Introducing Steel Hunters

You may have noticed some re-naming and re-branding going on in these here parts. You may also have noticed that e-mails to an old address of mine send you a nice, instantaneous reply of a delivery failure. It’s true. It probably fails to deliver. On the plus side: it’s still very easy to e-mail me using a handy alternate (and far more stable) address.

Long story made short, Joy Machine has once again risen from the ashes to become my corporate patronus (I’ve been watching Harry Potter, shut up) in the wild lands of Michigan. This brings a long with a whole lot of things. Well… I mean… Don’t ask me to list them. Fine, it’s basically just a different website and email domain. And a slightly different logo. And a redesigned site. Also I renamed the game. Also I redesigned it from the ground-up.

Okay, in all fairness, that last point maybe is worth some exploration. I didn’t completely redesign the core features of the game that I’ve been talking about for ages (though, I have been intentionally cagey on the specifics for a long while). No more.

Steel Hunters is a one-four player co-op mech game centered around customizable mechs, the equipment for which is either dropped over the course of a mission (usually killing things) or crafted through a series of combined ingredients. The details of crafting, specifically, are being worked out still because, ultimately: this is a game about finding randomly-generated loot to deck out your mech with. And trading that loot with other players in common player hub. Maybe attaching money to the trade. And fueling a loose part economy among the player-base.

That said: there will be no auction house. The intention of trade in Steel Hunters is very ad hoc in nature. There will also be no paid currency. It’s all in-game earned and spent.

But this is all getting into the weeds before I really reveal the core tenets of the game design, one of which is something I just recently realized I had the technical capabilities of pulling off: mega-mechs (proper fiction and naming tbd. or not. who knows. it’s indie).

As players progress through the missions in single-player (slightly easier and more instruction-oriented progression) and co-op (much more aggressive and difficult), the size, complexity, and overall strength of the targets players have to take down will increase. Dramatically. The screen to follow is using an old model, but it’s a rough scale spec of where I want to end up with the boss battles:

Point of the story: big. And the size of these “boss” mechs is limited only by the spines/chassis that we put into the system for supporting varying weapon systems, body pieces, and so on. At the end of the day, these mega-mechs are multi-purpose mobile bases that have to be taken out systemically, and their AI will adapt as they lose functionality to be more aggressive.

This is a drastically different game than the competitive multiplayer game I’ve been hinting at here-and-there, and that’s for a very specific reason: I genuinely find co-op interactions and ad hoc economies to be the foundation for good player communities and a shared exploration of complex systems.

So, the design tenets of Steel Hunters:

  • 1-4 player co-op  Other players are not necessary to have a full game experience, they just enhance the way you play and build your mech.
  • Complete Customization with Procedurally-Generated Items — I’ve had a lot of experience with randomized items at this point in a variety of contexts, and I think I’ve found a pretty good place to really tackle the first iteration of the whole system. Granted, there will be many iterations, but a good foundation is nice. Makes me all warm and fuzzy. Beyond just basic item generation, there are also different factions within the game world that all emphasize different combat styles and, arguably more interesting, completely different visual styles. Making the customization of your unique mech all the more, well, unique.
  • Systems That Make Sense — This sounds obvious, but it’s something a lot of games (often intentionally – for good reason) ignore: the systems in a game should be designed in as flexible, coherent, and consistent a manner as can be done. As of right now, Steel Harvest has a completely physically-accurate world: if it looks like cement, it has the properties of cement. If it looks like grass, it has vegetation properties. If it looks like metal, it has etc. etc. etc. Right now, this most prominently factors into the ballistic simulation, but as more systems are added into the mix (differing effects from exposure to heat/fire, fire propagation, fully physics-enabled scenes, destruction, etc.) it’s just opening the doors for a more dynamic gameplay scenario that makes player improvise constantly. But: improvise in ways that have clear causes.
  • Mech Builds That Feel Right — The main two axes that players will have to balance (there are others, but these are the core ones) are: light vs. heavy & physical vs. energy. There are complications to each of those relationships that I’ll explore over time, but the gist of it is this: if you build a biped mech an go easy on the heavy equipment, you should get an immediate and obvious difference in feel just in how it moves, turns, controls, and responds. Similarly, if you pack on every rocket the world has ever created, you should feel like a big, hulking beast of a machine. And – I know I’m going to regret saying this later – both of these builds should feel responsive to players. I’m working out a number of systems right now related to movement given different constraints, but at the end of the day, if even the heaviest mech is just a bore to control, the whole system is off-kilter. Physical vs. energy is another big one, but I’ll save that for later as well.
  • Solid Third-Person Shooter Mechanics/Feel — Anyone that knows me, read when it was still a thing, or knows of the work I did on Starhawk, or any game ever since then knows this: I put a profound and borderline-unhealthy focus on “game feel”. I think I tweaked the camera shakes in Starhawk and controller vibrations for two weeks straight in one iteration of the weapon balancing that I did. I’m hoping to setup more solid foundations so such iterations don’t take that long in this game, but the same core principles will be upheld: precise aiming (unless you choose more forgiving weapons), predictable ballistic model, tight hitboxes, and an overabundance of visual and aural response.
  • Steel Harvest as a Service — This is one of those phrases that gets uttered repeatedly to the point where it no longer means something, but my intent with Steel Hunters is to treat it as a platform for further expansion. That’s going to be the basis of our financial model as a startup indie studio (micro-expansions, none of which – to the best of my ability – will have interwoven requirements). The base game will likely be $19.99 (or $20 if you’re loose with pennies), with micro-expansions that add a faction, or expand on a faction, or add a new set of weapon types, etc. Point being: each expansion adds content or functionality not required by any player in order to get the full play experience. In my dream of dreams, this lets us as a studio work with the community (that we hope is filled with millions) to develop the kind of game that I think the market is in dire need of.

I’m aiming to be more transparent about development overall, but for the time being, I’m halfway through my proto-1 sprint. Then it’s two weeks to proto-2. Then it’s two weeks to full prototype. And then I’ll post more publicly-viewable schedules and information in some form on this site once I figure out how best to maintain it.

In the mean time: if we’re friends, there’s a 95% chance I’ll be calling in a favor in the near future.

Feel free to comment on the game’s design as it’s stated here in the comments, or you can even join the Discord server I setup earlier this evening. Or, as always, e-mail me or just call me an idiot on twitter.

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