Oct 23, 2015

The City and the RPG That Never Were

I have been mentioning a certain RPG on and off for the past 15 or so months and have been working on it for longer than that, but it apparently just wasn't meant to be. Not yet at least and, shockingly, due to the very same reasons the wise Jonas Kyratzes was afraid of, but, admittedly, that's indie development you. There's always a chance you'll spend hundreds of hours for absolutely nothing.

Even more so if you are not a programmer and/or do not have access to several thousand dollars, euros, pounds, doesn't-really-matters.

Despite the fact that I am capable of fully comprehending this harsh reality, it remains incredibly disheartening to see such an ambitious and promising project simply die. Despite all the days poured into it and the brilliantly talented people that never gave up on it, the Kyttaro or City RPG as people used to call it will most probably never happen.

All I can do, after over a year of pre-production, countless pages worth of words, dozens of sketches and almost two prototypes, is attempt to give you an idea of what would have been and, in a way, preserve the game's memory. It was pretty important to me, you see, and having it cancelled almost made me give up games entirely, but, well, I do at least hope you'll find reading about the RPG-that-never-was interesting.

A City RPG in a Nutshell

When I originally approached the would-be members of the development team, I described the game via a pitch that went a little bit like this: "We'll be making a text and plot heavy RPG inspired by the Tales of Arabian Nights board-game. It will be a tiny bit similar to the still unreleased Sunless Sea or maybe the Yawhg and will take place in a sci-fi city on an island of a strange oceanic planet. A city that's in the process of devolving from utopia to dystopia."

Upon further inquiries I'd let them know that the game would sport properly RPG-y characters, both random and non-random quests and storylets, maps filled with places to visit, a fresh combat system and choose-your-own-adventure styled encounters. It'd most probably be about staging a revolution, reclaiming utopia and would definitely --definitely!-- not be anything even vaguely similar to a rogue-like. Oh, and you wouldn't be playing as another messiah either.

The little sketch I drew and am posting above is a relatively recent (post-prototype one) suggestion on the game's main interface, that was only changed into something way sleeker a couple of months before production stopped as we --naively-- thought we were approaching a final demo phase. Anyway. It should be handy in giving you a vague idea of how the RPG would play.

You'd move around a map of the city and visit locations. Each location would offer up a small story to play through that would either have something to do with the quests you were working on, the location itself or anything else deemed important. Locations would also serve random stories from a pool assigned to them -- stories that would only appear once and provided nothing more pressing was about to happen.

The idea was to create a rich and interesting world with thousands of stories to tell, which, judging by the strength of the assembled writing team, was actually doable. 

Here's what said stories looked like in the first prototype -- CYOA stuff, though one guided by your character's skills and your capacity for logical thought:

Also, the Main Interface pic reveals that we were talking about a place influenced by three different moons, day/night cycles, seasons and, unsurprisingly, weather. And I'm not talking boring-it-is-raining weather. Oh, no. This would have been humid-shrimps-glowing-in-the-night weather.

The Team and a Short, Hopeless History

The first person I got in touch with was Jonas Kyratzes. We had discussed working on something together in the past, we both love role-playing and appreciate words, and more or less immediately agreed to work on my initial idea.

As the rest (the programming bit) of Kyttaro Games also agreed to work on the project I went on and recruited some truly amazing writers/designers to form the core team: Richard Cobbett, Richard Goodness, C.E.J. Pacian, Dan Griliopoulos, Verena Kyratzes and (mere months before the project died) Robb Sherwin.

On the more artful side of things Thomas Shahan agreed to provide the graphics, Chris Christodoulou the soundtrack, Robert Altbauer the maps and Spiros Derveniotis the comic strips and occasional billboards.

Quite the indie super team if I may say so. What's more, it was a team that managed to actually prove its worth during the (pre-)development days of early writing-designing with some amazing ideas, excellent prose, clever design solutions and fantastic art. For the most part that is, as programming was slow from the get go.

Not only did we initially start with a single Unity programmer --a far too optimistic solution considering we'd need some pretty robust tools too-- he also had to survive. And couldn't abandon an apparently increasingly demanding day-job which led us to months of non-progress on the programming front. That's when I decided to search for an alternative solution.

I found a seemingly excellent one too in the guise of a small indie team whose work I deeply appreciate and who are handily situated in the wider Athens area. After much excitement, new design docs, shiny new tool concepts, a GUI re-design and lots and lots of merriment though, the team got cold feet and decided it couldn't risk working on such a big project.

That, in a nutshell, is what killed the game. After hundreds of hours of work, I just couldn't spend more months on finding a new dev to handle programming only to have her or him simply abandon it and I just couldn't keep nagging everyone else either.

(I must add that a few other people did briefly join the team and even contribute a few texts and some bits of art, but they decided to move on; not sure if I should reference them by name, unless of course they ask me too.)

The City Of The Ocean

Designed and constructed as a glowing utopia of liberal-capitalist values on the sole island --a brilliantly coloured and absolutely huge coral-- of an oceanic planet, the (to this day unnamed) city stood no real chance of realizing its lofty goals. History itself, the inherent contradictions of its economy and a couple hundred years have, for the most part, turned utopia on its head. Despite the brilliant arcades, majestic buildings and immense gardens, despite the surviving ideals of racial and sexual equality and a tolerance for all religious stances, despite even a more or less working representative democracy, the city is closer to dystopia than ever.

It's a metropolis of the poor masquerading as a metropolis of the rich. An ecological nightmare hell-bent on consuming healthy food. A police state that speaks of democratic values. An exquisitely yet rigidly designed urban agglomeration surrounded by vast slums. A tolerant society that accepts the forced prostitution of thousands of Thyrsian men and women. A place of infinite complexity and vast economic differences. A complex, wonderful and at times surprising city deep in crisis, mostly cut off from the rest of civilization that's been waiting for something to change since the day it was created.

But social and political geography alone do not cover what the city is all about. You should imagine it stranded alone on a big, solitary island surrounded by the wild, unexplored ocean. Imagine yourself sitting on the deck of a ship crossing the Pacific and you'll have a rough idea of what its citizens would see and feel every single time they dared look out towards the horizon. Now imagine the cruel life of its sailors and sea-workers. The mourning spouses of sea-side urban villages, the parents who cannot forget yet will always have to endure the next door brothel or the tavern with the bright lights.

Imagine Bentham inspired Panopticon prisons, downtown red light districts with enough holographic attractions to lure in more tourists than sex-starved patrons, squares that change their function every day, a brutal police force, a Magical Murder Zoo, a crashed ship shanty town, a green belt that's been eaten away, the futuristic yet instantly recognizable industrial zones, the posh gated communities, those run-down but once vibrant megastructures housing workers, the space ports, robotic spheres, buildings smart enough to move on their own to optimal positions, the possibility of a flying district, alien refugee quarantines. 

Now, allow me to imagine that I've somehow managed to give you a tiny glimpse of what we were working on, and move on to the placeholder maps I did for the game's demo. They are more like examples of what could have been and are only partially grounded on the city's real geography. I thought you might like them.

Races, Characters and Star-signs

I just adore the character creation system I and Jonas Kyratzes came up with. It would start you off with the kind of joke that only an RPG could make and only those who'd get it would understand it's a joke, but, it would have been hilarious. And quite frankly brilliant. Won't spoil it here though. Sorry. You can have some very early character concepts by Thomas Shahan instead:

And we, Jonas mainly, did do a lovely job defining those races. Take the Kobbetai for example:

These large, eight-legged arthropods with compound eyes are frequently described as frightening in appearance, but are equally noted for their politeness, appreciation for aesthetics, and excellence in intellectual pursuits. Though few in number, they form an important part of the city's intelligentsia.

But what's an arachnid dilettante without a star-sign? A background? A wide selection of cahracteristics? 

So, well, I did come up with 14 star signs and Jonas wisely noted they'd be absolutely realistic and influence nothing. These would include the Aranea (You are the embodiment of complexity and creativity. Calm and wise, you are never afraid to bid your time, but make sure to not wait for too long.), the Locusta (The Locusta symbolizes both mystery and reason, meaning you most probably are both a faithfully married person and a sorcerer.), the Argentarius (Inventive and industrious, sociable and careful, a planner and a collector. Beware of stinginess though, for its ugly head always lurks.), the Polypus, the Camelopardalis and the Adamator.

Then we had the backgrounds. You could be anything from an off-worlder, a philanthropist, a criminal, an eccentric, an industrialist, an artist, a professional, to a leader of a union, sea-born, a scavenger or just homeless. Each background would influence the way the game would be played and would start you off with a totally different set of storylets. The rich dilettante could start off by being arrested for an incredibly noisy party and the homeless alien refugee would quickly have to find a safe place to sleep before a dramatic weather change.

And here's the description for the Criminal background (which also gave you bonuses to picking locks and holding your liquor):

Extreme poverty requires extreme measures; survival strategies the Law simply cannot tolerate. Your choice of joining a gang, a rather popular organization that can on any given day be anything from an extended family or a solidarity network to a criminal organization or an organizer of parties, did not go unnoticed, but it has afforded you a roof over your head and a full plate. 

The core of the character, the characteristics, would include the rather obvious Agility, Constitution, Stealth, Hacking, Intimidate, Speed, Firearms and Streetwise, but also Reason, Writer, Musician, Urban Geography and the ability to Speak Ostrakev or Design Games (complete with genre specialization). As for my favourite characteristic, Carousing, its description went a bit like this:
How much can you drink? How many Estro pills can you consume while dancing? The carousing characteristic lets you actually decide. 
Finally, characters would be rounded up with traits such as Shadowy Supporter, Heavy Sleeper, Human-Octopus Relations, Moon Magic or Brochophile -- there's something special about rainy days on this planet. They just make brochophiles feel better.

Ideas, Locations, Stories

The main character of the City RPG, the city itself, was to be filled with wondrous locations, odd people to meet and fight, Jonas' pet octopuses, stories to experience and would even be monitored by an in-game newspaper sporting comic strips by Spiros Derveniotis. Here are some ideas that do not include my dear, dear SAAMS (spatially aware autonomous mobile shells); one of the first main characteristics of the city I came up with and one that stayed there to the end.

By the way, did you know that the SAAMS were created by famous entrepreneur, engineer and admiral Sir. James Cook IX? That the first of James Cook's buildings was deployed in London's Hampstead Heath and was an astounding success? Now you do.

Anyway, on to some amazing stuff that neither I nor Jonas came up with...

First up the Rosegarden by Richard Cobbett:

A mix of red-light district and low-rent housing, its main street relatively tourist grade sin for the whole family and with clubs and casinos for the well-to-do, but the streets not leading out soon taking a turn for the considerably less fun. Within an establishment, the owner's word is god, unless it conflicts with that of the Rose Without Thorns, whose red handkerchiefs denote both possession and protection that few dare openly oppose and none do wisely. It is a common sight to see people in these parts with missing body parts carved from their flesh with a cauterising blade so that back-alley regrowth or replacement is typically impossible; intentionally or otherwise. Exactly what the Rose Without Thorns does with his, her or its gathered flesh, it is probably best not to ask.

The Automaton Core by C.E.J. Pacian:

A vast, metallic sphere that previously manufactured, repaired and recharged the robots intended to serve organic life in the city. As the robots took jobs typically reserved for organics and developed their own culture, public sentiment turned on them. All robots were ordered to return to the core, which was powered down.

Although some robots never returned to the core, escaped it, or simply have owners powerful enough to ignore the law, the majority of the city’s robots now live a desperate existence within the core, struggling for energy and spare parts.

Those robots who prey on other robots are known as cannibals. In truth, all robots in the core must rely on other robots for spare parts to some extent, but taking them from a robot that was alive at the time (at least until you got to it) is understandably taboo.

The Latest Thing by Dan Griliopoulos:

One day, no-one's talking about them, the next... no-one's talking about them. But everywhere you look, people are suddenly sporting these floral posies growing alongside their spinal column. Great bouquets, beds of daisies, single roses - anything goes. They're not actually flowers of course - some sort of engineered or bred thing supplied by a company called EuGenie - and they're an absolute bugger to maintain - but they're hugely fashionable. You must have one, you simply must. 
**Basically an in-game tamagotchi that grows outside of its casing and first causes problems, then (if you can keep it alive) becomes a hugely valuable ally/resource. I'm aware this all might be too complicated, but there's no harm in ambition.**

The Ratmen of Richard Goodness:
I see an army of genetically-engineered super-soldiers, a significant portion of whom decide, in the name of freedom, to break away. They escape to the Runoff underneath the city because their particular biochemistry means they can survive it with little ill effects. They form their own little society--I see them living essentially like a biker club. They're not the kind of people who are going to perform random acts of wanton violence--they would have stayed as soldiers if they wanted to--and they're going to be fairly friendly and welcoming to the player, perhaps after a quest or two is completed. That said, they do live in a dangerous environment that's difficult to get to, and they've got a fairly dark reputation. People speak of the Ratmen like you'd speak of the Hell's Angels or the Mafia: Probably you'll never meet one, and most likely if you do it's not like you're going to immediately get shot and beaten if it's an innocuous enough encounter...but you don't really want to seek them out. 
Thing is, when you've got a group of genetically-engineered super soldiers living in the sewers, they're going to be *really good* at waste management; essentially these rebels, nicknamed Ratmen, are the equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers handling the city's garbage: They ended up revamping the underground and making the city's waste management much more efficient. Much of the reason that their rebellion was eventually tolerated is because, left to their own devices, they actually ended up being more of a benefit to the city. By the time of the story, which is maybe a couple of decades past the initial rebellion, they've actually got an official city contract.

Systems and Combat

Like all RPGs ours would also include combat. The plan though was to make fighting enjoyable, unique, but also relatively inexpensive. This meant no 3D graphics, no real-time animations and no other expensive things of the sort. It'd be a card or card-like system. 

The initial combat system sounded ludicrously fun on paper, but never worked as well as I'd hoped. It was ambitious in its scope too, as it would allow you to break a bottle, flex your muscles and menacingly approach a nun in order to insult her and start a fight, but --after realizing she's a vampire packing a huge gun and after entering combat-- also allow you to swiftly try and act all confused and nice in order to get out of it. Or maybe just get on your knees and plead. Act casual and leave even. Being boringly brave and fighting was also an option.

Come to think of it, this mock-up should give you an idea of what the system would have played like:

Jonas and, if I remember correctly, both Richards and most probably Pacian and Dan too weren't exactly ecstatic about it and their valid criticisms became painfully obvious in the prototype. We thus went on and settled on something slightly more traditional. Something that would play a little bit like this:

Yes, it is indeed a card based system that utilizes action points and, like all great card based games, it was designed to minimize both randomness and art assets. What would make it intriguing though would be the fact that the cards would be organized into four different categories: attack, defense, environment and general. 

Further points of interest include: Each weapon you'd equip would give you a number of cards (according to your relevant skill), the environment the fight was taking place in would also provide extra cards (as in "hide behind the dustbin" or "break bottle on head") and there'd be critical hits. And lots of procedural text describing what's going on.

Oh, and when you wouldn't be exploring, engaging with people, fighting, talking, hiding, plotting, scheming, organizing the workers, meeting revolutionary leaders, freeing prisoners, avoiding the police, marrying the police, helping artists, petting octopuses or taking in the sights, well, you'd always have your lovely place to run to. A hub of creativity, a place for friends and comrades, a safe haven. Here's what its very first version would have looked like:

Salvaging Bits, Preserving Pieces

Hopefully it hasn't been blatantly obvious so far, but I've been quite vague. Too vague perhaps, as I've deliberately avoided spoiling some of the really (*really*) cool parts of the RPG in the vain hope that either it or its better pieces can somehow be preserved, salvaged and thus presented in a more cohesive form. 

Who knows? After some time I might just find the courage to return to this project.

We could even find a cache of gold tucked away somewhere or discover a way to force an engine like Ren'Py to do our bidding and thus do away with the need for proper programmers. Or maybe just keep the character creation system, the setting and certain elements of the card-based combat and do a traditional pen and paper RPG instead. Nobody really knows.

Truth be said and despite everything, you see, I would absolutely love to see this particular game happen. Eventually. And in any form.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

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  1. Hey,
    thanks for the write up. I was wondering about your rpg project when you mentioned it being canceled on twitter. According to the above, it seems to me that in most of your brainstorming sessions you didn't include any programmers, thus having noone to really ground your ideas into something that could be doable in a reasonable amount of time by a small programming team. The only thing i see mentioned that was taken into consideration for the development cost was the combat system, but even the one you agreed on seems also like a very complicated project by itself. Having not seen your complete dev documents, your game idea compared to something like ftl (it had 2 programmers iirc) includes like 10 times the amount of subsystems and complexity. Did you ever think/try to narrow down your game to a minimum amount of subsystems and build that instead?
    As someone trying to get into game dev i really like these kind of articles, since planning a game that is both doable and fulfills your creativity is extremely difficult for me and for many other indie devs i guess ;)

    P.S. I want to learn about the other cool* parts, can i sign an nda?

    1. Hey moure,

      Glad you enjoyed the write-up.

      Thing is I chose not to get too much into what went wrong and why and more on what the game would have been.

      Actually, the first brainstorming included 2 professional programmers with years of experience. The one would be the lead programmer and part of the core team and the other would help out if needed.

      Mind you, I had already worked with said people on two games, one bundle and a few other projects. Also, both thought this was a simple project from a programming point of view.

      The problem was the lack of time and the need for money. We had already solved all major tech matters from the first prototype.

      The second lead programmer who came in also thought it to be a simple project.

      The complexity would mainly be down to scripting and writing and that was theoretically covered.


  2. "It's a metropolis of the poor masquerading as a metropolis of the rich. An ecological nightmare hell-bent on consuming healthy food. A police state that speaks of democratic values. An exquisitely yet rigidly designed urban agglomeration surrounded by vast slums. A tolerant society that accepts the forced prostitution of thousands of Thyrsian men and women. A place of infinite complexity and vast economic differences. A complex, wonderful and at times surprising city deep in crisis, mostly cut off from the rest of civilization that's been waiting for something to change since the day it was created."

    I'm sorry your game got cancelled, but you may be interested to know that this city pretty much exists in the real world already! It is called Cape Town.

  3. This sounds absolutely wonderful! I love the idea of the liberal-capitalist dystopia, the coral island setting is potentially really cool and the staff of writers are great. It is such a shame to see a project like this potentially cancelled for so little reason.
    Have you considered crowdfunding at all? I could easily see this making a pretty decent sum with its writing staff alone.

    1. Glad you like the sound of everything Joseph, but sadly the reasons for cancelling were pretty substantial. Should I find the time, I will be writing about the problems we ran into despite having tried to anticipate everything.

      And, yes, we did consider crowdfunding. But there are certain important problems to it too and i doubt we'd be able to raise the money needed for this. We had other sources of funding in mind, but these required a pretty solid demo.

  4. Sounds like the kind of project where it would really help to get your engine design and systems in place first so you could know what your constraints are, then fill out the detail of races, locations, encounters etc. That would limit your programming risk and let you push forward in the direction you want to focus on (writing/world building). Possibly an off-the-shelf engine like RPG maker could do it? The new MV allows Javascript extensions, so is a lot more useful. Ren'py is powerful, but seems to need quite a bit of hand-holding if you want anything other than static-image-of-person-in-front-of-background-spooling-out-text-by-the-small-page.

    Other than that, if you're over-endowed with writers and artists, try a graphic novel.

    1. RPG Makes, sadly, wouldn't be a fit for this game. It's far too rigid in how it works and what games you can make with it. Oh, and actually we did get a proper engine in Unity up and running in the first few months of pre-production.

      Oh, and a graphic novel (or a pen-and-paper RPG) would be an interesting idea.

      Thanks! And cheers :)

    2. +1 for a pen and paper RPG. If you can make the focus on world building and creating stories instead of mechanics (I.e dice rolling) I think you could accomplish your original vision.

      In recent years I have transitioned from digital gaming to analog (tabletop) gaming. The experience has been cathartic to how I view games and the decision spaces they provide. I desperately (along with friends) want to play games that tell stories - especially ones in a interesting predefined world that rewards creativity instead of luck or mechanics to succeed.

      Thanks for sharing and I hope to explore more of the cities world in any format.

    3. Ah, thanks so much for the +1 :D Also, the pen-and-paper thing could indeed happen.