Campaign Design - Searching for Clues in a Sandbox of Gigs

Much of the intervening time since our last big set of prototype updates has been spent solidifying the format for StarCaster's campaign, which has been extremely tricky to approach owing to the unique issues that our spacefaring setting and high-tech source material brings with it.

In a typical JRPG there is a certain loop that players experience:

  • Get a task in a town or safe zone that requires you to travel to a dungeon.
  • Travel to said dungeon across an overworld, overcoming light hazards along the way.
  • Go into the dungeon and make your way to the bottom, where your objective is waiting, probably guarded by a boss.
  • Navigate back to the town triumphantly with your objective completed.
  • Repeat, with different towns that each have different dungeons, until the game is completed.

Of special note actually reaching the bottom of a dungeon in a JRPG is typically a test of resources as well as skill. It's almost a foregone conclusion that you'll get into combat, take damage, and need to heal yourself, which means spending potions or magic. Your goal is to not only reach the end of the dungeon, but to do so in a state where you're still reasonably prepared for whatever its final challenge is. This means necessarily that players might attempt a dungeon multiple times, either chipping away at its puzzles and opening shortcuts or just improving their characters' levels, equipment, and prep to the point that they can handle the whole thing in one go.

DragonQuest

In a sense it becomes a kind of dungeon spelunking simulator, reflective of roughly what it would be like for a bunch of medieval fantasy explorers to make headway in an unexplored wilderness, dangerous caverns, and evil fortresses -- with some understandable abstraction, of course.

StarCaster isn't medieval fantasy, but rather a kind of blend of space and cyberpunk, inspired by the likes of Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop, and Dirty Pair. Little about the world is truly "unknown" aside from isolated planets; maps and GPS and telematry data exist for every world and space station; and much of life is urbanized. The fact of the star map and a spaceship to pilot makes it difficult to adapt the kind of exploration that JRPGs usually run on, since space travel and overland hazards don't really map to each other. We are intending to make space something fun to fly around in, obviously, but no matter what we do it's never quite going to have the same feel of discovery as trekking through a mountain pass full of mysterious ruins, and opportunities for that kind of thing are more likely to be fewer and farther between. More often, we expect, players in this kind of setting will go to locations because they have a specific purpose for going there, not just because it's between Point A and Point B.

Therefore what we want is a lot less like a knight charged with journeying across a continent to save a kingdom and a lot more like a group of detectives, mercinaries, or bounty hunters roaming around doing a grab bag of different kinds of jobs; something that's a bit less "on rails" and a bit more of a "sandbox" full of mysteries to solve, with lots of flexibility for jobs to be either serious or satirical and to present a lot of variety of challenges to the player and their party.

To put it a way that oldschool Phantasy Star fans would understand, we want the Hunters' Guild to be the main game instead of a side-gig.

HuntersGuild

Partly this direction is a matter of adapting to the genre, but also we want to represent the party of StarCaster as characters who have a sense of agency, make their goals the central factor driving the campaign more so than some job-giver or mission commander telling them what to do. But, something has to draw the player through this spacefaring setting and make them want to hunt down missions in the first place. Our template for that wound up coming from the Metal Gear series, namely Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

PeaceWalkernator

At face value this isn't a whole lot different from just putting up the Phantasy Star Hunters' Guild screen or the Ravens' Nest screen from Armored Core, but an important, distinguishing factor to it is that somewhere on the other side of this lengthy list of missions there's a major objective that Big Boss and company are trying to reach -- or more specifically, an enemy they want to smoke out and whose plans they want to thwart. This isn't an unusual idea to a JRPG, but the normal course of such a campaign is to have a breadcrumb trail that eventually leads the characters into battle against them. With the Metal Gear games, there is no breadcrumb trail, the enemy's presence is nebulous and hidden, and it's up to Boss and his companions to take on missions and contracts in the general area they know their target is in until they find leads. In this way it's a campaign framed more as a "search" than it is as a "journey."

Incidentally, this model suits the player characters' relationship to our main antagonist quite well, as said antagonist is a "Professor Moriarty"-like criminal puppeteering many events from the shadows, so it's proven viable for outlining our own campaign. In essence, the characters will have an opening mission that's a bit linear, pick up on the scent of this big bad behind the scenes of the galaxy, then have the sandbox of missions and jobs to navigate through as they try to find his puppet strings and trace them back to him. However, we're thinking of imposing one more level of structure just to make the search a little more engaging and to give the player more of an immediate sense of discovery.

ClueBoard

This is a little something we're calling the Clue Board. It's basically a grid full of tasks, quests, and clues that are grouped together in sets. The player "reveals" clue spaces by completing the tasks associated with them, usually a mission, but sometimes a side objective or milestone. The catch: until you do reveal a clue, you won't know where it's going to be revealed or what it's going to be related to. The more of them you've revealed, ideally the more easily you can use deductive reasoning to figure out what missions or objectives are related and the more easily you can focus on completing a full set. Once you've finished a set of objectives, that's when a bigger reveal happens, unlocking a new quest or a special reward. Special intel, whether obtained through favors or theft of one kind or another, can be used to cheat this system and "flip" clues prematurely, enabling you to get a step ahead without as much of the fuss... just remember that the quests will still remain undone, the rewards associated with them specifically un-reaped until you go back and do them. As a final note, not all quests are inter-connected with each other on the Clue Board in a way that's meaningful to the game's overall main quest; some of them can and will end up being red herrings or self-contained side-stories unto themselves. Then again, if the gig pays, it pays!

What we're hoping for with this system is to incentivize players to take initiative and seek out the mysteries of the Five Stars, both without there necessarily being a direct golden path that they can easily see, but with just enough information to make them curious and understand where they're making forward progress. In this way we want to have a true space-detective experience instead of just a standard JRPG in space-age costume.

About Michael S Prinke

Mike Prinke is a video game technical designer with six years of experience, his past credits including 'Til Morning's Light, Adventure Time Puzzle Quest, Cryamore, and Terrain of Magical Expertise.

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