Game structure

Sorry, no screenshots or videos this time. Instead, I’ve worked on the overarching structure of the game, the bits that should make you keep coming back. I have coded some menu screens too, but they don’t yet show the correct data and most of them don’t even fully work yet.

There will be 12 levels, within 3 different “themes” or supermarket chains. These numbers are small enough to be manageable for one person, but the number of levels is still in the double digits. The thing that should make the player want to advance through the levels will mainly be the powerups in each level: you’ll start out with just a few different ones, but a new one will be added in each level. The powerups are what you use to cause mayhem, so they are a core element to the game.

Last time I talked about the race signup system in Death Rally. The player has full access to all levels of difficulty, right from the start. The brilliance of this scheme, which I failed to fully realize while writing the previous post, is that it’s self-balancing. Normally, the game designer chooses when it’s time for the player to move on. Death Rally puts this choice squarely in the hands of the player, relieving the designer of some labour-intensive balancing and playtesting, and greatly reducing the probability of getting it wrong.

Could I do the same? Not quite. The scheme requires that you make everything visible and available from the start. However, the motivation in my game is partly based on curiosity (“what awesomeness will await me in the next level?”), so I’d be shooting myself in the foot if I opened up everything right away. Still, I managed to keep a little bit of choice in there.

The player can freely choose on which level to race. Initially, only the first two levels will be available. For unlocking new levels, you’ll need stamps; for each $10 (or something) that you get in a race, you’ll receive one stamp. Each level has a maximum number of stamps that you can earn. After you’ve earned them all, the level is ‘completed’. There’s little point in playing that level again (except for medals), but by then you should have enough stamps (and enough practice) to move on.

It took some time to balance the numbers of stamps that you can earn in each level against the cost to unlock a new level. I tried to leave the player some choice in which levels they wanted to tackle first, so at any point, there should be at least two or three uncompleted levels. I also didn’t want to force any specific unlocking order, but of course the higher levels should be more expensive. There’s a tradeoff to be made here. We can’t give the player too many stamps on the easy levels, or they’ll never have to reach for the harder ones. But if we give them too few, we reduce the freedom of choice and force them to complete the levels in order. I finally came up with a scheme that encouraged rapid unlocking of the first and middle levels, but slowed down towards the end. Unlocking the super-secret level 13, which I did not just mention to you, will require full completion of the only 12 levels that exist.

The value of the shopping items you collect in a race will be directly added to your bank account (provided that you made it to the checkout in time). With that money, you’ll be able to upgrade your cart’s thrusters and steering fins. I may add more upgradable components later, but this is a minimal set that helps to keep things focused on the actual playing, instead of endless tweaking.

The stamps/cash scheme means that you can’t fully compensate for bad playing by just playing more: if you earn less than $10 in a race, you get no stamps. You still get the money, though, so if you’re simply not very good at the game, you can upgrade your cart to partially compensate for your lack of skill. The scheme is not foolproof: you could technically play level 1 over and over until your cart is fully upgraded and equipped, but I don’t think anyone would actually enjoy the game that way.

There will also be medals (gold, silver, bronze) for getting a large percentage of the total value of the shopping items on a level. Medals will be hard to get, and are there for OCD players (obsessive completion disorder). However, for each three levels on which you get the gold, you’ll receive a special upgrade for your cart, giving a slight benefit. Thus, a fully completed game would be: a fully upgraded cart, all levels unlocked, all stamps collected on all levels, and 13 gold medals earned, one on each of the 12 levels.

I’m still working on implementing all this. For the menus, I’m not using OpenGL, but simply the standard Android toolkit. This gives me much layout and interaction for free, but still makes it possible to customize the look. Such GUI layouts are defined in XML files, whose behaviour is not entirely intuitive at all times, but I’m getting the hang of it. Hopefully, the layout and functionality of the menus will be done by Wednesday (leaving the graphics for later) so that I can get to work on the powerups!

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