Random The Flag «

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Oryx 16bit Fantasy Characters

I’m going to spend next Friday to Monday making a game. I was inspired by Oryx’s 16bit sprites, they’re a beautiful, cheap resource for game prototyping (the license is a bit confused for business purposes). I’ve been wanting to (and failing to) make games for years, so I’m going to ensure I succeed by defining the game by the time I spend rather than the infinitely long wish list plan I can invent.

I’m going to make a turn-based strategy multiplayer game of capture the flag. (I’m partially inspired by the old DOS CTF game and also League of Legends, but mostly by the lovely fantasy art.) I don’t want to go into too much detail about the gameplay, suffice to say that it’s largely about making good decisions with very incomplete information.

I have a public Trello board with design notes and my to-do list. If you’re curious to follow along, watch that or follow me on Twitter. That public board accepts comments and some items are tagged as open questions, so please do contribute your thoughts.

Capture The Flag

Visibility and Randomness

Making the most of limited visiblity is the core of the game, directing your units to evade notice while searching out your opponents. This mechanic needs to feel believable at first play and be simple enough for experienced players to think through in detail without painfully slowing down the game.

Visibility starts with a unit’s Sight stat. Then subtract the visibility penalty of intervening terrain. If the resulting number is higher than another unit’s stealth stat (modified by whether they’re running or hiding), they’re seen. Here’s an example of a knight with 28 sight looking across some terrain to perhaps see a rogue with 7 stealth standing in some trees:

Visibility example

This is where randomness might come in. Maybe instead of a simple subtraction, the searching unit could roll 4d6, or the hiding unit could roll for its stealth score, etc. The searcher might be unlucky and miss a poorly-hidden unit, or get lucky and see even a well-hidden one.

This would allow for false negatives: the searcher might be wrong (“false”) in thinking they see no one (a “negative” result). And it opens the door to adding false positives: occasionally display a unit where there is none, just to confuse the searcher. With the randomness, the player must wonder if the unit they saw for just a turn was a glimpse of a well-hidden unit or a mistake.

Rather than keep digging into that, let me explore other opportunities for randomness. Though I doubt I’ll be able to fit it into the weekend, I’d like to randomly generate maps.

Each player will control five or six units in each game, but I want to eventually have something scores of character classes (but only three or four this weekend). So there must be a selection process of some kind, which I’ve created a Trello card for.

I’m leaning strongly towards the Highgrounds-like system, where a player selects a pool of 10 characters and are given a random five when the game begins. Perhaps a new, unused charackter will be chosen to replace units that get tagged out. The player will have choice in team composition, but also have to adapt to the circumstances. (If players have perfect choice in their squads, it’s likely a few combinations will come to dominate unless the game is balanced incredibly well.)

Internal vs. External

I’m averse to randomness in visibility (or tagging, for that matter) but eager for randomness in maps and squads. I’m writing this post after kicking around game design ideas with @karstencode and @sourcecodenomad all day and struggling to articulate why.

After writing all this, the best I can explain is that the difference between randomness in visibility and in map or squad selection is whether that randomness is in the core game actions or not.

Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by David Sirlin, but I don’t want randomness in the heart of the game. I want it to be a test of skill. Randomness there is noise.

When the map or squad layout is random, that’s external to the core mechanics of game. It sets up the circumstances under which the players act rather than tinker directly with their ability to execute on their plans. I like Chess960 for similar reasons, randomness changes the early game from a test of how well the player has memorized standard openings to dynamic reaction to changing circumstances.

What I really don’t want is for the outcome of a game to be based on randomness. Late in the game a single missed spot, false positive, or other quirk of fate could push a pivotal unit out of place and cost a player the game. I suppose another difference is that the places I like randomness are the setup of the game rather than during interactive gameplay.


I’m having a lot of fun designing this game and talking through tradeoffs with friends. If you liked this glimpse into the process, please drop by my Trello board to see more and throw in your two cents. And watch this space; I’ll be tweeting and liveblogging as I go.


  1. Maybe allow for units to increase skills for stealth/vision? I could see it done as a levelling concept for individual units. Another approach would be for players to accumulate some kind of resource that they can spend to level up all their units in steath or vision.

    Maybe there could be other skills like range, speed, etc.?

    Or you could just have increased randomness in the beginning for everyone that decreases as the game progresses.

    I guess it could be the concept of increasing blinds on a regular basis for Texas Hold ’em. It allows teams to develop in beginning & get an idea about each other. As randomness decreases, though, it gives players more confidence while also requiring them to become more aggressive. If they don’t become aggressive, the opponent could take mre advantage of the decreased randomness.

  2. Good to see you dusting off the game dev stuff again. It seems we’re almost in the same place. I’m *finally* almost through my horrible time-consumption that caused me to withdraw from So Play We All.

    Closing on my new house in the next 2-3 weeks depending upon how long the State Rural Development office takes on my file which was sent to them on the 1st. We can’t wait. This house is the primary reason for my motivation being insanely low.

    There’s something soul-crushing about a place where you feel unsafe to even let your kids play in your yard. Still, without the low cost of living, would’ve been impossible for me to be debt-free as fast as I was.

    Something for you to consider with randomness as well is what, if any, effect it has upon the length of your game. For example, D&D combat would be much shorter if you replaced every instance of a dice roll with the number 10. Since your objective would be to capture the flag, it might not really affect your match length, just something to be cognizant of during your testing.

  3. Jesse: I definitely want other stats like speed and endurance, check out the Classes card for some very early notes. I lean against units leveling up, that drags in the whole problem of new players being unable to compete against long-term ones. I’d rather that happen because of player skill than hours sunk into the game.

    JGadrow: Congrats on getting debt free, I’m glad to hear things are coming together for you and yours. We’ll have to have another game jam weekend when you have free time again. :)

  4. Oh, I was thinking of leveling within a short-form game rather than a player getting to keep their forces from game to game.

    Do players get to choose the make up of their force, or does everyone start with the same force, kind of like chess or something?

  5. If you have any suggestions on how to make the license more clear please let me know! The intention is that purchasers can do anything they want with the sprites, forever, including commercial games – the only restriction is reselling them or distributing them as sprite resources.

  6. Nothing in your license or site explicitly says that’s what your goal is. I had no context, so it’s just a contradictory list of permitted and proscribed uses.

    Also, because it’s phrased as “You can do these things and nothing else, and here’s some things you’re definitely not allowed to do”, my use hinges on those early definitions. As an example, I’m making a browser-based game with HTML5. The license permits “Home computer, Console or Flash software applications;” and it’s none of those (because though it’s played via a home computer, it’s not an application on that computer and not viable without me running a server), “Smartphone applications;” and it’s not an app (and there’s that restriction against distributing to mobile devices…), “Electronic publications including website design;” and it’s not a publication. I feel fine using it for a prototype, maybe for a few months if I start getting traction from users who want it to be a commercial game, but not safe enough that I’d want to risk a business on it. And I know I could write to ask for permission, but this is one example of many.

    The biggest one is that creating derivative works is permitted, but distributing them is not. So… I can tweak the sprites but not include that changed version in my game? I now understand your goal, but the license is written very broadly (similarly, the “physical items” seems to prohibit any kind of merchandising).

    The alternative for a commercial game is to spend a few thousand dollars with an artist who will accept a ‘work for hire’ clause, which is not very expensive, especially if a prototype has demonstrated that people really like the game idea and will pay for it.

    I didn’t get into all this in the body of the post because the sprites had me fired up to work on a game, not spend a thousand words armchair lawyering the license. So what came out was that aside that the license was fine for experimentation but otherwise unsafe.

    I love the sprites. I love your art style, I love that you’ve made them available cheaply, and I’ve sent about 20 friends to the site as I’ve talked excitedly about what a great resource they are and how I can’t wait to pick up the rest and make more fun stuff.

    Aside from putting your intent at the top, my suggestion is to read it again from the lawyerly perspective — you know, the really pessimistic one that doesn’t know you’re a nice guy just trying not to get ripped off. Imagine the graphics were made by a sneaky jerk who wants a company to build a profitable IP on the images and then swoop in to extract as much money as possible. Parts of it like the undefined “immoral purposes” and termination clause will look really ominous.

    I don’t enjoy looking at the world that way, but I know I have to because sometimes other people do, and I want to be able to make and keep good things.

    I hope this rambling helps, and thank you again for selling your art, it’s been an inspiration.

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