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.


Spore, or Why I Hate New Games

As if the existence of this post doesn’t say it well enough: no, I haven’t forgotten about this blog. I just happened to encounter some writer’s block, coupled with less free time due to track. Moreover, I’ve been playing Team Fortress 2 and recently started playing Minecraft again, too. The games have got me thinking, as usual: what makes a good game?

Instead of responding to the aforementioned hook, I’m going to talk about why Spore was such a huge disappointment. While this may seem like a slightly depressing topic, it is of great interest. How did such an open ended idea get made into a game, and where in that process was the game turned from a brilliant idea to a pedestrian waste of time?

Here’s what spore should have been: you start out as a microorganism and slowly develop as you become multi-celled and then a macroorganism. At this point you enter the water stage, first as a fish-thing, but then you develop more advanced features and learn to penetrate onto land. The water stage is where you outline your creature. Once you evolve into a land creature, you need to fight or create symbiotic relationships with other species and spread your own. Not only will your evolution finalize your species basic structure, but you need to evolve in order to outcompete other species, which are also evolving. After a while, your species is widespread and you may start encountering evolved members of your own species.

Once you’ve achieved a certain density and dominance over other species, you will already have developed the rudiments of communication and tool making, albeit in the final stages. Then you will move on to an RTS style game, just like in actual Spore. However, instead having one village with a number of other villages you have to conquer, you would need to push your civilization to advance. The triggering event is the discovery of agriculture, after which your “tribe” settles down. It is up to you to build buildings and fields. You need to decide what to irrigate, what animals to domesticate, and what other tribes to trade with. You eventually need to conquer or join with other villages to form a small civilization. A la Katamari Damaci, as your civilization grows you have to start dealing with bigger problems, as well as keep developing technology that uses your local resources.

My point here is that Spore need to be much more technology, resource, and civilization focused. In the game, you don’t get any real choices about where your civilization is going. In my Spore, there would be different civilizations that use the local resources. Each area of the planet would have a different set of available materials. It would actually be a lot like Anno 2070, from what I’ve seen of the game. Another analogy is that of Trade Empires, except my Spore would focus a lot more on building than TE.

Then a sort of technological revolution would mark the switch between the “local stage” and the “global stage” (called the “tribal” and “civilization” stages in Spore). You would suddenly be dealing less with a building and culture and more with resource exploitation, colonization, global politics, technological advancement and generally beating out the other competitors. And unlike real Spore, in which there are only 2 technological turning points, driven by number of cities captured, you would be driving the advancement. You could focus more on stamping out competition, or more on advancing to the space age, similar to Civilization games.

If I had to pinpoint one area where Spore went wrong, it was the Space Stage. Honestly, I could have stomached all the terrible, formulaic nonsense that filled the space between the Cell and Space Stage, if only the Space Stage had even mildly lived up to expectations. They hint at a story line at the very beginning of the stage, and even half-heatedly carry it along. But let’s be honest: there was NOTHING to do. My space stage, like any gourmet smoothie, would be a fine blend of single-ship adventuring and space empire managing. You could set up trade routes to get the resources you need and export the ones you are mining. You could colonize systems and divert a certain amount of resources to various endeavors. You would have to build construction yards if you wanted to build a fleet. If you went to war over a system, you better have the resource and infrastructure to back it up, because as a single ship you should have no chance against an entire planet’s defenses. But if you don’t want to dominate the stars from an office, you can go get in your ship and fly missions, upgrading and earning money and prestige. The point is, it’s space! The possibilities are endless; if a Space Stage in any game bores you, they’re doing it wrong.

I can’t believe they didn’t realize how far they had strayed from the original idea. The spent so much time and money making that game, it wouldn’t have been much harder to actually make it fun. In the end, they realized it sucked and decided to market it to shallow people who only buy it to make stuff in the editors (although honestly the only palatable editor is the creature and MAYBE the building editor).

I was thinking just earlier: when I’m in charge of a production, I’ll make sure I stay true to a vision and that the final product is me-worthy. I would hire an independent consultant/critic who could tell me anything without fearing for their job. Their whole job would be to tell me when I’ve made a poor choice or what my team has pumped out so far just isn’t FUN.

Epic-scale Strategy Game

One idea for a game that has stuck with me for over a year has been that of a massive-scale strategy game. A crude way to describe it would be a cross between World in Conflict(WiC) and Spore (except it wouldn’t be as lackluster as Spore). The idea behind it is that players start out at a low rank, and are promoted based combat proficiency on the battlefield. When I have described this idea to people, they have likened it to America’s Army.

Each round of the game takes place on large battlefields covering a multitude of environments. The game would undoubtedly be set in the future, so the environments could range from undeveloped farm worlds and water worlds to urban centers and various theaters of space. A single player presides over the whole battlefield as a general, setting basic goals and deciding strategy. Each battlefield is in turn broken up into districts, which ranges in size from a WiC map (usually a couple miles across) to four WiC maps. Up to 8 commanders control 0 to 6 squads (they can order more based on reinforcement points) within each district. Each squad consists of 4 to 8 players, with one squad leader.

Screenshot of World in Conflict

Screenshot of World in Conflict

The basic foot soldier is expected to focus on objectives set by the squad leader. The squad leader is in charge of directing which positions to take and which enemies to focus on. A commander sets goals such as strategic objectives (defined by the game), rally points, and drop zones to secure. They are also in charge of ordering more troops. Their basic strategic goals are determined by the general above them, or perhaps an intermediary presiding over the district.

One major problem that becomes immediately apparent is discipline. How does one keep a player on task? The first solution that comes to mind is to let superior officers give or take promotion points based on the performance of players below them. However, this is easily abusable, both in the giving or taking of too many points and in the complete disregard for dealing with promotion points. The best solution is to have proficiency judged by the game. So what kind of criteria does the game have?

  1. Completion of given objectives

  2. Objectives are judged by the difficulty regarding enemy presence in the area and a number of other minor variables, the most important of which is subordinate proficiency. Failure to complete an objective due to it being impossibly difficult or having an inept team would barely count against a player. Conversely, failure to complete simple objectives would be counted against a player.

  3. Rendition of reasonable objectives

  4. A commander, whether at a high strategic level or as a squad leader, has a responsibility to give orders which make sense. If a commander is extremely incompetent, his commanding officer can choose to temporarily demote him, allowing another to take his place. In addition, sound tactical decisions are encouraged. Deciding to attack a position without much intel, even if the position is strategically important, is a bad choice. If a commander has access to tactical aid, poor placement will result in removal of promotion points.

  5. Combat Proficiency

  6. If the player is a grunt, he is also be promoted based on statistics like accuracy, deaths, and kills. Heroism and initiative may also be rewarded, such as single-handedly taking an objective or destroying a vehicle.

A player who accrues enough promotion points will be promoted to the next rank. There may be multiple ranks per command level to ensure that there will most likely be a command hierarchy even if two decimated squads are merged. Even if a player is promoted, though, it is possible that he will fill a slot lower down in the structure. If there are already enough commanders, someone qualified to be a general may be forced to serve as a grunt. However, if his squad leader is killed then he will instantly fill that slot (unless someone is of a higher rank than him). When a soldier dies, he is placed in a reserve pool. Until a commander orders another squad, he has to wait. Fortunately, battlefields are huge, and most likely, especially at the height of the battle, someone will need a new squad. Nonetheless, a delay time while waiting to be ordered also acts as natural motivation to stay alive. Be warned though, cowardice will be punished highly! Soldiers who pass qualification courses for things like vehicle piloting, administering first aid, and sniping will be able to fill special support slots.

Alongside infantry, commanders will be able to order a range of vehicles, including tanks, transports, and dropships. Other vehicles, like helicopters and ships, will be available as a special unit which must leave after a period of time. Tactical aid not delivered by a player includes artillery (including orbital strikes), airstrikes, and reconnaissance. All tactical aid (i.e. units and abilities not able to be ordered with reinforcement points) is able to be gained through spending tactical aid points, which a commander receives for performing well on the battlefield. Tactical aid points are different from promotion points in that they do not stick from game to game and that they are awarded for quantitative properties, such as objectives completed and enemy units destroyed.

The first person gameplay of the grunts would mirror other mainstream shooters. Each soldier has an array of guns, with the maximum weight decided by the planet’s gravity. Secondary weapons such as grenades and tactical devices (repair kits, radar kits, radios, medkits, etc) are available. A soldier can resort to melee if he runs out of bullets or is restricted by the environment (close quarters, pressurized space environment, presence of volatile props). The game’s varying environments also heavily affects gameplay. For instance, combat in space is an entirely different experience. Players would be able to move almost infinitely far (but would be penalized for abandoning objectives), and combat would be a lot slower. Players would have to worry about keeping their suits intact as well as jetpacks. Vehicles would also play a larger role. Alongside dropships becoming more versatile and critical, spaceships would start playing a role. In some cases the commanders might even be able to control large cruisers with a deadly array of weapons. Space stations would also hold a lot of firepower for whichever side’s soldiers could maintain control of it.

The story of the game would revolve around two distinct sides. I haven’t thought about it a lot, but I suppose it would involve two budding empires which emerge from different sectors but end up clashing for control of the core colonies. Whichever side dominates the colonies gains ultimate control over known space, since the colonies are the main centers of knowledge and raw material production. Humans have developed faster-than-light travel, but have not yet perfected material synthesization, so the majority of humans still rely on farm worlds and other such production centers to get metal, food, and leisure products. The FTL will probably be like The Mote in God’s Eye, in which ships can manipulate certain zones of space determined by gravitational fields to jump between stars. These jump points are hard to calculate, and only one exists between each set of stars. FTL communications have not been developed, so the only way to get a message to another system is to send a ship (a jump disables electronics and requires a sentient being to boot the systems back up).

Maybe I’ll draw some concept art later.

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