When starting a business in real life you first spend your time directly producing. You physically renovate, use your mouse to make ads and pickup the phone. As you grow you do fewer things directly. You delegate, supervise, facilitate, but physically do less. Get big enough and you do nothing physical – data comes and you make decisions for others to execute. The skillset and critical thinking required for each stage along the way changes as do the stakes for each decision (or indecision). If the subject, pacing and meetings weren’t so boring it would be the greatest RPG around.
Basic Game Loop
You start alone, in a new city, with only the skills and resources your background provides (much more on this in a later post – character generation is elaborate and fun). Using a top down view of the entire city, you interact with context sensitive markers to schedule activities for your character (ie move, speak to NPC, schedule activities for employees, etc).
When ready, you advance time in 1-hour increments as your character performs the actions you’ve scheduled and the game responds with both predictable (you move to the desired location) and unpredictable results (you get accosted along the way). In the case of single actions (speaking to an NPC) the game plays out like a traditional turn based game. By scheduling into the future and letting it run, much like a sports manager makes the uneventful offseason pass by in a blink, time dilates to match your activities without causing carpal tunnel clicking the “end turn” button.
While the core, single player story takes you through the steps necessary to start running a gladiator school, the entire city and hundreds of potential actions are available and gated only by realistic constraints your character would experience (primary being that you can’t interact with what you don’t know exists, making exploring the vast city both crucial and a constant source of discovery).
As you recruit and hire employees for your school you gain partial control over their schedules. However while your actions are direct, theirs are orders, to be followed to the best of their ability and dependent on a variety of emotional and personal parameters. The game treats them just as it does you, tracking location and possible reactions to their actions, but the AI resolves those reactions, not you. You are just you. And so your time is spent scheduling activities, assessing the fallout and scheduling new activities to deal with issues and take advantage of opportunities.
A well run, mid-game business will have many employees with mostly static schedules. Gladiators wake up, eat, train, rest and not much else until match day. Craftsmen gather supplies, stoke fires, pound metal, shape and grind. Reactions to those actions are mild and predictable – they increase skills and stats, decrease attributes, gain experience, occasionally get injured or progress towards making an item. But you’ll also have more interesting staff doing things that are likelier to cause unpredictable results – a spy scoping out a rival school’s champion before a match or an agent attempting to find a contact poison in the city’s black market.
So at first you’ll physically do things yourself then slowly transition to mostly sitting in an office (with all your administrative functions close at hand), reacting to messengers and writing missives. Of course if something really critical needs to get done, you might have to get out of your comfy chair, dust off your sword and handle it yourself. Or you might not want to deal with any human resources and stay solo throughout. Or open the best bakery in town.
To make, what is essentially a scheduling game, fun and challenging and not a micromanaging quagmire are a number of systems that support the whole thing.
Characters are composed of physical (strength, power, agility, dexterity, etc.), mental (intelligence, processing, memory, verbal, etc. ) and emotional (bravery, empathy, greed, introversion etc. ) stats which have both current and potential ratings. Characters also track concurrent, temporary, physical (pain, blood, fatigue, etc.), emotional states (fear, joy, sadness, etc.) and relationship states (affection, fear, respect, etc.) that pertain to each character they’ve met (thereby creating complex relationships). Rounding out their makeup are skills, talents and traits.
Every possible game action uses a combination of these variables to both determine intention (will your hurt, scared fighter turtle up or execute your aggressive fight plan?) and outcome (which attack was thrown, how accurate was it, was it dodged or parried, did it puncture armor and to what extent, etc.).
Character generation is a procedural process, layering experiences, skills and personality affects over time and has a staggering range of potential outcomes. The common soldier who just entered your employe might be exactly what they seem or hiding something much more interesting which will spawn its own storylines over time.
Extreme Zoom Map
Think of the map as a massive, finely detailed vector drawing overlayed by NPCs. Some things are known and largely immutable (the city walls). As you explore, details and potential actions get filled in. Walk by a store and its name and product get added to the map. Even this is highly dependent on your observational stats and skills. If your character can read and knows the language, you’ll glean data off the price board posted in the store. An illiterate savage might not even divine its purpose.
As you gain followers, spies and agents their information gets added to your view, both in passive knowledge (you might hire someone specifically for their knowledge of the city and where the best bargains are) and active (allowing you to see prices where your agents are and other characters where your spy is spying). Zooming allows you to quickly and efficiently plan (or just watch) the actions of dozens of staff.
Imagine a vast database of tiny CYOA vignettes. Aside from the branching CYOA structure, each one also has a number of parameters determining when it can be triggered; some are location or activity specific, some are dependent on previous CYOA results (allowing elaborate storylines to play out over long periods) and some need specific items or characters. Each also has a rarity level. Using these parameters, the game will determine if an event occurs during any given hour, choosing from the pool of all possible events that qualify.
Each choice in the branching structure of the vignette is also tracked according to which emotional states are likely to choose it (aggressive, logical, terrified, etc.). While your character’s actions are determined by you, NPCs play out the vignettes using their own attributes. So when a rival agent attempts to bribe your coach, their greed (influenced by how well you pay them) and loyalty towards you determine the results. This keeps the game interesting, surprising and fluid without devolving into a micromanaging nightmare when your school gets large with a dozen staff. If one of your rookies stubs their toe, you’ll probably ignore it and let the medic automatically sort it out. If the same thing happens to your champion you have the choice of reacting directly and making sure it doesn’t spiral out of control.
Finally after the first interaction with each even you can set how your character will respond in the future and even use parameters to determine that decision. CYOA becomes tedious with repetition. Sometimes you want the results without the clicks.
You’ll have perfect knowledge only of your own character’s stats (even then just your current stats, not their potential). Everything else is a guess based on parameters and evaluation skills. This obfuscation applies to NPCs’ view of the world as well. All variables have the level they are, the level they could be and the level the viewer thinks they’re at. This broadly facilitates a number of interesting meta-games, from talent scouts and coaching evaluations to elaborate bluffs and feints during combat to long cons and using marketing to sell inferior goods.
Awareness levels become more accurate over time with exposure and skill and make accurate data acquisition as important as choosing the right actions.
Action Specific Subsystems
Making a sword is a multi-step process. Iron is heated, shaped, worked and then quenched. Finally it is sharpened, ground and polished before a pommel is attached then wrapped. Each step in the process impacts the sword’s final parameters (sharpness, durability, hardness, malleability, weight, center of balance, etc.) and gives the player an opportunity to extract an advantage through thought and planning. Whenever possible subsystems will share a common interface so tailoring requires no real learning if you’ve controlled a smith or carpenter.
Because of the pacing of the game, where you start alone and slowly build up a business, these systems will be introduced gradually and organically as you make contacts and decide who to employ. You likely won’t see many of them until subsequent playthroughs, when luck brings a brilliant tailor or renowned bard into your orbit. It should also be noted that many of these subsystems are just groupings of actions and parameters and could be performed manually, one step at a time.
Clicks are the enemy of fun. As much effort will be spent reducing clicks as programming the game. The idea is to let you delve into the details if you want to, but not more than you need to. Any time you interact with an element or make a decision you will have access to your previous reactions & logical presets.
You might spend a moment to set the exact sequence your smith will use to make the highest quality sword, using the best material and with the maximum help from apprentices. You might spend another moment differentiating between that and a cheap sword (casting bronze directly into molds, saving a bunch of steps, or maybe you found a smith with exotic skills who can fold inferior iron, adding steps but allowing sharp if brittle weapons to be made from cheaper materials). But after that you should only have to tell your smith which type to forge. Or you can queue them up with a month’s worth of weapons with a few clicks and forget about them for a while. Or leave them to their own devices, choosing the weapons and quality level based on their personality and skill so you have stock to sell without micromanaging.
Likewise once an action is taken (ie – visiting a specific merchant) you no longer have to interact with the map to repeat the action. For the spreadsheet minded players, a direct interface is also provided allowing the game to be played from a single, data heavy screen.
Stream of newness
A major part of the game, and a source for constant newness and options to play with, is the constant stream of characters you meet and employe, befriend or oppose. Whether that’s by trolling the prison yards, buying out the contracts of vicious thugs, or courting the noblest knights to join your school. Interacting with characters, figuring out how they tick and what they can do and how to take advantage of it is how you advance in the game.
The elaborate relationship tracking, combined with adaptive CYOA should cause delightful emergent gameplay to arise and for the game to surprise you even after a dozen restarts. The modular nature of the CYOA elements and characters means that, through updates, new elements can be introduced to seamlessly blend with your current sessions. Our intended devotion to community content and providing the tools to facilitate creation should make newness a constant feature of the game.
Next article we’ll get into the combat engine, it’s by far the most robust subsystem and it’s own inner game loop.