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Accessible Strategy is not an Oxymoron: Design Pillars for Skulls of the Shogun
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Accessible Strategy is not an Oxymoron: Design Pillars for Skulls of the Shogun

February 1, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Immediately Understandable Visual & Audio Design

We spent a lot of time trying to bring the details of the battle to the player's attention without the need for a long, complicated list of details.

By really focusing on the subtleties of how an enemy whips out his sword and jumps into an aggressive stance when you come in range, or winces when he becomes a target of an attack he can't counterattack, we set up a system of immediate feedback that was built into the gameplay as opposed to stopping, checking distances, and doing unnecessary calculations.

The health flag took many iterations, but in the end it became a great, simple mechanism where anytime you target any enemy, both of the samurai flags on the units' backs would show their total hit points and how many HP both units would lose in the altercation at the next touch of the attack button. Almost all the information the player needs is immediately where their eyes are already looking.

Augmenting all the visual design was a strong, iconic sound effect for each action. As you pass by potential targets, they whip out their swords, with the unmistakable grind of a sword being pulled out of its sheath.

Targeting an enemy at a range, you might miss, and you hear a whiff sound. By simply walking around your allotted movement radius each turn, you can see and hear how many units you could potentially attack without needing to do any calculations at all. From-the-hip strategy gaming!

An archer targeting some enemies. Orange-tinted units are missable, whether they are on the outside of the attack range or hiding in bamboo. Units that will counterattack have their weapon raised. Health is shown on the current targeted unit on its flag. Potential damage is shown on the current target in the form of black health bars. While not targeting, enemies within range will gleam white or orange (if they are attackable and/or missable).

It's All about the Drama

Multiplayer was always a big focus for us. By speeding up the gameplay, we wanted to allow for multiplayer, which often isn't an option in these kinds of games because it simply takes too long. As we age as gamers, fun multiplayer experiences revolve less and less around twitchy action experiences -- we just can't keep up. At the same time, we want a chance to socialize with our friends while we play, instead of just screaming for covering fire.

Tied to speeding up the gameplay, we wanted to capture the dramatic nature of a really good basketball game (or say, a drunken flag football game). In early playtests we would have tense, dramatic matches that boiled down to two demon shoguns finally clashing after a tough battle. But we also had matches where one player would be beating the other player down slowly, taking far too many rounds to do it.

We immediately cut out some standard conventions that just slowed things down -- like not being able to use a unit in the turn it was created. We set up the game resources to play to a strong endgame.

Rice, which you gain from captured rice paddies every turn, was limited so you could only gain rice from them for six turns. This prevents players from ever reaching a stalemate where each side has the resources to maintain their position, but not advance. At some point, rice will run out, and players will have to make a final stand.

Two rice paddies, in the middle of being depleted.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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Paul Tozour
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Great article! Really terrific work. Skulls looks fantastic and I can't wait to play it!

Kevin Alexander
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Is it only on windows phones/tablets and xbox?

Can I just play it on windows platform straight up?

Kenneth Stojevich
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Last I checked its on Windows Phone/Tablet, Xbox and Windows 8 only.

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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jeff Alexander
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Bubblewrap popping? I don't see what this refers to.

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Borut Pfeifer
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Joshua - well, the game is very specifically designed to look less intimidating, that's the idea. And while the goal of the article was to convey some idea of the depth, there is a variance in high level stratgey you can pursue, and not just the low-level tactics (certainly more than other games in the squad-based tactics sub-genre). As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words - and if so then a movie must be worth a thousand pictures, and so then gameplay must be even more. :) I'd reccomend checking out the demo to gauge properly (all three versions have a free trial, you'll probably want to investigate the multiplayer after the tutorial level).

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Jeremy Reaban
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Nippon Icchi (sp?) tried dumping the grid for one of their tactical RPGs. It was probably their biggest bomb, and they brought the grid back for subsequent games.

Hakim Boukellif
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The mistake Nippon Ichi made in Phantom Brave was using the same instruction-based control method they use in their grid-based SRPGs in a game with gridless movement. As games like Sakura Wars and Valkyria Chronicles show, gridless movement can work in a game like this, but you need to be in direct control of your active unit so you can adjust your position after arriving at your location instead of getting stuck in a loop of "move character to position -> it turns out the enemy is just barely outside of the unit's attack range -> undo -> repeat".

I consider both to be viable methods, but considering that being arcade-like was one of this game's design goals, going gridless was probably the right way to go. Though I haven't played it yet, so I can't tell whether it was implemented well or not.

Borut Pfeifer
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Yeah, like Hakim implies the lack of a grid wasn't actually used to any meaningful strategic effect in Phantom Brave (or not nearly as much strategic effect). It was primarily visual, and while it may have helped movement a little, the cumbersome genre standard menus didn't do much to help highlight why analog positioning was important strategically or tactically. Just a few hits in our game and the use of analog knockback (based on both proximity and character type/weight) immediately shows itself as Crucial to the strategy with elements like ring-outs (ledge deaths).

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I am not sure if this is a crosspost from somewhere else and so whether the authors will see this comment or not, but I would really like to hear about the experience of developing a game for Windows 8/RT.

Specifically, did you have any specific challenges that made you reconsider your choice of win8 as a platform?

Were there any libraries or dependencies that didn't exist you were expecting to be available?

Would you choose to develop the game for win8 if you had to do it again?

I ask because I'm on the verge of deciding which set of platforms the next big project will be on and I am considering including win8/RT.

Borut Pfeifer
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Well, I'm afraid we can only partially answers your question at the moment. Ultimately the decision to support any platform has to be made based on how much revenue it will bring in, and that it will be greater than your costs to port.

As for the technical side, yeah, the lack of support of XNA certainly caught us by suprise. It was such a powerful library. It's cross platform nature made porting to the windows phone probably the easiest port I've ever seen or done. (Literally it was only a matter of days before it was playable at an ok framerate - it took a few more weeks to really optimize for it, but all told that's a small amount of work to take a console game to a phone). Since we use C#, it was also a little dissapointing DirectX API functions aren't directly exposed to that.

But thankfully we were able to port to Win8 using the open sources libraries SharpDX (a C# interop library to access DirectX) and MonoGame (an open source version of the XNA API). Now, this was before MonoGame had been ported to Windows 8, so it took us a few weeks. Not too bad, but now MonoGame has Windows 8 support in it already, so if you're using C#/XNA, you'll have a leg up porting to Win8 now.

We also had to spend a lot of time optimizing for the lower end graphical hardware on ARM tablets and the very-low end x86 tablets. On the phone we get aware with things like 16-bit color and half-resolution textures, which you can't notice as much with the small screen. And, like most high-def 2D games, we rely on many visual layers for effects like lighting, weather, etc. This can cause issues with graphics hardware that has very low fill rate. So we had to optimize for that scenario specifically for that kind of hardware.

But as for sales, since we just launch last week, we'll have to see. Hopefully we'll have more info for you in a post-mortem or future article.

Chane Hollander
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I'm a couple hours into the game and am really enjoying it! I'm itching to get home to play some more! Great job guys!

Nicholas Bellerophon
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I played a development version of this at Rezzed in July. Even then it was fantastic. Good work guys!