The Building of a Village Builder

What started a few weeks ago, as a pure experiment, evolved into a prototype of a village builder game. To clarify, it’s a video game, where you build a village by acquiring and investing resources, attracting settlers, traveling merchants and eventually even barbarian raiders to your settlement.

You begin as one person with a camp. From there, you can start gathering wood, food, stone or gold. You’ll need these, to add buildings to your settlement, starting with a hut. Each building serves a purpose. The hut, for instance, houses your villagers and thus sets the maximum people that can settle with you.

The goal is simply to get through 365 in-game days, and see how much you have accomplished in that time. It is possible to end the game before then. If you mismanage your village, starvation might get you, or villagers may even rise against you. And of course there were those barbarians, I mentioned.

The game scales with your village. Visiting merchants have bigger, better offers, the stronger your village economy is. Likewise, hoarding gold will increase chances of getting raided. Besides buildings and resource gathering, the player can invest gold in technology, thus improving on the village in a slightly different way. For example, increase the technology for housing, and each hut can hold additional villagers. Increase farming technology for additional food yields, and so on.

The experiment that started it all, was to prove myself wrong. A while back, I experimented with making a similar type of game using Gamesalad. I fairly quickly got stuck, however, and decided that the engine was to blame, for not being well suited for this type of game in the first place. Since then, I have learned a lot about designing the relevant mechanics, and so I wanted to see if I could do it now. The result, while still very primitive, is already both more sophisticated and better balanced than my first attempt ever was.

There is still far to go, before I would even call this an “early release”. It’s a prototype evolving into a pre-alpha. For one, the game has no art or sound at all. It’s just buttons and text in black and white boxes. There are many bugs and things that need tweaking and rebalancing, and I really want to integrate some sort of procedural storytelling device, which I will likely tie in with the villagers themselves, somehow. I haven’t fully developed that layer yet.

Working in layers has been my approach all along. The resources you gather is one layer, buildings add another, the technology and trading represent new layers as well, and so on. I try to design each layer to be as independent from the others as possible, to make things easier to balance and change, as the game evolves. This is where I felt that Gamesalad fell short before, and though it does have its limits, working within them adds a challenge and structure too. I often find inspiration from having to work within a limited space, regardless of whether that space is technical or creative in nature.

Along the way, I tweet updates and occasional screenshots (I’ve included a few examples in this post), both as a log of how things progress, but also to put it out there for early feedback, support and a feeling of having committed to the project. Last time, I gave up when things got tough. This time, things just seem to be get more fun as I go…

My first Kickstarter will be a Space Trader game

Salvage Trader, behind the scenes.
On the day the pirates came, the small colony you grew up in was destroyed. In a manner of minutes your loved ones were dead and your home going up in flames. Without any hope of victory, you put your faith in an old shuttle from the junk yard you worked in, hoping it would hold together long enough for an escape. It barely did, only now you found yourself alone in space, without a home or a family, but with a burning desire for vengeance. Only one group holds enough power to take on the dreaded pirate kings, and so you set out to build a new life for yourself and join the Salvager’s Guild… Continue reading

Process and Progress on the Gamesalad Sim Game

Screen Shot of the game as it looked on 2013-01-14
I’d like to share a bit about my process and approach to building a sim game, using Gamesalad. I announced the project a month ago, and have since been working on it in my spare time. At this point I have a bare bones alpha version, with most of the basic features in place, but still no graphics, music or sound. And of course, I have a few more features to implement, bugs that need ironing out and content that could use some expanding.

As simple as it sounds, it started with wanting to make a game, I would want to play. It had to be about growth and maintaining balance, a game to immerse oneself in, with different strategies available but without the need for absolute micromanagement. I wanted a fairly confined game world, and decided that the story of settling and growing a medieval town would work perfectly.

I started by defining an end to the game, in this case if the town ever reaches population: 0, the game is over. As a result, a primary goal of the game is to grow your population (and thereby your town).

Next, I added a few parameters to play with. I started with just “taxes” and “happiness”, and defined a set of rules for how those would affect each other, and the overall population growth. This brought “resources” into play as well, as the in-game currency. Resources are gained via taxes and can be used for “upgrades”.

With the idea of “upgrades”, a new layer was added to the game. These upgrades (from eateries to workshops) are investments the player can make. By investing in a series of upgrades, special benefits are unlocked, on top of earning points. Invest enough in any one upgrade and you “max it out”, meaning you can no longer invest resources in that particular upgrade. Some upgrades require a minimum population to become available.

I decided to introduce another game element, and present the player with the occasional choice. For instance, you might be approached by a tribe seeking to settle in your town. If you let them your population will go up, but your “employment rate” will go down. By introducing these choices, I also ended up defining more parameters (like employment rate and average lifespan), that in turn would affect happiness and population growth itself.

For an element of randomness, I introduced the somewhat rarer “events”. From gifted artists appearing to earthquakes, these represent the world outside the influence of the player’s choices. Some events are beneficial, others are damaging – and their impact scale with the population (for instance, an earthquake will do more damage on a large town than on a small settlement).

From behind the scenes, these are the "actors" currently used in the game (click for large).

From behind the scenes, these are the “actors” currently used in the game (click for large).

With every new element introduced, the game balance is threatened. For that reason, I constantly go back and tweak various calculations, adjusting the importance and mix of individual parameters, and how they influence one another. This is by far the most difficult aspect of designing the game, because this is where all the elements come together.

I play the game a lot. I test run it for a few in-game years with every tweak, try different approaches and strategies, and deliberately look for ways to beat the game. Occasionally I will play a longer game, seeing how the math holds up as the numbers get higher. I also look for places where the game is too hard, or unbalanced, and try to decipher if I need to tweak the math or add yet another layer.

When the game reaches a point where it feels reasonably stable and balanced to me, I will ask others to prove me wrong. Which I am sure will be no problem for them to do. And then it’s back to the drawing board for more adjustments.