Monday, April 23, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire: a Tale of Four Screens

Today we're going to talk about the off-season mini-game as well as the development process. Let's get started.

Everything in the game needs to have substance. A decision without impact or consequences isn't a decision--it's just busywork. Busywork makes games feel repetitive and makes people quit playing them. I want Gridiron Solitaire to be the kind of game that people can play for months or even years, but for that to happen, everything must have substance.

The offseason, for example.

It would be simpler to just go from one season to the next with nothing in-between. The CPU team ratings already change each year, so it would be easy to do that for the human team as well. But who wants their team ratings to change without them having any say in the process?

So the offseason mini-game was born.

Here's the original concept: create a "franchise deck" with hundreds of different cards, each one of which represents a player who could improve one of your team ratings (run offense, pass offense, run defense, pass defense, or special ). However, the improvement isn't guaranteed--there's a "bomb" factor for each card, so it's possible that your team ratings might actually decrease.

That's what the real-world draft and free agency are like. Every player has an upside, but every player also has a risk. Also, the worse your team record from the previous season, the better your cards will be (representing a higher position in the draft). It's not absolute-- everything is based on probabilities--but in general, the worse your team played, the better your cards.

Each card has a +/-rating to represent their potential, as well as a grade (A through F) to represent the risk of playing the card.

Five cards are dealt, and the player plays three. There's one card for each team rating, and the ratings you don't play cards for automatically decreae their rating by 1 point (1-10 scale).

I know--that's a lot of information--so take a look at a screenshot:

To give the cards more personality, each one has a band name, with a positive and negative song from that band. And there's a player description (which is hopefully also full of personality).

I like this screen because because it's self-evident. Most people would come to the screen for the first time and have no problem playing the mini-game. Plus, to me, it's attractive. It's a reasonably nice-looking screen.

So I was very pleased with that, and the mini-game as well, in the first pass. After a couple of months, though, I started thinking more about the long-term player. In terms of gameplay, the mini-game is very vanilla. It's also not nearly as interesting as pro football in real life, where there's all kinds of wheeling and dealing in the offseason.

Well, that's not too hard to fix. I thought of two additional options: one, the player can move a pick from next season into this season (to give him four instead of three--BUT he'll lose one pick next year). Two, the player can improve the quality of all of his cards one letter grade in exchange for losing two draft picks next year.

No, you can't upgrade your cards and also pull in an additional pick from next season. Nice try, min-maxers.

This gives you some interesting options, particularly because the quality of your cards is loosely based on your team's record from the previous season. If you went 3-12 last season, your cards will most likely have higher letter grades (and a few +2 or maybe even +3 possibilities), so trading for an additional pick when the cards are strong is a solid strategy.

At the opposite end, if you went 12-3, your cards will be weaker, maybe significantly so. Improving all of them by one letter grade might well be worth the cost of losing two picks next season.

I think the additional options more fully reflect the pro football offseason, so that's good. And it makes the mini-game more challenging, with more decisions.

There are, however, complications.

Let's try laying out that screen to add the new options. Here's the first pass:

(that screenshot is taken from a layout testbed I use, which doesn't include all of the code-behind, which is why the cards don't have descriptions etc.)

Hmm. Setting off the additional options in their own shaded areas seems to work (and "picks remaining" is a good addition), but man, that screen is cluttered now--it has to be better looking than that. I know that in terms of functionality, this is totally unimportant, but a game is more than just its functionality. Plus, it's no longer self-evident.

I do two things at this point: send it to the project artist Fredrik Skarstedt and ask him for suggestions, and send it to John Harwood and ask him as well.

The next day (today), Fredrik sends me this:

The screen is still busy, but I really like the "banner" approach to the additional gameplay options. Very nice. Plus, it's very clever that he slightly blurred the background so that the gameplay options stand out more sharply. There's one thing I don't like, which is how close the banner points are to the cards (it makes me think that the banner option applies to just the card at which they're pointing). I'm also not sure about the shape around the picks remaining stars, even though it's quite stylish.

I think I can hybridize his vision and my vision into something that I want, though.

I send Fredrik's image to John, and he doesn't like the closeness of the banner points to the cards, either. He makes a very clever suggestion, though: cut a few words out of the text and make the banners a little wider. That would create more space between the banner points and the cards.

Combined, I think that will work. And I will put up the fourth screenshot later today, when it's finished.

This is kind of a typical example of how things have gone for me in the development process (once I learned enough XAML and VB.Net to actually program the damn thing). The mini-game probably only takes 2-3 minutes to play each offseason, but I've spent 30+ hours on the layout, the card deck, and the code-behind. I want every second that someone spends in the game to be both pleasant and interesting, and creating that experience can take a long time.

Okay, I owe you a screenshot. I'm going to start working on it now.

Site Meter