Fine tuning the action in Hoth Strike – a question of balance

There’s not much left to do on Hoth Strike before I draw a line under it and move on to my next game. But something that has been playing on my mind just lately is the question of balancing the action. I’m not a fan of implementing skill levels in games since they bring with them their own problems with level playing fields. I want everyone to experience the same game and to work it out such that they become competent and confident at it. That said I can’t just hurl stuff around the screen and expect players to accept it. I desperately need to consider balance.

A decision that I took early on was that I wanted to emulate Defender as much as possible. I prefer to set a stage and repeat it ever so slightly bumping the player’s requirements with each “wave” as opposed to say designing muliple levels. I’m very much an arcade gamer and not somebody who wants to sit down and devise a multitude of tricks and traps. At least not at the moment. Just now I’d much rather have the player see the limits of the game and work out how to “survive” within a static arena.

So I set out to design a few aliens and have them behave differently to one another. Some drift like jellyfish, others hunt for the good guys whilst some hunt the player or bounce annoyingly around the screen. Most spit laser bombs at the player (I even went to the trouble of plotting the player’s position relative to the alien and have them fire their laser bombs in a relevant direction!) and all will kill on impact. I wanted to have the player spend most of their time zapping the bad guys and probably spending most of their time in flight. But then I realised the player cared for nothing. They didn’t much care that the aliens were just drifting around since he had no goals. Hence the design goal of rescuing the rebel pilots. Instantly this new dynamic prompted the “mutant” alien idea. Lifted straight from Defender and DropZone the player had to stop the landers from capturing the good guys before they mutated in to the awful “chasers” that made those games so difficult. The player was now potentially all over the screen to complete the wave.

It still pains me that my original intention of having AT-ATs in motion had to be scrapped through my own failings at animation. The dynamic of speeding across the landscape taking pot shots at the walkers would have been stunning. But just now it’s not to be.

So to the point of this post.
In my games I try to design on a point – counter point basis. That is, where the point is to collect an item I make it the sole objective of a game object to frustrate the player when he’s trying to collect that item. In Invaders I threw bonus items down the screen and upped the alien bombing rate in an attempt to thwart the player’s attempts at powering up. With Hoth Strike I wanted to be a bit more intelligent with it. Where the player has to collect a rebel pilot I create an alien whose sole purpose is to look for rebels and destroy them ! Where the player has to carry a rebel pilot to safety I make sure that there’s enough on the screen to bring him down.

It’s that last bit I’m bothered about.

Simply littering the screen with obstacles isn’t very good game design in my opinion. I want to inject personality in to the probes such that they hound the player based on the things that the player can achieve.
The player can swing his speeder left and right, for example, so why not have an alien that tracks the player perfectly thus reducing the advantage of being able to swing the speeder around.

Now that the game objects are in place I will be fine tuning the game in terms of it’s execution.
If anyone has any ideas they’d like to share / offer then please do drop me a line.
This is the fun bit ;)

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  • Echolocating  On May 29, 2009 at 10:05 am

    You might want to try using a rapid fire function in that when you press the key down, the game will fire a shot every certain numbers of frames while the key is being held down. Just a thought, though it might take away from the arcade feel.

    I have one graphical suggestion and that is to create two more versions of the snow speeder; one slightly tilted to the left and one slightly tilted to the right, so you see a bit of the top and undercarriage. These images can be used while moving the speeder up or down on the screen and would provide a more satisfying level of feedback, I feel.

    Anyway, I like the game as is, but since you were looking for suggestions… ;-)

    • markw1970  On June 1, 2009 at 8:04 am

      Thanks for the comments.
      I toyed with the rapid fire feature but disliked it since I prefer the interaction of repeatedly hitting the fire button. There’s a certain sustained frenzy that I enjoy :)

      Regards the graphical changes I have to say I never feel that it adds anything to the experience to tilt and turn the player’s ship unless something significant is gained by tilting the ship e.g. avoiding enemy fire.
      I know a number of arcade games employ it and I can see why people do it but it’s not really something I’m interested in.

      Thanks again ;) I look forward to seeing your own work !

  • Echolocating  On June 5, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Do you play your JavaScript games on the keyboard or do you use a game pad?

    I’ve been trying to find a decent PC game pad, but have never found one with a satisfactory d-pad (when you push up, it goes diagonally left or right, basically). Any suggestions?

    Thanks again for doing what you’re doing. It’s a huge inspiration for aspiring developers, like myself.

    • markw1970  On June 7, 2009 at 5:48 pm

      I’ve never even considered the joystick / joypad thing to be honest. I just use the keyboard.
      I guess I’ve never been happy with game controllers since the days of the Atari joystick and single fire button. Controlling an arcade game with your thumb is just awful !
      Let me know how you get on. I’d be interested to see how easy they are to implement. If it’s just a case of mapping to a key press then great !

      • Echolocating  On June 8, 2009 at 1:04 am

        Every game pad has software to map the buttons to keyboard strokes so using a game pad for a JavaScript game (or any other game) requires no extra code.

        The reason I brought it up is that I can’t seem to get into using the arrow keys for arcade games on the PC. It’s a struggle for me and I thought that you might be using a controller. My first gaming machine was a VIC-20 and I had this awesome joystick that was arcade quality (steel stem and such) and it had it’s fire button on the top of the knob and on the base in the upper corner. It was a dream, I tell you. ;-)

        I’ll hunt around for something. Right now, you can buy an XBox 360 controller for the PC so if the d-pad is good on those things, I might pick that up. I will say this though, the d-pad is critical for game pads. I’ve never seen a PC game pad with an accurate d-pad.

        Something to keep in the back of your mind… all game pads have analog joysticks on them now (yes, they’re thumb driven), but there’s software that can take analog stick movements and restrict the cursor. The cursor even snaps back to the center on the screen as the stick is released so that the cursor position can be used to interpret the analog information. Pretty cool stuff.

        Anyway, I’m still working on my own JavaScript game so I’ll definitely share when that’s at a presentable stage.

      • markw1970  On June 8, 2009 at 8:39 am

        Well, on the strength of your reply I’ve just bought a Kempston Competition Pro :) Looking forward to some serious nostalgia here !
        I can’t abide thumb pad controls (I’m getting old and grumpy, I used to enjoy the SNES) so it had to be a good old fashioned metal stick with ball on top and click-thunk buttons :)

  • Echolocating  On June 8, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Awesome. I heard that thing was the cat’s ass back in the day. That means good, in case there’s a localization problem with that expression. ;-)

    I’m not sure what software comes with the joystick, but this one is great for all purposes…

    Have fun, man.

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