Jul 02 2015

TENSIONS & THE THIEF

A lot of the systems design stuff I do in building and balancing Cardinal Quest 2 is rooted in a certain way of looking at games. It’s based in making the game as a series of interesting decisions; something where you repeatedly get a few options to choose from, each with their merits and downsides, and you have to pick one definite path from the handful of possibilities.

The Civilization series exemplifies this approach. The entire way the game presents itself is to give you a list of options, you pick one, then the game shows you another list. Those countless decisions and the stories players weave around them support hundreds of hours of play. There are no doubt players who’ve made over a million of these choices in Civilization V and are still playing.

If you’re going to sustain a game through this many decisions and keep things interesting, you’ll need to show players entire systems full of different things they want—then tell them they can’t have everything. Reaching for certain things will seal other things away, possibly forever. You need to create these impossible, intractable tensions between all the things players want. When they click, these networks of tensions have the scent of solid design. Efficiently designed systems can ask you to navigate these tensions in countless ways, over and over.

These tensions are also fragile. Give players everything at once, even for a moment, and that part of the system collapses.

One game I’ve played recently that often veers towards doing exactly this is 2008′s Valkyria Chronicles.

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Jun 24 2015

CARDINAL QUEST 2 PATCH 1.15: MOBILE

With 1.15, the iOS and Android versions are getting several patches at once… so there’s a whole load of new stuff to find!

The biggest change by far is the rise in skill tree limits in The Tower. In short: Every time you clear a block of 20 floors in The Tower, you’ll get a free skill point and many of your skill tree’s limits will rise—allowing you to spend more points on them. Cool!

Besides that there are now five new Legendary items to find, better equipment scattered throughout the Tower, and a whole bunch of other tweaks and fixes! Here are the full patch notes for 1.15:

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Jun 05 2015

CARDINAL QUEST 2 PATCH 1.15

Every time I fix the Alchemist Destrid’s Ax/Tinkerer combo, someone finds a way round the fix. That means I have to fix it again (but better).

The problem is, I don’t like doing patches that just nerf stuff. So to Zelnaught, Fat__Tony and others, as a reward for breaking the game and making me patch it, here’s a handful of new Legendaries and some adjustments to where they show up!

GENERAL TWEAKS

  • Adjusted effect of “Tinkerer” and other +1 buffs on percentage-type item stats.
  • Expanded the range of items Scavengers can drop on death.
  • Legendaries are now less rare on Normal and Hard.

THE TOWER

  • Scavengers may now forgive transgressions (eventually).
  • Adjusted drop rates of different Legendaries in the Tower.

ITEMS

  • Added five new Legendary items!

BUGFIXES

  • Fixed a bug where very high Willpower could make enemy magic resist go very high.
May 29 2015

CARDINAL QUEST 2 PATCH 1.14

The Tower has been a lot of fun to make! I always wanted it to take the game a bit further, take things over the top. With the patches of the last few weeks adding rising skill tree limits and bonus enchanted gear on higher floors, I feel that’s starting to happen.

My goal has always been to make Floor 60 really difficult to reach and Floor 100 next to impossible, but it turns out a few things I overlooked have had the potential to take players much further—often making the game a bit dull in the process. The Alchemist’s “Tinkerer” talent is the main such problem, easily scaling your gear and turning certain items into permanent invincibility.

I don’t like changing cool powerful things, I much prefer adding new toys and making weak things stronger, but it’s become clear that Tinkerer will keep breaking the game without a fundamental change. So here we go: a little medicinal balance patch to fix things.

Now it’s back to work on new stuff. :)

CLASSES AND SKILLS

  • Tweaked Alchemist’s skill tree.
  • Alchemist’s “Tinkerer” will now only enchant to a maximum of +1 per skill point invested.

ITEMS

  • Adjusted bonus from Whetstone on high damage weapons.

BUGFIXES

  • Fixed spellcasting on Magic Mirrors.
  • Altered some things that could be easily exploited by “save-scumming” (reloading a save for a better result).
May 26 2015

CARDINAL QUEST 2 PATCH 1.13

The last patch was a shot at balancing The Tower, addressing the few truly broken builds and making many more builds viable. Some things worked; some didn’t. The skill tree limits rising went a long way, but builds dependent on found equipment and melee combat were still struggling while spell-casting builds dominated.

Here’s another package of changes to fix that and make The Tower more interesting! I’ve made enemies a little more dangerous, especially to spellcasters, but hugely improved the gear you’ll find as you climb and revamped weapon damage in general. I hope you’ll enjoy the results. :)

As ever, the patch is up on Kongregate right now (with a new Highest Tower Floor scoreboard) and will be making its way to iOS and Android shortly.

THE TOWER

  • Chests are now more common in higher floors of The Tower.
  • Equipment will now appear with extra enchantment levels (+1, +2, +3…) from Floor 21.
  • Enemies are now slightly tougher, more aggressive and more magic resistant in higher floors of The Tower.

CLASSES AND SKILLS

  • Alchemist “Pistol” skill now has recoil. Damage adjusted.
  • Alchemist “Gunslinger” perk now replaces “Craft” with an extra Pistol, allowing you to acquire two Pistols from level 4.
  • Alchemist “Tinkerer” will now affect weapons as well as other gear.

ITEMS

  • Upgraded Restless Blade and Weeping Katana (slightly).
  • Whetstone now has a larger effect on high damage weapons.

BUGFIXES

  • Improved spell targeting.
  • Fixed buff on bushes in The Tower.
  • Scavenger will now drop correct Tome for Pugilists.
May 15 2015

CARDINAL QUEST 2 PATCH 1.12

Steam development continues. In the meantime, I’ve been working through feedback on The Tower and I’ve got some fixes ready!

SKILL TREE LIMITS

There were a few exploitable things that needed fixing, like a bug in “Polymorph”. There were also some major balance issues. The Alchemist’s “Tinkerer” talent and Paladin’s “Consecrate” stood out as particularly strong builds for long Tower runs, with other classes barely able to keep up. I’m introducing a new feature to fix this:

Every time you clear a block of 20 floors in The Tower, you’ll get a free skill point and many of your skill tree’s limits will rise—allowing you to spend more points on them.

So, for example, you’ll be able to spend a second point—and eventually a third, and fourth, and so on—in the Thief’s “Shadow Master” talent, reducing the cool-down of Shadow Mastery. The raising of other limits will also allow your Thief to spend even more skill points in Speed or Stealth. If you play a Wizard you’ll be able to raise Inspiration to even higher percentages, allowing you to repeatedly cast spells more often, or put extra points into Leech to drain more and more health.

My hope is that these rising limits will give every class a chance at the higher floors of the Tower and enable some really cool game-breaking Tower builds. Give it a spin and let me know what works. There’s a lot I can do to tweak these expanding skill trees, so I hope I’ll be able to enable lots of viable builds soon!

Anyway, that’s the big stuff. I’ve also fixed several bugs, adjusted some game-breaking stuff and tweaked a few skills. I’ve put the patch up on Kongregate and will be deploying it to iOS and Android within the next few weeks.

Here are the full patch notes:

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Apr 16 2015

PERKS

I’m pretty much done with the raw, messy business of simply getting CQ2 to run as nicely on Windows, Mac and Linux as it does on phones or over on Kongregate. That means moving on to the next big thing!

The next big thing right now is that CQ2 on Steam won’t be free-to-play. That means no Morale system, which means it’ll need a different unlock scheme. Currently I’m linking each Perk/Gear to a corresponding achievement you’ll have to clear to unlock it. I’m finding there are some cool things I can do here, like requiring you to unlock one perk (eg. Paladin’s “Noncombatant”) and do something hard with it (clear an Act using Noncombatant!) to unlock the next. It should be fun!

I’m not completely happy with the perk system right now, honestly. There are several perks to choose from, but once you’ve found and unlocked your favourite, there’s little reason to explore further. I’m playing around with ideas for how to fix that, like tracking which loadouts you’ve cleared an Act with—and maybe giving each class a permanent bonus perk that activates when you’ve unlocked all its other stuff. (Would that be weird?)

Given those fixes, the game could totally use a few extra perks! I may well add another thing or two for each class in the next patch. I’m hesitant to discuss what the new perks might be, since that’d be spoiling the fun of everyone finding out for themselves… but one I really want to try out is a perk that gives the Wizard a mana bar. This’d mean spells cost mana instead of having a cooldown, but you’ll only be able to refill your mana by changing level or picking up Mana Orbs from fallen enemies.

I’m also wondering how I can balance a starting loadout for the Thief that’d involve Shadow Walk and Teleport, so you could be everywhere at once. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Work remaining until Steam release: new unlock system, desktop graphics fixes, Steam integration, new trailer and stuff for Steam store, add more Legendary items & perks & Tower bosses in a cool update (all platforms)

Feb 13 2015

LOCKDOWN // MULTIPLATFORM

Developing for multiple platforms can make things interesting. It’s not just the different hardware capabilities, incompatible backends for standard features and differing expectations: there are also different platform philosophies to deal with.

Apple like to vet apps and updates that go on the App Store. This lets them make basic assurances that apps won’t brick your phone and steal your identity. Unfortunately, the delay on vetting apps and updates can be a week or two. This has an awkward side-effect: if an update that passes contains a critical bug, it might take a week or two to get a fix out. Builds need to be tested much more thoroughly first.

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Feb 11 2015

THE TOWER

Patch 1.1 is feature complete. It just needs testing and bugfixing now. That means it will be coming out this month across iOS, Flash and Android. I’ll then be immediately starting work on the Steam version for Windows, Mac and Linux.

It’s taken me a while to recover since I posted about burnout in October. Since then I’ve been trying to get my passion for cool games and cool stuff back, playing loads of interesting games and putting together neat little projects like New Year Stories and a Harry Potter/Neuromancer computer mashup and some new EDM sounds.

That eventually brought me back to working on CQ2 in January, but I wasn’t sure if it’d stick… so I tried to avoid making promises in case I flaked out on them again. Now that I’ve finished work on the update, though, I feel like it’s okay for me to talk about it again! If you’ve been following CQ2, thank you so much for being patient :)

The two big things in 1.1 are The Tower and The Alchemist. I’ve touched on the new class previously, so here’s the main stuff to know about The Tower: it’s Cardinal Quest 2′s endless mode. It’s one big remix of everything, with a few new rules to mix things up.

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Oct 13 2014

RESET

This is difficult to write, but here goes: I’ll be taking a short break from games development. When I come back, I’ll be throwing out current plans and re-assessing how I finish CQ2. I’ll still be finishing it, and soon, but I can’t say exactly when. The desktop Win/Mac/Linux version in particular probably won’t be out this year.

Let me explain.

I’m approaching four years of indie development now, three of those on Cardinal Quest 2. Across those four years, between CQ2, Vigilance and some contracting, I’ve personally earned a total of £25,564. As a full-time salary that works out at about £3.82 an hour; well under the minimum wage here in the UK and deeply below the living wage here in London.

Now, this sort of thing is what you’d expect starting up a new business and working on a long project that only brings in money at the end. And I did have savings… until they ran out last year. Most importantly, I’m lucky enough to have a wonderful partner who’s supported me financially through all of this.

Nevertheless, my bank balance has been bouncing along close to zero for a couple years. This is troubling. The only way to keep it in the air has been to Release Things. Maybe that’s good motivation to some? My experience has been it’s a source of stress, desperation and burnout.

This pressure has pushed me to commit to deadlines I probably couldn’t meet. I committed to unlikely deadlines because not meeting them would make getting by until the next release or update even harder. (I often didn’t meet them, and it often did.)

It’s pushed me to take uncomfortable shortcuts. For example: the game only stores progress locally. This means the Kongregate.com version’s saved progress can be lost to an overzealous browser purge. It also means progress isn’t shared between iOS and Android. This is something I hate. Still, because of the work involved in setting up a parallel saved-progress system and hooking it up to online infrastructure, I cannot afford to fix it.

It’s pushed me to withdraw from people and talk about my work less. The tighter money has been and the longer CQ2 has taken, the more I’ve had to focus on it – and that work has been more and more about necessity than doing cool stuff I’m excited to show everyone.

Often, over the past year or so, worrying about this stuff has made it hard to work at all.

I want to keep making games for a long time. Games are awesome!

I also want to make them the best games they can be. Right now, with CQ2, the stresses of development have left me thinking about doing as little as possible to drop the game on Steam as quickly as possible and walking away - just to get it over with. That wouldn’t be doing it justice, I wouldn’t be proud of finishing it like that, and it’s not a sustainable way to make games.

There’s a whole bunch of games I want to make next. There’s an old prototype I’d like to do something with, a shmup-fighter based on not understanding Nidhogg’s trailer. There’s this card game about tactical spaceship combat that I’m really excited about. I’d also like to make a puzzle game about terra-forming; an apocalyptic RPG set on an interplanetary theme park; a chilled-out simulation of driving without going anywhere in particular; a local co-op game about being the worst band ever; and so on.

If I’m going to finish all these games and do them justice, I need to find a way to complete big projects without coming to hate them and myself. So please bear with me while I take the first real break I’ve had in four years, get my head straight, and – with any luck – come back ready to make CQ2′s desktop release and future updates fully awesome.