This is a sketch of the Infernal Submarine that takes players to the depths of Inferno, once they reach the gates.
A few months ago, as we were playing around with the first versions of logo for Gremlins, Inc., we created a mock-up of how it would look when featured on Steam, and realised that we’ll need a catch-phrase for the game.
I’ve spent a good fifteen years publishing third party games and creating mottos has always been something that we’d do as a part of the routine – however I never really thought about inventing a motto for our own game until then. Which just goes to show that the real challenge for developer/publisher relationship is not in the skills of people, but in the positions, perspectives that they carry habitually.
When you’re spending 90% of your time on the creative side, a motto is the last thing you worry about; and when you’re spending 90% of your time talking to media and introducing your game to new audience, bam!, you definitely want something that will introduce the game in 30 seconds.
And so we sat down (it was in a taxi in Kiev) and asked ourselves, what is the single most important element of Gremlins, Inc. that defines the whole game mechanics? The answer was obvious: STRATEGY. It doesn’t matter how quick your reflexes are, but it matters a lot how well you’re able to plan, especially in a sequence of actions, and more so in the face of circumstances changing with each turn on the map.
But how exactly Gremlins, Inc. differs from other strategies? You have to build things, yes. You have to get money, the more the better. But that’s not really the main goal of the game. What is the thing that makes our game stand apart? And then we had it: it’s the system of karma, what we call MALICE for now. The real trick, and the nuance, of Gremlins, Inc. is how bad you want to be to the other players, and how far they allow you to go, being that bad.
As I type this from the airport, I took a pen and paper and wrote down the other key characteristics of what we’re building, and what we already have in the game, and the list looks like this:
YOU PLAN AND YOU EXECUTE
At every turn of the game, you get to make decisions. This is important. It wasn’t always so, e.g. in the first prototypes there was too much luck, too much chance, and sometimes it got boring or frustrating. But right now, you have choices to make all the time, and then it’s not my turn, I’m actually thankful because I can finally get down to planning my next moves.
Which of the 6 cards to play? And where on the map to move next? Will I have enough money to play this one, when I reach that spot? It’s a balance of what you can control (your resources, your actual moves), what you cannot control (risk factors like passing through the Misfortune spots, if you have to get beyond them) and what you cannot control but can more or less predict (behaviour of other players, in-game events, cards out of the decks that are nearly exhausted and so you can more or less know what to expect by now).
CHANCE HAS A ROLE
Remember the original King’s Bounty, or HoMM, when you would see somebody’s army, or a castle, and would never really know how strong that is, until you look it up? Maybe it’s only 100 fairies. But maybe it’s 2 black dragons. The same feeling I get when playing Gremlins, Inc., because of the deck structure of the game.
The deck of Misfortune events has 30 different events (they look like postcards). Some of them are kind of Okay (“give someone $50 in exchange for improving your karma a little”). But some are totally not Okay (“everyone’s savings are cut in half”). When you look at Treasure, the location where you’re guaranteed to make money, you’re looking at 2 Danger spots on the way there, as well as one Misfortune, so you have to decide if you want to take the chances – or follow a safer route to Bank.
YOU CAN BALANCE YOUR CHANCES
In the early versions, chance played too much of a role. Throw dice, land in jail, rot there for five turns, bah. Right now, there’s ways to circumvent things. First, you’ve got 6 cards. The chances of having 6 bad cards at the same time? Low. Secondly, there’s ways to refresh your cards. You can go to Inferno, change all 6 cards and even get $100 extra (but your karma will suffer). Or if you’re stuck in Jail, you can throw “1″ and replace any card you want. There’s now also multiple action cards that allow you to pick and choose among certain decks in Marketplace, and in Junkyard. I think even in Office we have at least one card that allows you to choose your new card from a few incoming.
The most important feeling that makes me certain that we’ll make the TBS crowd happy is that you do have the chance, but you also control the chance, and you can work to affect your chances, your luck, to whatever degree you want. Some days I dive into Inferno, then go and crash other players, giving no care about my reputation. And some days I’m paying bribes to every policeman on the way around the map just to avoid having to deal with sen a small chance of going to Jail while I’m en route to a specific destination.
YOU CAN TAKE RISKS
When you stop on the Police spot, you can pay the bribe or roll the dice. When new players start their first sessions, it’s always fun to see different people use afferent strategies: someone pays $20 and goes forward with certainty. And someone will never ever pay, preferring to trust the dice instead.
Whether you hit the sweet spots at the cost of passing through Misfortune, and taking the risk, is really up to you. You can take risks and you make this choice – how many, and how often. This also relates to the strategy in general: there are some obvious routes to get to places where you can play certain strong cards, and if you take these routes, other players will immediately know that you’re up to something serious. Whether you want to do this – and test their resolve not to let you through – is up to your current state of mind.
THE BIG QUESTION: TO BUILD OR TO DESTROY?
A big part of enjoying Gremlins, Inc. is the opportunity to be a different person in a different session. The biggest question that every player faces in the game is whether to go for building something for yourself, or to use the opportunity to destroy another player. Time and time again, I find myself with 2 “juicy” cars at the crossroads: one will give me, say, $200 when I play it in Casino; the other will take away $150 from any player of my choice. Should I go for the money, or for the disruption of plans of somebody else? Ah, the sweet freedom of choice.
Sometimes all I want is to cause waves, and so I go and destroy players, even at the cost of losing this session – and maybe I’ll put them into enough trouble to actually win the game? And sometimes I’m playing a long game, playing fake moves just to get where I want without tipping anybody off on what I’m up to. Importantly, human psychology plays a big role in how each session unfolds. If someone takes money, votes and scores away from you, and then put your in Jail, the desire to revenge the moment you;re out is simply immense.
LAYER UPON LAYER
Finally, the real beauty of the game’s system - why I believe we will have players engaged for weeks and months, and not just for a few days – is that it’s built as a layer upon layer of different mechanics. We have the map, with its locations and spots, and we have the rules and the decks. But then we also have the calendar, which you can turn on and off; we have Chaos Cards, which you can choose to have or not to have in a particular session; we also have 12 different types of characters, each with a unique set of pros and cons; and then we’ll work on the tournament system and in-game items that you can win by unlocking certain achievements.
I’ve played a lot of good TBS in the past and something I always wanted was “more”: more maps. More content. More opportunities to replay and use my knowledge, my experience, to win something that’s harder than usual. In Gremlins, Inc. we’re offering this through layers of extra mechanics, extra features that are great for players who are pros, but at the same time these can be turned off not to bother the newsbies.
So, ultimately, what’s Gremlins, Inc? A game of strategy and malice!