Building a Village – 05/06/2018

Hello villagers!

This Building a Village ​will be a little different than usual. Instead of recapping the past week’s work, I want to do a deep dive on the single most important feature of Village Monsters – its dialogue system!

Each kind of game values dialogue a little differently, but it’s the real bread-and-butter for a life sims like Village Monsters. Yet despite its importance, it’s often a double-edged sword that can end up doing more harm than good.

When dialogue start falling apart – getting too repetitious, too predictable, or maybe even too generic – it is often a death sentence for life sims. After all, these are games that value building immersive relationships with NPCs, and there’s no quicker way to ruin that then to feel like you’re talking with a boring robot.

There are certainly many ways to deal with this problem: some designers prefer having strict control over the script. Others may prefer using “adlib” style conversations to give the illusion of infinite content.

For Village Monsters I wanted to try something new – and this post will talk about what I’ve done.

A Deck of Dialogue

Picture a deck of cards – not for a specific game or anything, just something generic.

A deck consists of many cards of various types. The cards themselves dictate how and when they can be used, and cards of the same type typically share many attributes.

The deck represents all possible cards, but you must first draw them into your hand before you can play them. After a card is played you typically discard it so you cannot draw it again.

Ok, why am I wasting your time explaining how card games work? It’s relevant, I promise! You see, a deck of cards is the exact metaphor I used when designing Village Monster’s dialog system.

In my metaphor, each card in the deck is a single conversation, and each conversation has a topic. For example, “Hey, you new around here? Nice to meet you!” would be a card, and its topic would be “Introduction.”

The deck then represents all possible conversations and topics that a villager has available to them. Make sense? Let’s see how it’s used.

Small Talk

While the process is invisible to the player, the exact moment you enter a conversation is when the magic really happens.

First, a snapshot is taken of the world. This snapshot asks many questions about the current state of things, such as:

  • What time of day is it?
  • Where is this conversation taking place?
  • What’s the weather like?
  • Did the player do anything cool lately?
  • Is it a special holiday or event?
  • When’s the last time a piece of lore or story was shared?

The answers to these questions help establish the context the conversation is happening in. A rainy day could mean that the villager comments on the weather. A new player who hasn’t gone fishing may get some advice on how to get started.

To continue the deck metaphor, this process is like searching the deck for cards of specific types and adding them to your hand.

Now it’s time to ‘play’ one of the cards – in this context, that means selecting the actual set of dialogue for the villager to speak.

Of course, a bit of randomness is needed to make it less predictable for the player. The exact card that the villager ends up with is always randomly chosen from the hand we just made. That particular card is then discarded while the rest are shuffled back into the deck.

One last thing: in truth, the card is not really discarded. Instead, it sits outside the deck to ensure that it doesn’t come up again too soon. After a period of time it’s re-shuffled into the deck and can be picked again – and hopefully by then it won’t come across as too repetitious.

Putting it Together

In summary, this ‘deck-style’ system allows villagers to have natural sounding conversations while minimizing the player’s ability to predict what they’ll say. By tracking which cards were ‘read’ we can also ensure that players are never punished with repeat conversations for talking a lot to a villager.

All of this accomplishes our main goal: speaking with a villager should be a worthwhile action throughout the entire game.

I’ve been very happy with how this system has worked so far, but what I didn’t expect were the number of side benefits that began emerging.

In a lot of ways, the deck represents another layer of personality for each villager. This means that it’s not just the dialogue itself that’s important, but also the composition of the deck.

For example, a villager that works all day outside would naturally have a lot more to say about the weather than someone who stays indoors. This means that conversations with this villager are more weather focused, and this in turn reinforces their personality and role in the village.

As in real life, you may find yourself drawn to specific people because you know they have a lot to say about a subject you’re interested in. You may also try speaking with the same villagers in different situations to see what new things they’ll say.

I’m really looking forward for players to experience this dialogue system when Village Monsters releases later this year.

Creating a Saturday Simulator

“Our lives are so short. We only get to live in this one existence, but what if we could have more than one?”
Kyle Bosman, Easy Allies

We all play games for different reasons.

For me, it’s always been an escape. My life isn’t so bad, but I love running away to some fantastical world where I can do and be anything. Even as an adult, (especially as an adult?) where my freedom is high, I still find myself fantasizing about game worlds.

It should come as no surprise that the ‘life simulator’ genre is my absolute favorite. After all, what better way to escape life than to simulate a new one altogether? Such is my love of this style that I find myself latching onto games where only a small portion or mode can be considered a LifeSim – games like Dwarf Fortress, Little King’s Story, Majora’s Mask, and a huge number of other Nintendo titles

Yet no matter what other games I play, the king of kings of this genre is undoubtedly, without debate or question:

Animal Crossing. 

Not The Sims. Not Harvest Moon. Not Second Life (is this still even a thing?)

Animal Crossing.

In fact, I’d go so far to say that I don’t even particularly care for games like Harvest Moon. Strong words, but stay with me here.

As a certified LifeSim lover, I recognize that I should be more enamored with the Harvest Moons of the world. After all, Natsume has cranked out about a billion of them, Stardew Valley was a fantastic success, and people clearly like them.

And yet they’ve always eluded me. In this post, I’m going to dig into why this is – as well as what it means for my game.

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Harvest Moon: A Weekday Simulator

Nothing is wrong with Harvest Moon or the Sims, and I can recognize them as fun games that scratch that escapism itch in many people.

But to better deconstruct my dissatisfaction with this style of game, consider this example of an average day in Harvest Moon:

You wake up and immediately perform your daily chores related to your farm. It’s all rote stuff and is meant to be relaxing in its own way, but you’re always made aware of time passing and your energy meter depleting. Together, these promote – and in some cases, demand – efficiency over relaxation.

You then make the rounds to talk to each NPC at least once. Maybe you try to level up relationships by giving them their daily gift. Maybe you grind materials for your new building. Whatever you do, it’s always another cycle of managing meters, checking boxes, and grinding for progress.

In short, it’s simulating your average weekday. There’s time for relaxation and socializing, but your day is still dominated by work, chores, and the need to earn and progress

I’d actually argue that there’s a surprising amount of pressure to the whole thing. Have you ever had a ‘bad’ day in Harvest Moon games? It can feel terrible! Some players go so far as to restart saves in the name of efficiency or ‘re-rolling’ bad RNGs.

I’m painting this in a negative light, but it’s not all bad. In many ways, the bread and butter of a Harvest Moon or Sims game is to take the habitual, routine parts of life and bottle it in a way that’s bite-sized and entertaining. To a many, it’s perfect – you get a sense of accomplishment with a fraction of the effort.

and yet…

Animal Crossing: A Weekend Simulator

(or, more succinctly, a Saturday Simulator)

…I still vastly prefer the Animal Crossing model. Let’s compare the above with your average day in Animal Crossing:

You wake up and check your mail. You spend some time looking for fossils and seeing what’s new at the store. Maybe you talk to the villagers, run some errands, or spend all day creating pixel art. Maybe you do nothing at all.

There are no meters, no pressure to do anything. You have goals, sure, but they’re always minor and there’s few, if any consequences. Your days can be as productive or lazy as you’d like.

I’m not sure if all of this makes Animal Crossing the least game-y game or the most game-y game, but it works. It simulates a perfect Saturday: your free to spend it being as productive or efficient as you please, but there’s no rush or pressure. It’s carefree, relaxing, and completely at your speed.

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So what does this mean for WARP DOGS’ first game?

In case it wasn’t clear before, let me be explicit: my game will fall into that Saturday Simulator model.

There’s no deadlines. There are no energy or health or hunger meters. There will never be tasks or chores that must be done.

Each day will be similar the one before it in a very key way: every day is Saturday. You can choose to be productive, you can choose to be lazy. Above all, I want you to feel relaxed. Carefree.

One thing that will differ slightly is that I’m going to impose far fewer artificial restrictions to players’ progress than AC chooses to do. I understand the value in saving the player from themselves by drip-feeding them content, but it can also be a really transparent design restriction .

I don’t want players to think I’m shaking my head disapprovingly if they want to grind their way through something. It’s a valid choice for some.

I want a game that 29-year-old me would want to play after a bad day at work. I want a game that a kid wants to play after a bad day at school.

I want a game that makes every day feel like Saturday.

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