Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Don't Ask Questions Until the Player Can Answer

When I started writing fantasy role-playing games for a living, I did a lot of dumb things. Since then, it's been a painfully slow process figuring out how to be less dumb. Every time I start a new game, there is a point where I go, "Wait. Why don't I do this thing this new way? In fact, why haven't I always done it that way?" And then I slap my forehead. Hopefully, it hurts.

One of my new, hard-earned rules of design has to do with training your characters. And, since it seems like every game and its cousin has some sort of level-gaining and stat-building these days, I think the rule is getting more relevant every day:

The number of decisions you have to make to build your character should be proportional to the amount of time you've spent playing the game. The more you play, the more you should decide.

Or, to put it another way ...

Whenever you make a decision about your character at the very beginning of the game, you are answering a question that hasn't even been asked yet.

So design wonks, get ready. Here is an example from my game Avernum, released in 1999. I will compare it to the rewritten version, Avernum: Escape From the Pit, out later this year. (And this will also double as a little taste of a preview of the new game, for those who care.)

The Bad Way I Did It Before

Avernum is an old school role-playing game. There are a lot of skills you can train to make your character stronger. There are the base attributes (Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Endurance) and regular skills (Swords, Spells, Lore, etc). You start out with a bunch of skill points, and you get more with each level. You should spend these on skills.



You start out with a ton of skill points, so that you can majorly customize your character from the beginning. You can use skill points to increase base attributes or regular skills, but the base attributes are expensive. However, it could break the system if a player put a huge amount of skill points in certain skills. To limit this, I made increasing a skill cost more skill points the higher you trained it. At high levels, you might have to save up for two or three levels to get enough skill points to raise a major skill one point.

Think about this. It's a system where the more you play and learn about the challenges facing you, the less you can do to customize your characters. You have to make most of the big changes at low level, when skills are cheap. Worse, it was necessary to increase the base attributes to survive (especially Endurance, which increases health), but they were so expensive that doing so required careful planning. As a result of this mess, many players had problems with getting halfway through the game and finding that they were not strong enough to proceed. These players got angry at me, and justifiably so.

There was also a traits system. Traits are special character qualities, some positive, some negative, that affected your characters. They could make you better at spells, more vulnerable to disease, and so on. Good traits came with a penalty to experience earned. Bad traits gave you a bonus. You could have at most two traits.

And here's the awesome part. You could only pick these traits at the beginning of the game, and you couldn't change them. Major decisions that affect how you play the entire game, and you make them before you've even fought one monster. It's very hardcore and old school. By which I mean that it's mean-spirited and unnecessarily punitive.

The Better Way I Do It Now

There are still base attributes (unchanged), skills (mostly unchanged), and traits (an all-new, very long list).

When you make your characters, you can increase five skills and pick one trait from the long list. This is far, FAR less customization at the beginning than was allowed in Avernum. Because of this, many gamers will try to make a party, think I have completely dumbed down the system, and ragequit. Price of doing business.



But then, when you gain a level, a base attribute goes up by one point. It's different each level, so every four levels each attribute has gone up by one. In addition, each level you can choose one attribute to increase by one. This allows a lot of character customization while making sure all skills go up gradually so that you won't be hamstrung by completely neglecting an attribute.

Each level, you can also increase two different skills by one point. Thus, you never stop being able to shape your characters. As you get a better idea of the challenges you are facing, you can mold your characters to enable them to proceed.

Finally, every other level, you can pick one trait from the long list. The number of available choices starts out small (to keep from confusing new players) and grows dramatically as you proceed. You will eventually have a lot of traits. Some of them give simple bonuses to your spells or attacks, while others (like Backstab or Swordmage) will affect how you actually play your character.

I plan to take a lot of heat because I allow fewer choices early on, but overall you make more decisions to mold your character in the new system than in the old system, and there are more ways to customize a character. The change means that you make a larger percentage of the decisions later on. As it should be.

Of Course, There Is No Way To Win

I have often observed that people hate change. I have tried to make a more friendly system that provides more customization, but a lot of people will be angry about the loss of the old system (which has been in place for a very long time). I can totally understand this, but I still need to always strive to make things better.

Also, while the old system made it very possible to build a party that would find itself stuck and unable to proceed. Some players actually like that. To them, the challenge of avoiding that fate is part of the game, and the threat of a failed party adds excitement to the game. For them, I can only suggest playing on Torment difficulty. It will provide ample possibility of horrible failure.

But I'm very happy with the new system. I think it allows players to answer the questions the game poses when they understand what those questions truly are. And now I enter beta testing and the actual balancing of the new system. And that, of course, is when the suffering truly begins.

26 comments:

  1. It sounds a bit like the way the Fallout franchise does it, and I wholly approve. I look forward to trying the new Avernum.

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  2. This is totally off topic, but I was inspired to write it. I am learning disabled and I have a very hard time reconciling the map and the visuals in Avernum, as they are rotated differently by 45 degrees apart. This was not a problem back when it was Exile, but this issue kept me from playing any of the Avernums. I was hoping that this reboot of Avernum would address this issue, but I see from that screenshot that it is the same. Is there any possibility the map could be rotated easily? As an option?

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  3. Good timing on this.

    I have been playing the demo versions of the Eschalon games, where you have to decide up front how to spend points.

    I played for I don't know how long, totally frustrated that my map was blank. I spent an inordinate amount of time in setup and configuration trying to figure out what key it was that brought up the map.

    Then I figured out I had to have a point on "Cartography" to see it.

    :/

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  4. I can dig the new system.

    Also, I really like the new art there. Looks like the portraits have been upgraded from "retina-searing" to "pretty cool."

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  5. I completely agree, the idea of choosing skills and attributes before you have even played the game is just ridiculous.

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  6. Some of us like hardcore and old school. That said I don't have a problem with these changes. Another option is to let people sell back skills to get skill points and then re-allocate them...

    Choosing skills and attributes before you play a role playing game, isn't ridiculous. If you want to play a blind narcissist some games will let you, you just won't make a very good sniper. ;-)

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  7. I felt the bite in Avernum far more than in the original Exile. I think it was because you were limited to 4 players, and therefore there wasn't room for a "weak link". My archer was so fundamentally useless that I ended up getting frustrated.

    That said, the original Exile provided me with characters that were really *mine*.

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  8. @Muskie: You are right. Including the ability to respec your character is a very good thing. Avernum will have a fully featured character editor to help with this.

    - Jeff Vogel

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  9. Yeah, that makes sense. Grogs are bitching about Bethesda doing the same with Skyrim and pushing that kind of decision further back into the game and I don't understand why. It's better that way, silly grogs!

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  10. Yes, the Fallout 3+ games have tackled this by having you collect overall attribute-increasing items as the game goes on, and picking new traits with every level or so. I'm not sure if it's also Fallout where one of the trait choices lets you rebalance your character late in the game.

    I think it's Guild Wars that goes one further, and lets you tear down your character and rebuild it at any point if you want to tweak your setup.

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  11. I've been following this blog from the beginning and one theme that seems to keep coming up is that is that you have a vocal minority of players who want the game to be as difficult and unforgiving as possible, who you can't seem to win with.

    Though another repeating theme is that you seem to be pretty good at not letting yourself get too swayed by their opinions, and trying to make things better for the silent majority who want things to be more accessible (which is not the same as wanting things totally dumbed down and easy).

    I played the original Exile games, and there is something fun about having so much ability to customize your characters right off the bat. However I remember playing these games at the time, as a 15-year old, and thinking,

    "Wow, I have no idea how to allocate all these points, let alone for six different characters. I just want to get going with the game. Okay, I'll quickly and half-assedly make two 'warriors', an 'archer', two 'mages' and a 'healer'. Those seem to be the classes the list of skills are hinting at, so I guess I'll make a diverse party so I can experience a bit of everything."

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  12. I think that one thing you might want to keep in mind (that many games simply don't get right) is a proper prerequisites tree.

    It always pissed me badly in games based off D&D3/3.5 (NWN/NWN2) that in order to find out how to get the one feat you wanted, you basically had to dig out the respective PHB because feat requirements only showed up in-game once you were actually eligible for the feat (which was also horribly annoying for epic feats, since getting them sometimes required minimaxing and basically getting Dragon Shape for your druid without pumping all your epic feat slots into Great Wisdom was impossible).

    Since you're apparently planning to have an elaborate trait system, please include such a prerequisites tree in-game so that you don't follow the footsteps of NWN and allow the players some planning ahead (the in-game tech tree from various versions of Civilization might be a good example of how this should look like).

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  13. Slightly unrelated, but this is actually a really good rule that can be applied to UI design too. That is, don't ask the user questions that they can't possibly answer. There can be a tendency for programmers (especially Windows programmers) to provide way too many options (e.g. settings dialogues). Google and Apple are both pretty good about only providing the most common set of options/settings (or if they provide more, it is hidden away in an "advanced" window somewhere).

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  14. With your Avernum series I used to make a table of all the pre-made classes and figure out the "value" of the pre-allotted skill points (because they got more than the Custom build - you couldn't make a Mage from scratch as strong as the pre-built one) and then work out whether it was worth starting with pre-built characters or Custom ones. From memory, I ended up using pre-made Mages and Priests, and custom Warriors and Rogues.

    I think I may have even tried four Mages, then stripping the points off with the Caharacter Editor and then re-distributing them. I was that dedicated to getting maximum skill points ;)

    Anyway it was a fairly time consuming process, so I'm looking forward to this new system.

    But yeah - re-speccing is also great. Some games allow you to do this with a special potion or trainer, but your Character Editor is also excellent.

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  15. Exile was easier than Avernum because there was a constant cost for increasing skills. I always usually maxed out base attributes because they helped out a lot.

    I never created a character from scratch though! I always used the prefabricated party and tinkered with it to get what I wanted.

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  16. This is good in two ways that I can see. First is for the reason that you describe, Jeff, that it moves the decisions to where the player can best use it while still not allowing a player to 'bust the system.' The second is that it makes my possible purchase of the new (now third) edition of Exile a possibility. Knowing that you have completely revamped the character system means that the game should play very differently even if nothing in the world or story was changed.

    I also commend you being willing to make major changes like this. Not everyone is willing to challenge their fundamental assumptions on design weather it be game design, computer design, college course design (my area), or home design... It is brave to challenge yourself. Go for it!

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  17. As well as the RPG newbies who won't know what classes for make their characters fall into, skilling up front also affect GPG experts because they know what clases to make… for the other games they have played.

    Having 6 characters for Exile, I picked a quite different party balance than Chris', based on the previous RPG I played. It turned out not so great, but I didn't want to go back and recreate them, because I was enjoying the story and didn't want to repeat it yet.

    Getting a bit further into the game, to let you understand the game mechanics more, before going too far down the character specialisation path sounds good :)

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  18. I really enjoy putting together a detailed character build up front (it's a primary joy of the Champions tabletop RPG), but it probably isn't the best move in a CRPG, no.

    I definitely approve of more traits, distributed through the game, and of not having increasing costs that mean saving up for multiple levels. Little is as unfun in a CRPG as gaining a level and not getting to improve your character because you need the points for something later.

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  19. It seems to me that a lot of the reason for CRPG designers allowing a player to make huge mistakes in their character builds comes, oddly enough, from the fact that it's tough to get any role-playing in otherwise. If there aren't a bunch of weird or useless skills kicking around to make non-optimal (or even non-viable) builds possible, how am I going to differentiate my elf from some other elf given that fantasy settings tend to be pretty generic and stories can't very easily be rich without being fairly linear? Even though "role-players" tend to dislike "roll-playing," distributing skill points is, in a CRPG, frequently the only way you have of genuinely individuating your characters.

    This is obviously less of a problem in tabletop games because a player can flesh out a generically optimal character, and a DM/referee/whatever can work around a non-optimal build.

    And as someone that's played the Exile/Avernum games since the first version of Exile with the grey tileset and single action points, I do want to add that I've always felt that the setting largely prevents this problem from developing. The fact that people are only in Avernum (itself a pretty unique setting) because of their oddball backgrounds in the first place neatly clips that "not another f**king elf" problem at the bud. I enjoyed Avadon's system a lot and am very interested in seeing how Avernum's redesign turns out.

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  20. I have always been annoyed by the fact that in most RPGs, games about decisions, the single most important decision is made at the very beginning, often before any context has been established. There's a distinct gap between the player's knowledge and the character's knowledge at this point, which can lead to serious problems. A character should know the relative merits of different magic disciplines and combat styles, but the player doesn't have experience in these affairs yet and is thus forced to more or less choose blindly based on the descriptions that the character creator contains as well as basic knowledge about RPG tropes in general. This leads to more frequently generic characters, as players often pick what they know to be "safe" choices. Nobody is going to specialize in maces when they know that, in most RPGs (besides Planescape: Torment), swords are inevitably more readily available and more powerful. The same goes for magical disciplines. Without greater knowlege of the spell system than is usually presented at character creation, nobody is going to focus on debuffs when fireball is an option.

    I really like the way Bethesda handles character creation in both Oblivion and Fallout 3. You do your initial creation, then you run through a tutorial and small dungeon that illustrated the uses of most skills, and then you get a second chance to change any aspect of your character before being sent off into the world. This gives the player direct knowledge of how various skills and abilities directly impact play, which means they can make an informed decision about the single most important and (often) irrevocable choice of any RPG.

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