An Interview with City of Brass' Designer - Why It's Procgen

May 19, 2018
Rogue

In this age of constant content consumption, where we flood ourselves with as much new information and media as we can possibly fit into our eyes in a day, we tend to filter out or adjust our perceptions of aspects of our lives in ways that don’t always line up with reality.

To that extent, we often end up believing what we want to believe- in example, I sometimes catch myself believing that there are no more unique settings for games to explore, and I’m always shortly thereafter pleasantly surprised by something fresh for my eyes, even if it’s only fresh in a few ways.

Say cheese! (Image credit: Uppercut games)

The day-saver this time was Uppercut Games’ City of Brass, a first-person roguelite set in an Arabian Nights-style fantasy setting. Taking place in an ever-changing city, City of Brass aims to make you feel like an Indiana Jones-style adventurer on the hunt for treasure, glory, and maybe not dying before reaching the middle of the shifting city you’re diving into.

Since I’ve been able to get my grubby little hands on City of Brass, I can safely say that I enjoy the game, despite a couple of nitpicks I have with progression, and I’m glad that it exists. But I feel I need to admit that, back when it was first announced, I was disappointed to learn that it would be a roguelite.

I was disappointed that this game with such a unique setting and interesting mechanics was was being “shovelled into the procgen arena” instead of “having its systems fully-realized in a really cool way”.

And, yeah, that’s a pretty shitty way to think about a project.

But, this has gotten me thinking about the reasons behind Uppercut’s decision to take City of Brass in this direction. I’m always curious about the inner-workings of game development and I decided I wanted to know why this decision was made, so I reached out to Uppercut and got in touch with Ed Orman, co-founder of Uppercut and designer on City of Brass, to ask a few questions about that side of the project.

“Submerged absolutely taught us some limitations of hand-crafting things when you are a team of our size.”

City of Brass isn’t Uppercut’s first game- their previous release was Submerged, a third-person adventure through a flooded post-apocalypse. My first question to Orman was, pretty simply, “why did you choose to make a procgen title instead of something structured?” As it turns out, meticulously crafting an entire experience- especially one like Submerged, with the small team that Uppercut has, is pretty damn difficult. “Submerged absolutely taught us some limitations of hand-crafting things when you are a team of our size.”

The team ran into difficulty with creating and maintaining the large city of Submerged, and found that “making changes to it were all very difficult for a team of only 6 people”. They were unable to make changes like they wanted and had to be very rigid and confident in their choices as going back to tweak certain aspects was a large time-sink and hurt on production time.

From the initial decision to make City of Brass a procgen title, it almost seems like the rest of the decisions behind the game fell into place.

The team knew that they would be setting their game in an ever-changing city, in order to give some theming reason to its procgen nature. Ed, having grown up “knowing various bits and pieces about the Arabian Nights stories, mostly from popular reinterpretations of it”, figured it’d make for a great setting.

The game’s name itself is a reference to one the stories in Thousand and One Nights- nights 566 through 578 are titled The Story of the City of Brass, which has the hero of the story adventuring through a maze-like ghost town in search of treasure. (The same city name has shown up in other works as well, including Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering)

“It’s much easier to tell a specific story when you are hand-building levels…”

An interesting problem that procedurally-generated titles have over structured ones comes down to telling players a story. “It’s much easier to tell a specific story when you are hand-building levels…”, Ed goes in to detail that “controlling the way a player enters and interacts with a space gives you many more options in terms of where you want to place things and when the player will see and use them.”

While there is still a semblance of story within City of Brass, the team ended up focusing intently on gameplay- “we were focused more on high-level navigation cues and playability. We telegraph where exits and entrances are, use landmarks to give the player a way to orient themselves, and make sure the place provides the player with lots of movement options, choke points, and a high per-second interactivity”

In addition to world-creation being markably easier in a procedural game that pieces things together systematically from crafted parts, Orman told me that from the start of design they wanted the game to be procedurally generated because of the gameplay loot that type of design inherently creates. “We want players to be able to progress by increasing their skills and learning the game systems, not learning the layouts by heart”.

And, yknow what, I like both of those reasons. Making production easier on the team is always a good thing, and doesn’t really have any bearing on the final product. Creating a game in a way that prevents development pipelines from getting clogged up with weird processes and requirements is great! The desire to create something players would need to grow their skill in for progression is commendable as well, though I will say that learning a level’s layout like the back of your hand and breezing through is its own type of challenge.

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