Core Mechanics: Herding Sheep and Having Fun Doing It
When we first began developing this game, the first and most important aspect of the game that was examined was the player's core mechanic: sheep herding. While there have been a number of video games in the past that focus on guiding friendly AI through treacherous environments, we could find very few non-strategy titles that centered on mob behavior controlled with passive player guidance. This made the design process difficult, as I had few examples to draw from. Designing, refining, and implementing the core herding mechanic required a great deal of attention and care.
The first step was determining how the player would move and interact with the world. We had already settled that the game would have a top down third person view with the most minimal UI possible. A key part of this was sticking strictly to what a dog would be capable of. What can Kyon do, and what can he not do?
The player moves freely in a 360 degree range and can sprint short distances. The player's movement had to be as smooth as possible with the joystick on a gamepad, because the player's steering affects the herd's steering.
Next, I had to determine how the player interacts with the sheep. Any time the player comes across a lone sheep, they can have that sheep join the herd by touching the sheep.
Originally, we had an invisible AI herd actor that was repelled from the player, and the sheep would continuously follow that invisible actor. This allowed the sheep to always move in the opposite direction of the player. This, unfortunately, created issues with sheep jamming up on each other trying to get to the herd actor, could cause issues if the sheep somehow were separated from the herd actor, and reduced the player's ability to quickly visually understand where the flock's center of gravity and direction of movement is.
Instead, we introduced Horatio, a ram with golden fleece that guides the herd. This served to give the player a much better visual understanding of where the herd is going, and also reduced the amount of sheep pileups that occurred. Again, making sure the player feels like they are in control of not only their character, but also the flock has been the top design priority for this game.
The player uses two bark commands to control the flock: a stop bark and a go bark. The stop bark has Horatio immediately stop moving if within range, thus the flock stops. If the player uses the go bark after this, Horatio will resume his normal behavior. If the sheep haven't been ordered to stop, the go bark will make them briefly move much faster.
Picking Up Sheep
The player has the ability to pick up and carry sheep if they so choose. This is useful for getting trapped sheep, stray sheep taking too long to get to the flock, or fixing traffic jams.
Each of these core mechanics went through multiple iterations, which allowed Chris and me to refine interaction between the player and the sheep. To me, this was the most important factor of the game. The herding system is relatively novel, and being the core mechanic of the entire game meant that it had to immediately be enjoyable to navigate the world and guide the sheep. It wouldn't matter about how good any other aspect of this game was. If the herding mechanics don't feel responsive or enjoyable to the player, the game is a failure. Fortunately, we have been receiving very positive feedback from playtesters indicating that they enjoy the herding mechanics. However, there's always more to refine and improve and we will continue to work on it.