The Gamasutra Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.
Check out earlier installments, including building an adaptive tech tree in Dawn of Man, achieving seamless branching in Watch Dogs 2’s Invasion of Privacy missions, and creating the intricate level design of Dishonored 2's Clockwork Mansion.
Who - Brent Ellison and Tanya Short
We’re professional game developers in Montreal who also make games on the side. Brent is a Creative Director at Nvizzio Creations (Eden Rising) and Tanya is the Captain of Kitfox Games (Boyfriend Dungeon, Moon Hunters), as well as co-director and co-founder of Pixelles, a feminist non-profit.
On Fit for a King, Brent handled programming and overall game design, and Tanya created the majority of the content, levels, and dialogue.
What - A verb for every letter
Fit for a King is a comedic Henry VIII simulator in the vein of classic Ultima games. In order to prepare for the summit at the Field of the Cloth of Gold where Henry met King Francis I in 1520, you must gather as much gold as possible and prepare food and entertainment to best your rival.
The game plays like a DOS/Apple II-era classic RPG where you explore the castle, talk to people with a simple text parser, seek out treasure chests behind hidden doors, etc. However, as the ruler, you have access to all manner of regal powers tied to every single letter of the alphabet: you can (C)ollect Taxes, (J)ail, e(X)ecute, and (K)night citizens, etc. After you (R)eform the church you can even (M)arry and (D)ivorce anyone or anything in your kingdom. In total, that means 26 verbs are available to the player.
The game was deep into development before all the verbs were finalized - a number of them like (G)raphics Mode (which switches the display to monochrome) and (O)rdain (which causes a target to be labeled “Father”) have no real purpose other than to entertain the player and contribute to the sandbox feel.
Why - Sandbox as toy
Although the full keyboard-as-controls works as a tribute to classic gaming, it also adds depth to the sandbox. As in the original ASCII roguelikes, the player has a huge amount of options at their command when dealing with each object, which can be intimidating or intriguing, depending on the context. When confronted with a jester, what does a king (or queen) do?
Variety of interactions makes for a lot of fun puzzle potential, and in the context of the royal fantasy, it allows the player to have depth for creative expression. They can decide to marry the town witch, knight their horse, and execute their loyal steward. Moreover, modular endings allow the game to give feedback on the state of the kingdom as they left it, further recognizing the player’s decision-making.
One example of the type of puzzle Fit for a King deploys through its many verbs is in the search for the treasury key. Early on, the player learns that the key to the castle treasury has been lost, and with it access to a great deal of gold.
The treasury guard is shifty on the subject, however, and various other characters suggest she’s not to be trusted. If the player figures out a way to intimidate her (such as imprisonment or threatened execution), she’ll give up the location of the key. It’s then left to the player whether they want to (F)orgive her or leave her to rot. Alternately, they can find the key through other means.
However, Fit for a King was never intended to be a massive 100-hour roguelike. It’s a 4-hour adventure. So, the player can’t be expected to spend hours coming to grips with a convoluted and unintuitive control scheme. Thus we chose to make the basic “adventuring” commands as simple as possible.
The three most essential commands are introduced immediately in the tutorial: (U)se, (T)alk and (L)ook. (U)se in particular is very context-sensitive, in which (U)sing a chest opens it but (U)sing a dog pets him. This is a large departure from a genre where you typically use the separate commands to open, mount, or climb an object (even if there’s actually only one verb you can successfully do). We wanted to avoid players feeling they were playing a ‘guessing game’ of which command is the “right” one to use, and instead open up the possibility space for them to use the command they want to use, for the outcome they’re pursuing, whether that’s wealth, chaos, revenge, romance, etc.
The majority of the commands in Fit for a King are directed at your subjects (including the furniture as subjects, since you can (M)arry them, (J)ail them, etc). This freedom of expression through an array of options is especially appropriate for a game about manipulating people rather than surviving a dungeon and gaining power. There’s no one “right” way to be Henry VIII -- in fact, one might say all the ways to be Henry VIII are inherently wrong. Perhaps spending all of the treasury gold on a party isn’t actually the ideal managing of the kingdom’s finances… but it does make Francis I unhappy, briefly!
Of course, the cost can be high for such an approach, even before you consider problems of accessibility or localization. Each additional verb that has meaningful outcomes (unlike, say, toggling the (G)raphics Mode) adds nearly exponential amounts of reactivity that must be created in the world. When you’ve married the countess, then jailed her, then knighted her, then forgiven her, should she acknowledge this rollercoaster of emotions? What if you did the same to a horse? The cost of increasing the ‘meaningfulness’ of a given verb was debated and adjusted throughout production, based on discovered cost:value opportunities (or problems).
Result - Reacting appropriately
We watched many players try the game, either over their shoulder or by combing through their logs. Most players tend to go through the same series of steps when confronted by 26 verbs. At first, they’re overwhelmed. Thankfully, the limited scope of the tutorial (which we revised several times) gets them to understand the basic adventuring elements as they come to grips with movement, opening chests, and talking to NPCs. At the end of the tutorial, players can choose to e(X)ecute or (F)orgive a prisoner, allowing them to see what they’re capable of.
Soon after the player is let loose into the game proper, there’s always a key moment in which they decide to try something on a whim to see if it works - usually e(X)ecuting or (J)ailing someone. They’re vulnerable in this moment, because they are taking a risk and seeing how the system responds. If/when the game responds enthusiastically, happily allowing for whatever their whim demanded, then the player immediately sets off to experiment further, whether as a benevolent ruler or cruel tyrant, as befits their style. We did all we could to ensure that first player risk was rewarded, often not with gold or experience points, but with a greater power: the genuine, intrinsic pleasure of seeing cause and effect. Such a joy would have been impossible if there had only been two possible actions to take.
However, the success of the elaborate command system of Fit For a King depends on three elements of the game design: responsiveness, open-ended exploration, and forgiveness.
Responsive: The success of the 26 verbs relies on the fact that the game is responsive, giving feedback and real change to the sandbox in response to the player’s input. If the first few experiments the player performs work out then they’re more likely to trust the system and get into the experience. Of course, with such a wide range of options available it was impossible for us to anticipate everything a player could do, and so we made extensive use of user testing and logging in order to catch unusual player input and build responses into the game. For example, when players tried to (U)se the dog, it became pretty clear (as it always is in hindsight) that they weren’t trying to train or walk the dog - they were trying to pet it! So we changed the response appropriately.
Open-ended Exploration: The entirety of the game world is available from the beginning, such that even though there are puzzles, the player is never stuck due to mastery of the controls. No castle gate locks them in until they’ve solved a quest or skill challenge. The world is wide open to the curious player, so if they get frustrated with one corner of the game, there’s always something else to do. At least, there’s plenty until the player is deep into the game chasing 100% completion - at which point they are likely very familiar with the system and the number of commands is no longer intimidating.
Forgiveness: There is no such thing as the “wrong” command to use on an object or in a situation - at worst, a verb simply lack a unique or meaningful response. This encourages the player to take creative risks in their commands, and play without fear of punishment. Further, there is no ‘losing’ at Fit For a King. Although the player has hitpoints that can reach 0, and there are different endings, play is never restricted as a result of player choices, and any mildly negative outcomes are accommodated with humor rather than scorn.
Conclusion: True play
The intent of the 26 player verbs of Fit For a King is to enable more toy-like play, exploring the different ways the world can react and empower exploration. Aside from solving puzzles and more traditional gameplay, players can simply romp through the castle and surrounds, causing chaos in a way unique to them and their whim.