A Pre- & Post-mortem: SoulFront back in pre-production

Long time, no talk. Since my last post, I moved out to San Francisco and started a job as an Associate Game Designer at Zynga, where I did a lot of Systems design, content design, engineering, and Unity prototyping. Unfortunately, I got hit with the layoffs back in January.

Since then, I’ve been spending a lot of time on side projects. One of them is a prototype game that I’ll write about more later. For now, it’s still very early in development and we’re still figuring out how the game should play. The other two, Marshmallow Mayhem and SoulFront, were senior projects at SCAD. Marshmallow Mayhem is nearing completion: I need to add analytics, and then it will be released on iOS and Android for free.

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Coming to a phone and tablet near you, Fall 2014.

SoulFront has recently resurfaced with part of the original team. Since we had about a year to spend away from the game, we’re coming back with fresh eyes and realizing a lot of the errors we made with the game. In one way or another, we can pretty much improve upon every aspect of the game.

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Back to basics.

As lead designer on the project, I’ve been focusing on redesigning the core gameplay, and trying to make the game more enjoyable. Coming back to the game after a while definitely opened my eyes to a few of the key issues we dug ourselves into.

One of the most common comments we received during playtesting was this:

“The game feels too slow.”

Everything effects the “game speed”. Movement speed and health of the characters, damage dealt, how long matches last. As a result of this comment we tried to tune as many things as possible that wouldn’t require us to redo tons of work. For example, the character animations would need to be redone if we wanted to change their movement speed. We got trapped in what, as some of my peers and colleagues have called, the “Fuck it, ship it” tunnelvision.

Now that we have the ability to go back and fix these things, it’s become abundantly clear what some of the key issues were, and what needs to change to make the game feel faster.

1. Overall Speed

Movement

It’s like molasses with legs.

Some All of our classes just move way too slow. The Knuckle Duster is our slowest class, and the speed of that character alone moves the game to a grinding halt. Even then, you have to wait for the character to rotate before they start moving. Oh, and there’s upwards of a 3 second delay between selecting a skill and having that skill activate. All of these are way, way too slow for a RTS-style game.

2. Class Archetypes

We originally based a lot of our character archetypes on some of the historic MMO classes, and took heavy inspiration from Team Fortress 2‘s class system. Two of our archetype choices just don’t make a whole lot of sense: the tank and healer.

Our Knuckle Duster played the role of the slow, but strong, tank and melee DPS class (similar to the Heavy in TF2, but only with his boxing gloves). Our Prospector was somewhere between a mage and a priest: Heavy AoE damage mixed with buffs/debuffs and heals.

In a mobile game where matches are 1v1 and need to be quick (read: 1-3 minutes) to hold player attention, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have a tank/aggro-management class, nor does it make sense to have a dedicated healer. When the dynamics of gameplay boils down to “tank gets aggro on all enemies, healer heals the tank, third character deals damage”, it never yields a match that ends quickly, which makes the game drag on and stops being fun.

Numbers, numbers everywhere.

Numbers, numbers everywhere.

Of course, there’s much more to be improved upon, including simplifying the core mechanics and getting rid of a lot of the overly complicated stats and environments. For now, though, the biggest design improvement to the game will come from redesigning the base classes and making the game quicker, more unique, and more enjoyable.

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