Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Post-Apocalyptic Bogeymen

A fellow on /tg/ was trying to come up with some monsters for a post-apocalyptic horror game. My first question for him was simple: Do you want the kind of monsters you blow fleshy chunks out of with guns and plenty of ammo, or the kind that stalk you through the shadows like surreal nightmares? He was after the latter, and had actually been considering having the creatures be intangible (though they'd still have a high body count). Here's what I suggested.

The monsters *are* entities that, objectively, exist- at any given moment, two people looking at one of these creatures will be observing the same thing (heck, if you've got a working camera you could take a picture of them, though any situation where you'd have a decent shot isn't going to be one with a good chance of you getting out alive). They're sentient, and certainly intelligent to some degree. But they also seem to exist almost entirely in our own minds- for the most part, they can barely affect the physical world. The one exception is us- one swipe of a claw and you'll be bleeding profusely beneath undamaged clothes. And while they'll often toy with a victim like a cat toys with its prey, they'll throw people around like rag dolls once they're agitated enough.

Getting into "things the players don't know at first" territory:
-They quickly lose the ability (or possibly the inclination) to affect someone who's dead. In fact, they quickly lose interest in doing much of anything after one victim dies. . .well, most of the time. And that's not gonna stop other victims from bleeding to death shortly after.
-Interestingly, they'll also pay little attention to someone who isn't conscious- or at least, they won't start paying attention. Their focus waxes much quicker than it wanes. One end result of this would be children waking up to see the bloody remains of a mother who never made a sound, rather than crying out and thus waking them up.
-Whether it's correlation or causation, their attacks do less damage to someone who manages not to panic. This doesn't mean not feeling fear- that only happens if you're dense and naive, and it doesn't protect you- it means feeling intense fear and resisting it enough that it doesn't affect your actions. Some elders (and there aren't many out there) advise people to stand and face a beast rather than trying to escape- not because that makes it less inclined to attack, but because that way there's a chance your injuries won't be lethal. Of course, alot of that hinges on there being someone else at the scene who's freaking out more than you.
-The creatures are fairly territorial. Each seems to have its own quirks, abilities, form and general personality (though these evolve over time)- residents typical tell stories about it and call it by a nickname. Personally, I'd use the monster in the '9' short film (and likely the monsters in the feature film version, haven't seen it) as a reference:

Also, it'd be interesting (i.e. really damn creepy) if they could imitate human behaviors-i.e. this twisted nightmare thing occasionally makes some casual nonverbal gesture you'd see a person make in conversation, or whispers something under its breath when before now it only made guttural, inhuman howls.

Perhaps it's not an imitation, and they're spirits of the dead who retain trace amounts of their old selves.

Or maybe those trace amounts come from their latest victims.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Court d'Capitate: Schemes

O, what tangled webs we weave! The other vital part of the alpha playtest build, schemes represent the various individual steps of your grand master plan. (You do have a grand master plan, right?)

As you'll see, most schemes are used in murder plots. These cards all have three scores, which are added together to determine the total score in each area for the plot itself: Lethality (The target dies unless their Luck exceeds this number), Cunning (The plot is exposed if the target's Paranoia exceeds this number, and if the target was also unoccupied you must frame and sacrifice one of your pawns to avoid being executed yourself), and Style (You get this many victory points if the plot succeeds without being exposed).

Two more card types will be worked in as the playtests proceed. First, there's Events- whatever's going on in a given round, and the mechanical tweaks (and potential targets) this introduces. Each event is revealed the round before it goes into effect, so people have a chance to plan ahead.

Second, there's Masterminds- the various nefarious minds at work in the court, their identities mysterious and plans most adversarious. Each player selects one of these characters, through whom they'll act in a manner vicarious NO BAD DAGDA STOP RHYMING YOU'LL BE HERE ALL DAY. Ahem. Each mastermind grants some neat bonuses, that tweak core rules like turn point costs and maximum hand sizes; but you have to reveal your identity to get those benefits, creating an alternate loss condition where someone can try to assassinate you directly. Fun times!

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Court d'Capitate: Pawns

Squint hard enough and you can just make out one of the notecards I made for the playtest.
I've made a few vague references to how I playtested Court d'Capitate back around Christmas. Here's the full story: Every year my dad's side of the family (the grandparents, their three children (all happily married) and their ten energetic grandchildren, of whom I am the eldest) all pitches in to rent a big vacation home for several days, so that we can all be together. We arrived the evening of day one, and would be leaving the morning of day five. I had dice, a set of blank notecards in different colors, and the core rules sorted out on my head. On day 1, I spent my spare time brainstorming the cards out in my notebook. I spent most of day 2 actually writing all the cards out, often while holding a week-old baby girl in my left arm (creating a rather striking clash of mindsets- Lady Macbeth quotes spring to mind). On the third day, I massaged my aching, cramped hands while roping various family members into the actual playtesting. And it was good.

At any rate, today I'll be sharing the first half of the information on the cards I made back then. Here are all the pawns I came up with. Pawns are the hapless fools under your control, whether or not they realize it. All pawns have three scores- Luck (How hard they are to kill), Paranoia (How hard it is to get a way with trying to kill them) and Ability (How many of your scheme cards you can attach). Since you have a limited number of Turn Points each round, you want to have a large number of Pawns to attach scheme cards to- that way on future turns you'll be able to do more at once, since pawns can occupy to play attached cards free of charge.

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

A response to "Just Die"

First, Ron Edwards is to RPG design what Freud is to psychology- someone who's done an admirable job of raising the visibility and (in some ways) respectability of his chosen field, while doggedly insisting on theories that mix some basic, essential insights with a whole lot of bunk.

Second: Mr. Gillen, I don't disagree with most of what you've written. As an attempt to quell the "my sub-area of interest > yours" geek squabbling, it's an excellent piece (with a most noble goal). But your analysis of what a roleplaying games are strikes me as a tragic oversimplification, because it overlooks the one element of the experience that only a roleplaying game (in the literal sense) can have- an element that far too few game developers in any medium try to focus on (Ice Pick Lodge and Eric Chahi being two notable exceptions).

If I just want to roleplay, to participate in a narrative as a character that I or someone else invented, I can do that as a freeform exercise- no need for a bunch of rules and mechanics. If I just want to play a good game, there are board games and video games that offer better tactical challenges in a much more direct fashion. If I want that gameplay to include "rpg elements"- which is a label for the strategic gameplay of character advancement and optimization- then titles like Torchlight distill that far beyond what any pen and paper rpg has done. And if I want to "play" in the other sense- exploring and poking at a virtual world in a way that's not unlike a child playing with a toy- that doesn't have to involve stopping every few minutes to shoot at some wandering mutant, nor does it require that I be a character in some deep storyline.

So what's left, after you account for all of the above? Are rpgs just a combo platter, giving us smaller servings of those elements together in a single package? Or is there a chemistry between some of these ingredients that creates something new?

Screenwriter David Mamet tells us that good stories provide drama- the quest of a hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

Game designer Raph Koster tells us that good games provide fun- the player's struggle to overcome interesting challenges, those things which prevent him from achieving a specific. . .sorry, is anyone else getting a sense of deja vu?

The unique power that's found in the experience of playing a roleplaying game is what happens when the game is the story. When the challenges a character faces and the ends they seek begin to overlap and merge with those of the player. It's not an easy feat to pull off, of course. Each medium is in a better position to leverage certain techniques to that end- video games can do more to make the challenges visceral, while tabletop games can allow players more of a hand in determining their character's goals (which reduces the work required to get them on board with the character's motives).

To steal a line from a drunken Jack Sparrow: That's what an rpg is, you know. It's not just a story, and your character, and the levels and the xp; that's what an rpg needs. Usually. But what an rpg is... what a role-playing game really is, is you living the story.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Backseat Designer: Mass Effect 2's Ammo System

The Mass Effect RPG is hardly the only way these games have been bouncing around in my brain for the past several weeks. I've held off on posting this, because I couldn't find any kind of statement by the ME2 design team explaining their rationale for adding reloading and ammunition mechanics to the combat. I'd hate to have overlooked something while hashing out this proposed alternative. Happily, one of the slides from Christina Norman's recent GDC presentation lists what I'll assume were the primary factors:
-"Encouraged using different weapons" (Gives the combat more variety & tactical depth.)
-"We could make weapons more powerful with limited ammo" (I'm guessing she's referring to 'feel', though this also expands on the weapon-switching tactics. It's a shame they wound up treating new weapons like clear upgrades, rather than letting variables like this create more interesting choices when it comes to your weapon loadout.)
-"Stopped bullet spraying" (Shooter gameplay gets brainless very quickly when you're running low on reasons to worry about making each shot count.)

Other benefits I would name:
-Finding time to reload=tactical gameplay. The player's mental muscles get a better workout if their plan of action for the next 5 seconds has to account for the need to reload. It's a significant part of the shooter formula- look at the Call of Duty series, where the tutorials go out of their way to stress how the choice of when to reload also includes the option to switch to a sidearm.
-Maintains intensity. Waiting for your weapon to cool off was definitely a buzzkill in ME1. Most of ME2's improvements in this area come from the reworked controls, powers, defenses and enemy behavior; still, reloading also helps.
-Pushes the player to remain mobile during combat. Hang back during ME2's larger engagements, and you'll soon find yourself hungrily eying the pile of thermal clips beneath your enemies' feet. The option to shift positions so as to scoop up more thermal clips presents players with another dynamic challenge.
-Rewards exploration out of combat. This would be the one benefit this proposal would have to give up, though the level designers didn't really leverage it anyway: Some thermal clips could have been placed as hidden goodies, a lower-key version of the minerals and credits.

So what's going on in that youtube clip up above? Here's the details for my proposal.
-You always carry a small number of spare thermal clips. The exact number's obviously something playtests would determine; I'd envision having 2 at the start, 2 obtained by researching upgrades, and 2 more for those who equip spare ammo packs (or 'extra cooling units'). If we're hypothetically applying this to ME2, you could put the 'blueprints' in Mordin's recruitment mission and the disabled collector ship, with the armor upgrades on Omega and Tuchanka. There could also be several research upgrades providing small boosts to your clip's cooling rates.
-Eject a clip from a weapon and it'll start to cool off at a steady rate. You can't load a clip until it cools off completely. My initial playtest estimate would be 15 seconds for a fully-used clip to 'recharge'. I'd originally written out a lengthy explanation for how the GUI could convey all the relevant information in an intuitive fashion; then I remembered that I had access to a copy of After Effects, and could just show people what I was talking about. Something the above video doesn't demonstrate is that once a clip is fully cooled, it blinks white (with an appropriate audio cue) and loses the red aura.
-Clips inside your unequipped weapons also cool off, albeit at a slower rate. Regularly swapping weapons thus reduces your need to reload without making it irrelevant. The classes that spend more of their time shooting things are also the classes with the larger arsenals, so I think this could balance them out nicely. The fiction would be that a firearm's heat vents are open while it's in the 'folded' state. If I had to guess, I *think* it'd be best to still have a fully spent clip 'overheat' and not be usable until fully cooled (or until you eject it and load in a fresh one).
-Picking up a thermal clip swaps out your hottest spare clip for a cool one. Most enemies could still drop clips, and there'd still occasionally be one or two on the ground/shelf/convenient waist-high rock formation. You might also have the player stop and take half a second to pick up clips a la recent Resident Evil titles, just to add to the challenge a little.
-Bolt-action weapons like the Claymore and Mantis only expend about 1/3 of a clip, but 'overheat' with each shot. So you still have to reload (or swap weapons for a moment), but each clip cools off quickly. This is just a way to 'translate' these weapons so as to preserve their unique pros and cons (which are wonderful, the sort of thing that ME3 could expand on beautifully. I'd love to launch into a tangent on this topic, but it'd take up a post itself). The ammo capacity upgrades for shotguns and SMGs could translate in a similar fashion, altering the weapons so that their ejected clips are only half as hot.

One last set of bullet points- the advantages this proposal would give.
-Changes the mechanics to match the fiction. Mass Effect 2's in-game rationale for the use of cooling clips ties beautifully into the game's overarching plot while providing a simple, easy-to-grasp explanation for the mechanics. Yet people are still baffled, and not just because said explanation's tucked away in the codex. To quote Tom Francis: "That’s not how it works. You can run out of cooling clips for your pistol and still have 245 for your sub machinegun. There’s no way to use the pistol until you find more cooling clips for it: so weapons do have mututally exclusive clip types."
-Helps the IP regain a measure of the lost originality. This was the thing that made infinite ammo so cool in the first place- it was the setting's originality made manifest in the form of unique gameplay elements.
-Adds interesting tactical depth to the gameplay. As always, this is just theory. But keeping track of your total ammunition is more of a healthy play habit, with the interesting moment-to-moment challenge only really cropping up when your ammo runs low. This would help give players an engaging cognitive workout on more of an ongoing basis, with players planning out their actions so that all but one or two clips will be cooling at any given moment in time (so as to maximize their "enemy being shot in the face" rate).
-Reduces the workload for level designers. Rather than having to place a hundred thermal clips in every combat mission, they can plant a clip or two in the middle of most firefight arenas- or any other visible location that'd be interesting to try and advance towards while the bullets are flying, especially if it wouldn't normally be the smart/conservative thing to do.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tower Defense Design Proposal

The following's from an email I recently sent to a fellow who's started messing around with a flash tower defense game. I don't normally share this kind of "game design consultant" work here; I probably should.

Let's say we go with a generic fantasy premise, just for the purpose of this description- I can handle the fiction and any writing needs. The "Overworld" gameplay in between rounds is similar to the Last Stand 2. You see this overworld map/matte painting-esque image depicting the ancient, overgrown ruins of a once-magnificent city, with a variety of locations marked out on it. A bar across the top depicts the monster types that're stalking you and will attack that night- clicking one displays information regarding their strengths and weaknesses. There'll typically be one you haven't fought yet; their info consists of a black silhouette along with some cryptic lore containing hints as to how you fight them.

Any unexplored locations are described via similar cryptic hints, giving the player some indication as to what benefits might be found by searching there (especially whether they've got the upgrade that's going to be effective against a given incoming enemy- you have access to the day's search results when choosing your battle loadout). Each location also contains a note as to how defensible it is (there's a number of factors we could use to actually alter the challenge enemy waves pose, lots of potential for each location having unique quirks). You'll have to actually go to a location to get the description that has concrete details.

In other words, you're simultaneously choosing where to search for upgrades and which stage you'll be fighting the next wave on; naturally, the most dangerous locations will contain the coolest upgrades. I like the idea of a player who's had the last battle go badly being wounded/vulnerable, but because of how the game's set up their response is to retreat to a safe location and just rest in preparation for the next night (rather than just hitting reload).

Next, there's the actual battles. This concept and the overworld concept were brainstormed together, but neither needs the other. I'll skip a bunch of micro-level design ideas and just focus on the tower setup, as sketched out in those cruddy webcam pics.
  • On the left side of the 1st pic, the UI displays 9 items.
    • The 3 tower types you'll have throughout the game- +Damage, +Range, and +Chain (AoE is alot tougher to balance, even before mana effects come into the picture). The display also shows the random positions of the 3 link nodes on the next tower of that type you'll place.
    • The 3 mana generator types you've chosen for that round. In addition to providing a bonus effect to any tower they're linked to, they generate mana at a rate equal to (X/[1+# of linked towers currently firing])- 1 active tower reduces its mana generation to half capacity, 2 active towers reduces it to a third, etc. The current mana supply for each type would be listed next to its icon.
    • The 3 (?) spells you've chosen for that round. You use mana to cast these- I expect you'd click the spell, then click the mana type you'd use to pay for it, with each spell having one or two favored mana types that can cast it for a third of the normal price. (This'd be an extra motive to explore in the overworld- you've found this great spell, but not the associated mana generation rune, and it sounds like it might be in one of the most dangerous stages. . .)
  • Every X seconds, you can place a new tower or generator.
    • If you want some mana types to be more powerful, they could incur a larger delay before you can place your next item.
    • Since linking towers enhances both of them, you'll often want to start by mostly placing towers
    • X could get longer as the round went on.
    • In the 2nd pic, our hypothetical player started by placing a +Range tower (with the node links the UI displays in the 1st pic), then a +Damage tower, and then a generator for Death mana.
  • Node links can cross open spaces (and go under the monster path) so long as there's another placement point on the other side.
  • Each tower has its own starting upgrade, plus up to 3 more upgrades from the generators and towers it's linked to. (So in the pic, both towers are getting +1 range, +1 damage, and whatever Death's benefit is- say, bonus magic damage equal to 10% of the target's max HP, making it good vs waves of a few tough targets. Don't worry about bosses, they'd- whoops, I'm getting into micro-level design.)
    • We can screw around alot with how many nodes a tower gets and how many upgrades they can have max, along with a number of other sub-matters like whether links should be two-way for towers.
    • Multiple upgrades of the same type stack, though the exact progression depends on the type for balance reasons. A +Range tower linked to one other +Range tower shoots 4 times as far as the base distance; if all 3 of its links are to other +Range towers, it can shoot enemies on the other side of the map (though it'll be dealing the base damage with no side effects).
So the experience of playing the game consists of placing towers and generators in interconnected networks, and using the spells to influence things. (As for how much influence those spells would have. . .imagine if instead of having to click to pick up the sun in PvZ, every [40/sunflowers] seconds you could make a few clicks to either deal 3 peas' worth of damage to a zombie or make one lane fire down a neighbor for 5 seconds).

I probably don't have to explain this, but one of the design priorities here is elegance- rather than giving the player forty options, give him a few meaningful choices that combine to produce the same flexibility. I'd guess that there'll be no more than a dozen mana types, and half of those are 'bonus options' (a normal playthrough will find 2-3 by the endgame). But the potential for combinations between different upgrades means that your 3 chosen mana types are going to play in a way that's noticeably different from other combinations.

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Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Meanings Of Play

The way I'd put it is that there are two kinds of activities which we label as "play".

The first is playing a game- Halo, basketball, and so on. The activity here is working to overcome an interesting challenge. It's worth pointing out that this is a much broader definition of "game" than the sorts normally used- it can apply to any case where the act of trying to do something is inherently rewarding (a sensation we typically refer to as "interesting" or "fun").

The second is playing like a child plays with toys. The activity here is exploring possibilities through interaction. The psychological drive is curiosity, which I'd describe as wanting to see everything there is to see. When you search obsessively for all 100 Green Stars because you've heard that unlocks a secret ending, curiosity is what's motivating you.

(Of course, this isn't to say that every case of 'play' has to be only one of these two types. Human beings rarely have only one motivation to be doing something.)

So what's a practical takeaway? Curiosity will keep a player engaged if they believe their interactions will yield something they want to see. They'll participate because they want to see the consequences of that participation.

(The above was all originally written as a post on the forums, which have sucked up a ridiculous amount of my time by this point. I'll throw in a follow-up exchange between me and God At Play:)

"Great addition Dagda. Those fit well in the Why We Play Games essay. Challenge and Mystery would be Hard Fun and Easy Fun.

That essay also mentions
Altered States (they also call it Serious Fun). They refer to it as "games as therapy," and it's about exploring the rhythm of your own mental/emotional states during play. Not sure how that translates, but it's something to think about.

What about things that would motivate you outside of what you'd typically think in a play experience?"

Hard fun and easy fun would definitely match challenge and curiosity. I hesitate to use the word mystery, because the player's drive is rarely abated by knowing approximately what will happen- the important thing is to have gotten the full experience (not counting any remaining elements of that experience which don't feel like they'll be worthwhile).

Altered states strike me as a confused catch-all that covers the ways numerous other factors affect us on an emotional level (the biggest one is being immersed in the game's narrative, which roughly same as emphasizing & identifying with the protagonist of a story). This isn't to say I disagree with the idea of games as therapy; experiencing emotions can be therapeutic in the same way that eating food can be nutritious, regardless of how those emotions were triggered.

Other things that would motivate and engage players? There's external rewards (which are just a kind of challenge that takes longer to overcome), escapism (which I believe exists, but have yet to noticed in my experiences), social elements (as identified in that essay, and brutally leveraged by facebook games) and various psychological tricks like loss aversion. Personalization is also effective. Any high-quality elements of the production (The writing, music, imagery, choreography...) can have the same lasting appeal that similar works have on their own. The player will be more inclined to immerse themselves in that element (so as to better savor it), and by extension become more immersed in the game as a whole (at least to whatever degree said element ties into that whole).

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