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Grid Adventure icon

Grid Adventure

Unity, 2018

  • One game series I never expected to fall madly, obsessively in love with was Etrian Odyssey. While hardcore RPGs don't normally do it for me, the combination of turn based tactics and the series staple of drawing your own maps immediately and overwhelming hooked me! Somewhat predictably, my only issue with the game is the RPG part - where's the game that's just drawing maps?

  • Finding the core loop of map drawing, however, turns out to be tricky! A big reason: map drawing in Etrian Odyssey is optional - there's no game mechanics or gameplay loops around doing maps properly. Rather, they're a useful tool for players, so that they can easily move through dungeons. All of the gameplay rules exist around the RPG, leaving map drawing as a compelling, but unnecessary, side activity.

  • So when making map drawing the core of the experience, there's an expectation of accuracy. It's no long a means to an end - it's the means and the end. First, in changing input from stylus to finger, the line wall drawing had to go (Fingers aren't accurate enough!) Instead input is entirely cell based. The idea was to have players draw in each cell's color and topography. Here's a level from the first prototype:

  • In this version, players are graded based on accuracy and the number of moves made. This combination feels like a natural balance - the more you move the more you can see. As you get better mapping the 3D space into 2D, the less you'll need to move. This one had some fun implementation details (like making the view cone accurate to the camera's POV, including being blocked by tall objects), but ultimately didn't capture the fun of Etrian Odyssey. For one, the randomness left a lot to be desired. As well, the tension between moves and accuracy was too punishing in practice.

  • Back to the drawing board! Here's two levels from the second prototype:

  • This time, I decided to simply the objective to color only. There's tools for painting in the topography, but this exists simply as a tool to make the maps and positioning easier to grasp. In order to add some risk and reward to movement, players can only move to locations they've painted in. And once you move, anything you've painted in will become permanent. Do you guess a grid's color to get a good view, or only move to cells you're sure of? Once again, the implementation details were fun to work out - getting shadows to render on the map based on topography, and comparing the end results by overlaying the two images. And once again, unfortunately, it failed to capture the magic! Even with hand authored levels, the context switching between topography and color doesn't click. More importantly, the "paint becomes permanent" mechanics was far more confusing than engaging.

  • Which leads us to the prototype up top! While this version brings looooooots of changes, the biggest one is introducing multiple rooms. To open the doors, players are required to paint in the room to 100% accuracy. This gives players more immediate feedback, as well as smaller goals to accomplish. From there they work from room to room looking for the exit, decided whether to leave early of finish the map to 100%. The next biggest change is adding in penalty free movement. Moving freely lets players focus on painting, rather than constantly worrying being penalized for getting a better view. This version still doesn't nail the feeling - but is a step closer!

  • And just like the other versions, there were lots of really fun implementation details to sort through. Because it's designed for touch, a lot of work went into making movement feel as fluid as possible. Players can tap or swipe in a direction, and hold that direction to continuously move. The map painting also has variable touch zone sizes to help prevent mis-swipes. The effect is ideally subtle enough to make thumb-based play frustration free, without feeling like the game is playing itself. I also spent far too much time making the dropdown menus "handed" - I was too intrigued by the idea not to try it out!