Hello and welcome to the first episode of my new diary, The Real Dev Diary of the Dead. This is a big one for me as it marks my first proper (and successful) foray into the world of video games creation. Yep, that's right, I know I've said this before but I'm designing and developing my own video game - for reals this time. It's something I've always wanted to do though never really found the time or had the drive, the passion to do it. Well, now I do; I'm stoked, I'm super excited and am amazed at skills I did not know I even had. "Boy, it is on now."
So I spent a lot longer than necessary designing this beast, writing a design document bordering on 100 pages. It is huge and supremely detailed - something I was aiming for as I plan to release the great tome with the final game, perhaps to give some justification to my hellish (read; insane) ideas, perhaps to just provide a insight for those, like myself, with a interest for game design. In general, the concept for this totally radical game can be summed up as simply as the "Jaws in space" pitch for the Alien movie; "XCOM with Zombies". Of course, there are differences but the original concept is just the same as XCOM - you control a team of soldiers, this time battling Zombies in a turn-based scenario instead of aliens. I'm not going to give all the details of what my warped mind evolved this concept into at this early stage as I aim to delve into more detailed sections in later episodes. For now, I'll just give a short overview and show some early progress.
Basically, the game is Romans versus Zombies, with Romans providing the XCOM-like force the player will control, Zombies, being the enemy. There are two game modes; the campaign (still under wraps and not yet fully designed) and Custom Games. Generally speaking, Custom Games are the simple Romans versus Zombies matches that make up the single-player Campaign. The idea stems from Unreal Tournament and games of that ilk.
So, in more detail, Custom Games are battles between the player-controlled Romans, sporting one squad (Contubernium) of up to 8 troops, pitched against Zombies - the number of Zombies in a Custom Game battle is chosen by the player. To liven up what could be seen as a straight-forward 'Destroy all Monsters'-gambit, Civilians (Civvies) can be added to the battle. Civvies are non-combatants, who, like John McClane in Die Hard, happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They react to both Romans and Zombies, can be rescued and, to ensure no harm comes to them while your guys mop up the remaining undead, can be sent to a safehouse until the fighting stops. They also have various "other uses" which I'll go into at a later date - trust me, Civvies bring some really cool options to firefights.
Battles take place on an isometric map, chopped up into tiles. Each tile can hold one Roman troop, one Zombie, one Civvie or one obstacle - so far so XCOM. A big difference in my game, to keep it out of the 'run there and whack this' methodology that some promising turn-based games fall into, is tactics and strategy. One aspect of this is brought by each of the tiles making up the map having different statistics, many offering bonuses and some sporting hindrances. There'll be Shingle tiles that troops can sprain their ankle on, marsh tiles to make firing difficult and slick mud tiles where troops can find themselves falling to the ground. Of course though, as Zombies - and I am talking true Zombies - shuffle around at slow speeds and have barely any coordination, tiles that have next to no affect on Romans, can have a much greater effect on the living dead.
A second lump of strategy is brought by elevation and buildings. Each map will consist of 3 layers, similar to Warhammer 40, 000: Chaos Gate. This means that troops can attack Zombies on lower elevations than them, earning a combat bonus. However, it additionally has neat features for Zombies to accidentally utilise - for example, a Zombie who stumbles too close to a window on the second floor of a building, may fall out of that window, down to ground layer, potentially having game changing effect if it "survives" the fall. Buildings themselves also offer a sticking point; they may have Zombies in them and as buildings are basically just really big boxes (think about it), it's not always easy to see inside, hence you may not know about the Zombies in these homely constructs until they are able to bite the face off your most beloved troop. Building clearance is designed to be hard, really hard - do you do it first, immediately leading your fresh troops to these concrete cages, or do you leave it until after the main battle, getting the easy fights over with from the off, both have their advantages and disadvantages.
A third layer of tactics, and one I am particularly proud of, comes from actual troop positioning and the fact that Zombies are, you know, quite dumb. Position one troop in front of a Zombie and one troop behind a Zombie and that Zombie is going to be totally unable to do anything, stuck in an endless decision-making loop as its feeble brain attempts to differentiate the two opposing stimuli. Hopefully, this also teases the "intrigue" Civvies can bring to a battle.
However, even the best strategy cannot guarantee victory - mirroring XCOM, troop attacks will depend largely on luck with hit percentages and attack ranges. Melee attacks will always hit - Zombies cannot dodge and trained army soldiers are sufficiently proficient with a blade - but this means getting into the bite range of a walking ghoul, a death sentence if the fetid horror is part of a herd. Ranged attacks from bows and arrows offer a safer alternative yet, even these, have downsides: ammunition is limited (though recollectable once fired), shots from afar will not always hit their mark and only headshots will truly end foes (Zombies being Zombies after all). This will be a very hard game indeed, where each battle will see the Roman troops outnumbered.
Not all is lost though - there will be special wargear to help you win the day. These wargear are cards selected before a battle begins using a points system similar to the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game - the more troops you take into a battle, the less wargear is available to you. Wargear ranges from the small - an extra ability for a troop type - to the large - a mighty war machine such as a Onager or Scorpion. When used wisely, these cards can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
In addition to imbuing the game with yet more strategy, because you can never take all possible wargear into a single battle, my hope is that the 'wargear system' will provide the game with many hours of replayability.
In terms of implementation, having an actual game that works rather than simply writing about one (as exciting as that may be), I have already made astonishing progress! That may be an overstatement but I really did not expect to get this far, it being at least six years since I have done any significant coding. The engine I am using to create the game is GameMaker Studio - first version 1.4, and then upgrading to the simply superb, version 2. GameMaker is often thought of as a "kiddie" engine, designed to teach rather than create, though the creative talent behind such wonders as Hotline Miami, Gunpoint and Deadbolt would no doubt disagree. Right now, I have the GUI (Graphical User Interface) and basic map working, all 3 layers being functional - I've added some screenshots below to prove my word. Of course, it is all programmer art for now with nothing majorly exciting going on.
© Screenshot from Project Rome (my game)
© Screenshot from Project Rome (my game)
© Screenshot from Project Rome (my game)
So why am I doing all this? Why now? Well, as I mentioned before, I have always wanted to do this but have never believed in myself enough to actually do it. However, to quote the legend that is Jeremy Clarkson, since I have suddenly become very "unbusy" after losing my job and struggling to find a new one, it seemed like the right moment. In addition, there are some great inspirational stories out there. The Gunpoint creator, Tom Francis, used to work at PC Gamer and made Gunpoint, his first game, in his spare time - it ended up selling so well, he made enough money to quit the whole jobs thing and go independent, making the games he wants to make, fulltime. The creator of Unturned made that game when he was only 16 years-old - it now has over 17.5 million downloads on Steam. CD Projeckt RED, developers of the ground-breaking Witcher games, recently revealed that they had "no clue how to make games" when they founded their studio. Notch, the creator of Minecraft, made only that one game and it has become so astronomically successful he now has billions of dollars and lives in a mansion (most people hate him these days, but, as I said before, he does have billions of dollars and live in a mansion).
My goal is simple: to create the most kick-ass game that I can, release it on Steam - probably itch.io too - and, should it be even slightly successful, make an expansion pack for it that I already have great ideas for. If that's successful, I can make the dream a reality and set up my own indie games company, focusing on Zombie games. I, even now, have ideas for a second, third and fourth game. No pressure...
The Real Dev Diary of the Dead
In the first episode of my Dev Diary for Project Rome; I explain what I'm doing, give an overview of the game idea, identify why I am tackling the dark art of game development now and update readers on my early progress.