Update + Good Indies
In the meanwhile I've also been playing a LOT of indie games -- doing market research and shopping for inspirations. There are, of course, a lot of interesting ideas out there. But there's also a lot of so-so stuff. I guess that's the problem with niche and indie markets: the lower barrier to entry fosters innovation but it also creates a market that is very hard to browse. Game Tunnel is a very good resource for sifting through the stacks. Their Game of the Year awards showcase a lot of great titles. I've also gone through the Reflexive and RealArcade catalogs looking for other interesting titles. I thought I might give a list of games that I thought were particularly fun to play or interesting from a design perspective.
#1 -- Oasis. Just a fantastic game with a very interesting design. Basically the idea is a Civilization-like experience that can be played out in 10 minutes. I'd love to do the same sort of thing with different strategy elements. You play on a random map and spend 85 turns exploring and building up your cities. Then you get attacked by a barbarian horde and if you survive you go on to the next level. Simple as that. The win condition is nice in that it leads to an interesting strategy/build-up game that doesn't require AI -- the barbarians are basically deterministic. There are really only a few things you can do on your turn yet your choices can make a big difference in how well prepared your cities are for attack -- another design feature that I admire and would love to have in my own games. The only problem I've found with this game is that the random maps sometimes seem to be either too easy or too hard. Particularly too hard -- there are just some maps that I can't imagine winning no matter what you did. Especially on the harder difficulty levels you can find that luck is too much of a factor in how well you do.
#2 -- Mexican Motor Mafia. Remember GTA2? Top-down driving fun? Well MMA is channels that experience for a pretty fun if not short experience. I like the style of the game and it the way it combines an upgrade system with a simple but well-executed combat game to drive its story. You buy new cars, get new guns, and go out and do missions which can be anything from saving kids working in a drug factory to a duel with one of the local ganglords. Combat is top-down driving where you can have a gun on your right and/or left sides which can only shoot in that direction. There is even a slight RPG element where you get to increase certain stats after killing bosses (reload time, repair abilities, or your line of sight). I think you could make a fun MMO with something like this. My biggest problem with the game was just that it only lasted a few hours before I was done -- but I think I'll go back and replay on the hard difficulty level at some point.
#3 -- Weird Worlds. This is basically Star Control 2 meets Rogue. A new galaxy is created for every game. You explore the galaxy, meet other alien races, find alien technologies, recruit other ships to join you, and then after 10, 20 or 30 years you retire and get scored based on your accomplishments. It's also highly moddable. I've played through at least a couple of dozen times and I'm still finding new things. Combat is a sort of top-down RTS style game. Overall it's just another simple but very fun game.
#4 -- Mutant Storm. I believe this game made it on to the XBox Live Arcade as well. It's just a fantastic, very polished top-down space shooter. You go through a series of very short levels which are all contained in one screen. You aim with the mouse and move with the keyboard and face a number of interesting baddies and environmental challenges. I think a really good game could be made using this engine and including some RPG or upgrade elements over a campaign.
#5 -- Astral Masters. This was a pleasant surprise for me. It's an obvious want-to-be Magic the Gathering Online. I expected it to be no where near as balanced or interesting as Magic but it actually succeeds quite well. Instead of playing lands you sacrifice cards from your hand to increase your mana pool. You can build a deck with cards from 4 different elements. Mana is generic and the number of elements you use in a deck simply determines how much life and cards you start with (in practice 2-element decks seem to be the norm). There are a lot of combos sprinkled throughout the cards and it is actually quite fun to experiment with them all. The AI is surprisingly good making the campaign style single-player game they have very challenging. I've been fleshing out some ideas about a collectible tile game myself and it was interesting to see some new ideas for the collectible card game genre.
#6 -- Spellagories. I love word games. But I haven't found many computer word games that really grab me. I do really like Yahoo's Text Twist though and I played through several variants on this done by indies. Spellagories was the best. You are given a set of letters and a category. You create words from those letters trying to figure out a word that fits the category. Other larger words earn you points and eventually give you hints about the letters in the puzzle word. The category function and the excitement of figuring out the category word on the first go seemed to add a lot to the game. I've thought about doing some word games but creating a dictionary seems a bit of a burden for what I am doing now.
That's it for now. One thing I haven't found is a really great puzzle game that I like. I've found a LOT of Match-3 style games but I never really found those that interesting. Zuma style games are ok but I still prefer firing up an emulator and playing Puzzle Bobble or Snood. I guess I should give an honorable mention to Runic One the puzzle game which held my interest the longest -- it's a tile laying game. Overall this was a disappointment to me as I consider myself to be a big puzzle game player and I'm interested in creating puzzle style games myself.
If anyone has any recommendations for games of any sort, let me know.