book of Next
    • to very slightly help establish a web presence and some form of credibility
  2. Ongoing efforts to maintain a community presence in the various appropriate places
    • perhaps a guest blog post somewhere?
    • This may also include idle time spent trying to drum up lists of twitter folks who might legitimately be interested, in accordance with this post/concept***
  3. Establish an SRG email list that readers can sign up on, if that’s what they’re into.
  4. Friends & Family Alpha: If even my friends don’t like it, I’m in for a rough ride.
  5. Community Alpha: Announce game to some of my beloved local indie dev groups
  6. Web Player Puzzle Alpha
    • Release just the puzzle game as a Unity Web Player client, perhaps Windows/Mac/Linux desktop client as well.
    • This is to gather feedback on the gameplay as well as to use as a testbed for puzzle creation (compare my perception of difficulty with data).
  7. Consider Steam Greenlight somewhere around here
  8. Closed and then Open Betas
  9. Start cold-emailing niche-y game press with demo downloads, press-ready descriptions/arguments/appeals, etc. (especially once iOS promo codes become an option)
  10. Make “Hail Mary” announcement posts to reddit and the like
  11. Make a hamburger goat simulacrum and sacrifice it to whatever is out there listening
  12. Release!
    • On App Store
    • Roll Desktop builds and release them here and wherever else I’m able.
    • Hope that earlier sacrifice caught the ears of someone at Apple and I secure a Featured spot in App Store
      • (Yeah, sure.)
  13. Release updates updates updates as I’m able, try to build on what momentum Ghosts has, however little it may be.

*** Cold-contacting folks with what is only somewhat distinguishable from spam is a controversial tactic, and one I’m very wary of. However, I hope there’s some truth in this quote:

β€œAdvertising is immoral, not because it is inherently insincere, manipulative, and intrusive, but because it is inefficient.” -James Oyle, Advertising Director

I’ve been unable to verify the source of this, but the idea is a good one.
The intuition behind that statement, IMO, is that advertising is at its base just trying to inform people that a thing exists and might fit their needs. If it were perfectly efficient, then you can imagine it being exactly what you want, at a price you want, at the time you want, and then that’s just nice, isn’t it? It seems this is exactly what search engines are trying to do when they work to improve results, and almost nobody is generally against that. When you want information, they want you to have it too. When you want to purchase a thing, advertisers representing that thing want you to have information on it. Good argument? Bad?

My goal is first and foremost to make great games, but after that I’d like people to know about them. Hopefully ethical and considerate efforts in that arena are rewarded.

M10n: Cash Money

Monetization (m10n) is a hard topic. Like many players, I’m exhausted with feeling nickle-and-dimed by studios. It’s a tough business for sure, but is it worth keeping the hearth lit with your reputation as kindling? I’ve said before that I believe otherwise, and Ghosts will hopefully provide a good feeling for players of every stripe.

I believe first and foremost in making the base game a complete game, like in the days before this DLC/IAP craze. So if you get the base game, you can play it and enjoy it without needing to click ‘Buy Widget!’ every 5 minutes. I won’t “monetize pain” by making the game miserable until you send me money. Heck, I wouldn’t have IAPs at all if apps regularly sold at sustainable prices. Again, I balance the game assuming you buy no IAPs at all. They are strictly there for you to say that you think I did a bad job of that, at least for you. Yes, I will charge you for a mistake I made. Cheeky, isn’t that? πŸ˜›

Currently IAP plans are quite limited. I intend to have a “mimic-related” set of IAPs, and then a handful of general play-experience thingos.

Mimic-related: Though mimics will be balanced just fine, they seem like a good target for IAPs. They do not dramatically change your success (you still have to solve the puzzles yourself), but they can cause the progress side of the game to go a bit faster. I.e., you can tell me you don’t have enough time to play the way I balanced it, and play at your own pace.

You’ll be able to buy either a new fresh-faced mimic or “mimic time”:

When you buy a new mimic, and assign that mimic to a task, it will act at a very high speed until it catches up to the rest of the mimics. By “catch up”, I mean that the new mimic gets all the time since you started the game credited in a burst. This way, no matter when you buy the mimic, you get the same effect. There’s no penalty for waiting a week to buy one, nor is there a penalty for buying it early. Let me know if this seems unclear – it seems a bit strange to think about. I’ll probably post about it again when I get the system ironed out.

“Mimic time” is a strange concept. Essentially, it’s a stacking speed boost to your mimics, but it applies retroactively as well. So if you started playing 10 days ago and you bump up to a 20% speed boost, you get two full days bonus up front. (The mimics will operate at 5x speed until that bonus time is exhausted.) Thereafter, your mimics are all 20% faster. This applies to any new mimics you get as though they had been present in the first place.

I say “strange” because on the surface it looks like one of those common IAP junk purchase where a game makes time a core mechanic and then tunes it so that all but the most patient players will need to buy “time” (Spend X coins to get this right nowwww!!!@@@1!1) for the game to be at all fun. I don’t want to do that. Instead it’s more like a mild difficulty slider.

Give Me The Wheel Mode (GMTW):
GMTW is a slightly more spendy IAP that basically says you want to tweak how the game is balanced for yourself. It isn’t a complete God mode, but it’s pretty potent. I’m still deciding what I’ll be able to implement here, but I’m considering things like defining how fast your Mimics work (as well as the ability to spawn new ones periodically), tweaking the balance between different rewards in the maze, adjusting how advancement works, stuff like that. I don’t think it’ll make the game more fun for most people, but who am I to tell you if you’re an exception or not?

In short, at Space Robot Games, IAPs are “if you want it, grab it, if not, just enjoy the game”. I’ll do my best to make it fun either way.

Sound good? Let me know! This stuff is really hard to design, and even talking about IAPs makes me feel greedy. :(

Questions/Data

This section is just stuff I’m still thinking about, or things that need more data before a decision makes sense.

Obviously, monetization is an open question. Everyone has wildly different opinions, and just the way a given approach is brought up can have a massive impact on how a player hears it. It’s all about whether we think we’re being ripped off, whether the studio is being cool or unreasonably greedy. We all know that the game is “just data” (even if that data takes real hours to make) so it’s tough to justify $X for anything at all, even if it’s pretty swanky. So I’m constantly evaluating and re-evaluating where I stand on that, here. I’m looking forward to sharing data on how it goes!

Publicity, oh lord, publicity! If this isn’t the wake-in-a-cold-sweat nightmare of most of indie-dom, I’ll buy a hat and then I’ll eat that hat. Ghosts is kind of a tough sell – puzzle games are pretty popular, especially on mobile, but what about puzzle-RPGs that don’t exploit your every psychological weakness? How are those doing?

I obviously have lots of learning to do here, but I’ll share what I’m able as I get it! Hopefully it’s of some use to other developers.

Puzzle Generation is a doozy. It’s easy enough to generate random puzzles, but after that it gets remarkably complex in a hurry. I have some concerns about my ability to measure puzzle difficulty, which may create a strangely uneven maze experience. Maybe that will be a fun quirk rather than a glaring balance flaw? I’m trying to get to beta ASAP so I can start gathering feedback on this.

Update #1 (December 20th, 2013):

  • Reworded “we/us/our” to “I/me/my”. (Did I miss any?) SRG is just this dude, Chris, right now. That dude caught a brief case of “pretend-to-be-a-bigger-studio-itis”, but it’s gone now. Yay!
  • Apparatus became artifact. artifact, relic, curio… How many near-identical words can he use?!
  • “SRG-001” and all its future, sterile ilk have been replaced. I’m going full indie and taking on longass codenames that I’m pulling from random works. SRG-001 is now “The ghosts of your pleasure and contempt”, “Ghosts” for short. Or TGOYPAC if writing gibberish is your thing. It’s sort of poking fun at mimics (which are ghosts, after a fashion) being both fun and, as IAPs, a pain in the ass.
Posted in Developer Blog Posts, Lyceum Developer Blog

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