Thursday, September 27, 2007

More than numbers

I've mentioned before how the whole "Shortword +1, Shortsword +2" design leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Oh sure, we're way beyond that now. Now it's "Shortsword: 1-11 damage, Shortsword: 5-16 damage" and such.

The problem with this kind of design is that the difference between the two shortswords isn't felt or experienced as much as it's known. One shortsword plays just like the other. The upgrade in damage-dealing probably doesn't even mean that your foes are going down faster, but instead works as an access key to stronger foes (the same odds against tougher enemies, but the fights feel the same).

It's not enough for gear or skills to be diffferent; they must feel different to have a significant impact on gameplay.

The step after that one was to invent different types of damage. This sword and that sword do comparable damage, but this one adds fire damage while that one adds frost damage. If your lucky, that means the game creates a red or blue flash upon the weapon's impact, and maybe a sound effect to boot.

Diablo 2 took it a couple steps further.

First, the different elements actually equated different playstyles. If you prefer reliability, then you might choose weapons with fire damage for fire's predictable damage range (3-4 damage on a level 1 weapon). If you're a gambler or don't mind minimal damage sometimes if it means you can strike truly devastating blows at other times, then you might choose weapons with shock damage for it's wide range (1-8 damage on a level 1 weapon). Poison damage could be regularly devastating, but it takes time to work (say, 12 damage over 3 seconds). I admire this about the game, though I still don't like the number-crunching it promotes.

Second, Diablo 2 gave frost damage (and, oddly, only frost damage) both a significant visual bonus and a non-damage tactical advantage. If you kill an enemy with your frost coated-weapon, then there's a chance the enemy will turn to ice and shatter upon the final blow. That's a visual effect that is really noticed and actively enjoyed by the player. The tactical advantage is that an enemy chilled by your frozen weapon moves slower for a second or two. Again, this is something the player really noticed and actively enjoyed.

In most games, skills progress numerically in the same way as weapons and armor, but they tend to have more interesting visuals and tactical influence. M&M: Dark Messiah added interesting physical consequences to some skills, like letting enemies slip on the ice you just cast onto the floor. There are plenty of skills in various games that do things like trip up the enemy, but the interesting thing about the Dark Messiah example is that the skill could be used in multiple ways.

Could weapons and armor also be used in multiple ways?

Anyway, Craig's got an interesting discussion going on his site about equipment in RPGs. Honestly, I'm not sure yet how I would design my equipment system. But I can say that these are some of my goals:
  • Each effect feels significantly different from others. If "Fireball" gets an upgrade, then the upgraded version will look different and do different things.
  • Old gear will exhibit new qualities when in contact with certain dynamics. Your "Bow of Lycan Hate" might act as a normal bow against most enemies, but it lights up and deals extra damage against werewolves... and when you run into a "named" werewolf/lycanthrope, it unleashes a devastating power you never dreamed it might have.
  • The number-crunching is entirely hidden from the player. The strength of gear is revealed in more general terms in the item description, and many items will have depth which can only be revealed through use. Combine that with the dynamics system mentioned above, and this means that one player might have a very different impression of an item than another player... before hearing stories about the item's capabilities. Like with other aspects of the game, a player's experiences with items will be somewhat unique and his or her stories will excite other players with hints at potential future experiences (similar to what Darren called the horizon).
  • Some skills/abilities will be awarded only through particular items. Find abilities which few, if any, other players have. I might even tie items and skills together in a way similar to Craig's idea in his comment on that article of his. Perhaps players will be able to invest in skills which increase the efficiency or otherwise alter a particular group of item effects. So if you acquire an item that offers shielding against fire damage, your skill might improve the shielding and even eventually reflect some of that fire damage back at the assailant... or transmute the fire into something else (like health).
  • Players may know where a particular item might be found, but loot will typically be a surprise. Generally, items cannot be sought out by players. As said before, my ideal game is one more about discovery than effort. Past MMO experience do not apply... this is a very different kind of game.

There's probably something I'm forgetting, but how's that sound?


  1. That's exactly the type of thing (the style, if you will) that I'm shooting for, as well.

    The one thing I'd mention is, there is usually a lot of pushback against not showing the numbers, or at least quite vocal pushback. It's an interesting problem... is there any way to give enough visceral feedback that the number-crunchers will be satisfied without having access to the precise metrics behind the scenes?

  2. Honestly, I'm not too concerned about the number-crunchers. I think that desire is mainly an effect of current MMO design. The more I can get away from encouraging optimization, the less I expect many players to be discontent with the hidden numbers. Many have been trained for years now to think in terms of numbers, so I'm sure this sort of game would irritate those. But if they're attracted by the other game elements, then I'll be able to re-culture them.

    Even if I can't, I think the audience of folks who don't enjoy number-crunching is large enough that this could be a game just for them. Like I've said before, I'm making this game for me. If that means it's a niche game, I don't mind.


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