My name is Daniel Dowsing and I am a writer and designer-producer at Opposable Games. In this dev blog I will be discussing the in-progress game design process for our sci-fi tactical shooter, Salvaged.
First, a little bit of a history lesson; I started working for Opposable Games as a freelance writer in July 2014 hired to create the narrative universe for Salvaged. In September 2014 I joined the team as writer and designer. When I arrived the game Salvaged already existed in an action shooter form that had been demoed at videogame events such as EGX Rezzed. Salvaged is designed to be played across two screens: a main PC monitor showing four first person point of views (POVs) of the Player’s agents and a tablet screen to control them. Whilst the reception to Salvaged was positive with regards to this unique dual screen control method there was also mixed feedback – ironically – due to its dual screen control method. Typical! We at Opposable decided, therefore, to take Salvaged back to the drawing board and re-evaluate how to make the game’s uniqueness a strength and not a weakness.
Dual screen gaming in Salvaged
We began by asking ourselves: what was experience we wanted to create for the Player? The dual screen control system lends itself perfectly for allowing the Player to assume the role of a commander giving orders. This was worked into the original design for the game, however, but the Player’s input as a commander was limited at best. The second screen became a confusing controller (due to a lack of physical feedback from the tablet) which the Player spent most of their time looking at rather than focusing on the main screen where their agent’s actions were taking place. As such Players found that the main screen, with its fully 3D action, was at best a novelty and, at worst, unnecessary.
You may have noticed that earlier in this blog I refer to the version of Salvaged shown at Rezzed as an ‘action shooter’ rather than a tactical shooter; it is this core difference that helped to guide our re-design of the game. In the original demo of Salvaged the action happens constantly in real time with the Player having to constantly use the second tablet screen to manoeuvre/control all four agents through a level; this led to Players focusing solely on the tablet and therefore neglecting the main screen. The set up also diluted the experience we wanted of a commander guiding her agents from afar as you were effectively playing a first person shooter. Bottom line: the gameplay contradicted the experience.
Salvaged concept art
To bring Salvaged closer to the experience we wanted we decided to implement a stronger tactical element to the game in which the Player is given the chance to pause the game, establish a game plan for her agents and then see the plan enacted. One idea was to use an explicit pause button in the style of a Bioware RPG to give the Player time to form a plan. This, however, proved unpopular in the studio as it broke the sense of realism we would like the game to have. Being able to physically stop time felt unnatural in the context of Salvaged; in some ways Salvaged leans closely towards being a commander simulator.
Taking stock of this we compared our desired gameplay to the actions of a SWAT team in which a small team spends time making a plan to enter a location and then rapidly enacts said plan. This is what we wanted for Salvaged. We noticed that a SWAT procedure features natural pauses during the process from planning to attack and so began designing our gameplay around this concept.
We broke the gameplay down into three ‘phases’: Explore, Recon and Breach. All three phases occur in real time and the Player is unable to physically pause the game. Each phase, however, acts as a natural pause to allow the Player to form a plan for their agents. The crux of our gameplay now revolves around the cycle of Explore > Recon > Breach > Explore. Rather than rushing through a level like Serious Sam our agents now systematically move through a level room by room in a more realistic manner (i.e. SWAT team style).
Explore phase is our ‘respite phase’ in which the Player can collect their thoughts and also acquire any hidden treasures/goodies in the room they have cleared. Explore phase is, essentially, the natural pause we have been looking for.
When the Player moves into Recon phase (by assembling their agents by the door to the next room) focus is shifted entirely to the tablet. She then uses the tablet to set detailed attack plans for each agent such as the route they will take when they enter the next room, the direction they throw a grenade etc. These plans are formed using the knowledge available to the Player shown on the tablet: the geometry of the next room and the routines of enemies within it. This means the tablet controller is getting a decent amount of user-time and has value within context of the game.
Once the Player has set her attack plans she enters the Breach phase. At this point the agents storm into the room following the plan set for them and encounter enemies. The Player has the barest amount of control during this phase and will primarily be focused on the main screen through which they will see their agent’s actions. Key agent information such as health and ammo load out is also displayed on the main screen to give the screen more purpose/value. Where Recon phase is designed to last a long/methodical amount of time, Breach phase will last seconds; the plan is set and enacted with rapid effect.
Because the Player has minimal control during this phase there is a heightened sense of tension - will my plan work? – playing into the experience of Salvaged. The Player is able to exert control over their agents during this phase by repositioning them in the room by simply moving their icon on the tablet. She is also able to perform a full retreat from the room if the plan completely fails. Within the context of the experience this simulates giving a command ‘on the fly’, however, more detailed actions aren’t available. Quick control inputs like this mean the Player’s focus should primarily be on the main screen and thus experiences the role of a commander overjoyed that her plan has worked or horrified as the plan fails and the agents are lost.
Experimenting with VR
In summary, the design of Salvaged is based on the logic of game experience and gameplay complimenting one another. By establishing the experience we wanted for the Player it helped to guide the changes we felt were needed for the game. Through testing and feedback we learnt that our gameplay and the experience we wanted were at odds with each other, confusing and devalued Salvaged’s unique control system. Through a process of re-evaluation we worked out the gameplay elements such as natural pauses and the ability to plan attacks that helped to solidify the experience of Salvaged. From the perspective of a designer I believe that solidifying the creative experience of a game helps to define the mechanics that make it a game.
To keep up to date with the development of Salvaged be sure to follow @SalvagedGame.