A week in review: Identity Crises and Release Info

Harmonia’s Identity Crisis: Is it a game?

It’s kind of a silly question to ask. It looks like a game. It sounds like a game. I assume it smells, feels, and tastes like a game. That checklist seems good enough to me, until I’m forced to explain exactly what Harmonia is, in a clear, exciting way that makes people want to play it. See, a huge chunk of game development is marketing, or, as I like to think of it, the broccoli of a gamedev meal. To be honest, I love broccoli – it’s like a sponge for flavor, when cooked with the right spices – but as far as making a game is concerned, it might as well be poison. Or gravy soda. Nevertheless, it’s a necessary part of the job if Harmonia is to be seen by more than just a handful of people I’ve contacted via Facebook. You know who you are. The truth is, if a game or any other piece of art (music, books, theatre, whatever) isn’t seen by anybody, then… well… it might as well not exist. So: it’s broccoli time!

Now, I’m by no means a marketing guru, but from what I understand, one of the major cornerstones of product messaging is the “Elevator Pitch”: a few short sentences that succinctly describe what you’re making in an intriguing way. It’s like you’re in an elevator, and you only have a few seconds to describe how totally freakin’ awesome your project is to the losers around you who aren’t making a video game.

How does one describe Harmonia, then? Here’s what it has going for it:

* A real-time tactical-combat system.
* Playstation-era 3D graphics with 2D sprites.
* A flexible, moddable game engine with a client/server model.
* Procedurally generated worlds.

These are all great things – a bit dry, but still pretty cool – and there’s some nice video footage and screenshots to back it up. But is that a game? Where’s the story? How do I “win”? If I can’t win, what do I do, and, more importantly, why should I keep playing it? If there’s no goal, can I set my own goals, like in Sim City or Minecraft? To be fair, it’s pretty fun in it’s current state, but for the sake of making the best game possible, it should have one bullet point that makes me want to play instantly. There’s a lot of potential right now, but how should that potential be realized? An endless stream of ideas come to mind, here are a few now:

* An RPG with an engaging story, linear gameplay, and some very clear goals from beginning to end.
* An open RPG where players explore a large world and an ever-growing amount of content.
* A roguelike dungeon-crawler with tactical battles, an extremely difficult end goal, and “play until you die” gameplay.
* A free-for-all battle royale game with armies. Rounds are 15 minutes, whoever gets the most kills wins.

At various points in Harmonia’s development, I’ve experimented with all of these genres, and probably a few more. To be honest, they all sound like games I want to make and play, but it’s not possible to be all four. This is where the identity crisis comes in – conceivably, Harmonia could be any of these games, but until the rules are set in stone, it doesn’t feel like a complete game yet. And if the game is only conceptually half-formed, it’s not ready for the public yet… right?

In my source folder are a bunch of subfolders with game data that I swap in and out from time to time. One is an MMO prototype, another is an infinite landscape demo, and there’s the current Battle Arena that’s available for download now. They all have different scripts, unique monsters, classes, items, etc. Aside from having similar combat, their gameplay is different, as are their goals. What’s most important is that they have clear identities. When Harmonia is played with one of these game subfolders, it’s identity is very straight-forward.

After that last paragraph, it almost seems possible to give Harmonia an elevator pitch:

Harmonia is an online, team-based tactical RPG engine designed to support many kinds of games: RPGs, Arenas, Roguelikes, and even MMOs.

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that, while Harmonia has all of the ingredients to make a game, by itself Harmonia is a game engine, but it is not a game.

It’s not a game?! Make a game!

With Harmonia’s tragic predicament resolved, it’s time to make a game using this engine! I’m going to focus on the Battle Arena and the upcoming Deathmatch mode for a while. Once those are ultra-polished and as fun as possible (if such a thing exists), and all of the gameplay components are finished (player creation, magic, in-game menus and shops), it will be time to move to bigger projects, like an RPG “story mode” or Roguelike dungeon-crawler. By focusing on smaller games for Harmonia first, the game engine can get some much-deserved playtesting and refinement before tackling the fun stuff.

So, if you’re reading this and you’re hoping an MMO is right around the corner, I’m sorry to say that it’s not. But, if you’ve been following Harmonia’s progress on Twitter or YouTube or otherwise, I hope it’s clear that progress is always being made, and things are looking better and better all the time! And, if it makes you feel any better, I want to play a Harmonia MMO too ;[

Revised Release Goals for March

When I’d first sketched out programming goals for this month, it seemed like a modest bundle of work, but I’m already way behind schedule, so I’m cutting things back a bit. I’ve also gotten a lot of valuable feedback from the lovely folks at /r/gamedev which I’d like to address before the next demo release. Now, it’s probably not wise to announce goals for monthly releases anyway, but it keeps me on task, even as the deadlines fly by :P. So, here’s what’s in the works:

* Multiplayer support with Battle Arena (co-op) and a new Deathmatch mode.
* Bugfixes and some UI tweaks/upgrades to make gameplay less annoying.
* A fancy new Single/Multiplayer game launcher. Here’s a work-in-progress screenshot!

Newgame WIP

It’s late over here, I’m sleepy, and my wife is sleepy, so I’m calling it a night. My programming dungeon will still be there in the morning.

— Simon (Synival)

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