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?
(click to show/hide)
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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« Reply #6 on: February 28, 2019, 09:45:00 pm »

I agree with the op overall.

A couple of points:
It's more important to have noticeable discrete jumps when skills etc are increased by active player decisions. In general, continuous systems tend to blend into the background more; discrete systems stand out - they're spiky rather than smooth. If you want to give the player a noticeable feeling of agency/control in skill increases, discrete (with larger jumps) makes sense.
On the other hand, if you're creating a highly narrative focused game where skill development decisions aren't intended to be a player focus (perhaps not even shown), then continuity is worth considering.

The rate of character change matters too. If game A has characters change significantly every ~2 hours, and game B has them change every ~10, then coarser skill scales are likely to make more sense for A than B: in B the player has 5 times the time and content to notice the subtle differences.
This plays into the importance/interest of player decisions too: if you have to stick with your character's current skills for one third of the game, then perhaps it really is worth agonising over subtle shades. If you're going to significantly change your character many times, not so much.

The way most RPGs are set up, I'd say it makes sense to have complex, nuanced decisions for character creation (assuming this really matters throughout the game), and to have foreground in-game decisions be coarser (continuous automatic background improvement is fine).

I do think it might be quite interesting for an RPG to have a few big jumps of pseudo-character-creation-style complexity. E.g. a game that takes place over a few pivotal weeks spread out over months/years. After each of those weeks a player could have the option to decide how his character spends the next months - perhaps making some subtle, fine-grained trade-offs.
Of course this too is largely in the spirit of the op - just applying less-is-more to character 'levels' rather than skill levels. If you only get to change your skills three or four times during the game, it'd make the process more significant. [probably there are a load of games that do this already, which I'll declare interest in, perhaps purchase on steam, and then never play... Panic]

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« Reply #7 on: March 07, 2019, 05:06:31 pm »

I like these ideas very much but I am not sure if less is more in a generalized context. The ultimate thing I yearn for is to make each point I distribute count, however many I can maximally put in. If a game wants to have an integer range or floating-point precision where an attribute ranges from [0, 100] in integer 1 increments or [0.0, 1.0] in 0.01 increments, then my hope is that a character with 47 points in an attribute/skill is noticeably different from one with 48 points or for FP continuous representation, that 0.48 is noticeably different from 0.47. Where I tend to get disappointed is when distributing a point seems to make no real difference at all.

With combat it's easier to notice nuanced changes in skills/attributes since it proportionally affects things like hit chance and damage and critical chances and so forth. The outcome isn't black and white "hit or miss" -- there's damage ranges and criticals and things of this sort -- all which help to notice nuanced differences with every little increment to a combat-related skill or attribute.

The difficulty to me with scripted events is that they often lack that nuance and tend to be more black-and-white "success or fail". For those I sometimes wonder if it would be a good idea to adopt a development strategy which iteratively increases precision/range as more game content is added. For example, if there aren't many cases that can account for nuance and subtlety in lore skills, then one might even start with lore ranging from [0, 1] (binary), meaning you're either a super master of lore (it might cost many, many skill points to increment from 0 to 1) or someone who doesn't know anything about it. Then as the developers start adding more content which might be successfully unlocked for someone who has intermediary level knowledge of lore, they might expand that to a range of [0, 2] and make it cost less to add a point, making it ternary (no knowledge of lore whatsoever, intermediate knowledge, advanced knowledge).

That "base range/precision on content" development approach would favor the skill levels having no more range/precision than what makes noticeable differences in the game. It would also imply perhaps that the end result would not cap all skills to the same maximum level (combat skills might have a higher range/precision) or the same cost distribution to increment. It would vary depending on how much content is available for that skill that makes a real difference (eliminating those vacant levels you mentioned).

One minor complaint I had with AoD scripted events besides the perception of vacant levels (whether they made a difference or not, I couldn't really notice sometimes), is the number of events that required you to be good at two skills at once, like both lore and crafting, or lore and trading. One of my earliest playthroughs involved a lore master and I thought I could just be really good at lore, steetwise, and combat, only to disappointingly find that being a master of lore still kept me from experiencing a lot of content even related to lore (there seemed to be a whole lot that required crafting as well IIRC, and somehow felt like a crippled loremaster because my crafting skill was abysmal and I never liked crafting very much in games so I deliberately tried to avoid it at first). Generally while it might make more sense in terms of realism to require a character to be skilled at two or more skills to pass some check, it also severely restricts the amount of content that can be experienced by builds that don't specialize in that precise combination. So I would actually prefer that more of such checks depended only on one skill or attribute, not two or more, unless the amount of unique content/options specific to builds increases exponentially to offer so much for every single possible combination of skills one might possess. With that loremaster I felt like I missed so much content related to lore since I didn't have other skills required to even experience lore-related content.

Reducing the number of combination checks in favor of single-skill checks is somewhat related to reducing precision/range of attribute/skill levels in the sense that it reduces "vacancy levels" in content and makes every point in every skill make an impact. With combination checks there can be lots of vacant levels since if I require both high lore and high crafting to experience certain content, that makes merely having high lore and no crafting somewhat turn into a "vacancy", making it have no effect on much of the content until I also add more points in crafting. Vacancy is an issue with a lack of content as I see it, so reducing ranges/precision and combined checks all helps fight that problem without substantially increasing the amount of content. Another strategy to combat "vacancy" is also just reduce the number of skills available and potentially even consolidate some (ex: consolidate "streetwise" and "impersonate") -- basically no more skills/ranges/combo checks than the amount of abundant unique game content available to each unique kind of build.
« Last Edit: March 07, 2019, 05:50:42 pm by old_school_gamer » Logged
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