The Detours of Prototyping

You know, it’s really time for an update on Soulcaster. The longer it gets in between these things, the more I feel like I have to write a long treatise on everything that’s been going on since the last update. And yes–lots of stuff has been happening! But I can’t get to it all in one post. For now, I’ll just try to shed some light on where the project is, and what it’s gone through in the past few months.

My concept for Prototype #2 was to focus on the micro game of combat, and leave the exploration, upgrades, and other metagame stuff for later. So I set out to make a single-screen “waves of enemies” scenario, which gradually added more monsters to the scene after each level. I got it functional enough to show a few people, and quite honestly, nobody found it that interesting.

The reason is that I am missing a key component of what made the first Soulcasters fun and different: combining summon-based combat with exploration and dungeon crawling. The exploration element–moving from room to room, dealing with traps and ambushes as they come up–is just way more engaging than sitting in the same room, waiting for enemies to emerge from predictable places, over and over. It devolved into kind of a lame quasi-tower-defense experience.

It was also a bit too… institutionalized. Soulcaster should be about quick decision making amidst chaos–not, “Okay, are you ready for the next wave?? HEEERE they come!” which is what my prototype became.

Side note: Secret of Mana is one of my all time favorite games. I remember back in the day when I could finally play the only-available-in-Japan sequel, which had been fan translated for the emulator (shhh, don’t tell Square). Now, there’s no question that the graphics in Seiken Densetsu 3 obliterate those of its predecessor. But the gameplay just felt sterile. Each battle had a start and end, kind of like a turn-based RPG, and it defeated the purpose of action-adventure. I missed being given the option to run past enemies.

Without realizing it, I had kinda done the same thing to my game.

But that’s what prototyping is for: to try new things, see what works, and keep the good stuff.  Even though the experimental new scenario didn’t work, there’s actually a lot of good stuff to keep:

  • A “windwalk” (phase boots?) ability for the summoner to escape when he gets pinned down. It lets you walk through enemies and become invisible to them. It’s also useful to slip into a new part of the room to begin setting up a “fallback” position
  • A mana meter that charges up as you slay enemies. I’m going for a Devil Trigger/Rage of the Gods type of mechanic with this one. There are a lot of potential uses, like powering up an existing summon, doing some sort of ultimate summon form
  • Procedural generation of monster populations. I can have the room use a “budget” for monsters and pick a theme for them, and it divides them into waves and places them appropriately
  • When you destroy a monster spawner, it tosses shards of debris into the air, which spin and bounce when they hits the ground (this is important)
  • Housekeeping code revolving around keeping an inventory between rooms, starting a new game, gaining new powerups, etc. It’s not exciting to read about, and even worse to code, but it’s just one of those things that makes it feel like “a game”

So for Prototype #3, I really am aiming for a sparse, functional version of how I envision the full game: interconnected rooms, wandering monsters, traps and ambushes, obtaining items, deciding when to retreat or avoid an encounter. There are lots of unanswered questions about item and character progression, and I think it’s best to address those once the nuts and bolts are all there. Start at the ground level and work our way up.


11 thoughts on “The Detours of Prototyping”

  1. Oh wow, I don’t know if you remember me (I wrote that planetxbox360 article forever ago) but I came to see what you were up to and to my surprise it’s a new soulcaster. You have no idea how thrilled I am about that haha. Sorry if that causes any pressure.

    I agree with you on SD3 though. I remember following neill corlett and the lot forever waiting for that translation release and then forcing myself to like the game even though it was no where near the caliber of SoM. I actually had a pretty fun idea for a game in it’s style awhile back…

  2. No pressure here 🙂 Always great to hear from fans of the original. And yes, I remember you–you were even immortalized in the item list of SC2.

    I’m drafting up a kind of “aspiration document” to go into a bit more detail on my goals for the game, and ideas on how to get there. We’re taking some new directions with this, but hope to retain the same feel of the original games.

  3. If you decide to make this the last or second to last installment in the franchise, could you please include an updated version of the first game’s main theme? Also, will Soulcaster be getting the some graphical enhancement from your new artist partner, or will the pixels continue to reign? On other notes, is a story fill in planned to show how the guardians earned their positions, fought, and lost? (I have a hunch that the Soulcaster is a part of Shadowcaster that turned against him. Why else would an old weaponless fella with only some magic affinity be wandering through Avericia?

  4. You can count on revisitations to a lot of the music from the first two games (plus the trailer for Soulcaster 1, which has one of the strongest themes). Graphics? They will be taken to a new level. I’m really excited to reveal the stuff we’ve got so far, but… that has to wait just a bit more. As for the story, it may or may not answer your questions–but be assured, we are taking lore and narrative to a new height as well.

    Thanks for your interest–keep watching and keep in touch!

  5. Been a while since I’ve visited this blog. Looks like you are doing well 🙂

    I feel like giving the player more reactive options like the windwalk/phasing would be a great addition to Soulcaster. In the first two games you were always signficiantly restricted on how to place your summons, so you basically had to plan out everything in advance or at least think 10 seconds ahead about future placements.

    I’m always the type of person, who isn’t too much into exploring and is looking more for a great combat experience with quick decisionmaking where clever thinking is rewarded. So usually I prefer handcrafted combat scenarios over procedurally generated ones. So I’m really interested in what the options for combat has in store ^^

    On Secret of Mana – I absolutely agree, that the combat was lackluster in SD3. Having separate “in-combat” and and “out of combat” states always felt very awkward. You were basically locked into fighting enemies you’ve defeated about 200 times already while exploring the area, which quickly got boring, since the combat itself wasn’t exactly exciting. Decisionmaking was nonexistant outside of bossfights. Trying to avoid the enemies usually resulted in slowly, slowly crawling past them.
    Overall I still recommend SD3 over Secret of Mana for casual play, since everything else is just absolutely amazing. But for speedruns, Secret of Mana is clearly superior, since the mechanics and combat allow for much more exciting play ^^

    Deciding to fight or not fight certain enemies might be a very interesting addition to a procedurally generated dungeon. Maybe some monster is just too strong for you currently, so you can decide to fight it anyways, or decide to run away and come back later, or decide to take a bit of a risk and sneak past it.

    Good luck 🙂

  6. Don Yagamoth! Thank you for chiming in.

    You aren’t the first to mention the drawbacks of procedural levels versus handcrafted ones. This is a big challenge, and the solution lies in a system that has the right balance of chaos and premade elements. For example, I could have the game build itself from a pool of intact, prefab rooms that procedurally generate the right type and number of monsters for their placement in the game. Or, it could be much more involved than that… I foresee many different approaches to level building, and perhaps each zone could have its own signature algorithm to keep things interesting.

    The opt-in combat aspect of the game is, I believe, where the real fun and complexity lies. Having the option to paint yourself into a corner, or get in way over your head, leads to some really interesting risk management. It’s also a way for top level players to push the game by jumping into fights a mere mortal shouldn’t be able to win. Your chances of survival are a product of both your skill and your item progression.

  7. As promised, I just purchased your most recent album! By the way, where should I look to find your other work (even if it is someone else’s “property” right now)? I have been humming your tunes more recently lately!

    Also, I do not know how, but I sense an incoming update- did something happen? I hope that the detour isn’t too painful!

  8. Thanks for the purchase! I actually just uploaded another OST to my personal YouTube account… most of the others are already on YouTube if you search for the GBA/DS soundtracks to The Urbz, Sims 2, Bustin Out, etc.

    Detours in prototyping continue–and no proper prototype arrives without its share of pain 🙂 but things are continuing to move forward. I haven’t posted any updates because it’s gotten to the point where it makes more sense to do a more substantial reveal than to trickle out progress updates. When that will happen, I do not know… but I miss doing updates, so hoping for something soon.

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