Monday, June 30, 2008

Layer Cake: Shadowrun, Introduction

In any game, there is a kind of primary play loop. For example, in an RPG, the primary play loop is probably the combat. 99% of the parts of the game you can actually influence (equipment, treasure hunting, level-up specifics) is geared towards fighting. The other 1% is generally split between very simple story branching and making the girls wear bikinis.

These "high level" play loops nest the main play loop inside them. They make a level worth gaining because it has an effect on how well you fight. They make one sword better than another. They give the main play loop a kind of "bumpiness" that makes it more interesting in the long run.

Similarly, there are some loops that aren't player-related. The designers force you to, by fiat, stomp from plains to forest to beach to volcano in a specific order. Each place has new kinds of enemies - a new topology for the main play loop. This "designer fiat" method of changing things up is generally more severe than the ones that the player controls. The player's progress in his play loops can usually be easily controlled and predicted. He'll probably be level 8-12 here, he'll have someone that can do 100-150 damage, and he'll have the "AH! BIG SNAKE!" spell by then.

What I'm saying here is this...

1. There is a main play loop, usually combat. This is the "anchor" for the rest of the game: almost everything related to gameplay is eventually expressed on the main play loop.

2. To keep the main play loop interesting, it is important to vary the specifics - new enemies, new player abilities, new arrangements, new numbers.

3. There are three normal methods of varying the specifics. Carryover/attrition: making how much you win by important. Customization: giving you various options as to how to win (and making you stick to them at least a bit). And, lastly, variation: flat out changing things up however you see fit.

As you can see, the last option is the most extreme. In a game with no random encounters, that variation is basically The Game. Coming around a corner and finding four troopers standing near an exploding barrel... the next room has a giant demon dog chained to a big rock... a good designer will not only make the conflicts unique, but also control the pacing to keep the player interested.

And, of course, have it make sense. Sometimes.


I think that's shit.


In Shadowrun, at least in the way we used to play it, a big part of the game was that last loop. When your team planned a run, it wasn't like we see in computer games. There's no "Snake, now you need to run down to the reactor and flip it off." Instead, there's a group of 3-5 geeks analyzing everything they know and putting together a plan (and contingencies) on their own. We even scrapped a few runs because we couldn't get floor plans.

Obviously, we didn't just execute the plan. Nothing ever went quite as intended: the GM would frequently throw interesting monkey wrenches into our schemes, and we never had perfect data anyhow. Everything was at the allowance of the GM, since there is no rule saying he can't just dump and elder dragon on your head whenever he feels like it. But the point was that the GM, although he was allowed to do those things, didn't. Instead, he would use the plans, abuse the plans, make things really interesting while still giving the players a lot of agency.

In the course of a run, there would be combat, magic, hacking... all of the main play loops for the various characters. But instead of leaving the variability entirely up to the GM, it was iterative. The GM would give us a schema, we would produce a plan, the GM would resist with just the right amount of force, and then we would enter the main play loop with a topology that we built.

If we launched a diversion, there would be fewer guards. If we got someone on the inside helping us out, we'd have a big hacking advantage. If we dropped motion-sensing mines behind us, the GM would have to take that into account, make it do something interesting.


"That's not really possible in a computer game!"

Well, let's back up a minute.

It's possible in a tabletop game. Even in something as mass-market as D&D, this is common. It includes both tactical jockeying ("we jump in the river!") to social engineering ("I'm gonna seduce the 4000-year old witch queen!")

It's not usually quite as... detailed as Shadowrun's plans. But it's a lot of fun: I find that any game is better if you reward the players for thinking outside the dice.

Now, in computer games, tactical jockeying is already a fairly common thing. In an FPS, you'll frequently grenade choke points or leap off the roof to evade an incoming hovercraft. These are scripted in one-player games, but in competitive games, it's usually emergent. That is, there's nobody putting a missile launcher in front of you as a premonition that you'll be facing a tank around the corner.

Still, this low-level tactical jockeying is... well, I guess it's a good first step? It's not enough for me.

I really want to play a game where you play a badass... and you don't control him in combat. You play a Jedi, but you don't click to swing his light saber left, click to swing his light saber right. Ha, like you could ever do him justice! Let him get on with the saber-swinging!

You control the rest.

You control where he goes - on the battlefield, in the city, with the spaceship. You control who he meets, who he shares secrets with, who he trusts, who he doesn't...

You don't control "the plot". Any way you run it, there's the most recent Darth Vader clone at the end, staring across a glowing red spike and breathing menacingly.

You would control - partially - the progression.

Now, the difficulty here is pretty clear. Either you've got a hell of a lot of scripting to do, or you have to invent some kind of drama engine or something!

Well, actually, both, but let's take it slowly.

We're not looking for a drama engine. We're looking for a way to give the player more control over variations in the main play loop. In the case of the Jedi, there are several main play loops - sabering, politicking, mystical crap, adventure, and spacecraft stuff. This is similar to the way that many FPS games these days give you a sneak option, a hack option, and a kill-everything option.

Except, remember, we're not controlling our Jedi! Our main play loops are virtual. They don't actually exist. Our Jedi sabers without us, politicks without us, drives his space bus around without us. The computer doesn't even need to actually, physically simulate these things, since there's no player to enter moment-to-moment commands: it just has to show them.

Our actual main play loop is controlling his play loops. Our main play loop is trying to finesse him toward or away from sabering, politicking, adventuring... and, of course, changing his odds within whichever loop he finally has to use now. It never "gets out of our control", exactly: even when he's sabering, we're still adding our commentary as to the sorts of things he might, tactically, want to do. Like jumping off a cliff and into a passing speeder. Or surrendering.

If we approach this from a scripting perspective, it's a ridiculous idea! We'd have to script thousands of junctures for every combat, make them all interesting and balanced... aarrrrgh!

Nay, I say! Do not march down that path!

Instead, let's use tension pool mechanics!

I'll post on the specifics... soonish?

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