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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Kami

My brother and I have had this long standing idea between us. It is sort of a nebulous concept we talk about sometime. Its an amalgamation of games and ideas, a number of concepts which might be cool is put together in the correct fashion and executed well. We call it Kami, which is the Japanese word for “life force”.

At the most basic level, Kami is a MMORPG. The best way to describe it is to compare it to Pokemon. The key difference is that (other than being a MMORPG) you don’t order around animals; you are the animals. Your character is a spirit which can inhabit various animals. Instead of leveling up certain animals (although you can store the wild animals while you aren’t using them, which can improve usage by taming), you level up your control of an animal type. While on a hunt you could possess any of the surrounding unpossessed animals (the one you currently control becomes feral). You can also learn to reside within multiple animals, allowing you to trade off between animal types in battle and have a set of other animals support you. It also introduced the possibility of hybrids, such as a spine-thrower atop a flying animal. If your animal dies, you choose another animal to jump to, or if none are available you can resurrect at the nearest nature shrine.

Kami also has a second half though. A large aspect of the game is based in clans and guilds. Like in EVE Online, clans can own property and build up power. On the fringes of the world map you can battle a clan for control of land plots (a plot might be 15-30 acres). When in control of a plot, clans can exploit any resources and build a varietly of buildings. Some sort of fortifiation is generally wanted, however, because if a vicious clan challenges you, you better be ready to defend. Attackers enter your land from the main road. Your plot becomes instanced, meaning nobody can leave or enter during the battle and the entire plot reverts back to normal if you defend successfully (minus one time traps, etc.) to deter greifing. Each plot has finite resources, however, meaning that the most money lies on the edge of explored space. To make sure more area was always available, new regions made with guided procedural generation would be added regularly through updates. Previously impassable terrain would be removed through natural or NPC activity such as building a bridge over a river, clearing a rockslide, or revealing a new cave.

Constructing buildings on your plot would not be a trivial matter. Materials would first need to be accrued, either by harvesting resources on site or by importing. In the case of materials like stone, large quantities can be expensive and hard to transport. After you have the necessary materials, you need to select both a building site (there are numerous of these “sockets” in every plot, each allowing a different selection of building types) and a building type. From the initial barebones hub, you can add on modules; a barracks probably needs a kitchen and feral pen, while a lodge needs a bar, kitchen, and fireplaces. Once, you know what basic building type you want, you still need it built. You can either hire or assemble a custom construction crew (usually a specialized hybrid of animals). These are controlled by NPCs and build the building over a number of days. They work continuously, and depending on the hired team they may deduct continuously, up front, or after its done. Castles would take a long time and be very expensive. However, it would resist most normal attacks; only climbers, fliers, or siege animals could get past stone walls.

They regular map and game would be like any MMORPG, with quests and towns, etc. You can still make money through business ventures as well as through item sales. Shops could be bought up for instance, and would run continuously and then deliver your profits on login. You wouldn’t be able to found towns, but you could take up residence. General player consensus could drive world-wide events, such as if the majority of residents in a town wanted to declare war against a neighboring town. New quests would be available and the game world would reflect the ongoing war. The world would be essentially player-driven. Not everything would be available, though. Players who want to get into intense politics are encouraged to journey out and join a clan.

Animals would be both specialized and general. While there would be different types of attack classes (e.g. versatile melee, spine-thrower, agile, tank, flying, pack), there would also be pack animals, explorers, messengers, and shopkeepers (tentacled, perhaps?). Construction workers would have very specialized forms, like a quarry beast with a giant saw-blade tail and arms capable of lifting solid stone blocks. Beaver-style animals could be lumberjacks, and a tunneling worm/thing could be a miner. Some animals might work as a pack, sort of like the Tines in aFuTD. Such animals could fulfill roles requiring dexterity, like certain roles in construction or the making of tools.

The game is always changing; it just a fun thing to think about. Right now it appears to be a greatly player-driven MMORPG that’s a cross between EVE Online and Pokemon, with intense politics and economics but also crazy interesting animals/creatures.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality games are great. They are a good way to encourage certain real life behaviors using game mechanics. For instance, there are a range of research projects focused on creating games that reward players for keeping track of and increasing environmentally sound behaviors, such as recycling and saving energy. Most of these games pit players against other real players, encouraging users to climb to the top of the leaderboards both locally, globally, and within groups of friends. Some games use virtual rewards within the game to encourage behavior. Zombies, Run! is a game that uses recreational running as the main game mechanic. As people run in real life they pick up items in the virtual world and progress the story. Players must also avoid virtual enemies by changing their routes in real life.

Ever since I played Skyrim I have had the idea of real life stats. As you did things during your day you could level up your skills and then compare them with friends. Skills could be anything from button-pressing to sneaking to agility to bush-trimming. Only recently though did I make the connection between ARGs and that idea. The game combines self-competition, leaderboard competition, and player vs. player competition. A person might focus on strength, so they might work out every day and then enter the activities they did from a wide selection. An algorithm would weight different activities differently, etc. But the skills aren’t only physical. People could increase their analog electronics skills, for example, or palm-reading.

Increased stats would unlock various ingame pieces of equipment, quests, and story arcs. Quests would require players to complete daring real life tasks, collect virtual items, or figure out puzzles. Quests would often involve prominent features of the surrounding area. An agility quest might involve cutting through a park while avoiding virtual defenses, or delivering an item to a virtual character in limited time. Puzzles could use public inscriptions, decoded in a special way, to point to ingame treasure. Generic quests such as gathering items or reaching various locations would also be available.

A large part of competition between friends would be PVP contests. The object is to either directly tag your opponent and tell them a code word, at which point they have to give you their number, or to lead them into a trap you have set. Other rules of engagement could also be available. Increased stats would help you in your struggle. Abilities, such as being able to locate your opponent, obscure your location, detect traps, or convince virtual characters to mislead your opponent, would come with increased levels of the respective skill. Equipment like traps and invisibility cloaks are available from ingame merchants for a price, but certain skills let players operate such equipment more effectively. Races are another option. Instead of trying to defeat your opponent, you are merely trying to complete a quest in a faster time than your challenger.

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