A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.

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Starting a Game Studio

How do game studios get started? We always hear about game studios releasing a hit game and being boosted to fame. But whence do they come? I suppose most large companies and studios start as some guys in a garage or in a basement. Nowadays many companies are funded by the groups of venture capitalists, waiting to hit the next media goldmine. But in terms of game studios, are there still grass roots talent being formed and emerging? Or has the market environment become too hostile, and now new talent is forced to hop into the large studios as an insignificant piece of a game producing machine?

With most mainsteam games coming from the huge studios that have been bought up by corporate syndicates, there has been an increase in indie games recently. With the increased popularity of Valve’s digital distribution platform, Steam, fledgling studios don’t have to sign onto a corporate distributor to get their game noticed. Tiny, 5 dollar stocking stuffer games are now feasible to distribute, since releasing on Steam costs virtually nothing. Gone are the costs of creating discs and advertizing.

Studios still have to come from somewhere, though. I guess college is a great time to form a game studio. People are already there and live relatively close together, they don’t have a job, they have been studying their trade and want to apply it, and they have the time and motivation to accomplish something. I would go about creating a core team of one writer, and two coders, one or two artists. I would be a coder, but also keep the group coherent. Although 5 people may seem a little big to get off the ground, there would only be 3 people actively involved at one time on average. We would also need a couple voice actors, but that is outside talent and can be dealt with on a one to one basis.

After assembling, we would create our first game. No doubt it would take a couple iterations to get something desirable, but as long as something gets made, we’re fine. The game would probably be built on a pre-existing framework to speed up the development process. Once we have our first game out, we can bring one or two more people on board, and improve our infrastructure with the money from sales. After a second, larger game, we could probably get some investments and move into a building once graduated from college. As a standalone studio, it would probably be tough to make ends meet, but as a lead producer, I think I could keep projects on task and on time, yet still deliver an exceptional product. Perhaps we would eventually be bought up, but we could certainly argue a large amount of freedom in our contract if our games did exceptionally well.

Being the head producer of a studio would be great. It is your job to make sure good games are made, which means checking out and guiding every part of the process, from writing to coding to art design. It is your job to make sure people are working together, working quickly, and doing quality work. Such a job would suit me, as I have an interest in all aspects of game creation, an ability to hold a grand vision, the ability to help people communicate and work together, and the ability to split up an idea into steps and develop a timeline.

Another side of being the lead producer at a game studio would be dealing with management. If you belonged to a larger company, you would have people above you that don’t really understand or care what makes a specific game good; all they are dealing with is sales and other numbers. It might come down the chain of command that I should implement a certain system in my game, because it increased sales for these other games. Of course, my game is completely different and incompatible with that system. So it is up to me to please the management but still make a good, undiluted game. That sort of challenge is what makes producer an especially appealing job to me.

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