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Breaking the Mold: Designing a kung-fu game that's not about fighting - Part 3

This is part three of a series in which I'll blog about the Making of Shuyan the Kung Fu Princes - Designing a kung-fu game that's not about fighting.

By Drew Parker, Mark Animation (Ontario, Canada)

Creative Director, Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess, coming this Fall exclusively to iPad

This is part three of a series in which I'll blog about the Making of Shuyan the Kung Fu Princes - Designing a kung-fu game that's not about fighting. Missed Part 2? Read it here.

Part 3:  Going Fishing  -  Discovering our Victory Condition

In a fighting game, you always fight to win, to defeat the opponent.  After all, bad guys are trying to get you, or you have to prove yourself, or you have to save the world.  But what if you are supposed to have "no intention to fight"?  How could that ever be a mechanic?  How do you win?

Again I returned to our essential experience, "Finding self-restraint through kung fu training, by learning to have no intention to fight."  My kung fu teacher liked fishing.  Sometimes he'd say, "When I'm in a real fight, I pretend I'm on a walk to go fishing, and this guy accidentally stepped in the way.  I just need to get around him."

He was implying: I don't want to fight you, I want something else. He was trying to help us find that elusive "non-intention" during a fight.  That's because if you have a strong intention in a fight, to get payback, to show-off, to be the best, or even just to beat your opponent, that intention guides your physical actions subtly, and almost always causes you to over extend in your punches and movements, taking you out of position and leaving you vulnerable.

How could the player want to win a fight, and still just want to "go fishing" at the same time?  Then I realized - what if the main objective and victory condition of our fighting game was not to win the fight, but to get something else instead?  Most action-adventure melee games require you to clear the room.  Stealth-shooting hybrid games give you the "non-lethal" option, but you can always revert to attacking everything, and still gain something.

What if you defeated everyone in the room, but still you got nothing out of it?

We created a new mechanic, and after some research, based it on an ancient kung fu training technique.  The technique was to strengthen the fingers by endlessly thrusting them into a basin of sand.  They did this for at least an hour every day, for years. But what if while doing that, to prove you had done your job, you had to retrieve a stone from the bottom of the basin and move it someplace else? 

This became our objective, which matched the fiction. Part of your kung fu training every day is to strengthen the fingers.  Thrust the fingers, collect the stones, move them to the bowl.  Oh - and these guys may try to stop you along the way.

Players now had a non-combat objective, but we didn't get the planned result.  During playtesting, once players realized all they needed to do was collect the stones, they stopped doing the GREET, completely ignored avoiding attacks, and just ran around getting stones and getting pounded!  They side-stepped our entire essential experience!  I tried lowering the player's health and making enemies stronger to force them to use the GREET, but then the game was far too hard.  The mechanics were cancelling each other out.

The main question became:  How do we force players into a fight, reward them for deflecting attacks, but allow them to keep a non-combat objective?

Then an idea popped into my mind: what if when you get hit too much, you actually DROP the stone? And therefore have to go get it again?  It seemed to match the fiction and also potentially resolve our mechanic issue.  We quickly tossed it in.  The extra pressure from a time-limit felt like a good idea, so we tossed that in too.

Another round of playtests were held.  Now players couldn't afford to get hit.  Nor could they afford to comfortably wait to pick and choose the right moment. They had to get in, now, get the stones, and get out without getting hit.  It was exciting, and it worked.

Yet the ominous problem I feared kept being pointed out by players, "This is fun and all, but it's a kung fu game, right? So shouldn't I be able to, you know, hit people?"

Yeah.  You should be able to hit people.  But how am I going to let you hit people and not completely destroy everything we just created, and our essential experience along with it?

Watch out for Part 4 of the series where I'll get into how our team used punching as a declining strategy.

Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess was featured in the "Best of Canada" showcase at MIP Junior in Cannes, France.  It was also part of Telefilm's "Canada Showcase" held during GDC in March. The game will be available exclusively for iPad in Fall 2013. Website: Twitter: @ShuyanGame.

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