One of the main themes behind the design of 'Shards of Magic' is the open world concept. I love the SNES 'Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past' for the controls, puzzle solving, and general look & feel of the game. The entire Legend of Zelda series felt simple enough to be able to pick up and play casually, but rich enough to keep you interested. Starting with LttP it always felt as if the games were lacking something. It wasn't until I played Ultima Online (I had never played earlier Ultima games) that I realized what I was looking for in the Zelda series was the open world. While they gave hints to an open world, in reality the world was progressively accessible as you moved the story along (often through items in dungeons). As well, one of my biggest complaint of 'Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past' is the inability for the player to pick up or move simple objects, even after getting gauntlet that allows lifting or breaking heavy rocks. Even Ultima Online fell into this trap (although probably to prevent players from stealing everything).
When starting to design [what is now called 'Shards of Magic'] I started with an open concept world then began fitting various systems on top into it. One of the first considerations was the size of the open world and how to break that world up. I like the idea of zones, decided on more modest graphics, and kept with the overhead perspective. As an advocate of gameplay over graphics I feel that the simpler the graphics are, and the more sectionalized the world is, the more objects can be on the screen at the same time. I want to show armies clashing on large battle fields, or giant castles filled with objects the player can rearrange or destroy.
For objects specifically, I wanted to give everything physical properties. In an open world a player should be able to affect their surroundings; so if a player is stronger than what a chair weighs, the player should be able to lift the chair. That led to looking at inventory and what would happen if the player attempts to take every chair they see (a la hording cups and plates in Elder Scrolls games). To this I made the decision to not have inventory. The player can pick things up, but they cannot keep them. A side effect of this decision is removing some complexity from the game (keeping with the theme of a casual play style). This is not confined to moving objects, but all potential physical properties. If a chair is made of wood shouldn't it burn when I use a fire spell on top of it? In the end objects in the game should react in a reasonable manner to no matter what the player does to/around it.
As a player starts to affect their surroundings I looked into repercussions of doing so. I forgot who said it (possibly Richard Garriott), but when MMOs and expansive worlds were first becoming popular someone said, "If you let players chop down trees and dig in the ground you will eventually have a world of nothing but stumps and holes." I agree, but to it I add, "is that a bad thing?" In a single player game (or small number multiplayer), is it a bad thing to let players chop down every tree, burn an entire kingdom to the ground, or make real choices that permanently affect the world? Even on large scale MMOs I think I'm OK with it if players have a way to repair the world. This thought process led to the saving mechanics. e.g. If moving a chair matters, then I need to save the chair's position between sessions.
Repercussions of player actions must also take into account non-physical consequences. If a player moves a chair, does the owner of that chair care? If a player burns down a house, does the town care? And if the player clears out a cave of vampires, does the kingdom care? Do non-player characters (NPCs) react differently to the player as the player navigates through the world? I think they should, and to create this I have added in a system of factions for NPCs to check against and alter their behavior accordingly. An interesting side effect is that if NPCs can look at the player's faction, an NPC could look at another NPC's faction to create some emergent behaviors.
Being able to affect objects in the world in a variety of ways gave birth to the combat & ability game mechanics (which eventually gave the name to 'Shards of Magic'). If all objects have physical properties then all combat abilities need physical properties to be able to affect the objects. That being the case, then different combat abilities should be able to interact with each other (at least once affecting an object). This led to combat effects that does the work of the ability. Effects such as pushing, burning, and freezing does the actual manipulation. Pulling further on the thread of an idea, if an ability has an effect, can objects also have an effect? The answer is yes. If you walk across ice, the player should be dealing with the effects of having less friction. If the player hits a magical object that object could potentially use an ability on the player. It was from this strand of thought that gave rise to the activation system and eventually the design of gaining new abilities from magical items.
So now my new world has been fleshed out with the main systems that run it. The world is divided into zones filled with objects (including NPCs). All objects have physical properties that can be acted upon by abilities with physical properties. Anything that is changed is saved and the world persists as the player moves through it (hopefully forcing the player to think about what they are doing and why). Through factions NPCs react to the deeds and crimes a player does. Finally, it is by acting on the world, attempting new ways to affect objects will the player learn new abilities or progress.
Ultimately the goal of these systems is to create a world that looks simplistic and "normal", but as the player learns more about it they are able to find the hidden aspects, horrors, and fun. I liken it to an image of a landscape. At first glance you see a beautiful mountain, sky, and some clouds. The more you look the more you see the details of the trees, the hidden cabin by the river, and animals running around. The closer you investigate the more clear the decaying cemetery becomes, the more visible the chainsaw psychopath is, and the more abundant the zombies are. The more you invest time into this painting the more intrigue builds, pulling you to in to look deeper. That is what I want 'Shards of Magic' to achieve as a game.