Iron Tower Studio ForumsRPGRPG DesignGame critique 1: Less (levels) is more
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« on: October 17, 2015, 10:04:24 pm »

With AoD now released, I've been thinking a lot about how it has shaped my perception of games and what I hope it can teach about game design. The first idea I'd like to discuss is the move from a more continuous mathematics to a more discrete mathematics.

The original combat demo started with skills capped at 300. Since combat is strictly systems- (not scripting-) based, it doesn’t suffer from the guess-and-check model of the text adventure portion of the game, and the great number of points allowed for continual and incremental adjustments to combat ability. As the Teron demo was released, the unsuitability of such an approach for scripting-based segments became more and more clear. The 300-cap was set to 100. Eventually that scale was tithed down to the current 1-10 (effectively a nine-point scale).

For scripting scenarios, trying to find the least common denominator on a nine-point scale is world’s better than before. For the combat system, having more punctuated but more impactful changes in ability makes for a great sense of feedback.

That said, the 9 point approach allows for several difficulties, principally but not exclusively on the scripting side. On the scripting side, any skill with less than 9 checks has vacant levels. Sure, there are levels of crafting less interesting than others, but they all make their presence felt. But how many locks can be picked in AoD? How many occasions are there to steal?
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On the systems side, the difficulty with the 9 point system is that it allows the game world’s vaunted scrappiness and difficulty to be completely abated. With 10/10 on attack and defense (yes, the game has two combat skills, so it is easy to max with the lowest INT), the player has virtually 100% chance of attacking and defending a 5/5 opponent. In other words, pure combat characters do become gods, able to attack and destroy an infinite number of mid-level combatants and remain at full health by combat’s end.

Suppose a 5-pt system (1-5 with 1 having to be purchased). Now your maxed combat character has 5/5 as opposed to a stock 3/3. This would represent a 70% attack/defense. Enough to stand toe-to-toe with several opponents by your lonesome but not enough that your god-hero won’t actually be killed by fighting long enough (think the end screen if resisting the summons to Gaelius). These numbers could be further modified by other skills (impact of crafting/alchemy) by inventory (native bonuses to weapons or vs ranged combat) or by character differences (governing attributes), but it would stop the path to godhood from lying along a single skill axis. As party-combat is considered for the dungeon crawler, I think this is doubly important to consider. (The other consideration is that two combat skills aren’t enough for combat build diversity, but I’ll consider that in another post).

With a 5-pt system, I think of Arcanum. There were five ranks in the base skills but also special bonuses that could be applied at levels 1/3/5. I think this could be helpful not just to making skill upgrades within a combat system more interesting (e.g. at block 3, counterattack with a shield bash; at block 5, counterattack with a shield knockdown. at dodge 3, counterattack with a feint; at dodge 5, counterattack with a throw), but also with granting a greater sense of when scripting checks would apply.

Take Impersonate, for example. At level 1, it would be possible to impersonate someone from the crowd. This would be like impersonating being a beggar in the AG questline or being a loremaster at the mine. At level 3, it would be possible to impersonate being an official. This would be like playing the guard in either infiltration sequence or posing as a praetor in Maadoran. At level 5, it would be possible to impersonate a named figure. This would range from impersonating the named loremaster at the mine at the low end of impact to killing Feng and Cassius and assuming the latter’s identity as a mid-case of possibility all the way to full-on Kagemusha-level deception, especially in the case of a Meru-type who is increasingly isolated from others.

Levels 2 and 4 would unlock access to more difficult crowd and official types, but the clear demarcation of each of the five points would lead to a lot more telegraphing and a lot less guessing of what checks are being looked for. It would also make the developers’ decisions less arbitrary at the design stage. Similar divisions could be used for intimidate (crowd, officials, powerful). Streetwise could follow something like (1) catch a lie, (3) lie yourself, (5) read real motivations. What each level means could be refigured, but the sense of certain levels having a meaning would be welcome.

Recap: 5 levels for scripting skills is a better fit than 9 for this size studio. Meaning of levels should be more clearly marked. Reduced levels could also lead to more interesting party-level combat (combat that involves casualties on both sides, even in a successful effort).

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« Reply #1 on: October 18, 2015, 07:05:54 pm »

Very good read Salute

And yeah, I agree with quite a bit of it. Now, another thing I've been thinking is that there are some skills that can use 1-10 successfully, while other "minor" ones can do well with 1-5. Lore, crafting, alchemy, trading and even persuasion and streetwise have very good uses in 1-10. And I think they might be too "cramped" in a 1-5 system.

We plan to expand the use of lockpick, sneak, steal and traps. Lockpick can do well in 1-10, but the other 3 might be better off with 1-5, same for disguise and etiquette, which are more "supporting" skills.

But even if 1-5, there is SP cost to consider, and how many should reach max level. And the shorter the scale, less granular it becomes and can even result in more gating than less.

"Hasta la victoria, siempre."

"Who has time? But then if we do not ever take time, how can we ever have it?"

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« Reply #2 on: October 18, 2015, 08:41:30 pm »

Thoughtful analysis. Approve
John Yossarian
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« Reply #3 on: October 23, 2015, 01:55:47 pm »

Nice read, very thought provoking.
Makes me wonder how fun it would be to only have levels that give you a unique ability, even if it means some skills will only have 1 level. Obviously this would need better systems, since these abilities need to be available in many places throughout the game. It would pretty much eliminate the guessing game (if you don’t have a skill saying you can scale walls, then you can’t scale walls).
As to the granularity of SP, you can always have different costs for levels (skills with 10 levels may cost 1SP/level, those with 3 levels 3SP/level, etc)
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« Reply #4 on: October 24, 2015, 05:44:05 pm »

This is a great point and the skill point system (and the meta game it creates) were my only real gripe with AoD. Personally, I think the best solution to the issue would be to tie your skill selection to stats. Tag X skills (combat and noncombat) based on your starting stats, and those are the only skills you have throughout the game. They could increase at a standard rate, and if this was tied in with a level/experience system and perks, you could still have progression without the problems created by skill points. By my third play through I was finally able to create the type of character I envisioned, but not before a I had a huge amount of meta game knowledge.

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« Reply #5 on: June 13, 2018, 05:52:45 am »

about the lock-picking level, a better way of describing levels, would be to give every lock "levels" to show difficulty, as is common to many games
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