Thursday, August 23, 2012

Turn-Based RPG

I was thinking about computer games where you control a party of heroes.

One of the things I always felt was difficult about these systems is balancing status effects. Status effects always felt extraordinarily irritating to me. All of them. I've never seen a status effect I thought made the game more interesting, with the exception of reflect.

The core problem with status effects is that they are essentially time fees. They force you to spend precious actions fixing them. There's not much difference between being turned to stone, blinded, stunned, paralyzed, KOed, killed, berserked, charmed, confused, muted, toaded, etc. If they have any effect at all, they basically make that character useless until you spend time fixing that character. So they "drain" your action time until you "spend" some action time to fix them.

Sure, they vary in details. They can be healed in various ways, and some are "high-functioning" states (such as berserking a warrior), but the details don't really make them feel interesting to me. When I run into a status-effecting enemy, the basic thought is "how fucking irritating. I'm going to spend half this battle treating status effects rather than fighting."

So... how can you make a status-effect-ridden RPG interesting?

Change how time works!

Every phase (no turns, just phases) you can command only one hero to take an action. This uses up all her action points. The more action points she has, the more powerful her attacks are (and perhaps the more high-level attacks open up).

Every phase, every hero gains an action point - two, if they are not available to be commanded due to an enemy-inflicted status effect.

Battles are longer, and multi-phased. Rather than distinct random encounters, you would face an unending trickle of enemies as you explore, push through, and defend positions. Action points carry over throughout this.

So if a character is, say, swallowed by a fifteen-foot slime monster, that character cannot take any actions. But that's not so crippling: you can only make one character take an action per round, anyway. While he's incapacitated, he's gaining action points at twice the normal rate. So when you kill the slime, he's freed and now has a bank of action points that make his next attack ten times as strong as normal.

Of course, you can also do ongoing attacks. The warrior might be told to attack a skeleton knight. It's not just a one-shot attack, but an ongoing fight where damage is dealt every phase. The warrior gains no action points while he does this, but it deals ongoing damage and keeps the skeleton knight busy...

Straightforward and, I think, probably kind of fun.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

What's Up With Kickstarter?

Some people I generally respect really hate Kickstarter. They cite all sorts of reasons, such as the fact that less than half the projects get funded (that sounds high) and that only half of them deliver exactly what is promised (that also sounds high). They call it "the new reality TV" and so on.

Firstly, let me be clear. Kickstarter is just the gorilla in this game, not the game itself. There are plenty of other funding platforms that do more or less the same thing, such as Indiegogo, Rockethub, etc. We'll be talking about Kickstarter because everyone is familiar with it.

Second, there is probably a bubble here. Like in the nineties, there was an internet bubble. But when the bubble popped, the internet didn't go away. It just became integrated with everything we did. A technology bubble "popping" isn't the same as, say, a housing bubble or stock market bubble. So even if this bubble pops, it doesn't mean crowdfunding is going away.

Crowdfunding is here to stay because we can now talk to each other at a speed and depth never before imagined in the history of humankind. When the bubble pops, it'll simply be that crowdfunding has become commonplace enough that it's no longer a spectacle.

Which is, I think, the reason many people don't like Kickstarter. They see it as a spectacle.

So, let's talk about the things they hate.

They hate the low delivery rate.

That's valid, but it's also a misunderstanding. This is not a mall. This is not a market. This is not an investment brokerage.

I have chosen to simply accept the low delivery rate, and adjust my donations accordingly. As a patron, you should never have such a stake in a crowdfunded project that you will actually suffer if it falls through. That's foolish.

Some people choose to try to enforce a higher delivery rate. I think this is a misunderstanding. Who would do the enforcement? Who could afford to? The moment you tried to make a host responsible for the project's successful completion, you've raised the bar to the level where nobody could ever be a host. Or, at the very least, only the most slick and corporate projects could be hosted.

The way it'll work out is much the same as in any other marketplace. You have some people who stick to the safer bets, buying from established teams with a good record. Others will sponsor newbies with iffier projects, accepting the higher risk rate. And accepting that they will probably fail.


People also hate the chaos and pageantry of Kickstarter.

But the chaos and pageantry that some people are offended by? That's what being young is.

It'll mature. Until then, bitching about how immature the market is sounds like "GET OFFA MY LAWN YOU... oh, wait, yer my grandkids! GET OFFA MY LAWN ANYWAY!"

Friday, August 03, 2012

Gripping Turn Based Combat

Turn based combat bothers me a little. See, it originally evolved for war games. Giant maps in your basement covered in little tanks and fake trees. The whole point was that it allowed you to play a game with waaaay too many moving parts and rules.

Now we see it in many other places. For example, computer RPGs. So we're using a system developed to keep details under control in the absence of a computer... on a computer that can keep details under control anyway. That's the definition of irony, according to a song I once heard.

Today I was also thinking about gamefeel. Turn based systems are usually about choosing which tactic to use. Considering how awesome it feels to take a turn is normally not high on the list of considerations. But what if we were to do just that?

What could we come up with if we wanted to do a sort-of-turn-based combat system while focusing on it being responsive and fun to use?

It's an interesting challenge. The play has to respond to the player's touch sharply and tightly, but you have to have depth and skill involved. The player has to be able to see exactly what is going on, and his actions should become second-nature enough that he does them automatically to express his wishes, rather than having to think about traversing menus.

I'm also arbitrarily writing off the idea of a detailed grid map, mostly because I think the grid map is too tightly linked to our concept of a turn-based game, so using it would limit our creativity.

I think an answer is in the initiative system. I think everything can boil down to initiative. Who gets turns, when. Moreover, how many turn-order phases your action can execute for before being interrupted.

Imagine that every battle's centerpiece was a giant turn order wheel. You could clearly see who gets to go, when. Let's say Anna is fighting two goblins.

Anna sees herself, and she sees the goblins going after four turn-order phases on the wheel. She has a few options, such as "attack". She mouses over attack, and sees an arrow from now forwards in time on the turn wheel, shooting past the goblins and a few ticks further. Simple, right? On the goblin's turn, they do much the same. Press attack, choose a target, watch it resolve, watch the wheel spin.

Well, on her next turn she decides to do "flurry", a more advanced attack. The arrow once again flies forward on the turn wheel, but this arrow is not properly an arrow because it does not end. Instead, every two or three turn-order phases there is a hack mark and it fades out after twenty or so phases to indicate it will continue until the chain is broken. Once she selects this and selects a target, she will automatically attack that target every time there is a hack mark until she is interrupted or her target dies.

Barry is a knight, and he comes in specifically to help her with that. Barry's ability is to intercept attackers. He selects "guard" and then selects her. Now, when an enemy attacks her, Barry is in the way. Moreover, Barry's next turn happens the turn phase after he intercepts an attack, or the turn phase after Anna's ongoing attack stops.

Alternately, Chad might cast his "freeze" spell, which has a long refresh rate but causes a target enemy's turn to be delayed for quite a long time as well. There are plenty of other tactical options - tradeoffs as you manipulate the wheel.

I think this has some merit. It's very clear what is happening, when. There are a lot of fun tactical tradeoffs, and the control is easy and, if properly implemented, crisp and clear.

... Maybe I'll even do a demo of it, if I can drag myself away from the demos I'm already doing.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Fun Magic

Lets talk about magic, especially in computer games.

The core of this essay is that magic is only interesting and useful if the effects are interesting and useful. You can come up with all sorts of zany spells, but if they don't change the game world in an interesting way, the player isn't going to care.

An obvious example of this are JRPGs such as the Final Fantasy series. In these games, the player is normally only able to play adaptively in battle - the exploration phase is typically just a stock map that doesn't change to suit the player's play style. Because of this, the spells are limited to those which are useful in battle or in prep for battle.

Moreover, there's almost always a "best" approach because of the way the battles work. Use a specific element against an enemy weak to that specific element. Use a specific spell when you take a specific amount of damage. Players can express themselves by playing differently, but this usually means "playing suboptimally" and therefore is not a very good way to let players express themselves.

Western RPGs are often more open-world, and therefore the magic often allows you to affect the world in general. The most noticeable times this happened were in the earlier Elder Scrolls games. In the more recent ones, the noncombat spells have been steadily degrading, but you still typically get lock-opening, invisibility, jumping, cause rage, and a number of other spells that have no real in-combat use but are fantastic at all the things outside of combat.

I started thinking about an RPG where you are a mage and there is no combat. Your magic is entirely limited to things which are useful outside of combat. I thought about how you might be able to do that.

In the end, I came up with a number of things you can set up in your game world such that they can be interestingly affected by magic.

1) Adding physics to combat. The difference between ice and fire is not that some enemies are weak to ice and some are weak to fire. The difference is that one encases you in a physical material while the other one causes the status effect "AGH I'M ON FIRE". Using physics in combat normally necessitates real-time combat in some way. A simple and good example of physics in combat is the Valkyrie Profile series, in which (depending on the game) juggling, repeatedly downing, and limb-striking enemies all have very different results.

2) Open world exploration. Do not cement paths, but instead allow the players to roam anywhere they can get the physics to work out. They can get on top of houses, sure - if they can figure out how. That might be a jump spell, or it might be summoning a crate to stand on. However, in these cases your spells that modify player movement should be high-level and not available right away.

3) Destructable/constructable environments. It can make it very hard to enforce a plot or reliably ambush the player, but allowing them to destroy or construct walls, roofs, floors, furniture, etc can really lure players into investing a lot of time in creating delicately polished variations on spells which do just that. So what if there's no balance?

4) Information environments. Embedding information/sensory details into the world can really make the world a lot more interesting. An easy example is a secret door. It's hidden - you can't see it. But once you know about it, the visual changes and you can see it. Another easy example is a locked door. Locking is not actually physics-based, it's just a piece of information which changes the behavior of the door. Allowing these things to be tweaked with magic can give the player endless fun, especially if he can create them and watch other players or NPCs try and figure things out.

More complexly, information environments can designate who owns specific goods or rooms, whether someone has a bounty on their head, hook a trap up to a sensor, create a trail of quest breadcrumbs that lead to the cool treasure, create a complex lever puzzle to get to the cool treasure, create trade agreements between cities, establish a road, create a destiny link between two people... and all of these can be affected by the player if you let it, allowing the player to construct the world on a much deeper level than they normally could.

5) Body physics. This includes projection (moving the camera to another location), possession (changing bodies), polymorphing (changing your body into something else), and so on. However, it also includes sub-body events such as having a wide variety of status effects (wet, painted, sneezing, broken arm) and affecting specific pieces of gear (heating armor until it glows, lighting hair on fire, etc).

6) Linked state modification. An example of this would be if your world was actually a light and dark world overlaid on each other and the player would sometimes switch between them. A fireball in the light world might resolve into a block of ice in the dark world. As the player builds the world they will find a lot of interesting balancing acts going on, especially if they can cast spells to shunt things from one world into another. For example, a fireball followed by shunting the ice from the dark world into the light world for a double-whammy.

Anyway, those are just quick thoughts. The core point is that spells can only be as interesting as the world they inhabit.