Get to Know Your Devs: Top Fav Games

Get to Know Your Devs: Top Fav Games

Today we’re going to talk a little bit about what our favorite games are, and what you can see they mean for Mystic Riders as a whole. Why? Because our favorites are (inevitably) going to affect what sort of features we want to see in the game, and the kind of stories that we enjoy.

So to start with, Becca’s list is a little…all over the place. The most obviously vintage of the group is Barbie Riding Club from 1998, a PC game that in many ways started the girls’ gaming phenomena but is sadly no longer replayable. (Because yes, she would play it again, Becca will play any game she loves multiple times.) It was the best substitute for owning a horse a girl could have. There’s also Jak & Daxter, which is a console game of the fantasy, chosen one type variety, that she wasn’t able to finish due to the game mechanics being not in her favor. She grew up with the Legend of Zelda franchise, but the first one she played and her favorite still is Windwaker–it gave the characters such great expressions and had a story that was outside of the norm for the game while still being within the box that is Zelda. (And the new Princess Zelda from Breath of the Wild drove her bonkers.)

She has a hard time picking her favorite Pokémon game–Yellow was her first, Crystal was the first to let her actually play as a girl and has all of her favorite legendaries, Stadium 2 had the best mini-games ever, and Moon lets the Pokémon actually interact in the outside world more–but her favorite remains X. She just loves the world building too much, the region easily being her favorite with its French roots, and it was the first that allowed customization of the avatar to really let the player express themselves. Her last on her big list of favorites is Professor Layton and the Curious Village. While there are frustrating aspects to the game and some of the puzzles are harder than others, she enjoys the way the story winds through the characters and the “twist” ending that while mildly surprising, isn’t a complete shocker for the player either.

Ginny’s list is more easily nailed down to a theme (though Becca had to do some meshing to make this list, lol). With Caesar IV, she gets to make her own city and make it as pretty as possible (such as all the roads and the pattern tiles), as well as optimizing the layout to make everyone happy. Cooking games like Cake Mania gives her the satisfaction of getting the high score under the time constraints to unlock all the extras, and Cake Mania is particularly good about it because there aren’t a ton of micro transactions hiding in the levels. Roads of Rome gives her the satisfaction of doing things in the right order, especially since the later levels will punish you if you don’t, and the fact it’s repairing things rather than combat.

There was a lot that she loved about Ratchet & Clank. From the story, to the fact the original game’s worlds were just the right size to inspire wonder without getting overwhelming, but the first thing she mentioned was the fact the game was set up to be about exploring and collecting items, as well as a few well-timed explosions. Kingdom Hearts hits the nostalgia, the comfort of familiar stories and getting to interact with them as well as taking something old and making it new. (It was also her first platformer game.) With Okami, she loved the concept of using magic to heal the world and the mechanics that let the player see the impact their actions were having. She also found the puzzles seamless in their integration, and that you had to think on them.

What about games the two game devs share? There’s two sets of them. One is Final Fantasy X and its sequel, Final Fantasy X-2. For Becca, it’s all about the story. The characters are great (okay, Tidus is a bit grating, but he gets better), and some of the best parts of it are the fact you can influence the story in small ways to really make your mark on it. Becca really liked the callbacks to X in X-2, but that it was being it’s own story at the same time. For Ginny, her favorite part of X is pretty limited to Rikku punching Tidus in the stomach as a greeting. For her, X-2 was what really hit the mark because it focused on Yuna and Yuna’s grief and feelings about her journey and the aftermath. It also presented three very different types of girl, with girls having agency in their own story. And then the job system is her favorite, as imperfect as it might be, she liked it the best by far.

The other is the Sly Cooper series, though there are some strong feelings on them, especially the last one, lol. Becca likes that it isn’t about combat, it’s about sneaking and collecting items, and the importance of history to the present. (Once combat started happening, it started irking her.) There is character growth between games too, which is great. She just wishes they hadn’t done a cliffhanger ending with no follow through and that Carmelita had gotten a better treatment. For Ginny, the third game, Sly Cooper: Band of Thieves remains her favorite. Sucker Punch really hit their stride with the mechanics at that point, including different mini-games depending on the situation that made sense and fit the game play so the player wasn’t confused as to why it existed. It was also really about Sly’s ancestors and start delving into the lore of the world. She did miss the “tink tink” of the first two games though.

So what does all of this mean for Mystic Riders? Well, between the game devs, there is obviously an importance placed on story, which you already knew, but not just on story being the focus. It has to give the female protagonist agency, it has to be about their story as much as it is about the side characters, as fun as they can be. The mini-games have to be fun, and yet mesh well and make sense with the world, which can’t be so large it’s overwhelming or too small so you don’t have enough to explore. While the player has some influence on the greater story, it is within reasonable limits and gives in to their expectations rather than being surprising just to be surprising or not making sense. And rather than combat, it is focused on puzzles and improving the world, with some elements of time management but not enough to drive anyone batty.

Think this helped you understand what sort of game we are looking to build? Let us know in the comics or on twitter!

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The Barbie Horse Riding Adventure Phenomena from Ernest Adams

“I used to work at Electronic Arts for EA sports, and about 1995 I went to one of the Big Shot Executive Producers at EA Sports. I said, ‘I’ve got a brilliant idea.’ I said, ‘Let’s make a game about horses. There are a lot of horse sports. There’s rodeo and dressage and show jumping and cross country and flat racing and all kinds of other stuff like that and if we do that, we will own every little girl between the ages of nine and twelve in the world. And he, of course the Executive Producer was a he, he said, ‘No, no, no. Girls don’t play video games.’ And I said, ‘They might play video games if there were some games they wanted to play.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no. We don’t like girls. We don’t know about girls. We don’t care about girls. We’re not interested in girls. Go away. Shut up. Do your job.’ And so that was the end of that. That Christmas what happens? Out comes Barbie Horse Riding Adventure. It is colossal, and one week it was the biggest selling PC game on the charts outstripping all the shoot em ups and everything else…”

~ Ernest Adams; “Girl Games of the 1990s: A Retrospective” GDC 2018

So Why a Girl Protagonist Again…?

So Why a Girl Protagonist Again…?

Time for some delving into our decision making paradigm here as I address what is sure to be a question we get a lot, and while I’ve touched on it, I really want to talk about it in-depth. Why did we decide that the player character in Mystic Riders had to be female?

I’ll get the mechanical aspect out of the way: yes, it is easier when you are going as highly-customizable as we are to only do one physical sex. Especially because we are doing three different body types, and lots of different hair styles and options for personalization and style choices (even if we are limiting how many are available at release and adding to them as the year goes on). By eliminating having the option to play as a boy, we’ll be able to make the player characters that more variable with the same amount of time and resources that normally go into supporting both physical sexes.

Since you can easily twist the mechanics into an argument for why we should do a male option, let me go into the marketing side of it. Our age demographic is 10+ girls, ideally 12-16. Those girls are going to want to play as themselves, to be as much like they either are or want to be. Our job as game developers is to cater to that market. Particularly because it is wildly under-represented. There are very few, high quality games with a female only protagonist that can be customized beyond using your own name. About the only two games I can think of that fairly let you play as male or female for that age group are Pokémon and Wizards 101, and they have to limit how much customizing you can do because of the engine’s ability to handle it all.

I use the word fairly in two senses: one, there are (roughly) the same number of options for both the male and female players, and both are presented in the same way. Counting the number of hair styles is easy, it’s the second that trips developers up. The female character has to have to have the same variety of options as the men–this means that they can’t be designed to only appeal to the male gaze. (I have heard the arguments that the overly buff men are supposed to be for the female gaze, I am here to tell you it’s garbage. It’s a masculine fantasy all around, folks.)

One common complaint you’ll see, even in female-forward games like Overwatch, is that the faces all look the same for a female character, despite different nationalities and body types, but the men have at least a nod towards diversity. By focusing all of our efforts into female characters, we can avoid those types of slips and actually bring true variety and diversity to the options for characters and for NPCs. We can also feature interesting fashions without presenting teenage characters as a lot older than they are and creating unrealistic expectations.

Which leads to the moral and emotional reasons why we want to focus on a female character. I grew up with Zelda and Mario, both rescuing princesses. Pokémon: Crystal and Final Fantasy X, my first games with female protagonists (or close to it), didn’t come out until I was already ten or eleven, and I’m younger than Ginny! And while games have worked to include female options for characters, there still aren’t very many that focus entirely on a female protagonist, even as other games such as Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption 2 focus on male protagonists entirely. (I’m still annoyed we haven’t had a playable Zelda yet when she is the name of the franchise.)

Girls have just as much right to be the focus of a prophecy or the hero of a story. But they don’t get that opportunity unless it is alongside a male option. We want to create a game where the focus is devoted to showing that a game like this is possible, rather than feeding into the loop that girls won’t play games even if you create a game for them. It’s the same study they tried to feed us about female super heroes, and Wonder Woman blew them out of the water, and Carol Danvers is showing signs that she might do the same if given a fair chance.

That’s all Ginny and I want to do, really. Offer a fair chance for girls to be the heroes of their own stories, offer the type of games that we all enjoy without fighting through pop-up ads and bad graphics. By proving them wrong once, we give a foothold for others to try, and for us to keep trying and pushing for more. Because if all of us succeed, the ones who really benefit are the girls out there who start to believe that they can do what they dream.

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Core Value Wisdom from Brenda Laurel

“… It’s such a tough time of life for girls being a tween. They suffer from a lot of difficulties. One of the patterns we saw over and over was a sense of social inevitability about what happened to them that you have to work to get over as a young girl. We learned a lot of things about social status and play patterns and things and it then became more my mission to create emotional rehearsal space for a lot of different types of girls to get over that hump of being a kid and being a teenager. And we were really interested in recognizing and representing the diversity of the girls that we interviewed.

– Brenda Laurel, GDC Girl Games of the 1990s: A Retrospective October 2, 2018

Cores and Pillars: The Foundation of Mystic Riders MMO

Cores and Pillars: The Foundation of Mystic Riders MMO

As part of me taking a course on game design taught by Brenda Romero on Lynda.Com, we are working to make sure that even though we are approaching the game our own way, we have an understanding of what developers and the gaming industry at large looks for in a game proposal. Ginny posted a work-in-progress of our thought processes to piecing out the core and pillars from our (massive) design documents, and now that we’ve had a chance to talk about the differences (and the similarities), I am going to explain the “official” core and pillars…at least for now. While the core of our game isn’t going to change, the pillars may need adjustment as we continue development.

If you look at the work in progress documents, you’ll see that for the core, Ginny and I had different approaches to roughly the same idea. For me, I was focused on this being an MMORPG game. The point of any MMORPG is character development, gaining levels and gear to fit your style of play and advancing the story. It’s how you go about it and what your story is that separates them. Ginny, however, came from a more narrative, and therefore a more specific direction, and used growing up as her core. While still about character development, it is more about how as a player character, you are making decisions on how this specific character, a young teen girl, is going to grow up, both on micro and macro levels. It also gives the first nod in the direction of our narrative, which is important since we’re starting there rather than with systems.

Neither  of “cores” is necessarily wrong, but due to Ginny’s being more specific and in-line with the narrative of the game, I definitely thing it is the stronger of the two. So Mystic Rider MMO’s core is growing up.

Now, what about pillars? These are sort of supporting structures to the core—important statements or concepts in their own right that need to be just as prevalent as the core itself. This is where we had some very similar concepts and some differing opinions. Admittedly, I applied some limitations to us to try and you know…keep us from having twenty, but I honestly think that helped more than hindered us because it made us prioritize what we found important.

For example, both of us want the game to be driven by narrative. We’re writers, we come for the pretty, we stay for the story. Not only that, but from what we are finding, most female gamers feel the same way. There’s also a lack of games that let you focus on exploring, crafting, and racing without making it a money grab between players or involving combat…or making it where you have to babysit the game. Ginny has the collection of posts about people wanting something else, I’ll let her share those images on her own time. I worry that despite our ideas and focus being more likely to bring in female devs, we’ll end up with some guy who goes off the deep end and forgets our game is for girls, and I really want us to keep that a question in everything we do. Ginny has spent a lot of time investigating what sort of graphics and mini-games we can include, specifically ones that often get made into flash games that so many of us love to play, but are buggy or limited as all get out, so we can bring them into the fold.

So where does that leave us in terms of pillars? For Mystic Riders MMO, our pillars are to be (1) Narrative Driven in a world that at times challenges to be (2) Unconventional Fantasy, to have (3) Exploration, Crafting, and Racing that is easy but dependent on practice and skill, utilizing (4) Platformer and Mini-Game Mechanics to (5) Customize the Player Experience for (6) Female Gamers.

It’s a lot to live up to, especially for our first major project. I’ve done smaller games, though without any formal training. But I think together, we have the knowledge on what we want and how to implement it in a plan. Now we just need to start getting the resources together!

Astranar’s Secret Gem: The Mirror World

Astranar’s Secret Gem: The Mirror World

Hidden beyond the next tree. Over secret paths only a few can see. Through the arches of branches and flowers. There is a world of magic and wonder. Teal skies. Vivid greenery. Unique flowers. Maroon earth. Only on the continent of Argentum, in Astranar, can people cross over and discover the enchantments and peoples of the Mirror World.

A simple name, perhaps, while others over the world may have slipped through cracks, they called it different things. Underhill. Wonderland. The Never Ending Wood. Ever After. In Astranar, the natives know that names have power and the true name of the World is best left to those that live in it. They simply call it the Mirror World for it mirrors our own.

When Astranar is in the heart of summer, the Mirror World is in the deepest folds of winter. And while in Astranar, it takes a powerful spell caster to work anything beyond basic spells, in the Mirror World, magic is as easy as breathing—for better or worse!

If one could see both the Mirror World and the mundane world at the same time, one would be able to see the towns co-existing in the same places! The people going on about their lives doing everyday things. For the people of the Mirror World have the same wants and needs as the people in the mundane world no matter how different their appearance.

And oh how different they are! Those that live close to humans can be breathe taking and magical. Fairies in their tiny snow globe sized bubbles. Elementals that take on the shape of humans or giant birds. Griffons that share a passing resemblance to eagles. Deer with colorful coats and exotic antlers like flowering branches and crystal. And many different types of sheep.

Then there are the magical beings that only choose to share the shape of humans. Though their skin is anything but human looking as if someone took liquid metals, and glowing paints to create abstract and fantastical designs. Some may have wings to mock the humans and their tales of fairies (or is it mockery?). Take care of those that live in the ponds.

Those that live deep in the Mirror World have names and faces we are familiar with; Santa Claus, Cupid, The Pumpkin King/Jack Frost, Mother Goose, and the Green Man. They come closer to the mundane world around the solstices and holidays when the veil between us is thinner. The ways to their towns and castles are only available for a short time each year as they are celebrated (or appeased.) Perhaps, if you help them enough they will open special places, special towns for the player to visit them all year round.

Then there are the horses! Horses in the Mirror World are the horses of every rider’s fantasy. The most prolific and easiest to find, because often they find you, are the magical color changing horses. Reminding outsiders of a Fjord horse, in the mundane world they come in all shades of dun and have bi-colored manes. In the Mirror World, their coats and manes become an array of bright, muted, or pastel colors. And in the Mirror World, they can talk to you. (This may or may not be welcome depending on their personality.)

One can make friend with unicorns, tame the wild pegasus, help the rainbow alicorns, and even discover beautiful nymph horses that take after plants and trees. They can take you to places no normal horse can reach (much to your main horse’s displeasure.)

A word of warning, as with the magic of Astranar, in the Mirror World there are places of Light and places of Shadow. Woe betide those who are of opposite sides stumbling into places they shouldn’t be. Those of the light, beware the arches of dead branches covered in moss. And those of the shadow, beware the arches of living branches covered in ivy. If caught inside, you’ll have to flee to avoid capture or bargain for your freedom. Some can be convinced to let you go if you make them something nice or if you entertain them. (Though this brings to mind playing with your food…)

Explore carefully.

But in order to explore, you’re going to need a winter coat. Don’t think you can pass a raincoat off as winter coat. Your horse is too smart for that to work…

Game Core & Pillars (Under Construction)

Game Core & Pillars (Under Construction)

Neither Becca nor I (Ginny here) have gone to school for game design. So we’re learning about how game designers talk and the lingo they use as we go. Becca is going through a video course about game development and texted me the other day about putting together our game’s core value and the pillars. Her text was short with the explanations.

Core: What word(s) is the game about.
Pillars: Answer the questions how, what, why and include the 3 most important features of your game.

But think shorter than that.

I got onto Google and poked around a bit to see what I could find there about Core values and game pillars. And I challenged Becca to put together her thoughts and then we’d share them with each other.

Becca came up with the Left Image and I came up with the Right Image. (And yes, I made them pretty on purpose. EVERYTHING MUST BE PRETTY!)

This is the difference in how Becca thinks given what she learned and how I think given what I learned. You can see her core word is Character Development and my core word is Growing Up. Which… is pretty much the same thing in different languages. They’re synonyms. We both want narrative driven game play and talk about exploring, racing, crafting and learning.

We’re very close to the same page and as usual are sharing each other’s brains. Now comes the fun part of meshing our thinking together in a cohesive core and pillars document.

What do you think about our core values and pillars? Is this a type of game you could see playing now or in 2025? Share your thoughts in the comments. Have a mystical magical day!