Thursday, October 18, 2012

Playing the Villain

I've come up with a number of ideas about video games where you play the villain. I'm sure everyone has - they're fun. There are a few problems with this sort of game that require a bit of a deft touch.

One is the core idea of being a villain.

Most such games make you a real villain - your avatar is actually evil - but so cartoonishly overblown that the player doesn't feel uncomfortable.

However, you can also consider why a player wants to play the villain at all. There are a few reasons why a player might enjoy playing a villain.

a) Base-building. In some cases, base-building is the whole reason the player wants to be a villain. There's a dual whammy as to why it should be a villain. The first is that villains tend to be the ones that build. Heroes mostly just destroy. The second is that bases in video games are always subject to assault. Having minions killed is fine for a villain, but heroic allies and innocents killed... might be a bit rage-inducing.

b) Power trip. Obviously, some players just want the power fantasy of playing someone whose whims are law. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach, but since whims vary so much, any given implementation will go way too far on certain whims and not nearly far enough on others. As power trips go, a game might not be the best tool for this job.

c) Weaving a story. Some people want to be the villains simply because it gives them an unusual approach to the story. Exploring the villain's story can be very interesting, and villains are often much more interesting than the heroes anyway. Furthermore, being the villain actually gives you a lot of control over the heroes' story, allowing you to shape that as well!

I've created a number of designs and prototypes for various game ideas, and I've noticed a few common flaws in my designs, presumably in many other people's designs, too.

1) The player is simply working to optimize their base structure/defenses. I guess that's okay, but it's almost impossible to balance properly. Skill at optimizing bases is multi-dimensional and extremely variable - and most people don't think about difficulty settings when it comes to base optimization. Also, not sure that "base optimization" is really a villainous thing to do.

There are a few ways around this. Three of my favorites:

The player is actually working to lose or win by a small margin. The lower the "point spread", the better. So you don't want the best base possible. You need to constantly tweak your base to offer just the right amount of challenge to the various levels of heroes that are challenging you.

Alternately, you are actually trying to de-optimize your base. Either you're the turncoat first in command, or your first in command is spectacular but you're a whiny asshole on a power trip. Either way, your duty is to actively screw things up as much as possible... without screwing them up so much that the heroes can win.

Alternately-alternately, you can play a slower, multiplayer game where the villains actively sabotage each other's bases. Weighted properly and noncompetitively, this can equalize a lot of skill imbalance and be hilarious.

2) There is no heart. To me, a big part of playing a villain is playing a villain. A game about optimizing base layout has nothing to say about a villain, except how OCD they happen to be. I would really like to create a game where your villainous personality is driven by some fundamental obsession or flaw.

Writing a villain for players to play is different than writing a villain for players to fight. Villains have a huge amount of power compared to heroes. You need to offer the player not a limit on the villain's power, but a limit on the villain's conceptions. The play is not about the heroes - it is about the villain!

Well, it can also be about the heroes, but only if it is about how they affect you, the villain!

Leaving aside the convoluted canon, Doctor Doom is an interesting villain because he uses his almost unlimited authority to wage a petty war against people he think scratched his face. He's often portrayed as simply an implacable wall of evil, but that's not going to cut it if you're in his shoes. If you're in his shoes, you need to understand that he's a frustrated narcissist.

That is the sort of thing that seems like it would be a lot of fun to play!

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