Sugarlawn Design Notes

My game Sugarlawn took fourth place in IFComp 2019, as well as first place in the Miss Congeniality side-contest consisting of the authors’ votes.  I’m thrilled by the former and deeply honored by the latter.

The rest of this post consists of some design notes on the game.

Background

I think the first time I had ever heard of escape rooms was playing Mark Stahl’s Ultimate Escape Room – IF City in IFComp 2017.  Not long after that Arthur DiBianca introduced me to Neutral’s escape room games, which I (and my kids) loved. So after I finished the post-comp release of A Beauty Cold and Austere in December of 2017 I decided to write my own escape room game in Inform 7.  It featured game show elements, such as a chicken suit-wearing PC, a host who observes you off-stage and makes comments, and a studio audience. I finished the first section – and then ran into a wall. I couldn’t get inspired to keep working on it.

Fast forward to May of 2018.  The spring semester ended, and I was about to go on sabbatical.  I think it was the day of my last final when several thought-strands on puzzle design that I had been ruminating on for months converged and became the core idea of Junior Arithmancer.  I immediately started working on that game.

A few days into JA, though, I took a break to play a game that had been on my to-play list for a while: Ryan Veeder’s Captain Verdeterre’s PlunderVerdeterre is an optimization game: You’re on a sinking ship, and you have to save as many treasures as possible before water engulfs the one lifeboat.  Or, more precisely, the goal is to make as much money as you can in the form of the sale price of these treasures. Work on JA came to a screeching halt as I became engrossed in Verdeterre.  In fact, I kept playing it – for hours – until I was reasonably convinced that I could not possibly do any better. I went back to JA, but I knew the game I wanted to write after that one would be an optimization game in the style of Verdeterre.  Once I was done with Junior Arithmancer I quickly started work on this optimization game. Time-wise, this was June of 2018.

Setting

I didn’t want to just copy Verdeterre; that wouldn’t be interesting.  But there were other aspects of Verdeterre – besides the optimization – that I wanted to keep in my game.  One was that the treasures in Verdeterre are all related thematically. (The ship you’re on is a pirate ship.)  Another was that you don’t find out the sale price of the items until after a playthrough of the game, after which you get more information about what happens to each treasure.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I could adapt my game show/escape room idea to have the player run around picking up treasures. It explains the time limit and the optimization aspect, it gives me a way to explain subsequent playthroughs (multiple takes of the show), and it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to find a unifying theme. [1]

What should that theme be, though?  I’ve been trying to write what I know, and in my first two IF games that was mathematics.  I didn’t want my third game to be another math game, lest I completely pigeonhole myself as an IF author.  (Of course, optimization is mathematics – but more on that later.) So I decided that my optimization game’s theme would be Louisiana, my home state.  Its history and culture are unique among U.S. states, and I thought exploring that history and culture some would be interesting for players. All the treasures would have some connection to Louisiana, the mini end-stories for each treasure would explore that connection further, and the game itself would be set somewhere it would make sense for the player to run around in: an antebellum plantation’s mansion.

I got a substantial way into the implementation of Sugarlawn, though, when I realized that I had kind of written myself into a corner.  I couldn’t set the game where it was and not mention slavery. Yet such a heavy topic didn’t fit tonally with the game I had in mind. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle this, and, well, players can see for themselves how Sugarlawn addresses this ugly aspect of Louisiana’s past.

Constructing the Optimization Scheme

I wanted to write a game that could be enjoyed on multiple levels.  If you just want to play through the game a few times, picking up treasures and enjoying the setting and Louisiana history and culture background, then I wanted the game to allow that.  If you want to play for the two-hour IFComp judging period and then stop you should leave with a sense of satisfaction: a few-to-several puzzles solved, maybe, and a reasonable cash haul.  But I also wanted the game to be something a player could dig into deeply – for hours – if that’s what the player wanted to do.

To accomplish that last goal I wanted to go beyond the optimization scheme in Verdeterre.  At this point my background came in very handy. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s played my first two games to learn that I teach mathematics at the university level.  What that information doesn’t tell you, though, is that my PhD research was in optimization. Also, my adviser worked on problems that involved fleets of trucks picking up packages and delivering them.  So I thought, hmmm… one way to add a whole new layer of complexity to this game would be to have the player not just collect valuables but also deliver them to the “right” spot. Thus the target locations were born.

The result was a very, very complicated optimization problem for the number of valuables I had planned for the game.  Even if you know where every single valuable is, where it goes, and how much it’s worth, you still have a computationally intractable combinatorial optimization problem to solve.  This would generate plenty of depth for players who wanted that. (The formal name of the optimization problem the player is trying to solve is the Traveling Salesman Problem with Pickup and Delivery – or, at least, a variant of it.  It’s known to be computationally intractable – technically, NP-hard.)

(Side note: I continue to be convinced that the field of combinatorial optimization is full of problems that could be relatively easily adapted to interesting puzzles in IF games.  In that sense Sugarlawn is sort of a proof-of-concept.)

Other Puzzles

Verdeterre has a few puzzles beyond the primary one of maximizing your haul; they’re generally about discovering treasures that aren’t immediately apparent.  At least one of Verdeterre’s reviews complained about this, saying that you never know whether you might uncover some new treasure that would completely change your strategy.  I decided this was a reasonable complaint: The optimization layer in Sugarlawn is complicated enough; having the information-gathering layer leave you guessing is maybe too much. Thus I decided to have the game tell the player up front exactly how many treasures there are.  Many of them are hidden, but the player always knows how many she has left to find.

I wanted more kinds of puzzles, though.  If they’re not about finding treasures, then they should affect the game’s other primary aspect: moving around the game map more quickly.  So I added some locked doors and a mechanism for obtaining keys.

I also thought it would be fun to have a secret bonus for the player to discover.  That sounded like something suitable for a game show.

And the chicken suit holdover from my original escape room game idea could be used for a puzzle: It’s a bulky thing, and it’s reasonable that the player wouldn’t be able to do certain things in the costume.  (The chicken suit, by the way, comes from the old U.S. game show Let’s Make a Deal, where contestants dress in outlandish costumes hoping to catch the host’s attention and be called on stage.)

Ryan Veeder’s design notes for Verdeterre indicated that randomization in a timed optimization game is not fun, so I threw out any ideas that featured randomization.

Choices, Choices!

A timed optimization game is all about making choices: what to pick up, what parts of the map to visit, when in your route to visit them.  Adding more kinds of choices for the player to consider when optimizing would greatly increase the game’s solution space.

Modern players tend to hate inventory limits, and I generally agree.  But what if that were made a reasonable option? The bag was born. It functions as the game’s carryall, but if you’re willing to work with the inventory limit then cash bonuses are doubled.

Should you collect more treasures, or should you focus more on finding target locations?  It seemed to me that players’ natural instincts would lead them to go with the former. To make the latter more attractive, I had the target location bonuses increase in an arithmetic progression.  It took me a long time to work out a scheme for these bonuses that was (1) simple and (2) not immediately obviously better or worse than just picking up valuables.

The secret bonus brings you a lot of cash, but achieving it takes a great deal of game time.  Is it worth it?

There are a few other smaller aspects of the game that offer the player choices, such as the scheme for having the player acquire keys and whether it’s worth it to pay off the protesters.

Encouraging Multiple Playthroughs

I had the map of Sugarlawn, most of the main game mechanics, and several of the rooms coded by July of 2018.  Then I stopped working on the game until March of 2019. (Cragne Manor, IFComp 2018, and a major work project intervened.)  During IFComp 2018 I ran across William Dooling’s Six Silver Bullets. It’s one of the most addicting IF games I’ve ever played.  You die a lot, but every playthrough either gives you a little more information about what’s going on or teases you that “just one more time” will be enough to uncover that bit of info you need.  I wanted to recreate that feeling for Sugarlawn. I thought Sugarlawn already had some of that (with continuing to uncover more valuables and target locations), but Six Silver Bullets convinced me that it could use more.

And that’s how the door codes were born.  If you know the door codes, the locked doors no longer pose a major problem to moving around the map.  It remained to hide the door codes in various ways, often with the kinds of puzzles that would be suitable for an escape room.  Hopefully the player would be motivated to keep trying “just one more time” to find the door codes, just as I kept trying “one more time” in Six Silver Bullets to find the secret agents, or uncover their identities, or find where different dossiers were hidden.  This ties back to the reviewer’s comment on Verdeterre: Much of what makes Six Silver Bullets so addicting is that while there’s a lot you don’t know, the game is generally clear about what you still need to find out. Known unknowns, so to speak.

A Sense of Urgency

There are two compelling features of Verdeterre I knew I wouldn’t be able to recreate.  One is that Verdeterre is quite funny; after all, it was created by one of the best comedy writers working in IF.  While I can toss off a good one-liner here and there or write the occasional decent comedy scene, there was no way I was going to make Sugarlawn as consistently funny as Verdeterre.  I hoped to make up for that by playing to my strength: the design of the optimization scheme.

The other is that Verdeterre is set on a sinking ship.  As time goes on, water engulfs more and more levels of the ship, which means that treasures are continually becoming unavailable.  Design-wise, there’s a tradeoff happening here. From the optimization perspective, this shrinks the solution space greatly and so makes the game easier.  But from the playability side, it creates a sense of urgency that retains player interest and makes them want to keep playing again and again. I had already made a design commitment to a huge optimization solution space with Sugarlawn, and the setting and background also didn’t lend themselves to the valuables slowly becoming unavailable over time.  So I couldn’t/didn’t want to recreate the “sinking ship” aspect of Verdeterre. (I did think about it, though. And a version of Sugarlawn where the mansion is slowly sinking into the Louisiana bayou is interesting to contemplate! For example, the player might have to avoid getting eaten by a roaming alligator. Maybe I should have included aspects of Crocodracula and turned Sugarlawn into a Veeder tribute game…)

I was concerned that Sugarlawn lacked this sense of urgency that Verdeterre does so well.  My first significant playtester, Mathbrush, agreed. He and I bounced ideas around to solve this problem, and he suggested that I add a few very valuable items that are in plain sight but unavailable for the player to pick up at first.  He also pointed out that it’s not at all clear with a playthrough or two that the doors even have voice codes. Based on his advice, I added the glass cases with the catfish statuette and the diamond ring. I also made opening the latter’s case contingent on finding all the voice codes.  These features don’t completely recreate Verdeterre’s urgency (I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that), but they compensate somewhat by giving the player more obviously worthwhile goals to pursue at the beginning of the game. Teasers, of a sort.

Other Thoughts on Game Design

Sugarlawn features a layered game design that I’ve grown fond of: You have to explore the mansion, then find all the valuables, then find their target locations, then find the door keys, then find the door codes, and then optimize your route through the game.  (These aren’t separate stages; they’ll be intertwined for most players.) All of these tasks occur on the same game map that the player gradually becomes more and more familiar with. I think this kind of design helps immerse the player in the setting – and thus in the game.  I used a related idea in Junior Arithmancer, where the player has to continue performing some of the same tasks again and again – just better than before.

Like all of us parser authors, I’m aware that the parser continues to be a hurdle for players – especially new ones.  As Mathbrush has told me multiple times, a lot of the responses in a parser game tend to be error-type messages. Many of those happen because the player is fumbling around, trying to find the right verb to interact with the game’s nouns.  To get around this, some authors have experimented with explicitly restricting the allowed verb set, to great success (e.g. The Wizard Sniffer, Eat Me, The Wand). Robin Johnson has created his own engine that can be used to write games such as Pirateship that are choice-based but feel like classic parser games.  I’ve gone a different route, one similar to the one Viktor Sobol chose for Out: Rather than restricting the parser, the game is designed in such a way that it doesn’t take long for the player to learn which commands are the crucial ones. In Junior Arithmancer, that’s the spells. In Sugarlawn, it’s TAKE/DROP and movement.  The player should spend the vast majority of their time using one of these few commands and hopefully little time wrestling with the parser.

An Edutainment Game

I should re-emphasize that the educational aspects of Sugarlawn were an important secondary component of the game’s design.  There’s a lot of Louisiana history and culture in Sugarlawn. Interestingly enough, the two reviews I’ve read/listened to that mentioned this aspect of the game were by folks who aren’t from the United States.  Perhaps the Louisiana background was fairly familiar to most American players.

Still, I’m fairly sure that each player – even an American one – who sticks long enough with Sugarlawn can learn at least one thing new.  For example, my favorite piece of Louisiana trivia in the game has to do with the basketball. At the auction, it’s bought by 90s NBA star Dennis Rodman as a gift for his sister Debra.  Debra Rodman was a member of the 1982 Louisiana Tech women’s basketball team, a team that won the first ever NCAA women’s basketball tournament. (And if you read the basketball, you get a list of all the players and coaches from that team.  You might even notice Kim Mulkey’s name in the list. Thirty-seven years later she, as Baylor’s coach, won the 2019 NCAA championship during the last stage of my writing of Sugarlawn.)

But the educational aspect of Sugarlawn isn’t limited to the Louisiana setting.  It was also my intent that Sugarlawn teach players more about optimization. Greedy solutions (quickly grab the best stuff) aren’t always the most optimal.  You have to balance local considerations (how to most efficiently move through a particular section of the mansion) against global ones (which sections to visit and in what order).  We also – I think – have an instinctive sense that small changes in the input to a problem should lead to small changes in the problem’s output. That’s not at all true for a lot of computationally intractable problems; in fact, a new small piece of information can drastically change the optimal strategy.  In-game, that means that finding a new valuable has the potential to force you to completely rethink your current best solution.  Similarly, a slight change to the early part of your best strategy (caused, perhaps, by the discovery of a new door code) can sometimes dramatically change the later stages of that strategy. I wanted players to experience all of these in-practice aspects of optimization.

And while this wasn’t on my mind while designing the game, I was thrilled to see Brendan Desilets’s post on intfiction about finding Sugarlawn, with its large map and inventory management requirements, to be good for teaching problem-solving and critical thinking.

Fun for Me

Like many authors, thus far I’ve been writing the kinds of games that I wish were out there – games that I would like to play.  Unfortunately, when you write a game you know all of its secrets, and so the very act of writing a game that you want to play ruins much of your ability to enjoy it.  However, some of the puzzles in Junior Arithmancer are complicated enough that if I step away from the game for a few months then I forget how to solve them. So I can still derive some joy in solving the puzzles in Junior Arithmancer in a way that I can’t really with A Beauty Cold and Austere.

However, when I finished Sugarlawn I did not know what the best solution is; the underlying optimization problem is just too complicated!  I then spent several hours trying to optimize Sugarlawn. That was the most fun I’ve had playing one of my own games.

Thanks!

Thanks to all my testers!  I’d like to mention a few who went above and beyond, though.  I’ve already discussed Mathbrush’s design contributions. (If you get the chance, you should have Mathbrush test for you.  Seriously.) Also, special thanks to Bill Lindsay, Greg Frost, and Dannii Willis, who really put the game through its paces.

Thanks as well to Victor Gijsbers, who is putting together an extensive set of hints for Sugarlawn.

And thanks to the whole IF community.  Sugarlawn wouldn’t exist without you, as is clear from all the influences I’ve mentioned over the course of this discussion.  Particular thanks go to Ryan Veeder for creating Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder in the first place.

And thanks, of course, for playing my game!  Watching the Sugarlawn thread on intfiction explode as people tried to figure out the game’s secrets and then maximize their scores has certainly been one of my highlights as an IF author.

Parting Comments

If you got this far, you might be interested in Sugarlawn‘s current high score list.

Finally, I’d like to point out that Sugarlawn serendipitously had exactly the same placement in IFComp 2019 as Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder did in IFComp 2013: Fourth place.

Footnotes

[1] Added January 10, 2020: Today, for the first time, I listened to the “Clash of the Type-Ins” podcast episode where Ryan Veeder, Jenni Polodna, and Jim Crawford play Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder.  They also discuss how Verdeterre is like a reality show!  It’s worth noting that this episode is dated June 9, 2015 – three years before I played Verdeterre myself.

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