Stoking Rivalry -- DQ2 Progress Report for November 2021
By merging both parties together, the White Hat leader was at risk of being overshadowed. Let's lean into that for both story and gameplay purposes.
Howdy Defender's Quest fans!
Defender's Quest version 0.0.26 is up on Steam for all of our early backers. My Linux partition is still borked and I promise to try to fix it before January, so if you don't mind limping along with Proton in the meantime I certainly appreciate it.
Let's talk about what's new this month.
Last month, we made some major headway in the game's third sequence where the white hats and black hats "trade hostages," with the white hats temporarily losing their AOE/Healer unit White Splash, and gaining the Black Hats' leader, Jumper.
This properly threaded the needle of mixing things up even though we didn't feel it was the right time in the game to fully merge the two parties. That said, we started to notice some tension. Specifically, the Jumper was overshadowing the White Hat's existing melee unit and leader, Zerk.
For one, this is absolute gold for story material, we love it when things you experience in the game can be emphasized in the surrounding story. Having the White Hats capture the Black Hats' leader only for him to steal the show in battle and start to subtly undermine his captors' leader is already getting me excited. I'm leaving it to James exactly how that will play out, but I'm sure it's going to be great.
That said, the Zerk still needs to have a clear role and can't be totally obsolesced, even temporarily, by this other unit. This made me sit down and think about how best to differentiate these two units.
Zerk is supposed to be an all around high-DPS unit you're not afraid to put on the front lines.
Jumper is supposed to be a show-boating glass cannon who can dish it out but can't take it, and needs to strategically retreat to his jump zone when under fire.
Ultimately we decided to bump up Zerk's range a bit, and decrease Jumper's. Jumper doesn't need a huge range because he can cover two completely different locations. Bumping up Zerk's range increases her overall effective DPS (because she spends more time actually hitting stuff over the course of battle), and is immediately visually obvious in contrast to Jumper's smaller range. If you want to cover more of the map on one given spot you pick Zerk.
Zerk's range now extends far enough to hit enemies as far as two squares away:
Whereas Jumper is much more of a close-range fighter:
Naturally, this required me to go back and re-test all of the original White Hat and Black Hat levels to make sure that I haven't massively broken everything with this change. Surprisingly, it didn't require too many changes. One thing I even noticed is that it helped Zerk lean even more into existing identities I've been trying to establish.
For one, one thing I've been trying to consistently establish with Zerk is that she pairs very well with Bouncer placed in front to draw aggro and crowd control while she deals damage. Well, now she can actually reach past Bouncer and get a few hits in rather than having to wait until they're literally on top of her. This is great!
Of course, with her improved range you can hit enemies on the path without necessarily being adjacent to it, but that trades off against having lower overall effective DPS because enemies will spend less time within her range.
Obviously this calls for a change in weapon theme down the road – replacing the inferior sword for the superior SPEAR (or whatever the thematic equivalent in our setting winds up being).
Zerk and Jumper essentially started as carbon copies of one another and they've been slowly growing distinct over time. The next thing I'm working on is distinguishing their skill trees, which literally started out as identical. Here's Zerk's current skill tree up to boost 3 as of this build:
And here's Jumper:
Boost level 1 was already pretty different – Zerk is all about whether you want to place her next to a friend or by herself, and Jumper is all about whether you're counting on him staying undamaged or not. Boost level 3 is what I've recently changed. I've now decided to give Zerk a choice between Bleed (extra damage from future hits) as well as Acid (low-damage over time that eats away armor).Jumper on the other hand has a choice between lightning shield and "zapped" (brief electric themed slow down). Eventually I'll come up with something to distinguish boost 2 as well.
The other major change in this build has to do with the minions and the level designs. Playtesting revealed that throwing three lanes at players this early was a little too soon, and mixing in two minions along with the Jumper, especially one as fiddly as the AOE, was kind of confusing. I've lately find I never regret making things a bit simpler and straightforward, so we made it so you only get one minion, the easiest one to understand – Medium Shot. Next, we made the "big idea" about this sequence dealing with two lanes of enemies at once, which Jumper comes in handy for.
We start the sequence with fairly easy level that just throws things at you from two directions. This is designed to be a quick easy level to catch your breath after the last boss fight, and introduce that you now temporarily have Jumper and have temporarily lost White Splash.
This level introduces the "Medium Shot" minion, a medium-ranged projectile machine that fires a large number of lower damage projectiles in a spread pattern. You've got two paths converging on the same point, with more aggressive enemies
Now that you've gotten settled back in with the white hats and their two new units, we mix things up a little. We give you two long paths, one straight, one windy, and every single wave spawns from both simultaneously.
And then we have the "final exam" – not styled as a Boss battle (yet), this features a lot of "spawner" type enemies that themselves break into many smaller enemies. You have one very long path with plenty of time to react to, and one much shorter one that has some good space for melee units.
These level iterations feel more suited to the new party configuration than my rough drafts from last month, and are probably good enough for me to start in on the next sequence.
Before I do that, though, I still need to tackle the item pacing for this sequence which I've yet to nail down, and tweak the machine minions a bit. The explosion-on-death-or-recall mechanic just isn't really holding up in playtesting. It seems like another of those "sounded really fun on paper" ideas that I've yet to ever actually want in battle, and testing seems to bear this out with players too. I'm strongly considering axing it entirely and just making these units really simple, really straightforward utility towers to fill out map positions without adding too much extra complexity.
But you know what sounded really fun on paper and actually is fun in the game? BOUNCING SHOTS.
Whenever I find a feature that's this delightful and fun I'm always determined to keep it in the game no matter what even if its current incarnation is stupidly broken and imbalanced (which doesn't seem to be the case). Maybe I'm just weird but I can't get enough of this bonus.
On that note, Anthony has given me some feedback that the skill tree system probably needs to be a bit "chunkier" – I've gotten similar feedback from players before, so I'll be exploring that next month. The idea here is that instead of having six points per bonus and each giving a tiny boost in power, maybe only have two or three per bonus, with each one giving a much larger and more obvious effect. Smaller incremental investments are better for games where every point is a permanent commitment, but in DQ2 the whole idea is you can undo any skill point at any time.
Thanks for sticking with us, and we'll have some more stuff for you next time. I should note I've also been working on some stuff I'm not allowed to talk about yet, but I think will make a big difference in getting this game out the door sooner rather than later. Will let you know as soon as that is actually concrete.