What I Learned from Shadow Quest and The Value of Decision-making

Oh boy where do I even start? Well, I learned what I’m capable of achieving. I can build a video game – one that isn’t completely terrible – by myself. Shadow Quest might not be about to set the world on fire, but it is a project I can show off and be proud to have accomplished. I learned I’m incapable of drawing just about anything. Ok seriously, I’m actually not that bad and, honestly, I’ve drawn a few things where I was pretty amazed it ended up looking like what I thought it should – that was neat. But I can definitely see the value and artistic talent some people have and really appreciate it. I learned how time consuming and how much work has to go into projects like this – the rose-colored glasses are off, so to speak. I talked a little about this in my article “Balancing is absurdly time consuming” where I pointed out that I was spending hours and hours trying to balance my game quickly, and that just wasn’t happening. I can only imagine what much more complex games go through lol. I learned so much about how I design, particularly about how I set up a lot of the game interface. I talked about this a little in one of my older articles, where I discussed how important it was to keep the interface simple. Nobody wants to use fifty different ways to achieve one thing. If they want to navigate the menu, there is no reason they should be using a different method than the methods they’ve been using this whole time. I learned about balancing and the variety of ways you can approach a problem. I talked about that in my balancing article (linked above), as well as my article “Mathematical Analysis.” From that I learned that there isn’t necessarily one correct approach to a problem. For instance, I could adjust the frequency of battles and view how that would alter the game on a very theoretical level, using graphs and charts and all that. On the other hand, I could play the game myself and understand it on an experimental level. Maybe I want to later adjust how a player can get through a fight – do I make the boss weaker, or the player stronger? If I do either, how do I do it? For the boss, I could adjust the damage output, but I could also adjust the health level. For the player, I might adjust a base stat, or turn to items. Maybe I make the talent points more efficient. Maybe I adjust how an ability functions. Basically, there is no “correct” way to solve a problem because the end goal is going to be completely change the approach you should take. I learned about writing a story, something I talked about in “Story Line Analysis.” I learned the importance of lining up the game play with the overarching goals; I stated my goals way, way back at the beginning of the project, where I essentially wanted the player to be making tactical decisions to work their way through difficult boss fights. As I progressed, I realized that I hadn’t really stuck to that goal, something I detailed in “Game Play Analysis.” And, before I go into the most important thing I think I learned, I also learned the importance of details. Even the smallest details have an enormous impact on a game, even if absolutely no one playing the game notices them. You could go play a game of Uncharted 2, where you’re running through the jungle in Borneo and you don’t really notice the details that make the game so great. There’s a frog on that log, or a bird over in that tree. You might go play a game of Pokemon: Emerald, with seamless transitions from exploring the map to battling someone in a fight. It’s all these little things that make such an enormous difference – and something, upon realization, I applied to my game. I adjusted transitions to make them smoother. I made it appear like the character was “walking” as they moved, instead of jumping from one spot to the next. I made navigation of the battles smooth, eliminating so much jumpiness and weird flashing. Attention to detail was so important. I discuss it a little more in my article “It’s all in the details.”

Even with learning all this, though, I think the most important thing I learned was that one of the most important parts of designing a game is to allow the player to BE the player. They should be the one making decisions; they should be the one impacting the game. The player should be challenged and asked to complete a difficult task, whether it’s solving a puzzle like Tetris, racing through a minefield in Minesweeper, or deciding who to focus in a game of League of Legends. In my game, it’s how you approach a boss fight, or choosing to buy an upgraded weapon for a large sum of money. It’s deciding whether to explore a ruin. It’s deciding to try to push forward with almost no health to grab that last treasure, before warping out. It’s deciding to level up first before getting your shit tossed by the Light General (read my story in the fifth paragraph). To get super philosophical for just a second, life is filled with variety; life is filled with decision making. Everyone has choices to make and it completely alters the path their life is on; video games should take that same concept and apply it. Game play is fun when the player gets to actively alter the outcome. Yes, they might follow a generalized story line (like my game, or a more professional game like The Last of Us), but the player is the one still going through the fights and finding a way to win: maybe a player in my game finds a way to direct the damage towards Toma and let Lela and Cez slash away, maybe a player in my game chooses to direct that damage towards Cez, as he uses Parry and Lela casts Mirror on him, allowing him to reflect back absurd amounts of damage. It’s no different than choosing how you approach a fight in The Last of Us, where you might sneak up behind someone for a stealth kill, then shoot another with a bow, then pop the last guy with a sniper rifle. Or, maybe, the player charges in guns blazing going full auto. It’s the choices and different ways you solve these scenarios that I think really adds to games.

None of this is to say I’m done learning, not even from Shadow Quest. Life is the gift that just keeps on giving, allowing you to learn forever. They say an old dog can’t learn new tricks, but I don’t think I agree. Everyone can learn, if they take the time to try, and push themselves to their limits. And, so, I guess that’s just one more thing I learned – that there is always more to learn.

Until next time!