Kaneko Update 3 - Designing Game Mechanics

We’ve been making a lot of progress on Detective Butler lately, and you’ll see lots more of it in the months to come. So, why not focus on a game I’ve been neglecting for quite a while now: Witch Doctor Kaneko!

Let’s talk about the process I’m using to design the mechanics and levels for this game.

[Concept art by Osato-kun]

In the first place, I wanted a unique game mechanic that other games simply don’t have. But even before that, why decide to make a puzzle-platformer? That decision came from my experience making Super Mario fangames when I was in middle school (2006-2008). I mostly grew up playing Nintendo games, especially Mario ones, and many of my close friends know how much I enjoy playing each level over and over. During this time, I worked with Game Maker using the drag-and-drop interface and eventually learning how to code. Maybe one day I’ll release a bunch of my old (and mostly unfinished) games to the public.

Speaking of Mario fangames, I recall one game I had made in which you played as Mario trying to race Wario to the end of each level. Someone who had played the game commented on the speed of Mario, asking why he moved so slowly. I responded by saying “Because it makes the levels longer!” Truly twisted logic, certainly for a witch doctor in the making!

But, back to the story of Kaneko. I had decided to try my luck again with Game Maker, making a sidescroller like in the old days. Unfortunately, Game Maker simply wasn’t cutting it, and I had to move to Unity. That turned out to be a good thing. But at the time, I still had no idea what the game would actually be. I had an idea for a game about a witch doctor… Should it be an RPG? No, too much text. Puzzle? I don’t have a good concept for one. So a platformer it is!

Then one day while debugging Unity’s code, I realized something. Being a witch doctor is much like being a programmer. You find out what’s wrong and then fix it. Over and over and over. And that’s how I came up with the idea for Kaneko’s signature “Debug” spell!

[My rendition of the official Debug spell art.] [Witch Doctor Kaneko.]

With that gameplay concept in mind, I was now able to think about designing levels. When I was a REALLY small kid, before middle school, I had to settle for drawing my game ideas on paper. So I went back to good old pen and paper for designing Kaneko’s levels. Usually it starts off with me drawing a little stick-figure witch-doctor (a circle with triangles above and below) standing on top of a line.

When coming up with ideas for each level, I have to think about what “Debug” actually means. I think of its use as similar to the “context-sensitive button” from Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Basically, Kaneko removes a bug from the environment. This causes the environment — the level itself — to change. Therefore, the effect of the Debug spell actually depends upon where it was used. This actually makes it a really nice game mechanic, because I can keep adding more mechanics into the environment, and the player will have to learn how to use the Debug spell accordingly. It’s similar to how Mario’s jump is a core game mechanic. It’s not so much about jumping, but how you manage to jump around the environment. And with Kirby’s ability to inhale enemies and use their powers, it isn’t so much Kirby’s ability to swallow things that challenges the player’s mastery of the game, but the fact that he swallows DIFFERENT things and allows for diverse gameplay later on.

Speaking of Kirby, I think Kaneko’s Spellbook is very similar. I want to have a wide range of spells for the player to choose from and get accustomed to. They will all be useful in their different ways, but due to the versatile nature of the Debug spell, none of them will actually be necessary to beat the game. For a completionist, they will need to master all of the spells, but I want the game to be winnable with just the Debug spell alone. Nonetheless, being a witch means having a lot of spells, and everyone likes to collect things, so I’m very excited to have all sorts of spells with their own interesting mechanics. And all of their names are programming puns, too.

[This shows off a lot of things.]

Each level in Witch Doctor Kaneko is going to be connected. The game will take place all in one, single forest. I’m wanting it to be similar to the Great Cave Offensive from Kirby Superstar. That way the player really feels like they’re wandering through a large, connected forest. But at the same time, in order to keep the puzzles organized, it will be divided into rooms and such, Zelda-style. Puzzles will involve using the Debug spell to effectively “clear” a room full of bugs. As Kaneko progresses deeper into the forest, more and more types of bugs start to appear, and her mastery of debugging will be constantly put to the test.

Initially, I envisioned using some sort of MP system so that Kaneko’s use of spells would be limited. Right now, I’m not so sure how that will pan out. It might be too annoying to have to manage MP while also solving puzzles. But at the same time, it could be an interesting challenge.

[An early concept for MP.]

Right now, I have all of the spells and their mechanics planned out. About five of them are actually coded in, although I think it wouldn’t take too much effort to program the rest of them. I have some good ideas on how to start, at least. The hardest part is going to be making sure I manage to create interesting puzzles between them all. I’ve mapped out a lot of ideas for potential puzzles, but working on Detective Butler (and pressure from school) has pushed a lot of that stuff back.

But, I do have pretty much all of the game mechanics worked out now. A year ago I had no idea what kind of game Witch Doctor Kaneko was going to be. Now I have all the plans sorted out and all the team members I need to make this possible. It’s really amazing how an idea can develop over time.