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Economy of Design

It’s amusing what can change in three years.

I am currently playing through The Banner Saga 2, which in pretty much all respects is The Banner Saga 1. Still running from the Dredge, still having people die off in blind choices, still have the same combat system. Except, this time, I actually really appreciate the latter.

BannerSaga2_Armor

No secret systems, which is bold

For those that don’t know, the combat system has two components: Strength and Armor. Strength acts as both your attack power and your HP. The formula for damage is simply Your Strength – Their Armor = Their Strength Loss. When attacking, you are given the option of either attacking their Strength or their Armor, with the latter being a set amount of damage based on a separate Armor-Break stat, instead of Strength.

Now, this system can snowball very quickly. Imagine two characters with 8 Armor and 12 Strength. The first person to attack will bring the other down to 8 Strength, which means they will only be able to deal 1 Strength damage in return. Then the first attacker will deal another 3 Strength damage, making any further Strength attacks from the defender take a -10% deflect penalty for each point of Armor above their Strength. Now, the defender could possibly choose to attack the first guy’s Armor instead, but that will only help in future turns… which he won’t live to see.

In any case, the battles are not 1v1 affairs. Turns take place in a round-robin manner: one of your characters take their action, then the AI takes one character’s actions, then your next character gets to move, and so on. Killing an enemy does not remove the AI’s turn – it simply moves the remaining AI units up in initiative. This can lead to incredibly dangerous scenarios if you end up leaving a powerful enemy alive, who gets to act every other turn while you’re stuck moving out-of-range units around. Thus, the superior strategy is actually to maim enemies rather than killing them (e.g. leave them with 1-2 Strength) so that the AI is stuck with weak attacks while you concentrate on maiming more combatants until you can mop the rest up.

Like I said before, this combat system often leads to snowball situations in which one of your characters getting pummeled early makes the latter half of the battle incredibly dicey. Still… the economy in design is brilliant, IMO. You can equip your characters with a special relic that might improve stats a bit, but the whole Strength & Armor deal is incredibly straight-forward. The game will helpfully tell you exactly how much damage an attack will cause, but you can eyeball the field and work it out yourself since there are really only two components. MMORPGs have to have a pile of random-ass stats in order to have room for item level-creep, but most other games do not. Hell, this combat system is so simple that I could imagine them making a board game out of it.

Oh, and another thing? The only currency in the game is Renown. Leveling up characters, purchasing food for your journey, and buying special relics all consume this one common currency. I found this incredibly frustrating in the first game, but I have come to appreciate its elegance this time around. It reminds me of deck-building games wherein the cost of adding a new card to your deck is… adding a new card to your deck. Renown is a little less intuitive than Strength – why would merchants care how famous I was? – but the tension inherent in consuming that resource adds meaningful choice to an otherwise straight-forward decision. Plus, it’s a balancing mechanism preventing you from creating uber-leveled characters.

Like I said before, The Banner Saga 2 is precisely like the original game. If you didn’t have fun playing the first time around, then things are unlikely to have changed. Unless you are like me, apparently, because I’m having a lot of fun now.

That said, fuck Blind Choices. I have zero interest in choosing one of three options, only to find out that my choice results in the loss of 150 Clansmen and dozens of fighters because… arbitrary reasons. I look up the results before I make my “choices,” and feel zero guilt for doing so. I’m not sure if these exist as a sort of roguelike mechanism to encourage multiple playthroughs, but that’s not how I like playing my tactical RPGs.

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This Peeve of Mine: Blind Choices

It is amazing how many games you can work through when you aren’t playing an MMO. For example, I cleared through Metro: Last Light, StarCraft 2, Ori and the Blind Forest, The Swapper, Wolfenstein: the New Order, and am currently plowing through This War of Mine. All in the last two weeks. Granted, many of those all had completion times below ten hours, so perhaps that isn’t too surprising, but nevermind.

While I am not entirely done with This War of Mine yet, I did want to talk about it a bit. Specifically, about how the game has one of my least favorite “features”: blind choices. Or maybe “blind choices” is not entirely the correct term, but rather (unintentional?) obfuscation.

I first complained about blind choices nearly four year ago:

Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful? I mean, fine, all decisions and choices we make technically have unforeseen consequences. But these game designers are literally giving you nonsense to choose between on top of said unforeseen consequences. I don’t consider the choice between door #1 and door #2 to be meaningful at all – I may as well flip a coin or roll a die for as much thinking as it requires.

The game I was referring to at the time was the original Witcher, when the game asked me which quest reward I wanted to choose. While the game didn’t hide the the rewards themselves, the relative utility of each choice was very much in question. A book about vampires, your own hut, or the Wreath of immortelles? I chose the latter because italics, and it allowed me to easily bypass a long, involved quest.

Despite having chose the one with the most overall utility, I did not feel particularly clever because the choice itself had no real meaning. Do we praise the stopped clock for being right twice a day? Avoiding a designer trap only highlights the fact that the designers included a designer trap in their game in the first place, which automatically lowers my view of the overall design. It’s a cheap gimmick – one that is overcome only with knowledge that a player obtains after the choice is made. “Giving players the choice to fail” really just means the designers were unable to give players two or more good (or bad) options to choose between.

This concept get a bit murky when it comes to the roguelike genre though. Many roguelikes specifically include things like colored potions that have randomized effects on each playthrough. Sometimes you can minimize the mayhem such potions can cause, by being at full health and in a safe place before sampling the rainbow of colors you have collected. Such testing technically involves risk assessment and valuing the odds, which are pretty high-brow player skills. I was fine with The Bind of Isaac’s random pill effects, for example, largely because everything else about that game was so random it almost didn’t matter. When you could find out early which pills did what though? It sets you way ahead of the curve.

This War of Mine is more or less a roguelike. While the loot you can scavenge is random, it is also random which “scenario” you might encounter when going to a new location. This is generally fine. Roguelikes need randomness to maintain replayability in what otherwise would be short playthroughs. What I found less fine was when I realized that you didn’t need a lockpick to open locked doors, you simply needed a crowbar. That “makes sense” in a sort of logical way, but not always in a game logic way, especially not in a game that also features vegetables that grow to maturity in four days under a heat lamp.

Should the crowbar’s in-game description mention it opens locked doors? I would say yes. There is still a meaningful choice between crafting a lockpick over a crowbar (specifically the amount of noise it generates) when you know the full depth of information about the two. At the same time… well, Minecraft certainly doesn’t give you all the information you might need for a successful¹ run. I haven’t played it in a while, but the last time I did, I knew there was no way I would have ever guessed the correct configuration of materials necessary to craft a bow or shears.

Examining my discomfort in more detail, I suppose it comes down to wasting resources when outside knowledge is readily available. I had no problem playing Don’t Starve for hours and hours despite dying and losing all progress to the most mundane of causes. Murder Bees are serious business, after all. But chasing down the mats to build a blowgun and darts in what ended up being a nigh-useless tool? That pisses me off. I will happily fail in service to muscle memory, even if I lose progress along the way. I will not, however, be so keen to fail because I didn’t read the Wiki first.

There is a distinction between the two that I can feel, even if I cannot enunciate it clearly.

¹ With what constitutes success in Minecraft being left undefined.

Going in Blind

Now that enough time has past since GenCon, allow me to admit to a little secret: I don’t actually like card/board games that much. Crazy, right?

My issue with these games have nothing to do with their mechanics or pieces, so perhaps it’s a little misleading to say that I don’t like them. What I actually don’t enjoy is learning a new game in a competitive environment. I have no problem with the inherent randomness of rolling dice or drawing cards, but having to make blind decisions based on rules I’ve been introduced to moments ago? It always feels horrible to me.

One of the evenings after GenCon, the group retired to a hotel lobby to play Ladies & Gentlemen. The game itself was utterly fascinating in the way it effectively kept 9 people engaged 100% of the time without any awkward waiting for everyone else to take their turn. You pretty much have to have a minimum of 7 players for it to be fun (three teams + the Mistress), but it’s definitely a game I would recommend.

Unfortunately, I lost by two points. Not even “my partner and I lost”: me specifically. Because during one of the early turns I bought a purse (I was a Lady, of course) that was worth two points… but due to a rules misinterpretation on my part, it could not be counted as part of my “outfit score” at the end. And nearly three weeks later I am still stewing about it. Not because I lost, but because I lost for a really dumb reason.

Same deal back when I was learning to play Dominion with friends. I understood the rules for the most part, but it wasn’t until Game 3 or so that I began to understand the cadence, the rhythm behind the game. Which cards were better than others, the tension between buying more cards and diluting your own deck, the power of trashing certain cards, and so on. I went from the guy blindly spamming the A button in Super Smash Brothers to Sheik, nightmare princess. Until I get halfway down the mastery route though, I have close to zero fun playing these games, friends notwithstanding.

“Just go with it.” NO U. I’d rather flip a coin than make a blind decision, because at least with the coin we can all acknowledge that there was no actual choice involved. I will lose Risk, Texas Hold’em, and a dozen other card/board games graciously all night because I clearly made meaningful choices (or risk assessments) that did not pan out. A blind choice has no meaning to me, and a choice is blind until I fully understand the choice’s place in the full context of the game. Which, as you may imagine, is hard to do when you are playing it for the first time and have no reason to ever own it yourself.

Things That Used to Work, Vol. 1

…but don’t work anymore.

Many of the items on this list were inspired by my recent completion of The Witcher, although my (d)evolved sensibilities have been been growing this way for the past several years. Let’s get started:

Multiple Endings

Why It Used to Work: Replayability, simulates your decisions as being meaningful.

Why It Doesn’t Work Anymore: I am not likely to play ANY game more than once anymore (few people even finish the first time), and if I do, it will only be because the underlying gameplay was fun – in which case a different possible ending is at most a cherry to the already-frosted cake. Also, this could just be a personal thing, but whenever I am working on a game with multiple endings, my choices actually feel less meaningful rather than more, for two reasons.

The first reason is that nagging feeling whenever I reach a path-branching decision that one of the two options will be more fun than the other, and I will be stuck with the less-fun one. In The Witcher, it was choosing between Order, the nonhumans, or the neutral path. In Fallout: New Vegas, it was choosing between NCR, Caesar’s Legion, or your own way. The tenor and tone of each faction has their own charm, and in setting up a mutually exclusive decision, I am made responsible for picking the shittier option.

Even if I do replay the game, I am double-screwed. If the 2nd path ended up being better, I feel gypped that I didn’t pick it the first time. If the 2nd path ends up being worse, I am stuck playing a shittier game.

The second reason my choices actually feel less meaningful is that they typically are. No matter what side you pick in The Witcher, the final hours of the game are the same (same location, differently textured enemies). No matter what side you pick in Fallout: New Vegas, you are still battling on Hoover Dam. Different dialog from different NPCs is meaningfully different (enough that I feel like I’m losing something by not experiencing it), sure, but a lot of times it feels like Mad Lib storylines where they just switch around the Proper Nouns in the plot blanks. The last RPG I played with actual, game-changing decisions was Tactics Ogre way back on the PS1.

No Quest Hubs

Why It Used to Work: No one had really thought of it, Kaplan talks about how “the Christmas Tree effect” can leads to poor pacing and less engagement in any individual quest, it is more of a metagame issue.

Why It Doesn’t Work Anymore: I hate revisiting areas I know haven’t changed in any meaningful way. The Witcher does have a Notice Board which acts like a Fetch Quest Hub of sorts, but when I talk about Quest Hubs I mean the principle of being able to completely “finish” a particular zone at your own pace and move on. If a quest sends me to the fields to kill something, return to the city, then sends me back out into the fields to kill something else, my immediate reaction is “Time Sink!”

The term “boomerang quest” is an example of this principle, but it is slightly more than that. If I had to sum it up in a single way, it would perhaps be “inefficient questing.” Don’t send me on quests to kill the cave spiders, then a follow-up to kill the poison cave spiders deeper in, culminating in a quest to kill the spider queen in the deepest parts of the cave, without giving me all three quests first. Let me multitask! Whatever Wal-Mart has done wrong in crowding out smaller businesses and being jank-central, being able to make one trip and pick up milk, light bulbs, and spark plugs in a single trip is of immense value, lower prices notwithstanding.

Blind Choices (and/or Rewards)

Why It Used to Work: Puts a focus on the decision itself, more immersive/less metagame, perhaps enhances replayability through obfuscation.

Why It Doesn’t Work Anymore: Thank you, great hero! Please choose your reward:

  1. A book about vampires.
  2. Your very own hut.
  3. Wreath of immortelles.

Err… what? Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful? I mean, fine, all decisions and choices we make technically have unforseen consequences. But these game designers are literally giving you nonsense to choose between on top of said unforseen consequences. I don’t consider the choice between door #1 and door #2 to be meaningful at all – I may as well flip a coin or roll a die for as much thinking as it requires.

The above is an actual choice that The Witcher presents you with, and it is not the first nonsese choice. I picked the wreath de immortalies due to the time-honored tradition of game designers making the most useless-seeming items the most radically powerful. Plus, I figured that my own hut wouldn’t be very important to gameplay if I could choose not to have one, and I was likely leaving the area soon besides. Turns out the wreath let me complete an upcoming story quest faster than normal. Woo… hoo?

It is not as though I want WoW-like quest rewards, because there isn’t really any choice there either: something is an upgrade or it isn’t (and you probably can’t wear the other options anyway). When I think about meaningful choices, I remember back to the original Deus Ex when you’d come across upgrades like the cloaking device. Thermal or Electromagnetic? That was a meaningful decision because it shaped your gameplay in a way that had no “wrong” answers. I liked sniping people, and since I couldn’t snipe robots, easily sneaking past them (and cameras) was way more useful. There were plenty of humans/robots in the later stages so it could have gone either way. I wanted both and yet I was almost as fine with just one.

That, my friends, is a good choice to present to players. And they didn’t hide it behind a door or questionable language. You knew exactly what each did, and more importantly, you trusted the designers to present a scenario in which either would be equally useful.