Saturday, March 30, 2013

Critical Flaws in a Critical Success

So, I'm gonna go ahead and talk about Bioshock: Infinite, just like everyone else. No significant spoilers.

I haven't finished even half of the game. Doubt I'll ever finish it. If that bothers you, stop reading.

Okay, now, the game.

To me, this critically acclaimed super-game simply shows how segregated things are. What? No, I mean story and gameplay segregation.

Or, more accurately, aesthetic and gameplay segregation. The story is shit, the writing is crap, but the aesthetic is fantastic. It's very immersive... if you ignore all the things the game actually wants you to do and instead just kind of wander around.

The gameplay is nonsense. It's not that the gameplay is bad. It's that the gameplay is nonsense. Total gamey-game nonsense. Booker eats so much stuff that he must be the fattest man alive. There's bullets everywhere - in a child's playroom, you open up their dresser and there's some bullets! Enemies have life bars and ignore basically all the damage you do until the last point. You have X health and Y mana and the door takes Z lockpicks - it's all very precise, very mechanical.

This is all stuff we've gotten used to. But it does't suit the world. Especially in conjunction with the onslaught of trophies and pre-trophies (OH MY GOD I'M 16/200 towards "change in the couch" trophy! HUHFUCKINZAH).

They try to paint a picture of this gritty turn-of-the-century world where a cult holds sway, but I'm running around stuffing my face with chips and bananas and popping off exactly two shots at every single cultist and searching every single trashcan with a click-click. The story is half contrivance, half inexplicable coincidence, and all badly-written dialog. The only person who talks like a person is the woman you rescue. Literally everyone else is written like a machine built to spout cliche.

So here I am, in this creepy world, all this lovely ambiance, and I see three boys hiding behind poles. Laughing and going "pew pew!" with their fingers at each other. And I realize:

That is what this game is. It's this deep, introspective play being put on by boys going "pew pew!"

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mapmaking Gameplay

A fair number of kinds of gameplay have fallen out of fashion as technology and culture have advanced. One of these is the art of making maps as gameplay.

In the old days, most adventure games (especially text adventure games) would more or less require you to make a map. The act of making the map was a big part of the gameplay, and it was considered fun to map everything out. But these days nearly every game has automatic map creation. Just about the only games left where you actually make a map manually are Etrian Odysseys, and the map making there is not done very interestingly.

I was thinking to myself: can you bring this into the modern era? Can you make mapping fun again?

A big part of making maps in the old days was that it was extremely easy to get lost. These days, the threat of getting lost is basically nonexistent. Moreover, old maps were often combined with notes, where the player would jot down things that seemed like important resources or conditions. For example, you might write "weird machine" in the tile for one room, so you would later remember that there was a machine there. Or you might have a special mark for unspent torches, so you'd mark the rooms you could revisit for another torch when yours ran low. Mapmaking isn't just a matter of terrain, but also of choosing what to remember about every location. If you didn't note which rooms had torches, or that the room has a weird machine, later on you'll waste a lot of time re-exploring rooms trying to remember which ones had the stuff you needed.

That doesn't happen these days. Modern game design doesn't allow for that level of uncertainty. It'd be considered wasteful.

Another part of map-making that is often overlooked is the physicality of it. In the old days, you actually made your maps on paper, in pencil. This allowed you to write whatever the hell you wanted in whatever size you wanted. Of course, these days the game would give you an in-game mapping utility full of prefab elements. This is a lot more boring and a lot less easy to flip through, meaning that searching and scanning the maps is a lot harder. Therefore, the games usually embed searching and scanning into the game engine, simply highlighting where you go next.

To understand what I'm saying, imagine that you're looking over your maps for a game world. Now, imagine the heady exploration music for the game playing in the background, the kind of music you'd get when you're wandering the overworld. Say, FFIV's overworld music. Now, which scenario feels right: poring over a few large sheets of crinkly paper and flipping through them searching for a specific town, or using thumbsticks to pan your 3-inch screen across a digital map? Or, even worse, pulling up a list of towns and just pressing "down" until you reach the one you're looking for. Or, even even worse, just having that city automatically be flagged.

I'm not saying that mapmaking is something all games should do. I am saying that a big part of the joy in mapmaking is the fact that you use those maps. And a big part of using the maps is being able to label and highlight them with the things you think are important. If the game doesn't require you to use the map, or if your map is no different from another player's would be, the joy is sucked out of the exercise.

So, can a game use oldschool mapmaking joy?

Let's look into a little.

First, let's posit a sample game so we can get a concrete grip on the experience. This is a game where you pilot an airship as the scout for a flying city. So you're ranging far and wide, telling the city where it's safe to go, telling them where it's safe to send harvest crews, or even doing some high-risk harvesting of your own. Your airship is not a jet fighter - it's more like a clipper, with a crew and complex fire arcs.

As you explore you'll fight lots of enemies. If you fly low amidst the debris of this broken world, you're harder to detect and the debris serves as good cover. If you fly high, there's no debris to protect you, but you can see (and be seen from) much further. Combat really changes depending on whether you're flying low or high, and whether your enemies are flying low or high. Obviously, exploring while twenty meters up in the air is more effective, but also likely to get you spotted. Being low to the ground will keep you concealed and in cover, and is also where you'll need to be if you want to actually collect any resources.

This is a pretty simple game concept. The reason I'm breaking it into "low" and "high" is to give our mapmaking some texture.

The high-grain map is drawn automatically as you fly through the area. It only maps the "high" topology. It's up to you to map the low topology, if you want to, and to indicate things like tunnels, resources, nests, and other points of interest. However, that is optional.

The low-grain map is the one you're directly responsible for. This is a hex grid map, with your city occupying one of the hexes. This map doesn't automatically get filled out: it's up to you to define the hex as a specific terrain type, a specific name. Draw the connectivity of the various faces. Notes and resource markers you make on the high-grain map are automatically added to the low-grain map, but in the end the low-grain map is entirely defined by you - with the exception of denoting other flying cities.

This map is also the one you use to actually control your city and its task forces. Telling gatherers where to go, where to put outposts, where to move the whole city. As resources run dry or the earth begins to crumble or whatever, you'll steadily have to keep moving, exploring new areas with new enemies and resources.


This idea attempts to use most of the original joys of map-building while moving them digital. One of the digital difficulties is scanning maps with your eyeballs - easy on paper, especially since your notes tend to form a unique and memorable topology. Having two distinct map grains will help emulate that, and the fact that you have to draw the contents of the hexes (even in basic graph-connection lines) should result in you imprinting the same kind of unique topological memories. The high-grain map is mostly a means for making notes during the extended exploration within the tile, which then transfer up to the hex fluidly and easily, allowing you to add to the whole without constantly changing contexts.

The need to actually use your map for controlling city resources and establishing zones of control should make it compelling, rather than feeling like an exercise in annoying busywork. This is especially true because the "busywork" is kept to a minimum and scattered carefully throughout play rather than all lumped together in one nasty cluster of paperwork.

Time's passage will slowly change the world you live in, so you will sometimes receive reports from people on the city that the map is no longer accurate. Even without the need to move your city, the map continues to live and breath. Your needs and immediate objectives are all self-assigned, but they are strongly influenced - do you need to re-explore a region? Kill off a new hive? Fight a bandit incursion? Stabilize the landbridge?

The objectives are all relatively bite-sized and it should be possible to stop playing and then come back and not feel lost. Your map, even if you forgot all about it, is clean and marked up with all the things you need to know.

So... yes, I think you can make a modern game where map-building is a joy.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Advanced Flow Techniques

So, I played through Fire Emblem: Awakening a few times, and now I've moved on to Etrian Odyssey IV.

In the past, I've always liked the Etrian Odyssey games better than the Fire Emblem games, but in this case it's the opposite. The Fire Emblem game still calls to me.

Obviously, this is largely the fact that this Fire Emblem game is probably the best Fire Emblem game in the series... but, on the other hand, it looks like this Etrian Odyssey game is probably quite good in its series, too. A lot of the boring stuff has been cut out and some interesting new stuff has been added in. Still, it feels... less interesting.

I think it's because Fire Emblem: Awakening has superb flow, while Etrian Odyssey actually has terrible flow.

What do I mean?

In Fire Emblem: Awakening, you always have one more thing that pops up. When you complete a battle, there's always another detail that appears. Did someone's vignettes advance? Does someone need a class change? Is there a new random monster or shop available? Did someone not quite make the vignette or level requirement you were aiming for, and therefore you just need a little more fight?

This gives the player a continuous stream of engagement without loading him down with easily-forgotten state variables. That means you can play and play and stop and pick it back up and play... The battles themselves are pretty small, so none of them get complex enough to make you completely lose track if you stop playing in the middle of a battle.

On the other hand, Etrian Odyssey IV doesn't have the strong flow. While each individual piece is entertaining enough, they don't chain together very well and they are high on state variables. So if you go exploring in your airship, it's fun... but then you're done and there's really no pull to the next thing. There's a payoff, but no clear next thing. Similarly, they've started to use mini-dungeons. When you finish with a mini-dungeon, there's no clear next thing.

Worse is that even in the full-sized dungeons, exploration is complex enough that you can easily forget where you were exploring. Unless you keep a very careful map (drawing walls), you're likely to forget which areas have unexplored branches. While there's always more to explore, the pull is state-heavy and, if you stop, when you come back you'll have completely lost track.

This combines the worst engagement practices. Poor segue for most parts of the game, and state-heavy flow for the rest of the game.

How would I try to improve the flow if I was designing Etrian Odyssey?

First off, I would make the leveling up and equipment management even chunkier and more modular, but only allow players to level up when they returned to town. So when you finished (airshipping/dungeoncrawling) there would be the urge to do that little bit of advancing. I would also include advancing/random character interactions, so that each time you return to town there are people waiting there with new things to say and ask for. These would combine to give the city a bit of gameplay that can "pump" the player from one exploration segment to another without being so state-heavy things get lost or confused.

Second off, I would make the airship thing different. Exploring the map is fun, but collecting food and selling it isn't. There's not really anything interesting about the airship aside from creating the base map, so I would want to make something interesting about it. Maybe your team doesn't fight airship-grade monsters as an adventuring team, but instead each class has different crew abilities on the airship, and you fight enemies in a customizable airship instead of as an adventuring team. Similarly, some sort of airship upgrade/maintenance system for when you land would create a good segue off of the flight mechanics.

Lastly, I would change the auto-map so that when you explore, it automatically paints walls. This way you won't forget where there aren't any walls.

Obviously, this is just a thought exercise. But I really do think that the reason I like Fire Emblem: Awakening more than Etrian Odyssey IV boils down to how well they keep the flow.

Friday, March 22, 2013


My stream has been slowly burbling with people talking about the morality of requesting free work. Lots of people and teams request free work - not just newspapers, but also Amanda Palmer.

I thought I would take a moment and talk about free work, about why people have such weird opinions about it.

A lot of people seem to be annoyed by Amanda Palmer. She's pretty well off, and she's married to a wealthy superstar. Despite that, she still asks for a lot of free stuff. She asks for free crash space, free musicians, free word of mouth, whatever she can get away with. A lot of people consider this to be disrespectful. If she's rich, she should be paying for stuff, right?

I don't really think so. It's not as cut and dried as "I support Amanda Palmer" - she has a lot of really awkward habits and economic advice that only pan out if you're already successful and/or married to a superstar. But I don't think, fundamentally, there's anything wrong with asking for free stuff. It's not a matter of how rich you are, it's a matter of the level in which you are attempting to engage.

That is, asking for free stuff is a good way to engage with your community. It's rarely a good way to try and make a living.

Amanda Palmer asks her fanbase if any of them want to play trumpet for her. Fine. Newspaper asks famous blogger to write a free article "for exposure"? Not immoral, but pretty insulting and unlikely to succeed.

Amanda Palmer does have an audience of fans, and she's reasonably good at engaging them. But her machinations are child's play compared to specialists.

Oprah was a community management specialist, but she's from the old era before the internet really caught on. Her techniques were limited by her limited ability to actually interact with people. In order to interact with people, Oprah had to be with them or talking on the phone with them. Also, due to the restrictions of television, she couldn't easily provide links or interactive commentary. So her interactions were therefore somewhat restricted... but within that framework, she was very, very good. Her show wasn't popular because it had any particular merit: she basically showed her audience bullshit and asked them to buy it. It was popular because she talked to and for her audience. She would act as a window for her audience, showing them things in ways they could easily grasp... and she was equally adept at talking to her audience, treating them as people worth knowing (even if she could never know them because there were so many).

Now, if you want a modern example of Oprah, try Game Grumps. While they aren't as universally recognized, they have a hell of an audience and they built it without much advertising or corporate support. They succeed because they, like Oprah, are a talk show that speaks to and for their audience.

Unlike Oprah, they don't have to rely on leverage. They don't need corporate sponsors. They don't need an endless parade of guests. They don't need to facet their show such that they appeal to a different subaudience every week to keep all the subaudiences interested. Instead, all they need is to manage their community.

Before I continue, let me be clear. While they don't have a Wikipedia page, the Game Grumps have hundreds of animations about them, dozens of music videos and songs, and hundreds of donated games. I would say that their fan base is far healthier than either Palmer's or Oprah's, at least measured in terms of minutes of animation. It's extremely impressive just how much of this stuff is floating around the internet: they have an extremely active community.

If you listen to the Game Grumps, many of their episodes are around half community management. Even on the episodes which feature almost no community management, the community management is typically the "loudest" part, either because their editor spams text effects to give it punch, or because when they do something funny they immediately link it back to their audience. Also, outside of their episodes, they continue to manage their community.

I don't think that Arin, Jon, and Barry actually think of it like this. I think they actually are the sort of people who just naturally think of their audience. They obviously have some particular community management standards (always mention who sent the game, etc), but they also do a lot of off-the-cuff community management such as talking about an awesome video their community created, or saying how they wish someone would remix this segment, or discussing whether there's a less assumptive word than "fan". They act to keep their community moving and chatting, rather than just keeping them fat and happy.

This is the kind of interactivity Oprah wished she could do.

Game Grumps aren't likely to ever be as famous as Oprah. Hell, they don't even have a Wikipedia page for some reason. But they really show that there is a new way to manage your community. The stumbling methods used by Amanda Palmer are child's play. They're only effective because she built up an audience well ahead of time using classic means. This isn't an insult to her abilities as an artist: it's a statement about the way she engages with her audience. She's struggling to do small versions of the things that Game Grumps does effortlessly.

I guess what I mean is that Amanda Palmer has an audience, but Game Grumps has a community. And the newspaper that asks for a free article has neither.

Now, there are a lot of complex details hidden behind this kind of general chatter. The Game Grumps have a fair number of detractors, probably more than Palmer does. This may be because of their show... or maybe it's because of their community management. It's hard to say. But their detractors don't get angry because the Game Grumps ask for free stuff - they get angry because they don't like the quality of the show/hosts. Palmer's detractors are often the other way around.

Also, the music scene has a lot of complex culture built up around the nature of money and success, while the gaming culture doesn't. So Game Grumps asking for free stuff is less offensive because gamer culture isn't built around how hard it is to get paid.

And Palmer asks for specific resources at specific times, while Game Grumps makes pressure-free general appeals.

And and and and...

But, even with all those factors floating around, I think it all boils down to the nature of your community management.

What do you think?

(See what I did there? AMAZING community engagement, yeah? Sigh.)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Simplest Mechanics

I've been thinking about really, really simple mechanics that can communicate a particular... cultural feel.

For example, let's say you want to do a post-apocalyptic eighties' biker gang sort of thing. What mechanics would you use?

My first thought is a brawler, Double Dragon style, or maybe a violent vehicle game (rather than a racer). But those are somewhat complex. What is a simpler mechanic you could use?

The reason I started to think of simpler mechanics is because I created a "dungeon push" prototype. This uses a simple mechanic - the idea of pushing your luck - and it's actually fairly compelling. But there is a little bit of a mismatch between the mechanic and the presentation. So I'm kind of interested in the idea of matching simpler mechanics to good themes.

Can you create simple mechanics for, say, the feeling of a Japanese samurai as seasons pass? Or the feeling of discovery and accomplishment of leading a team of engineers and scientists to build the first manned missions to outer space? Or the shaky, ethereal feeling of walking around a city when you haven't slept in three days?

See, the mechanic isn't about trying to simulate the core of the experience. Instead, the mechanic needs to pull the player into the core of the experience. The difference sounds semantic, but it's not.

For example, if we're trying to make a "samurai as seasons pass" game, we probably need a fighting mechanic. But the fighting mechanic needs to exemplify the feeling we're aiming for, the feeling of stillness and the transience of life and death. For this, we need to have some kind of persistence from season to season. Defending a town against bandits seems best. Each battle is one season. The better you do in combat, the more hale and whole your samurai is for the next battle, and the better off the village is. Depending on the exact feel, we have a dynastic system where if you die your son or daughter takes over, but for now I think we can presume you only have one life. So the goal of the game is to stay healthy through each battle. Injuries take a permanent toll, and even if you play perfectly, so will age.

What remains is the mechanic. You could do something like Karateka, where it's all about simple timing. But in addition to already having been done, I don't think it represents the feel of a samurai conflict. For kung-fu, it works pretty well, but not for samurai.

I think of samurai as less about reaction speed and more about timing and control of distance. Especially if we're talking about killing bandits. But distance and timing is a difficult mechanic to make feel meaty - most games that try end up being about memorization and reaction speed, which is what I want to avoid. So it may be better to go with a chi system that kind of feels the same if you squint. So we'll have two buttons: an advance button and a strike button.

When you do neither, you gain chi (and sheath your sword). When you advance on an enemy you will change the range and also change their mode - everyone fights differently when being threatened. And the strike is, of course, how you dispatch your enemy. The game can be made slightly more complex by starting you off with the spear, and if you screw up, it breaks and you move on to the sword. If you screw up, it is cast aside and you move down to a knife. This way you get a little more complexity out of the same basic mechanic. The different seasons can also subtly change your foot speed and whether you slide around after an attack. And, of course, how much chi you built up changes what kind of strike you do.

I think it would be able to represent the right feel.

I think it would be fun to try this kind of experiment with a lot of different themes. The simplest mechanics you can think of, and how they layer to draw the player into the theme.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Buddy System

I've always thought that what sets Fire Emblem apart isn't the perma-death, it's the buddy system.

I don't care at all about the actual plot of these games. All I care about are the personal vignettes and, in the most recent one, coordinating skill sets for child inheritance. Let's ignore that bit, it's complex. Let's focus on the chatting.

I think there is a whole game hiding here. I think it's quite possible to make a game which is entirely about these vignettes and relationships. Like an RPG is about leveling up, there would be some kind of play on top of the buddy system but the buddy system would be the meat. It'd need to be more adaptable than Fire Emblem's simple linear system, but probably not a whole lot. Just enough to give the player a little bit of control.

So, this game would have to be set around a team activity of some kind, one where even though there might be a dozen people working towards the same goal, two or three would form tight and ongoing knots of cooperation. Between the various events, there would be the social section, where you can manage various aspects of your characters and have them advance their various interpersonal vignettes.

Here are some ideas:

A sports game. It probably couldn't be any modern sport - I can't think of any that allow for ongoing knots of cooperation. But it should be possible to build one. The various sports stars have offscreen lives like a bad sports manga, and learn similarly silly super-moves as a result of becoming friends with each other. Plusses to this idea: it has a tight and transparent play loop. It allows allied characters to fight each other on any given day.

A melodrama game. The various characters are actors in a melodrama, and you cast various arcs and episodes with various characters. As they spend scenes together they eventually get to know each other and can have their vignettes introduced as the B-plot in the next episode. Plusses to this idea: the vignettes play out in the same "battlefield" as the main play does.

A comedy show/improv game. Move the characters around on a stage as they make up stupid humor. Balance slapstick, drama, talents, and puns to have a perfect show. Offstage friendships develop and allow characters to work together better and gain new talents. More similar to the sports game than the melodrama game. Plusses: much more lightweight, casual play.

Away team/safari game. Send a batch of crew members down to a weird new location. They work together, split up, get things done. Same exact mechanics could be used for a safari/vacation game, if you're feeling no-sci-fi-ish. Plusses: task-based rather than tactics-based. Widely varied. Lots of opportunity to asynch cooperate with other players.

Anyway, what are your ideas?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Balancing Tactical RPGs

Fire Emblem: Awakening has some interesting balance choices. All such games do, but let's go ahead and use Awakening as an example.

The weird thing about tactical RPGs is that they are balanced very similarly to fighting games. That is, there's often characters who are easy to pick up and play well, but those characters frequently start to have a rough time in a more competitive environment. It's not that they're simply weaker: it's that strength and weakness varies depending on the level of difficulty you're facing, or the level of your enemies.

For example, in Awakening there is a character named "Donnel". Like all the Fire Emblem characters, he's a 90s stereotype, in this case of a pig farming hick. Literally, he wears a pot on his head and talks about pig farming all the time. His special characteristic is that his stat growth is significantly better than the other characters.

It only takes a few levels for him to catch up to the others, and then he basically leaps ahead and becomes an invulnerable killing machine. He's so strong he can effortlessly solo basically any story map. Which, of course, means he gets experience faster than others and gets further ahead.

However, to "balance" him, the devs gave him low stat caps. In the beginning of the game, you can be forgiven for not even realizing stat caps exist. And to an ordinary player at ordinary difficulty, stat caps are unlikely to matter much. They only matter when you start to take on challenge maps, or play on Lunatic mode.

In Lunatic+ mode, the ultra mode beyond Lunatic, Donnel is restricted to more or less the role of "wall", and even then he's easily outclassed by defense specialists. This is because Donnel's class choices are primarily melee assault classes, so he doesn't get any of the advanced defense or ranged offence options that are so critical in Lunatic+ mode. Even if he did get them, his skill stat cap is dangerously low, so they won't fire as often as you'd like.

The classes themselves actually have different usefulness depending on difficulty. Below Lunatic mode, archers and snipers aren't really very useful. You can use them, they're not worthless, but a mage can easily do all the things they can. They have a few small advantages - they can have an extra tile of range, they can learn "bow slayer"... but those advantages aren't really very important compared to their disadvantages.

In Lunatic+ mode, it's probably not possible to beat the game without relying heavily on long-range snipers with bow slayer. The enemies have too many cheeseball, cheaty counters, and melee combatants will get annihilated if they engage. There are some ways to make dark mages useful as well... but default mages? In Lunatic+ mode, they have a rough time of it.

I don't know how much of this is choice and how much is circumstance. When the developers created the game, they obviously created Donnel to be an early peaking character... but his peak is quite high and I'm reasonably sure he could solo the last level in normal story mode difficulty. So his "early peak" is the same as most other character's end of game state - they could theoretically keep climbing, but the game is over. Did the designers intend to leave his peak so high?

Did the developers intend for archers to be slightly underpowered in normal play? It seems likely, because the main archer is a prancing ladies' man who doesn't feel like he'd be very effective on the battlefield.

Balancing is hard, I guess.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Tactical RPG

This post is about controls, mechanics, and how they influence each other.

The way in which you interact with the game determines a lot about what genres arise on that hardware. The tactical RPG is console-based. That is, it's really intended to be played with a control pad. There have been plenty of releases for mice and tablets, but the core genre is founded on a D-pad.

You can see this most clearly in the linearity of command chains. That is, you select a character. Then you move him - blip blip blip. Then you press A. Then you select an action. Then you move the cursor. Then you press A. And so on.

This is an interface style that ages really badly. It doesn't work real great with mice and it works awful with tablets. Let me go ahead an go into detail as to why.

Each kind of interface has a certain kind of affordance. A d-pad or thumbstick is really great for allowing you to make relative directional motions - that is, specifying direction relative to an in-world avatar. A mouse is really great for allowing you to make ongoing spatial motions - that is, specifying a new point in space with each frame. And a touchpad is good for making spatial indications - that is, marking a place in space. Multitouch can do one better.

These are all very different. Tactical RPGs are really built on the idea of a D-pad. They continually pop in different kinds of cursors and ask you to specify direction. So you have a cursor for movement. You have a cursor for action type. You have a cursor for picking a spell. Then you have a "press A to attack/B to cancel" prompt. It flicks through these different contexts very rapidly and fluidly because the controller is a means of specifying direction, rather than position.

On the other hand, using a mouse for this kind of interface is a pain in the ass, because you have to keep reorienting yourself to new spaces. Now the active space is the map focused on the selected character. Now the active space is the action menu. Now the active space is the spell menu. Now the active space is the yes/no option. Each time, our in-world cursor's location is invalidated and becomes relative to a whole new slew of options. We have to reorient each time, and it's a pain in the ass.

Tablets are slightly better at this simply because you literally tap the location. There's not much reorientation going on, because there's no in-world cursor to reorient. Still, there are probably better ways to do it.

To me, this is the heart of the tactical RPG's flaws. And you can see the modern tactical RPGs are attempting to address those flaws (typically by cutting down on the number of menus or making extensive use of keyboard shortcut keys), but the flaws are at the heart of the genre. The genre is built around the idea of telling someone to go to a specific place and do a specific thing, over and over and over. Telling someone - IE, an object in gamespace - to go someplace relative to where they currently are, and then to do one of any number of action options. It's obviously built specifically for a control where you specify directions relative to current position and traverse menus rapidly.

If we want to rebuild the genre, we need to address this. Even on a console, this method is getting old, because menus and tiles are really d-pad territory rather than thumbstick territory. So even if we choose to rebuild the genre for the console market, we would need to change the core interaction.

A tactical RPG is really about two things.

1) Front-loaded character complexity. That is, managing and tweaking your characters outside of combat.

2) Positioning your characters well in response to changing battle conditions.

So, first things first. Ditch the action menu. One option is to make it so that literally everything is contextual... but that might be going a bit too far. Another option is to use an option HUD like XCOM or Starcraft. In our case, instead of the option HUD being about taking an action, it'd be about switching modes.

So select a character and, if you want to switch modes, switch modes. Otherwise, tap or click in a valid place to move there and do what your current mode indicates.

More agile context sensitivity can really boost this into clarity. For example, you tap your fighter. Above the head of every enemy pops up an estimate of how much damage you'll do, how many attacks, etc. You don't need to manually select an enemy to determine whether your attack will do what you want. Similarly, tap or mouse over an enemy and their damage capabilities hover over your heads.

The new Fire Emblem game gets halfway there: you have a really nimble and exceptional way to monitor how enemies can move and attack, but it is limited by the size of the screen. The units are so small that it can't realistically put damage indicators above them. Let's go ahead and assume we have more pixels to work with and do just that.

Both Fire Emblem and XCOM use menus, but they're console-based. Menus are generally a bad idea in tablet and PC games - they work okay at the beginning and end of a level, but they interrupt the flow of play considerably if used for every character action. An omnipresent HUD-button interface is okay, if you have space. On tablets and phones, you can probably get away with a large, simple popup menu, but on a PC the continual mouse-reorienting would be very annoying.

Because we can't use complex menus, we'll write off the ability for the player to make complex noncontextual decisions. That is, the player will no longer be able to pop up a "use items" menu, or choose between ten different spells.

To make up for that, we'll amp up the complexity of the player's existence in space. Amp up contextual options.

To do that, we have to up the interconnectivity of units, both with each other at long and short ranges, and with the terrain at long and short ranges. We also need to add some automated position changes that the player will need to take into account: plenty of knockback attacks from both sides of the combat, a lot of reactive dodges and reorienting.

The design I've created to do this involves a lot of specific mechanics. It may seem like a lot, but it's actually somewhat simpler than most other tactical RPGs. By their nature, tactical RPGs are complex beasts, with loads of different classes of attack and ways units die and don't die.

Without going into more detail (this this is long enough), I stress knockbacks, team-ups, and shoulder-to-shoulder formations. There's also a lot of conversion - that is, a tile, enemy, or hero transforming into something else when conditions are met. So I make the evolution of the battle more complex than it usually is, because I can't make the moment-to-moment participation in the battle as complex as it classically was. Basically, instead of twenty actions you can take with any given character, there's only two or three, but you can take them in much more complex and open-ended ways, and the overall progression of the battle is not as straightforward.

The difficulty with this system is that we've all grown accustomed to the "language" that tactical RPGs speak. Introducing these new mechanics instead of the old ones will require several tutorial stages. Like the new XCOM game, you introduce progressively more complex elements as the game advances. You can't simply have one giant tutorial that continuously dumps crap on your head - it'd be too much.

Which brings us to the nature of tutorial stages, another topic that would take at least this long to talk about. But this is already stupidly long, let's stop.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Rethinking MMO Combat

Let's use the theories and details we've listed in the past few essays and revamp the idea of massively multiplayer combat.

We're not talking about a genre shift. We're talking about a mechanics shift. So let's assume we do a kind of real-time-turn-based-thing like most current MMORPGs do, but talk about how to make it interesting using the risk/reward stuff learned from fighting games.

So, let's start by dismissing all the team support classes. We'll bring them back in later, but for now let's consider just the various attack and control classes, like tanks and blammy wizards and rogues and stuff.

Let's assume that we have the typical HP & MP mix, and that even close attack classes use MP for their stronger-than-normal attacks (rather than a cool-down system). A fighter with a high MP and low power is viable, because he can spam special attacks all day. Similarly, a wizard with high power and poor MP is viable because their free magic attack is quite strong even though they can't cast many advanced spells. To that end, let's allow people to balance their avatar's stats and weigh them towards power, speed, or mana: all would be valuable to every class.

Combat happens more or less as per normal rules, but is heavily weighted towards time management even at the low levels. Because there are no healers, you recover health and mana by kneeling and concentrating - it's relatively quick, but also easy to interrupt and you'll get stunned if that happens. So the combat features a lot of breaking away to recover. In a party, you would rely on your allies to intercept the enemy and keep it from hunting you down, although most enemy encounters at that level would feature a mix of "strikers" that will strike at whatever target seems appetizing and "hunters" that will chase you down if you try to retreat and recover. The tactics required would be different - you have to lure hunters out of position and strike them down, while you have to pull rotating roster against strikers to keep bringing fresh fighters back into the fray. It may be worth it to stun the enemy and then "steal" some regeneration time rather than following up while they're stunned. Patiently blocking and waiting out heavy strikes is valuable, especially in team play. There's a lot of options already emerging.

The biggest thing emerging is mana management: I think MP could start at 0, and steadily degrade if you don't use it. You literally have to build up mana right off the bat. This idea may or may not survive actual testing, but it's an interesting thought.

This doesn't serve all needs, though. The role of ranged and solo players are both left lax.

Let's start with solo play. Obviously, if there's nobody covering your back (or if you're the fighter in a small team), it's difficult to disengage. To this end, the "special" gauge will play an important role. This gauge refills over time, regardless of what you do, and allows you to spend it and perform significant feats. This doesn't replace the MP gauge: the player needs both a manually managed and flat-timed resource, and they serve different roles.

Team fighters will probably use their special gauge mostly for super-attacks or evades. However, solo players will generally prefer to spend it for an infusion of health and mana, or spend it to disengage. Stun actions may also be valuable to a single player. Obviously, a solo fighter is going to be more fragile than a whole team, but that's expected. He can play for time by blocking, dodging, and circling.

Ranged fighters have two advantages. First, they can almost instantly damage almost any enemy, allowing them to apply their power to wherever it would be most effective. Second, the fact that they are at range gives them a lot more freedom to disengage and regenerate. Every game has to consider how to nerf these advantages.

One way is to make ranged fighters not really very ranged. This simply and directly minimizes their advantages. Another is to make them ever-squishier in direct combat, which is sort of a balancing factor but really leads to some very fragile balancing, effectively making the class a "high skill" class that can perform way above normal balance parameters if the player knows what he's doing - I don't like that idea.

You can obviously reduce their advantage by making their attacks weak or take a long time, but I'm not a fan of that idea, either.

Another method is to give the enemies loads of ranged attacks as well, so there's a big advantage to getting in close. Ranged attackers have to spend a lot of time making sure there's cover between them and the enemy, stepping out of cover to make attacks. This works quite well at first, but is also a "fragile" balance: if the enemies are engaged by melee warriors effectively, then again the ranged attacker can perform well above what you would normally balance for. This fragility can be easily counterbalanced by turning on friendly fire: if melee characters are engaging the enemy, sure, you are free to fire... but you're firing into a melee, and you'll hit your allies too.

To me, this is actually one of the core features that will push players to realize this system is time-based rather than strike-based. Everything has the potential for friendly fire, including melee AOE attacks. Any such attack lays down a glowing red circle: if you're inside, get out fast! Enemy attacks could be the same, allowing you to clearly see where the enemy is going to strike and forcing you to stop attacking or regenerating in order to get out of the area or block. For added fun, many enemies will be able to see player attack radius, so your area of effect attacks will cause them to scatter or block instead of actually hitting them.

By filling the battlefield with ever-shifting hazards, you keep everyone on their toes. This also gives an advantage to small teams or solo players, who don't have the complexity of allied attacks to worry about, and are protected from enemy assaults by the enemy's own attack hazards: perhaps you can even lure them into injuring each other for you! Add in a class which explicitly deals in hazard manipulation (trapping, putting up hazard-block barriers, etc) and you have a fun environment.

What about the support classes? What about the healer and the buffer and the debuffer? What about the pet summoner? The polymorph?

Those classes were created to add complexity to a specific kind of combat. However, our combat is different. We don't need to force those kinds of classes into our framework, especially because some of them (the healer) would actually destroy it.

But it's worth considering. A pet summoner is an interesting idea, because it's both short and long range simultaneously. Classically, pet summon classes have been more or less like their own little party - a mage and a tank. Or, if there's sufficient tanks in the larger party, a mage and a ranged attacker. Whatever - the idea is that the summoner class tends to be two weak party members rather than one strong party member. And that's often better.

We could implement a pet summoner easily enough. Throw away the idea of cooldowns: the pet summon happens in one of two ways, depending on our balancing needs. One is that the pet steadily drains MP. A pet summoner could theoretically keep the summoning up forever, but they'd have to be kneeling and regenerating the whole time, which obviously limits their tactical use. Another option is that summoning pets takes your special bar, which is very similar to a cool-down but interferes with their ability to use advanced combat actions such as dodges and forced regens. Then the pet stays until killed, or a long time passes. Either way, the core idea is that the pet interferes with the master's ability to fight well: you don't need to make the pet master class suck, because summoning a pet makes you suck. You could even give each class the option to summon pets. (Always-around pets don't have these limitations and therefore would be unsuitable.)

Polymorphers are similar. Polymorphing would eat up mana or special. Actually, polymorphing would likely be considered similar to a fighter's self-buffing skills: steadily draining mana away. Normally the draw of a polymorpher is that they have two modes - one close combat, one support or ranged. We can highlight this by making the long-ranged class sacrifice its use of either mana or special in order that when it closes to melee, it has those resources available for the polymorphed form to use. This is arguably similar to other MP-draining polymorph classes, but since our mana dynamic is so different it should have a very different feel.

Support classes are toughies. Rather than add in pure support classes, I would prefer to add in support capabilities to other classes. For example, a debuffer wouldn't be a wizard who spams the slow spell. Rather, it'd be a close fighter that relies on trips, stuns, joint-blows. A rogue. Debuffs and stuns are hugely advantageous because they make it easier to disengage and regenerate, so these classes would require careful balancing.

Buffs are kind of complex, because there's really no good role for them in the feel of the combat. The closest I can think of is a good "team attack" mechanic. If you cast a hazard zone attack on top of an ally's or enemy's, the two merge and become one much stronger spell. Or two melee allies can stand near each other and they will automatically receive a speed and/or armor boost, or gain access to upgraded attacks. I also like the idea of being able to spend special meter to perform a team attack.

Because the battle system is heavily topological, having the buffs and debuffs tightly linked to a specific location makes more sense than allowing ranged characters to spam them from anywhere to anywhere. Also, because the battle system is topological, having a lot of secondary effects (or even primary effects) which modify topology could be fun. That area-of-effect attack produces a 5m wide circle... but it won't actually go through that boulder, so you could hide behind the boulder even if you were technically within 5m. The boulder that was created because the troll threw it at you, or because your warrior smashed the ground so hard that it popped up.

Even without adding in that kind of topological complexity, the combat system should feel pretty sharp because it is all about time management and managing danger, rather than about simple combat roles. Therefore, each role can be made simpler and punchier.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Risk and Reward and Chi Blasts

I spent most of the weekend creating tiny gameplay demos, trying to figure out what was fun and what wasn't about the much-vaunted "fighting game".

I'm not talking about how to balance them. I'm talking about the core idea of how they play. What makes them fun?

In the end, I've come up with a new theory. I think that fighting games are like Mahjong. That is, they are a matter of weighing risk and reward in a complex environment.

We talk a lot about how fighting games are about timing or distance control or predicting the enemy or whatever. But, really, all of those things are just a way to decide what the risk and reward levels are, and how to tweak them.

You stay hovering just out of the enemy's short, fast attack range because it means the enemy would have to do a heavy attack to hit you. Heavy attacks are inherently riskier, so you're basically saying "oh, you can attack, but if you do, I won't have any problem blocking it or stepping out the way and slamming you with a counter."

Conversely, if you stand at long range and spam fireballs, you're accepting a much lower reward in exchange for much lower risk. And if you use super juice to do a special attack, you're either lowering the risk (by adding block-breaking and range) or upping the reward (by dealing a lot more damage).

All of the mechanics of a fighting game are there as avenues towards risk and reward. The player juggles these. The player decides how to raise the enemy's risk, lower their own risk, raise their reward, lower the enemy's reward... and there are a lot of possible approaches.

Thought of like this, the omnipresent super meter which I always hated becomes an obvious part of the game. The super bar's myriad uses always grated. "Pay 0.3 notches for a cancel! Do a half-super or a full-super or a level 8.1 super..." But from the perspective of risk wrangling, the super bar's use for things like combo-breaking and recovery-canceling are actually the primary purpose of the super bar. The flashy techniques are useful, but they're rather like a hammer - they give you the same tools but more oomph. Something like a recovery cancel or a combo break is a powerful new tool... if you can figure out how to use it.

This is made very clear in the Naruto fighting games, where teleportation dodges are the name of the game. Much of the melee combat in the game revolves around weighing whether you can afford to use your teleport dodge, or whether you can force the enemy to use his, or whether you can trade 1 for 1 until you get the final attack chain in... For example, if you have one teleport dodge remaining and the enemy has four, you can't really go in expecting to get a nice melee chain, because he'll teleport-dodge and land a chain on you. You could teleport-dodge again, but only the once... so at that point, rather than continuing to melee, it may be best to retreat or use a single-strike attack such as a super, which is much harder to teleport-dodge.

On the other hand, in DOA countering is a major concern. So a lot of matches feature waffling around at middle ranges to try and lure the enemy into striking with an expected, easy-to-counter attack. And then a lot of the game evolves into trying to avoid getting locked into a waffle combat, and maybe using dash attacks or feints or grabs - it's all a matter of watching the deny you the low-risk options and choosing to avoid the high-risk options my taking some mid-risk options. As a game with no super meter, the combat feels very pure, rather than having the technical weight of Street Fighter. The risk analysis is sharp and obvious.

You have all these tools to manage risk and reward, yours and the enemy's. In many cases, there's even several tiers of game - tag team games frequently allow the off-screen members to regenerate, so you may want to push the on-screen enemy to swap out and truncate the health of the off-screen enemy... the reward for forcing a tag switch is very good for you. From the enemy's perspective, they are being rewarded for simply not switching out. This is also true in Naruto, which has no actual tag-team members (just helpers), but still has that marching time component in teleport dodge regeneration. If you're out of dodges, you'll often stay at long range and play a stalling game with dodges and ranged attacks until you regenerate.

So... all the tools used to manage risk and reward. Let's break it down a little more precisely into categories of tools, risks, and rewards.

An ongoing reward is something like regenerating teleport dodges, off-screen people healing, or the slow march of a timer when you have the advantage. In these cases, you'll generally aim for stalling - often maintaining a long range, turtling, hiding, and so on. The enemy will generally feel pressured to use riskier attacks to interrupt your ongoing reward, so this is a very strong pressuring mechanic.

A solo reward is one which does not involve interacting with the enemy. For example, charging your super-bar by standing still. This is related to ongoing rewards in that it is often something the enemy feels compelled to interrupt, but this is different in that the reward is triggered by your actions. Therefore, you cannot properly fight while obtaining a solo reward. Because of this, solo rewards are often "stolen" in moments when the enemy is stalling or out of position. It's also not uncommon for both players to charge their solo rewards in a kind of mutual situation - this is especially common when the opponent doesn't think he can really interrupt you very well, or thinks he'd do loads better if he just had a little more juice.

An attack is a combination of risk and reward. Rather then considering each punch individually, attacks usually include whatever chains you can use, which can radically increase the reward without increasing the risk much unless there are mid-combo counters. Attack risk depends on a lot of factors: lead-in time, recovery time, priority, block-breaking, sneakiness of strike zone, predictability. Reward is almost universally how much damage the attack chain will do if it hits, plus factoring in kncokdown, stun, and wall hits as necessary.

Most attacks raise some kind of super bar, which is a category of reward. If you get hit, it also frequently raises your super bar. These are simply elements of the reward, put in to reward aggressive play and put in a touch of negative feedback. Instead of how much super they generate, you might break attacks into two categories: immediate and asynch.

An immediate attack is one where the avatar is constantly in the attack as long as it lasts. This is what most battles rely on heavily, and when considering which immediate attacks to make you need to consider priority, range, recovery, whether the enemy can interrupt it, whether it's too predictable and they're expecting it... Most immediate attacks are melee, but sometimes you'll run into some kind of beam spam attack where the enemy just stands around acting busy for the duration (Mortal Kombat had many of these).

An asynch attack is one where your avatar finishes acting (or never acted) but the attack continues. Street Fighter fireballs are a major example of this, as are assists in most tag team games. Synch attacks allow you to lay down complex lanes of fire, and are often very low-risk. Asynch attacks are a frequent tool of turtles and stallers, who like making a low-risk attack and also being free to react to however you react, lowering the risk even further. However, they can also be used to extend or punctuate normal attack combos, so everyone will end up using them to some extent.

A condition is a situation in the ring which shifts the risk/reward calculations. An ongoing reward is probably a condition, but this is more about things like pits, walls you might get backed into or blasted off of, water that slows you down, fire jets which pop up once in a while, and so on.

A super action typically has a very good risk/reward profile, having a high priority, high damage level, and forgiving range. Their downside is that they use up some kind of limited resource or require a difficult activation. In the old days, the techniques of the fighters were often considered supers: roll to forward, down, forward, all the kicks? Hold back for two seconds, then forward and punch? These are hard to do. They take time and effort. There's the risk you'll fail to trigger them, and there's also the risk that the enemy will attack while you're farting around.

These days we've transitioned mostly over into supers that use up an energy bar, making it much more tactical and much less about whether you have a triple-jointed thumb. Street Fighter's introduction of "gems" is not one I agree with, but shows another path to supers: make them require you to perform specific in-fight events, such as hitting an enemy 8 times or whatever. Countering could even be considered a form of super, as it is generally quite hard to pull off and gives you a tremendous edge.

As you might guess, while most supers are simply one-off moves that are very good, other times they are part of an ongoing risk/reward pattern. For example, recovery canceling can allow you to chain your combo straight into another combo. "Berserk mode" makes you faster and more dangerous, altering your risk/reward profile for all moves for a few seconds. Countering frequently leads into a volley of your own moves, rather than being useful just on its own.

There may be a lot of overlap between "super" and "attack", but, hey, that's life.

Anyway, I'm not saying this is the be-all end-all of fighting game design. But it does give me some ideas as to new prototypes I could build!

Not Sim City

So, I was thinking about how to make a game like SimCity but without totally dropping the ball. The idea is that it has to be simpler and faster than the old SimCities, but not as simple or fast or always-onlined as the new one.

Here's my thought: what if it was a city where space could be zoned in large chunks or small chunks depending on the need? Cast aside the thought of road planning as a major career. Instead think of the zoning.

You start at a city center. A square kilometer or so of space starts off at a medium chunk size. You lay down a civic center, a police station, a bunch of chunks of commercial and light industrial, and so on. You weigh whether you want to build a bridge across the river, or flatten some scenic cliffs.

At the edge of your square kilometer of city land, the chunk size is in square kilometers. So you lay down some suburban residences, some farmlands, some woods. There. Now you not only have your city, but also the area surrounding it. Pretty and useful and fun.

As your city density rises and you run out of that initial square kilometer, you begin to "absorb" the nearby areas, breaking them down into chunks and extending into them exactly like the first square kilometer. So the dense suburbs near the city center are converted into more city, bit by bit. Hell, you might even absorb noncontiguous areas, creating two dense city centers with some chunky, largely undeveloped suburban space between them.

There's no reason you can't extend this zoning system further, either. Break down the city-block-sized chunks into much denser areas, and then reshape the buildings, parking lots, and parks within. Craft to your heart's content. Or use very large regions and paint them as being in the same country as you, different countries, different border types...

I like the idea of starting big. Like any painter, you start with a very rough sketch, jotting down the important elements. A forest here, some suburbs here. Then you start to break it down. Do the gritty work as you need to. And maybe you never do - maybe that part of the picture is fine as a rough sketch.

Start big, then start to break down into smaller pieces as complexity goes up. The smaller pieces allow you to handle growing complexity.

For example, imagine you have a commercial zone and surrounding it are six residential zones. Individually, each residential zone benefits from neighboring a commercial zone, and visa-versa. The commercial zone gives them jobs, the residential zone gives the commercial zone workers and a market.

But six residential zones is too many for one unpolished commercial zone. The tremendous number of people flooding into the commercial zone is too high for it to handle automatically, and even though it tweaks itself to find a good balance, each of the residential zones has slightly different parameters and therefore expects slightly different things of this one commercial zone. Efficiency plummets. Crime probably rises.

So you click on the commercial zone and switch it over to medium-level detail. This will allow you to build the zone like a machine, so it can handle the requirements on it.

Maybe the residential area to the north is wealthiest. So you put a swanky mall full of Starbucks on the northern end. Much of the rest of the commercial zone is dominated by a much less swanky set of shopping areas and Dunkin' Donuts. This means that the swanky crowd from the north quickly find a spot that works well with their specific needs, while the rest of the crowds are efficiently funneled into the area that works well with their specific needs. Of course, you could reach either one at any time, but it's a matter of lowering the friction. The better and more effectively you match the input/output needs, the higher the efficiency and lower the crime rate.

But every interaction has side effects, and malls aren't the only things in a commercial zone. Malls have requirements as well - for example, a massive amount of transport and warehousing and parking lots. So you have to build these secondary structures to "catch" and "buffer" the side effects and requirements of your primary buildings.

If you leave it at just malls, the employment levels in the commercial district would be terrible - no jobs higher than minimum wage is a great way to insure your nearby residential zones wither into economic dog days. So you also need to create office buildings.

These have a different set of secondary requirements and side effects that can be mitigated with different secondary structures such as police stations, subways, eateries, pubs...

So the initial challenge is this: set up your commercial district to filter inputs and outputs into various primary structures, and build the support structures needed to keep them running with a minimum of crime, traffic, and annoyance. If your filtering is bad, friction rises as people end up defaulting to unsuitable locations. If your support layout is bad, you waste lots of space or end up with a high crime rate or a low efficiency rate.

Then the challenge evolves into keeping your commercial district suitable as the populations and economic conditions of the surrounding zones change. It always comes down to that in construction games: choking on your own creation. It isn't the difficulty of the game that kills you in the end. It's the layout you created. And this seems like it would highlight that.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Social NPCs

How do you make social NPCs? Here's a new approach.

Fundamentally, social is a matter of conversation. It's not back-and-forth: it's simultaneously offering a bit of your mind and looking to see how the other person is receiving it. You may simply offer bits of your mind over and over and over, with no "balance" of them offering pieces of their mind in exchange. All they are doing from the perspective of an outside is listening, but from the perspective of the talker they are offering feedback. They are offering their judgment and acceptance and incredulity and so on, all in line with the conversation.

So, to simulate social NPCs in a game, isn't it necessary to allow for this kind of conversation? The kind of conversation where you respond not by taking control of the conversation or having your line-item dialog tree option, but instead allowing the player and the NPC to understand each other's intentions via an ongoing passive response.

Here's an example. An friend comes up to you and says "My front window broke last night!" As this is being said, the player enters their response. It comes out as "oh?" or "whoa!" or "huh!" or "so?" or whatever. Then the friend goes on... but what they go on with depends on whether they think you care, what they think you want to hear. So they may go on with "... so, that was odd, yeah. How's life?" or they may go on with "I woke up and there was glass everywhere!" or they may go with "Maybe someone is throwing bricks at my house?!" It all depends on whether you seem to want to hear more.

There's a lot of stuff you need to do in order to build this into a game. You need to give it both clarity and texture. So the player understands that answering "oh?" and "whoa!" are going to have two different results, or at least result in two different perceptions of the player by the NPC. Moreover, the actual conversation needs to be flexible enough to adjust to the emotional or personal interest given. This can't realistically be done with a dialog tree - the explosion of options makes it impossible, especially if you use the rule where if you hit the same interjection button multiple times it makes you give the interjection more emphatically. Having four different options per line is bad enough, but having 8 or 16 would be impossible.

You can do it by writing several chains of dialog, though. For example, you might write a technical chain and an emotional chain. Each link on the chain is heavier than the last.

So if the NPC says "My front window broke last night!" you might indicate technical interest: "oh?" or you might indicate personal interest: "are you okay?" This would determine whether the next line is taken from the technical or emotional chain.

Moreover, if your interjections are more emphatic, it simply means to skip some of the links. The NPC feels comfortable presenting a heavier link because she knows you are interested enough that you won't consider it a burden or boring. So if you hit the technical interest button a bunch of times, you might interject "wow, that must have been a hell of a mess!" And rather than simply taking the next link on the technical chain ("there was glass everywhere"), she'd respond with a link a distance down the line, something like "well, cleaning it up was a sure annoying. That stuff can cut you!"

When you are feeding one chain, pulling down links for conversation, the other chain remains still. So if you express technical interest for a while, but then say "are you okay?" they won't skip to the 20th emotional link, they'll just move to the first one. However, you can stay on the technical chain by expressing more technical interest but still expressing some personal interest, which might end up pulling the emotional chain along without actually causing any of the links to be brought up in conversation. Or visa-versa.

The key to this is that both technical and personal chains have in-game reasons to pick them. A link that is brought up in conversation has an in-game effect. A technical link would improve the NPC's ability to resolve the situation faster and perhaps grant them skill experience or emotional stability. An emotional link would deepen your relationship with the NPC, but cause them to get emotional, upsetting their efficiency at in-game tasks or losing some skill experience or extending the duration of the situation.

The conversation isn't unlimited, either. Your relationship or their energy level or whatever determines the maximum number of lines they'll say. So you may want to leap ahead to the heavy links as soon as possible.

I would actually make the links visible on the screen for the player to see. That way you can put in broken or damaged links. Conversational bits that will abruptly end the conversation or cause offense or something. You need to avoid having them brought up, so you need to skip over them or spool past them while on the other line.

In this way, the conversation becomes an actual game, where you are talking to someone and it has flexible in-game results. It's not just a matter of +10% bargaining or whatever.

More complexly, this system could be built to allow the player to talk and the NPC to interject. This would be a matter where the NPC can see the broken/damaged links in the conversation and their interjections are partly based on personal preference and partly to give the player hints that there might be damage on a given chain in a certain number of links. So the player chooses which chains to advance how many notches, taking into consideration which links he thinks are broken and how much the NPC gives a shit.

It could also be adapted to allow for back-and-forth conversations, although this would require an actual conversation generation system.