In this second journal entry, I discuss how I’m creating tension with my first few minutes of gameplay.

I haven’t been charting my hours on this project yet, but I should probably start. As it is I would guesstimate I’m about 20 hours in – between two and three times as far as I was as of my last posting. This is over about three weeks.

The level’s initial gameplay is coming together. There is about ten to fifteen minutes of content now, depending on your play style and whether you watch all the cutscenes. (Lesson #1 for all you map-makers out there: Make your cutscenes skipable. As much pride as I take in my story, I know not everybody who plays this level is necessarily going to care about it, especially on the second go. There is something to be said for just pressing ESC and jumping into the action.)

The level kicks off with our protagonist, Kaldorian, brooding over the loss of his magic and of his people’s social standing. His thoughts are interrupted, however, when the sounds of a nearby battle attract his attention. A druid and some archers are being harassed by the monsters of the forest. Kaldorian intervenes, the player takes charge of all the units and must now fight his or her way out of the immediate area.

I decided to give the player a few starting units, as opposed to just Kal, for a few reasons. First of all, it makes the writing easier if the hero has someone to talk to. (Sure, he could just wander around talking to himself, but that’s somehow less compelling.) Second, as discussed previously, I know that starting off Kal is not going to have access to all of his powers, so giving him a couple of sidekicks helps make the initial gameplay more interesting. While getting the minions to stay behind the hero and let him tank is fairly easy after a minute or two, there is a short learning curve the first time you sit down to play, and that helps fill the void of the hero not having any abilities.

Let’s talk about that for a minute. I knew I wanted part of the visceral narrative (the story the player actually experiences as they play) to be Kal learning additional spells as the game goes on. Since the backstory up to this point is that the Well of Eternity imploded, effectively neutering all the magic-users around, I figured one interesting dynamic might be to start Kal off with no spells at all and have him gradually acquire them over time. This also might serve as an interesting source of tension, I thought, as a hero having limited abilities makes him somewhat vulnerable. (This is part of what makes the later parts of the undead campaign in The Frozen Throne so much fun as Arthas is debilitated and robbed of most of his powers.)

So when the game starts out, you (Kal) have zero active skills. To stop this from being boring, I gave Kal a couple of activatable items that mimic spells – a staff of firebolts and a wand of life-draining. These items give the player something to do during the first few fights when Kal has no abilities, but are used up after a few activations in order to preserve the sense of tension as Kal’s resources run thin. By the time the player reaches the miniboss encounter at the end of the first area, he or she should be nearly out of wands and staves. My hope is that (at least on the first playthrough), the player will actually be nervous at this point about how far these items are supposed to take him or her.

After this first miniboss encounter, I give Kal his first active ability: Blood Strike. As discussed last time, Blood Strike is a scalable attack which deals a substantial amount of damage to an enemy at a cost of some of Kal’s own life. Naturally there is another short area after this point so the player can try out Blood Strike and get a feel for how it works before getting pulled into the plot.

… And I guess that will have to be a subject for next time, as it’s later than I thought and I have work in the morning. Ta-ta for now, readers.