Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Timelike Roguelikes

I was thinking about roguelikes. If you squint, you can think of every room in a roguelike as a scene. Sometimes the scene is not straightforward - you end up backing off, or running off to a closet for a moment, or falling in a pit and getting shunted somewhere else, or luring enemies out the room to fight them in a hallway...

But rooms are largely self-contained scenes.

So, I was thinking: can we create a timelike roguelike? Where the randomly created "rooms" are literally scenes?

Let's think in terms of a made-for-TV medical soap opera, such as House.

There are five fundamental kinds of scenes:

1) Surgery. This would be the direct skill challenge scene.

2) Bedside. This shows that the patient is a human, allowing the people to empathize. It also shows the patient's health and how fast they are getting better/worse (sometimes extremely rapidly).

3) Brainstorming. This is a scene where the doctors are grappling with the situation intellectually, a second kind of skill challenge that is also used to show that the doctors are very smart but grappling with very complicated situations. In soap operas, this sometimes involves breaking and entering.

4) Hall Blitz. This is where the doctors have figured things out at the last second, or are rushing to stop someone who thinks they've figured things out.

5) Personal Scene. While the personalities of the staff thread through every kind of scene, personal scenes show them outside of medical emergencies and allow us to empathize with them directly. Hospital politics and love affairs are the most common kinds of personal scene.

These five kinds of scenes can be arranged in more or less any order.

What if we think about a particular 'episode' (floor of a dungeon) as having a particular layout of scene sets. Basically, rooms and hallways of various sizes. As time passes, you move through the set, entering different scenes. If you leave a bedside scene for a brainstorming scene, and then move back into the bedside scene, that means you're returning to the same patient for more conversation and humanity reaffirmation. Two rooms, three actual scenes.

But a floor could easily have two or three different bedside scenes, each of which represents a different kind of bedside scene or a different patient. The shape of the scene is different.

We can think about the sort of challenges that would arise. For example, bedside scenes would be about gathering information and improving the patient's stats. Brainstorming scenes would convert information into stat buffs for the doctors. Personal scenes would allow the doctors to level up. Surgery allows you to do the best work, but rapidly drains the patient's stats. And so on.

But, of course, individual challenges arise like monsters in a roguelike. A hidden allergy, an obstructive doctor, a patient that sneaks alcohol in, a heart that just won't behave...

Like a roguelike, you can tackle them in the scenes they emerge... or retreat to a different scene, luring it along to tackle it in a setting of your choice. Bedside scene - patient shows sudden crash due to an allergy to new medication. You can treat it in a bedside scene using bedside scene tactics... or you can rush the patient into emergency treatment and deal with the reaction in a surgery scene, although that also debuffs the patient heavily. If it's not a fatal allergy, you can simply retreat back into a brainstorming scene and try to gain more stat buffs before tackling it again.

The whole time, you have a party of characters under your command, being characters, moving slowly through character arcs and leveling up. This is necessary to keep involvement high.

I was thinking... this kind of temporal roguelike could be a lot of fun. I used a medical drama because they have a pretty simple format, but the same basic idea could be used in a lot of ways. It's a strategy RPG that builds its own story.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Perspective Changes and Gameplay

Recently I've become a bit obsessed with the idea of changing perspective as a gameplay mechanic. It probably started with Fez, and since playing that I've come up with dozens of prototypes based on the idea of the same data/situation meaning something different when viewed differently.

For example, I like the idea of a social base-building game where you can put other people's bases "behind" yours. So any gaps in your base are filled by the rooms in that spot on their base. Since rooms often need a lot of effort and support infrastructure, it's possible to put in rooms that would be impossible for you to build. In turn, they could put your base behind their base and, by coordinating gaps, you could both have a much more interesting base than either alone.

I also like the idea of a game where you continue to tell the story by folding or flipping the pieces of the story. For example, if the story begins with a castle, you might fold the castle to reveal the narrow, tall tower the princess is at the top of, or unfold it to reveal the knights and king of the castle proper, or flip it to show the dungeon and the evil vizier...

I also also like the idea of this book: panorama book (via Jenny Winder). The idea that the pages/elements you aren't using can fade forward or backwards to become support elements seems brilliant. More than a simple aesthetic, this also allows you to control which elements can simultaneously be in focus. This is important: normally, if you have two dozen elements that all play a role, the programmer has to take into account the many things they can do with each other, and the player has to decide to try to mate up various pieces. But if it is organized such that specific pieces can only come into focus with specific pieces, you can reduce the explosion of complexity and maintain an orderly flow without chaining the player down too much.

I'm going to try to think about how you might make story games using these techniques!

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!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Designer Monsters

I loooooove monsters.

So let's talk about designing effective monsters. The same fundamental rules apply whether you're designing for a book, an RPG, a TV series with no end, a horror movie... well, there are differences, but let's talk about the parts that are the same.

The first is that a monster has to embrace a part of the human condition.

That sounds pretty hoity-toity, but it simply means that the monster has to feel like it means something, like it ties in with the world and the people in the world.

For example, a werewolf is about rage, losing yourself to bestial instinct. It's fundamentally the same monster as The Hulk.

A vampire is about obsession with death, something most humans can understand pretty easily. These days there's incarnations that are more about obsession with hidden worlds, but classically it's about death. Incarnation, get it? HAHAHAHAHAHAAaaaaaa... sigh...

The daleks are about obsession with perfection, with purging imperfections. Actually, many old Dr Who monsters are like that, because at the time the reigning monster concept was based on Nazis and WWII. So they resonated very strongly with the times.

These monsters are powerful monsters, assuming the audience understands those parts of the human condition (from either side). These monsters can be used to tell stories about those parts of the human condition. Vampire stories about running from, defeating, and/or accepting death. Werewolf stories about the price of controlling or failing to control yourself. Dalek stories about being a machine... or fighting against one.

So, to be clear, a monster is a window on the human heart. A monster cannot just have more HP or a deadlier attack. If you make such a shallow monster, it'll never catch anyone's attention.

Some people say that a monster is like a funhouse mirror of the human heart, but I think that's more limiting than the idea of a window... because you can see through a window in both directions.

Anyway, if you want your monster to catch people's attention, there are a few additional things you may want to consider.

The first is what powers the monster has.

This is fairly obvious - monsters have powers. Jason lives through everything, the alien queen is both big and nasty and, if you leave her alone, will fill your planet with horrors. Werewolves regenerate and have the strength of a wild animal. Vampires can hypnotize you, disappear and reappear...

The powers of a monster should generally support their high concept. A werewolf with the ability to hypnotize makes little sense, because there's no connection between losing yourself to bloodlust and going "oooh, you're getting sleeeepy". Doesn't make any sense.

In general, powers are pretty flexible. It's not that the fundamental power has to perfectly match the concept... it's that it has to be able to match the concept when deployed. Both vampires and werewolves regenerate, but they regenerate in very different ways. Werewolves regenerate constantly, driven by a constant, frothing feral anger. Vampires classically regenerated with the fall of night, integrating them into the world's own concept of life and death.

Weaknesses are the same, but are usually tightly linked to the powers of the protagonist and the actual specific story you're trying to tell. Daleks can only be defeated by screwing up the cogs of the machine - trying to face them head-on is a nightmare. Werewolves can only be defeated by the metal that represents purity - silver. Fairies can only be defeated by humanity's greatest crime against the natural world - worked iron. Vampires can only be defeated by dealing with the organ that represents life, but has been perverted to fuel their undeath.

It really does depend on the story you want to tell. Sauron's weakness involves hiding behind rocks. The weeping angels have the weakness of being looked at. These are, when stated baldly, really silly weaknesses. But they match the powers of the characters in the story.

Thirdly, presentation does matter. Werewolves are unpopular because they're overdone. Weeping angels are popular because there's weeping angel statues everywhere and most youngsters aren't religious enough to have assigned them any other connotation. Hijack it and make it a monster!

Well, that's a kind of art I don't have much advice on. It really depends on your audience - what one audience finds scary, another will find campy or even cute.

Fourthly, consider whether your monsters can be expanded upon without diluting them. Can people tell other stories with these monsters? Or are you telling just about the only one?

Even if no other story is ever officially told, many audience members will happily daydream or have nightmares about other stories they make up for themselves. So it's best if a monster is somewhat flexible.

Let's use two Dr Who monsters as examples:

The daleks are a bit passe today because they are based on our parents' or even grandparents' experiences. But, fundamentally, they are a very flexible monster that can be used in a lot of different stories. While there have been good stories and bad stories, the concept of "dalek" comes out the other side pretty well, ready to be used again. Even though they look stupid!

On the other hand, the weeping angels were a devastatingly cool monster when first introduced... but the story that was told was basically the only story that could be told. So, to bring back the cool monster, they added in new powers, new needs, new ideas. And basically ruined the monster - it's a convoluted mess of powers that don't really embrace any one human element.

The angels were a bit of a limited monster in the first place, because their powers and weaknesses were designed to tell that one story. Within that framework, they were nightmares. They represented fear of the dark given perfect form: not just fear of night, but fear of every moment of darkness, even the moment in which you blink.

But their powers were extremely specific, and that means they can only tell very specific stories. Their powers weren't generic or varied, like vampires and werewolves and daleks and time lords: they had a few super-specific powers, and that was it.

The monster wasn't made with an eye towards expansion.

There's nothing wrong with that, if your idea is specifically to tell that one story. But if you're introducing a monster you want to be flexible enough to use in several very different kinds of arcs, you need to start right off the bat by considering whether it can be expanded without dilution. Can powers be gracefully added or ramped up? Can weaknesses be altered or shored up? Can all of this happen while the monster still represents some facet of the human heart?

Those are the considerations I put into monsters.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

More Fighting

First, I made a tabletop fighting RPG. The core idea was that there were a variety of advantages you could gain in combat (each associated with a stat), so the game was about struggling to achieve advantages while not letting your opponents have very many.

The core idea worked okay, but in expanding it into a full game I ran into the Mons Issue.

The Mons Issue is when a player character is essentially a walking bank of move bundles, and the primary play turns into choosing which move bundle to use. In something like Pokemon, these bundles are monsters - "mons". In this fighting game, it was fighting styles.

There's nothing inherently bad about mons games, but if I'm going to make a fighter game with that kind of mechanic, there's no reason to have the parallel advantage mechanic, since the two major play elements would just drown each other out.

I'm mulling over a new idea for a fighting game which is based around turn measures. I'm not sure whether I want to make it a tabletop game, or a video game. The problem with it being a tabletop game is that I need to figure out how to limit the move set so new players don't feel like they are drowning. Haven't figured out how to do that, yet.

I call this system the Measure Cascade system. It has two elements that make it unique and interesting, both of which are related to the "measure" concept.

A "measure" is a length of time. If you are acting at a certain measure, your actions are ones which take a certain amount of time. For example, a fast jab is a measure 1 action, while a high Brazilian hook kick is a measure 3 action. Movement is typically a measure 3 action, except for panicked (energy-wasting) movements, which can be faster.

All the participants show their chosen measure for a given round at the same time. So players A, B, and C might throw measures 1, 3, and 4. In a tabletop game, this can be done by just extending your hand with the proper number of fingers extended.

You start the turn phase at the lowest chosen measure - measure 1, in this case. Everyone at or below that measure gets a turn. Add one to the phase. Repeat until you finish the highest chosen measure.

So the turn order in this example would be phase 1: A; phase 2: A; phase 3: A + B; phase 4: A + B +C.

A would get 4 turns, but all of those turns have to be spend doing crappy measure 1 actions. C only gets 1 turn, but it's a powerful measure 4 turn.

So there's a constant seesaw between how many turns you want, how strong you need them to be, and whether you're granting your enemy too many turns.

The second half of the Measure Cascade system is the cascade. A cascade can be called when an attacker is striking at you, unless the attack specifically cannot be cascaded. This makes the attacker get a full success on their attack, but you retroactively get a turn at one measure lower. Essentially, an interrupt.

So if player B attacks player C with a measure 3 high kick, player C can declare a cascade. This means player B is going to hit full force with that kick, but first player C gets a measure 2 turn. He might use that turn to punch player B in the face, which would interrupt the high kick. However, because this is a cascadable attack, player B could declare a cascade and say "your punch will definitely hit me full force and interrupt my high kick, but first I get to do a measure 1 turn". Maybe he catches the punch, for example. If he succeeds in catching the punch, then player C's punch fails and player B's original kick is not interrupted, so it lands full force. None of this affects player C's turn any.

Cascades add a level of tactical concern, but most of the techniques that are most useful in a cascade are exhausting (use energy). So cascades are not going to resolve the same way every time. It also allows for "defensive" play - characters that are good at cascade play can block or counter very effectively, which means their opponents will generally want to stick to uncascadable moves (or measure 1 techniques, which are inherently uncascadable).

I also added in some range rules to allow for complex multiplayer behavior - most attacks are "clench" range, but any two characters in a clench are the only people in that clench.

If player A spends their turn moving to clench range with player C, then player A and C are clenched. But if player B then does the same, A is relegated to medium range, the clench broken. B and C are now clenched.

This is something to be aware of (you just wasted A's turn) and also to use to your advantage (get A out of clench if they can't weather the enemy's upcoming turn). Also, certain attacks work at medium range, and are therefore useful to do without clenching.

Anyway, I'm thinking about it, trying to decide whether to make it a video game I never complete, or a tabletop game I never complete. Right now, it's a rather tabletoppy system because that's what I initially designed it for, but I can see an easy changeout to a ticky fast-turn-based combat video game.

Anyway, that's the kind of rule design I do when I'm thinking up games.