Domains of Play

 

It’s probably not an exaggeration to claim that Jason VandenBerghe is one of my *favorite* devs. He’s one of those “I want to be like this when I grow up” guys.

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His beard alone is #facegoals.

He’s got a series of talks up in the GDC vault that revolve around developing his thesis regarding Domains of Play, a kind of player-typing system that helps developers look at their game through the eyes of many different types of players so that they can consciously choose their audience.

First: The Intro.

Second: Development.

Third: Over Time.

Fourth (this is an article): The Follow-Up.

A few things really resonated with me in terms of the regular practice of design. Let’s dig into them!

Continue reading “Domains of Play”

Mega Man 2 and Resource Management

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I played through (most of) Mega Man 2 this week, and in doing so I saw how the designers iterated on the original Mega Man‘s use of the iconic limited-use Special Weapons. In many instances (such as with the Quick Boomerang and the Metal Blade) the energy consumption of the weapon is mild enough that you can use it as a replacement for your Arm Cannon. Others (such as the Time Stopper and Atomic Fire) have variable rates of energy consumption, and can suck up a little or a lot of energy.

However, the point of no-return frustration for me was that the demand for a weapon often outstrips its energy, especially in the late-game. This perhaps reaches a peak when you hit the Boobeam Trap at the end of Wiley Stage 4, which are invulnerable to anything other than Crash Bombs, and are located behind walls that themselves can only be detonated with Crash Bombs. This is a sudden Pop Quiz about your knowledge of this specific weapon – it’s ammo capacity and it’s blast radius, specifically. And if you screw up once, because weapons don’t replenish when you lose a life, you’re forced to Continue, and play Wiley-4 all over again.

And then, if you manage to accomplish this, you are faced with a boss rush with no weapon recharges, where, at the end, you meet Dr. Wiley who, with his most unavoidable weapon, is mostly vulnerable…to…crash bombs.

WELP.

Clearly, the idea is that you’ll have to use a few Continues to grind through this, but JD ain’t got time for that.

In thinking of alternatives to the energy system, I was wondering what other trade-offs one could make for these “better” items. It’d be an interesting experiment to see these Special Weapons done as horizontal power-ups rather than vertical power-ups, as in a Metroidvania-style explore ’em up – to bake into the weapon’s use a reason not to use it that isn’t “I might run out of it.”

MM2 has a bit of this – the limited range on the Quick Boomerang, the charge time on Atomic Fire, the “time limit” on the Time Stopper, and the “wait for the bomb to explode before you fire another Crash Bomb” are good elements of that. What would the game look like if these were the ONLY limitations? Would the player want to use more weapons more often, in more situations? Try to make “difficult” weapons work? Express their personality with their weapons of choice? I think it’d be an interesting pressure on Mega Man’s jump-and-shoot platforming basics to be able to change so much about the “shoot” verb (and maybe the jump verb, too, with things like Item-1, Item-2, and Item-3) on the fly, without having to deal with the loss aversion of limited ammo.

We Should Let Them Die

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Fujibayashi is a stone cold killer.

In this, I’ll be talking about this interview with the Breath of the Wild devs from The Verge. It is good and pretty and you should read it.

That interview has helped crystallize a thought in me about how death mechanics are often treated as burdensome in the play of a game, or even tacked-on. A game like Uncharted features death as a speedbump, because death gets in the way of the story, interrups the character arc. Most deaths in games are a version of “but that didn’t really happen…” that serve mostly a perfunctory role at this point.

When a game chooses to bear some teeth with swift death, they are often characterized as “hard.” Dark Souls comes to mind, as it always does, but anyone familiar with the Zelda franchise is happy to note how easy it is to die in Breath of the Wild in comparison to most of the games.

I think part of what these games are exhibiting – and what a generation of gamers is re-learning after the days of “Nintendo Hard,” – is that these deaths are a way to reinforce the rules of the game you’re playing. “They fall, they learn,” as Takizawa puts it.

Deaths are not learning experiences in a game like Uncharted because it’s systems are simple and there’s not much to really learn. You move, you shoot, you press X at the right time. These aren’t especially complicated interactions. Do what the game tells you to, or die. You just learn to do the thing.

But in a game that takes death seriously as an opportunity to communicate with the player, it can be a fiercely effective method of communication.

As par for the course, tabletop games have been wrestling with this particular dichotomy for a while, and most right now are rather squarely in the same place that a lot of videogames are: death is to be avoided, because it interrupts the story. Resurrection makes death cheap, the argument goes, because if characters don’t really die, then there’s no consequence!

As I launch into my next design project, I’m keeping in mind what fail-states look like and how to make them say something, and not just serve to make the player occasionally press some buttons.

 

Mega Man (Analysis)

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Well, hey there, classic game from my childhood that I never played. What’s a thing like you doing in a place like Steam? Come here often?

Yeah, so, Mega Man! The classic! I got started with the series with Mega Man X on the SNES, and that’s a game I played very thoroughly (hadouken!). I was reminded of it recently watching Daniel Floyd of Extra Credits play through old awful Sonic games – reminded me of another franchise that has gone spectacularly off the rails in recent memory (Mighty No. 9, or How to Dissapoint a Fanbase). I picked it up in the achingly authentic Mega Man Collection, and whipped through it.

Unlike most of the games I analyze here, I haven’t completed it. I’m not sure that I will…the Yellow Devil is The Worst, and it might be a meat wall I can’t chop through. But I’ve given it a fair shake, having worked my way through the six levels. This game is Danny DeVito in It’s Always Sunny – nasty, brutish, and short.

So, some lessons learned:

Continue reading “Mega Man (Analysis)”

Character Creation is the Whole Game (Analysis)

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This neat little microgame by Rob Beschizza is a pretty fascinating idea. You’re assigning points to six ability scores D&D style, but each time you add a point, your avatar goes on an unseen adventure and returns with gold, XP, loot, and, potentially, a promotion of some sort. The goal of the game is, apparently, to achieve as much as possible in your short life (much like life itself, I suppose!).

I appreciate it as a bit of a study in minimalism. Character creation is probably half the fun of any RPG, as the complex character options in various tabletop RPG’s and, well, anything there’s a Monster Factory episode on demonstrate nicely, and turning it into a game in and of itself is a nice bit of elegance.

Lessons Learned

  • Fit as much as possible into a single action. No sense in complicatin’ things up.
  • Building a character is inherently rewarding. Envisioning your fictional avatar is a fun toy in and of itself.
  • Discovering hidden options adds replayability. With a game loop this short, the ability to add to different stats and experience subtly different stories adds some replayability. If the game wanted to enhance this aspect of itself, it might make unique endcards for the higher-ranking achievements (I got up to Warlord while I was playing, which is a neat title, but it’s the same job screen you see above).
  • Clarity helps the experience. First few times I played, I didn’t realize you could go into negative points or reduce your scores, and the various careers or paths you follow aren’t really differentiated, leading to feel pretty samey in practice.

Night in the Woods Analysis

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I was pretty delighted by my experience with this game. I found the strongest elements to be character and setting, rather than mechanics, but this is a strong vote in favor of narrative as a key part of a game experience – sometimes, the only part that really matters.

Mechanically, I first thought of NitW as akin to a dating sim – the core loop seems to be developing relationships with the various townsfolk, and especially one of your core group of friends. But unlike a more straightforward “spend time with the NPC until they like you” kind of game, NitW takes these opportunities to showcase character dynamics. It puts you in some situations where, no matter your choices, your friends will be a little fed up with you, a little annoyed by you, and – justifiably – pissed off at you for some of your character’s own negative traits.

That’s some damn fine storytelling, and it’s a place that many games fear to tread – to have characters who are multifaceted and who have relationships rather than just tropes that validate whatever choices the player makes. It’s deep and grown up.

The other bit of game mechanic that is prominent is the exploration of the town – runnin’ and jumpin’. This can be a bit repetitive, and does get a little dull as you hop-hop-HOP, hop-hop-HOP, hop-hop-HOP, hop-hop-HOP all around town to visit everyone. The town is well-realized, but the character of Possum Springs is more developed in dialogue than it is through exploration. The decision tree is simple enough that it could’ve been a Twine game, and it would’ve lost a bit of tedium in that interface. (Of course, the price to be paid would be the beautiful artwork and animation, so perhaps not worth it!) NitW is superb literature, and any survey of great American post-industrial writing would be improved by its inclusion. I don’t know that it’s a rewarding challenge or a rewarding system, but it is a very rewarding experience.

So, in the end…

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Flawed characters make you want to learn more and dig deeper. Give people problems that can’t be solved.
  • Protagonists can be flawed, too. Don’t automatically make the protagonist their best friend.
  • Multiple characters that talk of one thing can give you insight into different angles on that thing.

One Year on DM’s Guild

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After a little less than one year selling products through the DM’s Guild, I figured this new year would be a good time to analyze some actual numbers. I’m probably on the smaller side in terms of sales on the platform (no bestsellers), but I’ve got consistent sales and well-reviewed products across a range of purchase models and product types, which gives me a lot of ways to slice and dice the limited amount of data I’ve got.

So here’s a few Interesting Things, if you’re into the data crunching. It’s a long post, but I am kind of a nerd about this stuff! Sneak Preview:

  • I made about 1/10th of what I’d make per word as an actual writer (or less!)
  • Pay What You Want might not be worth it from a creator’s standpoint
  • People don’t comment on products
  • Products linked to WotC Storylines lead to better sales overall

Want some more details? Okay!

Continue reading “One Year on DM’s Guild”

Design Diary: The Amazon

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I’m involved in a little project of creating a DMs Guild product that includes the updates of various character archetypes from earlier editions. One of those character archetypes is The Amazon, from the second edition Complete Fighter’s Handbook. You can see a work-in-process version below.

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My hope here is to talk a bit about the process of designing these things as I’m going through them.

Goals

My  goal is to allow people who enjoyed the kit from the source material to realize the the archetype in a satisfying way in the current game. I prefer to use a light touch where possible.

Research & Analysis

The source material for this kit is weighed down with come good ol’ fashioned 1980’s gender baggage. Though it does an admirable job of confronting the gender bias that might have persisted in the audience, the very fact that there is a kit specifically designed for women warriors is…kind of remarkable in it’s ability to create the Other in game rules.

That said, the archetype is certainly a fantasy staple that persists into the modern age, and it’s an appealing warrior archetype – an outsider, dedicated to war, suspicious of the society she finds herself in…there’s a lot of juicy potential in that narrative.

I also consulted the Amazon monster entry from the 2e era, and derived from there a few more variations on the theme. I identified seven different “flavors” of Amazon described in the source material.These seven kinds of characters formed the core of my design.

Design Notes

To meet the primary design goal, I considered what was most remarkable and unique about the kit as presented. The “bonus for being a SURPRISE competent woman warrior” wasn’t something that made sense in the Forgotten Realms assumptions of D&D (where gender equality is the norm), and some of the 2e-era role-playing restrictions weren’t exactly something I wanted to tie into the mechanics of the class. I wanted it to be up to the players and the DM how this hero was treated, and to presume she was treated no differently than any other woman warrior in the Realms – though she may see herself differently.

I gravitated toward the proficiencies the character requires or receives as a bonus as distinguishing – the mount, the spear, and the bow. Adding on the flavors from the monster version of the Amazon, this came to mean seven significant kinds of characters:

  1. A charioteer
  2. A mounted archer
  3. A sailor
  4. An elven variant
  5. A dwarven variant
  6. A gnomish variant
  7. A halfling variant

The racial variants had significant deviation in their proficiencies and in their apparent playstyle, so they couldn’t just be rolled into One True Amazon very easily, without erasing some of their distinctive traits. These seven character types became “The Seven Sisters” in the current design – seven city-states that bear witness to the ancient ways of the Amazons.

In turning to the existing 5e rules to see how these characters would be realized, I saw a lot of support for most of these characters. Fighting on horseback, with two weapons, and with ranged weapons (thrown or bows) are all fairly decently supported. In my initial run, I created a subclass for an Amazon Warrior, providing seven different potential benefits all centered around that Amazon group’s particular style. However, subsequent drafts found this to be a bit unwieldy and unnecessary – there was nothing particularly special about being a horse-archer in 5e D&D that taking Sharpshooter and Mounted Combatant wouldn’t achieve, and a lot of class abilities, in trying to incentivize the style, were re-treading ground already tread by  other rules elements. In addition, I felt that fighting with a spear or a sling or chariot shouldn’t be something you “graduate” to at 3rd level – you shouldn’t start the game wielding a pike and then turn it into a spear after your first few adventures. That’s not an “upgrade.”

So I simplified. Looking beyond subclasses, I sought to build these characters using as few new options as possible, and especially in realizing their unique fighting styles from level 1. In doing so, I identified three main areas that, without new options, were a little anemic:

  1. There needed to be some reason to be a charioteer for that character type.
  2. For the spear-fighting “hoplyte” character type, there needed to be a mechanic that raised spear damage to the level of most martial weapon damage, while still letting them wield it in one hand. Fighting with a spear needed to be there.
  3. For the halfling variant, there needed to be a mechanic to raise javelin and sling damage to the level of most martial weapon damage.

These also didn’t strike me as exclusively Amazon in nature. To embody an ancient Greek spear-fighter or one who uses primitive weapons (or a chariot!), one needn’t necessarily be an Amazon. I did want to ensure that campaigns that didn’t use feats could still access these types.

The answer seemed to be fighting styles. Though these fighting styles are a bit bigger and more complex than the existing options in the Player’s Handbook, the concept itself allowed multiple character types – in multiple classes – to access these mechanics. It also addressed the need to power-up weak weapons from Level 1, which was important in achieving a feel for the character.

Ongoing Concerns

These styles are a little inelegant and wordy. They combine many benefits under a single option. Their lists of benefits feel more “feat-like” than “fighting-style” like. I think these are important in concert, but I also wonder about just creating new equipment to fill that void (a javelin, spear, and sling that count as a “martial weapon” in and of themselves?), though I think that would rob the Amazon of some of her “ancient” flavor. There should be some way to give every campaign (even those without feats) a first-level fighter who uses “simple” weapons as effectively as most fighters use martial weapons. I’ve got concerns about mounts and chariots that relate to how 5e in general treats mounts and animal companions – I don’t like how the charioteer isn’t at “full strength” without a chariot, and there’s not an easy mechanic to ensure they always have a chariot in a fight (at the very least, sometimes a chariot just isn’t appropriate for a fight you’re doing). At the moment, our charioteer is kind of a wasted option in a campaign that takes place in cramped kobold warrens or somesuch.

A Lesson Learned

The aesthetic of your character – the weapons and armor you prefer to wield – are fairly ground-level concerns. You should look the part of the warrior you’re embodying from basically 1st level on, even if you don’t have all the bells and whistles yet.