Hymn of the Sands

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GAME OVERVIEW

Development Info

Role: Lead Level Designer
Engine: Unreal Development Kit
Genre: Action/Dungeon Crawler/RPG
Development Time: 6 Months
Team Size: 14

Level Features

 Ability Upgrade System
 Realm-Shifting Mechanic
5 Diversely Scripted Bossfights
 Platforming Gameplay

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Design

High Concept

An isometric, action/RPG with light puzzle elements, set in the afterlife of Egyptian lore. The primary mechanic is the ability to shift between the realms of the living and dead.

Game Summary

You play as a recently deceased Pharaoh as he wakes up in the netherworld in the afterlife. In order to achieve immortality, Pharaohs must complete the trials of the afterlife and defeat Ammit, the Devourer of the Dead. Players travel through the temple dedicated to them and gain special powers as they progress through the game. Defeating bosses gives the option to upgrade an ability of their choice. Though the game is isometric and reminiscent of Diablo and Torchlight, some differences are the platforming mechanics (timing, movement) and puzzle elements. Combat is also slower paced and tactical. 

boxart1

My Responsibilities

  • – Made initial pitch of game, came up with core mechanics and general story
  • – Allocated work according to individual’s strengths and interests
  • – Wrote all dialogue, assisted in finding voice acting and music (Click here to read the intro text)
  • – Worked closely with other leads to decide art style, abilities, and core mechanics
  • – Made sure every designer had input on gameplay
  • – Designed sections of both levels, including laying out static meshes, scripting, lighting, and testing
  • – Assisted others at every point possible

Abilities

Netherworld Abilities


Rend_Icon

 Rend (melee): The Pharaoh strikes a single target quickly in a 3-hit combo that also slows enemy movement speed.

Upgrade: The combo deals more damage and does a large blow at the end.


Spirit Drain_Icon

Spirit Drain (ranged): Drains the life from the target, healing the player for some of the damage dealt. Damage and healing is based on the target’s max HP (more health = more drain).

Upgrade: Chains the effect to 2 nearby targets.


Hand of Anubis_Icon

Hand of Anubis (utility): A massive blow in a small area around the player, knocking enemies away and slowing them for a few seconds.

Upgrade: Does more damage and knocks the enemies back even further.


Realm of Living Abilities


Cleave_Icon

Cleave (melee): A wide slash that hits all enemies in front of the player.

Upgrade: Also launches a short projectile at the end of the swing.


Breathe of Ra_Icon

Breath of Ra (ranged): Launches a fireball that hits all enemies it passes through.

Upgrade: While the projectile is in motion, can cast again to detonate and deal extra damage.


Blink_Icon

Blink (utility): Jumps a short distance forward, crossing gaps and obstacles.

Upgrade: Can blink twice in short succession.


Both Realms


Realm Shift_Icon

Realm Shift: Change the current realm the player is in, alternating between the nether and living realms.


Analysis

Since we had two sets of abilities, we wanted there to be some consistency between them. Essentially, we wanted each button to have similar functions in both realms (ranged is always ranged, melee is always melee, no matter what realm). At the same time, we wanted each realm to have primarily different functions and to feel different. The nether realm is more about utility, sustain, and single-target damage, with the ability to heal and knock enemies away from you. The living realm does more damage, aoe, and gives more freedom of movement with blink.

The strategy of combat comes in chaining abilities together. A player can start by attacking with a ranged attack, then knock enemies back when they get close, then blink away and resume ranged attacks, as one example. We divided up the combo of abilities into two different realms on purpose to encourage realm shifting.

We also made the decision early on that this was not going to be a button-mashing game. One of the repetitive things I find in some isometric games, especially older ones, is that you pick one ability, level that up exclusively, and spam it in almost every situation. We wanted to present the player with unique enemy challenges that encouraged different strategies. In some cases, melee would be most efficient. In others, it’s best to kite and separate slow enemies from faster ones. We wanted to avoid having 1 ability as every solution so that the gameplay would be more dynamic and engaging.

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My Sections

Realm Shifting Tutorial (Level 1)

This section occurs shortly after the player gains the ability to realm-shift. I wanted to reinforce that mechanic in a short amount of time while also setting the standard for visual and gameplay cues for shifting. In general, things are decayed or broken in the netherworld, and conversely they are solid in the living world.  You may need a bridge in the living world to walk across, but to remove a door you may have to shift to the netherworld. Hover over the screenshot below to see an example.

 

Another unique thing about this area is that it is the first time the player possesses all of their abilities. In earlier parts of the level, we focused on having only one kind of enemy at a time to teach the player what abilities are best versus a certain kind of enemy. Different combinations of enemies are introduced slowly to acclimate the player.

 

Cistern (Level 2)

This area introduces several new mechanics. The first of which is poisonous water in the netherworld. The second is water rising/falling timing obstacles, where players must maneuver through the environment in a certain amount of time. Lastly, we have snake statues, which knock the player back a short distance (and potentially to their death). This is one area where the upgraded Blink ability gives a definite advantage to the player.

The Cistern was the area that took the longest to tweak and get into a good place. There was a balance problem of chaos and unpredictability that took me several revisions to address, mainly in the later sections. The concern was that it was almost impossible to get through the second time trial without taking some form of damage, even if you were experienced with the game (as we designers were). Should expert players be able to get through it scot-free? Eventually, I designed the second time trial as a test of attrition and health management. I thought gameplay that involved avoiding taking any form of damage takes patience, which is contrary to the purpose of a time trial, which should create urgency and even panic. I lowered the amount of damage and left in the unpredictability.

 

The Ascent (Level 2)

The Ascent is reminiscent of games like Streets of Rage. Players stand on a slowly rising platform that stops several times, each stop spawning a different set of enemies that must be killed before proceeding. The platform has no rails, which means the player and enemies alike can be knocked off to their death. This makes the upgraded Hand of Anubis a great ability to use here. During the entire ascent, cannons periodically fire projectiles that damage the player. Having these in the level causes the player to move around, which in turn makes displacement mechanics (such as a snake gust) more deadly and unpredictable.

Wave 1 – 6 Scarabs – To start, I spawn a small set of scarabs, which can be dispatched easily. This wave is just to get the player used to the idea that the elevator starts and stops.

Wave 2 – 3 Scarabs, 1 Mummy, 1 Snake – This wave throws several different kinds of enemies at the player without giving time to react or room to kite. The mummy here can do a considerable amount of damage if not avoided, and can also root the player while scarabs freely attack. Ending this wave with high or low health is a huge factor in determining if players survive the next.

Wave 3 – 6 Scarabs, 4 Snakes – The reason why health from the previous wave is so important is because no enemy here can be health drained for a massive boost (only mummies and guardians offer substantial health drain benefits since their max HP is high). Displacement here can make this wave an ease or a pain. Getting off a successful Hand of Anubis to immediately rid of 1 or 2 snakes can turn the tide, but moving close to snakes also makes you vulnerable to being gusted.

 


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Post Mortem

Hymn of the Sands was a great experience, and gave me a taste of what the challenges are when designing and balancing a game. Since the game was my pitch, I felt really invested in seeing it become the best game we could make. We had some trouble ironing out some of the gameplay details early on. There was even a point when we considered scrapping realm-shifting to solve some technical problems (thankfully our producer stopped us). Without going into much detail, I tried my best to keep true to the game I had in mind while playing to the strengths and desires of the team around me.

Our goal was to make players feel empowered by using a combination of all the abilities in both realms, but what testing revealed was that a decent percentage of players stayed in their realm of preference. Testers would also claim their preferred realm was more powerful, contrary to the tester next to them. In this sense, we did not accomplish our goal, but at the same time it means that the realms were reasonably balanced with each other, which is also nice. Using both realms maximizes damage and survivability, but you can play the way you like and still complete the game.

Another problem was the result of the game length and the upgrade system. Because the game was so short, any ability that you upgraded early became the dominant strategy. Had the game been longer, things would have evened out. As it stands, if you upgrade Spirit Drain early, that would be by far the best skill you had for a while. Specific sections were better for certain ability upgrades, so it hurt the player if they chose to upgrade Blink early and didn’t feel its full benefits until the Pain King or the Cistern.

Kiting was also too strong of a strategy. Because the player could move backwards while casting Breath of Ra, if they managed to avoid taking damage, they could handle most combat encounters doing only that. Playing this way extended the duration of combat by two or three-fold, but it still was possible to beat most of the game. Sections like the Ascent or Ammit makes it impossible to kite exclusively as a strategy, but I wish we found some more ways to discourage using it excessively.


Quick Links:  ↓Game Overview