Progression versus Progression
Progression by now is no longer considered a buzzword, and it certainly isn’t new. It is however, an extremely important element in both the mobile and free-to-play spaces. Progression is especially important in free-to-play because in order for these games to make money they need to engage the player over long periods of time. The longer a free-to-play game keeps the player interested, the more likely they are going to spend money in that game. In this article I am going to compare the traditional free-to-play progression model against Clash of Clan’s and explain why I like SuperCell’s version better.
I definitely plan to get back to part 2 of my relationships article, but for now I really want to gush over one of my favourite board games. I bought Smallworld as a Christmas gift for two of my friends, and taught them how to play it over the holidays. It took only about ten minutes to explain the rules and after a single game they were fully on board, requiring almost no clarification on the rules. This is testament to the intelligent design decisions made by Days of Wonder’s designers. There are three things that I find exceptional about this game, and I am going to tell you about them.
Gameplay Relationships Part One: Weapon Relationships in Shooters
Game balance is often treated as something different, or complementary to core gameplay design. This is wrong. Balance forms relationships which are part of what makes up core gameplay. Weapon balance, vehicle balance, character balance, unit balance, economic balance. These are all informed by, and inform the core gameplay of a game. This is why game development is so difficult. You can’t develop these things modularly in a vacuum and snap them together in the end. The most compelling games weave relationships together elegantly, but obtaining this elegance is a long, complicated process.
In order to understand the balance of a game we need to move one step higher to relationships. Specifically in this article I am going to discuss weapon relationships.
Darts, a White Board, and Iteration
Iterative design is not my favourite thing in the world. It’s not that I think it can’t make a good game, but it is extremely time inefficient and usually the result of a lack of confidence in one’s design. It is also the result of communal design, which usually lacks focus, but under the right circumstances can create something quite engaging, such as DOTA. This is the story of my iterative design — DartNations 3: 2 “The Dartening.”
At work we have a white board and a bunch of nerf suction darts. In a game studio there can be down time; waiting to compile, waiting for a server to return, etc. Naturally the nerf darts are going to get a lot of play. Throwing darts at a blank board isn’t all that entertaining, so I began to draw games on it. The first that I can remember was poker. I drew a bunch of squares up with cards on them and everyone tried for the highest hand. There were a few instant problems with that. The first being that you can get five of a kind with five darts, the second and far bigger problem is that the end game comes very quickly. The moment someone gets five of a kind, you are pretty much done. To improve this I changed the game to Yahtzee. Numbers in squares were drawn on the board and players would aim for the best score they could. It worked better than poker because the ultimate score was harder to achieve, gaining a longer end game. Yahtzee didn’t hold our attention for long though, and thus was born “DartNations.”
With the recommendation of a co-worker I have been playing a lot of 10000000 recently. It is a puzzle game for iOS where you match blocks to defeat monsters in a dungeon. There are a couple of critical design decisions that make this game incredibly addicting, and easy to reengage.
The two most important features I feel are its slightly random nature, and the fact that sessions remain short even as the player’s score increases over time. I’ve been addicted to a couple player-versus-game puzzle games over the years. It started on Gameboy with Tetris and Revenge of the Gator Pinball, continued onto the PSP with Lumines, and now has landed here on iOS with 100000000. The problem with the previous games was that the better you got at them, the longer you had to play to come anywhere close to beating your previous score.
The Secret of Mana
Anyone who has, even loosely, followed my writing the last couple of months can tell I am on a bit of a retro kick. I bought Secret of Mana on VC a couple of months ago and after playing it for a couple of hours I dropped it and played through A Link to the Past instead. I thought this was a little weird because I absolutely loved Secret of Mana when I was a kid. SoM came out of no where for me; I didn’t know about it until my friend received it as a Christmas gift. We played it non-stop together. There was always something a little magical about it, something that I could never put my finger on. It was really strange then, that I really wasn’t enjoying it as much as I remembered nearly twenty years later. I figured it out though, and the sad reality is that the secret of Secret of Mana is that it isn’t a very good game. There is however, one extremely strong redeeming quality.
Secret of Mana has a lot of weak elements. Combat is one dimensional and inconsistent. When enemies are attacked they are ‘flattened,’ which stuns them on top of being dealt damage. Some enemies can continue to be attacked in this state, but feedback isn’t returned until the creature regains its feet. Some enemies can’t be attacked in this state. The combat in the game devolves into attack, wait, enemy gets up, attack again. The game can also be extremely unfair. Magic can not be dodged and can be chain cast by enemies, which happens often during boss encounters. The only counter is to also abuse your own heavily overpowered magic. These two downsides also mean the game is an extreme grindfest. There is no skill in combat, so overcoming walls in difficulty means you are going to be grinding mindlessly a lot. Level your character, level your magic, and level your weapon. As I noticed all of these flaws I started to question why I loved this game so much once, and I think the answer lies in one quality.
Accessibility in Modern Games
I’d write a long post on accessibility and tutorial in modern games, but this video by EgoRaptor pretty much covers my opinion on how they should be handled. Unfortunately not a lot of developers put the effort in and we end up with one of “these”…. uuugh!
Design is probably still one of the most ill-defined disciplines in games. What level designer, system designer, mission designer, or technical designer means varies wildly from company to company. I consider myself primarily a systems designer and I know a lot of people don’t understand what that means, even people in design. I’m going to try and clarify that — using one of the most recognized games I can think of as an example.
Before getting down to specifics, I want to define a system as it applies to all games. A system is an element of a game that contributes to its gameplay. What I mean by gameplay is how a player plays the game. This sounds vague, and it is. A game with few systems is a game with few rules, which means the game itself is vague. As we apply more systems to a game, we apply more rules, and thus define the game. Within a system are variables, often referred to as nobs (because these are how you tune.) Adjusting the nobs of a system helps shape that system and gives identity to the game. Shooting is a system in an FPS. Adjusting variables within shooting such as aim speed, fire rate, scatter, and recoil defines how shooting will feel in that FPS, and ultimately how that FPS will play.