Time for a Game Redesign? Nah…

Despite more game iterations, Zebulon still hasn’t been going well. It’s confusing; in particular, the non-obvious rules around how the graph works, and the mechanic of dragging ships between planets.

Do I stick with what I have, or do a big re-design?

My original goal was just to publish an iOS game, of any kind. It would just give me bragging rights, and maybe a few hundred downloads. A redesign to make a better game that wouldn’t move the needle much isn’t a good use of effort.

But a redesign is still an interesting thought exercise. Let’s pretend I wanted to spend the effort to keep “core” of the game, but make it meet the usability of its tower defense peers. My game’s essence is:

  • There are discrete planets, with individual roles.
  • Roles interact with one another according to simple rules; the effects are stronger the closer the planets are.
  • Multiple simple interactions can lead to complex behaviors.
  • I want at least two kinds of “production”; I’m now leaning towards cash and energy. Cash is a discrete unit that accumulates, energy is an ongoing localized effect.

There doesn’t need to be a graph – or at least, not overtly. My original idea had been for the game to be centered around graph manipulation, but has two problems:

  1. It seems to appeal more to me than my early testers, and
  2. It’s a pain to generate 2D graphs such that the lines don’t cross, or get too close to, other planets.

So, let’s look at a random handful of other games I admire.

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I spent many, many hours playing Spaceward, Ho! on my old Macintosh when I was a teen, and it’s clearly a strong influence on Zebulon. It’s not a tower defense game per se, since you’re not dropping of autonomous units which repel waves of attackers in real-time; rather, it’s a turn-based strategy game where you have to juggle which resources you spend on terraforming vs. mining vs. research; ship-building; attack vs. defense. I loved trying to optimize its gameplay, and appreciated how well-balanced the game was overall. I will say that I’m not a huge fan of the fleet-management aspect of the game, however. The interface has a lot of dialogs and widgets; especially in later versions of the game which added features to appeal to more hard-core users.

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Obviously, Plants vs. Zombies is one of the great tower defense games. It’s not that complex a game, but the genius is in the simplicity and the evolving challenges the designers throw at you (now, play it at night! Now, you need to pot your plants! Now, we will randomly steal your plants). The core mechanics are:

  • Picking your six characters from among dozens of options
  • Spending resources on increasing production (sunlight) vs. defense
  • Building interactions between items; primarily in the same lane, but also between multiple lanes.

The interface is mostly drag-centric (pull items from the top menu), with some tapping to pick up sunlight. The “genius” is in how freakin’ well balanced it is – it’s always a challenge, but never crushing.

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I love the aesthetic of  Unstoppable Gorg, and it brings some clever additions to the genre; you can rotate an entire orbit “ring”, and enemy waves come in looping paths that require you to juggle the location of your defenders. Note that from a very high level design perspective, it’s not that different from Plants vs. Zombies, inasmuch as there is a tray of options at the top, with a counter and meters shown in the upper-left; and you select which handful of ship options you want at the beginning of a level.

With all this in mind, I busted open Illustrator to try a new Zebulon game design mockup:

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I’d move to a having a currency, and embrace the traditional tower defense trade-off of using a “slot” to generate money vs. doing something useful. I’d still like there to be interactions between neighbors based on proximity, which could allow for some interesting emergent behaviors. Your job is to build out each planet in a strategic way, such that planets support one another to repel the enemy.

…but let’s stop there. I’m not going to start over; what this game needs is more wrapping up, and less improvement.

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