Monday, August 24, 2009

An RPG Should be short

This started out as a quick response to a question posed by the Rampant Coyote. He talks about how the lengths of games have changed over the years, and asks readers how long they like their RPGs. The response got a little long, so I decided that rather than posting a wall of text in his comments, and would post it here, and link to it.

This question actually has two answers. If it's a wide open, sandbox style game, like Oblivion, I say throw as much stuff into it as you can, make it just as long and involved as possible. Because I didn't play Oblivion for the story, I played it to be immersed in a world, and the more world there is to be immersed in the better. However, for story based RPGs, I prefer shorter games, and here's why:

First, I get tired of the settings. I want to play something post apocolyptic, then I want to play high fantasy, then I want to play sci-fi, by 100 hours I'm sick of whatever setting I've been playing and want to do something new. At about ten to twenty hours, a game is just long enough to give you a good chance to explore the setting, have fun with it, and be done before you have a chance to get sick of it.

Second, I get tired of the mechanics. You can have plenty of growth over a hundred hour game, but you're still doing fundamentally the same things at level 100 as you are at level 1. Even if they are in the same genre, there will be enough difference between two games to make it fresh. I also like the feeling of learning and exploring new mechanics, typically you don't get new mechanics late in the game, they are just iterations of the same old ones.

Third, it takes months, or years, to play through a hundred hour game, by the time I get to the end I've forgotten everything that happened at the start. I can't remember the events that so cleverly foreshadowed what happens at the end, nor can I remember the questions that are finally being answered by the big bad's final monologue.

Finally, if a game is really great, I want to experience it again, that's really hard with a hundred hour game. I recently replayed Metal Gear Solid in one day, you couldn't do that with a game that takes a hundred hours to get through. Additionally, I like exploring different possibilities, especially in RPGs. If the game is really great, and has a lot of options, I might want to go through as a rogue, then as a warrior, then as a diplomat, just to explore the different possibilities. If the game only takes ten to fifteen hours per play through I can easily do that, if it takes a hundred hours, it aint gonna happen.

One really good example of this last point is Deus Ex. That game had so many possibilities for how to play, how to build your character, and what branches in the story to take. I would have loved to play that through two or three times, but I've only been able to get through it once. I started playing through again almost a year ago, and got half way through before another game pulled me away, but I feel like I missed out on a lot of what that game had to offer.

Last year I wrote a post on how I thought that the optimal game should be around eight to twelve hours. I still think that the best game would be one that you can beat relatively quickly, but has so many different ways to play that you keep wanting to come back for more.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Project Update

It's been a while since I've said anything about the game I'm working on. So let me share with you what's going on.

This has been a big learning experience for me. I always thought that the difficult part of game development was the implementation, but that seems really easy now next to game balance. I recently read a great article that talked about how balance is the maximizing of player choices. An unbalanced element is one that removes player choice. For example, there used to be little difference between the riflemen and the machinegunners, the riflemen cost less, so there was no need to ever use anything but the riflemen. That's a choice the player doesn't need to make because using anything but the riflemen was stupid.

I've been focusing on differentiating the different classes, and giving the player reasons to use them. I think I've made some good strides in the right direction. I introduced a new zombie type, the armor zombie, that takes very little direct damage from attacks. Then I made the riflemen do very little direct damage, but they poison the zombie they hit. The armor zombies are just as susceptible to poison damage as any other zombie, so the riflemen are very effective against them. It takes two or three machine gunners to take down the same number of armor zombies that a single rifleman can handle. But at the same time the riflemen don't do enough damage to take down the other zombie types on their own, so you can't rely on nothing but riflemen.

Another change I made was to make the snipers very bad at tracking fast moving zombies, so they can really only hit a zombie that is coming towards them, or walking away from them. They do a lot of damage though, they can do about as much damage as three machine gunners, but they only cost a little more than two, the drawback is that they aren't any good in tight streets, so you can only use them in a few limited areas. This also gives you incentive to create long straight shots for the zombies to run down so that the sniper has a good shot.

Another problem I ran into was resources. Most tower defense type games have you gain resources by killing enemies. The problem I ran into with this was that I had the amount of money dropped by an enemy tied to how tough they are. This lead to situations where the zombies drop money, which means that the player's defenses improve, which means the zombies need to get tougher, which means they drop more money. It was really giving me fits trying to figure out the optimal rate of resource growth versus enemy strength growth. I finally decided to decouple the two, and made it so that the player gets resources from the buildings. Also the player can gain more resources by building factories on the buildings to boost their production. The trick about the factories, is that they improve their own production, and the production of surrounding buildings, but the effects don't stack. So the most economical thing to do is to spread your factories out over a large space. This whole setup does a couple of things, first it increases the players incentive to keep the zombies from capturing too many buildings, because each lost building cuts into their bottom line. Second it encourages careful placement of factories to maximize the number of buildings that they boost. Third, it encourages the player to hold onto large contiguous groups of buildings, they need as much real estate as they can get to maximize their earnings. Finally, it adds more choices, because the player has to decide, will they buy more defensive units, or more factories, or try to hold out in hopes of winning when they finally amass enough money to win.

Overall these changes seem to really be improving things. At the moment I'm reworking the path finding logic. It's a bit clunky, I set it up so that the zombies would favor exploration over building capturing, unfortunately this means that on smaller maps they never get around to capturing buildings.

I'm feeling really good about where things are headed. Once I get the gameplay nailed down a bit more, to where it's fun and challenging, then we'll be able to start work on the artwork again. Then maybe I'll have some pretty screenshots to put up.

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