Repairing Knights in the Nightmare takes more than just cleaning up the cluttered presentation or taking out the excessive elements out of the interactive systems. And clutter rarely is the result of a design decision that can be easily remedied. Clutter on this scale reflects a lack of priorities and focus for a coherent result that players can better learn from. For KitN, I've seriously considered the creative and functional aims of each design feature. Finding a balance of the Shmup-strategy-RPG hybrid gameplay, the following is repair list of features and suggestions.
Bigger Screen or Smaller Graphics. There is simply not enough room for the gameplay and the HUD on a single DS screen. It's a shame the touch screen wasn't used for much outside of controlling the Wisp and displaying some of the most nuanced information about the battle state. The game needs to better use both screens and clean up the graphical presentation so that fewer elements overlap each other.
Let go of the constant real-time gameplay. As I explained, just the shmup or the strategy gameplay in KitN is enough to demand the player's full attention. Even if it's possible to keep track of all these details if you've developed enough skill, doing both simultaneously will fragment and shuffle your attention. Yes, it's possible to play such a fast paced, multi-moving game. However, playing this way can also be a type of clutter. If you've seen video of a pro StarCraft 2 player competing from their perspective, after the game picks up the screen constantly moving because each action takes a split second to complete (see here). At such a level, the player cannot enjoy the presentation of the gameplay clearly while they play. In the same way that spectator sport moments allow players to enjoy moments of gameplay fully because they're not worried about playing, a repaired KitN cannot have bullets, Whips, Knights, and enemies moving at the speed that they do.
Embrace Turn-based Design. Real-time gameplay challenges are great because they stress skills that cannot be stressed otherwise (e.g. timing and reflex). It also adds new ways to stress dexterity and adaptation skills. Designers who prefer real-time gameplay often don't realize that you can get all the benefits of real-time gameplay challenges without making the entire gameplay experience constantly moving in real-time. Turn-based games are inherently very clean. Turn-based games also facilitate spectator sport moments naturally because of the periods of activity and inactivity.
Looking at games like the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario we can repair Knights in the Nightmare by making all the strategy gameplay turn-based and the shmup gameplay real-time. This design change will also slow down the gameplay by reducing the number of simultaneous moving parts. On the strategy phase, players will have all the time they need to analyze the positions of enemies and allies, read the stats on each, equip items, and possibly move. Then in the shmup phase, enemies will attack and move. The only way to attack enemies is during the shmup phase and doing so requires the Whisp to activate Knights as usual.
Dynamics and Interplay between the Strategy and Shmup gameplay. The way KitN is currently designed, the Shmup gameplay (controlling the Whisp) is almost entirely separate from the strategy gameplay (attacking with knights). As the Whisp you dodge enemy bullets to save time, grab gems and orbs, earn some extra exp, possibly jam enemies, and possibly add bonus damage to your attacks. This list is ordered by frequency of use. Notice how only the final 2 examples deal with attacking enemies. I think it's neat that the defensive mechanics mostly involve the Whisp and the offensive mechanics mostly involve the Knights, but there is a lot of rich gameplay potential here if we bring the two worlds closer together. Remember, gameplay of interesting choices requires dynamics and interplay. This way, the gameplay doesn't have to double the sub-systems in attempt to make both halves of the gameplay more interesting. Just for some examples, it would be interesting if...
- Knights can launch attacks or field effects that affect the enemy bullets.
- Some enemy bullets and attacks can affect the Knights in different ways. Currently, I've encountered one boss in Knights in the Nightmare who was alerted to nearby charging knights. Once alerted he attacked. If the player didn't cancel the charge in time, the boss would instantly kill the knight unit. This is a good, but extreme example. I'd like more like it.
- Knights can be disabled for the rest of the turn if they're attacked in a specific way.
- Charging with Knights limits Whisp movement to a small radius centered around the Knight. The Whisp movement would also be slowed. This change will put a greater emphasis on Knight positioning and how it layers with the Shmup dodging gameplay.
The level challenges need less randomness. Currently, the enemies that appear in the match due to the kill matrix, enemy movement patterns, and enemy bullet attacks are fairly random. Being random, I never got a strong sense of finely tuned level design. In the chaos and clutter, I felt like everything was just happening at random rather than setting up challenges that stress very specific skills. With the slower, turn-based changes, levels can be designed with more planned, linear, and tuned challenges. The best way to think of this change is creating levels that are set pieces designed around specific themes and gameplay strategies like a puzzle game or like the missions in Advance Wars.
Ditch most of the RPG leveling systems. With the level design more varied and purposeful centering around a tighter, more dynamic Shmup+Strategy hybrid gameplay, keeping the RPG leveling features would only get in the way of this design. Include a significant RPG leveling system would ultimately decrease the amount of strategy in the game in favor of tactics. In other words, even if the missions are highly tuned around the gameplay to stress many combinations of skill, ultimately being under leveled or over leveled will result in an un-tuned player experience.
Keep the customization. Instead RPG leveling, players can embrace the RPG like systems of unit collection, item collection, and item crafting. This should be enough feature to allow players to find their own style.
Leave the Loot. Instead of the optional challenge of smashing static field objects for special items or having items drop as loot, the game can instead offer these items as rewards for achieving a high battle rating or completing specific objective. Because the mission design will be much cleaner and tightly designed, these special objectives can be tuned to each level.
Simplify the Stats. For all the numbers and stats in the game for knights and items, KitN is very easily optimized. Since there's such a strong action gameplay element to the core design, having so many varied stats is unnecessary. The dynamics of space the shmup and a strategy gameplay is so powerful that interesting choices and engaging gameplay can emerge without needing to create so many variables and dynamics between them.
That's it for my repair. I wish I could draw diagrams or create playable demos of my ideas, but the explanation will have to do for now. It's been a crazy ride with this game. I'm glad i played it. I learned a lot.