X-Assault Expansion: Designer Diary #2 - Chapters
By Jim Lemoine
All of us will fully admit that by modern video game standards, X-Assault could be considered somewhat primitive. It probably would have blown you away back in the Atari days, and it would have been an impressive Nintendo game (easily a hell of a lot better than that original X-Men Nintendo debacle), but by today's standards? It won't hold up quite as well -- on the surface. If you're the type of gamer who judges games based on graphics or sound, X-Assault will probably disappoint you. There's no 3-D graphics, no cel-shading, no shadow effects, and little in the way of sound. After all, X-Assault is a download, and we always wanted it to be easy to download -- even for folks on dial-up (like me).
As the game started to get really popular, when our hits went from the double-digits to the quadruple-digits, we began to see one area where the game was, really, unforgivably lacking: it had no plot. In a nutshell, the basic structure was as it is now -- recruit a bunch of mutants, form an attack team, and lead them into battle. What was missing was a reason for it all. Why were these mutants, many of whom had never even met, working with each other? Who were you (the player) supposed to be? Why were so many bad guy types attacking, all at the same time?
So one night I cleared my social calendar, sat at my desk, stared at my Bowen mini-bust collection (the Black Panther bust, in particular, is quite inspirational), and prepared myself to spend the evening brainstorming a plot for the game. I was really surprised at how quickly and logically the whole story behind the game fell into place, and delighted at how cool we could make the mystery -- within the game -- for the players. By comic book standards, the plot behind the events of X-Assault is entirely believable though most of it is, as yet, unrevealed.
Like it says in the introduction to the game, the story's pretty simple: the player is a mutant student at Xavier's. Cerebro has determined that the student is a mutant, although no powers have yet manifested. Scans all come up inconclusive -- nobody's sure what this mutant's powers are, or will be. One morning, the student wakes to find Xavier's completely empty -- no students, no teachers, no X-Men. It's as if every mutant on the premises just disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving only our hero untouched. A sudden onslaught of attacks by the X-Men's greatest villains leaves little doubt as to the coincidence of the event. The student approaches Cerebro, finds it has enough residual telepathic energy to locate a few mutants, and sets about forming a team of whichever heroes can be reached.
In the current version of X-Assault, some characters will refer to the mystery behind the mass disappearance. A certain villain might reveal that some kind of bargain has been struck, and a certain team of New(er) X-Men might share the results of their telepathic scans with the player. But beyond the mystery of who kidnapped the mutant heroes, there are a few other questions we left open: Why was this one student spared? Did all the mutants on the planet disappear, or only the mutant X-heroes? How was it accomplished? And one for the experienced players: When you send a team member to Avengers Mansion, why is there only one Avenger there?
We've had answers for these questions since the beginning, and in X-Assault v0.96, we're going to start answering a lot of them. We're also going to start answering some questions that, to our knowledge, nobody has yet thought to ask.
To allow us to make the plot in the game more solid, we've instituted what we're calling the "Chapter" system. The newbie player (or the experienced X-Assaulter, on loading the new version for the first time) will begin in Chapter 1: Mutants Alone. Once the player wins the game while meeting a certain set of criteria (not too difficult, we assure you), X-Assault will inform the player that Chapter 1 has been successfully completed. The player is then given a password which, when entered into the program at the game's beginning, will start you off at the next chapter.
Sometimes players can get new passwords without completing a Chapter, but instead by completing certain events which change the status of the game. For instance, if you successfully convert Juggernaut to a good guy, you'll get a new password regardless of whether or not you ve managed to beat the Chapter. Your password will start you off in the same Chapter, but Juggernaut will still be recruitable.
Beating a Chapter can have its benefits -- for instance, regular playable characters will get permanent stat boosts if you beat Chapters Two or Three. Certain game events are also programmed to only occur during certain Chapters, and there are several characters who can only be encountered in a specific Chapter. For example, there's an event in the current X-Assault where your team encounters Blink (of the Exiles) at Braddock Manor -- in the new X-Assault, that event will only occur prior to Chapter Four.
This new Chapter structure is a bit of a trade-off, because as of now, literally anything can happen in any game of X-Assault. You could encounter Dark Phoenix, fight the Hulk, meet Spider-Man, or journey to the Age of Apocalypse in just about any game of X-Assault you start (in the current version). In what we're programming now, certain events will only happen at certain times, slightly limiting the potential for surprises in any one game, but greatly improving the cohesiveness of the storyline and the overall playing experience.
As of now, there are six Chapters planned for the new X-Assault -- three centered on events from past versions of the game, and three completely new Chapters that we're building from scratch. The format remains the same -- enter a password at the beginning of your game to start a certain Chapter, play it through, and if you fulfill the unique winning criteria for that Chapter, you'll be awarded a password to access the next one. If a player makes it all the way through to the end of Chapter Six, they'll get three treats: a bit of a surprise ending, a very strong hint as to what the next Chapter will entail, and a password that can be used to access a seventh Chapter in a future X-Assault release.
We're kind of hedging our bets by ending X-Assault v0.96 that way, but our story plans take us out further than this game will go. We figured that it would take at least ten Chapters to tell the whole story, so hopefully demand for the game will be high enough to justify future versions so we can finally program our way to the plot's climax.
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