Complexity and Group Combat

Right now I’m just bug-fixing the pre-alpha, which is torturous and tedious, so I won’t blog about that. Instead let me talk a bit about types of gameplay complexity.

Good Complexity versus Bad Complexity

My game doesn’t shy away from complex systems, but that doesn’t mean I’m implementing arbitrary complexity. Far from it! For instance, when I was coding the ability for werewolves to eat corpses, Sandra jokingly asked, “Can werewolves eat skeletons? They don’t have any meat on them!” and the answer was… yes. Yes they can eat skeletons, and it’s just as nutritious as a tasty gazelle. They can also eat fungus monsters, fire demons, and golems made entirely of brass.

[Editor's note: My immediate response was "Right answer!" - Sandra]

The reason? If I made it so that werewolves can only eat “meaty” things, it would hamper my ability to create content. The corpse-eating mechanic is supposed to be a quick-heal for werewolves. So if they don’t get it, what are they supposed to do? All they can do is stand around waiting to heal naturally. That’s no fun… and what’s the up side of this realism? Nothing.

But on the other hand, there’s very similar situations that I’m fine with. For instance, if you’re a Fire Mage, it’s going to suck fighting monsters that are resistant to fire. Should I remove those? No, because that down side is part of how group combat works. I want groups to encounter diverse gangs of monsters with different strengths and weaknesses, so each fight feels a little different. Sometimes there will be some fire-resistant monsters in the mix; sometimes there’ll be fire-weak monsters. I wouldn’t make entire gangs of fire-proof monsters, because that would be tedious and un-fun. But some mixed in regularly? Sure. That’s a kind of complexity that helps me achieve my goal for combat.

Now, it’s true that if I cared enough about werewolves only eating meat, I could make sure that every group encounter had a certain percentage of meaty corpses. But I’m planning for this game to have a ton of different abilities, and corpse-eating is just one of many. If I made each system as realistic as I could, I’d never be able to make content: the requirements would be too nightmarishly complex.

So I have to carefully choose my complexity. In the end, realistic corpse-eating isn’t important enough. It wouldn’t make anything more fun, nor does it lead to interesting decisions. It’s not good complexity.

Group Combat Composition

Speaking of group combat… I’m taking a tack from 4th edition D&D, where “having a fun fight is more important than explaining how every monster ended up in this dungeon.”

When I started DMing 4th edition D&D, this irked me a lot, announcing to my players, “You round the corner and see a mummy! It’s flanked by a pair of orcs, and behind them lurks a creature made entirely of gibbering lips!” You would think the first question they’d ask is, “How did these creatures end up working together?” At least, as a DM that was my first question. So I worked out complex back-stories for these random assortments of monsters… but frankly my players didn’t much care. Occasionally they would wonder aloud about particularly weird combinations, and I would drop a trivial explanation in somewhere, like “the orcs are here fulfilling a tribal obligation to the mummy’s ancestors.” That sort of thing.

In the big picture, this was a good change. It just required changing the realism of the fantasy world. In earlier D&D worlds, monsters tended to be clannish and loners, but in this world monsters tend to cooperate more.

Once I was able to swallow this new kind of realism, it opened a lot of doors to interesting fights. No more did I have to say, “well it’s a gnoll cave, so of course there’s more gnolls around the corner.” Now I could throw a lot more surprises at them.

This has other ramifications, of course. In earlier D&D where you had to pick your spells in the morning before going off to adventure, it was very important to be able to predict what sort of monsters would show up. Otherwise you’d memorize the wrong spells! But 4th edition did away with most of this, which is a mixed blessing, but I definitely think one of the up-sides of this design was the diversity of combat.

You may be asking, “why not just make diverse monsters of the same race? Why not have eight kinds of gnolls, each filling different combat roles?” Well, I definitely do lots of that. But doing too much breaks the rule of identification: experienced players should be able to guess how an enemy is going to behave, and to do that they need to be able to identify the enemy rapidly.

In my prototype, I’ve got goblin healers, goblin spear guards, goblin lightning mages, goblin skirmishers, goblin archers, and goblin bosses, to name a few. (Can you tell what artwork I installed first?) But I can’t use all these goblins in the same area. Even though they each have some visual differences, in the chaos of combat it’s too tough to instantly distinguish them all.

In my prototype dungeon, I don’t use the goblin archers or goblin skirmishers. Instead, I use skeleton archers and skeleton swordsmen for those roles. Skeletons are easy to distinguish from goblins, and players will have already encountered these skeleton combatants earlier, so they’ll be instantly understandable. (Building on previous knowledge like that also helps players feel like they’re learning how the world works… because they are!)

The point is not to worry too much about why skeletons and goblins (and some other monsters) are all working together. The point is to make combat feel fun.

(Having said all that, I have to admit I’m still not happy with group combat yet. But I decided I need some actual people playing the game… and, you know, grouping… before I spend any more time on it!)

The next time I’m trying to avoid doing more debugging, I’ll blog about alternate gameplay modes, such as pacifist characters.

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7 Responses to Complexity and Group Combat

  1. Ross Smith says:

    I hesitate to mention this point because it probably sounds like I’m both second guessing your design goals and disparaging your chances of success, and I apologise if I’m giving that impression, but are you sure you aren’t paying too much attention to group content? The further a game is toward the indie end of the indie-to-AAA scale, the lower its population is likely to be. For a small private project like Gorgon, I would have thought solo playability should be a higher priority than grouping, simply because you have to attract a substantial audience first before group content becomes viable.

    This is true to some extent even for AAA games with huge player bases; I think it’s pretty widely agreed that many of the biggest success stories in the industry – WOW, Guild Wars, and SW:TOR all spring to mind – owe a significant part of their success to their solo friendliness.

  2. Eric says:

    Good question. Based on the amount of time spent on it, I’m pretty confident that I’m not over-spending on group combat… it’s kind of gotten the shaft so far. :) But I do think it’s important for this game.

    My game can’t be like the other kids. I’ll be lucky to have 1/20th the number of quests as WoW. I’ll be lucky to have 1/100th the voice acting of SW:TOR. When it comes to the usual reasons why soloing is fun, my game will come up short. If you just want to stab monsters while seeing a story unfold, SW:TOR is a much better choice.

    So I have to ask myself: what sort of person do I want playing my game? Why are they playing this game over another? To answer that, my game is trying to hit two basic gameplay styles, and any variants in between.

    The first “target player” is a systems-explorer — somebody who likes to dig into little aspects of the game and see how they work. As they advance, they’ll find niches for themselves. They might become, for instance, the best damned kimchi maker on the server, or the guy everybody goes to for curse removal, or whatever. (To make this work I’ve had to do a fair amount of planning so that I can keep adding new game systems after the game launches, ideally one or two per month, so there’s always something new to explore and master.)

    This gives soloing its main purpose, too. Instead of having a million kill-quests, you’ll often be soloing in order to collect stuff you need for these other systems. You’ll need to collect a lot of deer body parts in order to create Deer Golems, or gather honey from giant bees to make Giant Bee Mead, or so on. So I expect people to be soloing more often than not.

    The other target player is someone who’s attracted by the friendly small-town atmosphere they’ll hopefully find in this MMO. Werewolf howling is a good example system for this. Werewolves get benefits for howling near other wolves. It’s not difficult (just pressing a button), and you never have to talk to anybody to do it — just be near other werewolves. But my hope is that certain spots become general werewolf congregation spots, where they get together to Howl and chat, and then a few will go off to do something together. It’s very casual, and not nearly as anonymous as other games — you’ll see the same people each day, since it’s not like there’s a million players! Hopefully you’ll make a few casual friends.

    If neither of those two angles strikes a player’s fancy, I’m not yet sure why they would play my game. They still might! Most MMOs end up with many emergent reasons why players keep playing them. But I can’t plan for emergent player motivations — I need to plan the big-ticket selling features first, and then evolve as I see what happens.

    So when it comes to planning the “back of the box features” for the game, I’ve been focusing on intricate crafting/creation/pet/NPC systems, and small-group combat and social mechanisms. But keep in mind that my groups are only 3 people. And players will be able to go back and solo group content later, and still get meaningful rewards for doing so.

    But I haven’t sunk so many hours into group combat that I’m betting the farm on it, at least not yet. (On the other hand, I *am* already betting the farm that many of my players are interested having lots of intricate interconnected little game mechanics.)

  3. Eric says:

    That’s a really long comment (and a great question), I should probably make it into a separate post! Yay free blog content.

  4. Rauxis says:

    my big hope for this game is GROUP-PLAY. There don’t need to be many people around, as long as those present are nice to play with. And my guess is – compared to the asshattery in WoW most people diving into Gorgon will be compatible.

    Which reminds me of one social aspect – would you please consider to have at least one worldwide chat channel available where you can ask for help, for groups, or simply want to chat?

  5. Rauxis says:

    hmm – that was too short. Let me explain a bit more. If I want a solo game I’d rather dive into Skyrim or Dragon Age. There is no chance an Indie MMO can compete with the single player experience of such games.

    I play MMOs because I want to play with other people – and I mean PEOPLE, not the semi intelligent bots I get in LFD (or DCUOs alerts). If possible I want to roleplay with them, or laugh about my own death when flinging the powerball on the skeleton with spell reflect.

  6. Ross Smith says:

    Thanks for the detailed answer! I think it’s a very promising sign that you’ve thought in some detail about what kind of audience you want to attract, and not just the kind of vague handwaving about “well, we hope to appeal to everyone…” that we usually hear from big company PR.

    I guess I’m particularly sensitive about the solo vs group issue because I live in New Zealand, so MMOs generally come across as sparsely populated for me, because I’m usually online when Americans are asleep and Europeans are at work.

  7. Yvon says:

    Well I loved your work in AC2 and miss those days of old. Back then i used to love to group with some solo play on those days i felt like dragging along exploring. Since then however i just found grouping in MMO’s to be to much politics and having to rush content all the time. So I have chosen to go solo in all the MMO’s i play except for family and close friends from time to time.
    This is also due the the fact I am no longer a young pup :) sitting at 45 now I don’t have the time i used to in one gameplay sitting.

    That said, I am definitely looking forward to your game Eric, and it seems to me this may attract a somewhat mature crowd.

    Keep up the great work!