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User Interface Evolution

It might not look like it from our Web site, but we have been busy this past month. Busy, busy, busy indeed. For much of that time I was out in California working on a related project with our benefactors at the Open Game Labs, an organization about which very little has been made public, if only because there hasn't been a lot of info to share. There still isn't as it turns out, but after this last month we at least have a plan and a schedule and some idea what we're going to announce when.

But work on Haunts has proceeded apace, with Jonathan and Austing slaving away at the code and art mines respectively. Much of the recent work was about the User Interface, which is always a tricky thing to get right. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel here, and there are some good and bad examples of turn-based UI that we've looked at for inspiration. Our general guiding goal is to keep it as simple and useful as possible. None of us like UI elements that overlay the gameplay space, so we've framed out our controls and displays at the bottom of the screen (for the most part). Here's the evolution so far:

We started with a pretty big box, which had a space for information about whatever unit you might be targettng. The words like "Blinded!" refer to conditions (buffs and de-buffs) that the unit is suffering from. The names are mostly fun place-holders that Austin through in, although I really like Vexed!


We quickly decided that we didn't need to use all that screen real estate for info on the target - that we'll handle with a mouse-over pop-up on the screen. So, then we did this:


But that didn't actually make use of all the space along the bottom of the screen and felt cramped, so then we did this:



The pop-up infor panel for the Master of the Manse is too big there, but you get the idea. We were honing in on what we wanted for the bottom bar though. Next came:

Which brought us to this:


Which is pretty close to where we're ging to end up. We decided that some contextual info, like that stats for individual attacks will slide up from this box when you mouse over specific actions and condition, but that once you've played the game a few times you'll know what those powers do and thus won't need that info all the time. Maybe. We think.

User Interface is always a struggle to get right, but right now we're happy with what we've got going on, and it plays well. Oh, did I mention? It's totally a game you can actually play now, albeit a buggy one which crashes sometimes. But still, a game!

Much, much more soon.



Milestone Complete! Game Playable! Horror Continues!

Callooh! Callay! Mob Rules Games has met our first milestone, freeing up another $20,000 from Lewis Charitable Foundation for our development, which is great, since we were down to about $1200 in the bank!

The title of this milestone was “First Playable,” and that is exactly what we’ve got: a game that is playable, if simple and in need of a great deal more content. But it is playable, and we hit our deadline without sipping even an hour. Many congrats and thanks to Austin and Jonathan for their very hard work.

Here then were the items on our checklist for Milestone 1, all of which have been duly checked off:

Developer Tools
  • Room Editor
    • Three room sizes - Complete. Swappable floors.
    • Swappable wall features - Complete: 2 picture frames.
  • Map Editor
    • Two Floorplans - Complete. Can save any number of floor plans.
  • Animation Editor - Complete. Using Ygraph w/ a modfied version of the game for just playing animations.
Playable Game Units
  • Three Explorers - Complete. Hunter, Occultist, Teen.
  • One Haunt Faction with representatives of each type. Complete- Ghosts.
    • Leader - Complete: Master of the Manse.
    • Servitors - Complete: Revenant Corpse, Vengeful Wraith.
    • Minions (AI controlled) -Complete: Angry Shade, Lost Soul Orb. Will attack anything in their LoS.
  • Unique stats, art, animations, and powers for each playable unit. - Complete.
Game Mechanics
  • Action Point based, turn system - Complete.
  • Movement
    • Fog of War/Line of Sight - Complete.
  • Combat
    • Select different attacks and powers - Complete.
    • Simple AI - Complete. Designated Haunt units are under CPU control and will move and attack automatically on the Haunt turn.
Multiplayer Modes
  • Multiplayer: Pass and Play/Hot Seat turns - Complete.

It feels great to be where we are, and of course it’s now a little daunting to look at that long list of unfinished items for the next two months, but I couldn’t have asked for a better start.

Inspiring Haunts: The Woman in Black

As is my custom, Saturday I went by myself to see a movie at 10:00 in the morning. I do this not because I’m a sad and lonely old man - really! - but because it’s only $5 and the theater is less likely to be filled with talking/texting/tittering teens. OK, those reasons make me sound like a grumpy old man. Fine, I’ll own it. But this is what I do, and most weekends it works out well for me. Occasionally though, it has some unexpected side-effects.

This Saturday I jumped at the chance to go see The Woman in Black. I probably would’ve been interested in the flick no matter what, but since we’re deep in work on Haunts, there was no way I was going to miss a Hammer Films-style, classic haunted house story. So I didn’t give it a second thought, forgetting about the two or three times I’ve seen horror movies first thing in the morning and had the experience set me on edge the rest of the day - The Crazies and I Saw the Devil both come to mind. Sometimes when you’re still riding that breakfast-coffee buzz and yet aren’t quite fully alert, 94 minutes of pure tension aren’t what the doctor ordered.

Let me be clear: I really liked The Woman in Black quite a bit. It’s gotten OK reviews (62% on Rotten Tomatoes), and I can see how it might not work for everyone. But I bought into the mood and the visual style and Daniel Radcliffe’s mournful protagonist. It looks great and yet also sort of saturated like those Hammer Studio films of yore. There are some lame jump scares, but plenty of legitimate ones too. Most importantly of all, I was genuinely on edge and tense for a vast swath of the movie, with occasional quieter moments that were instead eerie or disturbing. The story wraps up in one of the three ways you’d expect and isn’t super-strong, but the haunted-house ride that gets us there was really a lot of fun. It also left me kind of jacked-up and edgy for the rest of the day, glad it was bright and warm outside.

But even more also, it got me thinking about hidden movement in Haunts. We have straight-forward hidden movement in the game right now. You can’t see an opponent’s units on the map unless one of your units has line of sight to them. Jonathan made a very cool shadowing effect that looks great and makes the black and white of Austin’s art look even moodier. But The Woman in Black makes me want to play with this movement more.

The main ghost in the film appears and disappears in various scenes, as movie-ghosts are liable to do. She can be here and then there, without any sign of moving between the two points. She seems especially quick when our hero is looking the other way. That strikes me as a very interesting mechanic - haunts that move much slower or maybe not even at all when an Explorer can see them, but can move very fast as long as they’re hidden from view.

Another idea is the ability to teleport from on space to another in your line of sight as long as both spaces are not within the line of sight of your enemy. So, if you’ve got a ghost hiding behind a suit of armor where the Explorers can’t see it, then it can shadow-jump over to a space behind the grandfather clock without being seen traveling the space between. Combined with special abilities to create pockets of darkness or limit the range of an Explorer’s sight, and I think there’s a lot of potential for scary strategy.

We could of course do you basic invisibility, and that certainly wouldn’t be out of theme with many, many ghost stories (including The Woman in Black). But Jonathan hates invisibility for reasons that have something to do with League of Legends, and I’d like to try and find more eerie and intriguing ways to get the same effect. It’s too early to say exactly how these new ideas I’ve had on hidden movement will make it into the game, but if and when they do, it will be because of a ghost story, watched on a sunny Saturday morning in Sarasota, Florida.



It's Alive! It's a tiny, little bit Alive!

Things are starting to look like a game. A little bit like a game.

We've got rooms that you can link together and the doors between them work. We've got four pieces of funriture (including a suit of armor of course) that you can place anywhere you want in those rooms. We've got a picture you can hang anywhere on any wall and even place them cock-eyed. This also works for blood splotches.

And now we can move our ghosts at will through those rooms. Click somewhere and the Angry Shade will make his wa there, even from the other side of the house. We've got a ghost hunter too, and a master of the house, and an angry orb. 


It's exciting! It might not look it, but it is. Jonathan had to do a lot of work to revamp the movement system from our previous demo. Austin has been cranking hard on the sprites - there's a lot of little work to be done to animate each one from each of 6 different angles. The house is pretty bare right now, but it is now recognizably a house and monsters and humans can run around in it.






Of Tutors and Storytellers

I wasn’t sure we were going to have a story for Haunts, not a real one anyway. I knew we’d have characters and setting and background and atmosphere, but I wasn’t sure how much narrative there would be. We’re working with limited resources on a tight schedule, and putting in the capability to tell story moments - dialog boxes, scripted events, etc. - seemed like it might be a luxury that would have to wait for a post-release update. This week I was working on the latest iteration of our Master Schedule and planning our year and I found myself assigning time and energy to an absolutely vital feature: the tutorial.

A game like Haunts has to have a tutorial, and it has to be fun and engaging. It’s not an incredibly dense and difficult game, but it’s not super-simple either. You have a lot of options. We need to be able to clearly explain those things, and that means an interactive tutorial, not just some static how-to-play screens. I wrote up what features we’d need for a good tutorial and, lo and behold, we had just about everything we need for a pretty straightforward storytelling system! I was excited.

But what kind of story to tell? The whole point of Haunts is that you can play it over and over and the house and the events that happen in it are different every time. We have specific Explorers and Haunts, but each game they have different goals. It’s not something that lends itself to a traditional video game campaign. Besides, we’re letting people rename their characters and personalize their haunt rosters, so that’s weird for storytelling too. Really, the sprites we’re making are more like actors in a series of horror movies, playing the same kinds of roles in lots of different stories.
That’s then one of my current tasks (in addition to play testing and learning Quickbooks) - forging the 13 links in my chain of terrible tales. I’ve already found places for Aleister Crowley an the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, so things are going well!


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