Finding the Fun

And we’re back!

This past month has been a busy one for Lightning Rod Games. When we last updated, Henchmen! featured real-time, synchronous gameplay played by two players on a single tablet device.

It was fast-paced; it was frantic; it was… well, frankly it was not all that fun.

Hmm.

Whenever we would pitch our idea to people (“Supervillains using their armies of henchmen to destroy each other!”), they would get really excited but then slowly lose interest as they played our prototype, eventually concluding that the idea “had potential” (if my time as a designer has taught me anything, it’s that whenever someone tells you that your game “has potential”, what they really mean is that it sucks, but they just want to be polite).

So, we iterated. And iterated. And iterated again.

Nothing we tried really felt right.

Taking a step backward, we realized that one of the core issues we were facing was that the game didn’t really feel like a battle between two supervillains. In an effort to try to define what that feeling should be, we decided to ask some of our friends and associates in the Lab what they would do if they were supervillains.

Three major themes came through in their responses:
  1. Scheming and Plotting
  2. Mayhem and Destruction
  3. Deception and Deceit

Using those three criteria, it immediately became clear where the failings were in our design: while we had managed to do a decent job at incorporating a feeling of Mayhem, our game was really devoid of any large amount of Scheming and Deception. Due to the synchronous nature of the game, both players’ hands were shown on the screen at all times out of necessity, which made deception very difficult. And with the fast-paced nature of the gameplay, players usually had to forego any type of overarching plan in favour of just reacting to what the other player was doing at the present moment.

So, while Steven and I realized we could probably polish the core mechanics to really play up the Mayhem aspect of the gameplay, ultimately we decided that making a passable game that missed the mark wasn’t why we had founded our own studio. Lightning Rod exists to make great games, period.

With that in mind, our course was clear: we needed to go back to the drawing board and start again. As a designer, it’s never easy to toss something away that you’ve already invested so much time into, but sometimes that’s what’s necessary in order to find something that is truly great.

We still really loved the idea about two supervillains duking it out, so we decided to keep that idea and find mechanics that really helped support our three criteria of supervillainy.

To add the elements of scheming and deception, we realized it was going to be necessary to hide information from the other player, so hands could no longer be shown to both players. And to properly enact an evil plan, players would also need to be afforded time to plan their moves.

Our solution was to create a turn-based strategy game.
paper prototype

Our latest paper prototype.

The first thing we did was create a paper prototype. A major benefit of our new design being turn-based is that it translates extremely well to paper: units become represented by cards, and we can keep track of status effects and health changes using sticky notes. Tuning and re-balancing the entire game can be done with a pencil in less than 10 minutes. In other words, it’s a much simpler process than trying to build a real-time prototype that (by necessity) must be done digitally.

The first playtest was about as simple as we could make it: three identical unit and item types per side. Even with such a limited selection, it was immediately apparent that we had something fun and could already think of new ideas to improve it. That is one of the best feelings as a designer: knowing that your core is working great and clearly seeing new ways that you can build off of it to create even more fun gameplay.

We quickly iterated to create additional unit types and add some more asymmetry to the gameplay. We decided to start with two different villain archetypes: the scientific genius with his arsenal of explosive experiments vs the heavily muscled leader of a gang of hulking bruisers. While pretty evenly balanced, it’s already become clear through our playtest sessions that each villain team has very different strategies and paths to victory, which is exactly what we were hoping for.

Our next step is to get what we’ve developed on paper back into a digital prototype to confirm that the design will also work on tablet devices. We’ve also started developing our third villain archetype: a wily sorceress with a fondness for the undead!

While it’s never an easy decision to pivot on your design, we can definitely say that doing so has breathed new life into our project. We’re pretty excited with the new direction that Henchmen! is going in and can’t wait to share more with you as we develop it!

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  • On May 07, 2013