Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Frayed Knights: Faking It

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 26, 2010

Time for another update on Frayed Knights, the upcoming indie computer RPG series from Rampant Games that attempts to feel old-school hardcore, play modern, and keep its tongue firmly in its cheek…

Yes, it does feel a little weird to call it a series. Even though we’ve been considering breaking it up for three months. I’ve been trying to keep the heat turned up on the other acts as well (poor Kevin has been working on very little other than the third act for many, many moons now…), but this has definitely caused us to focus a lot harder on getting Act 1 alpha-ready. We’re not quite down to the just-odds-and-ends stage. There’s a ton of data and scripting to generate, and that falls entirely on my own shoulders. And I have to keep moving ahead so that the artists can keep on rolling into Act 2 even while I may be mired in Act 1. Yes, folks, that’s what design documents are for.

Speaking of design documents: when it comes to designing the gameplay – scripting up the environments –  I typically approach things kind of “bass-ackwards” from how they are supposed to be done. I’ve found that much of the initial plan changes (yes, even in “mainstream” game studios) between design and production, and many of the best ideas happen when things are into production. And a lot of other ideas that I thought were great turn out to be… well, not so hot. So I tend to put less detail into the initial environment design – really more of an outline of major encounters, theming, and general gameflow – and I do more of the “fleshing out” of the world and encounters later in the process. This works fine as a lone-wolf developer, but can cause problems working with even a small team. We’re still evolving the process.  But for me, working with a more fully realized 3D environment really helps make ideas flow.

That can be a surprisingly big deal.  When I’m trying hard to “build a commercially viable RPG,” I find myself getting a massive case of writer’s block. I wrack my brain for ideas  for making Door Trigger #300 a little different from Door Triggers #1 – #299. It’s painful. It’s frustrating. In effect, I think I’m trying too hard, and thinking too much inside the box.

Instead, what seems to work best for me is also kind of a backwards approach to design. Instead of thinking about things in terms of their software-based game definitions, I find it is best for me to back up and draw upon my years (*cough*decadesdangIfeelold*cough*) of experience a game-master for dice-and-paper RPGs. I approach it as I would planning our Saturday night RPG sessions. I throw the door open to ideas, and try not to think about the constraints of the software we’ve developed. Approaching it from this higher level makes it easy. THEN I get down to the nuts and bolts of trying to figure out how to simulate it with the game mechanics.

Some ideas don’t survive the translation into the limitations of the game engine very well. Quite frankly, the content and coding requirements for these ideas – if I were to try and present them as literally and graphically as possible – would be STAGGERING.  As much as I’d rather show than tell, the limitations of time and budget, mean that I have to use smoke, mirrors, and text-boxes to present many aspects of the world.  An elaborate ambush, an army of undead marching through the valley, an entire mountainside changing shape at the utterance of magical words, detailed AI behaviors — those kinds of things are going to have to live primarily in text descriptions and in the player’s imaginations.

For now, I’m okay with that. This is how, IMO, computer RPGs used to be made. Still are, to some degree, but it seems that as the capabilities of technology expanded, the willingness of game designers to allow their visions to be constrained by it also increased. Back when everything had to be “faked,” it was no big deal. But now that so much could be shown on the screen, voiced by actors, pre-rendered in a cut scene, and stored on the hard drive, designers don’t want to include anything that won’t fit. We’ve read them admitting as much in interviews. No, not admitting – proudly declaring.

It’s a good thing to want the game to provide a more visceral punch through sound and graphics. Seeing your characters muscles grow would certainly be more satisfying than seeing some number go from 13 to 14. Maybe that really is the best approach. Maybe that really is what most players want.

But I don’t see other media being so willing to limit their ideas too tightly to their technological and budgetary constraints. If you listen to the commentaries of many sci-fi epics on DVD / Blu-Ray (at least the ones that weren’t made by George Lucas), you’ll often find interesting descriptions of tricks pulled to get around the fact that they just didn’t have the special effects budget to pull off exactly what the script called for. They were creative. They faked it. They implied things happening off-screen. They provided just enough of a taste of it to get the audience to buy in, but ultimately fell back on tried-and-true tricks to make the scene work.

(As a side note – with technology making virtually anything possible on-screen as far as special effects go, I’ve noticed a trend to show everything in effects-heavy pix. In many cases I think the older, more subtler methods were more effective. Cutting away to a reaction shot on the face of another human being can bring more emotional impact than seeing the knife’s destructive effects in full gory detail. I say this, because I know you read this blog and seek out my advice, George…)

So that’s kinda where I’m coming from. Yeah, it means that sometimes Frayed Knights feels a little like those old adventure games from Legend Entertainment back in the late 80s and early 90s, where the pictures were a supplement to the old-school text. I’m not taking it quite that far, but yeah – it’s going to be text heavy. There are a lot of things implied that you won’t see. Big, cool events may be hidden behind a cloud of particle effects.  The characters may talk about things they see, smell, taste, touch,  or hear that the player does not.  People will talk about other people and places that the player will never see. That’s just the way it is.

But I hope that will be more than made up for with more variety and a more interesting world, and maybe an experience that feels a little more authentic to early-era dice-and-paper gaming.

Filed Under: Frayed Knights - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Xenovore said,

    Quote: “They faked it. They implied things happening off-screen. They provided just enough of a taste…”

    This is actually more important than it may seem at first glance. This “faking it” can allow the viewer (or player) to use his imagination to fill in the gaps. This is huge; it connects the viewer/player with the medium far more powerfully than if you show them everything.

    Take them most of the way there, then let their imagination fill in the rest.

  • Kimari said,

    You got me thinking about design ideas that are actually easy to implement….
    Just curious here, but do you have an attack in FK that involves references to interactive fiction? More precisely Zork. I mean, the idea seems hilarious and easy to implement, but maybe that’s not the kind of humor you’re going for in Frayed Knights.

    As an example: An attack that fades the screen to black, shows text saying “x and x were eaten by a grue” and then fade to normal with the corresponding enemies missing.

  • Rubes said,

    Well, you pretty much described most of what I’m doing in Vespers, so at least you’re not alone…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yay. We should, like, form a club or something. The “Society of Unreleased Games That Use Copious Text!” Yeah! Go… SUGTUCT. Er, no, that acronym sucks. Nevermind.

  • Hajo said,

    In comics, you often find that actions happen in between the panels. They are not shown themselves.

    For example:

    First panel shows a man with an axe and another man screaming “No!”

    The next panel shows a city scyline and a cry “Aaagghhh!”

    It is left to imagination what exactly happened. You can show the results in a third panel, but you can leave it open as well.

    Faking is a good idea for many things that are beyond the actual capabilities of the system or the people involved. But you don’t even have to show – in some cases it is better to just show the setup and the result and not the action itself. And sometimes it’s also more clever not to show the result either. Comics have mastered this approach, but it works in other media as well. Our brain is a good storyteller to fill these “untold” parts, and it often does so better than actual showing would do.