Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How I do Elements

Magicka did something that few games have done before: it brought elements to the forefront of gameplay. We’ve seen games play RPS with elements, and we’ve seen counter elements, but rarely have we seen games properly combine elements. Usually very little thought is put into what elements to include in a game. By default people flock to Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. Sometimes they have Wood or Metal. Furthermore they will grab Holy and Unholy as elements, regardless of the fact that they are not part of the natural order (since gods are usually part of the super natural order).

I’ve been working on creating an element system for my own games for awhile. It started as a pen and paper endeavor to help better define characters in a game that I had entitled Chaos. The point of Chaos was that the player would randomly roll up their character to roll play, pick some other initial stats, and go on from there. They could learn any ability at level up as long as it made sense with the class, race, or element they chose.

This allowed some players to be Blast Predator Rangers and Gem Zombie Warriors. They would then play through a combat scenario and attempt to survive it with the characters they created. It was very much a Rogue a like scenario, but in pen and paper.

The elements therefore were created to fit the stat system of the game, which can be included or ignored with how the elements function with each other. Personally I think that the combination has more potential for interesting choices and interactions. For now though, I’d like to focus on what elements are in the element system, how they combine and interact, and how this could possibly be ported into a game.

Like other people, I did start with the four basic elements, if anything, it is good to start people with what they are familiar with: Air, Earth, Water and Fire. The concept is that each person is born with these elements. If one dominates over all others, than their element is that base element. If two elements are in balance with-in the person, than they are of a combined element: Ice, Lighting, Smoke and Magma.

Ice is the combination of Air and Water. Lightning is a combination of Air and Earth (yes I know it is usually attuned with Fire). Magma is a combination of Earth and Fire. Smoke is a combination of Fire and Water. At this level is also where two weaker elements are made, Blaze (Fire + Air) and Mud (Earth + Water). These weaker elements work out well in a game of survival, as it is a challenge to overcome.

The next tier up are elements generated by the combination of three elements. These are Light, Blast, Gem and Shadow. Light is a combination of Fire, Earth, and Air (or more simply, Lightning and Magma). Blast is Air, Water, and Earth (Lightning and Ice). Gem is Air, Water and Fire (Ice and Smoke). Shadow is Fire, Water and Earth (Smoke and Magma). It makes more sense to think of it as a combination of two tier 2 elements rather than 3 base elements.

Finally, there are those that have equal ability in all elements. Those have the power of Wood, which I call Creation. The idea is that they can create anything.

Unlike in pen and paper games, there need to be ways of deciding how to use these elements. This is where Magicka was absolutely brilliant. They had Normal Use, Area of Effect, Self Cast and Imbue. These modifiers allow the creation of spells to grow exponentially and saves on what the player would need to combine to create an effect. We can take cues from what Magicka did when implementing the elements from the Chaos game into a video game environment.

Magicka also had certain effect combinations by how the elements were combined: Fissures, Walls, Storms, Sprays, Bombs, Beams, Projectiles etc.). Though these could also be done with the Chaos game, it is better to create other concepts and ideas based instead of the casting options (which are of more universal use anyways), instead of stealing specific recipes from a game that did so much so well.

I’m not going to specifically break down every spell possibility right now, but the seed of the idea exists. Perhaps as I approach the concept of the stats for Chaos. Perhaps a more robust element system could change the game of elements the same way that Lizard and Spock changed Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Friday, August 26, 2011

League of Legends - Cost of F2P

Last December I started playing League of Legends. It has been 8 months since I started. In that time they have released 8 new champions at about $10 each (I have not bought all 8 champions), they have announced a player base of 15 million accounts (that includes abandoned, multi or smurf account, etc), they have declared the creation of a new game type (Unreal Tournament is calling, you know, from the 90s), and they have updated the client to let you know how much money you have spent with them.

Now, as I play, I've found that after playing games with RMT as a revenue source, it becomes easier to spend money again on it, and on other games as well. My journey started with Gaia Online, where I spent a small amount to buy an outfit for my anime style avatar. It was just because I could, and I wanted to look nice. But that small $5 transaction somehow allowed me to understand RMT and microtransactions.

In League of Legends, I have spent $140. With those $140 I have bought: 17 champions (most were on sale), 18 skins (again most on sale), and 3 bundles (that is 3 champions and 5 skins). At the same time out of the 64 champions I have purchased, only 1/3 have been with real money. The rest I bought with IP (influence points) which is earned by playing the game.

At no point do I feel swindled by Riot for this. Considering the idea that I'm spending $20 a month for 7 months (I didn't buy RP for August), and that I don't have to ever spend money again for the game, and that I never had to spend this money, I'm not unsatisfied. I paid $15 a month to Blizzard for 4 years and that was with purchasing expansions, and now I can't even play my Shaman. There is a lot to be said for F2P, and Riot is showing how F2P done right can make a customer feel proud of having spent money on the game.

There is a lot of ways a game can make money on the F2P model, but the best bet is to make a good game, sell non-power items, and respect your customers. To be fair, the first and the last are really hard.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Terraria - Review

Though there may be several similarities between Terraria and Minecraft, there are enough differences that I am able to call them different games. While some differences are rather obvious (2D vs 3D), others can be more subtle.

Terraria is a game about exploring the map and defeating boss monsters. Though there is no plot, it has the start of a plot on its way. What this means is that currently Terraria is more likely to transform into an adventure/sandbox game than Minecraft. Though this may not be what everyone would like, it is most likely the best direction for the game to go.

Terraria has a simple crafting interface. This makes it easy for first time players to discover how to craft things, but it also makes discovering new items a kind of accident, by simply holding items in your inventory.

There are a variety of enemies in Terraria, as well as invasions that can occur later on. Sometimes an event will occur, such as the Blood Moon rising, which will cause a mass of zombies to attack your home. Some enemies such as worms also have unique sounds they make before they attack.

Creating homes in Terraria have certain requirements, and allow NPCs to move in. Placing blocks is easy and the player has a range around them in which they can place things. Also working together with someone can be fun, and the players can join the same team so they can see their distance from the other.

With that in mind, multiplayer is easily griefed. Someone can go into a play session with a pocket full of dynamite and cause players to constantly fall into everlasting doom. Bosses will also sometimes randomly attack, which can cause a waste of resources if you think you can fight it, or a waste of time if you get killed.

There’s not much guidance in the game as to what to do next. This is in part due to the limits of what can be done. The Guide NPC can at least help the player figure out how to get other NPCs to show up, but beyond that there is nothing else to do in the game other than explore, fight and build. The issue is that those activities feel pointless without some sort of endgame goal.

The music is rather forgettable ambient sounds. The graphics feel like 16-bit SNES style graphics, and there are no mods to the game that I am aware of. The game does still get updates, so it is far from over.

With that in mind, there are probably more items, monsters, and NPCs coming. It would be nice if there was the ability to learn spells for the game, to give more purpose to the mana that you can collect. A quest system might also give a reason to do certain things in the game. One of my favorite aspects of Terraria is making a village. It would be exciting to have more NPCs.

In the end, Terrara is more than just a 2D Minecraft. It is fun, and worth checking out if you like 2D sidescrolling action adventure games.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Legend of Mana

Crafting first entered into my brain while playing Legend of Mana for the PS1. It was an interesting idea, to get a recipe for an item and then simply making the same item but with different material (Minecrafters are staring at me right now). Thing is in 2000, this was rather new to me. Before then most games simply had a get material make a special weapon, at most. Crafting was an amazing concept for me.

I like the idea of LoM’s crafting, it used different things such as elemental influences, materials, and some random things to define the power of the item made. Furthermore, the game allowed for reforging, which was a way of adding power to the weapons.

Comparing LoM’s crafting to World of Warcraft, where each piece of armor is its own unique recipe, I would rather use LoM’s. In a sense, you could tier armor and weapons by effect or functionality and then allow the player to modify it through material and elements. All together allowing for a complicated set of items that possess unique features based on the choices of the creator.

When looking at design, I would focus on crafting as a major aspect of gameplay, and find ways to make it interesting and fun. Simply just having the materials and clicking craft is not enough to make the mechanic fun.

Warcraft 2

Warcraft 2 was a game that I loved when I first played it over 15 years ago. I was playing it through single player, and having a blast. Then one day, I found out a friend also played it. So we set up to play together.

That first match devastated me. I have no idea how he get to me so fast. It was over in less than 7 minutes. My matches with the computer usually lasted 15 to 20 minutes. We tried again, and again I lost. The total defeat soured me from online multiplayer. I went back to playing single player, and I began reading how to play multiplayer. There were some sites back then with strategies, but I could never quite pull it off compared to other people.

What drew me into Warcraft 2 and as a game that highly influence me has almost nothing to do with the game that Blizzard made. Instead, it was the game mods and special map editors that had me enthralled to the game. I would explore Total Conversions of Warcraft 2, and I would replace art assets with my own. I would modify unit behavior, and spell strength, and balance.

I would play with different tilesets. Warcraft 2 showed me the power of user created mods, that I’ve seen and experienced through other games as well: Unreal Tournament, World of Warcraft, Diablo 2, Minecraft and more. Sometimes these mods are encouraged by the company. Other times the company fights against the modders. In the end, I believe that designing the game around allowing for user mods is better than not.

It adds to the game, and gives players other things to play with in the world you’ve created. At the same time, I can understand the frustration that can occur through what is essentially cheat system.

For example in Team Fortress 2, I went to a server that was running a custom map. I was trying to figure out why so many people were showing up to play on this little deathmatch map that had no strategy and simply resulted in players dying continuously. I then realized that it was an achievement farm map. Needless to say, I left (after I got 3 achievements trying to figure out what was going on). Similarly, many mods for Diablo 2 were used for cheating and gaining power faster or easier.

So the more sandbox the game experience, the more likely that allowing for mods will improve the game. On the other hand, the more the game focuses on requiring balance, and fairness for all (classes, champions, lifestyle choices, etc), the the more likely that the game should not include mods, or only allow mods with certain limitations on how it can affect the game. As Raph Koster says, “Never put anything on the client. The client is in the hands of the enemy. Never ever ever forget this.”
This of course makes sense when dealing with any kind of persistent world. Especially when it requires fairness to maintain a sense of community. This includes games with PVP, MMOs, MOBAs and any game with RMT.

This limits the kinds of games or the kinds of modding that the game designer could allow for the game. Things like GUI mods, or reskins (unless your revenue model is based on such things). Come to think of it, despite how awesome modding is, it has almost no place in any game that wishes to be an esport or to support itself through subscription or RMT.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bloons TD 4

Bloons Tower Defense 4 is one of those tower defense games that everyone and their mother has been making. What stands out to me about the game is how the different towers evolve and level up, the way the mobs work, and the options available to the player in-case they mess up during the stage.

Bloons TD4 has you placing monkeys down beside a path to shoot down colored balloons that are trying to kill you. The monkeys come in different varieties and cover a different range of needs such as range, speed, power and special powers (such as slow, enhance, and poison). The options of how to upgrade the monkeys allow the player to choose certain aspects to focus on first over others, such as getting longer range before added power, or getting a poison effect. This may seem typical, but many Tower Defense games simply have the towers upgrade up, and there’s not much choice happening moment to moment other than upgrade or not.

The balloons themselves come in increasing variety, with a balloon within a balloon. The monkey’s have to pop through all the layers of balloons to destroy the mob, giving a vibrant visual queue to the player as to the health the the balloons. Some balloons later on have different abilities and require different strategies: camouflage balloons that require the ability to see hidden enemies (or a monkey that will attack the spot anyways, or sometimes in a pinch, a bed of nails), armored balloons that require enough power to punch through it first, balloons that burst into several smaller balloons after it pops requiring AOE to take care of the aftermath, and boss balloons (blimps).

This variety or balloons requires some planning ahead with the placement of monkeys, but can also be handles in different ways including using some of the one time use abilities such as placing nails or sticky glue on the path. Though these are priced cheaply, their effect to cost ratio is slanted towards it being an ineffective use of money, unless you really need it. One example is setting down the glue when balloons are traveling faster than expected, or using a pile of nails to pop a camo balloon allowing your monkeys to destroy the others.

Other aspects of Bloons TD4 that influence my ideas are things like the ability to assign towers to target different kinds of enemies (First, Last, Strong, Weak) which can help set up the monkeys to handle certain situations that just attacking the First enemy in range would: a Glue gun monkey that is always hitting the strongest balloons so that the other monkeys can deal more damage to it for example.

Bloons TD4 is one of the best tower defense games I’ve played, and though it is far from perfect, it offers a great deal of good design for other tower defense games to iterate on. Tower defense games are not the most engaging for the player on a moment to moment level, but Bloons TD4 manages to create gameplay from a drag and drop game.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Rygar (and Bionic Commando)

Rygar is one of the first RPGs I played. Much like Final Fantasy 3 did later in life, Rygar provided a huge shift in what games were for me. Unlike FF3, Rygar was a side-scrolling action RPG with more similarities to Zelda II than Final Fantasy. There was a power gain, as marked via experience gain. This is why I can categorize Rygar as an RPG to begin with.

Though Rygar provided an interesting plot, an unlocking ever expanding world (much like metroid), and an almost free-roaming gameplay experience; it did not have a save function. Which meant to reach completion, the player would have to be there the entire time, from start to finish. Looking back, another game that had a similar feel was Bionic Commando, which also had no save function.

The shift of view I experienced was the concept of character growth. Again this was also in Bionic Commando, and I’m starting to think I should credit both games for this development, considering that I played them at almost the same time.

For me though, while Rygar made sense, Bionic Commando was difficult to interact with as a child. Moving across the map, choosing the right weapons, and deciphering the uses of the communication devices at the age of 7 was difficult for me.

On the other hand, Rygar just let you run around and explore, much the same way Metroid did, which at the time was a much easier concept than maps and equipment. It is interesting then that we left RPG elements from our games for so long, when we had games from the late 80s already incorporating RPG into other genres.

It is this kind of integration that I’m interested in, and that I want to bring to games. Even if the increase is small or only provides health, it can help ease the curve of challenge in games so that it better fits an individual’s playstyle.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct is a bit of a different genre from my usual choices of influential games. I could have picked Street Fighter 2, but Killer Instinct was really the first game that brought the idea of combos to the forefront of my mind.

The idea of overkill was another Killer Instinct moment for me, though I’m sure people will want to point to Mortal Kombat, what I’m referring to is the Ultra Combos from Killer Instinct. They were part finishing move, part super move. It required enough skill to combo up to a certain point, without having your combo broken, while at the same time, not killing the opponent until the input was complete.

Killer Instinct had games and challenges within its fighting, that challenged players to not only fight well, but to fight while trying to puzzle out combos and breakers.

Later games that continued this sort of interplay were BlazBlue, Street Fighter IV, Dead or Alive, and more, though they may not think to point to Killer Instinct. Killer Instinct had more influence on fighting games than Mortal Kombat.

Aside from the mechanics, Killer Instinct brought Unreal Tournament style exclamations (Ultra!!!! [echo][echo][echo][fade]), interesting fighters that were just shy of generic and appeared to be part of a superhero universe. Not to mention that at the time, the graphics were amazing, the gameplay was fluid, the controls were responsive and you had nothing short of an excellent game.

What lost Killer Instinct was the sequel. I remember going from the original to the sequel and remembering that there was something off. Not being able to revisit the sequel, I’m not exactly sure what it was that felt wrong with it.

Killer Instinct is a game that could make a comeback, and it has a great deal it can learn from its modern progeny. There are aspects of Killer Instinct that can be put into use in any number of games.

Parts can be seen in World of Warcraft focusing on ability synergy, but we can also add this sort of combo to console style RPGs. Like in Chrono Trigger, how one ability weakens the foe to other types of attacks. Generating a game that allows for faster paced combos, or a different type of attack interface, where enemies and players can chain attacks, and disrupt chains, instead of passively sitting back and getting hit.