Making Merchant Commander’s battle system work as a Facebook game

So there I was. Building this deep combat system, just how I like ’em. Its inspiration was a mix of Final Fantasy and Pokemon battle systems. It was fun, and had plenty of potential depth.

But here’s something I’ve been fighting the whole way with this game: it’s too much for Facebook. Yes, I like deep, complex games. Really deep, and really complex. Civilization is among my favorites. But a Facebook game is in a unique context, and that means that I have to live with the constraints implicit in that if I want to be a successful social game developer.

My rule of thumb #1 is that players aren’t usually on Facebook just to play games. Sure, it’s becoming a popular place to play, but it’s not usually people’s intention to go there just to play a game (exceptions apply, but we’re talking about the rule here). There’s friction between people’s intent and what they are willing to engage with. That makes it harder for a game to get and keep people’s attention, much less get them to come back.

Rule of thumb #2 is that a game can be interrupted at any point during play. This isn’t just a technical issue (for example, if the player is disconnected), but it’s a practical one, too. A player might need to leave suddenly (boss walks by? baby wakes up?), or might get distracted and forget he or she is playing (news blog in another tab?). This means when a player returns, they can’t be allowed to forget what was going on or what their goals were. The game state has to be discernible at a glance.

If a game demands too much for too long or doesn’t orient a player right away, they might quit playing. If you don’t have players, you can’t make money, and then you can’t keep making games for a living! Nobody wants that.

Merchant Commander equipment shop I’m not yet close to those goals with Merchant Commander, but the roadmap is in place, and I’m keeping those concerns in mind.

Something I noticed about a lot of Facebook games that have battles is that the battles are passive. You just watch!

I’m a “hardcore” player, so at first this horrified me. (And, in fact, I still don’t enjoy those games because they never tried to make watching fun.) But having a business to fund, I have to think from a player’s perspective, not mine. I thought my first battle system was “simple.” But let me tell you: truly simple design is hard!

My first battle system was fun, yes. But it was also a lot of work to play! Now I began to see the player’s perspective–not a hardcore player like me, but someone who is on Facebook doing other things and wants to pop in and out and have some easy fun. That’s the key, I think: easy fun–but not necessarily shallow fun.

With a deep battle system, you have lots of options, and thus lots of clicks, lots of icon menus, and lots of reading. (Oooh, the R word!) I have nothing against those things, but after playing quite a few Facebook games, you kind of get used to how easy they are to play, and it’s actually not a bad thing. It’s just different. I see the appeal. Time to embrace diversity and accept that games don’t have to be 50 hour epics to be fun and worthy.

And it’s what works on Facebook right now. I knew that I needed to pay attention, or I was going to fail. I’m paying attention!

I’ve come up with a new, passive battle system that is fun to watch and has some depth. (I admit that it will be a lot more fun to watch when there is animation and audio.) The key is to realize that it isn’t just the minutiae of issuing commands (a.k.a. micro-managing) that creates depth. I had to adjust my design goals with the new perspective on what makes Facebook games fun. Hint: go more meta.

I came up with something that I like a lot. It’s technically simpler but also much more intuitive to understand. That supports my rules of thumb better than an elaborate battle system with tons of hardcore gamer candy in it. There are still some places where I need to work on the UI and presentation because it’s not obvious how all the parts work. That’s on my roadmap, too. I’m workin’ on it.

This has also taught me a lot about evolving my design sense for this new market. I feel like I’ve improved as a game designer because of it. Not only will Merchant Commander be a better game, but all of my future games will be better. Simple is not the same as shallow. Simple is the removal of confusion.

So, you can go see for yourself. Play Merchant Commander on Facebook. This pre-alpha test version will be live until Monday. Then I’ll take it down, work on it for a while, and present another iteration soon. One day, it will be a Real Game, and I won’t have to keep taking it down!

Thanks for reading!

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