It’s a staple mechanic of so many games, a simple metric for measuring advancement, a point of comparison to where you were compared to where you are, and where other people are around you. Levelling up unlocks new skills and powers, grants access to new gear, and ultimately makes the whole process of murder-hoboing through life a far flashier affair.
But here’s the thing… (more…)
Since the dominance of the sandbox, railroading gameplay through linear non-divergent story and specific plot paths has become something of a faux-pas in game design, and was never looked upon favourably in tabletop roleplaying. As a player you seek agency, and often that comes from such simple things as choosing which path to take to the same inevitable end, and not following the obvious trail of breadcrumbs laid out for you. These days we laud games for open worlds, multiple endings, and the ability to approach one problem a dozen ways, to play it your way.
All but gone are the days of the 3D platformer, and the rail shooter, technology and computing power has given us the power to create actual worlds and weave beautiful stories into them rather than just telling a story and dragging you by the nose along it.
But is it so bad a thing that we’re better off entirely being rid of it, and casting away the strictly linear narratives of old?
There are times when actually taking your players by the nose and dragging them to the plot is not necessarily an unforgivable act. Here are a couple of examples of uses for, and in defence of railroading your story.
Here’s a nice easy one to get this started off. When beginning a campaign, or game, or whatever interactive experience your trying to share, you’ll usually have a few fundamentals to share, basic bits of information to share that’ll allow the player to understand the experiences to follow. A little bit of railroading aids “showing not telling” like the opening test chambers of Portal encouraging thinking with portals. Obduction drives you down a path in pursuit of one of the world-shifting seeds, and leaves you in a small bubble that tells you everything you need to know about the transition mechanics you’ll be playing with.
It’s a form of tutorial, but done right it’s so subtle that you barely notice it every replay. We’re guided through set pieces that leave us without doubt about where we’re going or what we’re doing for the rest of the game.
There are occasions where your story takes a turn that irrevocably changes everything. No turning back, and no matter what you have done up to this point this moment was unavoidable. Moments like the time-shift in Guild Wars, where the entire “tutorial” felt like an open world in it’s own right, only for everything to change in a single moment. Transitioning from one Mass Effect or Witcher still leaves you with a short period in which games are identical, no matter the decisions you’ve made.
Now, actions and decisions made before this pivotal moment can alter the events that follow, but all paths lead here ultimately. Most games use this kind of narrative, the storyline quests that so often get ignored in pure sandboxes, but there are times where that epic moment changes everything to the point where there’s no going back or wandering off to finish that sidequest you’ve been ignoring.
I’ll skim over this because this one’s more of a cheap trick, somewhat less acceptable. False choices are the doors you walk up to that suddenly slam shut and lock you out, or those decisions that immediately kill you or end the game. Arkham City did that with Catwoman’s story at one stage, where she had the option to simply walk away with loot in pocket, but because the game needed you to save Batman the game simply ended there. Sorry guys, given a real choice I’d have taken the money and run.
A Good Story
Halflife, Telltale Games, Psychonauts, hell most games will railroad up to a point. When your story is good and worth telling there’s nothing wrong with taking agency from the players in terms of narrative direction. In the drive to create bigger and more incredible games let’s not lose sight of a good story and the ways in which we can tell them, putting the player into the hazard suit of a mute scientist as he weaves through supersoldiers and alien parasites to reach the incredible conclusion of his epic tale (that will have been stuck on a cliffhanger for ten years this October) or filling the boots of the intrepid archaeologist as she shoots her way through adventures far more thrilling than any actual archaeologist would ever encounter.
I consider myself a world-builder first and foremost, so I’ll advocate for the ability to wander aimlessly around the whole world and delve its deepest corners and unveil every shred of lore, even if I have to sit and spend time that should be shooting down killer robots reading books on killer robot maintenance. But sometimes when a moment needs to be shared, or an idea is so stunning that it simply must be seen, there’s nothing wrong with putting the plot on tracks and asking everyone to enjoy the ride for a while.
While I love Magic: the Gathering to an unreasonable extent – like a borderline addiction if I’m honest – I’m not under any illusions that the game is not without a rather glaring flaw, and it’s the erratic progression of the resources you have to spend. For those not aware, mana is spawned from land by tapping (turning) the land cards, to spend on the cost of a card, for example to play this card:
Would require the player to tap one each of white, blue, black, red, and green mana. Presumably if a player has built a deck with this card as a central figure they would have a wide variety of ways to either find the pertinent cards from the deck or to otherwise generate the mana through other means. Even so that’s no easy feat, and a lot of your deck has to be devoted to creating a wide variety of mana types. Now most people will build decks around one or two colours to make this job a lot easier but it’s still a possibility to find yourself stuck without enough mana of the right type, no matter how well you proportion your deck.
In short it’s a flawed system, essentially functional, but often as cruel and fickle as dice.
Which brings me neatly onto a game I sampled at UKGE as I was wandering the floor exchanging business cards and quietly gathering freebies. I was handed a carrier bag which I found later had two cards in the bottom for Dragoborne: Rise to Supremacy, they were very simple, immediately understandable, and featuring some truly epic artwork, enough to draw me in and drive me to find the stall again and try it out.
Dragoborne manages its resources far more effectively at the cost of some of the otherwise useful cards. Once you’ve drawn your first card in a turn you then draw a second which you commit to your resource pool. It means possibly losing a good card to resources, but it leaves you with a considerably better increment of resources throughout the game. You won’t be caught with an expensive card sat in your hand while your life slips away, just waiting for the resources to arrive. You always begin the fight with enough of your various resources to play any card you might possess, so long as you can wait a mere handful of turns.
Mojang’s CCG, Scrolls, has a similar incrementation method, where every turn you may choose to sacrifice a card of your choice in favour of either more resources, or more cards in hand, giving you an effective way of managing both key components of your game, and if my experience is anything to go by, leaving you screwed one way or the other.
Resource management is one of the hardest things in any given game to balance and still keep creative. With Magic: the Gathering, it’s something of a contract between players and designers, so long as they can produce cards that help manage your mana supply and we have the presence of mind to build our decks with due care and attention, we have a game. A resource management system gives us limited progression allowing for a game that grows organically and fairly. Making them balance well is a task that can bore you beyond tears, and I respect any game that approaches it with a different method.
I’m back to working on an old game design, spurred on by the many enthusiastic playtesters at UKGE, every one of whom had a full table and a captive audience. Management of resource in my game is going to be easy for the players… once I’ve gotten them balanced across several imbalanced factions. Wish me luck, see you next year.
The Point and Click Adventure genre leans a little too heavily on one very simple puzzle which I’ll refer to here as the Lock & Key: finding Thing A and applying to Thing B in order to proceed.
To be clear, things A and B can be a wide variety of things, a ladder and a wall, a photograph and a person, an ostrich and a sandwich toaster, or an actual key that corresponds to an actual lock. We can all thing of a few dozen examples, if pressed we could probably come up with that many from the same title. Grim Fandango, Machinarium, the Discworld game series, to an extent one could argue The Room, all make heavy use of this basic set up. Why?
Well, ignoring for a moment the fact that it is very simple and easy to put together in game, from a game design perspective it’s no bad thing either. It’s an un-failable task, you can’t get it wrong, you can only keep trying. It’s an obstacle to be overcome, to face the next obstacle, and the next one, and the next one. Occasionally you’ll see something different, I’d just like to offer a few suggestions of how we can shake up the genre.
This is the 1000th article on GeekOut South-West! My 245th excluding my fair share of the weekly Top 10s, and I’m finally starting to pull my weight around here. It’s been a fun few years, and we still have a lot to do, and a lot we want to accomplish.
That’s enough milestone acknowledgement, on with the task at hand.
Character progression is an important element in most games. Sometimes you’re given a set number of skills, and you’re presented with a rising degree of difficulty; sometimes you get to unlock certain character upgrades that allow you to progress, like weapons and abilities; but by far the most common is the levelling system, in which activities yield numeric experience that offer direct upgrades at certain thresholds. The levelling system is common, but it’s one that has a lot of different implementations and raises a few interesting questions.
The levelling system is popular because it works! It’s a very simple direct feedback technique for gamers, complete quests = gain power. Each level unlocks new equipment and builds stats to help you take down bigger and bigger enemies and overcome harder tasks. In some cases the things you unlock are based on the character you chose at the beginning, but increasingly games are choosing a more free-form style that allows for greater levels of customisation.
It makes things easier for those who are less skilled in a game. If you can’t overcome an obstacle you simply have to work until your character can, picking up new side-quests, gaining new items, abilities and powers until you can return to safely get past where you were stuck before. Practice really does make perfect, even if you’re not technically the one practising.
How does killing a few dozen creatures equate to better social skills? Too many levelling systems give you points to put into skills every time you level-up, so you can ascribe points into abilities that don’t reflect the actions you take in game, making for an unrealistic experience. Bethesda’s has one of the most sensible systems in Fallout and Elder Scrolls, in which levels are obtained through developing individual skills rather than through generic experience points. Some systems allow you to spend points as soon as you accrue them rather than waiting for a level.
If you need a few levels in order to proceed with a game then it can lead to a loop of grinding for XP, dull repetitive gameplay that gives you nothing new and doesn’t challenge you in the slightest. Grinding is what can turn a game into work and defeat the whole point of playing a game, to relax, to escape, to experience something new. If all of those things are locked behind a wall of drudgery is it worth the effort?
Practice Makes Perfect
As ridiculous as it may be to say, it’s a perfect metaphor for life. Oh yes, I’m getting philosophical about games!
As you’re playing the game there’s a cap on how much you can learn before you ultimately get caught into a cycle of levelling to succeed and rarely if ever developing your own abilities. It makes for a more relaxing experience in game, but you learn very little personally (depending of course on how well made the game is, a good game will always offer you chances to learn).
Consider your day to day life. They say that you learn something new every day, every opportunity you have to learn is a new experience from which you gain skills and adjust, but here’s the interesting part. Just like in a game you can level faster by exerting yourself more, such as challenging harder creatures or taking on harder, visiting new areas, or taking on more rewarding quests. In real-life situations, do something new, something that challenges you or scares you, travel somewhere you’ve never been before, train in a new skill or take the time to develop an old one.
Level up! Make yourself better, and become a more interesting person. There’s always time to be set aside to better yourself and it has enormous positive impact on your own life. I know because when Tim asked me to write a few article for him the best thing I ever did was say yes, and I have only grown better as a result.
See, I was going somewhere with this!
Here’s to another 1000.
It felt like only a few weeks between Pokemon Go being released and cries for practically every other major intellectual property to get the “Go” treatment. The first I heard of was Harry Potter, and I’m prepared to admit I’m not entirely sure how that would work, but there’s plenty of content there to work with and plenty of other fairly successful games out there to base content on. I’ve heard that it might derive from the new film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them which rather suggests that it’s going to be a near-complete clone.
I started last week by calling Go a work which could become a genre in itself, and I’m apparently not alone. For a long time my Facebook feed was plastered with ideas for other Go games like Skyrim or Dungeons & Dragons (yes, my Facebook feed is just that predictable) and as I may have mentioned, Extra Credits also addressed the subject. Well I already decided to write this before they published the video, and I’m not sure I like their model so much. Let me explain: (more…)
Humble Bundle has given me plenty of great games, but they’ve also given me some really good design tools as well. This article is a first impressions review of one of them: Spriter Pro. Join Timlah as we look at what Spriter Pro features and what it can do for your own hobbyist or indie game design studio.
Have you ever tried to write your own tabletop roleplaying system, or perhaps a board game? If you have plenty of patience it’s fairly easy to put something together that works, although “fun” takes a hell of a lot more effort to achieve. A basic rule set is actually surprisingly easy to throw together, but that must then be followed by testing said rules until you hate them to make sure that they absolutely work, and while you might say “the simpler the better” sometimes the simple rules are the easiest to get drastically wrong, and you end up patching over the open crack with specific rules.
At least that has been my experience of game design, others may differ. There’s one particular example I want to pick on here, and it’s one you may have already guessed if you read the title, and didn’t just dive in without looking. (more…)
It’s an easy thing to get tied up in rules and lore, there’s so much printed material for these games it may feel wasteful at times not to use it all. Breaking free of all of the strictures and guidelines is no small task, but once you begin to stretch your creative legs then you begin to create a game that is truly and uniquely yours, and it’s something that you’ll find more memorable, and more enjoyable for everyone. (more…)