Immediately after releasing Game Master Plus, I started working on its successor. It was a journey much longer than expected from the first idea to the full game. In this article, I will give you some more insight into the development of LV99: Final Fortress and explain to you what problems I faced along the way.
Nintendo as well as Blizzard have stated multiple times that gameplay is the most important aspect of a game. Only after the core mechanics are in place, they start working on other game elements such as the story or the visuals.
This approach is clearly reflected in Super Mario, for example. While each new entry in the series introduced new gameplay mechanics (the F.L.U.D.D. device in Super Mario Sunshine or the small planets with a gravitational force in Super Mario Galaxy), the story is not exactly what you would call an epic masterpiece. And while there has never been anything wrong with the graphics, the consoles the titles appeared on where clearly capable of more advanced techniques.
Likewise, the Diablo III story had its moments and plot twists and the graphics were fine, but the main goal of the game was not to defeat Diablo (or Malthael) and see the credits roll. The game was, no, is about slaying monsters efficiently in order to level up, find better equipment and acculumate power. You can play Diablo III endlessly based on this goal, since the absolute peak of your character’s power is impossible to reach.
The gameplay must be engaging enough for you to keep playing for months or even years, so that such a game structure can actually unfold its potential.
Synergies and a Fortress
When I started working on LV99: Final Fortress, ‘gameplay first’ was also the approach I took. Aiming to create something like a Diablo III JRPG as far as synergies between skills and equipment were concerned, the idea of focussing on boss battles for the initial design phase quickly came to mind. It seemed very close to the Diablo III endgame experience.
Wait a minute, I thought. I’m trying to design a great endgame when I know that many players won’t play a JRPG long enough to experience it. That’s nonsense! Why not let the player *start* there (thus, as it became clear later, recreating the feeling of the Lufia prologue)? Since after Game Master Plus, I wanted to keep this new project relatively short and simple, I decided to make it all about the final dungeon of a JRPG. A dungeon floating in the sky. Like the Mana Fortress. A dungeon with only boss encounters. Like the Fortress of Doom. (At this point, I knew the title would be something with the word ‘fortress’ in it.)
Refinement of the Premise
Even though I wanted the player to feel powerful from the beginning — having set the initial level of the heroines to 99 —, I didn’t want to just hand the player all the tools at the start of the game. For one, the options would have been overwhelming: With such a setting, you would essentially ask the player to spend the first 30 minutes of the game reading skill and item descriptions. That is something many people enjoy. The Souls series, for example, is known for its well-written item descriptions that flesh out the game world. But you don’t start doing it. You need to establish the world first for it to work. The second reason to not hand out all the equipment from the get-go is, of course, that even in a game that is all about the finale, there needs to be some progression. If levelling up is not part of the game, getting more tools seems to be the only viable option.
This approach borrows heavily from collectible card games where you strengthen your deck by extending your collection of cards, gradually replacing underperforming cards in the deck with stronger ones. True to the expression ‘more than the sum of its parts’, you also want cards that are not only strong individually, but also provide advantages through interactions with other cards you are using. In Hearthstone, for example, there are cards that grant you Armour and cards that deal damage based on your Armour value.
In addition to this combination and other Armour-related cards, you may want to include powerful late-game cards in your deck, because the chances that you can survive until you can play them are pretty high in a deck that stacks a lot of Armour.
Game Master Plus Plus, kind of?
In LV99, however, I wanted to take this idea to a new level. You can now equip your characters with any weapon, off-hand item, headgear and body armour that fits your playstyle, a theme or the challenge ahead. All the items are equally strong as far as their total stat boosts go. They differ in their additional effects. These effects may be stronger or weaker depending on the circumstances, but none of them is strictly better than another. Apples and oranges, so to speak.
At this point, I must say that I had a lot of fun designing the LV99 equipment. On the Great Potion Games channel on Instagram you can find photos of the notes I took during development. Coming up with unique effects and synergies and, once those were in place, with a name worthy of a legendary item has been a tremendous joy.
An elegant Resource and covert Class Themes
Having fun doesn’t mean it’s going to be good, though. My first attempt at designing the game mechanics led me into something of a dead end. It just didn’t come together. While the prototype included cool ideas, it did not feel right. It was a little bland, to be honest.
Well, what to do? I had come to the conclusion that most of the time, it is better to work on existing material than to start from scratch. I tried that here as well — and ended up wasting a lot of time trying to fix the system by tweaking it and adding elements to it. It did not work. The game was a mess. And so, I decided I should place a blank sheet in front of me and try to think of something completely different.
There were two ideas floating around that I worked on in order to ‘save’ LV99, if you will.
The first idea was the EP system. EP (Ether Points) are a resource that fills up over time and can be used for certain skills, including very powerful signature ‘finishers’ for each character. In addition to that, the EP value boosts damage dealt — for the heroines as well as for the bosses. This proved to be an elegant mechanic that would open up a lot of interesting design space in a straight-forward manner. It felt like a breakthrough — which was more than welcome at that point.
The second idea was the concept of class themes. While I initially did not want players to be nudged into certain builds by having overt class themes — that is, pieces of equipment that clearly go well together in terms of flavour and/or mechanics; in other words: equipment sets —, I realised that I could actually design such sets if I make sure that cross-set combinations are even more useful in certain situations than the obvious ones. For example, the Comet Catchers allow you to use Meteor, Billie’s finisher, at the end of a turn automatically if your EP are high enough. Aurora’s Veil is not the headgear that fits the class theme (Gladiator), but it is more effective than the Gladiator headgear if your plan is to ‘spam’ Meteor.
Are we done yet?
In conculusion, LV99: Final Fortress took way more time than expected, but ultimately, it all came together. There is always room for improvement, of course. If you have any feedback on the game, feel free to send me an e-mail! I will do what I can to make LV99 as enjoyable as possible. There will be continuous support for all of my games even years after release, and I am not against making even broad adjustments based on your feedback if I think the additional work will greatly benefit the game.
With all this laid out, let me know if you liked this little insight into the development of LV99: Final Fortress! To the developers among you: Have you made similar experiences like me, wasting a lot of time on a system that you just did not work? To the players: What is more important to you, gameplay or story? Do you think the approach Blizzard and Nintendo usually take is the best one?