Let’s Ride


After gorging myself on tutorial after tutorial, making all kinds of notes, reading all kinds of game dev posts and articles, and having a CS degree with a background in web development I still never felt equipped to create a game on my own.

I love shaping and building an existing idea but blank canvases were always so daunting to me. Over the years I’ve slowly compiled many game ideas and actually fleshed out the in-depth mechanics for a couple of them. Finally, I dedicated to taking the plunge and selected the idea that seemed the most attainable to run with. A project I’ve code-named The Riders.

I literally came up with the idea for this game while taking a nap one day. A friend and I were talking about game genres that didn’t typically go together and came up with some great ones like a first-person fantasy sports game where you’re the ball and mind control the player holding you. Or my personal favorite: Action RPG + teaches typing.

With all of that floating around in my head plus the exhaustion of having 3 kids relentlessly pushing my body towards a nap, I dreamt of a top-down shooter game but instead of the typical spaceship player character, it was a dreadsteed – a flaming horse used by warlocks in World of Warcraft. The elements were all in the fantasy genre: fireballs, swords, harpies, potions, dragons, etc. and when I woke up I immediately took to writing it all down.

Transitioning Paradigms

Down to Earth

Moving a top-down 2d shooter (also called bullet-hell, danmaku, shoot-em-up, or shmup) from it’s traditional format of a flying airplane/spaceship (Aero Fighters, Ikaruga, Raystorm) to something grounded like a horse requires changing the approach to the whole game.

Your enemies must either be capable of flying or running at the player’s speed. Alternatively, they could be static like other obstacles the player has to navigate around – trees, rocks, pitfalls, statues, gates, etc. which is also a somewhat new concept to this genre.

Alongside grounded obstacles there could be foreground visual obstructions like going through a tunnel, archway, waterfall, tree branches, etc. where you could hide things like power-ups, enemies, secret passageways, or hidden pitfalls. This really opens up the game to be more explorative and have some increased replay value.

There’s also the issue of speed. You want to appear to be moving fast, like a full on horse gallop (25-30 mph) but not so fast that you miss the content of the level. Obviously there will need to be some suspended belief there, but making the game feel good will be difficult in this regard.

Shooting and Swinging

I’ve only seen this mechanic in one other shooter – the concept of a melee attack. In games like these the strategy is almost always to keep the most distance between you and your enemies so you have time to anticipate their bullet patterns and avoid them accordingly. Also you’re typically just spamming your projectiles into space and hoping they land on some unsuspecting foes. At least that’s how I play em’.

Introducing melee into a game like this incorporates a high-risk/high-reward mindset. You’ll have to make the melee attack rewarding enough to merit actually using it while also potentially limiting the reason to mindlessly spam projectiles. This could be done by making some enemies immune to or have the ability to reflect projectiles.

Another common trope in shooters is that your basic projectile powers up into some massive bullet wall as the level progresses. That seems like a really childish and heavy-handed way to approach short-term progression. I would rather the projectiles be more meaningful and the enhancements you obtain make some substantial difference in how the damage is done… which leads me to my next point.

Diversity in your Smackdown

I played a ton of iOS shooters when researching concepts and UI layout for this game. When I stumbled upon the game Squadron I saw so much untapped potential. Here’s the gimmick: as long as your finger is down, your ship is following your touch and auto-firing but as soon as you pick your finger up you enter a screen where you select one of four spaceships, each of which have a unique shot pattern.

Maybe I didn’t get far enough into the game, but it didn’t really seem to matter which ship you picked, the strategy was the same: stay back, avoid bullets, auto fire. While this concept was interesting, it’s implementation left me quickly bored. But what if we ran with that idea?

Let’s say the fire horse is your basic mount that does basic things; the baseline for the game. It moves at an average speed, rapidly shoots some linear fireballs towards enemies, and maybe has an ability or two that damage all the enemies on the screen while destroying all visible projectiles (another standard shooter trope). But as you progress through the game you unlock other mounts that can be swapped to mid-combat.

Elements are a pretty common delimiter in fantasy games so that’s what I decided to run with. You’ve got the fire mount that just does damage, but what about a rock mount that is slower but focuses on manipulating the enemy’s position through knock-backs? Or a dark mount that has no direct damage to speak of but applies debuffs and damage over time? What about an ice mount that applies an area slow and tries to capitalize on “shattering” enemies when they’re icy enough.

Now all of the sudden you’re in a position to create stages that feel more like an action puzzle where the player has to figure out what combination of mount abilities are going to best deal with the challenges set before them. This is the concept that will add the most development overhead, but is also the one I’m most excited about in this game.

Wrap it up, tie it in

The real problem to me with iOS games is the lack of any meaningful storyline and the reliance on bloated features to maintain the player’s attention. My goal with this game is to do the exact opposite: Only introduce features which add to the gameplay experience and aren’t intended to force someone into a grind and to have a storyline that is somewhat interesting and makes sense with the game’s progression.

The storyline is honestly the most daunting concept to me because I’m not exactly a writer. And to be honest, if I’m going to put my name on this and promote it to my friends I don’t want it to be lame. No doubt it’s going to be nerdy, but there’s a fine line between nerdy and lame.

The Long Road Ahead

Breaking down the Evernote notebooks and Trello boards I’ve created into actionable pieces will be difficult, but I really think it’s going to be worth it. If you want to go on this journey with me I’d ask that you provide constructive feedback whenever you see the opportunity. Also, bear with me on the visuals as I can’t afford an artist and will be using 100% cheesy placeholder graphics while I work on nailing down the mechanics.

Here goes nothing. Let’s ride.

Thanks to roadarch.com for the cover pic.

Evan Lemmons

Lemmons Creative LLC, Alpharetta, Georgia, USA

Husband, father, musician, gamer.