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Breaking the Mold: Designing a kung-fu game that's not about fighting - Part 4

This is part four 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 four 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 3? Read it here.

Part 4:  To Fight Without Fighting  -  Punching as a Declining Strategy

Most of the gameplay designs and playtesting we did at the beginning excluded our punch attack. This was for two reasons: first, the uncertainty of the move itself was low - we knew how a punch could work from countless other games. Second, I kept taking it out to focus our testing on the other "soft kung fu" mechanics that were much more uncertain.

But a big question remain unanswered: How will we put a punch in this game, without people always wanting to use it, and without it breaking all of our "no intention to fight" mechanics?

Punching in a hand-to-hand melee combat game is a genre standard; it makes sense players will want to use it.  From another perspective, how can we make a kung fu game WITHOUT punching?  We had to have it, but how do we balance it with our other systems?

Initially I designed our punch attack as what combat designers call a "Heavy Attack."  It had a large payoff (large damage output), but an equally large trade-off (long recovery time).  I hoped that was enough - it wasn't. Players just ran around pulverizing all enemies on the screen, and pulverized our essential experience in the process!  But that wasn't their fault, it was a fault in the design.  I had to find a way to include the punch, but not as a winning strategy.

I momentarily considered limiting it with some resource consumption, but that just sounded ridiculous, and of course would break the fiction.  Maybe it would work for wooden automated Kung Fu robots, but not for this game.

Returning to our essential experience, "Finding self-restraint through kung fu training, by learning to have no intention to fight," I thought one of the biggest ways to capture the "self-restraint" part of the experience would be in the choice of whether to punch or not.  That's always the choice in real kung fu. But how to turn that into a mechanic?

I searched through memories of my own kung fu training. Back then, as my kung fu level rose and I entered the Intermediate class, the training changed from solo drills and tightly structured one-on-one drills, to more free form exercises and some sparring, both of which included striking the other person.

My first time in the late-night Intermediate class, I remember my teacher saying, "Look, your kung fu brothers and sisters are going to hit you now - really hit you.  You're going to get angry - people cry, people bleed, people scream - it all comes out.  But whatever happens, you need to remember that they are your kung fu family, and are not trying to hurt you - it's just training."

And there it was. What if, just like in real training, you don't restrain yourself and get carried away with hitting too much or too hard, and the other person gets angry?  Really angry.  So they are out for payback.  That makes your training a lot more painful.

Yeah - this is a feedback loop!  We setup an "anger system," where the more an enemy gets hit, the angrier they get.  We added some logic where even onlookers get a little annoyed when they see the player being too violent.  Once an enemy gets too angry, he "loses it" and goes berserk, and charges the player with an extremely strong attack.

This worked!  You could play it safe with the soft kung fu, or let loose a little with a series of punches.  But the punching easily could become a downhill battle. You won in the short term by knocking down a few guys, but if you kept it up you'd lose in the long term. The other enemies would be too angry, one hit would set them off, and you would get smashed! They would erupt one at a time - you got smashed into other enemies, smashed back and forth like pinball, smashed through wooden walls - it was great!

Some members on the team were getting better at the game, and with focus could cruise through many areas without throwing a single punch, passing levels quickly - because the enemies trip up when you deflect their attacks and it buys you time.  During one playtest with a team member, something had gone wrong in her plan, time was running out, and she was getting tense.  The enemies were piling up on her with the clock at 10 seconds, and she started saying "Just get out of my way!" and began punching furiously to clear a path, tossing enemies into each other and one through a wall. 

But an enemy across the room saw it all happen, got furious from the countless punches, and yelled, "That's it!"  and he chased at her from across the room.  She had the last stone in her hands and was sprinting for the collection bowl, and just before she put it in - he sidelined her and bulldozed her through a wall!  The stone went flying from her hands as the clock hit zero, she lost, and everyone in the room cheered! 

Everyone said, "That's awesome!"  Because that was exactly the experience we wanted - she lost the game not because she didn't have the skill, but because she lost control of her emotions and couldn't restrain herself from punching out of frustration!  I was sold, we had done it - we had found a way to make the punch work! 

External playtests were held to verify the result.  When using the punch people would say, "These controls are broken - you're going to fix that, right?" They were trying to invoke the Punch too often and the recovery time was stopping them, so they thought it wasn't responding to their input.  I was like, "Well, you have to, um, wait a bit and punch less - remember what the kung fu teacher was saying before about the GREET?"  But they would keep spamming the Punch and think it was broken.

They also said, "This is way too hard!  These guys keep smashing me!  I can barely move the stone before I drop it, or I run out of health!  You know that's broken, right?"  And I was like, well, see they are getting angry at you, and so... 

And the player said, getting angry at me? Why?  I was like, well, remember the kung fu teacher whose been teaching you for the past three levels?  He was saying too much punching will make the students angry, so...  and the player goes, that guy at the top of the screen - I need to read what he says? And I was like, nevermind, see you punched him too much instead of using the GREET, so....  and the player goes, what is a GREET? 

And that's when I was like - oh man.

This thing is coming apart at the seams!  How could our team's experience with the game be so far from our players' experience with the game?  How were we going to resolve that?  Or do I just have to work with marketing on how we will explain we have a kung fu game without punching??

Watch out for Part 5 (the finale) of the series where I'll get into how our team fixed the punch.

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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