I finally got around to watching Stranger Things. After all the hype it came as a disappointment. I get that it's a pastiche of '80s movies, but I like my pastiches to be more than just familiar ingredients slung together and reheated. Nostalgia doesn't rule out putting something fresh in the mix. Think of Super 8, or even Fargo (season 1, obviously). Without the spark of originality, you might just as well be listening to greatest hits covered by a tribute band.
But I digress. I don't want to talk about 1980s, Stephen King, or pastiches in general. It's just that the Upside-Down in Stranger Things jogged my memory about a game concept I sketched out at Eidos in the mid-'90s. We needed a quick-n-dirty game (famous last words that have brought many a developer low, those) to show off Sam Kerbeck's cutting-edge 3D engine. It needed to be a realtime strategy game because that's what our game Plague, later renamed Warrior Kings, was. Sam happened to flip the landscape upside-down while showing off what it could do, and something in my brain put that together with the Aztec land of death.
We never got around to doing the game, as Eidos shut down internal development a few months later and Sam went off to do other things. His engine got used for another RTS game, Warzone 2100, but never in the freaky way I had in mind.
A variant on Plague set in pre-conquest Mexico, using the same engine and basic game design principles. It's anticipated that Plague will make quite a splash, and Aztecs will satisfy demand for follow-ups in the long wait for Plague 2.
Aztecs will however not be simply a copy of the original game swapped into a different setting. The Mesoamerican world is uniquely colourful. The architecture, costumes and imaginative mythology have rarely been used in computer games and merit a product that stands alone.
City management will be less intricate than Plague. This will be a game of warfare and keeping the gods happy.
All flesh is grass
Villages supply food. Food is not an explicit resource in the game as with Plague but is simply shared out to any units within range of your buildings. Rather than bothering with quantitative measures, you can tell how well the farms are doing by the landscape textures used: rich green if there's plenty of food, dusty scrubland if times are hard. Lack of food leads to loss of hit points; an excess is required for units to recover from injury.
As long as your people are healthy and well fed, new Aztec children continually appear in the School. You can pick these up and drop them onto other buildings, which will determine their fate in life. For example, a child dropped onto a Temple becomes a Priest, one dropped onto the War Lodge becomes a Soldier, etc.
Do it this way
Units are given orders through a (graphic) verb/adverb icon system. This means you can tell a unit to Attack (the verb) and just leave it at that, or you can go to the next level of icons to specify how the attack should be carried out: Aggressive, Balanced or Defensive (the adverbs). As with Plague, what you don't specify is left up to the individual unit's AI.
An eye in the sky
Your view is provided by a flying camera giving an eagle's-eye view of the world. You can fly the camera anywhere, but how much you get to see depends on whether you have any units nearby. Within range of a friendly unit, the camera can see enemy units and the condition of enemy farms and buildings. Outside this range the view enters the Fog of War; it becomes sepia-tinted, buildings appear stylized without hit point info, and enemy units freeze and gradually fade as if from a persistence of vision effect.
Trading in secrets
Merchants were notorious in the Aztec world for spying. This is reflected by allowing all players to have a clear view, free of the Fog of War, when within range of any player's Merchants. Thus the Merchant who increases your wealth by trading with another city will also allow you a clear view of that city's defences during his visit there but this advantage is a two-edged sword.
View of enemy units is subjective. This reflects Aztec warfare, where experienced soldiers were needed to recognize details of enemy deployment. In the game, you can only distinguish the enemy's elite units (Eagle Lords, Jaguar Lords, Arrow Knights and Hummingbird Priests) if you have elite units of your own near at hand. Otherwise all the enemy's troops appear as generic soldiers and you won't know where the danger lies.
The flipside of reality
Slain units become Skeleton Warriors in the Underworld: a subterranean mirror-image of the living world, where mountains ridges become narrow defiles and vice versa. You view the Underworld by flipping the world around to see the underside. The Underworld is another front where you must fight wars, because the concentration of your Skeleton Warrior forces in the Underworld affects the power of your Wizards' magic in the world above. You have only very limited control of your Skeleton Warriors: you can order them to move, but once they get where they're going they'll just attack any other tribe's Skeleton Warriors that are nearby - even if the other tribe are your allies.
Open heart surgery
Morale is improved by human sacrifice, making it worth capturing foes and taking them back to your Temples. This also prevents the slain foes from becoming Skeleton Warriors in the Underworld, as well as earning you the favour of the gods. You can see this as a strengthening of the glowing aura around the shrine on top of the Temple, which is what your Priests draw on to cast their prayer-magic.
Visitors from heaven
Sometimes, when a Temple's aura is very strong, a Hero will emerge from inside it. These Heroes are beings sent by the god to aid you. They have special strengths in battle, magic, etc, depending on the god. (There are gods of Rain, War, Sun, Learning and Luck.) However, the main advantage of a Hero is that they can dreamwalk. This is essentially a way of setting up a long string of orders for the Hero to follow: a dream-self (Nahual) is created which you can run rapidly around the map, giving it a sequence of orders which it will remember. When the dreamwalk ends and the dream-self merges with the Hero's physical body, he carries out the orders you gave during the dreamwalk. This allows you to set up complex tactical patterns of attack and defence and hold them in readiness, waiting to awaken your Heroes at the moment of greatest need.
There will be considerably fewer buildings and unit types than in Plague. The basic buildings featured in the game are:
- Palace School (spawns new units)
- Ball Court (increases public contentment)
- Skull Rack (each unit sacrificed adds a skull, boosting morale)
- Market Plaza (stimulates trade)
- Gladiator Platform (combatant is upgraded to veteran or killed)
- Wizards' Tower
- Priestly College
- War Lodge
- Temple (five types)
Buildings concerned with resource production &/or processing:
- Farm (can be set to produce food or cash crop)
- Fishing village (produces canoes that can be seconded in wartime)
- Weaponsmith (upgrades swords, invents spearthrower)
- Cotton Mill (supplies cotton for armour)
- Quarry (supplies obsidian for swords and stone for buildings)
- Mine (supplies gold)
- Banner Maker (improves the commands you can issue to units)
- Aviary (supplies Banner Maker)
Resources that the player is told about in detail:
- Mana (decreases over time, but never below increasing limit based on total sacrifices)
Hidden resources that you have only qualitative control over:
Basic unit types:
And veteran units:
- Eagle Lords
- Jaguar Lords
- Arrow Knights
- Hummingbird Priests
Not all of those ideas would have made it into the finished game, of course. This is just a brainstorming pitch document to get the design process started. That's my favourite part of any project, incidentally, though I'm also willing enough to roll my sleeves up and keep toiling away to the finish line.