I was at a game dev meet-up about a month ago now, where my pals sassed me silly for not having shipped a game yet. They’re right to do so — although I vigorously resist accusations of feature creep (it’s not creep if it’s all part of the original plan), it’s true that I’m making something rather large that isn’t going to be releasable until it’s “done” (this is the true curse of building narrative-driven things).
About a year ago, I set down my plan for the first release: a self-contained prologue to a bigger campaign, which would be short enough to manufacture in a sensible time-frame, but broad enough to stress out most of my features. “Sensible time-frame” is, of course, relative and it’s still got a long way to go.
So I asked myself: what’s the minimum viable game? What is the purest, simplest expression of top-down mech action that I can build and put in front of people?
Welcome… To the Arena
Of course it’s Arena mode. Pitting you against equivalent bots in little deathmatches does not require a full dialogue engine, nor an inventory Tetris system, nor even saving and loading (though now I have saving and loading, you’ll totally be able to save in-progress matches).
The Arena is a thought that’s crossed my mind many times before, and it’s seductive for many reasons. Aside from the small brief, it’s something that I fully intend to be a side quest in the main campaigns anyway, so building it now is still laying down solid work that’ll be a part of the proper game. Indeed, it was included in that first release plan, so in reality this would simply be an even more aggressive scope cut.
It is, in short, an absolutely perfect little slice to start with. So why do I feel so queasy about it?
Ultimately, it’s the format that makes me nervous. I’ve always been absolutely clear that Exon is a singleplayer game, designed for offline play by one person alone — it’s a narrative-driven RPG delivered through the medium of top-down hack ‘n’ slash action. With my campaign prologue plan, it’s obvious from the outset that it’s completely singleplayer, and the question of other players joining in never even comes up.
With The Arena, it’s no longer obviously a singleplayer game, because it doesn’t begin with a story. It begins with a countdown and several completely equivalent mechs entering a level playing field, where the interest comes from the interaction of their complex (I hope) behaviours with each other.
I’ve made no secret of how much I love Unreal Tournament, but the thing that sets me apart is that I love it singleplayer, alone against the bots. I do not see UT as a competitive multiplayer game, but I am well aware how at odds that perspective is with how literally everyone else sees it.
So if I was to go ahead and ship The Arena, which I feel would have a completely legitimate, fun and valuable singleplayer format, I fully expect the sum total of feedback to be “why isn’t it multiplayer?”
Honestly, I don’t want to spend all of my first interactions with my potential future audience explaining why it’s not multiplayer, shouldn’t be multiplayer, and will never be multiplayer. Me getting increasingly irritated by reminders of just how out of synch I am with the rest of reality is not a good look.
But on all other fronts, it truly is the minimum viable game. The core of Exon is top-down hack ‘n’ slashing, and the Arena format is a fantastic platform to quickly stress and refine all the things that go into combat. The narrative stuff is delightful and has always been the long-term goal, but it’s nothing without a working game underneath.
Indeed, I actually tried to make The Arena in Exon before, and it was for similar reasons that I swore off it and moved in the direction of the disastrous procedural dungeon crawler mode. (Though I also wasn’t technologically ready for it — this was before I’d given up on my ridiculous raycast-based navigation logic and bought the A* Pathfinding Project… Hell, it was before I even had melee attacks.)
So I’m going to swallow my fear of feedback and go for it. I want to give people something to play, and for the PR nightmare it is likely to cause, this is still the fastest way to that goal. I already have a solid working prototype, a scant few weeks in.
Actually releasing it is also a slightly secondary concern at the moment. My main aim would really be to visit all these local indie game dev showcases with something playable. So, I’m setting myself the target of being ready for the next SGDA (previously IGDA Scotland) Play Party — which will likely be the start of 2020. That gives me plenty of time to make it good, but it’s also not unimaginably far in the future.