Considering I’m now making a real game for real, maybe now is a good time to go back to my roots and examine what went right… and what went wrong… with my previous development efforts: my Warcraft III maps.
Today: my first real map, When the Freedom Slips Away
There will be spoilers.
When the Freedom Slips Away
I made the first draft of WtFSA when I didn’t have much internet access. I was fascinated by the bizarre new multiplayer phenomena of Tower Defence and AoS, but just didn’t have the connectivity to play them. So I figured I had to make my own versions… offline.
I also had a pretty rubbish computer back then, our family’s very first computer. That means maps that were too big started to drag, so it had to be tiny.
Deciding for some reason that it would be best to cover all these bases with a single project, RDZ’s All-In-One Micro Map was born.
There were two phases to the development of When the Freedom Slips Away.
The first phase never saw the light of day because I ran into a game-ending bug I couldn’t understand nor solve, with the cinematic where Henrik and Lord Kirby chase Lord Scheisen into the volcano cave. Either Henrik or Lord Kirby would fail to start running, and therefore never hit the region that triggered the rest of the cinematic. Whatever it was, it stopped development dead in its tracks and I abandoned the project.
I considered releasing it in that unfinished state, but never quite got around to it. In fact, I think I can remember being unable to upload it for some reason.
Good thing that I didn’t — fast-foward a couple of years cutting my teeth on the Islands in the Sky series, and I got to remembering that packed little RPG I couldn’t finish then but surely had the knowledge to debug now…
Phase two was pretty successful (if I do say so myself).
Gameplay wise, WtFSA is as much a mish-mash as the Islands in the Sky series, though in a different way. Ostensibly a singleplayer RPG heavily inspired by the likes of Gravano’s Season of Uncertainty, it deviated to include base building, tower defence, singleplayer AoS and hero defence sections. Otherwise, the tiny map area made it more of a linear dungeon crawl repeated several times than the gated open-world explorathon that I was perhaps trying to achieve.
Oh well — it’s only 64×96 and if nothing else, you could never fault me for my use of space.
Respawning wild animals try to make repeated crawlings less boring, but the rigid system I used made the exact same enemies spawn each time — perfectly balanced, perhaps, but a bit dull on the third or fourth trek. They all stand still at their spawn points too, which is pretty crap. Ach, cut me some slack, I was only 15 or 16!
The mixture of game types does work, to an extent. The AoS and hero defence genres, for example, still focus on control of a single hero (give or take summons and mercenaries) — all that changes is the context. The wild animals are now waves of opponents, the narrative suggests a battle rather than a wilderness wander, yes, but it’s pretty much the same thing with a different feel. The base building and tower defence parts, however, are where it falls apart.
Before we even consider whether it works to play, there’s an element of scale that becomes problematic here. The map is tiny, but I never made the buildings tiny to match — there are only a few points on the little buildable island where you can place the Barracks and still have space for… well, everything else.
When building a base, though, Henrik becomes impotent. He is not a craftsman, he is a warrior, and he lives in a map whose primary interaction is killing bad guys. Maybe he can safely hang around doing sweet FA while the base is under construction, he becomes an active meanace during the tower defence, so much so that I had to lock him up on a little rocky island off shore, out of attack and spell range. It is decreed, for no particular reason, that these enemies must be killed Only By Towers and it jars with the narrative that focuses on a single character.
Maybe I just needed a better plot device to frame it, but even the TD mechanics are pretty rubbish. One tiny barely-winding path to defend, a miniscule variety of towers with little mechanical differentiation…
That’s not to say that the defence and AoS parts are particularly well done either. The defence of Thirlmir against the Empire, for example, is plagued by the shared units trying to return to their starting points, and there’s no progress meter to help you plan for the next wave, while bounty for kills goes to the killing unit’s owner — meaning that an overzealous Henrik will sap all the cash and stop Thirlmir from being able to train more soldiers.
Not that Henrik necessarily needs help — most of the map being easy prey for his hilarious abilities, especially that defence section. One cast of Energy Bolt with its 16 bounces can eradicate entire waves alone.
Despite the small size of the island, there is quite a bit of backtracking. The pig requires you to march from end to end, for example, and you can’t wait until the main plot takes you back to the raft with him because he only has 15 hit points and he will die against those Giant Wolves. (On the other hand, he’s missing some kind of final boss that only appears at the raft when you get him there — a warcry of “I smell BACON!” from some ravenous villager is conspicuous in its absence.)
I think the backtracking required by some quests is very obvious here because, as I said above, the island is pretty linear. There are no shortcuts or varied routes to explore, nor patrolling animals to carve through — there is precisely one path between any two points on the island with a constant set of enemies.
I think that’s what separates annoying backtracking from meaningful traversal of a real place. I should have cut down those mountains, or opened up a path between Thirlmir and the archeological dig, made Henrik able to swim…
Ahhhh, what can I say? Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but it’s fairly stable and cohesive package, even if it occasionally deviates from the central mechanics more than entirely makes sense.
In the end, though, I did succeed in my original mission — it is, after all, a single, tiny map containing RPG, tower defence, AoS, hero defence and hero offence elements. Honestly, what more do you want?