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Glitch AI

A single player narrative game with MOBA-like combat being made for a University group module (Completion deadline 21/05/2021)
Roles: Lead designer, lead programmer, minor environmental/level design

The pitch:

A single player narrative combat game: Explore a relatively linear world in order to uncover hints about your origin as an AI and the secrets behind your creators' motives all the while completing their combat tests.
Game Summary: Glitch AI's playable character is an AI that has achieved a degree of emotional sentience. The AI is constantly tested for combat performance by its creators but the simulation begins to falter. As the player progresses, glitches begin to appear and the player is able to find consoles with development logs and secrets from the creators. Ultimately, the player can fight to escape the system or destroy is accoding their interpretation of these clues. During the game, the character develops a deeper personality depending on player choices both in and out of combat. This is managed by combat states - the player fights in a neutral, anger, logic, hope or panic state at any moment but is constantly forced to switch based on different stimuli resulting in a dynamic combat system rewarding mechanical skill and experience.


Documentation and inital development

In depth system design forms a strong basis for development: The first few weeks of development were spent designing the general combat system and deciding how the combat should feel. This was done using developer experiences with MOBA titles such as League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm as well as single player combat games such as Transistor. By defining this initial combat overview we were able to scope the narrative and artstyle accordingly leading to rapid progress following this initial designing phase.

We opted for an isometric view during combat to facilitate: increased player vision, improved depth perception for projectiles and ease of aiming for skillshots and abilities. A key element that contributed to fast-paced action in the researched games was the prevelance of dashes and blinks so we included such movement abilities in all of our ability sets.

Combat state skillsets and themes: Dynamic combat is a core component of our game so we knew we had to get it right. The character intially began with just 2 combat states but this grew to 5 as the system complexity deepened following playtesting. Each combat state has a unique skillset of 4 abilities centered around a theme. These themes are anger, logic, hope, panic and neutral. These are all dinstinct ideas and a series of thematic words were generated to guide development and keep skills feeling relevant to their combat state. Additionally, all skillsets feature an ultimate, a dash, a basic ability and a special ability all mapped to the same keys so that transitioning between states is more inutitive. The design documentation involved initial number balancing, ability ideation and even a pseudocode element to help guide dicussion on implementation and alleviate any issues/bugs before they were created in-engine.

Key focuses during character combat development were the rules governing combat state switching, the ability sets unique to each state and the baseline variables for each ability. We kept a constant eye on making sure anything implemented appropriately fit the theme of its combat state.

Playtesting and further developement

Enemies and traps were responses to character design: MOBAs feature PvP action as the main focus of combat. This means characters created via similar design processes are the main enemy, thus maintaining a base element of balance. In order to provide this within a single player context, we finished the playable player prototype before beginning enemy and trap design - we could see how players approached their skills and how they moved around a combat arena.

Consequently, traps that deal small chip damage were preffered, enemies lack cc and enemies are split into two main types that have clear attack cycles. This enables the player to maintain freedom of movement and rewards reactive gameplay which complements the dynamic combat state switch style of play.

HUD: Although development is still very much in progress, playtesting revealed the need to an intuitive HUD and tutorial as picking up 16 abilities, 4 skillsets and understanding how they trigger is a difficult task for a new player. We created a list of core elements that needed to be most effectively communicated before prototyping HUDs and tutorials that ticked all components of the list:

- Instant recognition of vitals - health and shield values as a % of their max
- Instant recognition of combat state switching - A preemptive indication before switch, indication on switch and a tracker for all time frames
- Instant recognition of ability states - Rapid identification of ability availability (cooldown or not) and also a smaller indiaction of timeframe
- An on-demand reminder of all ability states - The ability to pause and read up on all ability states in a more detailed manner

This led to multiple HUD iterations as we mixed standard MOBA HUDs with those of Hero Shooters such as Overwatch. The current design has immediately intuitive bars for health and shields which are large enough to be understood with a glance. Ability avilability is also obvious with the greying out of icons wheras the timers are small and don't waste space whilst still being visible with a longer look. This provides a nice mix of instant readability and depth of infomation. Addittional icons fill up with combat trait generation to indicate general timings of state switching but on switch the screen shakes with a large icon element filling it for a moment. This rapidly communicated the new game state to the player. We are currently working on a soundtrack with multiple layers, one for each combat state that can all be overlayed with relative volume corresponding to state charge. This will hopefully offer a visually unintruisive way of reading game state whilst also providing interesting, dynamic music.

State switching balance: During playtesting we realised that gameplay could also help indicate a state switch whilst alleviating some balancing issues. For example, switching from ranged Logic to melee Anger was fine but swapping from melee to ranged often left players in a dangerous proximity to enemies without warning. In response, state switch mechanics were added:

- Switch to Logic = knockback all nearby enemies to facillitate the transition to ranged (Logic excells at crowd control and damage from a distance)
- Switch to Anger = Damage all nearby enemies to facillitate rapid melee attacks to finish nearby weak enemies (Anger was most enjoyable for players as a rapid, all in finisher state)
- Switch to Hope = Stun all nearby enemies to facillitate a quick escape (Hope only occurs at 30% HP)
-Switch to Panic = Instantly activate the ultimate with higher damage values (Finish off nearby enemies and facillitate safety for the stress state)

Tutorialisation: A big goal for this game is to avoid the player ever switching to a state that they do not understand or know the abilities of. This included players who havn't played in a while so may have forgotten things but also will not be restarting from the first tutorial. Consequently, a prototype of an in game combat summary was implemented which provides a text-summary of all abilities by state. Each state also has a tips and tricks section for new players and will eventually have a video and the relevant icon displayed. This should provide an easily accessible reminder of the combat abilities as well as tutorialise some aspects for new players.

Current development-state

Current objectives and focuses: Systems design-wise the game is in a good state with intial playtesting indicating combat to be fun, reactive and dynamc as intended. Playtesting will continue to facillitate combat state balancing as well as the instigation of a difficulty curve. Additionally, a new enemy unit, the Commander, will be added for narrative purposes and this unit will react to the player's progress. More of the game needs to be mapped out narratively and the first level dressed, but this adaptation will likely occur in the form of shields, CC and range switching depending on the combat state the player prefers the most.

Combat states currently feed into underlying states following their use in combat meaning the player character gains a personality makeup based on their combat tendencies. Again, the narrative is still being developed but this will likely manifest in the gameplay as affecting how out-of-combat encounters go, which encounters occur and how the commanders relate to the narrative.

An initial tutorial is also in the works and has been prototyped, but constant adjustments are being made as the current version is too lengthy and repetative. A balance must be struck between teaching all 16 abilities and not boring the player.

The biggest effort right now is going into set dressing, narrative design and character models/animation.

The video below shows the current state of the game in a hypothetical level with placeholder artwork, sound, VFX and debugging tools.

Full design document here

Narrative design overview, detailed combat design, inital pitch, design pillars and user stories as of 04/04/2021