My newest level design project is Changeling, a puzzle RPG for the StarCraft II engine. In this journal entry I introduce the project and look at a few of the mechanics I designed for the first level, “Changeling: Stranded.”

Hello again! If you’ve been wondering how the “Highborn” campaign, my RPG project for WarCraft III, is coming, you can rest assured I’ve been plodding along. That project is about 65 hours in at this point and probably about half finished. Today, though, I want to take a break from that and tell you about a StarCraft II level I’ve been cooking up.

The project is called “Changeling”, and like “Highborn” I’m hoping to have it span multiple levels by the time it’s finished. I’ve been tinkering with the first episode, “Changeling: Stranded”, off and on in between working on “Highborn”. (I like mixing up my fantasy and sci-fi projects from time to time, and having access to an in-depth level editor for each visual genre helps feed by designer’s itch.)

“Changeling” is a puzzle RPG, kind of like “Thievery” for WarCraft III. There is some combat, but your characters for the most part aren’t brawny warriors who can go charging fearlessly into battle. Rather than leveling up your heroes for more powerful attacks and statistics, the core action of “Changeling” revolves around utilizing each character’s unique abilities and mechanics to solve the puzzles at hand. It is a smarter, if somewhat less action-packed game than “Highborn” and probably appeals to a slightly different target audience.

I made a conscious decision when I began work on “Changeling” that I was not going to use an inventory system. I had decided that I wanted to avoid an item-based puzzle adventure game that revolved around the player picking up a multitude of objects. One reason for this is that such games are often too punishing (in my opinion) of players who miss an important pickup early on. Another reason is that unlike WarCraft III, the StarCraft II engine does not include a preexistent inventory system and I did not relish the thought of creating one from scratch. Finally,  there was my own personal preference: I just don’t enjoy item puzzles very much.

Instead, I chose to center the puzzles on the different characters and abilities. There are four player characters in “Changeling: Stranded”, each with his or her own unique abilities. These make each character vitally important in different situations, and while multiple puzzle solutions sometimes exist, it is impossible to finish the level without utilizing all four character’s strengths.

The first player character is Rackham, a shotgun-wielding mercenary captain. Rackham’s main contribution to the gameplay is an ability called Overload, which allows him to interact with mechanical units and objects such as computers. When used offensively, Overload is an anti-robotic ability that drains shields and energy, but it is also useful for solving many puzzles.

In many early rooms (like the one pictured above, for example) Rackham is able to overload Pylon structures, which regulate power supply to doors. Most doors in the level work on a toggle – Overloading any one pylon will simultaneously open all closed doors and close all open doors. This lends itself nicely to several basic sorts of puzzles, including what I call ‘Find’ puzzles (where the player has to locate a Pylon hidden in the area) and ‘Maze’ puzzles (where the player has to open and close the right doors in the right order to find his or her way out).

The second player character is Kayla, a tech specialist and medic. While her ability to perform basic healing is helpful in combat sections, Kayla’s primary ability is actually Scan, which lets her (and other characters near her) peek into nearby rooms.

Scanning before opening a door allows the player to eliminate small enemies from safety, or avoid walking into an ambush. Scan is also useful in ‘Find’ puzzles as it allows the player to locate Pylons hidden behind walls and closed doors.

Kayla is also useful for another reason. While most doors work on the Overload toggle, there is another type of door which function differently. These security gates are visually distinct from the normal light-up doors and do not open or close when Pylons are Overloaded. Instead, each security gate has its own beacon nearby. Kayla is able to open these gates by standing in the corresponding beacon, but she has to stay on the beacon in order to keep the gate open. As a result, Kayla herself is never able to move through a security gate – in essence, forcing the party to split up.

This lends itself well to puzzles in which Rackham and Kayla must open doors for one another along separate passages, without the benefit of having the other nearby for cover fire or healing.

These sections also highlight the importance of the third player character, Julian.

Julian is the tank of the party, and his job is to stand in front of the other characters and soak up enemy attacks. In sections where the characters have to split up, Julian becomes important since neither Rackham nor Kayla have particularly high health. Each of them comes to depend on Julian to escort them while they locate the beacons or Pylons they need to interact with.

While resilient, however, it’s important to note that Julian still depends on the other characters for damage output and healing. When all three characters are brought together, there are very few combat encounters they can’t get through.

The fourth and final player character is Sykes, a snarky Scottish assassin and spy. StarCraft players will identify Sykes immediately as a Ghost operative, capable of cloaking himself to sneak past enemy units and eliminate enemies from afar.

Sykes begins his part of the level separated from the rest of the party, and has to find his way back to them. With lower damage output and hit points than either Rackham or Julian, Sykes often has to sneak past more dangerous units in order to reach safety. His Cloak ability is of course what allows him to do this, and it makes many a more perilous path open to him.

Sykes’ trademark ability, however, is not Cloak but Snipe, which allows him to single-shot-kill living creatures from a great distance away. Snipe is only usable while Sykes occupies special locations designated as sniper perches, but it is necessary in order to clear enemies that are too strong to fight from the party’s path.

In a sense, powerful enemies are to Sykes and Julian what doors and gates are to Rackham and Kayla: obstacles they themselves are able to remove or bypass, but which impede other characters and must be dealt with before the party as a whole can move on.

That about covers what I’ve created so far, and accounts for the roughly 80% of the level I’ve completed so far. I’m hoping to push out the remainder of “Stranded” within the next month or so, at which point I’ll probably move on to the second level in the story, which I’m tentatively calling “Ghost Town”. It’s too early to talk about what game mechanics will go into that level, but here are some things I’m expecting to pack into the game somewhere down the line:

  • A female Protoss character
  • An infested character
  • A vehicle level
  • Fully voiced dialogue
  • Non-Blizzard-provided music
  • A suspenseful sci-fi horror story

Stay tuned for more updates!