I have been writing indie role-playing games for a living for 27 years. The end of my career is still a few years away, but it is in sight. So I am figuring out how I want to go out.
Three years ago, I started what is likely my last all-new game series, Queen's Wish. I didn't want to fade out the easy way. I wanted to make something unique. The story. The game system. The battles. I wanted all of these to feel fresh and different and unlike any other game out there.
So I wrote Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. It took two years of hard work, constant thought, multiple redesigns, and one near-nervous breakdown. But I did it.
(Sometimes I get accused of not caring anymore and phoning it in. If you don't like Queen's Wish, fine. But if you tell me it's just an easy cash-in, your opinion is ignored forever.)
This article is about the weird choices I made in the game. Which worked. Which didn't. And how I will fix them.
You probably didn't play Queen's Wish. And you don’t have too, since I am writing this article more as a series of game design ideas, and how they worked out in practice.
But You Should Play It
Queen's Wish: The Conqueror did not get the happiest reaction at first. Whenever you change something in your games, you will lose some customers. The changes need to earn more customers to make up for it.
Queen's Wish changed just about everything from our earlier games, and a lot of people found it to be very jarring. Sales were shaky and online reviews weren't great. I was sad, so I spent a few months concentrating on the next game.
But then, a year later, I went back and looked at Queen's Wish. I found that the online reviews had turned really good. Sales had stayed strong instead of trailing off. Somehow, the game found its audience.
Now we are doing a Kickstarter for the next game in the trilogy, Queen's Wish 2: The Tormentor. We don't know if there is still an audience for it. Indie sequels fail all the time.
But we think we have a chance, especially if we fix the problems. Because there were a few problems.
So here are some of the choices (and mistakes) we made, and how they worked out.
Choice 1: You Have To Do Dungeons In One Run
In our earlier games, you could whittle away at a dungeon in multiple trips. You could bust in, kill half of the enemies, return to town to rest, and then return to finish the dungeon off. When you got back, the foes you already killed would be (mostly) gone.
In Queen's Wish, all enemies respawn when you return to a dungeon. You have to use tactics and planning and conserve your power to finish the adventure in one run. The dungeons are very carefully balanced to make each run close and exciting. (But a lot of players don't like "exciting." "Exciting" is stressful.)
Our old players would enter a dungeon, blow all their best abilities on the trash at the entrance, run out of steam, rest up, and find that they have to start over. This is a real change in how you have to approach our games, and a lot of our old fans didn't care for it. (Which is their right. People like what they like.)
I don't consider this change a mistake because I love how close and exciting the fights are. It makes Queen's Wish, of all my games, the one I most enjoy playing. However, it does remove a lot of safety and feelings of raw power. It's a hard trade-off to balance, and it is one that every RPG designer has to make a decision about early.
Choice 2: Experience Is Given In Big Lumps (Mistake!)
I really liked The Witcher 3. In that game, every foe gave you a tiny bit of experience, but the only way to get actual levels was to finish quests. Queen's Wish is almost the same. Your experience comes in big lumps when you finish quests, but killing monsters gives you nothing.
I didn't want people to be able to farm foes and kill the same enemy again and again to gain strength. It's boring. And yes, some players will do the boring thing. Some feel a compulsion to do it. But I didn't want to encourage this. I always want you experiencing new material.
The problem is that it neglects one of the key selling points of computer RPGs: They give you a constant drip of pleasant dopamine hits by giving you a steady flow of little rewards.
Getting experience from every foe you kill is, simply, more fun. Queen's Wish gave you levels and power at the same rate as it would have otherwise, but it FELT less satisfying.
So Queen's Wish 2 will rework experience and other minor rewards to spread them out more. RPGs have a set of expected basic mechanics and reward systems that make them fun and work well. A designer ignores these at his or her own peril.
Choice 3: Building An Empire (Needs Work!)
The most unique quality of Queen's Wish is that most of your power comes by building your forts. You take over forts. Then you finish dungeons and quests to get resources. (Wood, Stone, Iron, Etc.). Then you use those resources to upgrade your forts. This gives you the power (as abilities and equipment) to beat tougher dungeons.
I love this system. I love that your power comes from industry and making a strong nation and that your best equipment is what you make yourself. It is unique in RPGs and fits perfectly with the plot and setting. Also, making buildings and shops and defenses appear just feels really satisfying.
However, there was a problem. Since the system was so new and complex (and took a long time to design), I couldn't put too many options in it. It was hard enough just balancing its current simple form.
But now the system is in. It works. And so I can expand it. Queen's Wish 2 will have a lot of new options for developing your characters and your Empire. Players repeatedly asked for more choices to make, and they will get them.
Choice 4: Fewer, Better Abilities, But All Useful (Needs Work!)
Some RPGs give dozens and dozens of spells and abilities. Some of them are overpowered, but most of them are useless. Much of the game is figuring out the overpowered spells and just using them again and again.
I don't care for that. I think that each game system has only a limited number of abilities that can be useful in it, and if you include too many then useless and overpowered abilities are inevitable.
So, for Queen's Wish, there are only 44 abilities or so, but they are all balanced to be useful. Some are more powerful and generally valuable than others, but, on the highest difficulty, all of them have places where they shine. (And you can change your abilities around whenever you return to town. This is necessary, especially on higher difficulty levels.)
I like how this turned out, but players really wanted even more abilities. At a certain point, you have to stop arguing with how the genre works. So Queen's Wish 2 will have 12 more abilities. It'll be a bit of work to make them both unique and balanced, but I think that number will feel more satisfying to players.
Side Note: When trying to make a turn-based RPG, designers often try to create the illusion of depth by heaping on more stuff. More skill trees. More abilities. More choices. But most of these choices tend to be: "Here's one obvious great thing and a lot of crap." Turn-based RPGs are really hard to design in a way that the player has meaningful and tactically interesting choices.
Choice 5: Family Matters!
All of our games have a lot of plot and writing, and we try to give the player a lot of important choices and possible endings. This is the trademark quality of our games, so we have to continue it with Queen's Wish 2. (Even though it's a ton of work.)
In addition, most computer RPGs never really deal with more mundane human issues, especially family, parents, and children. I wanted to expand my story to parts of the human experience that games almost never touch.
So in Queen's Wish games, the three main characters are your mother (the Queen), your brother, and your sister. They will have most of the dialogue in the series, and your interactions with them have a huge effect on the story.
Also, the game is free of the cheap meta jokes and irony that have infested computer game writing over the last few years. The writing in Queen's Wish is sincere and emotional. These are people who simultaneously love each other and drive each other crazy. (So, family.)
Writing the family dialogue is difficult, but it is also my favorite thing about the series. I love writing these characters. This is one thing I won't give up.
I don't actually know if players will like the whole story or if the earnest tone is popular or not. However, sometimes you have to write what you have to write. Luckily, this lets me put into the market things that aren't already there (whether you want them or not).
A New Kickstarter
A lot of why I am writing this is because we are doing a Kickstarter for Queen's Wish 2: The Tormentor, the new game. Since I am asking you to support a game that doesn't really exist yet, I want you to know what I am changing and what I am trying to improve.
Writing sequels is a tricky business. You need to add a lot of new stuff, since the old game probably had enough content to get people tired of the old system.
I really don't know how Queen's Wish 2 will sell. I just know that I have to finish the series. This is my last attempt to do something really new and cool before retirement. (The rest of the time, I'll be doing remasters.)
I have to make sure I'm happy with it, and hopefully the rest will take care of themselves over the long run.