Why King Machine?

On March 13, 2011, in King Machine, projects, by bateleur

In the announcement post for King Machine I promised a big, long waffly post about the game and my plans for it. So here it is…

Machines Want To Be 3DKing Machine logo

In the past I have actively avoided developing games with true 3D gameplay because with relatively few exceptions the games I enjoy playing the most have all been essentially 2D even when employing 3D graphics. So when I was learning Unity 3 I spent a lot of time thinking about which kinds of gameplay really worked well in 3D. Exploration games are good – and I love the idea of doing a really good 3D maze game – but that doesn't make a good first project because there's a huge amount of art and level design to do and not much game design or programming. Racing games and first person shooters aren't really my thing (and arguably aren't 3D anyway, but I'll try not to get too sidetracked).

It was when I started thinking about the third dimension as a way of not getting things tangled up that I ended up thinking about connecting things and wires and machines. This wasn't much to do with game design at first. Some of my PhD work involved automated layout of wiring for digital circuits… it gets pretty nightmarish in 2D! But then I remembered the old 2D versions of King Machine had similar problems. Not surprising really, since 2D spaces are just difficult generally. If you like fiction that makes you think I recommend A.K.Dewdney's 'The Planiverse' for some great discussion on this topic.

Machines seem like they naturally want to be 3D. So I had my project… sort of.

Too Big To Be Small

There was one big problem. For some time I've been working as a freelance programmer, working on games projects for as much of my time as I could get away with. Like most designers in a similar position I've been trying to gradually transition to full time games work. Generally this is all good, but it does place a strict constraint on my projects: any big project must be commercial. King Machine has, historically, been my favourite example of the kind of game I personally love but which could never possibly be commercial because it's just too geeky and inaccessible.

It was a conversation with my sister Josie which changed my perspective. I'd lent her my copy of Logicomix (because it's excellent – you should read it) and while we were chatting about it I offered to explain to her some stuff related to Gödel's incompleteness theorem. I tend to feel that the way mathematics is approached in academia makes ideas much less accessible than they could be and that most concepts can be explained to anyone reasonably bright provided you don't mind sacrificing a little bit of the rigor expected of actual proofs.

Later it occurred to me that this same attitude is something I should apply to games. King Machine is a huge amount of fun. So, as a game designer, I should be able to take the game and present it in a way that makes it comprehensible and accessible to a much wider audience. A combination of good user inferface design, gradual introduction of concepts and comprehensive help resources should be enough to get pretty much anyone playing and enjoying the game.

Finding the Core Gameplay

The first step in making a complex game as accessible as possible is to decide what it's really about. At first King Machine seemed pretty easy in this respect, since I knew I wanted it to be about building machines. The problem with that is that building machines isn't a goal as such, it's a means to an end. This begs the question of what that end should be. Of course I could make the game a pure sandbox, but that feels lazy to me. I want to let players play in a sandbox style if they choose to, but for some players that's just not satisfying.

Machine-based play is ridiculously versatile, so as I began to make notes about possible goals and play styles the list just got longer and longer and picking the right option started to look a bit hopeless…

…until I realised I was looking at the problem the wrong way. Instead of picking one goal I could pick all of them. The danger is that doing this sorts of thing inhibits the player from learning, but I don't think that needs to be the case. If each level gives the player a new kind of task and then provides them with the support they need to discover the solution that should keep each experience fresh whilst gradually teaching them what they can do with their machines.

That just left difficulty levels. The word "accessible" has a bad reputation in certain quarters these days because it's seen as a euphemism for "easy". I don't think that's right, but certainly the two can be related in the sense that it is difficult to find ways to present hard challenges without causing bad play experiences for some players. In the case of King Machine the approach I feel most inclined to adopt is optional challenges on the same levels as compulsory problems. That way the player can give some thought to anything they can see but doesn't need to feel as though they're stuck. Also, having seen a challenge, the player can always come back later if they have a flash of inspiration or simply learn a new trick which they think might help.

Was That Waffly Enough?

Hmm… I still have over a dozen more things I wanted to talk about. Maybe trying to fit all this into one blog post isn't such a great idea? The rest can wait for now, I'm off to do some more programming!

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Announcing King Machine!

On March 7, 2011, in King Machine, projects, by bateleur

OK, so as those of you who read my previous post will realise, this is really King Machine 5. Given that it's going to be the first commercial release and is radically different from the previous incarnations it seemed sensible to reset the numbering.

I'll make a big, long, waffly post about the project sometime soon. For now, here's a shiny video:

(Or alternatively watch it on YouTube in HD.)

And in case you don't have a chance to watch it all, there are Twitter and FaceBook accounts for you to follow and like respectively. (Hey, don't look at me like that, all the cool kids are doing it!)

Twitter: @fastramdesign

FaceBook: www.facebook.com/fastramdesign

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The History of King Machine

On December 30, 2010, in King Machine, by bateleur

I've written the same game four times.

As with film trailers, a brief glimpse of a game is often more exciting in our imaginations than the reality. Puzzle classic The Incredible Machine was like that for me. It was a long time before I got to actually play it. By the time I did, the gap between the game itself and the way I'd imagined it spoiled most of the fun. Fortunately, one of the upsides of being a game designer is that if someone else has inexplicably failed to make the game you wanted to play, you just make it yourself.

I first wrote King Machine in BBC Basic on the Acorn Archimedes in 1993. The idea was to make a game that really was about machines. Not just interactive scenery, but machines that really did things. In King Machine the game board was a grid. Each cell of the grid was a machine part. You could only do one thing to a machine part: "use" it. The simplest parts, wires, responded by using another adjacent machine part. Other parts rotated or moved one another or shot beams across the map which did various things to whatever they first struck.

The first King Machine was a lot of fun, but tremendously slow to play. Each team controlled small, furry, bipedal characters who could carry machine parts around. We only ever played one proper match. During this match, one team built a machine that flew along a short way above the ground, pulling each block below it up by one cell. This strategy was devastating, leaving the other team in a – literal and metaphorical – hole from which they had no chance of emerging.

The reason the game was only played once is because it obviously needed tweaking in some way to prevent the "earthquake machine" strategy from dominating. In the process of thinking about what needed to change I realised that the game needed a concept of a composite object. That is, it needed to be possible to stick things together. To get that kind of power back in 1993 meant I was going to have to rewrite it in ARM Assembler.

The second version of King Machine took a while to debug, but by the time I'd finished it the game was easily the best thing I'd ever written. We played it exactly once. It was great! But again the game's first play exposed a serious problem: building things took too long. Each team built a machine, they clashed, then the game was effectively over as soon as one machine couldn't fly anymore because rebuilding was so clearly impractical.

It was a while before King Machine 3 was written, but by the time it was complete it was miles ahead of KM2 in terms of technology. It was faster, supported far larger maps, included a 'factory' system allowing complex machines to be constructed in a single turn within each team's factory area and had a much better UI. We played it exactly once. Two expert teams faced off. The game took several hours. It lasted only one turn. One team built a giant robot which completed all their objectives in a single move! Everyone agreed the game was a lot of fun, but that it would have to be tweaked in some way before it could be played again.

Many years then passed. My interest in King Machine returned as the era of free-to-play internet games arrived. For fun, I began developing an updated version of King Machine in Java. This one was played zero times. It reached a fully working state, but still more alpha than beta. However, by this point it was much harder to find time for the kind of deep playtesting the game needed. Before testing was complete I shifted my work life to full time game development. King Machine development was paused for the simple reason that after working on games all day I didn't particularly want to spend my evenings working on a different game.

The key new feature of KM4 was mini-maps. An entire machine could be stored in a single map cell, with inputs and outputs interacting with the main map. This greatly improved the depth of gameplay, meaning that machines which did logically complex things no longer had to be physically large.

Perhaps most interesting from a design perspective, though: even having never played KM4 I was on some level aware of problems. A couple of years later I was explaining KM to a friend who had never seen it. He asked why I didn't ever go back and release it. I didn't really know at the time, but I thought about it afterwards. The reason is: even KM4 still had gameplay which was too much about the details of how the machines worked. If your opponent was doing something you didn't like your first recourse was to pull chunks off their machine. If you wanted to defend what you were doing, the main strategy the game rewarded was to build big walls and keep the enemy away. "Good" machines weren't usually clever, they just did simple things fast.

I've written the same game four times, but I still haven't got it right.

So why tell this story now? As you've probably guessed, this is the secret project I mentioned in my previous entry. King Machine is coming back. The details can wait for next year, but suffice to say that this time I'm doing what I explictly declared to be impossible previously: making it a commercial project. Not that I've changed my perspective on the subject significantly. There's a good reason why this is now possible. All will be revealed!

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