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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Battleheart - Straddling the Casual/Hardcore Divide

Finding the Holy Grail of Game Design
      The game industry lies at an interesting juncture between business and art. Inherent to this condition is the constant struggle between creatives and businessmen trying to figure out what kind of game products will make the most money while also being satisfying for players. This can lead to trade-offs and compromises being brokered, all in the name of maximizing profits.

      Central to these dueling forces are gaming demographics. On one end of the spectrum are the challenging and often competitive experiences of hardcore games, which stand to test the reflexes and wits of experienced gamers and satisfy them through feeling they have accomplished a formidable task. On the other hand you have casual games, which are much more calm and are about providing a light, fun, low-commitment experience to share with friends or just to stave off boredom during a long bus ride.

      On the surface, it seems these two types of games are polar opposites, and attract very different audiences. But what if a game could be made that could bridge this gap, and unite all gamers in the bonds of peace, love, and friendship?

Artist's rendition of a gaming paradise.

The Battle Begins
      Battleheart is a game I feel comes close to hitting that magical sweet spot of being intuitive enough for anyone to pick up and play, yet have enough depth to keep a hardcore gamer hooked. Developed for iOS and Android devices, Battleheart offers a light action-RPG experience with simple controls and a surprising amount of tactical and strategic choices. May not be the kind of game to give your middle aged mother, but it's a step in the right direction.

      In the game, you control four characters via a touch-screen interface, giving your characters commands by pressing and dragging a line to a target. This is context-sensative, and can be used to send a knight to attack a goblin as easily as it can allow a healer to heal an ally. Each class then has a series of special abilities they can use. When a character is clicked on, a set of buttons appears in the top left corner that can be used to activate the unit's various powers, with a simple cooldown on each of them to prevent spamming.

      The result is a system with a good mix of autonomy and micromanagement, not unlike your typical RTS game, or the paradigm system used in Final Fantasy XIII. While battles are not always difficult with the right team composition, the player is always kept on their toes, micromanaging their characters to keep them alive and trigger their special abilities at opportune times.

      Outside of combat, the game has a simplified system of equipment and ability management that is likewise a good mix of accessibility with a good amount of depth. Equipment works a lot like in classic Final Fantasy games, with a weapon, armor, and two accessory slots, and the easy ability to buy and sell new items as needed. Equipment doesn't play a huge role in the game, but there is a good variety of accessories to customize your characters to your playstyle.

      Additionally, characters gain new special abilities every five levels, with most levels offering a choice of two different abilities. Your choice of abilities can be swapped any time out of combat, giving the player a sort of simplified talent tree to allow them to customize their characters and adjust their strategy freely. Combined with the ability to swap out party members and experiment with different team compositions, players have a lot of choices of how they want to customize their party, as well as how difficult they want to make the experience for themselves (who needs healers, anyway?).

      At each level of Battleheart's design, one can see areas where the designers took elements from more complex games and simplified them down to their most essential components, preserving the joy a player gets out of interacting with such systems while making them easier to pick up and understand intuitively.

      It is this concept of breaking down the hardcore game experience into its core parts that I feel is the key to creating a game that can appeal to all gamer crowds.

Boldly Going Where Several Have Gone Before
      Battleheart is not the first game to attempt to bring mainstream game design closer to a casual market, but the phenomenon still remains rather rare. Arguably one could say Nintendo games have been following this trend for years, but I feel they do not reach a level of maturity or complexity to truly scratch the hardcore gamer itch as something like Battleheart does.

      So what games have managed to do this? Here's a few recent examples:

  • Puzzle Quest
          Puzzle Quest, is a game that attempts to meld the simple and addictive qualities of a puzzle game with an epic roleplaying adventure, complete with classes, spells, and equipment to alter your abilities. It does a great job of leveraging the addictive qualities of a puzzle game while adding additional depth to allow players to look at such a game from a different angle. By mixing the old with the new it is able to lure players in and endear them to the new mechanics without them getting in the way of the core experience.
  • Bastion
          Playing like a typical hack and slash, Bastion primarily plays like an action game with a few minor RPG elements to spice things up, including customizable powerups from various drinks and upgradable weapons. The real genius of this game, however, lies in how it handles difficulty.
          The player is able to visit a special temple building to activate different gods, which in turn give enemies a buff in return for giving the player extra experience for killing them. This system not only allows players to tweak the degree of challenge they want to face, but also define exactly what that challenge will be.
          Enemies taking too long to die but you've become good at dodging? Switch a few gods and raise an enemy's damage while turning off their damage reduction. It is handled in such a way that it is clear these are meant to provide an extra challenge, making the player feel empowered to choose them, as opposed to games like God of War which ask the player if they want to switch to easy mode if they are doing poorly. It also has the added benefit of allowing players to take on bigger challenges at their own pace, and choose exactly what those challenges will be, without forcing them to commit to a specific difficulty setting.
  • Heavy Rain
          When you think of casual games, you most often think of cutesy games like Angry Birds - inoffensively cute and safe for children. What's rare is seeing a casual game tackle any real dark or mature themes*. Enter Heavy Rain, a game of modest complexity that is looking to do just that.

    *I could be wrong, of course. Haven't come across any myself but if you have an example of one I would be happy to be proven wrong.

          It is hard to classify Heavy Rain as a casual game in the traditional sense, but it is nonetheless a good example of an accessible game dealing with mature subject matter. In addition to having fairly simple gameplay, it deftly tackles one of the most off-putting aspects of a hardcore game: punishment for failure. Now, it doesn't take the Prince of Persia route and just make it impossible to die, but instead features a branching story, where regardless of success or failure the story continues, changing as a result of your actions.

          This "the story must go on" approach the game takes is helpful in a number of ways. Not only does it remove the punishing aspect of being forced to replay a part of the game you just experienced, but also makes it so there are minimal barriers to keep the story moving. This did well to encourage most players to complete the game start to finish, in contrast to a study showing only 10% of gamers complete the games they buy.

The Money Game
      While game designers can pat themselves on the back for coming up with clever ways to draw in a larger chunk of the gamer demographic, does this translate into better sales? Does the difficulty of making a game attract a few more diehard gamers justify the extra effort? I think it does.

      The advantages of targeting a casual audience are obvious enough. The sheer numbers of non-traditional gamers out there drawn in by games like Farmville is undeniable, many of whom are certainly outside of the usual demographic of 18-30 year old men. These games can not only reach children clamoring for the next thing to hold their attention, but also older folks with some disposable income and free time on their hands.

      The more traditional kind of games are still alive, of course. Good games that draw in a hardcore following enjoy an energized fanbase and strong brand loyalty. One need only look at major e-Sport events such as Major League Gaming to see how the popularity of hardcore games has grown and is quickly taking on a life of its own.

      To create a game that can appeal to both crowds is to get the best of both worlds. You can have a large userbase thanks to your game being accessible and fun, while still having a strong following of core gamers that will carry the word of how great your game is. Further, if the game is successful in hitting both markets, you'll be able to get word-of-mouth promotion from gamers and non-gamers alike.

Overcoming obstacles
      Making a game that appeals to both a hardcore and casual crowd is certainly a tall order, and it is little wonder that few games have been able to do it successfully. Hardcore game design and casual game design approach games from very different angles, and melding the two isn't always easy. Regardless, I think this is the best way for companies to not only make big profits from sales but also help push games into a solid and lasting hobby for consumers.

      ADDENDUM: Apparently Bastion is now easier than ever to play. If you don't have Steam or a 360, you canbuy the game and play it right in the Chrome web browser! Sweet deal!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Planescape: Torment and the Evolution of the RPG

This Mirmir's got stories he's dying to tell
      Allow me to preface this post by saying Planescape: Torment is the game that got me interested in Game Design. Never before did I think games could touch on topics so mature and nuanced as it does and in a way that is both fun and compelling on so many levels. Playing it was the first time I realized the potential of the gaming medium as a legitimate storytelling platform. While not the perfect game, it is easily the most inspirational game I have ever played.

      In spite of all the praise I give it, I have only recently gotten around to beating the game, following a GameFaqs walkthrough so I wouldn't miss a thing. I am now in a position where I can truly reflect on the game in its entirety.

Now pike it, berk, while I give you the chant...
      Planescape: Torment is a classic of PC Roleplaying Games, and many consider it to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time. With a compelling plot, very unique game world, and a little bit of philosophy thrown into the mix, one could say its one of the most sophisticated games ever to grace the world of PC Gaming.

Still waiting on that Planescape: LittleBigPlanet mod...

      The player takes on the role of the Nameless One, an amnesiac man who wakes up on a slab in a mortuary. He soon discovers that he is immortal, and with a trail of clues left on tattoos on his back he embarks on a journey to discover the nature of his mortality and who he really is. His journey takes him to all corners of the Planes, from the clockwork labyrnth of the Modron Cube, to the upper levels of the Nine Hells and beyond. All the while he comes across a diverse cast of characters, from a talking skull, to a sentient suit of armor, and even a chaste, lawfully good succubus to name a few.

      Based on the original vision of the game*, the designers went out of the way to subvert the common tropes and cliches of the RPG genre. The result is that you will find no swords, healing potions, or generic spells to be found. In fact, every item and character you interact with in this game is made with such care as to be both memorable and reflect the unique style of the game. They truly went out of their way to make the look and feel of the game really reflect the bizarre and imaginative world of its source material and challenge the player's preconceptions at every turn.

      *I recommend playing the game before looking over the plot and villains sections, as they contain spoilers.

The Planes
      The game is based upon the Planescape campaign setting of the 2nd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and represents one of the most unique settings I have seen in a game. It is essentially a fantasy afterlife, where depending on how good, evil, lawful, or chaotic you are, you end up being reborn on one of the respective planes to that alignment. All of the planes rest upon a sort of funnel-shaped spire of infinite height, with the city of Sigil at its center.

      From Sigil, one is able to travel anywhere in the planes, they need only know the key and the door that leads to it. That key can be anything, from a physical key, to a thought, gesture, etc and the doors are just as diverse. Thus Sigil becomes a hub of all the strange and fantastical creatures you can come across in the Planes.

      Sigil is ruled over by the godlike Lady of Pain, who guards over Sigil and prevents anyone from controlling it, while insisting no one dares worship her under the penalty of being "Mazed," or being trapped in a pocket dimensional maze that is almost impossible to escape from.

      All of this only scratches the surface of what you would find in the game, but is intended to paint a picture for you of a world where anything is possible, and everything around you has a delightfully strange, mysterious, and haunting quality about it.

Delving into the Dark of It
      Planescape: Torment's characterization of its world, characters, and items go far beyond what we see in most RPGs today. This is due in part to the changing market demands on RPGs and the gradual evolution of the genre. To truly understand why we don't see more games follow Planescape's example, one must examine the history of the genre as a whole.

RPG Osmosis
      Throughout its history, the RPG genre has been a sub-genre of sorts among existing genres. It is the sum of many influences over the years, including a few mentioned here:

  • War Sim Influences
          The modern roleplaying game was born out of Dungeons and Dragons, and Dungeons and Dragons was born out of tabletop War Sim miniatures games. When looked at from this perspective you can see where a lot of the stats and other complexities of the genre came out of. When sophisticated video games became possible in the 80s you started to see the first RPGs that could do justice to the complex systems of games like D&D.

          Ultima was an early example of this trend*. Featuring stats, levels, spells, etc it was among the first games to try to bring the magic of D&D into our computers. To add to the realism of the experience, many games in the series required players to carefully manage food, drink, and sleep for their characters to be effective. These kinds of systems were put into the game for the sake of greater immersion, to make the player feel like they were a real adventurer. For die-hard fans of those games, it did just that, but many more people found such systems to be annoyances and barriers to having fun.

*Note: I have never played any of the Ultima games, so this information is primarily drawn from other sources.

  • Adventure Game Influences
          As the 90s came rolling in, some of the more obtuse systems used for "realism" of early RPGs were phased out, but the adventuring aspects remained the same. Exploring the world, seeking out hidden treasures and questing remained alive and well. In many ways they resembled a more complicated version of Adventure games of the time, which challenged players to figure things out on their own as they explored the game world.

    So sayeth the wise Alaundo...

          In contrast to today, however, many games did not hold the player's hand when it came to telling them where to go for their next quest. Indeed, even as late as 1999 Baldur's Gate did not even have a quest log, instead burying quests alongside other comments on events that have transpired on your journey. Further, there were no map markers to tell you where to go or even the name of different places on the world map.

          Going back to Planescape, which came out later the same year, even that game had huge amounts of game content that was not easy for a player to stumble upon. Players really had to search every nook and cranny and talk to all the interesting NPCs to really get the most of the experience. And even then the wrong dialog choice or character build could shut you out of some brilliant exposition or backstory.

          This was all done to reward exploration, lateral thinking, and the player's ability to navigate through the game world.
  • Action Game Influences
          Over the last several years, we have seen a surge in the number of action-RPGs, epitomized by a game like Mass Effect. In contrast to older games, they have adopted the modern conventions of easy to identify quest NPCs, detailed navigational hints to reach quests and objectives, simplified spell and ability systems, and a greater focus on skill-based gameplay.

          This is certainly appealing for many gamers, as action games and shooters in particular enjoy the largest player base. Likewise because action games are all about momentum, minimizing frustrations for players makes a lot of sense. Of course, this is where making an action-RPG can sacrifice some of the best qualities of an RPG.

          As mentioned before, one of the best qualities of a game like Planescape is the richness of its game world. The archetecture of buildings, the characters, and even the strange items like talking books or magical tattoos add a lot of character to the game. When you move toward streamlining the experience, it can sometimes take a lot of these elements out. In Mass Effect, for instance, most of the items of interest are weapons and health packs, with a few different choices of armor. While this makes it easier for a player to pick out and find what they need quickly, and keep the pace of the game, it goes against the more slow-paced immersion of RPGs of the past.

          EDIT: A better example is the fact that Mass Effect is a game that shows you directly where to go to complete a quest, in contrast to earlier RPGs. For a player primed to go from point A to point B as quickly as possible as most action games encourage, this can work against a slower-paced exploration and inspection of the game world. Indeed, this even effects the design of locations the player can visit. In Mass Effect one can clearly see there are very few NPCs to interact with, and every town has clearly marked stores to buy items and equipment, in contrast to the more organic cities of Planescape.

    As a side note, what other RPG has a triumphant theme song about how much of a legendary badass you are?*

          Not all is lost, though. Skyrim has done an excellent job of blending the thrill of exploring and discovering secrets with modern interface and usability updates. It's first person perspective combined with strong incentives to explore and wander around the game world goes a long way toward creating the kind of world immersion that older RPGs strove for. It's not just about stepping into the game world, but embracing its culture and feel like you are stepping into a living, breathing world.

Changing the nature of a man

      No RPG since Planescape has been able to capture such a distinct and intricate world as effectively as it had. Every location, character, item, spell, and ability oozed originality and depth on a level no game could match. The challenge of Planescape is not in slaying monsters or solving puzzles, but in wrapping your head around this bizarre world, and its alien rules, culture, and laws of reality.

      It is a game that challenges the player to think deeply, both about its world and their own, and spark the player to look at the world differently than they ever did before. I sincerely hope that RPG developers out there will think long and hard on the lessons of Planescape.

* * *

      *It just occured to me that if this song is written in the Dragon tongue, then the only in-game explanation of who sings it is either:
  1. The ancient oppressed people's that lived under Alduin's rule thousands of years ago
  2. The Greybeards that are supposedly the few people that understand the dragon tongue in its entirety, or
  3. A chorus of dragons who think Alduin is an asshole and are rooting for you to kick his ass.
Personally, I'm cool with any one of those possibilities. ;)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ability Management and the Human Revolution

For the Uninitiated...
      Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a prequel to the critically acclaimed Deus Ex released back in 2000. It follows the story of Adam Jensen, the chief of security for Sarif Industries, a massive corporation on the cutting edge of human augmentation (aka making cyborgs). Following a particularly gruesome brush with death, Adam is revived thanks to cybernetic "augmentation" technology, making him better, faster, stronger... with a few extra toys the 6 Million Dollar Man could only dream of.

      This is all set to a backdrop of intrigue and conspiracy, staples of the series, centering largely on the ethical quandary of whether human augmentation (ie slicing off limbs to replace them with robotic parts, enhancing the brain, etc) should be regulated.

      The game plays like your typical sci-fi first person shooter, with a heavy emphasis on stealth and using your augmentations to get an edge on your foes. It is well executed and blends its RPG elements well into the action.

      But forget all of that, lets talk ability management.

Always pack a few Energy Bars!
      Of all the things to stand out about DX: HR's mechanics, I found its energy system the most unusual.

      In DX:HR, you have a set of energy cells below your health bar, between 1 and 5 depending on upgrades. Abilities will either deplete your energy slowly, or cost an entire cell. If you have a partially depleted cell, it will replenish over time, but if you use up a full cell, it can only be restored by using items.

      At first I found this system odd, and took a little while to get used to, but after thinking about it for a little bit, I realized this is actually a very elegant piece of design.

      This kind of ability management system allowed for a player to manage their energy in interesting ways. Players could choose to use their cloaking or see-through-walls ability in short bursts to use them essentially for free, or blow through all their energy to stealthily clear out a room, but be tapped out afterward. It added a new dimension to the energy bar in a way that went beyond what I expected, adding nuance without being overly complex.

Going Deeper
      Looking at DX:HR's energy system inspired me to look at how other games deal with ability management, and how those design choices impact the player's experience. Regardless of whether they use mana, energy, or some other sort of resource, there are a few paradigms that show up frequently across the many games I've played.

    Traditional Mana Pool A system where a player has a resource that is sufficient to allow players to use abilities fairly frequently, but eventually cuts them off or forces them to invest in mana potions or take a break before being at full capacity. This system rewards a player that uses their abilities occasionally, while punishing a less frugal player. Almost every Final Fantasy (I through X) uses a system like this.

    Precious Resource An ability management system where every ability used diminishes a resource that is not easy to replenish, or takes a long time to replenish. This forces players to consider each ability used carefully, forcing players to be strategic and think ahead and decide whether to use an ability during a particular engagement, or save it for later. The energy system of caster units in Starcraft 2 are great examples of this.

    • Clutch Similar to precious resource, but usually only applies to a few specific abilities granted to the player. Generally these are the once or twice per encounter abilities (such as Biotic Powers in Mass Effect) or once per day powers (such as the racial powers in Skyrim). They are usually very powerful abilities that can turn the tide of battle, but can just as easily be wasted. They rely not only on timing and forethought, but also skill in accessing an encounter and determining if it warrants using such an ability.

    • Burst Where you are able to use abilities in rapid succession, but with a period of downtime afterward. The clearest example of this comes from the energy-based champions of League of Legends, such as Kennen, Akali, or Shen (shown below). Similar to clutch, this kind of system also emphasizes timing, but also allows a player to go all-in with everything without as much downtime as in a Diminishing resource system.

Consequences and Tradeoffs
      Each ability system has its benefits and tradeoffs, which much be taken into consideration when it comes to game balance. It is easiest to compare these systems side-by-side in a game like League of Legends, which features a huge variety of different ability management schemes for each of its 50+ champions.

The Real Cost of Mana
      Champions that use a Traditional Mana Pool are generally the ones with the most powerful abilities right out of the gate. The main drawback for them is that eventually they have to return back to the nexus to replenish their mana more often than other characters. This leads to more downtime, and forces them to invest in mana replenishing items or items that boost their maximum mana, which can hold back their damage potential.

      On the other hand, by late-game they can end up having so much mana that mana use becomes a non-issue, as they can spam their abilities with impunity. While it isn't a huge deal in the session-based play of League of Legends, it can be a problem with single-player games, as by the end of the game a player may well have the ability to use their abilities with impunity. Most RPGs compensate for this by having higher-level spells cost more, however, but that isn't always enough. (see my Knights of the Old Republic example below)

Not Enough Mana!
      Traditional Mana Pool and Precious Resource systems can also fall prey to attrition, where the player doesn't have enough of the resource they need to do anything. Generally this is not a huge deal in League of Legends, but I can recall a time when playing Final Fantasy VII when I neglected to buy enough ethers (which can't be bought in most places) and thus ran out of MP before being able to kill the final boss. In these kind of situations this can lead to tremendous frustration for players, hence why more modern versions of these systems usually have some system of passive regeneration of these resources, or some other means of replenishing these that is always available.

The Sustain Pain Train
      Clutch and Burst-type champions have a significant advantage over Traditional Mana Pool champions, as they are able to remain in their lane longer, and don't have to waste money on replenishing or increasing their mana allowance. This translates into more money for better items, and the ability to remain in one's lane longer to farm gold and experience. To compensate for this advantage, burst-type champion's abilities usually do less damage than their Traditional Mana and Precious Resource counterparts, while Clutch abilities tend to have significantly long cooldowns.

      In other games, such as Mass Effect, this system works excellently in keeping a steady pace to the game and complements the more tactical decision making action games of its kind leverage. It frees players from having to worry about some mana pool running out or when to use a powerful ability so players can enjoy the thrill of the combat, rather than scratching their head while they draw out their battle plans.

Final Thoughts
      Ability management systems have a huge impact on how a player interacts with a game, and can help or hinder the overall feel of a particular game or playable character. When designing such systems, there are a number of things a designer should consider:

Self-Sufficiency vs Incentives
      If we think of ammunition in a First Person Shooter as a type of ability management system (which it is), then we can easily make sense of the old FPS convention of having health and ammo packs scattered around levels. This encouraged exploration by rewarding players for finding hidden rooms or other nooks and crannies in the level. Modern games put less of a reliance on going out of your way to find health and ammo, with most FPS adopting a fully regenerating health system akin to Halo and plenty of ammo dropped by fallen enemies, making nooks and crannies more of an optional venture for those that want a few extra grenades or rockets.

      But having a good system that rewards and encourages exploration for an exploration-based game can be a very important tool to keep games fresh. Skyrim, for example, has a system where a player must use soul stones to recharge their magical items after they have been used up (essentially a less annoying version of having to repair damaged equipment games like Fallout 3 have). This system is done in a way that is not intrusive or much of a hassle, while still making opening a chest only to find yet another common soul gem still be something useful to the player, and a subtle incentive to keep looking.

Avoid Mechanical Obsolescence
      If an ability management system is not balanced properly, then using an ability can go from being tactical to trivial later in the game. While it can add to a player's sense of growing power as their mana allowance grows, it can just as easily make the player feel nigh-invincible and strip any challenge out of the game.

I found Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2 to be some of the most egregious offenders, as by the end of the game the sheer amount of Force Points at your disposal combined with no cooldowns on abilities made it possible to spam your most powerful spells to clear entire rooms of enemies in seconds and turn even the menacing boss into a joke.

I'm looking at you, Force Crush!

      Even if you are thinking in terms of a casual player who isn't looking for a lot of challenge, this still creates an upside-down difficulty curve. Early game the player would have to pay attention to their energy, health, etc and plan their actions accordingly, but by the end the only choice they have to make is whether to summon an ultra-demon to crush enemies slowly or kill them all outright with lightening bolts.

Put a New Twist on an Old Mechanic
      Innovations in ability management has gone a long way toward turning what started as a balancing mechanism into a fun component of the game in its own right. For example, in Skyrim, I have made a powerful mage character and equipped him with a Magicka-draining bow. Thus, whenever I run out of Magicka from casting spells, I can switch to my bow for a few shots until I'm back up to full again, then lay down the firey pain once again. While not the usual means of regaining magicka, it is nonetheless far more enjoyable that chugging a few mana potions and casting more spells.

      Tabletop roleplaying games have perhaps some of the most interesting takes on ability management, which go beyond a mana/energy resource. The Paradox system of Mage: The Ascension, for example, penalizes players for casting spells in front of mortals (on top of the cost to cast the spell normally). If they accumulate too many points in Paradox, some strange effect might occur, from a character's face turning into a black hole, a getting trapped in a repeating time loop, or becoming possessed by an evil spirit. Not only does this make the system more interesting but also reinforces the overall theme of the game.

      In short, ability management systems should be designed and looked at in terms of how they will impact player behavior, reinforce game pacing, and complement the atmosphere of the game's narrative.