Saturday, February 14, 2009

Star Knights: We're Not Jedi, Honest

I should make it clear that, for once, I know exactly of what I speak. I have run the Bastard Jedi game three times, and have become quite familiar with how players play it.

For a long time, I've been thinking about how to turn my Bastard Jedi game from an insane tabletop into an insane computer game. I'm sure the guys who tried to make the first D&D computer game had a similar headache.

The biggest issue with the Bastard Jedi game (on the computer it's called "Star Knights" or, in full, "Star Knights: We're Not Jedi, Honest") is that the player's character(s) are not simply a stack of combat statistics. There needs to be a progression through a more... moral... area. That's the point, even in the very dualistic Star Wars games that exist now.

However, these dualistic games that currently exist do it pretty badly. Better than nothing? Maybe, but not as good as I would like.

The real problem is that these games offer you one choice - light side or dark side. Once you've made that choice, you'll typically choose the same way throughout the whole game, meaning that the hundreds of carefully-scripted "choices" that the game pops up aren't choices at all: one option is very dominant and the rest aren't worth thinking about.

This is made worse by their use of points as a primary reward mechanism. Light side vs dark side. You want to get as many points of your given side as possible, because they give you more power and make you look nifty. There are other rewards involved - cash, items, and flavor - but the points are very long-term and personal. It would take a gamebreaking injection of cash, items, or flavor to make you choose against a moderate number of points, so the points are obviously going to be the dominant reward mechanism. Since a specific pattern of secondary awards are usually associated with one kind of points or the other, players will tend to choose one kind of points and be wholly satisfied with both the primary AND secondary reward mechanisms (people saying "thank you" vs people dying in a fire, for example), which further unbalances the system.

It's possible to rebalance these choices such that the points you like oppose the secondary rewards you like. However, with such limited secondary rewards, it is difficult to do this very often without accidentally making the player swap his points preference. IE, he wants the light side secondary rewards, so he chooses dark side points.

There are other measures that can be taken to take care and make it interesting, but the truth is that it's a very limited mechanism and prone to becoming very muddy and not-fun if you make it too balanced.

What we really need are a whole lot more long-term rewards of a whole lot more types. And this is what my Bastard Jedi games were centered around.

Screw light side vs dark side, my Bastard Jedi had six or seven emotional axes, each of which could be considered to be light side or dark side. For example, humility vs arrogance. Having points in either direction gave you advantages if you used that axis and, in turn, using that axis made you more likely to gain another point in it. So your 2 points of humility will give you a +2 if you are humble in combat (or whenever), but it may increase to 3 points of humility.

There is no "OH YOU FELL" moment. No "oh, now you're dark side" moment, nor any "oh, you're redeemed now" moment. Not built into the rules, at any rate.

What there is is a powerful addiction that forms. The pressure of the game is enough that you really want those bonuses, and it's an easy habit to use your traits to get that edge.

Until you start to realize that you're using it all the time, and at more and more severe levels. You can't use two points of humility if your humility is at five, even if you only need two points of bonus.

At two points of humility, you're humble. That's okay. It's a Jedi trait, right? But at five points of humility, you're not humble: you've developed a serious self-worth issue and self-destructive tendencies. This is not because of the rules. This grows organically out of having to role play your use of ever higher levels of humility.

There's the catch, see? You fell without really noticing. You fell to the "light half" of the axis.

As a side note, this also tends to create unstable equilibriums, where players will start to use their less severe emotions to get smaller bonuses and attempt to keep their severe emotions under control. But that increases their less severe emotions and, before too long, you're a wreck.

And it's all done by the player, to the player. There are no rules that say, "oh, you have four emotions above (absolute value 4), you're now an emotional wreck." The rules don't have to say that. It becomes painfully clear to the player.

Quite aside from any other long-term results such as plot events, new saber crystals, and changing relationships with other player characters, these six or seven emotional axes are enough to power the whole engine on their own.


They can't be easily translated to a computer game.

They can be, mechanically speaking. But without the social pressure to make you RP your emotion, there's no real connection between choosing one emotional axis or another. You can program in RP - make the character(s) act appropriately - but now you're taking it away from the player and making it character development by partial fiat. Furthermore, it's very, very difficult to script all the different ways that characters should express their various emotions in various situations!


To be honest, I think the scripting involved would probably be manageable in a AAA title, because I don't see how it could possibly be larger than the scripts for Mass Effect or Fable II. But for one hobbyist, that's a retarded level of scripting to aim for.



Anonymous said...

Not enough deeply disturbing dilemmas, I think. I want to choose the light side but it will mean sacrificing something very important. Usually it's sacrificing a tempting weapon or maybe a nice sum of money.

Craig Perko said...

Arghh... fine, I'll post another post on that subject. Short story: you don't put a band-aid on a bullet wound.

Ellipsis said...

I definitely think that alignment has to become more nuanced, and having multiple different axes can be a good way to do that.

The problem, though, is that translating that mechanic to a game, even if you could do all the scripting, would be unsatisfying. It's designed with live role-playing in mind, so it's not going to translate easily to PC. I know that when I'm playing a computer RPG I'm more interested in what my character can do than in how the NPCs are responding to my behavior, so changes in your character's personality have to effect how the game plays, I think.

I mean if my character is that humble, it has to effect my game experience, and having NPCs comment on how humble I am isn't the strongest way to do that.

Olick said...

So wait. There's no way to make yourself less of ANY stat? Once you start being humble, there's no way to be a braggart to even it out?

Craig Perko said...

Ellipsis: Exactly. The social pressure and interactions with other players make it work.

Olick: You can "buy down" your emotions with "training". Effectively, you spend character points and focus on not being a total smeghead. However, you can't simply say, "today I'm only a LITTLE arrogant."

Rysan Marquise said...

I think it would be possible if you pulled off a less conventional game. If you had the player having lose control over their character and the character acts according to current personality/moral specifics.

The character might, because he is overly humble or generous give up items he receives automatically to less fortunate individuals, or simply not accept them.

The system would need to be one where you clearly weren't playing the main character though, but I don't know any other way to implement it.

Ellipsis said...

I'm similarly becoming gradually convinced that having characters with personality requires us to occasionally take away absolute control from the player. If my character is a drug addict, for instance, he shouldn't always listen to me when I steer him away from his addiction...

That said, "The system would need to be one where you clearly weren't playing the main character though, but I don't know any other way to implement it," seems like a strange assumption. Or rather, it seems to have the assumption "main character is a good guy with no personality" built into it. Either that, or I misunderstood the comment, but it seems to me that there's no particular reason these ideas, if they apply, couldn't apply to the main character (assuming there is one).

Rysan Marquise said...

The assumption isn't that the main character is a good guy with no personality. It is that he will do what I tell him to unless this is a cut-scene.

If you just randomly lose control of your main means of interacting with the game players will become frustrated.

Craig Perko said...

Well, my original plan was to let you actually control a whole team of, say, four knights. That way you wouldn't feel too put out if we made one of them do something under their own will for a bit.

The one you were actively controlling at any given time would follow your precise physical commands, but the other three would act more in accordance with their personalities.

The difficulty here is that it requires a much stronger AI (or a lot more scripting) than is reasonable.

Rysan Marquise said...

That sounds more reasonable. Honestly though, I wouldn't think it that hard, beyond normal AI scripting. You would just take already created behaviors and make them more likely to occur.

If they were humble they might tend to not act on their own or stay with groups, arrogant would tend to go off themselves without support. Malicious people might attack civilians, while caring people might protect them or heal them.

If you are worried about people doing things out of character when controlling them, you might add an erratic/predictable spectrum that adds a random modifier to all things. It would be changed by doing something against your current alignment or doing something with it. The tendencies and behaviors gradually become personalities because of the way they interact. One guy might go out on his own to protect the weak then take all of their stuff while another doesn't speak much and sticks with the group.

If you are in a more complicated situation than some sort of basic combat, then it becomes vastly more complex, but you already have a complicated game then, so that is expected.

Craig Perko said...

It's relatively easy to make them act in ways befitting their personality and, assuming you frame things well, you can even get away with a weak AI without making the player think his team-mates are dumb as posts.

The problem is that such actions are very flat and uninteresting. What makes the personality of a character interesting are the kinds of judgments he makes and the kinds of things he tries to make happen.

The fact that a humble character sticks around near the party and an arrogant character strikes out on his own is pretty boring, in addition to being only a little true. (A lot of humble people live on their own, and a lot of arrogant people live to control the rest of their team, or strive for recognition from them.)

When you can really see the difference between humble and arrogant characters is in the way that they react to guide plot events. For example, when the council tells you to act in a certain way, how does this character react? A humble character probably obeys, an arrogant character probably doesn't.

Unfortunately, it takes either a very strong AI or a lot of scripting to allow for the range and detail level of responses that it requires. After all, an arrogant, angry character will react very differently from an arrogant, harmonious character.

But simply changing how they interact with the battle/level exploration rules is pretty easy... and pretty boring.

Anonymous said...

Ellipse: "I'm similarly becoming gradually convinced that having characters with personality requires us to occasionally take away absolute control from the player. If my character is a drug addict, for instance, he shouldn't always listen to me when I steer him away from his addiction..."

Rysan Marquise " The assumption isn't that the main character is a good guy with no personality. It is that he will do what I tell him to unless this is a cut-scene.

If you just randomly lose control of your main means of interacting with the game players will become frustrated."

I've been thinking about the problem your discussing for quite a while, and the two points above were something that continually held me back. I like your solution of allowing the player to control their own party, but i think that also might take away some of the personal investment involved in having one single main character. Now i'm not saying parties are bad, I'm a huge rpg player, but I do think you need a major focus for the story of the game. Take Final Fantasy VII for example, as you play you get extremely invested in Cloud's story. At one point you lose control of Cloud, and whether you saw the pro's of the move in the end, it was extremely disconcerting. I think thats an extreme example of the point Ryan was making.

To combat this, I've been personally thinking about the idea of a character completely designed to account for this ability. The main character is a symbiote, that is essentially two characters in one. The first character is you, the player, the second is the character in game, with it's own separate personality but fully aware of the player, and this personality can be altered or affected by your actions in the game. Think the Darkness, without necessarily an overall evil parasite, or if you happen to know anime, think about the interactive dynamic between Ichigo and Zangetsu or Naruto and the Kyubbi. In this, essentially the player is zangetsu or the Kyubbi, they hold the power and thus have a major influence on their avatar in the "world" or in this case in the game. It's a nice way of giving a ton of control to the player, but still having the ability to have the character lose a measure of that control at certain designed points of game play. Those personality "axes", 7 in yours, my setup currently has 12, define the personality of the avatar itself, the players form inside the game. You can somewhat think of it like an extremely personal version of the Sims, but you only get one avatar and you can essentially "take control" of your sim to actually play the game.

Craig Perko said...

You hit the nail on the head with the weakness of party-based games, but in its way that is also a strength, since stories are rarely about one person.

Your solution works fairly well, I think, but it's not a generally applicable solution. I'd like to think more about the situation and come up with a variety of solutions that serve a wider variety of games.