Archives for posts with tag: game balance

Hi all,

It’s the second Saturday of the month which means its time for a now Kana Quest Devblog! Last time I said we were going to unpack several choice levels from the game, and what makes them good levels. And that’s exactly what we are gonna do. So

Now if you’re new here, Kana Quest is a cross between dominoes and a match-3 game that teaches you to read Japanese. You match sounds between letters, and when all letters are connected the level is complete.

GoodLevel1.png

This is the fourth level in Kana Quest and is the first level that consistently stumps players. Up to this point levels have been made to get the player used to moving Kana around, and understanding that stone Kana can’t move. This is the first level that actually tests the player’s understanding of how Kana match. So, how is this achieved? It is achieved by asking the player two simple questions; “In what order do the three movable letters need to be in so they all match?” and “Now that I have the order of the three movable Kana, how do I position them so that the one stone Kana also matches?”. These might seem like very simple questions, but there are a few factors that make them a lot harder than you might suspect. The first thing is that, this is the first time the player has had to order 3 Kana. Second is that all of the Kana have been deliberately placed so that the player has no matches, this means they are effectively starting from scratch. Thirdly the number of potential configurations is way higher than all levels up to this point. Finally, because the stone Kana is placed in the centre of the board, it means there are a total of 4 different correct solutions. But it doesn’t guide the player to any of those solutions in of its self. This forces the player to pay attention to the sounds of each Kana, and use that information to solve the level. Not use the shape of the level to tell them the solution. This is not to say that using the shape of the level to guide the player is a bad thing. It usually is a great thing to do, especially for more complex levels. But the purpose of this level is to test the player’s understanding of how Kana match.

 

GoodLevel2

The next level I want to look at is the final level of world 3. So where the previous level was testing the players understanding of how kana match, this level is testing the players understanding of one directional kana. One directional kana, are a lot of fun to play with because of how the restrict the number of potential arrangements of the kana. This is useful because it can be used to signal to the player the shape of the solution.

This level is set up so that there are only 5 possible positions for each row that could be the correct position. This helps the player start with a very strong sense of how to solve the level. But there are two curve balls in this level. The first is the one normal Kana (の) at the top of the level. Because this kana could potentially go anywhere in the level, the player has figure out how to best utilise it. The second is the one directional す on the right of the level. This says to the player that one of the three rows to the left of it need to be all the way over to the right, but you need to figure out which it is. When these two elements are mixed with each other they create an ideal puzzle. A puzzle where the player has a strong idea of their goal, but they still have to work for it. One last small detail from this level that I like is the blank one directional kana. These serve to prevent the player from trying red herring solutions. Red herring solutions are fine to have, but each red herring still needs to lead the player towards the solution. If a red herring just leads the player down the wrong path and leaves them at a dead end, you need to get rid of it, as it will only aggravate your player.

 

GoodLevel3.png

So for the last level that I want to talk about today is from the ninth world. If the first is an example of a good introductory level, and the second was a good intermediate level. This is a good hard level. So what makes this a good hard level? Well, honestly the same thing that’s made the previous two good; You know what your goal is, but you don’t know how to get there. This level achieves this with the り in the centre of the level. Because it is central, and it cannot move because it is a stone kana, the first thing the player will do is look for the other kana that match with it. In this level there is the transform kana (the rainbow coloured one), the ice ろ, and the paralysis ひ. The paralysis ひ has to end up to the right of the り because it can only be moved once before turning to stone. This leaves three spots left for the ice ろ. This puts the player on a strong starting direction for the level. But the thing that makes this level so challenging is that because of how ice, paralysis and one direction kana work, if the player makes moves carelessly they will trap themselves and be unable to complete the level. Once again, the needed end state is easy to determine, but how to get there is the challenge. The only real difference between these three levels is that they make the “how to get there” part more complicated.

Anyway, that’s the Devblog for this month. Hope you enjoyed. I’ll be back next month on the second Saturday of the month. I haven’t figured out what the topic is gonna be, but ill figure something out. Until then, take care!

Advertisements

Hi all, its another month and that means its time for another Kana Quest DevBlog!!

Like last month I have just been working on levels. But the big difference between this month and last month is that I am now SO CLOSE to finishing all the levels in the game! There are 13 worlds in a Kana Quest, I have finished making levels for 11/13, and the 12th world is more than two thirds complete. So we are in the home stretch here folks.

At this point I have had a chance to work with all the mechanics in the game and I thought it would be fun to talk about each in depth about the positive and negative elements of each.

mystery

And oh how the mighty have fallen. This is a Mystery Kana, and they were the first mechanic I made for Kana Quest, and I was so proud of it at the time. And I still think its a valuable thing to have in the game, but the more I used it the more utterly irritated I got when I play-tested any level with them in it. So why did I make them? Why are they important? And why are they so irritating? So I made Mystery Kana because I was having a very specific problem, players weren’t flipping over the Kana to learn the pronunciation to complete the levels in the first world. This is problematic because it would render the entire function of Kana Quest meaningless. So I needed a way to effectively force the player to look at them. Mystery Kana do that very well. They just also irritate the player at the same time. The way these things work is they cannot move, but can match. The player needs to keep track of what each Mystery Kana, does and does not match with. Then using that information, figuring out what the Kana’s true identity is. The biggest problem with Mystery Kana is they just simply break the flow of the game and force you make non optimal moves to figure them out, and then you can complete the level. The end result is they start to become a nuisance after a while, and its for this reason they get phased out after world 4.

OneD

The One Directional Kana have been a solid work horse throughout development. There are so many things about this mechanic that are excellent from a designer’s perspective. 1st is they are easy to understand from a player’s perspective. The arrow shows you what they do; they only move in one direction. 2nd is they have a huge amount of design space. Design Space is a design term for talking about how many different interesting configurations a mechanic can be used in. And these Kana allow for so many interesting levels to be made. I am still finding new and interesting ways to use these things even in the 12th world. They are also very flexible in how they can be used. If you want to build an entire level around them, you can and it will probably be a really fun level. But you can also just throw one of these into a level to help guide the player towards the solution. I suspect once I have finished making levels, and I’m in the polishing stage I will end up adding a lot of One Directional Kana for this exact reason. What’s more is they also have interesting interactions with basically every other mechanic. The only complaint I have against them is they can be very punishing of mistakes. The reason for this is if you move one spot too far and then make a bunch of other moves, you end up spamming the undo button more than is ideal.

IceDemo

The fourth world’s mechanic is the Ice Kana. These Kana will keep sliding in the direction you move them until they make an invalid move. These Kana are a good mechanic, but no where near as easy to work with as the One Directional Kana. They have a large amount of design space, they have interesting interactions with most other mechanics, and they can make some very fun levels. But the problem is that you can’t just through one of these into a level. Even if the Ice Kana is supposed to be a minor element to a level, you have to build the entire level around the Ice Kana to accommodate it.  This is not a bad thing as it allows you to create a nice change of pace for the player at points, its just something that needs to be treated with care. Another small problem is they tend to demand levels be a fair bit larger than a similar level without them would be. Other than that, I think Ice Kana are great.

SlimeKana

The Slime Kana are another mechanic in a similar vein of the Mystery Kana as they both play around the sound matching aspect of the game. And so what they do is they will change the vowel sound of any kana you use them with. However unlike the Mystery Kana, these do not get highly irritating after a while. The main reason for this is that they often feel like they are helping you, rather than getting in your way. And because of this is they can just be plugged into a bunch of levels to add a little bit extra. But the biggest weakness of them is that they struggle being the core element of a level. Where the Ice Kana can’t help but be a diva, the Slime Kana struggle with it. Another problem with the Slime Kana is that because the Kana that appear on them can only be Slime Kana it does mean that the Kana on them just get seen less than every other Kana. But the gameplay of them is still solid enough that I made two variants of them.

 

GhostKana

This is a Ghost Kana. Ghost Kana, cannot move and cannot match. But they will come back from the dead once the player has made a group of Kana equal or greater than the number on their head. This is a tricky mechanic. And honestly they represent the biggest disparity between what its like to work with them, compared to what its like to play with them. Because playing with them is honestly pretty good. They make interesting scenarios, and force you to think about the level in a different way. But from a designer’s perspective these things are so hard to work with. You have to engineer levels so carefully around these to make them fun for the player. They have very limited amounts of design space too, so I honestly struggled to finish the world where these were introduced. And what’s worse there are some mechanics that this straight up does not work with.

YaSlimeKana

So this is the first of two Slime Kana variants. This is a Blue Slime Kana. Blue Slime Kana are different because they only ever attach to Kana that end with an “i” sound… and they add an additional vowel to match with rather than completely changing the vowel. This is because of an actual function in Japanese. See Blue Slimes can only have the following letters や/ゆ/よ. And these letters can attach to other letters to make slurred sounds. For example き(ki)+や(ya) = きゃ(kya). So きゃ will match with “i” ending kana, “a” ending kana and “k” starting kana. This makes the mechanic quite satisfying for the player to use because it opens more doors for them than regular Slime Kana do. And its for this reason that they can be a bit frustrating to design around as a game designer. Another problem with them is they have to attach to a kana that ends with an “i”. This over the course of the game makes “i” ending kana being over represented in comparison to other kana. Whats more is that often you have to design levels in which fully utilise the multiple vowel sounds. But this often leads to further exacerbating the over represented “i” problem. But other than these issues, these kana have all the strengths of regular slime kana. And they allow me to illustrate an important part of reading Japanese.

Paralysis These are the Paralysis Kana. They can be moved once… but after that they turn to stone and cannot be moved. These are probably my second most useful mechanic, just after One Directional Kana. They allow for interesting level design, and they have a good amount of design space to them. Not quite as much as One Directional Kana, but still a large amount. They are also very easy to understand what they do. And they can be the focus of a level, or be used as a back up element. The biggest problem that they have though is they have a hard cap on how difficult they can make a level. This isn’t a bad thing as it does mean it’s basically impossible to make a level that is too difficult with these but it does make them a bit more restrictive as one might like in later levels.

Transform

Transform Kana are pretty straight forward. Then can become any Kana, but they can only be one Kana at a time. This mechanic probably has the least frills of any of my mechanics, and you what that’s ok. It works just fine. They ask a simple question of the player, and that question is “where am I needed, and what do I need to be?”. So the trick to designing around these Kana is making sure there is a spot that can only be connected with a Transform Kana. Which is fine as long as one is careful with the other Kana that are used within the level. If you aren’t careful the player will just plop the transform kana anywhere and not have to think at all. They also suffer the same problem that Slime Kana face in that they struggle to be the focus of a level, but they do slot into lots of levels pretty easily.

MaruKana

Here is the final Slime Kana variant. And this is yet another instance of me basing a mechanic off an actual function in Japanese. There are small added strokes called “tenten” and “maru” for Hirgana and Katakana. These will change the consonant of the letter they are attached to. In the game this often is something that is a disadvantage, not an advantage like the other two Slime Kana. Because of this you cannot finish a level if there are any Purple Slime Kana left in play. This forces the player to find the part of the level that can accommodate losing its consonant sound. Basically everything that applies to the first two applies to this one.

  DickheadKana

This is an “n”. Because they don’t share a consonant or a vowel with any other Kana they cannot match like a normal Kana. So I decided to make them the Unfriendly Kana that all other Kana hate. So for as long as an “n” is in the level, you cannot complete it. So how do you get rid of an “n”? You dump them into a rubbish bin. Which looks like this.

Bin

Once an “n” is moved into a rubbish bin both are removed from play, and the spots they occupied become empty spaces on the board. This mechanic requires a fair bit of set up to get working, but once you set up a level to accommodate them its a solid mechanic that has a solid amount of design space. One unique problem with this mechanic is using effectively uses up twice the amount of space that a regular Kana would. Because of this levels with this mechanic tend to look very cluttered and can be a bit difficult to process. Outside these problems they are a solid mechanic that just needs a bit of preparation to make work.

 

Finally we have Kana Sliders. The art for these is still under way, but what these do is they move every Kana in a row or column down one spot as long as there is an empty spot on the board in that direction. This is a very easy mechanic to design around and offers a lot of design space that had not been available for me for most of the game. Because Kana Sliders care about empty space, it allows them to interact with Slime Kana and Unfriendly Kana that no other mechanic has been able to do so far. The biggest problem with them however is they tend to make levels with ridiculous amount of moves required to complete them. There are levels that require more than 70 moves to complete with this mechanic. This can be problematic especially if the player makes a mistake early on as they will be punished especially hard for that error. Other than that issue, I love working with Kana Sliders.

And with that this weeks Kana Quest Devblog comes to a close. Next time I think I’ll pick out a handful of choice levels, analyse them, talk about how I made them, and talk about why I think they are special.

First thing’s first, I know I missed the January devblog. I’m sorry it wont happen again. But… it’s here now, and it’s a new year, which means this is the first devblog for 2019! This is going to be a big year for Kana Quest as this is the year we are going to release! Knowing the end is in sight is a strange feeling as I’ve been working on Kana Quest for the last two years of my life. But I hope you all will be there with me as we run headlong down this final stretch!

So what does this “final stretch” look like in terms of development? Well for me personally that means making all the levels. I had spent most of 2018 finishing the art and making all the visual assets, but in terms of gameplay, very little was being made. But now that I’ve finished all the visual assets and Reuben my programmer has finished programming in each mechanic, I am able to churn out levels very quickly. How quickly is that? Well since last month’s devblog, world 5, 6, and 7 now have all their levels made. Of course these levels still need play testing before they are 100% good to go, but they are playable, and reasonably balanced.

So, seeing as levels are all I have been doing this past month, I’m gonna tell you how I have been making them. And some of the weird things I have to pay attention to when I’m making levels.

The first thing I do when I start making a level is I figure out, how hard I want this level to be, and what kana I want the player to see.

flowchannel

Sorry if this is a bit too game design 101 here buuut… This is the flow channel. Flow is that feeling where you are in the zone. But getting the player into the zone requires very careful balance from the game designer. So something I’m sure you will notice when you play Kana Quest is that every three to five levels will build in difficulty, only to drop back a bit and then continue ramping up in difficulty.  The reason you do this, is that it’s just more fun for the player.

In Kana Quest there are a few different ways you can control the difficulty of any given level. They are:

  • The amount of Kana in a level
  • Size of the level.
  • Potential board state permutations
  • Number of potential solutions
  • Complexity of solution.

So lets go through each of them. And first up is the amount of Kana. So in my experience, you have a hard cap of about 14 -16 different Kana in a level. Why is this? This is because past this number, there is too much information for the player to comprehend. And personally, even I can’t process levels with this many Kana. It’s also a difficulty that isn’t a lot of fun for the player. Solving the puzzles is fun, recognising kana… not so much.

The size of the level like the amount of kana, also has a hard cap. This time its not so much about overwhelming the player though. The largest you can make a level in Kana Quest is 7×4. This is simply because if you make the level any bigger, it will not fit on the screen. I know that sounds silly, but due to the way pixel art works, there is no easy way to just “zoom out” without also causing a lot of pixels to bunch and stretch. But honestly, most of the time this is plenty to work with. If you are smart about how you construct things this is not actually as bigger constraint as one might think it is.

What I mean by “potential board state permutations” is how many possible unique configurations can be made in any given level. So for example.

These two levels have the same kana, and the same starting positions but the first level is significantly easier than the second because the number of possible configurations of kana has been significantly reduced. Forgive me if my maths is wrong but the level on the left has only 120 unique board positions, whereas the level on the right has 362880 unique board positions. And while an advanced player can see through all the unnecessary information in the second level, it doesn’t actually make the puzzle any more fun for the advanced player because in both scenarios, the solution only requires two moves. So while you are giving advanced players a disappointing level, you are giving new players a level that is so information dense they will almost always solve the level by brute forcing the solution. What I’m trying to convey here is that when designing puzzles you need to control the amount of possible states so that you can guide the player to the solution. Now for more advanced levels its fine to offer levels that are more open ended, but you do need to be very sparing with how you do so.

Next up is the number of potential solutions. This category is a tricky one as personally I feel as though levels with multiple solutions make the level harder, not easier. Why you might ask? Well because it means that your players are less guided towards the optimal solution. It means they are more likely to get caught on unintentional red herrings. It also means that if the player wants to get a gold medal for a level, but they have only ever completed the level using an alternate solution that is more move intensive than the planned solution, they could spend way too long trying variations on the “wrong” solution. Really this is a side effect of having too many potential board state permutations, but every now and again its fun to have levels that offer multiple answers. Lots of levels in Kana Quest only have one solution, and lots of levels have multiple, the important thing is using this technique intentionally.

The final technique that I can use to control the difficulty for the player is probably the most important one. And that is complexity of solution. If the solution only requires two or three moves, its not a particularly complex solution. This usually means that the level isn’t super difficult. However, completion critical moves increase the complexity. A completion critical move is a move that if not made, the level cannot be completed.  Of coarse this can then be balanced with previous techniques. For example.example3

This is a level from world 1. And is in my opinion one of the best levels in that world. This has a very low complexity of solution, but in contrast to the all the levels before it, it has a slightly higher difficulty. But that difficulty comes from a larger number of potential configurations, multiple solutions, and a larger level size. The result is a level that isn’t too difficult, but does force the player to stop and think about the solution. But as the game ramps up in difficulty, ramping up the complexity of the solution is usually the safest way of doing so. Why is that? Well, it means you can control the amount of information you throw at the player to a far greater extent. Remember, you don’t want to overload the player with information, if they do they just start brute forcing the puzzles and have a bad time.  So an example of a good level made by giving the player a complex solution is this level.examplesolution

The reason this level is good is because it requires a good amount of moves to complete, and there are only two completion critical moves required (using the Slime Kana on the correct Kana), and those moves can be executed by the player at any point. Whereas, here is a level that has gone way too far on the complexity of solution.example3

This level is way too hard and is to date the most difficult level I have made. And the reason is, that every singe move in this level is a completion critical move that requires being done in the exact right order. If you make one wrong move, you cannot complete this level. The fact that this level has a relatively constrained number of possible configurations is its only saving grace. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I remove, or rework this level before the launch of the game.

I think the real take away from this blog if you are making, or thinking of making your own game is; What are the different vectors for making a game difficult? Are there enough? Are there too many? What are the implications of using one of those vectors? What are the implications of using multiple of those vectors at once? How far can one push any and all of those vectors before a game becomes impossible? And most importantly, at any point in a game, what vectors of difficulty does the situation call for?

Anyway, these are the things that I’ve been thinking about for the last month or so. I’ll see you next month. If you have any questions about game difficulty or you disagree and you want to start a discussion, feel free to leave me a comment and we can have a chat. Until next month, take care.