Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Avadon Developer Diary #3 - Character Classes and Kicking Butt


Time for another developer journal about the creation of the first game in an all-new series, Avadon: The Black Fortress. The first article was about the unusual way in which I first came up with the idea for the series, and the second article was about the long and dry process of choosing a mood and theme for the game.

Next came the fun part. The game system. The gritty details of the numbers and abilities and treasures and other things that help make role-playing games fun.

Designing a whole new game system is both fun and terrifying. It's a chance to do something new and exciting, but if you have too many changes your fan base will be angry. It's a chance to correct all the mistakes you made over the previous years, and then go and screw up in a whole new bunch of ways. And there are a lot of decisions to make. Lots and lots of decisions, and a lot of time spent balancing each one.

So, before I got too far, I had to make several big choices:

1. Class-based or skill-based system?


All of Spiderweb's games have had skill-based systems. All characters were able to train in the same pool of skills. Warriors could learn to cast spells. Wizards could learn to use a sword. It's worked very well.

And yet, Avadon will throw all that out the window. Avadon: The Black Fortress will have four character classes, each with entirely different pools of abilities. The classes are Blademaster, Shadowwalker, Shaman, and Sorceress, and each plays very differently.

Your party will have up to three characters. One will be your main character. The other two will be selected from characters in the game, each with their personalities and issues and each of which is one of the four classes.

Three party members. Four classes. Thus, you will always have to do without at least one of the classes. Also, sometimes the characters will be off doing their own business, so you will have to play someone else. Because of this, you will need to shift your tactics occasionally.

So why change? Why throw out a system that's been working great for fifteen years? The answer is: Because I thought it would be fun to write a class-based system.

That's pretty much it. After fifteen years, I need to occasionally try new things to stay interested and keep my brain fresh. Otherwise, burnout, writer's block, and disaster. I've played a lot of good games over the years with class-based systems, I had a lot of fun with them, and I wanted to write my own. And the classes match very well with the different cultures and nations of Lynaeus, so they will be an organic part of the world.

2. How much healing?

All of our games so far have followed a fairly standard computer RPG way of handling damage. Monsters do tons of damage. You have a tank to sop it up and a healer to heal, heal, heal. We've done this a lot. It's fine. But I think it could be more fun.

Instead, for combat, I've been a bit more inspired by the way Dungeons & Dragons and Dragon Age have handled healing. There is not much of it, and it's almost all from potions. Everyone in your party focuses on doing damage. You and the opponent wear each other down, and the first side to fall loses. There is some healing (from Shaman skills and consumable items) for long, tough fights, but combat is now more about being slowly worn down by many blows.

3. How Often Do You Need To Return To Town?

All of our games so far have required frequent trips back to town to rest. As you cast spells, you spell points fade away. Eventually you run out and need to either use precious potions or go back to rest. This system has its points, mainly because it requires you to conserve your power. But walking back to town to rest isn't that fun.

So in Avadon, you will need to return to town far less often. After battles, your health will return quickly. There are no "mana" or "spell points." Abilities will have cooldowns. When you use an ability, you won't be able to use it again for a certain number of turns.

However, as you use more demanding spells and abilities, your fatigue will slowly increase, and when it gets too high you can't use those abilities. However, fatigue really does increase slowly, and there are items that will revive you. The result: Far fewer trips back to town and more time having fun.

4. How Difficult Will the Game Be?

The opinions of my fans has been nearly unanimous on this point. Spiderweb games have gotten too hard. I am completely revamping game balance with this in mind.

The normal, default difficulty will not be tough. Unless you go picking fights with dragons, Avadon will be far less tough that previous games. At the same time, I will make sure that the higher difficulty levels push back at you.

There Are Some Basic Principles

These are the decisions I made early on, which informed everything that came after them. Next month I'll say more about the game system and the character classes.

67 comments:

  1. Looking good! Class system's gonna be interesting to try. And the removal of magical energy in favor of cooldown time is going to be interesting.

    I gotta warn you now, though, Jeff- it's reminding me a bit of Diablo. There's nothing awful about that, but you may get sick of hearing it if my opinion's shared.

    Can't wait to play the game. :)

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  2. I like the concepts of always being short a class and of sometimes being forced to switch your main character. That gives hope, both for replay value and for less predictability.

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  3. I'm pretty enthusiastic about item #2 in particular. Enemies being consistently able to damage you faster than you can heal is something you saw a lot of in much older RPGs (up until about the very early 1990s), but it's fallen by the wayside since then, and it does make for a very different combat dynamic than when combat is built under the assumption that you'll constantly be healing all damage dealt to you.

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  4. I agree that the Avernum games had gotten too hard, at least in 5, but I think you really got this under control with 6.

    In Avernum 5, I found I got about midway through the game and then got stuck on a rock of difficulty. Any avenue of exploration involved insanely difficult fights, and I got frustrated.

    With 6, I didn't find this happening. Sometimes I'd try a particular quest or area and it'd be too tough, but there was always something else to do. Leveling up happened frequently enough that it didn't take too long before I was able to go back and try those too-tough areas again.

    Difficulty is a tough thing in a game. I really don't like the JRPG system of "everything's trivial except for insane bosses". This just doesn't have any logic to it.

    Instead, I think what you want is to have the difficulty scale up more or less in line with the characters' growth, while offering difficulty spikes in the form of bosses. It's also nice to offer some difficulty valleys where the characters just go in and destroy everything in their path, as a reminder that they've actually gotten fairly powerful.

    Also, overall I wouldn't mind seeing _less_ combat. The Avernum games are _really_ combat heavy, and it sometimes feels like you can't travel anywhere new without getting attacked constantly.

    I'd love to see an RPG where combat was always a big deal. It doesn't happen too often, but when it does, it's really important and dangerous.

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  5. Any reason Blademaster wasn't Swordmaster? You almost had an all-S class thing going there but you ruined it!

    All joking aside, it definitely sounds like it'll be an interesting game. I look forward to it.

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  6. Looks very interesting, Jeff! I also like the replayability factor in playing with only three possible classes out of 4. Hope that each class will have a variety of ways it can be develo[ped though. (skill trees? I dunno)

    One thing this and the lack of healing in the game makes me wonder: Is it going to be a serious option to play without a Blademaster and not fear getting slaughtered? Or is every party going to need at least one Blademaster?

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  7. #3 Force player to return to town sometimes could be an interesting starting point for show him/here feedbacks of his/here actions and how much is changing in game world

    Did you player games from Soldak (www.soldak.com) ? Like Depths of Peril or Din's curse? I advise you to play it, focus is on action, but concept can enhance your game :D

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  8. This just gets more and more exciting, and that is some beautiful character art.

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  9. I'm not too sure about the healing thing. Since you mentioned D&D, there's a different approach to healing in the Pen-and-Paper D&D 4th edition – healing and buffs are distributed among different classes who share certain roles, so that there is no player left who "needs" to play a cleric for much needed healing. Between encounters all characters have a chance to use their healing reserves to patch themselves up. Healing is limited in the sense, that you can use your powers only a limited number of times per encounter (including healing powers) and every heal wears down the character's overall ability to get healed.

    The game "Kult" used a method of infinite healing which got less and less potent each time you used it (arguing that the body can only take so much mystical healing). In time, you needed to take a "real" rest, to restore your ability to receive healing. Some people found this system odd, I liked it quite much.

    I found these approaches much more fun and better for the flow of the game, than the constant potion watch of Diablo. Lugging around half your inventory space filled with potions sucked about Diablo, actually.
    So, basically, leaving all the healing to items and some rare character skills doesn't sound like more fun to me. Actually, to me, it sounds like it drains some of the fun out of combat.
    Plus there are people, like me, who actually *like* to play healers. :)
    I think the idea of an alternative healing system is fine, but I wouldn't let the characters rely on items for healing. If there is no dedicated healer, than every class should have an ability to help the party survive an encounter. E.g. the fighter morale boosts the overall health of the party temporarily, the shaman can cast some limited healing, the sorceress dispels certain damaging effects and so on. That way, no one is doing all the healing and everyone takes part in surviving the monster's attacks. Just my 5 cent, but it works for D&D4.

    I totally agree with the rest of your items, though. :) Sounds great, I'm really excited how this turns out.

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  10. the new classes look very interesting! great looking character art too.

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  11. Sounds nice! I also like the idea of fatigue. I hope that the items that remove them are not too common (see Dragon Age and the negligible and easily removed penalties for "death").

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  12. "combat is now more about being slowly worn down by many blows"

    Reread what you wrote here. Think about this.

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  13. My first comment, unfortunately, is that I'm very sad to see a class-based system come into effect. My longstanding love of your games has always been that I can have my character not constrained to the rules of a specific class.
    I'll of course try the new game, and hopefully it works out well, but please don't discount the skill-based systems - it will always make me buy your games!

    This new game sounds a bit inspired by D&D 4th edition - I'm curious to see it plays out, as I have things I both like and hate about 4e.

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  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  16. I don't think spidweb games are too hard, even on torment. Nerf normal all you want, but please don't make the hardest difficulty easier.

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  17. so that means no more singleton?

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  18. Do I understand the screenshot correctly, in that the main character is unable to be a male mage or a female warrior? If so, that is saddening.

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  19. I don't think Spiderweb games are TOO hard :P Sure, sometimes they get damn complicated, but that's only in like GF 5 when old characters gain new conversation options when you're far past them and you don't know they have... (I went up to the Shadow Road for example without knowing that you had to go back to Astoria once you found the papers in the assassin's room...)
    But that's not bad! That's good! Changes from mindless (though often fun) Diablo 2 likes.

    Even on Torment, I find them more of a constructive challenge to my abilities than a total neckbreaker ^^.

    I like the idea of classes though :P Always wanted to see what you could make out of a class based system.

    @ Nushi ... not everyone can make or wants to use both sex classes .. ever seen a female barbarian in D2? And that's just an example. I find it give the game character if it doesn't have too many extra features like that.

    JW

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  20. Setting aside JW's casual "female gamers don't exist!" misogyny, I'd like to echo Nushi's question: Will each class be male-only or female-only?

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  21. Spiderweb games haven't gotten too hard!! The difficulty is perfect, please don't change it. The way it's set now requires lots of extra strategy and adds another level to the game.

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  22. Jeff, this is completely off-topic, but have you ever thought about distributing your games through GOG? It appears to be back now.

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  23. Interesting, but I'd also like to know if the gender is based on class? I know you never had romance in any of your games (not for the main character, at least) - which is a shame, by the way -, but it'd be nice to have more replayability.

    Can't wait to see more of the classes. I really hope that there's a huge variety of how to build one - that is, if I play three blademasters, I want all three of them to have very different skills and slightly different roles in combat.

    I have to mirror everyone's thoughts on the difficulty here: Avernum 6 was very, very well balanced. I played it through on normal, was challenged at a few scripted fights, but never once had to resort to any cheating or lowering the difficulty.

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  24. @Elzair: wouldn't this mean that the highest price Jeff could ask for his games is $9.99?

    Hm, maybe it could work for Avernum 1 and Geneforge 1? I'm wondering what their sales level are for $25.

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  25. Looking forward to this, having just played Geneforge 4 which was highly enjoyable.

    Nice to see that the 'easy' setting will actually mean 'easy'. I really dislike heavy difficulty spikes which hinder progress in a game. Though that kind of thing happens all too often. Many people stop playing a game altogether because of it, apparently. You can still have 'hard' for the die-hards and masochists, hehe.

    On the other points, it's difficult to tell from a description. Graphics look nice!
    Look forward to buying when it comes out.

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  26. Can't wait to try your new game!

    The main reason I find myself going back to town in most games (yours included) is because I'm carrying too much scavenged equipment, and need to pawn some of it.

    I'd love a game where scrounging gear from corpses wasn't really a thing that happened - it would be nice to just have treasure be reasonably useful stuff, and money.

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  27. "...combat is now more about being slowly worn down by many blows."

    Gosh, I hate to say it, but that doesn't sound like fun at all. Maybe I'm the wrong kind of player, but the idea of listening to the same clank of a sword or flinging a fireball for the umpteenth time wears ME down. How is dragging out fights even more a good thing? Especially if you don't find out until the 99th blow that you didn't really have it in you to beat this guy and you die. That is fun?

    Here's my idea of a good fight. POW! Three shots, he's out (because I have awesome fireballs), and I get to move on.

    I feel an explanation is warranted here, because I don't want to use my precious time hitting some repeatedly on the head and drinking potions after potion to stay alive so I can hit them on the head even more. Forgive me, but that just sounds repetitive and boring.

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  28. In previous games fleeing encounters has been an edge or corner affair causing the offending force either to vanish or to be restored to its full power -right?

    Slow, painful battles could work, but then I'd want a persistent state for the enemy, and possibly more involved behaviour.

    Example: A force that lives through an encounter with you dispatches a messenger to base. The single unit most suitable. May be chased and intercepted. His success may cause dispatch of fresh troops.

    Example 2: Severely injured enemies may die outside of combat unless they get help. Groups that cannot help their own, must send for help, seek help, or let these individuals die.

    What I'd like is an effect from battles not won that may still serve you in some manner.

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  32. So almost each battle will not depend on your party status as you'll be healed instantly? Goood. That way you can throw difficult wizardry-hardcore tactic battles at us. And we won't fail just because we forget to rest after each battle.

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