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anomalous_underdog was constructed one fine Sunday morning when mother and father was talking about the birds and the bees to themselves, as it were. He likes coffee, 3d graphics, 4chan, video games, writing stories, music, peace, quiet, and the sound of necks breaking. He is currently a drop-out in college, and is currently employed in the game development industry.




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Game development is chiefly exploratory in the initial phase of development, and this is mostly where we come up with ideas to overcome certain problems.

Here's a look at one design proposal I have for our ongoing project, Graywalkers: Purgatory, as an answer to the savescumming issue found in games. Graywalkers is part squad-based tactics game, and part grand strategy-esque game.

____________________________________________________________



Design Proposal For Preventing Savescumming: Hostage Situations


Savescumming is a metagame technique that players do to turn otherwise unfavorable situations into their favor if the outcome is determined by random chance (i.e. dice rolls). By saving right before such "dice rolls" happen, they can keep on reloading until they get their desired roll results.

Savescumming is a thorny issue. You can stiffle the player's power to save, by say, having save checkpoints instead. But this turns into an inconvenience. What if the player suddenly needs to take a long break? You could implement a "Save & Exit". It won't deter the stubborn savescummers though. But what else can you do?

If the game is built well and the player is savescumming they're way through it, I think it's an indication that they are focusing too much on one solution to their problem when there are really several ways to deal with it.

And the problem I think, is how to let the player learn better solutions without the jarring experience of a Game Over screen.

What I'm going to propose is only one way to go about this. Certainly, better tutorials, perhaps an in-game advisor, can also help.



Dark Souls

Dark Souls is brilliant in this. Savescumming is discouraged by having a "Save and Exit" instead of just a save. It of course does not completely remove savescumming, but it makes it inconvenient for players to do so (i.e. have to close and restart the game all over again just to reload).

Also this means each character has only one save slot.

But the major thing that helps prevent savescumming is the fact that the game gives you a chance to correct your fatal mistakes:

1. When you die, your corpse (or rather, your soul) is dropped at your point of death.
2. All your unspent EXP points (and money) are left in that corpse.
3. You need to get back to that corpse to get back all those EXP (and money).
4. If you die while attempting to get back to your corpse, then those EXP (and money) are gone forever. Instead, your corpse (i.e. soul) is now in that more recent place you died. The EXP points (& money) you gained while trying to get to your old corpse is now the ones left in that new corpse.

In this way, the player is given a second chance when he dies. If he screws up a second time, well, he has only himself to blame.

It also jives with the narrative: in this game, you are an undead soul who keeps coming back.

Whenever this happens to me, I always refer to it as "my EXP points are held hostage", and that "I need to rescue them".

The idea of not giving an immediate Game Over screen on death has also been done before in other games.

In the FPS, Prey, when the player dies he is put in a mini-game where he is in some sort of spirit world, needing to shoot at corporeal monsters to collect enough health back to magically revive himself.

World of Warcraft has something similar, but their idea is more relaxed; there's always the easy way out of death where you don't lose anything, other than the time to get to your corpse.



Applying this to Graywalkers

So with that about hostages, I have an idea for Graywalkers about hostage situations on your own characters.

Short explanation for those unfamiliar with the game: Graywalkers is a post-apoc strategy RPG. But as far as the combat part is concerned, it's turn-based tactics, similar to XCOM, Final Fantasy Tactics, Jagged Alliance, or the old Fallout games. The player can send out multiple squads into the real-time world map.

I'll explain by example:

1. You encounter some bandits.
2. You fight but your squad dies or you chose to surrender with the remaining party members unharmed (or rather, not harmed further).
3. It's not game over yet. You are brought back to the world map and a dialogue opens.
4. The bandits open a negotiation:
"Hoo whee! You there boys? We got your blokes strapped up here. And hey now look, we're all seeveelized folks, so if you give us 100 pieces of canned goods we'll give them back to you the same way we found 'em. But uhh... better hurry up. 2 of them don't look like they got much time left."

5. This is essentially a hostage situation. In fact, this is a new quest entry for you. You need to send a new squad to rescue them.
6. Of note here is that they mentioned what they want (100 pieces of canned goods), and that 2 of the hostages are in critical condition. The rest of the hostages may be unconscious, or weak. They are all tied up or trapped in a prison of some sort.
7. If you have some of their people held as prisoners of war, they may ask for those as payment instead (i.e. prisoner exchange).
8. This negotiation can be in conventional means (a diplomat representing them is sent to your nearest remaining squad), or via a video phone if they are hi-tech.
9. You can still choose to haggle what item/s to give them (and how many) in exchange for your fallen units. I.e. "How about 3 first-aid kits instead?"
10. If you choose to refuse or accept the deal, or ask for more time, that's not the end of it.
11. If you accepted, they will give you a location to go to, and you still need to send a new squad there to give the goods (assuming you're not lying) and get your people.
12. If you refuse or openly say you can't give what they want, you can still get them by force, but they won't give a location. You can start your search from the last place of battle.
13. But you have to hurry because they don't have unlimited patience, and the 2 of your characters in critical condition can die if you don't act soon enough.
14. If your bandits are actually from a well-to-do faction (or serving under them), the negotiations may be allowed to take longer, and the hostages will be given minimal food and medical support.



During The Hostage Pickup

Once your rescuers are on the location, several things can happen. This can be in any order or in any combination that makes sense:

Take note that this table is relevant for hostage-takers of any sort, not just regular bandits.



Your Rescuing Squad

1. Can be truthful to the deal and do as promised.

Take note that you need to make sure that your rescuing squad brings along the required items for trade.

For factions that you want to get on their good side, this is a good option.


2. Can renegotiate the price at the last moment.


3. Can use intimidation to make the hostage-takers flee.

It can fail though, and the hostage-takers can get so scared they simply kill the hostages at gunpoint.


4. Can have a secondary team infiltrate and rescue the hostages in secret while your other team is buying time by talking with the hostage takers face-to-face.

It can fail catastrophically though, if your secondary team is killed, overwhelmed, or captured.


5. Can lie and just open fire on the hostage takers by surprise in the middle of talks.

Take note that you can make it seem like only 1 or 2 people are the rescuers, while the rest of your squad are waiting in ambush.

You may even find it that the hostage-takers have ambushers of their own, and your ambushers can subdue them quietly.



Hostage Takers

1. May be truthful to their deal and do as promised.


2. May up their price at the last moment just to spite you or for whatever reason.


3. May actually just ambush your rescuers. They could openly kill the hostages in front of you to spite you.

It could also be that they are lying and the hostages are not there in the first place (e.g. there is an enclosed cage but it is empty).


4. Can fool you by giving you hostages that are not really your characters. Of course for this to work, the hostage-takers will put sacks over the heads of the "hostages".

Could also be something similar to the "hostage exchange" that Mel Gibson pulled off in The Patriot.


5. Can fool you by having only one out of the many hostages be present on the site. Their new demand will be that release of the other hostages require additional payments and will be picked up from other places.



Hostages

1. Can try to break free on their own (you, as the player, are still controlling these hostage characters). You can only control hostages that are not unconscious.

They won't have any items on them. In combat, they can hand-to-hand and magic only, in addition to any non-combat skill checks they can perform that don't require equipment (e.g. bashing cages open perhaps).

You can make them escape quietly, or use them to kill the hostage-takers also. Of course, they can loot any subdued enemies for temporary weapons and armor.

In fact, you may deal with the situation like this and not really have any rescuing squad at all (either lie that you agree with the hostage exchange or refuse their deal).





Take note that this situation can be further complicated by having the hostage-takers specify the middle of a populated town as the place for the exchange to take place. So you have to worry about non-combatants in your line of fire and collateral damage.



Battle Plan

If the deal is off and you are engaged in battle with the hostage-takers, there are several things you can do:

1. Kill/subdue all the hostage-takers. The simplest and straightforward. An offensive plan.
2. Carry the hostages away and flee the scene without killing all the hostage-takers. A defensive plan.
3. Attempt to break free the hostages to either evacuate them or let them help in battle. You can attempt to resuscitate (conventional means) or revive (magical means) any of your hostaged comrades on the spot if you wish. The reason is so that they can help in battle, if things are looking desperate. They won't have any items on them (i.e. in combat, they can hand-to-hand and magic only, in addition to any skill checks they can perform that don't require equipment).



Breaking Free

For hostages to break free, it will be skill checks. What type of skill check depends on the way the hostages are trapped.

Examples:

If they are in a cage, your hostaged characters can try lockpicking (lockpicking skill), or those strong enough can simply break it open (strength).

If tied up, they can try to wriggle free (agility), or simply break the rope bindings (strength).



On-purpose

You can, in fact, let all this happen on-purpose to let your hostaged characters infiltrate the enemy's base (assuming hostages are brought there, perhaps a prison of some sort). Why you want to do is that is up to you. Perhaps you need to collect information on how well defended the enemy's base is from the inside, or you need to recruit a prisoner in your team and the only way is to get into the prison, etc.



In Closing

The whole point here is not to punish the player for savescumming, but to encourage him not to in the first place.

We give the player a chance to correct his mistakes naturally within the game in ways that fit the narrative, and in fact, opens up the game to more opportunities for the player.

This is really not about completely removing the player's ability to savescum, but give him less reasons to do so.

____________________________________________________________


Crossposted from my developer blog. Graywalkers: Purgatory is the PC game we are working on at the moment. You can check out our Steam Greenlight page here, and our currently ongoing Kickstarter here.








I told you people. I told you! Now it's happening.

[s]Developers[/s] marketing people are touting their game's innovative class system! Players are up in arms about removing the traditional trinity (i.e. tank/DPS/support)! Classless systems! Ogre wizards wearing plate and shooting bows!

"Woah there, sperglord", you say. "What are you yammering about?"

I'll tell you what. I'll be straight to the point: Developers are shifting away from the traditional skill system and putting in a flexible one that I call, for a lack of better term, "equipped skills".

Let me explain further. When I say traditional system, it's when players are given skill points upon leveling-up to let them purchase which new skills he wants for his character.

(When I say skills, this is a pretty broad term, but if you play RPGs, you'll know what I mean. Some systems call them perks (i.e. Fallout) , feats (i.e. D&D), abilities, et al. They're basically some sort of intangible item that unlocks some attack you can now use, or modifies the rules of the game for your character.)

Like I said before, the problem with such a system is that purchasing skills are a life-altering event for the character, that usually can't be reverted. So players need proper deliberation before choosing what skills to purchase.

And how would players know beforehand which skills are worth purchasing? Generally, they can't. They need to devote time, doing trial-and-error, experimenting with every character build they think is worth pursuing.

(Either that, or they have to do some researching and asking around. Not necessarily a fun process, if you just really want to play the damn game already.)

When they figure out what they want, only then, finally, they can proceed to play the game in earnest.

And they need lots of time. Generally, it's not very easy to quickly start again with a blank slate for your character, ready for another round of experimentation.

And some people say, the labor you do with experimenting is part of the fun. For some people, they see it as a problem.

This is why respec became a hot issue one time. Devs wanted to introduce respec to help lessen the time needed to do character build experiments.

But that was only the band-aid solution to an old system. What developers next considered, is creating a new system that addresses the (what they consider to be a) problem from the start.

Basically, they want a way to streamline that experimentation process. To make it easier for players to rapidly create character builds.

And this new trend of a more flexible skill system, which I refer to as "equipped skills" is what people came up with, that resounded a lot in the developer community (whether intentionally or not). How come? So many new games are doing it now.

But let me explain first how this other system works.

Here are the quick points:

1. Out of a wide selection of available skills, you can "equip" only a few at a time (e.g. say, 8 skill slots). Those equipped are the only ones that are in effect, and usable in combat.

2. The game then, is centered around choosing a combination of skills that complement each other well, given the restrictions and circumstances.

3. This is akin to playing a tradeable card game: out of all the available cards of that game, you choose the ones you want for your deck.


This is in contrast with games that have more traditional skill systems, like Dragon Age

In games like that, skills that you purchase are always available and usable. Equipping skills in a hotbar, in those games, is only for convenience, not a requirement.

The holy grail that devs want here is how Magic: The Gathering does it. That game has so much possibilities and permutations that players occasionally find combo cards, even when such cards were not originally meant to complement each other.

As with any fairly workable idea, the idea itself won't necessarily spell doom or success for the game, but how the devs do their specific implementation of it.

And, indeed, each game has their own implementation of the idea.

Now here come the examples:



Call of Duty BLOPS 2: pick-10 system, create-a-class system

http://www.ign.com/wikis/call-of-duty-black-ops-2/Create_A_Class

The Create A Class system has been drastically improved from the original Call of Duty Series. This time, each Perk, Weapon, Weapon Attachment, piece of Equipment, and more will cost one point in the new Pick 10 System. In this way, every player will create a class in their own way, as long as their points don't add up over ten when going into a match. ... This allows players to switch up their play style and make each and every game unique.


http://www.gameranx.com/updates/id/8683/article/black-ops-2-wildcard-system-guide-described-in-detail/

http://www.nowgamer.com/features/1537717/how_the_black_ops_2_pick_10_create_a_class_system_works.html


So the choices you need to make become about how to tailor your preferences within these ten slots. You may decide not to equip a grenade at all, in favour of an additional attachment for your primary weapon. Or, alternatively, you might not even want a primary weapon. The choice is yours.







The Secret World: skill system

http://www.ea.com/news/secret-world-reveals-deck-based-skill-system

One of The Secret World's most unique selling points has been its lack of a traditional class system. Unlike most RPGs, which assign players to damage, tank, and healer roles, FunCom’s MMO has opened up its bank of skills to allow complete player customization.

Each character in The Secret World is given access to 14 ability slots – seven active and seven passive – that shape your role and determine your strengths. This is called your “deck,” and you can build it any way you like. Of course, with over 500 abilities to choose from, making those decisions can get a little overwhelming. That’s where the deck template system comes in.

Each deck template employs 14 abilities or "cards" to create a unique type of character, granting the player exclusive power and a deck-specific outfit.




http://gaming.stackexchange.com/questions/75871/just-how-experimentation-friendly-is-the-skill-system-in-the-secret-world


Character growth in The Secret World has been pitched as 'Horizontal, not Vertical'. ... After a point, character growth stops being about becoming more powerful, and instead becomes about having more choices. And the best part is that that point is wherever you want it to be. If you're not having fun with a given weapon anymore, you can change it. Anytime you want. You might need to duck back to some easier content for a little while, but that isn't a big deal anyway.







Diablo 3: skill system

http://www.diablowiki.net/Diablo_3_Basics

Characters can use up to six skills at once, and may cycle between them with only minimal cooldowns. Characters can have up to 3 passive skills active...



http://www.diablowiki.net/Skill_tree

Diablo 3 had skill trees during most of the game's development, but the entire skill interface was reworked numerous times during development, and ultimately the skill trees were removed and replaced with a sort of skill menu.

Jay Wilson: ...We've decided to remove the tree-type architecture and we are moving into a purely skill-based system. This new system is still in the development stages and if it does not work, we still have plenty of options to fall back on. Right now, we're just trying different things and getting a feel for the few ideas in regards to the skill system that we have going on right now. It differs from the World of Warcraft/Diablo II type hierarchical styles and is more of a skill pool/path than a tree per se.


Additionally, see David Sirlin's article which also describes the system.





Guild Wars 2: Skill System

http://gw2101.gtm.guildwars2.com/en/the-game/combat/part-one/

Like a collectible card game, we provide the player with a wide variety of choices and allow them to pick and choose skills to create a build that best suits their particular play style.






Now you might think this is all new, but look at this:

Final Fantasy Tactics: Job System

In FFT, each character equips certain skills, categorized as Command Abilities (actions that the character can perform: e.g. attack, steal, perform magic), Reaction Abilities (performed automatically when you are attacked), Support Abilities (passive bonus), and Movement Abilities (skills that modify movement e.g. jump higher, move farther, etc.).

http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Job_System

...as the player changes between the jobs, skills will be able to be transported over to the next... This addition of mixing skills (along with the jobs themselves) and the statistics gained from them, further developed the Job System...



http://kotaku.com/5974665/man-final-fantasy-tactics-sure-had-a-steep-learning-curve

...so those can all be mixed and matched.. ..once a character learns an ability, he can equip it at any time.. so once Kirklton has jp boost, he can put that in no matter what class he is..


You could say FFT does it differently, but the basic idea is the same. Perhaps you could say FFT was ahead of its time, eh?

So the idea isn't really new, but that it's becoming a trend, I think is new.




EverQuest Next

We know little from what was recently presented by the developers, but I can easily see this is another take on the "equipped skills" idea.

http://news.mmosite.com/content/2013-08-09/ten_things_you_need_to_know_about_everquest_next_classes.shtml

Character abilities come in four types: movement, offensive, defensive and utility. Multi-classing comes into play with the character abilities--they’re the ones you can switch out to change up your build for the specific class. You might, for instance, make a warrior who can also do magical damage and has great defense against casters.



http://chaotikgaming.com/everquest-next-class-system/

Unlocking a new class unlocks new skills to choose from within those 4 character skill slots. This is where your skill customization comes into play. A warrior might unlock a shadow knight class and then be able to choose shadow knight class abilities to replace his warrior class abilities.

The perfect example used on the class panel was building a Warrior into a Caster Killer. He swapped leap for a type of teleport. He swapped out his offensive move for a Mana Burn. His Defensive skill was swapped to a Spell Reflect and his utility spell swapped for something equally powerful vs. casters.



http://www.geek.com/games/why-im-skeptical-about-everquest-next-1564398/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToQwqIY3nwc&t=83





And so on.. I'm sure you can cite a few more examples.

Note how they describe it. Mixing and matching. Swapping out. Using slots. Easy customization. Even the developers go so far as to describe it as a collectible card system, a deck.

I don't find it surprising. That's really what's at the core of an "equipped skills" system.

As you can tell, each game has their own take on the idea. Some games add more layers of complexity (e.g. skills that are dependent on weapon equipped, Diablo 3's rune system, etc.) to make things more interesting.




Custom classes

They also like to describe it as something that easily suits the player's play style. Basically, you can think of respec being a built-in feature in this type of system. And being able to easily accomodate different play styles quickly, is one of its strong points.

This can undermine the whole point of having classes.

On one end we have BLOPS 2, which uses it for their Create-A-Class system. Or Secret World, where there are, indeed, no classes to speak of.

Instead the player creates his own custom class. The idea is the player cherry-picks which skills he want to use from the ones provided by each skill group. Classes, when looked at this regard, are simply categories to group related skills together (e.g. fighter skills, thief skills, sorcerer skills, etc.). Think of them as the colors in Magic The Gathering.

The player then, can choose to specialize in one group only (e.g. choose only fighter skills for his build), be a jack of all trades but master of none, or sit somewhere between the two extremes (e.g. do the equivalent of a dual-class).

On the other hand, some implementations decide to keep things tight and still have classes (i.e. Diablo 3).

So an "equipped skills" system doesn't necessarily need to turn the game into a classless system, (as some people call it) but you can also design it that way.




We still like to buy stuff though

If you go through some of them, you'll notice in some games, the skills are unlocked automatically for you at some point (leveling-up in Diablo 3). But some games still require you to purchase the skill to make it available for equipping.

I guess devs can't help but still add that. The idea of earning for your skills, slowly growing your collection, like some sort of hobby collector, is a good motivator for players, understandably.

We should note though, that there's no need to disallow the player from collecting every skill in the whole game, since we already have the restriction of being able to equip/use only a few at a time. I.e. Go ahead, unlock everything! You can equip only 8 at a time anyway.

So it's common that these systems allow players to eventually unlock/purchase every skill. That's in contrast to a traditional level-up system, where you're not allowed to unlock every skill.

Another take on it can be that you also purchase upgrades on each skill, so it's not like we need to remove the idea of purchasing altogether.




Easing up new players to the system

So, it's understandable that developers would be worried that some players may find this system too complicated. How would they know which skills to pick for their "deck"?

Each game has something up their sleeve for this.

BLOPS 2, with it being a multiplayer affair, addressed this by providing pre-made classes. They are essentially preset builds whose selection of skills are chosen for you. This is so that you can start playing immediately and get a feel for each skill's usefulness and how they work well with each other. Think of them like preset decks in Magic: The Gathering.

The Secret World does something similar with their decks, although I do believe you still need to unlock those skills dictated by the deck templates. Essentially, they are more of a guide, than a preset.

Diablo 3 had to do it with a lot of hand-holding, in what combinations the player could do (e.g. Wizard can have only one signature spell). As they explained, this was done to prevent players from mistakenly making poor character builds that would frustrate them.

Understandably, the hardcore players who love to experiment found this limiting. The not so hardcore audience did not have any problems with it. So it was wise to allow the player to turn those restrictions on or off (i.e. Elective Mode). The only problem it seemed, was that it was not apparent that you could turn it off in the first place.

Most others, you had to purchase/unlock skills first before they can be equipped, as mentioned above. Pragmatically speaking, this is done so that you won't be overwhelmed with too many options at the start; you're forced to have only a few skills at the beginning and slowly unlock new ones.

This gives you time to slowly learn and get comfortable with each new unlocked skill, before you move on to the next. At the end, once you've tested all of them, you could then decide to stick with the ones you're happy with.

EQ Next, from what I can understand, took some cues from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance: it seems which weapon you equip determines your first four skills (weapon skills), and the last four (character skills) are gained by purchasing.

This means presumably you don't have to worry about what combination of weapon skills to get; you can't mix and match weapon skills since they come as a preset in the weapon. But you'll still have some wiggle room for experimentation with the character skills, and which weapon to get in the first place.

Each developer has a different variation to address this issue. Certainly there's room for creativity here.





Banned cards

But wait!, you say. Isn't Magic: The Gathering infamous for having cards so powerful, they had to ban them?

What causes banned cards anyway? What happens is developers initially had no idea that the cards they made, when used with certain others, were too powerful (in that the cards bordered on cheating).

That is indeed a danger with a mix-and-match system. You obviously want many cards in your game. But you can't possibly anticipate every card combination that might break the game. At least, probably not enough for your game's deadline.

(Here's a good article showing one point of view of what makes a card too powerful.)

But look at it this way. For all its faults, Magic still manages to have a player base in this day and age. Whatever Wizards of the Coast is doing, they're doing well enough.

It's certainly not a perfect system, but it can still work and arguably be successful for a product.


Ultimately, just because you choose to employ an "equipped skills" system for your game, that doesn't automatically make it better over a traditional skill system.

You'd have to tweak and fine-tune it, as you should, regardless of what style of system you use.






Resistance to change is expected of course. Understandably, a lot of players are averse to the general idea of equipped skills (instant respecs take the fun away!, there's no excitement in leveling-up anymore! etc.), but its not like the idea of a traditional skill system is perfect either.
 
On the other hand, it's not necessarily bad to be wary of it.

In the end, (good) devs love to experiment, creating new systems all the time, that's what makes them developers.

My guess: It'll take a few iterations of games employing this system to finally come up with a "best practice" document on designing such a thing.

Side note: I'm using the same idea for my game. Hopefully it'll work out!

So, how do you think this trend will pan out?








This is a good idea. The podcast mentions this great hate for the classic boss level wherein the boss is waiting at the end of the level within a closed-space arena. While I really have no intense hate for it, I also like his suggestion: bosses that roam the level.

A lot of games already do this:

* God of War: where sometimes the boss is the level
* Enslaved: where this mechanical gigantic dog chases you, though the events are largely scripted: defeating the boss is done in multiple parts, normal gameplay is interspersed with encounters of the boss, where it finishes with either you or the boss retreating, until you encounter it again, and in the final part the boss is meant to die
* Dead Space and Resident Evil: where an invincible boss chases you around the level and the only way to kill it is to lure and trap it in a special way
* Clock Tower: where a serial killer hides in various places in the mansion to ambush you. unfortunately, the game has you needing to investigate those various places

Its true that sometimes the arena-type boss level gets shoehorned forcefully into the narrative (why is the boss patiently waiting for you at the end of the level?). And sometimes when you see those health stations just before a big door, its a relief for the player, but it doesn't make sense in the narrative.

So this is one idea that I approve of.

You guys know of any other games that do this?








Continuing on that podcast, they mention this:

"Games should never include small scuttling enemies that walk across the floor or hover above your head and are really hard to hit and are annoying."

First, I have no problem with small enemies. Enemy variation is good, but I believe there is a wrong way to design small enemies. The podcast notes an enemy in Singularity with an enemy that can kill you with one hit. I"m afraid I haven't played that game.

But I do believe enemy attacks should always have a tell-tale sign. The more grievous the attack, the more evident the hint should be. This is regardless with the size issue, because enemy size is not the issue here.

About attacks that kill you in one hit, as long as the player can anticipate it and have a chance to prevent it, then I think its fine. Dark Souls have some characters that can kill you in one hit, but such attacks are slow in charging up.

In contrast, one mission in Valkyria Chronicles end up with a regular enemy anti-tank unit killing my full-health tank hero unit in one hit. No matter how I looked at it, I think that was really pointless.

So I believe there is a right way, and there is a wrong way of doing one-hit kills.

Each enemy has its own "gimmick", a behavior that circumvents the player's usual method of attack, forcing him to rethink his strategies[1]. They really would have an easy but unusual way to kill them, and the failure is the game not hinting or encouraging the player how to find that out.

So I do hope Singularity's small enemy was designed that it has a weakness.

Hints should be implicit and part of the story. For example, the minotaur boss in God of War starts with a short cutscene of soldiers trying to fight the minotaur and failing horribly. That is enough hint for the player to get that this guy is not to be messed around with.

The podcast mentions the small parasitic enemies in Dead Space. I really had no problem with those enemies because I discovered early on that the assault rifle is an effective weapon to dispatch them. The assault rifle shoots low damaging bullets, but the magazine size is high. One shot is enough to kill one parasite (or more if they are clumped together).

So the game becomes a matter of having "the right tool for the right job". It was odd though, that his experience with this enemy was vastly different from mine. Perhaps he never bothered using the assault rifle.

The podcast then mentions about the big fat necromorph that spawns the little enemies, in that it was unfair, doesn't add any value to the game, and that there was no tactic to fighting them.

I would say instead the surprise there is it punishes greedy players who keep on getting loot. And really, once you've found out about the nasty trick, you would obviously make it a point to avoid falling for it again. You need to make sure to shoot its stocky limbs and not its belly. And do not stomp on its corpse.

Again, this is the idea of each enemy having its own variation.

Did they perhaps feel cheated that they found a type of enemy that they couldn't get loot from?








I recently got a smartphone so I can listen to podcasts on the go. One of the podcasts I listened to mentioned this:

"Developers shouldn't shoehorn RPG elements into games that don't need them."

I think this is terribly narrow-minded. But let's hear more of his argument:

"Enslaved has a level-up system to allow your character to improve, but I believe the player has the risk to forget this as he has to remember to go to a level-up menu that's not focused on during a normal play session."

"All of Monkey's upgrades complement each other. There's very little reason not to want them all, so why should the player have to choose those upgrades themselves? Why not have them given automatically at a set point, or have his skills improve the more they are used?"

"In contrast, Zelda, has you exploring and one of the items you will eventually find is parts for a big heart upgrade. Once you collect enough, your max health improves. In this way, 'leveling up' is more convenient as you will inevitably find big heart containers in the course of the game."

(To be fair, Enslaved actually gives a message notification when the player has enough red orbs to be able to purchase an upgrade.)

Ok, saying "RPG elements" is pretty broad, but now we're getting somewhere. I think his main gripe is games that added leveling-up as a cheap way to add depth.

Leveling-up is having your character improve over time. Having him start out weak and through the course of the game, give him gradual improvements to allow him to face the proportionately increasing difficulty and complexity of the game.

Now, at its basic description that I've mentioned, that makes sense. You wouldn't want the player character to start out with high-level abilities, or rather, too many abilities, from the get-go, that would have overwhelmed the player with too many things he need to get hang of immediately (i.e. Bayonetta).

In traditional RPG games, those level-up improvements are largely formulaic. Allocating more points in strength simply adjusts the result of the formula for damage.

Now this becomes a question of "Why should developers be adding formulaic RPG elements to twitch games?".

Why indeed? Remember Hellgate London? A part-rpg part-shooter where the deciding factor whether your gun hit an enemy is by your character's stats and dice rolls, even though you've clearly aimed your crosshair cleanly at the enemy? And oh gee, I wonder how Hellgate London was received by gamers?

Shooters are established as games of reflexes and hand-eye coordination. Should we challenge that notion? What would be the point of creating a first-person shooter that doesn't rely on the player's reflexes?

But enough of that. Surely we can adapt the concept of leveling-up to games that don't require dice rolls.


Character Improvement

Let's take leveling-up again at its basic concept: character improvement.

Mario improves over time, as he gains the Tanuki suit and the cape that gives him new abilities. Link gets the boomerang, the bombs, and they change how Link can dispatch enemies. Soma Cruz gets new powers by absorbing enemies. Racing games allow you to buy better cars or better car parts. First-person shooters let you obtain more powerful weapons over time.

These new improvements drastically change the flow of the game (at least, a good game should).

The difference with these against leveling-up is that experimenting with these improvements I mentioned is so easy. You get Mario's Tanuki suit or Link's boomerang as obtained items, with no cost (except for the hardships entailed), ready to be tested, as opposed to getting them by having to spend hard-earned skill points to purchase skills from a dull list, where new players will find it hard to visualize the worth of each skill. Which skill should he purchase? You really can't expect a newcomer to be able to choose confidently.

Fluff-filled descriptions for each skill doesn't help in making an informed decision. It would take a wiki where each player contributes their insight into the skills' appropriate use to help a player choose ("Skill X is really nice, but oh, its really only useful when you fight enemy A, otherwise forget about it. And when you fight an enemy using skill X, you can counter it using skill Y or skill Z depending on your class..."). And that will be a lot of reading. For a new player who just wants to play the damn game, that can be exasperating.

And if you needed to purchase improvements in non-RPGs, as with the racing game example, the racing game has leeway for mistakes: you can sell off car parts the moment you don't need them anymore, but skills you've purchased for your RPG character stay there indefinitely and if it turns out you didn't want that, then too bad.

This is why respec is such a heated debate in gamer communities. And I'm sure developers are pondering hard on the subject as well.

So then it becomes natural for RPG gamers to go through trial-and-error experiments called min-maxing. RPG games accommodate for players who have the mindset of "Oh I'll grind for hours and max out the strength and see how effective my character becomes, if it sucks then I'll just discard this character". This won't necessarily work for non-RPGs.

So the problem is that the RPG's level-up way of giving character improvement is normally a permanently life-changing process for the character, and as such, it should be decided on only after lengthy deliberation, and only after having gained a good grasp on the game's system. And that, may or may not be appropriate for a non-RPG game, where that kind of player mindset is not prevalent.


Accommodating Play Styles

Leveling-up also consists of letting the player choose how he wants the character to improve. He may opt for stealth skills, attack skills, et al. Basically, allowing the player to play using different play styles. This is at the heart of Western RPGs where the game should allow you to roleplay however you want.

I believe the characteristic of accommodating different play styles is already adapted in non-RPG games long before the "let's put RPG elements everywhere" idea came in. Even though the multiple play styles in non-RPGs is not quite as varied.

In Gradius, you can choose to be faster, have missiles, have a little guy who shoots with you, or have a shield, etc. You can customize cars in some racing games. Real-time strategy games have you purchasing various upgrades and can be played with different strategies in mind.

The golden grail here is to be able to establish emergent behaviour while using only the least amount of desired building blocks.


Compulsory Variation

Take note that accommodating play styles is different from having a game that variates its requirements for winning. Each boss battle in Zelda games require your use of a new weapon's unique ability. It makes for good variation, but it doesn't necessarily accommodate different play styles ("I want to be stealthy but this game isn't letting me!").

That isn't to say its mutually exclusive. You could surely accommodate to different play styles and still have variating requirements for winning.


Conclusion

So I believe allowing the player to unlock and experiment with better versions of the things he can do, and optionally allowing him different ways to achieve his goals is as good as having put RPG elements in your game, without needing to shove a stat system to it.

So how about these as few suggestions to get your brainstorms started:

1. Tutor: A game where the player is gently introduced to the usefulness of each skill he gets, by "tutorial missions" in the vein of Starcraft 1, where each mission requires his use of that skill to succeed. Afterwards, the next non-tutorial missions given can be finished using any of the skills he currently has. He'll have more confidence in choosing which skill to level-up now since he has past experience with them. You could make this more complex by showing him only the missions that he seems to gravitate to (he likes stealth? give him more stealth-skill tutorial missions!)

2. Refund: An option to re-lock an unlocked upgrade, where you get back half of the points spent on that upgrade. Optionally, the option to refund is only allowed for a limited time after purchasing it.

3. Try-before-you-buy: Allow the player to try out a skill/weapon first in mock combat before he finally commits to purchasing it. Champions Online does this.







anomalous underdog
12:11 PM on 02.18.2011



I started this game out as a learning experience in using Unity, then it was pushed aside as a side project. When I got hired, my employer looked at it and saw it as a viable commercial product. I agreed to give it to the company, and now its an iPhone game.

A really really simple game, its just a simple top-view game where you have a gun and zombies swarm you on all directions. My inspiration for this game was Crimsonland, and its similar to games like Dead Nation, or Nation Red, but mine is vastly simpler.






I'm busy adding updates like an iPad HD version, plus OpenFeint integration having online leaderboards and achievements.

So, I wonder, is it ok with Destructoid if I add a Destructoid mascot character in the game?