Pokemon's popular again. I like this, because I've always liked Pokemon, ∞ as I wrote at tedious length in my personal blog ∞
. Making a Pokemon-like game myself is probably the idea I've returned to the most over the years, and that flame has been rekindled by Pokemon GO. Before diving into yet another project I'll fail to finish, however, I'd like to revisit and review my old attempts at making a monster catching game; what I feel worked or didn't.
There's something about Pokemon that I suppose appeals to the hunter/gatherer instincts within us. Most games have things to kill and things to collect, but it's rare that the two are combined. The Pokemon you collect can be your pets, your friends, your army... It's easy to see why it's remained popular all these years without changing its formula at all.
It certainly spoke to me from an early age, and one of the very first games I tried to make - before even Deliverance, years before MARDEK - was an attempt at a Pokemon clone. I desperately wish I could post a playable version here, terrible and very unfinished as it was, just for the sake of my own reminiscence if nothing else, but sadly it's long lost; probably on the hard drive of some computer I replaced years ago. These days I back up everything in multiple places, but it didn't occur to me to do so then. If you have anything on your computer that you made, which can never be replaced, back it up, or you might one day regret it!
I returned to the concept around the time I was working on the first MARDEK, I think (somewhere between 2006 - 2009, according to the file dates), in the form of Beast Signer: a game with a post-apocalyptic setting where humanity now lived in a persistent virtual world, which was infested by code aberrations called 'beasts' that could only be dealt with by capturing ('signing') beasts and using them to fight other beasts... or something. It wasn't the best or most thought-out idea in the world.
Nor was it well-made. I think it's a good example of the sort of greed
that possesses many amateur games developers, myself very much included. A desire to include an epic world and story, tons of varied and interesting features, content, etc... The feature creep and bloating that destroys projects if unrestrained.
For example, there were six elements - the same as the main ones from MARDEK - which were paired up with each other to form 36 combinations (fire/fire, water/earth, earth/water, etc). Each of these combinations had its own egg, which had its own large 'growth chart' (an idea which - like much of the game - was influenced more by Digimon than Pokemon).
Each growth chart had 17 different forms, so the total number of beasts was, well, vast. Many hundreds.
And at the time, I thought it seemed reasonable, too. I thought I could make that much content by myself, and that the more content, the better and more engaging the game.
I shake my head at that naivety now.
But there's more. Battles were full of what I thought then was variety, many options. You could summon three beasts at a time, and the 'signer' could participate in some form too by summoning or using items on their turn, or attacking the enemy signer directly once their beasts were defeated (or you could just attack wild beasts directly; you didn't need to summon at all).
Each beast could use a basic non-elemental 'Strike' skill, or a basic 'Soulstrike' skill for each of its two elements, or some species had a 'Statustrike' that had a chance of inflicting a status condition, OR you could use basic stat-boosting skills (none of these cost anything, and all beasts could use them), OR you could choose from a set of special skills unique to that species.
There were 30 skill families, each with up to ten skills. Each beast species had access to up to three of these families, and would learn one skill from one of them when it evolved. Beasts could be 'merged' with one another, destroying both parents but producing an egg of their paired primary elements which would have a higher max level, and it would keep all skills it knew before... So it would have been possible for one beast to know every skill in the game.
It was all ridiculously complicated; typical of the mechanics seen in Digimon games, which change in every new Digimon game for good reason (while Pokemon mechanics are essentially - and pleasingly - the same between generations).
And it wasn't fun, either. I replayed this game the other day for the first time in years, and getting to the 'end' was a tedious chore. In most battles, I selected Strike repeatedly for every monster because their unique skills were generally worthless. I sometimes used Soultrikes, but the paired elements thing led to unsatifying and unpredictable damage multipliers like 115% (which I know because the game explicitly shows the number in order to get around how confusing and unintuitive it all is). HP was too high and damage too low, so battles just dragged on, straining my patience.
I could also talk about how deeply bland
it all was...
The monster designs are deeply uninspired, for one thing, though that's such a big topic that I'd like to write another post about it instead of trying to address it here.
The dialogue made me cringe (as is often the case with my old games), the characters all sounded pretty much the same or entirely unconvincing...
The 'visual language' as a whole lacked any kind of distinctive personality, most of the GUI was not easy at all on the eyes...
It's important to look back on early work and see its flaws like this in order to see what you've learned since then, or what you can continue to learn from your past mistakes. So if you're one of the few who remember this game fondly, I don't mean to tear it to pieces or anything. Sorry about that.
There are some things I like, though mostly because they bring back fond memories of a different time in my life and mind, or because I made them
. We all find some odd pleasure in even our bodily emissions
just because they're a part of us. Things like the music in this game are much the same to me, even if they're objectively unlikely to win any awards any time soon (other than perhaps 'Most Ears Bled' or something).
I tried (briefly) to resurrect and restart Beast Signer (as I do) a couple of times...
Though I never got past designing visuals for the battle system.
Apart from the incorrectly-embedded font in that one (which is why it's in tiny Times New Roman), I was quite fond of it back in 2009. I'd say it's a shame I never went anywhere with it, but considering what Beast Signer was, it's probably for the best.
So that's Beast Signer. I learned a lot of lessons from it - even if I didn't know it at the time - and while I don't think it's a good game and wouldn't recommend it, it was a necessary step in my development as a developer, I think.
∞ It's playable here on Fig Hunter ∞
for the curious.
I can't remember why I gave it up. I think MARDEK 3 just got all my attention.
But then, later, I think it was the release of one of the Pokemon generations that inspired me to return to this territory...
This time, it was in the form of Miasmon, a game where you trained monster-like illusions that formed out of the 'miasma' in response to thoughts and feelings, as in MARDEK. The setting was a planet called Fracture, which had been shattered to such an extent that its crust orbited a naked fiery core in the form of (miraculously inhabitable) floating islands. Archaeology was a big part of the story; people came to Fracture to learn about its history and the extinct sentient species who used to live there, the Elarna.
Both Beast Signer and Miasmon had monsters that weren't really alive (computer code, emotion-illusions) because I wanted to avoid the idea of real animals tearing each other up for humans' amusement... A trend I've continued as I've refined the miasmon concept over the years.
I started Miasmon in March 2011, and I know this because I kept an archive of its various iterations. Fittingly for a game about archaeology, I'm going to present its history here, as I personally find it fascinating watching how projects came to find their final form, and perhaps someone else will be interested too.
Here's a screenshot of the very earliest version:
Beautiful, isn't it? I'd clearly learned my lesson about creature design, and poured my heart and soul into these concepts. I still weep with delight at the sight of them in all their glory.
I made the mistake in those days of diving straight into development with the intention of figuring things out as I went along, which meant that many things had to be completely redone as I continued to work on the game and change my mind about its details.
Once some ideas actually started to formulate, I envisioned the game as being to Pokemon as MARDEK was to Final Fantasy. That is, a sort of parody that played with the familiar formulae while still being engaging in its own right rather than just a throwaway joke.
With that in mind, I thought it'd be interesting to tell the story from the perspective of the Professor archetype who always appears as a key - but mostly background - part of the Pokemon formula. The protagonist, then, became Francis Marmalade, an old scientist who came to Fracture to research the 'Ancients', but inadvertently found and reverse-engineered 'gauntlets' that could be worn to capture and control monsters that formed from the miasma. Monsters killed his wife during the process, however, and he grew resentful when his work on the gauntlets was widely released and training monsters became a fad, as it took the attention away from archaeology (and, of course, because they killed his wife). He became a hermit to avoid it all, but the story began when two young archaeologists came seeking his aid.
That's him talking to his dead wife in a pixel font I made that I later deemed ugly and replaced.
Since Fracture was another world, I wanted it to look as such, with unfamiliar colours... But it wasn't working, psychologically. It just felt wrong rather than intriguingly otherwordly, as my art skills weren't adequate to convey what I hoped to.
I think this was the time that I was working on those art skills, though, finally learning how to 'draw properly' after years of just putting pen to (digital) paper and hoping for the best. It's then that I tried doing proper detailed sprites, inspired by those of the Generation III Pokemon games...
...And I was also trying to do proper concept art of characters, rather than drawing them directly into the game without thought as I always had in the past. I felt that the professor protagonist - while interesting - just wasn't working, and instead decided that the player could choose between a male or female younger archaeologist instead. I named them after colours, in Pokemon fashion: Zaffre and Cerise.
My art skills back then weren't great (though I know there are people who'd get annoyed at me saying that if that's better than what they can do), because I was naive, and still beginning my journey of self-improvement. But still, the point was that I was actually trying to think things through, to plan and design rather than just using whatever mind-farts came up, unrefined, as I had in the past.
I know this must seem blindingly obvious to a lot of people, the idea that it's best to plan things in detail before starting work on them, but to me it was an epiphany; I really did think in the past that my improvisational way of developing was sensible and sustainable, and after this change of direction, everything I'd done in the past seemed so foolish by comparison.
Anyway, skipping ahead, I also played Miasmon before writing this, but unlike with Beast Signer, it wasn't a chore at all. If anything, I was sad when it was over; disappointed that I never did more with it.
I spent a big part of my life on it - at least two years, I think - and it's very much like MARDEK in that it's stupid
, in a silly kind of way. So different to the deeper sort of stuff I might pretentiously try to do these days. Some of its humour makes me a bit embarrassed since it is
from years ago, but I feel it's a huge step up from Beast Signer at least. I never much cared for the story or characters (other than perhaps the two protagonists), but I feel it was a fun enough little world to spend three hours in.
I feel that the battle system is massively superior to Beast Signer in particular. It has its issues, of course, but it's simpler
, and much better for it. The Digimon influences are mostly gone, and it's very much a Pokemon clone. Again, I got greedy in some regards - instead of having just four skills, monsters could have twelve - but simplification in other areas somewhat made up for it.
The levelling and stat systems were based on Dungeons & Dragons, where each individual point means a lot. I never really liked how in games like Pokemon and other JRPGs, you had a bunch of stats with high numbers that weren't really within your control anyway; they just got bigger as you increased your level, and that was that. And they got much bigger, so a Pokemon might have a stat with a value of 8 at level 1 and 315 at level 100 or something. I just found it personally more appealing how a character in D&D would be considered essentially superhuman at level 13 and with a strength of 18; how every point or level really felt like it meant
something, so getting a magic ring that increased a stat by a single point actually felt valuable.
I also had the stats display in battle, and altering them became a big part of the gameplay. Skills that raised or lowered them did so by a random number of points, so there was always a feeling of tension and chance which evoke emotions that certainty can't.
I was also fond of the ability to choose your own skills when levelling up; another idea from D&D. Monsters all started with two skills, but each species had a list of skills it could learn, and every odd-numbered level you could select a new one (and every even-numbered level you could choose to add a valuable point to a single stat). This form of controlled, customisable growth appeals to me more than all the more random things like Natures and IVs that Pokemon have, where even if you know what you want, you either have to be patient or cheat to get it.
I'm uncertain about other gameplay aspects, however. You acquired monsters not by catching them in the wild, but by defeating enough of a certain species to gain its 'essence', which - once you had 100% - you could use to 'clone' members of that species infinitely for a small fee. This meant that you didn't have storage boxes cluttered up by monsters you had no intention of training, but it also meant that the clones were, well, clones; it was more difficult to forge a personal connection and story with each one because you knew you'd just created it and could easily create others identical to it. It's a minor thing in terms of objective mechanics, but I feel it makes a big difference in how the player engages with the experience on a psychological level.
I'm fond of the music, too. I liked the Beast Signer music as well, since it was made by me, but I feel that Miasmon's might actually be okay on an objective level too. I mean, it's nothing compared to what a professional could do, and there are some bits that are still harsh on the ears, but it's something I'd be happy to show off to a stranger with a sort of pride.
The game as a whole is, actually, and I'd recommend at least giving it a go if you never have before. ∞ It's on Fig Hunter here ∞
(though I may upload a slightly-tweaked version here and more publicly soon?).
Sadly, I gave up on Miasmon... I don't remember the details too well, but I think it was because my girlfriend had dumped me, I was struggling immensely to manage Fig Hunter, my anxiety and depression were at their worst, and the less-than-thrilled responses of beta testers made me feel - with a deep sigh - like I should just start the whole thing again (not their fault; they were trying to make the game be as good as it could be, but I'm too much of a perfectionist and felt the only way to do that was to start from scratch). Basically, I was going through a terrible time mentally - fallen into a hole I've only recently made significant progress towards climbing out of - and this happened to be one of the several projects that met its end because of that.
I did however continue to cling to the concept in the back of my mind, entertaining the idea of returning to it in some form one day.
During 2013 - 2014, I went briefly to university to study Video Games Arts, and in my free time while there I experimented with more planned-out and stylised monster designs based on the old ones from Miasmon.
I enjoyed it, so I came up with some new ones, too.
This also seems to be the year when I developed the world of Alora Fane, and moved from a fairly bland visual style...
...to something more stylised.
I was working on my 'voice' as a designer, honing the skills I'd only ever been an amateur at before (I say, as if I'm anything better now!). Most of what I produced during this time were private studies and experiments that I used to develop my skills or learn new ones.
(I also worked on something called 'Programon' for a while during this period, which was a redesign-of-sorts of Beast Signer, but I can't seem to find any files of it... Maybe they're lost too. Odd.)
In 2014, with a couple of years of hard art study under my belt, I redrew some of the Miasmon characters as Alora Fane races:
Cerise, as a Meek.
Zaffre, as a Bold.
Francis Marmalade, as a Bold.
And Sienna, also as a Bold.
I think it might have been the release of Pokemon Generation VI that rekindled my interest in monster-catching games, just as the release of Generation V had largely spurred the development of the original Miasmon.
As I was going through a stage of self-doubt and uncertainty, what with being single for years, struggling with isolation and depression and the allure of suicide, getting older, failing to find meaning in life, trying to do something that would 'mean something' in order to address all those things and make me even slightly happy, etc, I struggled to make decisions and came up with various ideas for a 'New Miasmon', none of which really went anywhere.
Miasmon Farm Sim
I was trying to make the leap from Flash browser games to mobile apps, and one idea for that - based on what few mobile games I'd actually played - was a Miasmon farm sim.
As you can see, that didn't last long. You'd collect new trainers/archaeologists, assign them miasmon, and send them off to explore ruins and have battles and things... I planned it in detail, but my heart wasn't really in it, and I felt that - as always - I'd planned something too big for me to realistically finish.
I tried instead to make something smaller-scale, but relatively innovative. I didn't want to copy either Pokemon or Digimon when it came to monster combat or evolution. So I came up with the idea of what I called 'perianths':
Essentially, you'd have this core that you could insert 'petals' into (up to six, forming the Alora Fane 'aster' flower thing), and each petal would have a sentiment, associated skill, and its own HP. The petals that you included determined the form of your miasmon; Hide + Cuteness = Modestoat, Anger + Creepy-Crawly = Carminymph, etc. The form determined the basic attack, defence and speed stats (flowerily called Intensity, Stability and Alacrity).
Each miasmon had a speed bar (like Final Fantasy's ATB). When full, you'd click a petal on your perianth to use that skill (or click the core to use a non-sentimental skill similar to Pokemon's Struggle). Skills would always hit ALL of the opponent's petals, though, and petals would absorb damage of their own sentiment. So if for example you used a Courage skill against an opponent with a Fear petal and a Courage one, the Fear one might be damaged heavily by it, but the Courage one would absorb the damage, up to 200% of its original HP. A skill's power would be tied to its petal's HP, so you'd actually empower the opponent by doing this. Petals would shatter when reduced to 0 HP, rendering them unusable for that battle and perhaps even changing the miasmon's form. Skills could also stun the opponent, pausing its speed bar temporarily.
Returning to it now, I don't think this is a terrible
system... It's certainly much more interesting than Beast Signer's. But I wonder whether it's difficult to understand, and whether there'd actually be all that much strategy to it in the long run (it doesn't feel like there is in the workable prototype that I have).
I'm tempted to develop something workable and releasable out of it, but I don't think it's worth the effort.
Miasmon RPG (Again)
I thought perhaps I should try again to make a full-length RPG out of Miasmon... This time, I didn't get very far at all, though some of these early development screenshots are... interesting.
It uses the same graphics I eventually used for Taming Dreams (which - in the case of the tile style at least - originated in Alora Fane: Creation), and again starred the same characters and general setting, though now Fracture was a 'petal' of Alora Fane rather than a planet in itself.
It was similarish to the other Miasmon in mechanics, though instead of having up to twelve skills, you built up to six in a perianth:
You could have up to three characters on your party at once, each with up to six miasmon, and you could switch between them at any time (greed!):
When a miasmon levelled up, it gained a skill point, which could be used to add +1 to a stat...
...or to 'purchase' skills from that species' list:
These choices were reversible at any time from the menu, so if you made a choice you regretted, it didn't have to stick.
Skills had sentiments, which determined most of the type effectiveness, but monsters also had body types...
...which worked in an odd sort of way, with each body type being effective against the three clockwise in this cycle, and weak against the three anticlockwise. Since monsters could have up to two body types, it could be sort of counterintuitive.
As with all of these projects, there are things I like and things I don't about this one. If I were to return to it, I'd definitely give up the multiple party members, and likely body types, as they all add unnecessary content and complexity that creates an understanding barrier while offering only minor value or depth.
Pokemon's type effectiveness system is so enviably elegant in its simplicity and depth; it's intuitive enough, but offers so many possibilities. I wonder though how it feels to someone who hasn't had years to grow familiar with the type match-ups... Hmm.
Though that's the last time I tried to make a game based entirely around monster catching, I incorporated monster taming mechanics into Taming Dreams, though monsters became more akin to equippable weapons than pets that you raised individually.
I do think that the miasmon designs for that game were my best yet, though, and I'd like to do more with them!
The biggest thing that I notice looking at Pokemon - Pokemon GO in particular - and these old projects of mine, it's that simplicity is key
. Bloating and complexity restrict access to a game by presenting a steep learning curve; baffling mechanics and awkward menus just put people off. But make a game where the entirety of the mechanics could be described in one sentence and, well, that's the key to wide success. "Easy to learn, hard to master".
I would neither expect nor want any game I ever make to become the next Pokemon GO. I'm not deluded enough to think I'm capable of that, and I couldn't cope with the pressure of it even if such a thing did happen.
BUT. I'm always influenced by the games I play and enjoy, and Pokemon GO is no exception. It'd be foolish to ignore the way that people have reacted to it, immersed themselves in it, and instead keep carrying on along an old road that might lead nowhere.
I've made little progress on my own games recently because I've been trying to work away at Soulmate (well, that and the brain tumour)... But the story's getting in the way. I feel that it's a story I'd love to tell... but it's difficult to write engaging stories; so easy to mess up and fail to engage or earn ridicule or cringe with embarrassment at your own efforts.
The Pokemon games barely have a plot, and Pokemon GO has none. While I've always thought that the plot is the most compelling part of any game, that I played RPGs because I liked engaging interactive stories, now I'm not so sure...
I mean, one of the biggest appeals of games over other forms of media is that you can make the story your own.
Pokemon GO has no built-in story... But every player has their
Pokemon GO story, and isn't that a wonderful thing? It's the ultimate customisation, in a sense. You don't need some kind of choose-your-adventure style multiple choices endings to make every story unique. You just need to make a game that's a tool that the person can incorporate into their own story that's happening every day of their lives, or a world they can explore in a way that suits them without too many limitations.
In Soulmate, the monsters you'd tame would essentially be negative thoughts, as in Taming Dreams (except instead of forming from some abstract 'miasma', they're part of Oneira's mind, as is the game's whole world).
But what if I made a monster training game which was built around that concept?
What if instead of little, weak monsters evolving into 'stronger' forms, dark and negative monsters evolved into nicer, more positive forms the more you were able to use them to tame negative thoughts and improve your state of mind?
I don't mean some vast story-driven RPG... Rather, something which has the monsters and nothing much else. Perhaps several random monsters would appear for you each day, and you'd get a notification if they did. Then you'd be able to 'battle' against them (in the rapport-building sense) in order to train your own and tame them. Perhaps each would voice a type of negative thought when it appeared, and the positive version of that thought when tamed (as is the plan for Soulmate). I don't know.
Any ideas I have about this right now are vague at best, but I am wondering whether I could make something that's more of a 'conceptual tool' than an hours-long story quest thing. Something you can pick up and play and know fully within minutes, but which you want to keep picking up again and again anyway. Something I don't have to spend months on or plan as episodes in order to tell the story that I want to tell.
While I want to make Soulmate as some vast game available on Steam, perhaps making some monster-taming thing for mobiles now while Pokemon's popular would be wise. Or at least worth a try. I'll be able to look back on all these lessons learned and hopefully not repeat mistakes.
But I don't know. I just know that I've poured a lot of my life into Pokemon and my own projects based on it, and amidst the energy-sapping depression and my increasing age, the genre still retains its ability to inspire and uplift me.