Montag, 22. Februar 2010

Alchemical Invulnerability

Imagine the following situation: You're fighting a relatively tough enemy and have lost most of your health. If he lands another hit, you're dead. You've managed to get down his health too, though, and you also need just one hit to finish him.
Now, in a turn-based RPG this would lead to a very tense moment of choosing the attack type with the highest to-hit-chance and lots of praying. In an action-RPG, it will lead to very exciting button-mashing while you try to avoid the enemy blows and land your own deadly strike.

At least, it theoretically would lead to a very exciting and tense moment. In most RPGs, the player will just drink a potion that instantly restores his health and then he'll finish off the battered enemy without any problem whatsoever.

Most games make it much too easy to gulp down dozens of potions in the middle of combat. In Morrowind, for example, you just open your inventory, which pauses the game and gives you time to drink an infinite amount of potions. This means that the combat loses most of its challenge as long as you take enough of those magical insta-heal potions with you. It's just the same in the Fallout games, only there you have stimpacks instead of potions. But drinking lots of potions in the middle of a battle is neither realistic nor challenging.

Some games, though, do it right. The Gothic games and also Risen make it almost impossible to drink a potion in the middle of combat. Well, you can try to drink one, but you have to be far away from the enemy because you're completely vulnerable while you drink, since you have to put your weapons away and watch a drinking animation. When fighting multiple enemies in a narrow dungeon, drinking a potion is usually suicide.

Another great example is Jagged Alliance 2. Yes, there are no magical potions since it's a modern real-world setting, but there are first aid kits. And while those usually restore health in other games, in JA2 they just bandage your wounds so you don't bleed to death. If you get hit, you lose health, and you won't be able to heal this wound until the end of the battle. This makes the whole thing a lot more tactical and interesting. Using cover and avoiding to get hit is essential to winning the battle.

Another problem with the use of potions is that usually, enemies don't use them. Fallout is a nice example for a game where enemies do use stimpacks if they have them in their inventory, but other than that I don't know of many other games that have this feature.

Generally, I'd like to see more games where the use of potions during combat is either restricted (maybe by restricting access to your inventory and only allowing you to use items strapped to your belt) or where there aren't any insta-heal potions at all. It would make most combat encounters a lot more challenging and interesting.

Freitag, 1. Januar 2010

Realism vs Fun

Your mighty hero has journeyd through dungeons for days, found countless treasures and fought a powerful dragon at the end of the dungeon for about 2 hours straight. But now he feels a certain pressure at the end of his bowels and craps his pants. Understandable, he hasn't been to a toilet for more than two days now.
This is not what happens in most CRPGs. Yet it is what would realistically happen.
But would it be fun? Having to go to the toilet regularly to prevent your hero from pooping/peeing his pants? No. Not really.

This is a very popular argument among people who don't like too much realism like having to eat and drink. They say "so you want the game to be realistic? Then you would also like the necessity of going to the toilet and that's just tedious and not fun."
Well yeah, it's not if all these necessities boil down to Ultima 7's character feeding. "Avatar, I am hungry!", say your companions and you have to go to the inventory, select an item of food and feed it to the hungry character. I've also tried an Oblivion mod that does the same, but it's just as tedious. You hear your character's stomach grumble, then you have to select an item of food from the inventory and eat it. So what's the problem about those two systems? They require manual labour. I call it labour because it's not fun, just a tedious element of gameplay that doesn't really add anything. Another problem is that your character(s) get hungry too quickly so you have to repeat clicking on food all the time.

Now, roguelikes usually have hunger as an element, too. But it's no that bad in those games. You always have a "hunger" stat that is easy to check (like in ADOM, where your current hunger level is at the bottom of the game window) and satisfying your hunger takes two keystrokes at most. Press E, then pick an item of food. And since in roguelikes, food is scarce and you travel through a dangerous environment, it actually adds a layer of survival to the game. In Ultima 7 you could buy food in almost every town, it was relatively cheap and you could fill your backpack with it. It's very unlikely for you to ever run out of food since there's always enough of it around. That's why the hunger element doesn't add anything to the gameplay in Ultima 7, while in roguelikes it does.

Another great example is Realms of Arkania. You could catch diseases easily and had to eat, but not while in a dungeon or town. The survival elements were mostly restricted to traveling. Your rangers could go search for food in the wilderness. It was all about strategic planning: bring enough food and warm clothes with you so you don't starve/get sick, or have a character with you who can provide food when in the wilderness. It wasn't about tedious micromanagement but about planning, which made it fun.

As you can see, realism doesn't necessarily mean tedium. If done well, it can add a lot to the game. But the need to feed isn't the only element of realism you can add to RPGs. What about combat? Hitpoints are sure unrealistic! Well, you can use a wound-system or put more emphasis on (destructible) armour. There are always ways to add more realism to a game without making it non-fun. Most people say "If you want realistic combat you'd die in 5 seconds!!" but no, it's possible to design more realistic combat without making it too unforgiving and non-fun. Jagged Alliance 2, while still hitpoint-based, did it pretty well in my opinion. Getting wounded means you'll lose hitpoints each round until you bandage the wound, which makes it important to have a character who knows how to use a medkit. Not being able to regenerate lost HP during combat makes tactical decisions more important and doesn't let the player abuse health potions/stimpacks/medkits.

As you can see, realism can also be implemented in a fun way. I, for one, am in favour of more realism as long as it's done well. I don't like having to micro-manage feeding my party members when they're hungry because they can't do it by themselves, but I do like having to pack enough provisions for a long travel. Realism can be fun and add some complexity to a game, and I'd really love seeing more RPGs implementing realistic features in a good way.

Montag, 21. Dezember 2009

Hey I see you got a shop, wanna buy all the old shit I collected?

Did you ever wonder why every damn shop on the whole world/in the entire universe/multiverse buys all the crappy shit you've looted from slain enemies? Usually, I don't think much about it, either, but when I thought about the problem of the player becoming the richest man in the world at the end of most RPGs, I looked for the source of the problem. And usually it's because you can sell everything you loot from slain enemies to shopkeepers, because every single shop does not only sell but also buy. Weaponsmiths gladly pay you 5 gold pieces for a rusty old sword, even though they don't really need it since they got a much better stock to sell and they probably have other sources of buying iron, too. Heck, some shopkeepers even might give you a single gold piece for a bunch of useless rags that have no practical use whatsoever.

Of course, if you sell really useless shit you also get a really low amount of money for it. But since you find a LOT of that stuff over the course of the game, you can earn a small fortune by selling it to various shopkeepers. Usually, if you raise your bartering skill, you can even get quite a good price for your useless shit.

Solution? Make shopkeepers tell you to fuck off when you try selling them stuff they don't need. Or make not every shop in the whole country buy stuff from you. It's completely unrealistic, anyways, that one guy goes into a shop and sells about 50 swords to the shopkeeper and he shells out all the money he has to buy these swords from you. Even though he already has 100 swords on sale and nobody ever buys them. So, just make not everyone buy everything, and make some people buy nothing at all because they're just selling. You can't go into a supermarket and sell them a bar of chocolate, either, even though they do sell chocolate. They already have someone who delivers it to them, so they don't need random people selling them things they looted off anyone's body.

And even if you try selling them something useful, they should pay you less than it's worth. If you have a high haggling skill, most games allow you to sell a chainmail shirt to a shopkeeper for 100 gold pieces, while he sells it for 110. He'd make no profit at all from a deal like that. Nobody would do that in real life. He'd maybe pay you half of what he sells it for. And since 90% of the things you sell to shopkeepers in RPGs are used and also show signs of use (if you kill someone in a fight, both his weapon and armor should show some signs of damage), most of them shouldn't be interested in them in the first place, except if the items are high quality or magical. There could be some second-hand stores, sure, but you wouldn't get that much money from selling things to them. And all you could buy would be cheap worn-out stuff.

So generally, the problem of players ending up with more money than they can spend is not the fact that they can loot so much. It's the fact that shopkeepers buy everything you want to sell them *and* don't offer items of higher quality than you can loot. This should be ideally combined with equipment deteriorating when used, and bang, you got a more realistic system and don't end up being rich.

Freitag, 18. Dezember 2009

Filler combat, or: I just claimed more victims than WW2

Filler combat. Those words are synonymous to boredom and tediousness, at least to me. Whichever designer thinks that adding tons of enemies into same-looking dungeons is a good idea should be shot. Excessive filler combat was what ruined many parts of Dragon Age for me. You'd go to an area, have a short introduction with dialogue and sidequests, and then you'd enter a huge dungeon with ever the same mobs attacking you and no way to avoid them.

Now, I enjoy a good dungeon crawler. I enjoy the Might and Magics and the Wizardries, and even the Icewind Dales. But I do not enjoy filler combat. So what qualifies as filler combat? Surely, pure dungeon crawlers consist only of combat and not much else?
Well yes, they do. But they have balanced, diverse and interesting encounters. Some enemies have special abilites. You'll always find teams of enemies with different abilities working as a team. You'll have easy encounters, moderate encounters and challenging encounters. And you are rewarded with XP and loot. Let's take Dragon Age as an example, again. A few encounters are really challenging, but that's it. Most are moderately challenging and consist of ever the same enemies: one caster, a few melee guys and a few archers. They all use the same tactics, no matter if they're undead, darkspawn or bandits. Every combat encounter, with a few well-designed exceptions, is the same. And the dungeons have no interesting elements like hidden rooms. And the loot isn't good, either, most of the time it consist of a potion, gold and ingredients. That's what I'd define as filler combat: combat against ever the same enemies without variation, lame rewards and same-looking dungeons without surprises.

That's what leads to combat becoming tedious after a while. Instead of Wizardry 8's hard fights with proper rewards within cleverly designed and varied dungeons, or World of Xeen's many different landscapes and monsters who utilize different abilities, we get long drawn-out linear dungeons with unavoidable combat against ever the same enemies. They change neither in abilities, nor in graphics, nor in behaviour. There are about three models for the standard encounter: bandit, darkspawn, undead. And three classes: warrior, mage, archer. A darkspawn archer will behave exactly the same as an undead and bandit archer, and also have the same special abilities.

Now, to clarify the concept of really really annoying filler combat and why it is bad design: imagine Wizardry 8's Road to Arnika. Got it? Alright. You probably remember ridiculously challenging fights, and lots of them, until you finally reach Arnika, right? Well, you probably tried to walk past the enemies by staying at the edge of the map, hugging the mountains. Now, imagine this wasn't possible. Imagine the Road to Arnika was very narrow, twice as long and had a much larger encounter density. Sounds tedious and totally not fun? Exactly that is what excessive filler combat is about. Adding encounters for the sake of making the game longer without really thinking about those encounters.

Dragon Age's Deep Roads are a good example for that. You get several moderately challenging encounters, then even more moderately challenging encounters, and always it's the same mobs of enemies dropping the same loot. Then you go on and are attacked by a large mob of weak deep stalkers. Finally a different enemy, and not as challenging! Nice change of pace. Except that you, again, get huge hordes of them thrown at you. Once you've gotten to the final area of the Deep Roads (the most interesting part of it), you've probably slaughtered hundreds of darkspawn and just as many deep stalkers.

Even worse to me was the Temple of Sacred Ashes. Huge dungeon with masses upon masses of cultists. At the end, you've slaughtered a whole fucking army. A much better design of those areas would've been to add one or two moderately challenging encounters, then one or two easy ones, one more challenging one, then a hard one, then the boss fight, end. Instead we get dozens of mobs, all with the same difficulty, and you get tired of it halfway through. And it's unrealistic, too, because no cult could possibly have so many members, especially in a remote village somewhere in the mountains.

In conclusion I have to give one little hint to game designers everywhere: put a little more thought into your encounters. Challenging encounters are good, yes, but don't let the challenge be the same in every single one of them. Create many different enemies with many different abilities that all need a different approach to defeat, then make most encounters varied. Nobody likes fighting the same guys in the same places over and over again. That's boring.

Freitag, 31. Juli 2009

The game lives and breathes, holy shit!

I recently read a news article on the Codex where some developer talked about the most important features for making a gameworld seem alive. He said unobtrusive interfaces and NPC schedules are the two things that have the greatest effect on immersion.
Well, I call bullshit on that one. Especially the "unobtrusive interface". What's the point? Some of the most immersive games I've played had quite complex interfaces and I didn't mind them even a bit. NPC schedules can contribute a lot to immersion, but aren't the most important thing.

Most important for making a "living and breathing" gameworld is the design. Make it logical. Make it consistent. The game feels alive when the player thinks that such a world could, theoretically, exist. If there are many plot holes, silly design decisions and just plain bad design, the world feels artificial and the immersion-level goes down the drain. Just take a look at Fallout 3. It's been hailed as very immersive, and, yes, some parts of the game are indeed immersive - but this immersiveness is immediately killed when you discover, for example, a quest involving two super-heroes fighting each other in some town. It's supposed to be a dark and gritty post-apocalyptic setting, and then you get a bunch of silly-dressed superheroes fighting each other? That's just plain ridiculous and ruins the impression of playing in a realistic setting. There are other occasions like this, and they work wonders in ruining the immersion. You can't feel immersed in a setting that doesn't make any sense and is inconsistent as fuck.

So, first lesson in making your gameworld live and breathe: make it consistent, logical, don't include unfitting things just because you think they're cool. I usually make this mistake too when creating new settings, but then I read through it again and strike out everything that makes the fantasy world seem artificial. Making a game-world consistent is hard. It's easy to think up individual elements that would be cool/awesome on their own, but are totally unfitting in the kind of setting you're trying to create. Don't include them. Or at least adjust them so that they make more sense in the context of the setting. Also, try thinking up reasons for why places exist and stuff happens. Why is there a ruined tower in the wilderness, and why is it full of undead? Put some journal on a dead soldier in the dungeon which can be found by the player. The journal explains how the undead conquered the tower. That's a little detail that adds a LOT to immersion. I'm going to talk about details later on in more, well, detail. Also try to give the evil guys some logical motivation, a reason why they want to destroy the world. Arcanum did this really well. Generally, just put some thought behind everything you put into the gameworld and you should be fine. Not just "I think this would be cool, let's add it to the game!", but "Before we add this, let's think how we can properly include it into the gameworld."

A logical, consistent setting is the most important factor for making the game immersive. But it's not the only one. There are also smaller factors that can substantially increase the immersion-factor and make the world feel real. I'll just refer to them as "details". Details include background information, NPC schedules and level-design. Let's talk about background information, first. This is mostly composed of history. General history of your fantasy world, mythology, background information about certain places and so on. The more detailed the world's history, the more real it seems. Going into a library in the capital city and finding lots of books about the country's history makes it seem like a real country. The Elder Scrolls series did this really well - there are countless books to discover and read in Daggerfall, Morrowind and Oblivion. Morrowind did the whole "background information" aspect perfectly. The gameworld had lots of historical information, different cultures, an interesting political situation... it seemed realistic because there was a lot going on in the past and there's still a lot going on when you, the player, arrive on Vvardenfell.
NPC-schedules are another detail that can add a lot to immersion. Morrowind's world was very immersive, but it didn't feel "alive" because all NPCs did was stand around staring at walls. Good examples for NPC-schedules that did their job well are Ultima VII, the Gothic games and The Witcher. NPCs went to work, went to the pub in the evening, and went home to sleep at night. Making your cities seem alive isn't even a lot of work. It can all be done by simple scripting. Give each NPC a daily routine and voila, they look like real people living a life. It doesn't even require a complex AI, just some simple scripting. Heck, Ultima VII could do it and that game has been made in 1992.
What Ultima VII also does well is world interaction. You can even bake bread! Generally, every item has some use. Not directly a gameplay use, but you can play around with everything. Fill a bucket with water, harvest grain... it doesn't really add to the gameplay, but it does add to the immersion-factor. Things in the gameworld actually have a use instead of just being decoration.
That's where we come to level-design. Decoration is important there to make the world feel real. Houses should be filled with decorative items (depending on who owns the house, of course - rich people have more expensive items than poor people). Dungeons shouldn't just have hallways and rooms, but should have some items in there that show the function of the room. Torturing tools show that the room once was a torture chamber, cooking tools that it was a kitchen and so on. Decorating the places in the game makes them look more real, which is good.

So, in the end, there are many factors that make a world feel alive, but most of them are just minor details. All those details don't help if the setting is inconsistent and consists of "themepark" locations and places/quests that were added just because someone thought it's a cool idea. Get your gameworld right and only *then* you should think about things like NPC-schedules.

Also, while I generally think that the perspective and interface don't matter much, 1st person or behind-the-shoulder 3rd person seems to generally be more immersive than isometric. But I don't give a fuck about interfaces. Good, immersive games are complex. Complex games need complex interfaces. I also don't care if there's a health-bar at the bottom left in my first person view. Some people say that truly immersive games shouldn't have any visible stauts bars in first person view. I don't even notice those bars if they're small enough, but I wouldn't want to miss them- they offer useful information about your character and should stay where they are. "Unobtrusive" interfaces aren't important at all to make the game immersive. Good world design is.

Mittwoch, 22. Juli 2009


So, I got a blog now. And it will be about games. Game design, to be exact. I'll post some general rants about gaming, ideas for games and general ideas I have about game design.
Not much to post yet. First real post will come soon, though.