Game development as a creative process has always amazed me. It is an instance of group effort and collaboration similar in my mind to building an airplane while taxiing down a runway towards takeoff. Interdependent systems, assets, and efforts must be combined in the right order and with the right emphasis or the whole endeavor could be lost.
Ultimately, most game developments manage to get off the ground. Some do it in their first months, building atop existing technology and inside a known genre (DOOM me-toos). Others languish in the development hanger while designers try to figure out how to invent the equivalent of the flying saucer, something technically imaginable, but not yet proven (The Sims).
Then there is Bad Day LA. Boy, what a strange beast. When I first began talking to the press about it I honestly had no idea what the game was. So I fell back on the default “3rd person action game” line and then quickly changed the subject to the story and theme. So most early interviews read pretty light on actual game play and pretty heavy on the politics, art style, and humor elements.
How, you might wonder, can you build something and not know what it is? Well, I’ll tell you. To start, I’ll be the first to admit that I know little about making games. Yeah, I’ve been doing it for 13 years, and have worked for the likes of id and EA, but hey, what do I know? Maybe I’ve faked my way through it all to this point! Actually, I just don’t think that anyone really knows anything about making games. The medium is too new. Sure, I know how to make a title that fits into an established genre; anyone working in the industry long enough knows how to do that. But to truly *make* a game, to build something from scratch, now that’s a scary thing, a tough thing.
BDLA… well, I wrote this story. 125 pages of dialog, action, and locations. So there’s a lot of verbal content and story. We took all that and built a world around it. For a long time Bad Day LA was basically a collection of in-game and pre-rendered cut scenes that told the story of our main character, Anthony Williams, trying to save himself while disaster after disaster struck Los Angeles. Not a game. Not really fun.
When I went out on the BDLA press tour a few months ago I was basically showing simple 3rd person action set between these cut scenes. People laughed, things exploded, but the thing I was glossing over was that the game itself was really painfully boring. There was no gameplay. I knew it, I was worried about it, but I sorta figured that something good would eventually emerge…
Luckily it has. In the past two months the gameplay has grown out of the story and the world in a very organic way. The concept of “chaos management” as a gameplay mechanism has matured and now delivers a very addictive and fast paced bit of entertainment.
The screenshot shows what’s up. You’ll see that super imposed over the player’s view of the world is a collection of little round icons. These show the player any and all nearby events or NPCs that might change the status of the threat advisory for the level. Burning people, injured people, zombies, terrorists, and mission points are all represented. If the player ignores people who are on fire those people will burn to the ground and create a frowny. If an injured person is allowed to die, same thing. Good events, such as saving people or killing zombies, will create smilies. Together frownies and smilies move the threat advisory bar up and down.
The higher the threat advisory the more difficult it is to proceed towards finishing missions. So the player is forced to balance managing the local chaos level with moving through the level towards the eventual goal of escape. We’re still tweaking and tuning it, but when it works it really works. Not only that, but it fits perfectly with the narrative and feels pretty original to boot.
Certainly this sort of design by natural evolution isn’t that common, and brings with it unpredictability and risk, but hey, it’s a lot more fun than creating “yet another shooter”. I’m very curious to see how the world is going to react to this one.
(Bad Day LA Screenshot – Showing a circle of icons around the player representing angry citizens, zombies, people on fire, and other useful info.)