This post is mostly a self-reflection/conceptual one. At the moment, I am not actively working on Cohack, a project I started some time ago to remake popular Shockwave game Spybotics: The Nightfall Incident. I’m devoting the entirety of my time to my recent startup, an online card game with positional elements: Zems Online Card Game. The Cohack project was originally started using a 2D game engine that was great for prototyping but felt limited in terms of production quality. The engine I am talking about is Scirra’s Construct 2, which is an amazing 2D prototyping tool that isn’t hard for to pick up, even for non-programmers. What I want to talk about in this post are conceptual thoughts for a 3D spiritual successor to The Nightfall Incident.
Spiritual Successors Are Not Remakes
A lot of people have expressed interest in a modern remake of The Nightfall Incident (hereafter referred to as ‘TNI’) and misinterpreted my progress on Cohack to be one. For legal reasons, a remake isn’t possible, and frankly I would rather make a new game that builds on TNI’s core concepts than recreate it anyway. I’ll go ahead and list the things I liked about TNI here:
- Program ‘body’ parts filling the playing field spaces. Compared to other turn-based games, the concept of health = spaces filled is pretty unique to TNI because you can use program ‘body parts’ as meatshields to block off access to certain areas. Unfortunately, I don’t think TNI emphasized this aspect very much and it is something that could be improved upon.
- Add/remove grid spaces. There are YouTube videos showing the most efficient ways to beat certain levels is by using the little bug that can delete squares. I liked the fact that the grid in TNI was intentionally small and gave players room to add additional paths and remove existing paths. The problem, however, is the time needed to create new paths gave little incentive for players to use the bug program for anything other than deleting squares. If I was to expand upon the TNI concept, I would reduce the cost of creating new paths to help promote pathing creativity.
Other than those two innovations (and let’s keep the good-looking UI and fitting music out of this since it’s more user experience and not gameplay itself), TNI was more or less a turn-based tactics game.
Now for the aspects of TNI that I thought were weak:
- Linear program progression. There were a lot of programs you could get later on that were more or less useless/inefficient for solving the level 4 and level 5 maps. In addition, new versions of programs were always superior to old ones, so the inventory would fill up with weaker programs we would never use later on anyway. In my opinion, instead of getting access to buying Hack 2.0 once we get to level 2, we should be able to buy an upgrade to the Hack program and convert our Hacks to Hack 2.0, while globally changing the Hack program offered in shops to all be Hack 2.0 from that point onward.
- Weak story/lack of urgency. Disarray is about to shut down the entire system? Well he doesn’t actually shut it down until I can take him out anyway. The sense of urgency/conspiracy of the story felt really weak to me, allowing me plenty of time to grind optional levels and farm for better items. While some see this as a good thing in terms of gameplay, it really made the story seem artificial. Many modern-day RPG games have a concept of time, such as X time passing when the player finishes a certain quest or map. By creating a sense of time, the story can seem more impactful because nodes will actually go ‘offline’ due to the player spending time saving another node instead. If I was to create a spiritual successor, I would want some sort of consequence to be in place.
Does The Successor Really Need To Be In 3D?
This is the question I have been pondering ever since moving to a 3D game engine. When I think of modern turn-based 3D games, I think of games like X-Com: Enemy Unknown, where things like cover, action points, special abilities, and whatnot are all present. There’s even an RPG element in the fact that soldiers can be customized with certain perks and stats. If we create a spiritual successor to TNI, we would likely not include these aspects because part of why TNI was so successful was its simplistic rules and gameplay that appealed to the casual gamer. So then the question becomes, if we use 3D, would we use a top-down view, where the camera is overhead the playing field and looking down upon the 3D models? At that point, we could almost just make the game in 2D without much difference. However, I’m a fan of 3D so let’s brainstorm some concepts that could accompany a spiritual successor, some of which are probably better implemented in 3D than in 2D.
- Bigger maps. Remember how when we infiltrated a node, we battled on a small grid and that was it? I think the concept could be more expansive: each node has different levels (like a building) and instead of a battle on a small grid, the battle itself would be like infiltrating the node physically and destroying its security defenses on every level. This would make the battles longer and there would be more of an exploration aspect since the overworld (where we select nodes, visit warez shops, etc.) completely lacked this aspect.
- Fog of war. Basically the idea here would be we don’t see parts of the ‘net’ we don’t have access to, or parts that don’t have a friendly program nearby. This would improve the exploration aspect of the battles I discussed earlier. This is definitely a feature that, in my opinion, has more impact in 3D than in 2D.
- Rogue factions/AIs going rampant. I’ve always wanted to see AI units fight each other as well as the player, and if I was to create a spiritual successor, I would include such a dynamic in at least one battle.
- Hex-based grid. The square-based approach works fine in TNI, but hexes are more exciting in modern-day practice from my point of view.
- Turn-limited challenges. Important design decisions would have to accompany this, such as not putting power-ups or credits scattered on a level that has a turn timer so players don’t feel cheated for trying to explore and failing the mission. I do think that TNI got repetitive after awhile, and this is the main thing I am trying to address.
- Environmental factors. One of the things I liked most about Divinity: Original Sin is that there would be oil barrels and water barrels scattered throughout a map and these could be utilized in combat. While a battle on an internet grid is less likely to have things akin to real-life environment objects, we can put destructible objects on maps like transistors which, if destroyed, disable all surrounding programs for some number of turns. It should also be possible for player programs to put such ‘destructible environment objects’ onto the grid as program abilities, allowing the player a degree of creativity to beating maps.
Ultimately, the challenge is to maintain the core mechanics that made the original game so popular while adding modern-day touches that expand on the gameplay. However, each of these are fine to add as long as they are delivered in small doses or not at all in the early levels. For example, we can start with a small map reminiscent of most TNI maps, with the only fog of war being on the far side of the map and no environmental factors. The second map can be slightly larger and have more cases of fog of war. The third map can be the same size except with environmental factors. The fourth map can introduce multiple floors. And so on. As long as the game doesn’t feel repetitive like TNI eventually become, I think it is possible to create a very fun spiritual successor one of the greatest shockwave gems I ever played.