Building Seventh Cross v1-v7

This blog entry is mostly going to be about the creation of Seventh Cross as a project, not so much the world and high-level gameplay. If you're interesting in that kind of an overview, check out the project's page!

Last year, our project of two years, Millennium Blades, became a success on Kickstarter and sold out on its launch day. After fulfilling and successfully reprinting Millennium Blades (which is coming out February), I decided that I wanted to devote my energy to creating new large-scale game projects that would provide an immersive experience, much like Millennium Blades.

I decided to begin with a project that I had been thinking about for a while, Seventh Cross, a game that was heavily inspired by Bloodborne, Castlevania, Devil May Cry, and Shadow of the Colossus.

After about 6 months of development, we are currently on version 8 of Seventh Cross, and hope to have the core game finished up by this Fall.

Starting out the project with EXCEED

To begin with, I knew we were going to have to start early on art and design. I found an artist that would provide a stylish vision for the game and who was familiar with my source material, Ian Olympia. After planning a bit about the world and the setting, we set out to start by creating a series of illustrations for our fighting card game, EXCEED, that would introduce the characters and serve as a springboard for the larger volume of art that a big board game would require.

Currently, Ian is finished up with the designs and establishing arts for the cast of the EXCEED season (16 characters), and is in the process of finishing up their attack illustrations. It's taken a little longer than expected to get everything ready, which makes me happy that we started on it so early.

The art budget for the project is pretty large, and pairing the art needs of the board game with an intermediate project like EXCEED allowed us to do two things: First, to introduce the characters and build some excitement for the series earlier in the year. Second, to cover some of the art and development costs of the larger board game with EXCEED's revenues, since we knew already that the full game's development would be an extended project.

Deciding on a Vision

With Seventh Cross, we wanted to deliver the experience of delving into a mysterious haunted castle, exploring in an immersive narrative fashion (more like a survival horror game), and fighting against colossal bosses. The game would be about the players and about the bosses, so it was clear from the outset that we didn't want to have 'trash mobs' or stat based combat. An encounter was going to be about the player's decision and the real outcome of that decision, not just a dice throw or a mechanical comparison.

We also wanted to make the game fully cooperative. Seventh Cross is about unraveling a mystery and encountering horror. A human agent on the other side may be able to put up a more convincing fight, but knowing that someone is on the other side of the table, with balanced rules on their side, makes for a more competitive experience rather than a frightening one. You don't want to trust that the other side is playing by the rules when you're in a horror setting.

Coming up with the world and the gameplay, it was important to settle on one central idea that was going to form a central theme throughout the narrative. In a game this big, it would be easy to lose our way without focus. I chose a theme of Transformation for the game. The monsters in Seventh Cross are all humans who, corrupted by a magical force called Anathema, shed their humanity and became something else.

The fear of change, and particularly of becoming something we don't understand or something that revolts us, is a core human fear. It also formed an exciting foundation for the game, since it meant that each of the players had that monstrous potential inside their character as well. Perhaps they could use it for good where others chose evil. Or perhaps such thoughts are hubris, and they would be consumed too in the line of duty...

Building Version 1-4

In versions 1 through 4 of Seventh Cross, we focused specifically on the narrative sections and adventuring.

In version 1, players had simple stats and equipment cards, and moved through a castle board, encountering paragraph adventures as they traveled. The paragraphs were large, and complex mini-adventures, often requiring 2 or 3 decisions throughout. While it was a fun adventure for the reader and player, we found that the decisions often relied more on the player's stats than their decisions, and complex paragraphs often created too much downtime.

The main thing we learned in this version was that resolution was going to need to be based on a decision the player made, not a stat. Stats would have to be removed entirely, or else players would always make the choice that favored their stats, and lose agency.

In version 2, we implemented the first versions of a combat system. Players possessed various combat verbs, rather than just stats. So a choice between using a Slashing weapon or a Fire weapon would be an important one. Monsters fought by telegraphing the first part of their attack "... the monster raises its axe..." and then the player would have a chance to read their intentions and parry with the right kind of damage type. Combat was clunky, however, and the encounters were rather long, creating far too much player downtime. Also, players didn't really know what they wanted to do with so many options–the right move wasn't always clear.

The most important lesson in this version was that combat and exploring were going to have to be a group affair. The idea of players splitting up and exploring on their own was scrapped. We also found we needed to give more cues about how to interact with challenges that came up. 

Version 3 was an attempt to merge v1 and v2 together to create a combat system that would allow more narrative freedom while giving some mechanical guidance. It featured items with small stats on them, allowing a player to be more skilled at using some types of items and less at others. The hope was to give players a little bit of direction on what they would want to do in any encounter. This version used an Arabian Nights-style grid of responses to structured encounters. Players entered an encounter, selected one of their possible actions, and made a check to determine the outcome.

In v3, we encountered some of the limits of writing ability. It wasn't possible to have failure and success paragraphs for each of 4-7 possible decisions for every single encounter. More significantly though, we realized that neither success nor failure were very interesting outcomes. To be interesting, a narrative outcome always needed to be success with slight repercussions, or failure with some redemption. 

Version 4 was our first attempt at a more traditional combat system. In this version, players visited a town where they would interact with characters and gather information during the daytime, then fight creatures and defend the town at night. While it was a neat idea, it felt a little bit too off-target for me. It's important to try something off the beaten path though, just to see what's there.

Version 4 formed the basis for a combat system that would evolve in v5 separately from the narrative system that we had built up. We also learned that players preferred meaningful social and mythos encounters instead of "you find a treasure chest, how do you try to open it."

Combat Test Versions 

After v4, we started focusing on versions of the game that were more combat oriented. Part of this was to explore whether the whole narrative nature of the game was unnecessary. The other was due to the fact that the narrative combat seemed inaccurate to capture the more action-adventure style of gameplay that we had in mind.

Marrying these two concepts of Action Combat and Narrative Adventure was proving pretty tough, but before any integration could take place, we had to think about what the fighting was actually going to look like.

In Version 5, we gave players action cards to use against bosses that occupied space on a board. I'm very against space-by-space combat, so we used a zone board, where there are only about 6 or 7 spaces on the board, and a single one can hold multiple characters. This was also the first version to really embrace the 'rogue-like' nature of the game. Players received randomized weapons and gear, and had to figure out a strategy as they played. The boss used a system of aggression based on the damage it took, where players would draw damage tokens from a bag, then keep those tokens as aggro.

Version 5 was somewhat well-received, but it became a bit too easy for players to figure out an optimal move and use it repeatedly. Additionally, the zones offered little incentive to move around, and the boss had difficulty moving around the board and choosing targets without a human operator to resolve it.

Version 6 focused more on implementing the Transformation theme and fixing gameplay of v5. Characters were given weapons that Transformed with each use. These were implemented simply, as guns that needed to be reloaded, swords that powered up on use, and more. The boss was still held back by the zones and its own difficulty in responding appropriately to the player's moves.

Version 6's transforming weapons were very well received, but the combat itself was not. After several plays, we decided to move to a new style of board and a new method of AI control.

Reasoning that we were going to be building combat that revolved around one large enemy, the idea came to make all movement and positioning relative to the boss. Effectively the boss would be printed on the board, and the players would move around it, forwards, and away. This led to version 7, which implemented a point-targeting system on the boss. You could move around the edges of the creature to attack its flank, or strike its head to try and disrupt attacks. You could fight recklessly on the front line for damage bonuses, or safely at the back for extra defense. We also tempered the transforming cards in this version, only making primary weapons transform, not every spell and item. Instead, we gave players the chance to Transform their characters and activate monstrous forms mid-battle. Finally, combat was made free-form, allowing players to act in any order, and placing the monster in a purely reactive position.

Version 7's new board layout was very well received, and the monster's AI worked better, but not spectacularly. We learned a lot about what informs a player's decisions when they go into a battle and what makes for interesting play in terms of player actions. We also found that things had become a little too complex in the course of building the new combat system, and that we should pare things back significantly to keep the player turns quick and action-packed.

Preparing for Version 8

So with all that, you've caught up on the last few months of serious development on the game! I'm currently in the process of building version 8, with these objectives:

  • Re-integrate the narrative portion by putting verbal options onto the tools players find, giving them both combat and exploration uses.
  • Building a thematic test scenario that will build up to a final conflict with the boss as the players explore. Player choices during this narrative section will influence the powers and difficulty of the boss they face.
  • Remaking player weapons to be more thematic and decision driven. Version 7's weapons and tools were heavily number driven, and v8's need to be more strategic in nature, so they can lead to emergent gameplay.
  • Reducing the complexity of player turns and how players track their actions and abilities in combat.
  • Integrating the thematics of the boss with the narrative, so that when players meet the boss, they know the person they are up against.

This last one is my biggest and most interesting challenge. While working on the combat versions, we found that playtesters had a much lower interest in defeating the boss than in the earlier narrative versions. My hypothesis on this is that a boss needs to be more than a meme. A good ghost story is not just a description of a terrifying monster–it's an exploration of the descent of another person into horror and how it changed them or what they found there. If I'm going to make a boss fight really immersive and terrifying, it needs more than an image and a skill list–it's got to have the right build up from the narrative side of things too.

I also have to be a bit wilder with my boss's abilities and with the possibilities of the narrative adventure. The players need to be convinced that anything terrible could happen to them at any moment, and that nothing is safe or off-limits. At the same time, this has to be tempered with good gameplay, so that setbacks don't prevent the player from being a part of the experience. Basically like any horror theme park experience–you have to frighten the audience without actually hurting them.

Version 8 will involve linking together everything I've learned from the previous versions of the games and building it back together into something cohesive. I'll post some more news on it once it's ready, and our results after we get it to the table! Once we have a game version that we're confident in, we'll move on to more open playtesting, though that's a step that is not to be rushed.

During these months of playtests, we've also been working on the lore, conventions, and theming of the game. Each version brings some new good idea that's permanently improved the game. Not all were mechanical inventions (like the transforming weapons), so there are quite a few things that I didn't talk about in this development-focused article. Next time, I'll talk a bit more about how the the game has evolved from a narrative point of view, as the storytelling style has shifted from version to version.

See you next week for more news on Seventh Cross!