This whole venture started out as a sideline. It was something to keep a very pregnant Leanne from climbing up the walls with boredom whilst I was out at work every day. When Boss Alien decided to dispense with my services, all of that changed and our little side-project became our lifeline.
Now with our third version of the game in the offing, here is a look at some of the things we have done and how they have changed over the course of multiple developments.
We were quite fortunate in that we were able to nail down our core gameplay almost from the very beginning. The glyph interface has hardly changed at all from that very first example – a hexagonal grid of circles that you drag along to select spell elements. The concept of Opposite elements was also something that we arrived at very early on. Oh sure, there was a brief dalliance with something more akin to Pokemon or FFXI’s ‘renkei’ system, but these were unnecessarily complex for our needs.
The way the spells were constructed from said elements started out as a more modular system with each element contributing a more individual effect. Using multiple copies of an element would power up their part before each section would be flung at the enemy for damage. This system had plenty of scope for variance but it was quite long winded and eventually ditched for something practically identical to what we have now.
The Aftertouch, Chains and Reversal system fell into place swiftly – I do like a good scoring mechanic – and has formed the basis of what makes our game unique throughout every iteration. Combos arrived shortly afterwards although in their first iteration, the spell parser wasn’t really up to scratch. This meant that the player was pretty much locked to a particular pair of elements for the course of his game.
Only in the second game did we solve the problem of chain migration – that is, maintaining a chain through different combos – but even that advancement came with problems. Combos and Aftertouch didn’t play nicely together with the spell parser often getting a bit confused and decided to cast a tiny, single element spell rather than the big combo with a healthy dose of Aftertouch thrown in. Quite frustrating really. You’ll be pleased to hear that all of that has been well and truly rectified in this third iteration.
One of the other refinements comes in the form of how the board is populated following glyph usage. Previously, it would randomly select a neighbour of one of the glyphs and ensure that it matched whilst randomly populating the others. This achieved two things. Firstly, it always ensured that the player had a valid spell to cast (albeit a small one) and secondly, it allowed a player some degree of control over what happened next. Not much control, admittedly, but it did allow the expert player a chance to stretch out his chains a bit longer or steer the board towards a particular configuration.
This system went unchanged in the second game but has been revised for the third. In Chronicles, we’ve adopted a much more deterministic system whereby the player can dictate which glyph gets changed into what. It’s quite intuitive really – the first glyph the player touches will become whatever glyph is on the other side to the direction the player swipes in. Essentially the player ‘pulls’ a copy of the target glyph into play. We’ve still got some issues over the presentation of this, but it’s very much an additive thing and the game is still fun even if you don’t fully understand the system. When you do understand it though, it adds a whole new layer of strategy and gives an expert player that much more control over the board.
Power Up Glyphs
We’ve also added the concept of Power Up glyphs. These appear whenever the player casts a 4-glyph spell and increase the power of the next spell to utilise that glyph. This was brought in to enable single-element, 4 glyph spells to retain their relevance into the late game as well as introduce another strategy for players to adopt.
The first game had a suite of six elements to play with – Light, Dark, Fire, Water, Air and Earth. The second game increased that to eight by adding Primal and Metal. One of the issues with that move was the fact that the board became quite crowded and bigger spells became harder to cast. We countered that by capping the number of Loot glyphs that could be present at any one time as well as making subtle weighting changes to the random glyph type selector based on the player’s recent glyph history.
Something that has had considerable revision over the series has been that of the Summons. In the original game, Summons were simply an aesthetic applied to 5-glyph spells. They were just a regular effect animation that took a bit longer and did a bit more damage than their 4-glyph counterparts.
Aside from increasing the requirement to 6 glyphs, in Super we took the step of making an actual creature to represent each Summon spell and, whenever it was cast, this creature would appear and take your place in battle. Once destroyed, it would disappear and you’d be thrust back into the fray. This system made a lot of sense but it wasn’t without its flaws. For starters, the player is basically immune whilst the Summon is in play and most players would use this time to try and arrange the board in such a way that, as soon as the Summon was killed, there’d be enough glyphs on the board to simply cast the spell again.
To address this, we’ve changed the way Summons work in Chonicles. A creature is still summoned (doing massive damage as it does so) but it doesn’t replace the player’s mage anymore. Instead it sits in the background. Whilst present, all glyphs of that creature’s element are turned into Power Up glyphs and, when enough of these glyphs have been used, the creature departs with a Limit Break attack that, once again, does a shed-load of damage. This means they’re still very powerful spells, but concentrating more on offence than defence.
One of the first things that grabs our player’s attention is the art style and this is all Leanne.
The first version featured bold outlines with a muted palette that suited the medieval setting. The palette was refined for the Asian version and made considerably more saturated and colourful. This version also added a ‘hit’ frame for the player to go along with his ‘attack’ frame.
Moving on to Super and the outlines have gone. This is in direct response to the fact that we added the ability for the player to customise their character. A modular system of robes and hairstyles and the like meant that we couldn’t surround everything with the thick outline. The hit and attack frames were adopted from the Asian original though.
In Chronicles we have gone for actual animation. All characters and monsters are made from composite sprites that are all joined together and animated. This makes the creation process considerably more complicated and long winded than it was before but adds a lot to the look and feel of the game. The characters have much more personality and the game looks a lot more dynamic.
The system that has seen the most change over the series’ lifetime is that of the player’s progression through each game.
The original game was pretty simple – each element you used increased your affinity to that element. At certain thresholds, that affinity would level up, increasing the amount of damage you would do with it. The player’s overall level was determined by their highest level of affinity and the list of available quests would be increased accordingly. All of these quests were assigned to particular locations, all of which were shown on a single screen.
The second game got considerably more complex. Now the locations were spread over a much larger map that the player had to scroll around and explore. This was linked by a complex ‘tech tree’ of dependencies – each location or quest only becoming available when certain other criteria were met. In addition, the way the player levelled up was… well, interesting to say the least.
On the face of it, accruing XP for killing monsters seemed simple enough, but whenever the player reached enough XP to attain the next level, that’s where things got tricky. Each level up was accompanied by a random selection of cards from which the player could select one. This card would give the player a new ability or enhance an existing one. Everything from the power of Reversals to Loot glyphs to Armour to… the list went on. It added a layer of complexity and ownership but was perhaps a little too much hassle. It also presented a bit of a balancing problem in that, due to random chance or the player making a silly choice, they could end up missing out on some pretty vital abilities and hampering their late game play.
All of this was accompanied by a whole mess of narrative. There was a large, overarching story involving many, many characters. Plenty of side quests and additional optional story arcs also filled everything out. Each character had a ton of dialogue, which was great fun to write but ultimately was far too much work for us. In fact, producing the content and adding it to the system was what took up the vast majority of development time on this project.
With that in mind. the third game heralds a return to the simplicity of the first. A list of adventures can be scrolled through, each one holding a number of quests. New adventures become available when the player has completed enough quests.
The first game was made without any localisation in mind. We didn’t have the resources and had no intention of getting it localised anyway. That is, until Shin from Chorus Worldwide came along and offered to make the Japanese, Chinese and Korean versions for us. What greeted him and his team when the got a hold of the project was a complete mess – a melange of text in all kinds of places. From prefabs and in-world objects to baked textures and hard-coded strings – exactly the sort of stuff you shouldn’t be doing if you want to make it easy on the localisers. It’s remarkable how they were actually able to pull it off when you think about it.
So for the second game we had learned our lesson. At least, we had learned that part of the lesson. Super featured a single source code file that had every piece of text in the game. Now, when it came time to localise it, all Chorus had to do was translate everything in that one file and it would all ‘just work’…
… except what we’d done was increase the amount of text in the game by an order of magnitude thanks to the narrative stuff. But it wasn’t just a quantity issue. Super featured exactly the worst kind of text – it was all pop culture references, in jokes, accents and song lyrics. These were things that were funny and entertaining to us but would be completely lost on a foreign audience.
You see, Localisation isn’t just the translation of words – it’s so much more than that. You have to get the context right. You have to translate the intention rather than just the literal. You have to find some local analogy to whatever was written.
Despite us making the process easier by putting all of the text in one, easy to access place, we had made it next to impossible by the amount and style of text.
Again, sticking with the topic of refinement, Chronicles does it just that little bit better than the other two games. Instead of keeping it all in a source file, an external Google spreadsheet houses the raw text. Additional languages get added as extra columns and the whole thing gets exported as a TSV file which is loaded at runtime. It’s basically the way localisation is done ‘properly’. In addition, we’ve dialled the amount of narrative right back. Currently it’s dialled back to ‘zero’ but we might stretch as far as having each Adventure having some intro and outro text.
Either way, not so much with the in jokes.
The first game was an adventure, in almost every sense of the word. We were pushing against a hard deadline and flying into the unknown in many ways. We’d never made a game together before. We’d never made an iOS game on our own before. We’d never been staring parenthood in the face before. Through some incredibly hard work and remarkably good fortune, we made a good go of it.
The second game was probably too much. Although bigger in almost every way, it lost some of the things that made the original so pure and entertaining. It tried to do too much and wasn’t curated at all from our end. We were also struggling with the aforementioned parenthood.
The third iteration gives us a chance to bring the refinement back. To make the whole thing that bit slicker, which is something that’s quite important if you want to make a go of things on the App Store. Willow is also a lot older and more independent, making the parenthood side of things that little bit easier to cope with.
Although she has just taken all of the books off the shelf and is now piling them up on the living room floor…