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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 3 of 3

At the same time, the other resource in the game is the unit's skulls. As you kill your enemies, you can eat their skulls to gain more health. After you eat three skulls, your unit turns into a demon, which means that unit can attack twice per turn if you assign it one of your five orders, as well as having twice the hit points of a standard unit.

If a unit dies, any skulls they've eaten drop to the ground -- free for anyone to eat. As units die during a game, that naturally means there are more powerups. So the last fighting units will typically be heavily powered up, given a sense of increased stakes for the player.

A cavalry unit that's been powered up to a demon by eating three skulls.

Typically units take two to three attacks to kill, depending on the unit and the attacker. As demons have twice the health of a normal unit, it can take as little as three or four attacks to kill a demon (again, based on the units involved). So while a demon is a huge advantage because of its extra action and the value placed on the limited actions per turn, another player can still kill a demon in one turn, probably with an action or two left to eat some of the dropped skulls.

On top of this, melee units can knock back their targets while attacking. Getting knocked back over a ledge of any sort (cliffs or water) will cause the unit to die immediately (and not counterattack).

You can protect your units from most knockback by grouping them together to form spirit walls. These also act as collision barriers to block enemies and defend your own. One mistake in positioning and an observant opponent means any unit is always one short step from possible death.

Also, given that your general's life is the only thing keeping you from the losing the game, one small mistake in using him can cost you a match that you were otherwise winning.

An infantry unit knocking an archer off a ledge.

In this way, we provide mechanics and advantages that are high reward, but high risk (or which can easily lead to a loss). That can give players a sense of power and accomplishment during the match, but they must stay on their toes in order to maintain any advantage. So the player that is ahead in the match can fluctuate wildly, but players feel like that change is due their own skill or mistakes.

Strategy Games, not Puzzle Games

Most turn-based and real-time strategy games boil down to some sort of rock-scissors-paper mechanic. We thought it would be interesting to purposely step away from this model and try something different. The high concept of the main three battle units was to give each one distinct strengths and weaknesses, where the strategy was to make the most of their given strengths while avoiding allowing the enemy to exploit their weaknesses. The real strengths are allowed to shine when intelligently used together, as well as minimizing their weaker attributes.

For example, the infantry units have great defense, and can take a lot of hits. They are the equivalent of a linebacker, holding your defensive line. They don't move far per turn or have particularly great attacks, but they are great at advancing a strong line of defense, and they are the cheapest unit to buy. They're usually too slow to go on any major offensive push but an excellent support and defensive unit.

The archer, on the other hand, has very weak defense but an amazingly powerful ranged attack. By keeping him protected by infantry, you can soften up enemies safely from afar, while having an infantry bodyguard rush in to finish off the damaged enemy before he can counterattack. One isn't particularly better than the other, but used in conjunction well, they become much stronger.

Most games in this genre can boil down to puzzle games, where a certain unit is always the right antidote for a certain enemy. Anti-air vs. aircraft, for example, is not a lot of fun when you have a great fleet of aircraft and the enemy just quickly builds up an anti-aircraft front line. This gives players a range of expression for the strategies they want to follow. Even more importantly, though, it helps prevent multiplayer matches from turning into slugfests where one player has rock and that player is just beating the player with scissors for over 10 minutes.


Forcing ourselves to convey all needed information to players as quickly as possible forced us to streamline our mechanics and only keep what we could explain. Making sure the mechanics and the resulting dynamics stayed open and didn't force players into one best approach -- with opportunities for dramatic power shifts -- gave us a whole range of strategy so we didn't water down anything while we were trying to present that information as clearly as possible. Having a clear mandate to apply to any new possible mechanics that came up let us stay true to the spirit of the genre we loved, while giving it a needed kick in the rear armor.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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

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!