Good morning seafarers!
Game development and design, especially when done solo or by a small team, is a very organic process. As much of it happens away from your computer as in front of it. As I’ve written about in the past, inspiration often comes to you walking through the woods, in the shower or even just staring off into space on the bus. In the case of Ships and Scurvy, the idea has been brewing in my head for a long while.
My good friend, game designer John Stejskal and I often do a lot of brainstorming over beers at the local tavern. A few beers can really unlock the creativity – a few more and all of a sudden you’re single handedly planning to write ‘The next World of Warcraft, except it’s a platformer like Super Mario’ – so, of course, there’s a fine moment where your drunken ideas are both worthwhile and viable. John and I come up with 3 or 4 ideas each session, and inevitably one or two plant a seed. In this case, talk of an ocean-based RPG got me thinking about the possibilities.
I’ve long been fascinated by what’s commonly known as the Age of Discovery, that amazing time in history when explorers bravely (and somewhat foolishly) set sail for lands unknown across trackless oceans. A time of strange frontiers, new lands and dangerous encounters with peoples unknown. Marco Polo meeting Kublai Khan. Magellan circumnavigating the globe. The evil Hernan Cortez and his treacherous defeat of Montezuma, the fall of the Aztec Empire. What amazing stories they are – and the perfect backdrop to a game.
The first Swords and Sandals, in fact, way back in 2005, started from an animation I’d made I’d a few years prior, featuring pirates on a doomed sea adventure. In the end the pirates themselves had nothing to do with the rest of the game, serving only as a device to get the main character to an ‘arena island’ , but I’ve always wanted to do something more substantial with the idea of ships and the adventures that come from sailing. Here’s a screenshot from the original animation – my art style hasn’t really changed that much over the years!
The beauty of making a game on the ocean is you can essentially make it as large as you like, just by spacing out the islands. The ocean is, after all, one huge blue plane for your character to travel across. If you were really cruel, you could space each island out far enough that adventures happen in real time. This would however test the players patience. Penn and Teller tried such a move in their (amazingly) awful game Smoke and Mirrors, in which the player controlled a bus driving in real time across the Nevada Desert – the game went for 8 hours or so, and all the while the bus would veer to the right; the player could not leave to make a cup of tea or the bus would crash. Hilarious, but of course, a terrible experience for the player.
Anyway, the idea of creating a massive ocean and populating with many islands, ships and sea monsters, and then allowing the player create a captain and a crew, really seemed like fun. There’s plenty of emergent gameplay that can occur each playthrough. One time, you might lose your crew to mutiny, another they might reach a city of gold only to be overwhelmed by angry (and technologically superior ) natives. Mixing randomly generated scenarios with designed rules and game systems can make for a really fun game. Just see Faster then Light or the Oregon Trail, for example.
As the magnificent Chris Crawford ( an eccentric, somewhat curmudgeonly genius from the ancient days of game design ) once said, “A good game designer should learn about many different systems to provide source material for designs.” He then went on to list a bunch of books about everything from physics to the study of Indo-European languages. As I said, eccentric. You don’t have to go to such extremes, but there’s some gems of wisdom to be had there. If you want to make a game about ships, learn about sailing. Learn about the tradewinds, the explorers. Learn what the sailors ate, the dangers they faced at sea. The more you know about your subject matter, the more authentic your game experience will be, and the more immersed your players will be.
Knowing this, I’ve spent the last 3 months researching things from the golden age of exploration. Here’s just a few snippets I found and how I plan to add them into my game:
- From Bill Bryson’s book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, I learnt about the incredible value the renaissance era placed on humble and the extraordinary lengths explorers would go to find them. In the game, players will be able to search for, transport and trade valuable spices with merchants on various islands.
- From Simon Winchester’s fascinating history of the Atlantic, I learnt of the great naval battles waged across the length and breadth of the ocean, of the scourge of piracy and the horrible slave trade that dominated the era. In the game, players must make the choice to behave as honest seafaring merchants, or to take the dark road of piracy and slavery.
- From Dan Carlin’s wonderful podcast Hardcore History, and in particular the episode Globalization Unto Death, I learnt of Magellan’s fateful voyage across the globe and of the brutality of the sea and of sailors. In the game, the player must constantly battle with mutinous crews, the constant threat of scurvy and dysentery and the threat of cannibalism.
- From a visit to the lovely Australian Maritime Museum, I learnt firsthand what it felt like to stand aboard a tall ship such as Captain Cook’s Endeavour, of the difference between a mizzen and a fore-mast, and of the many eccentric naval traditions. In the game, enemy ships can be stranded in battle by taking out the sails and mast. Faster ships will outrun more heavy loaden galleons, and the tradewinds can make the difference between fresh and spoilt cargo.
So as you can see, you can do a great amount of game design away from your computer. The more you know about your subject, the more it will shine through in your game!
A quick technical update for Ships and Scurvy: I’ve been hard at work on the sea battle system over the last week. Ships can fire cannon blasts at each other. It’s very basic at the moment but another few more days and that part of the game will be sorted. I’ll be sure to post a video of this in the next blog post.
Cheers, and as always happy journeys!