Psychopomps Are Missing: Goals and the Path to Release

I recently released an article introducing the game I'm working on in RPG Maker MV, which I'm calling Psychopomps Are Missing (at least until I come up with a finalized title). While discussing it with a Patron afterwards, he pointed out that, while I'd talked a lot about the game's design and mechanics, I'd failed to give a clear sense of what my final goal is or how to determine how close to achieving that goal I am. I intend to correct that oversight here, and to release regular articles in the future to communicate my progress on the game.

I'll consider Psychopomps Are Missing completed when the twelve world regions are finished (the ten primary game regions of The Abyss, Wandering Wood, Ashdala, Avarei, Bowan, Kingdom of Dolfy, Ghymnipolis, United Streets, Cybernight City, and the mashup location that I should come up with a general term for that's a combination of two destroyed regions, plus the Pocket Dimension and Crossroads of Reality), the overarching plot (not to be confused with regional plots) is finished, character interactions (this refers specifically to conversations between characters that will take place in the Pocket Dimension and result in them learning new skills to represent character growth/change, as well as elements related to this) are implemented, and I'm satisfied with core mechanics and game balance.

I also want to make a demo for Psychopomps Are Missing, which will include only the initial opening of the game, a tiny section of Avarei, and all of Ashdala—the demo will end when the player completes the Ashdala region of the game. This seems like a natural cutoff point to me, because Ashdala is going to serve as a sort of tutorial area—in the full game, you must complete Ashdala before the rest of the game opens up, and you can begin exploring other regions. As such, the demo will be able to be created when the opening plot of the game is done and the Ashdala region is finished. I will also likely want to have the beginnings of the character interactions implemented—as most of this system won't advance until after the player beats Ashdala according to my current plans, the beginning will be sufficient. Of course, I'd like to have balance and core systems together for the demo, but I can release versions of it that have these things updated if I deem that necessary. Finally, I will need to add a custom conclusion to the demo.

Evaluating Completion

Now that I've discussed the criteria I'm using for the game (and demo!) to be considered finished, it's time to discuss how I actually judge those criteria. Regions will be first, then the overarching plot, followed by character interactions, and finally core mechanics and balance.

After going over the rubric, I'll share the current state of the game.

What Makes a Region Complete?

This is a really important question for me to answer, but it's a bit of a tricky one, too. This is because, as I said in the introduction article linked up above, I have to be careful about how much I plan or I destroy my motivation to actually finish the project. However, this doesn't mean I don't have a general idea of what "complete" looks like! It just means I don't have a clear checklist I can mark off.

A world region has several things that need to be finished for it to be complete: maps, enemies, loot, a region story, side quests, and any specific region mechanics. Also, the ten world regions will each have ten missing psychopomps in them to find, so those also need to be placed. As most of these are fairly complicated (and are where most of the task of completing the game dwells!), let's go over them in detail.

Map Completion

This is about the map locations that the player will traverse through. For my purposes, they are composed of the environment, transfer connections (anything that takes you from one map to another, such as a door), and common entities.

The environment comes in several stages. For example: Is it roughed in? Does it have details? Have I selected music and/or background sounds for it? What about a battle screen? Have I set up enemy encounter areas? All of these need to be done before the environment portion is finished!

Transfer connections are pretty straightforward. These are interactions the player has which take them from one map to another. Most commonly, these consist of simple transfers (walk onto this tile and get sent to another map) and doors (walk into this door and get sent to another map). Sometimes they can be internal in a map (e.g. walk on this tile and end up in another part of the map). Until all of these are in place, a map isn't done. As these are easy to create, the primary reasons to not have yet done so for a map are that the map is not yet sufficiently developed to warrant creating transfers or the destination map either doesn't yet exist, or does so in a rudimentary enough state that I haven't precisely determined where a transfer should go.

Common entities are things the player can interact with that aren't part of the main plot or a side quest. These consist primarily of chests, crystallized energy deposits, and non-player characters (NPCs). These elements remain generally consistent throughout the player's experience with them, though some NPCs may be used in side quests or the main plot at times. There is a line here in my mind, but it's hard to make super clear. Maybe an example would help?

Imagine there's a shop owner who sells you a selection of items. In general, shop owners are NPC-type common entities. However, perhaps before our imagined NPC becomes a shop owner, they give you a side quest to bring them some item. Thus, they become a common entity once you finish their side quest. From a development standpoint, I can set them up as a shop owner first, then add the side quest in later to give more depth to the world. This is the sort of thing I'm talking about; hopefully this example makes it clearer.

So these are the things that determine how complete an individual map is: Is the environment finished, are all of the transfers in place, and are common entities all put into position? If so, then the map is done. Of course, there is the question of how I evaluate these things to be completed, and unfortunately, the answer to that is in part subjective. Some things are pretty objective, particularly having transfers in place (unless I decide to add more for more world connections), but what makes for enough common entities? How do I decide a map is detailed enough to call the environment finished?

I don't have a clear metric I can point you to. My main criterion can basically be summed up as "things don't feel too empty," but that's obviously a subjective judgment call. Just know that I want things to be to a certain level of polish, but I also want to avoid letting the perfect be the enemy of the good—or the done!

When it comes to a world region being map complete, that means that all of its maps are...well, completed according to the above criteria. When it comes to determining the total number of maps for a region, well, that's another challenging area. I have a general sense for how big I want areas to be, but nothing super specific. For a lot of regions, this is something I won't be able to determine until I've worked on that region enough to feel like I've gotten what I want set up. I will say that, for the regions of The Wandering Wood, Ashdala, and the Kingdom of Dolfy (which are the most developed of the 10 main world regions), I do have fairly clear concepts for how many maps they should have. I imagine I'll gain clarity on the other regions as I work on them.

Enemies

Like many games, the enemies you face are an important part of Psychopomps Are Missing. Each world region needs its own complement of enemies, including the region boss (or bosses, as the case may be) and any mini-bosses the region may feature, in addition to the common enemies.

There are two types of finished when it comes to enemies. The first is having the variety of enemies finished, and the second is for each individual enemy to be finalized. The first is significantly easier to accomplish than the latter—indeed, I don't expect to have each enemy finalized until after final polishing and balance passes have taken place.

I don't have a hard-and-fast rule on how many enemies each region needs. What I do know is that I want enough variety that combat is interesting. This is another one of those subjective things that I don't have a great measure for. However, I anticipate each region will want around 20-30 enemies, if Ashdala and the Kingdom of Dolfy (which have their complements of enemies completed) are anything to judge by. Exact values may be pretty different from that range, though, as I get other regions fleshed out.

Loot

I'm using "loot" to refer to any non-quest item the player obtains from a region, which are primarily currencies, consumable items, and equipment (such as weapons, armor, and omni skills). Quest items aren't really loot in my mind, since they're dictated by quests. There are also some items that are part of core mechanics, rather than loot.

How much loot I need in any given region will vary depending upon how things in that region work (such as what shops sell, what enemies can drop when defeated in combat, what chests contain, and so forth). Further, as all loot from all regions are sort of entered into the big pool of things the player has access to, loot must be balanced and considered holistically rather than according to any one region. As such, finalizing loot and access rates to it across the entire game (rather than per-region) will be part of the final polishing and balance passes.

My final goal with loot is to provide interest and interesting things to find in each region. I do want to make sure there is enough of it to go around that the game feels rewarding (as loot is a major component of the game's reward structure) and provides the player with enough options to further aid in providing interest with figuring out character builds. To this end, I do expect Ashdala to be somewhat frontloaded when it comes to loot, as making sure the initial experience provides enough loot for the player is very important to me.

I should add that a notable part of creating loot is figuring out what loot the player will be able to find in chests for the region. I talked about the chest mechanic in the introduction article linked above, and touched on it when talking about common entities, but as a recap, each region will have chests. The exact rules for how these work varies region-to-region, but the basic idea is that each type of chest has a corresponding type of key and a pool of possible loot you can receive for spending a key to open a chest. There is also a mechanism to reset chests so the player can get more loot from them (this can vary from region-to-region, which is why I'm being vague). This mechanic is heavily inspired by chests from Guild Wars 1.

Given all of this, it'll be a bit hard to determine how much loot should be in any given region until I've spent enough time with the region to have a feel for how much it should have. Unlike other regional things, however, loot is really about feeling like I've gotten enough total saturation across the entire game to make sure there are compelling options for the player, rather than being a very region-specific thing when it comes to evaluating completion.

Regional Stories

Each region has a plot about what is happening there that ties into the boss of that region. This will have various stages, such as having all of the components in place as the first major step (i.e. the region can technically be completed). Then there will be various degrees of iteration that I'll want to apply to ensure the plot is sufficiently engaging. There are also other events going on that I'll need to make sure are in place. For this latter thing, there is a degree of overlap with other elements, such as common entities in a map—for example, what sorts of things do NPCs say or do that reinforce the setting more generally?

My first priority with these is to get them to the rough first stage of being technically completable. Ashdala is there at the time of this writing, so you can see me elaborate more on this stuff in the section down below where I go over the state of Ashdala.

Once I've gotten the region technically beatable, I'll want to see if there's anywhere I need to flesh things out. This will often include adding NPCs to bolster the narrative and, more importantly, give the player some direction and perhaps even a sense of impacting the world (though I want to keep changes as a result of beating story steps somewhat limited to ensure I don't make a ton of additional work to do).

Side Quests

Side quests are important for fleshing out the world, which is nice, but they serve the important mechanical purpose of giving the player a sense of direction and goals to work towards. They can help direct exploration and provide rewards for things other than combat, which is important.

So, how do I determine that there are enough side quests in a region? I don't yet know exactly. I think it'll just be a sense of sufficient saturation, where it feels like most parts of the world have some meaning to them. In other words, I want enough side quests that the world doesn't feel empty or purposeless. How many that is, I don't yet know. I imagine it will vary a great deal from one region to the next.

As of the time of this writing, I've not put a ton of time into side quests. There are maybe three total in Ashdala at the moment? Definitely not enough. My plan is generally to sprinkle these into regions as I flesh them out further—I want to get most of the major maps and the main regional plot into place first before I really spend much time focusing on side quests. However, I also can't neglect them too much, as they'll be important for pacing due to granting both experience points and loot. As such, playtesting without them will provide a skewed perspective on these aspects of the game.

Region Mechanics

Naturally, these are something I need to figure out on a region-by-region basis. As they are all extremely variant in nature, how complete any given region's specific mechanics are will vary based on those mechanics.

At the time of this writing, Ashdala and the Kingdom of Dolfy have implemented mechanics, and the Wandering Wood, Avarei, the United Streets, and the mashup location have some concepts for mechanics. I'll use Ashdala and the Kingdom of Dolfy as examples here to explain the sorts of things I mean, though keep in mind that mechanics will vary wildly, so these are more examples of the variety of mechanics than of what mechanics will be like. I'll touch on the other mentioned regions' mechanics in their sections below.

Ashdala's primary unique mechanic is trophy items. These are items that enemies can drop that can be exchanged for rewards. They're inspired by the collector system from Guild Wars 1. I've come up with all of the trophy items that can be dropped, but I haven't yet implemented all of the NPCs that will offer you items in exchange for those trophies. I do know that this system will be a major part of how players get loot in Ashdala, so getting more of them set up is important!

The Kingdom of Dolfy has a couple of unique mechanics: bombs and empty bottles. The Kingdom of Dolfy is heavily inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, and I felt these items would do a good job of referencing that franchise. Bombs can be used in combat or to blow up cracked walls, with this latter use meaning that bombs also function as the keys for locked chests in the Kingdom of Dolfy (you need a bomb to open rooms that contain chests; these rooms and their chests will re-seal themselves when you visit a different one). Empty bottles can hold a variety of potions, which serve as recovery items. The more bottles you have, the more potions you can carry. Both of these systems are implemented and in place.

As you can see from just these two, region mechanics can vary a great deal!

The Overarching Plot

The overarching plot is the narrative elements that exist beyond the narratives for individual regions. I'm not yet entirely sure what this will be composed of beyond the introduction and likely the ending, largely because I'm not sure how much I'll need other interstitial narrative elements.

For this to be completed, I need the writing and cutscenes that make up this part of the plot to be finished. I'll be able to complete them when other design elements that inform these cutscenes and interactions are finished (I've modified the introduction a couple of times already based on mechanical changes I've made, and I don't want to modify it further until I've gotten everything else in place enough that I'm confident I won't have to revise it so heavily again).

As for how I determine that they're finished, it'll be a matter of the dialog having a good flow and properly representing the characters and setting. The first of these is just a matter of reading through it a few times, but the latter two require me to have the characters and setting sufficiently figured out to be able to properly represent them. As characters are something I've not focused heavily on yet (my priority has been on making something playable), and the setting is something that is getting shaped as I work on the game, I can't accurately represent either relative to their final states just yet. As such, these elements will likely be implemented relatively late in the development process.

Character Interactions

An important part of the game will be the interactions between the seven members of the player's party. My current plans are for them to have relationships with each other that can be advanced as you progress in the game (primarily by defeating region bosses, but also some other specific events). Advancing these relationships will also unlock skills for the characters that are meant to reflect their character growth as they change over the course of their adventure.

While I consider this system important, it's also one that I don't consider as core to the game as getting the regions and core mechanics functional. As such, I'm not planning on spending a ton of time working on it until after much of the rest of the game is at least roughed in—after all, I can't really test it until I've gotten enough of the game in place for the triggers for advancement to occur.

I'll consider this part complete when the systems for it are in place, the dialog is finished, and the skills are created. The systems are the character's individual rooms in the Pocket Dimension and other things necessary to enable the interactions to happen at all. Dialog is finished when it flows well (basically, I've read it through several times smoothly) and properly reflects the characters and what they're going through at the time. The skills need to be figured out and balanced against the rest of the skills in the game while also reflecting the characters' changes—all reasons why having most of the other skills in the game already made will be beneficial, since it'll give me an idea of what design space I want to use for these narratively-driven skills.

Core Mechanics and Game Balance

Core mechanics are often things in the code or that apply broadly across many areas. They include the class system, design concepts for equipment, the battle system, the missing psychopomps, and probably a few other odds and ends that I've overlooked in writing this list. Game balance is a complicated thing because it's how I want the interactions between elements to work and play out.

Both of these things will inevitably be getting tweaked over time as I work on and playtest the game. At some point, content itself will get locked down (as in, not adding any more) as will core mechanics. I'll then conduct balance-focused playtests not unlike how I proofread an article: I'll go through it a few times, looking for rough spots or things that don't feel quite right and try to smooth them out or fix them. However, I don't want to do this indefinitely, because things need to be released! Once I've given a handful of passes to this (and also hunted down bugs), then the game will be ready for release.

Balance isn't something that can be finished until the rest of the game is pretty much done (and may get tweaked based on player feedback post-release if that's something I feel like doing) and is somewhat subjective in nature, so I can't give precise criteria for it being finished. I'll be looking at things like difficulty of combat, the feeling that all of the final classes are viable, availability of equipment, rates of levelling for classes, items (both that they're useful, but also that they don't invalidate skills), rates of currency acquisition, and so forth. There are a lot of things to consider!

Core mechanics often have to do with the feel of things and are something I'll be refining and tweaking as I go to make sure I think the game feels good to play. A lot of this will have to do with combat balance, so all of the things I mentioned above in the balance section will factor into this. A key part of this getting finished is making all of the class skills.

So, What's the Current State of the Game?

I'll go over the general state of the game now (spoilers: it's still very early on in development), starting with core mechanics, then going over each region. As the other major aspects of the game (character interactions and the overarching plot) are mostly in a conceptual state at this time, I don't really have anything to talk about regarding them just yet, so I'll be skipping them here. (For the sake of completion, I'll note that an introduction is implemented, but it needs a lot of revision—still, what is there does provide a serviceable framework for that revision, so it is worth mentioning!)

State of the Core Mechanics

For clarity, I'm going to use a list. These elements are in no particular order.

  • Classes are partially completed. For reference, there are 42 classes.
    • While all classes have an icon and stats, I've been going through a process of reworking class requirements that has left some class concepts in flux. These are primarily for classes that had a less clear initial concept.
      • As a result of this, not all class properties are in place following this rework.
    • About 50% of class skills exist. Note that each class has 5 skills, for a total of 210 class skills. I counted 116 class skills that are no longer placeholders, but note that some of those skills are still tentative. I already know that I want to change around a handful of those skills following the aforementioned structural changes.
  • Core battle mechanics are in place, but subject to balance tweaks as time goes on and I get more playtesting in. These tweaks are unpredictable by nature and result from dissatisfaction with the way the current mechanics are playing out.
    • These tweaks are primarily to the damage and accuracy formulas. I include all sorts of things involving stats with these as well, however, as stats interact heavily with these formulas.
  • Adding locations to the Crossroads of Reality/Pocket Dimension Portal is in place, but needs a bug fix (there's a notification that pops up when you unlock a new area that resets itself on zone transition).
  • Abyss Gates have had no mechanical work on them. I am placing the image I'm using for them in various environments around the world, but they don't do anything yet. Note that the Abyss Gates are currently planned to be functional when you rescue 30/100 missing psychopomps.
  • Equipment concepts are currently in a satisfactory place, but may receive tweaks as I go.
    • Likely as a result of balance tweaks or new functionality that I realize I can do. For example, I've recently added the ability for a weapon to count as multiple types, which affects which skills they can be used for—this allowed me to make a shortsword count as both a sword and a dagger for skills.
I think that generally covers core mechanics. I've probably missed something (accounting for all of the small details is hard!), but these are the major ones. I do have some plans for changes to enemies, provided I can make the code work (as I think I can), so that will introduce some changes, but not ones I expect to take a long time.

In general, core mechanics that are predominately code (as opposed to content, such as the skills) are relatively quick to work on, but are also hard to determine a completed state for, since most changes or additions are driven by a combination of playtesting and inspiration, both of which are unpredictable. I will want to lock down code-based core mechanics as the content parts of the game approach completion.

It's a lot easier to track the completion state of content-based core mechanics. These are primarily skills or things like Abyss Gates. The completion rates on these will be subject to balance adjustments.

State of the World

The world is composed of two hub zones (the Crossroads of Reality and Pocket Dimension) and ten world regions (The Abyss, the Wandering Wood, Ashdala, Avarei, Bowan, the Kingdom of Dolfy, Cybernight City, the United Streets, Ghymnipolis, and the mashup location). Let's go over each of these! Note that what makes for a completed hub zone is different from what makes for a completed world region.

The Crossroads of Reality

This is a fairly small zone that consists of the rescued psychopomps, a portal that can take you to any location linked to the Crossroads of Reality (linking happens by visiting maps that get linked to it), and Yerovaepern, the only psychopomp to not go missing.

Most things for this zone are actually finished, though keep in mind that a significant portion of the introduction takes place here, and that isn't done yet. All of the rescued psychopomps are in place (they become accessed as you rescue them—mechanically, the world version is despawned and a counter increments that makes another of the rescued psychopomps show up) and the portal functions. However, Yerovaepern does not have anything approaching final functionality yet, as I'm still determining what exactly that functionality will be (though I do have some ideas).

The Pocket Dimension

This is a primary hub where you can heal up, change character classes, look up class information, buy common items, as well as other useful things. The map is mostly in place, though I still need to add individual rooms for each character (sort of, I think the married couple will share a room for obvious reasons). All of the class stuff is currently in place (ability to change character class, look up information about each class, and the class planner—this latter thing is a piece of functionality that lets you specify what class you are working towards on each character; it will then highlight which classes you need to level up to be able to use the designated class). Some of the shopping is in place, but not all of it. The healing machine that can be used to fully heal your party is in place.

I'll also want to add various NPCs to this area, many of which will be shops. These NPCs are decidedly not finalized yet, as they'll be inspired by the various world regions from which they come. As you'll see, most world regions are still in a concepting phase; therefore, these NPCs haven't been dreamed up yet.

I also want to set up an NPC to contain a lot of information for the player about combat mechanics. However, I don't intend to work on this NPC until the game is closer to completion so that I can do it once and not have to worry about updating it as I tweak things.

The Abyss

While I have general ideas for this zone, it remains firmly in the conceptual phase. I know that it'll have a bunch of Abyss Gates that connect to locations all over the world and that the final boss encounters will be here, but I've figured out little beyond that.

The Wandering Wood

This zone is comprised of two major sections: the woods themselves, and the Wanderer's Rest village in the middle of it. (The village's name may be changed thanks to developing lore.) The environment itself for the woods map is finished, though I recall it needing some slight polishing to clean up some visual issues. It also currently lacks enemy spawns, treasure chests, or crystallized energy nodes, so those need to be added.

The Wanderer's Rest's map's environment is roughed in—it has its boundaries—but needs contents, particularly some buildings. Chief among them is a sort of dungeon area that the player will have to go through to unlock one of the four unlockable classes. I have a general idea for this area, but it isn't yet created.

The woods itself is more of a connective zone, similar to The Abyss, but with fewer connections. As such, it isn't a region with any major bosses, and likely will only have minimal regional plot. Of course, I may find myself to be wrong on that as I develop it a bit more...

Ashdala

Ashdala is one of the major world regions, and the most developed currently. It's boss is implemented (though I suspect it will need some balance tweaks as I've modified other things...), and the path to get to that boss is functional. Many of the major maps are in place and roughed in, though all of them need additional details. There are also several major maps that aren't yet created, nor are the vast majority of more minor maps, like the interiors of buildings.

Most of the enemies are in place, though I think I'll be needing some more for the major maps I've not yet made. There is additional planning I'll need to do for those areas in general, as they're semi-separate from the rest of Ashdala.

Loot is in a decent place, but nowhere near where it needs to be. I do expect Ashdala to have a particularly large amount of loot. If I had to guess, I'd estimate I have somewhere around 50% of the Ashdalan loot in, though that's a pretty loose estimate.

The start of the regional story is implemented, but most of it beyond that isn't yet implemented. (While the path to the boss is functional, this is because I've implemented the mechanical aspects of this process. I haven't yet set up anything to direct the player anywhere, though, which is what I mean here.)

As for side quests, I've implemented three of them, but there will definitely need to be more.

The region mechanics are sort of in place? The concepts are in place, but a lot of them are very content-based, and a lot of that content isn't made yet, particularly the loot.

Avarei

Avarei has two maps implemented, and they're pretty much done, but that's because you briefly visit them at the start of the game before heading to Ashdala. Only one of them has combat, and its enemies are in place.

However, the rest of Avarei is in the conceptual phase at this point. I have figured out what the region's mechanic is going to be, and a few other details, but nothing beyond those initial two areas has been implemented yet.

Bowan

Bowan is in the conceptual phase. I've figured out some of its setting details, but nothing is implemented yet. I also haven't figured out its unique mechanic(s).

The Kingdom of Dolfy

Dolfy (as I call it for short) is partially implemented. Several maps are in place, though I think only minor ones are finished. Many major areas are still missing, though.

I have figured out and implemented the region mechanics of empty bottles and bombs. Of course, there are still many places to put related loot and walls that can be blown up.

Speaking of loot, this is partially done. I'm not quite sure how much, but there's going to be a lot less loot in Dofly than in Ashdala.

Enemies are almost done—the region boss for Dolfy is actually six bosses, and while I've begun the process of creating them, they aren't fully done yet. All of the other enemies are finished, though!

I have done a couple of parts of the region's plot, and I know generally what it's going to be, but most of it has yet to be done. Currently, two of the six bosses can be fought. (The player will be able to fight them in any order, and indeed, each one has a signature skill that it passes on to the other bosses when it dies.)

I haven't done any side quests yet, though I do have ideas for them.

Cybernight City & Ghymnipolis

I'm discussing these two locations together because they're both extremely nebulous. I know they're cities, and I have some general settings concepts for them, but I haven't figured out basically anything else, including what the player's goals in them will be, unique mechanics, enemy concepts, and so on. I'm confident I'll be able to, I just haven't put any time towards them yet!

The United Streets

I have roughed out the one major map of this region, though it needs a lot more work. It's basically a large map that'll have streets and buildings. It loops vertically and horizontally. This ties in with the region's lore. I've also figured out the region mechanics (well, it's more a concept for how combat zones work). You can also technically get to the main map via the Wandering Woods once you beat Ashdala! Not that there's anything to do there but wander around...

I have yet to implement anything relating to the main plot, enemies, loot, and side quests for this world region.

The Mashup Location

This is another location that I've done some concepting for, but for which I have yet to implement anything. I have figured out its primary mechanic, at least.

Wrapping Things Up

I think that should cover things—it does feel like a bit of an abrupt end if you ask me, but that's how it goes I guess. Please let me know if you have any questions! Also, if you'd like to follow the development of Psychopomps Are Missing more closely, you can subscribe to my Patreon, as I post regular updates there as part of the Dear Patrons... tier.

Thanks for reading and for your interest in my project!

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