Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Design Specifics: Star Knight Prototype

(This is mostly me thinking to myself, but if you don't understand something or - definitely! - if you have a better idea, post.)

The prototype name is "Star Knights" or, in full, "Star Knights: They're Not Jedi".

This post is about early thoughts while designing the game. Please note that this game is intended to be a Flash game with minimal graphics, so animations are not a concern.

Instead of allowing the player to control the Star Knights moment-to-moment, the player controls the Star Knights by playing various cards. The opponent (the computer) also plays cards against the player.

Thinking in terms of combat, the Star Knights are armed with light sabers beam swords. These "beam swords" are pretty much instantly fatal if you hit with them, or at least instantly chop-off-your-freakin-arm-al. So the classic kinds of combat using "HP" are right out.

Instead, we use these "combat cards" to create a dramatic combat situation. Out of a deck of combat cards - perhaps as many as twenty - we draw four or five. Play one, draw one, etc. Exactly how effective these cards are is not entirely dependent on the card, but also upon the context.

Let me explain (although if you've been reading my last week of posts, this will be familiar): every fight has a tension pool and a level of imbalance. The tension pool starts at zero, the imbalance starts at (player power level - challenge(r) power level). The imbalance will generally run between 5 and -5: those numbers are basically insurmountable.

The combat cards you play will, by and large, add to the tension and seek to give you an imbalance advantage. If you already have the advantage, it's to your benefit to boost the tension up as high and fast as possible, because cards are more effective (and therefore more likely to end the fight) as the tension increases. If you're on the losing side, you'll want to try to keep tension low, perhaps even "spending" it down with a few, rare cards that radically change the flow of the fight.

As an example of this: You get in a fight with a fallen Star Knight - a Meteor Knight. A-har-har. You have a disadvantage, and there's no tension. Since you have the disadvantage, that guy gets to go first (that's how it works, dramatically).

He plays a flurry of blows, which looks just great but doesn't change the advantage any (or maybe just one point). Since it looks so exciting and great, though, it adds two points of tension rather than just one.

You respond with something that can even the odds a bit: a close clench, saber sword to sword. This evens out the odds regardless of your original odds, because a close clench puts the two fighters on pretty even terms. You're still down one, because it doesn't completely even things out: the Meteor Knight still endangers you in the end, forcing you to jump away rather than get cut in half. It's not quite as dramatic as the flurry, it only raises the tension by one.

The Meteor Knight needs to regain a bit of his advantage now, since there's actual risk developing. He can't play his flurry again: he already played it. So now he plays the "telekinetically throw shit" card, which gives him one point of advantage and raises the tension one more, to four.

Four is getting up there. You have a "disarm" card in your hand, which costs four tension to play. You could play it. But you're at a disadvantage, so it would disarm you. That's not a terribly good idea, so you play "gymnastics", which gives you two advantage points if you're at a disadvantage, as well as adding a point of tension. This brings the two of you to even, as you leap across the debris (some still flying through the air) and land, disconcertingly, right behind him - that classic "rear block" foils you, of course. The fight isn't over yet, so he can't be killed like that!

It's even now, and at five tension. It's pretty much up in the air... if it comes around to you and you're not at a disadvantage, you could play that disarm card...


The combat game is somewhat interesting at this level. It's certainly dramatic, but drama isn't a valid replacement for gameplay. And, frankly, the gameplay here is pretty shallow.

The problem with this kind of gameplay is that, inherently, a card is a small piece of content. It is, fundamentally, only a little bit of gameplay. It is shallow.

In CCGs they get around this by building up layers of cards. Card A requires 3 of card B, and you can cast card C on top of it if you like, although it might be better to sacrifice card A for card D... land, creatures, enchantments, instants... a lot of different types of cards that all have various durations, requirements, and applicabilities.

The only CCG I'm aware of which tried to be more focused was the Highlander CCG, which was pretty much strictly a sword duel. You've probably also never even heard of it, let alone played it: it wasn't very interesting to play (although it's interesting to study).

It's possible that we could create a lot of different types of cards and play them in complex layers. After all, there are layers of mysticism in a duel between Je... Star Knights.

But that robs the duel of a lot of its drama. From a drama perspective, duration is a very risky business, because drama is about ignoring the humdrum crap in the background. That's kind of the whole point of drama, and if you think it through, most CCGs aren't terribly dramatic. There are moments of drama when things come together just right, but it's not usually as dramatic as a fight between two Star Knights even though it lasts far, far longer.

So that's not really an option. We have to give the cardplay a level of depth without lowering ourselves to too much duration or layering.

One sure way is to give the player control over what they put in their deck, of course. By having an "outer game" involving acquiring cards and swapping them out, you can create a lot of investment. "Yesssss, my 'throw crap' card finally came up!"

Not enough, though.

For more, we can give the combat itself a level of variety. Today, you fight a Meteor Knight. Tomorrow, you fight a dozen vicious woobie-snooks. The day after, you're fighting barehands against the Proctor of Elen. Then you fight a horde of war droids, an invisible man, a giant lizard, this time you're poisoned, this time you don't want to kill him... add in the various kinds of terrains you can fight on, which have significant dramatic potential...

But, again, while these make fights more interesting, they don't make a fight more interesting.

So here's a trick: let's plug it back into itself.

All that stuff about making fights more interesting, lets allow it to be part of the fight!

Let's say that, over the course of the fight, every card played subtly changes the dynamics of future fights. Not the current fight - we already have that written in. Of course cards played in a fight change the fight. But future fights.

So, if I play the "acrobatics" card, it makes future fights more likely to take place on flat land or in tight tunnels, making acrobatics worthless. If I play the "disarm" card, then my enemies have that card added to their stock. If I play the "flurry" card, then it makes it more likely that I will run into large numbers of guards in future fights, while if I play a card with bad combat effects, maybe it makes future combats a little easier... if you play that card, you will be in a political disaster, if you play this card, enemies will get by you and get to whatever you're holding as valuable (a starship, for example)...

The actual long-term effect of a card is almost irrelevant, as long as it's balanced. We can choose to balance things dramatically, or make them statistically interesting. We can also make a wider potency of combat cards by making a wider potency of side effects. Similarly, the effects should probably make some kind of sense, but it can be in a cosmic kind of way, since we're talking about cosmic kinds of people. Also, it can reverberate to other Star Knights or the surrounding terrain!

The idea here is that you have to consider any given moment in combat holistically. The best card for the moment may not be the best card overall. Similarly, you may actually want to lose in combat in order to reap massive rewards...

Now, the way I am thinking about side effects is related to the idea of falling.


In Bastard Jedi, I use 6-7 axes of emotion. The character can use an emotion to draw large amounts of force power. It's a bit more complex than that, but the end result is that players tend to actually feel the pull to fall, instead of only inserting it as dramatic fiat.

I think it would go well in this kind of situation. What if we allowed our Star Knights to use emotions (or emotional connections) as backdrops? What if our "emo cards" are used for layering, the same way that creature cards accept enchantments, or land is required to put down cards.

If our character is angry, then the actions he takes both in executing the cards he plays and in reacting to the cards the enemy plays are different. For example, the "close clench" card. If you're angry, the close clench has a very different feel than if you're, say, feeling forgiving or depressed. Similarly, against the oncoming flurry of blows, you'll have a slightly different reaction.

This difference can be quite pronounced. For example, against a flurry: if you're feeling pretty zen, defending against the flurry will be mostly a matter of scooting backwards with some easy, smooth blocks. Yeah, you're being pressed back, but it's not bothering you. If you're angry, the flurry is going to leave a much larger impression: you're going to continuously want to counterattack, but he's not giving you room or time. So you're going to get a bit more carved up, things are going to be a bit more tense.

In short, the flurry card is more effective when played against an angry person than a calm one!

On the other hand, the acrobatics card will be less effective against an angry person, because he's got his eye on you and he's perfectly willing to chase you around. The zen character will play into your hands by holding his ground, even though you are outmaneuvering him...

There's also the matter of lures: once we have this in effect, we can actually put in cards that try to change the emotion of the enemy, or permanently increase the active emotion!

So you'll put down an emotion (or go gray - no emotion). This will give you a bit of an advantage if you're particularly strong in that emotion - perhaps some cards can only be played if you are a specific emotion or at a specific level in that emotion. What emotion you play is important because it is a tactical choice: some enemies will be very good against certain emotions, and some situations will be better approached feeling specific things.

In theory, it's possible to have a much more complex emotional system, but I don't believe it is necessary. This simple system is adequate, although it is hard to tell whether "emotion cards" should be mixed in with combat cards, separate from combat cards, or not even in existence (cannot be changed mid-combat, or can always be changed to anything).


This is the combat.

There's also an adventure layer and a character layer.


Ids said...

Have you solved the complexity problem following from the card interactions already?

You listed this earlier as an argument against the system used by the combat cards.

I do really like the idea by the way.

Craig Perko said...

Err... no...

I'm trying out a variety of things, but they've all fallen a bit short in practice.

At the moment I'm relying on a lot of "tiers" of interactivity, which isn't something that can easily be prototyped (I'd have to prototype all the tiers simultaneously). That isn't the smartest approach, I think.

Tiers on top of something that is already deep is the way to go, if I can figure it out.