Firstly, ∞ here's the Android version of Taming Dreams ∞
! I want to talk about TD a bit here, but also my games development as a whole. For years, I've been going around in circles, repeating patterns and getting nowhere. I start projects that are supposed to be short and fast and profitable, but they grow out of control and become too big to manage, so my attention is taken to new ideas instead. However, I feel that with each revolution, I get closer and closer to the point I've been circling. I'm able to take the best parts of my previous ideas and combine them into new ideas that are (I feel) better than those that came before. Creation is largely a process of trial and error anyway; nobody creates a masterpiece without leaving a trail of failures in their wake. My uncertainty about Taming Dreams that I spoke of in my ∞ last post ∞
has led to me looking back on all the games I've started and never finished, wondering whether cannibalising them might lead to the elusive holy grail I've been searching for (that is, a quick-to-make but profitable game). I've come up with four ideas
I could potentially explore.
The Early Days
Before I actually released anything, I made several RPGs (using self-made precursors of what would become MARDEK's engine), but finished none. All were vaguely planned; I basically made the story up as I went along, and - following the pattern of the games I'd grown up with - all were intended to be vast, epic stories spanning fifty hours and a whole world. No wonder they never worked out!
MARDEK was an attempt to remedy this by breaking a story up into chapters instead, so then I didn't have to finish it all at once before I could release it. Its files were (and still are) in a folder called 'QuickQuests', and in that folder is a text file called 'Ideas' where I wrote my very first thoughts about what the game might be. It includes this:
This engine could be used for multiple short RPG story things that I could finish quickly and release in extremely short chapters... Which take like less than an hour to finish, and which all link on to each other,
and are released like every week or so maybe...
It's amusing - though disheartening - to know that while that was the plan, it didn't quite work out that way. The chapters became increasingly bloated, and after spending three years on the third and earning a pittance, the 'quick games for profit' thing seemed like quite a joke!
The next few years (and I suppose during the development of MARDEK 3 as well) were spent experimenting with many new ideas in the hope that one might be this perfect project I could make in a few days or weeks and keep up with without being caught up in feature creep. Some ideas built on old ones, and the following concepts are definitely examples of that.
Each of these ideas intrigues me, though I feel that each would suit quite a different audience! All would work relatively well on mobiles, I feel.
Idea 1 - Yden
Not too long ago, I was trying to cement my knowledge of facial anatomy so as to improve my drawing skills by writing a program which generated faces according to mathematical rules, including 'genes' for random variation. I wondered what the results might be if the faces bred, combining their genes. And what it might be like if those faces had bodies. And personalities. And so on. From this, a game called Yden was born, which I wrote about in detail ∞ in this post ∞
It was a sim where you designed, looked after, and bred these little people, and I really, reeeeally liked it. Checking up on people's relationships, seeing their family trees, building their bonds with others... Seeing the results when two bred and watching their children grow... It was like a drug for me. Addictive. I could spend hours upon hours absorbed in it. I suppose it combined my love of virtual pets, character design, and social bonding in a way that lacked frills and distractions and focused entirely on the bits that spoke to me.
I'd basically finished the game within less than a month. The only reason I didn't release it was because I was uncertain of the process; I'd made the game in Flash, but felt there was no profit to be made in the Flash scene, so I held back until a better course of action became apparent. I also didn't want to be criticised for making that rather than a continuation of MARDEK, so I just kept it to myself for ages. I continued to play it on and off for months, though. I still return to it every so often! Probably more than any of my other games.
I know it wouldn't really appeal to teenage boys, but I can see women getting a lot out of it since it's based around things that might appeal to them. I feel it's a project that might have wider appeal than a story-driven RPG, and it might be a constant source of revenue if people pay for cheap in-app purchases regularly instead of not-as-cheap one-shot episodes much more rarely.
While I was fond of the old version of Yden shown in those screenshots, I attempted to make a version of it that might work on mobiles, and in doing so I rewrote the code that generates the faces and bodies.
The characters are much more stylised now, though I feel they might look too realistic, to the point where it's creepy (also, I'm aware the women are topless; that would obviously be changed eventually!). I never got any further with development than the couple of days spent doing that sometime last year.
I'd like to get back to it, though, since I really did feel that I enjoyed both working on and playing the game a lot. It'd be the sort of thing that'd run in the background, requiring constant maintenance, like a virtual pet, and I feel that would hold people's interest more than a finishable story like Taming Dreams.
There's also the fact that - from a development standpoint - once it's done, it's done; I don't need to worry about writing a lot of story or dialogue or anything, or producing future episodes to add more content. Instead I could add little assets and features here and there whenever the mood took me, without the pressure of promises to live up to.
So yes. That's one of the options I'm considering. But of course there are others...
Idea 2 - Alora Fane: Creation
Before I started developing my own games, I spent much of my time with a game called Neverwinter Nights, which allowed you to make your own 'modules' - that is, stories - for others to play. I loved that... I'd always preferred games with map editors, because I suppose I wanted to create more than I wanted to play.
One of my first ideas was called Fig Hunter Online, which would allow players to make their own RPG stories using the game's engine, which they could share with others, rate, etc.
I started on that idea four times, starting way back in 2004, before I even made Deliverance, I think! The first three didn't last longer than a couple of days, though the fourth one turned into something that at least some people here will have played or at least seen.
It was fairly generic, though, and didn't really bring anything new to the table.
My interest in this same idea was rekindled yet again recently in the form of Alora Fane: Creation (originally called DreamQuest), which was of course set in the Alora Fane world, though its mechanics were less original than Taming Dreams'.
I really liked it, and it worked well! I poured tons of time and creative effort and ideas into it, essentially finished its soundtrack... The only reason it never ended up being released was because I still wasn't sure how to make a decent profit from Flash games. I love the creative process, but always seem to stumble at the point where I actually have to release my baby out into the world!
It would be a shame for AFC to be abandoned entirely, to end up as nothing. So I've been wondering whether I could return to it in some form...
However! One of the key design principles of AFC was simplicity; I wanted it to be easy for everyone to use to make their own stories, rather than being too complicated and inaccessible for the average person with neither creative or technical inclinations. At first it was very much that, but over time, as I wanted to add greater nuance to my own stories, it grew too complicated and the map editor became too esoteric.
If I were to make a mobile version of AFC (which I'd probably rename), I'd remake it from scratch with the intention of maximising simplicity and therefore accessibility, without sacrificing the power of the tool. I've been thinking a bit about the ways in which I might do this, looking back to old projects for inspiration.
Perhaps the biggest problem with AFC was crafting the areas. While it was nice to make your own towns and caves and such, it was so easy to 'do it wrong', or to end up with areas that all felt very samey anyway and didn't contribute much to, well, anything. So I've been thinking about another way to approach building the world in which the stories take place.
Back in school, when I was about 15 or 16 - around the same time I was playing around with Neverwinter Nights - I had a graphics calculator (as required by my maths classes), on which I attempted to make my very first game. It was a text adventure called 'Lone Wolf', and - while teaching myself programming basics - I recoded it in C++. It looked like this:
Exciting, right?? For whatever reason - probably just sentimentality - I kept returning to this game, and tried once to remake it in Flash, keeping mostly the text-based format but adding some rudimentary graphics. It turned out like this:
Much fun was had. I mainly enjoyed programming silly commands and the results thereof; typing "slit wrists" when you'd lost both your arms and such. Oh, what a lark. Oh me oh my.
It never really went anywhere, but I did attempt yet again to return to the idea a few years later, this time in the form of a game called 'Marooned', where you played as a naked amnesiac who had to survive on an island by fashioning brassiers out of coconut shells and the like.
I mention these because their worlds consisted of a series of 'rooms', visible on the map on the right (most clearly on the Marooned screenshot). You'd travel between rooms by specifying one of the cardinal directions, and each room would have one or more important objects in it (an item, NPC, monster, or whatever else).
(Technically, most of my games are built up of 'rooms' like this, but I'm referring specifically here to rooms that have no individual area maps and instead act as abstractions without explicit form.)
I wondered then whether I could use a similar concept for the mobile version of AFC. Rather than spending forever crafting complex areas full of bad terrain and misplaced script triggers, instead you'd simply build a grid of rooms, adding key objects to each one. One room might contain an NPC, another might trigger a conversation when you enter it, another might have a monster. Each room could have its own style (forest, cave, house, village), music and name. Villages would be built by adding house rooms amongst external/village rooms, that kind of thing.
This would probably eliminate the need for explicit movement. That is, the only moving your character would do would be between rooms, so that means no awkward swipe-walking or d-pad simulation. I understand that this would feel far less satisfying than having full control, but it'd be much easier on mobiles and would considerably cut down both development time and the time that people would have to spend building their own stories.
The original AFC included battles and monsters... and while I know that such a thing would be expected and appealing in a mobile version, I wonder whether instead I could further cut down on asset requirements AND make the game perhaps more remarkable by focusing entirely on social elements, such that the only creatures you encounter are human(oid) (probably the five barbari races of Alora Fane).
After making Clarence's Big Chance several years ago, I planned and started on an RPG sequel, imaginatively called Clarence RPG.
Since it was based in the modern world, I didn't want to rely on boring swords and sorcery battles. It seemed more amusing to make 'battles' be social encounters, especially since the characters were socially inept anyway; it amused me greatly to think of smiling at or ogling your opponents to reduce their willpower and end an awkward encounter rather than beating them up until they fell down.
I liked the idea a lot but, as always, I'd set too large a project for myself, and my interest in the rather puerile humour of it all wore off as I began to embrace my more emotional side instead. Emotions became less of a joke and more of a source of meaning, which led to the development of a similar - but less stupid - project called Timid Cervid.
In this, you played as a deer girl with social anxiety, who - like in Clarence RPG - dealt with the people in her world through battle-like awkward encounters, during which she and they used skills based around common social actions like smiling and joking and insulting and caring rather than aggression and physical dominance.
Obviously these systems were precursors of Alora Fane's sentiments, but I wonder whether I could make a clearer return to the 'battles as social encounters' thing for the AFC mobile version.
One thing that I noticed when people made AFC quests was that while the game had a battle system, it was rarely useful or necessary; it seemed more interesting and important to either have no battles or to have battles represent silly social encounters anyway. My own quests which had more typical RPG-like plotless monster encounters that you could use to build your character's stats seemed tedious by comparison.
So. I'm wondering whether I could do away with battling, monsters, and explicit character growth and instead have a 'battle' system which is essentially social. Your character wouldn't grow in that they'd build their stats by levelling up, but they might use runes and excitement as in Taming Dreams, and clothing and mementos might alter runes or grant new social skills to use in these encounters. Stories, then, could be built like puzzles, if desired; your quest might involve going somewhere to learn how to smile if you want to impress a jolly person (which amuses me more than collecting some sword or spell to slay a villain).
It's different, and that unfamiliarity might be off-putting to people (and as such a betrayal of the 'simple and accessible' philosophy I'd be trying to adhere to), but it might also make the game more remarkable than just a watered-down RPG maker clone. It might also make people think about 'battles' differently if they were using the assets they were given to create stories rather than being provided with weapons and monsters and going down the old familiar routes.
All the characters, then, might be barbari/humans, which of course you could customise facially and by equipping them with clothing and such. It could be quite interesting!
It also has the benefit of being done once it's done; I wouldn't have to keep adding new episodes over the course of years before I could call it finished. I'd make some example stories, of course. The biggest problem is monetisation; knowing what to charge for. The app itself? Objects to use in your quests? I wonder.
Again, it's just an idea, based on ideas I've had and liked in the past. Whether or not I'll decide to do any work on it remains to be seen, but I can't imagine it'd take very long, especially if I used the music I'd already composed for the old AFC.
Idea 3 - Taming Dreams V2
This would essentially be a revision of Taming Dreams, trimmed down to six episodes, with possibly similar mechanics but a different story and cast of characters. It would likely have a different title and be released as a different game, so as not to suggest that I'd abandoned Taming Dreams in favour of this.
The key concept behind many of the events in Taming Dreams is that we pursue happiness according to three ideals:
(things will be better in the future, or were in the past),
(if I'm impressive and people like me, I'll be happy) and
(removing bad things and keeping good ones will lead to happiness).
These are called the three False Ideals, and the point is that they don't
lead to happiness. They're illusions that must be shed - or tamed - in order to reveal their corresponding True Ideals:
(being in the moment rather than dwelling in the past or future),
(calming the inner 'self' so then you no longer tie your happiness to being 'someone' / impressive), and
(refraining from labelling anything as 'bad' or 'good').
However, since I was trying to also stick to the events of MARDEK's story (since Taming Dreams was meant as reboot of that series), the integration of these ideals is sloppy. Some characters sort of represent one, but not clearly, and various events relate to them, but it's far from obvious. The reason there are different 'boss' music tracks (Tame Thyself, Be Now) is because each corresponds to a different Ideal pair, but again, nothing is really elegantly set up at all.
The biggest thing I'd do with the revised story would be to have a cast of three primary characters, each of whom would represent one of the three (false) ideals, and their growth would move towards the true ideal. Predictable, perhaps, but I use stories to convey meaning and messages rather than simply for the sake of drama. And the Ideal would simply serve as a guide, a path; much could happen along the way even if the goal is known.
I'd also structure the story formulaically around these ideals: episode 1 would introduce the protagonist, episode 2 would have her meet the other two, the next three would each deal with one of the Ideals specifically (and to a large extent the personal story of the character linked to that ideal), and the final episode would tie all the threads together and result in a climax and resolution to it all.
You might have noticed that I referred to the primary protagonist as 'she'... It seems that all my work has repeated patterns. Like I'm trying to tell one - or possibly two - stories again and again, because none of my attempts work as well as I want. MARDEK was a revision of Deliverance, in many ways, which was a revision of earlier works with similar themes and characters. And of course Taming Dreams is a revision of MARDEK; another attempt to tell the same tale.
There's a particular female protagonist I've put in most of my stories over the last few years, who has traits and drives that resonate with my own. She's sensitive, depressed, anxious, and longs for some ideal 'soulmate' who'll save her from the unfulfilling mediocrity of her real life. Who'll make her happy. This is a (ridiculous) thought that I - and many others - struggle with; once the perfect partner comes along, everything else will fall into place. Life will be complete. Then I'll be loved. Then I'll be happy.
It is of course delusional thinking, and once a partner DOES come along, this idealism only highlights their imperfections and leads to despair. So I'd like to use this character - and the story that emerges from her being driven by this dream - to explore the futility of it all. I'd like to write a story about chasing phantoms and finding yourself at the end. Finding freedom from longing.
This character has had many names throughout the years.
Acorn Nose; the protagonist of Timid Cervid...
Fianait, from a game called Wyrmholes that I made little progress with...
Caoimhe, from a thing I made in AFC...
And others. Marella from something called Halcyon Dreams, Erin from Wavelengths... This same theme repeated.
It's a character (type) that has a very special place in my own heart, but I know that she might be off-putting to others; reactions from the few who saw Caoimhe in AFC weren't exactly sparklingly positive (though when I wrote her, I was trapped in thinking I actually WOULD be happy following those false ideals (not that I knew them as such at the time), though now I'd use the character and story to basically deconstruct and dispel them). I know that the 'soulmate' or 'perfect partner' idea isn't especially relatable, especially amongst young males who seek fulfillment in conquest and power rather than meaningful romantic bonds.
The story would begin with this character (as yet unnamed) telling her Soulmate how he makes her so happy... though she awakens from the dream she's in and finds that her real life isn't nearly as nice as that. I'd hope that the relationship elements and desire for perfection might be relatable; everyone's probably thought similar thoughts at some point (have they?), and relationships are perhaps one of the most gripping parts of both fiction and reality.
But I don't know. It runs the risk of making her seem like she's dependent on a man and as such is not one of those 'strong, independent women' we're all supposed to root for these days (which bothers me because the implication is that only by adopting masculine personality traits does someone become worthwhile). The romanticism of it all might be off-putting to those who would be likely to find the game too. I don't know.
On the other hand, this is what my ~soul as an artist~ longs for; it's what I really deeply want
to create. It's what inspires me. Should I ignore that potent muse in order to focus on something more potentially popular? I don't know.
I have other ideas for this sketch of a story, though perhaps I shouldn't spoil too much right at the start.
Mechanics-wise, I've been thinking about how people disliked the lack of side-quests and the apparent pointlessness of the NPCs who blathered on in Taming Dreams; some people also felt the agitation ('battles') were just tacked on.
So. Perhaps - again in a similar style to the AFC idea - NPCs would be the source of 'agitation' in some way. Almost like Pokemon trainers; encountering one might either lead to a 'social encounter' or to the summoning of miasmon in order to somehow cleanse or cure the person's mind. Each episode could have various NPCs who deal with different facets of the Ideal which that episode is about (so in the Longing episode, one NPC might pine for the past, another for the future, another for something to arrive or leave...), and you'd be able to roam around that episode's world helping as many as you could (giving the player freedom rather than keeping them on rails). Once you'd helped a certain amount (not all), you'd be able to face the episode's 'boss', which would involve venturing more deeply into a specific character's mind in the form of a dreamlike dungeon in order to save them from their demons.
Perhaps, then, I could even combine this idea with the AFC one, using this as the story I'd use the AFC engine to build. It's certainly a possibility, but I'm not certain about it.
There's a lot about this idea that I've not said here, so I know that constructing a whole from what scraps you've been given might lead to something that seems on the surface unappealing. I wish I could say more, but, well, if I do make this, I don't want to spoil it all before I even begin!
Idea 4 - Taming Dreams
My fourth idea isn't something new. It's to basically just carry on with what I've already got, to try to make episode 4 of Taming Dreams.
On the one hand, I really do like what I've done with Taming Dreams... But on the other, I've been with it for a long time now, and I can't deny that my interest has waned. I mean, it started as a Flash game, and I spent months converting it to a mobile format, which took a lot of the wind out of my sails. Then coming to university and realising I'll have to stick with the project for years for it to reach its end get to me as well.
I've poured too much of my heart into it to give it up. It's a reboot of my 'magnum opus', I suppose, so I feel it deserves to be finished. The only reason I'm considering the other ideas is because it'd be nice to have something out of the way first!
So yes. Various ideas. All appeal to me in different ways and for different reasons, and all are steeped in uncertainty at the moment.
Once I publicly promote Taming Dreams, I won't be able to go backwards and work on one of the others without annoying a (hopefully!) large number of people, so this might be my last chance to try something different for a while. I think I'll at least give it a go, especially if it results in me realising I actually really want to be working on Taming Dreams instead of something else!