Onwards and upwards

I’m ever thinking about game design for Kung Fu Legends. One thing I’m concerned about is that it is supposed to be a sandbox game. In such a game, how do you push a player forward to experience fun things? I thought I might look at a bunch of games I’m playing at the moment, figure out how they do it and think about that.

Tabletop RPGs

In the tabletop RPG I’m playing with my crew, the push to make players do stuff comes naturally. Players will suggest the next adventure fairly readily, and will tend to discourage their team-mates from messing about too much. I’m with a fairly utilitarian bunch of guys, so we want to maximize our encounters per night, mostly for the loot, but also because of the funnies that happen. On the other side of the table, our DM has good enough control to push us onward and upward if we get mired in too much out-of-game talk or fiddling with our characters. And although it’s become a nice tell now, he’ll quickly commit us to unwise actions if we suggest that’s what we’re doing[1. However, I told him about his tell. In a tense moment of battle on Friday, he totally got me with reverse psychology. Me: *rolls* “Okay that plus bonuses is… 28”

DM: “Are you sure 28, not 29?”

Me: “Dammit. Yeah, 28.”

DM: “You sure?”

Me: *frantically checking my bonuses* “Argh! Yes.”

DM: “It hits.”

Me: “*censored*”]. All in all, the natural social interaction provides momentum for the game.

MMORPGs

I’ve recently gotten into Lord of the Rings Online, an MMORPG. My MMORPG experience has been limited to a few weekends in Matrix Online and a weekend in World of Warcraft, the latter just so I could rib my friend for its grind but have some actual gameplay to back it up. I’m assuming MMORPGs are much the same, so although I’m focussing on one particular one, I think it’d apply more-or-less for most.

Bouncing to another quest in Lord of the Rings Online.

At the very start of a character’s journey, they are locked into a fairly on-rails tutorial, slowly expanding the world around you so that you don’t get agoraphobia or lost. I found these quests to be fairly linear. Get a quest from random guy A, solve quest, return. Now where we go from here is the art in game design. The end of a quest can end in three ways: the same guy gives a new quest, this guy directs you (via a quest perhaps) to another person down the road, or it stops dead and you have to push on from there on your own. From what I’ve seen, Lord of the Rings Online manages to play these first two options just enough to push you further and further out into the world, but not so far to get you lost or killed. Occasionally they’ll choose the third option, just to trim the growing tree of quest lines. One further way the game encourages the player forward is by providing “deeds”. These are generic quests with no plot or real reason to exist. They are, for the most part, grinding kills or moves, or exploring the world. Nevertheless, it gives you an option to while away an hour or so while you build up your character’s levels. Sometimes it’ll encourage you to explore (or slyly lead you astray, deep into the woods). It’s not great gameplay, but it does provide motivation.

Bioshock 2

Over on the first-person shooter side of things, we can look at the Bioshock series. In both games the game designers provide levels as general environments. There is no particular path you have to take through it, and you are encouraged to look around to scrounge ammo and other supplies. To motivate you to reach certain points in the level, they’ll ostensibly give you a quest via radio. This might involve finding a new weapon, pressing a switch or collecting some Macguffin. They use the same “bounce” design as MMORPGs in that you’ll press the button to turn on some engine and your radio will invariably crackle to life and you’ll be urged to “get back to the train so we can chase the bad guy”. The sequel pushed this a little ham-handedly, but the appeal of the Bioshock games is not the mini-quests you do, or even the levelling up of powers, but the amazing set-pieces you stumble across on your way between goals. These would sometimes encourage you to take risks or be resourceful, and if you did okay, you were rewarded handsomely. So while the overarching motivators were pretty clumsy, there was enough cool stuff elsewhere to make you chase goals. Not only that but the major twist of the first game made all the mundane motivators change pretty significantly with just three simple words: “Would you kindly…”

Minecraft

You can’t have a list of popular games and not include the current indie darling, Minecraft. It’s a simple game based on simple creative and destructive actions on the world. Everything (and I mean everything) can be exploited for resources. You can carve away entire mountains (which is a destructive act), to give you the blocks you need to create your castle (a constructive act).

A majestic lighthouse, ironically the dark place where the monsters spawn from.

Be this as it may, if this is all there was to it, Minecraft would get boring quick. The master-stroke in Notch’s gameplay is the simple addition of day/night cycles and what it means for your character. During the day, everything is bright, recognizable and safe. During the night, however, all sorts of zombies, skeletons, spiders and creepers come out to kill you. The first day in a new game of Minecraft is often pretty thrilling. You’re just building up your toolset of axes, picks and crafting tables when twilight is upon you. You have to find or make shelter really quick, or you may die. So you carve out a little house which may be more like a cupboard, wait in there until sunrise when you can safely go out into the world again. Such a simple thing of having the night be dangerous spurs players to form goals and pursue them. This gives you a momentum so soon enough you’ve built a little castle and then get delusions of grandeur. Again you venture off in search of caves for ores, knowing all too well the dangers that lie in wait. This cycle of safety-creation and danger-destruction give a nice constant momentum. Getting this and a few other game design choices right is probably why Notch is making meeeeeeellions of dollars.

Dead Rising 2

Dead Rising 2 is almost the flip side to Minecraft. The majority of the game is spent out in the danger zone, with brief interludes in safe zones to get your breath back… or create an improved weapon of excessive brutality. Because you don’t have much of a creative outlet in Dead Rising 2, they need to give you a reason to go out and risk becoming lunch.

I've got heaps of time for Code Blue... time to blast some zombies.

Here they re-use the system they had in the original: some friend watches security cameras and spots people who need rescuing or bad guys that need an axe in the head. You get updates through your cell phone and you acquire quests periodically. This in itself doesn’t motivate you. What does is the ever-present set of progress bars on the side of the screen. Each quest has a certain amount of time before the survivor gets eaten, the bad guy does bad stuff, or your daughter dies of zombie-itis. If you have heaps of time, the bar is white. Less time, it is yellow. If you should be rushing, it’s red. Fairly simple but it lends itself a strong sense of urgency. Moreover whenever you change areas, you get a real-time update on when the military will arrive, which should be the end of the game for you. This means you need to get cracking on the quests you feel are important or worthwhile. If you don’t you’ll run out of time. This is all a fairly clumsy conceit, but it keeps you moving. This time around they’ve at least given you a little more time so you can have a few cathartic swings at the zombies shuffling about, but not enough to go crazy in the wacky zombie wonderland.

Left 4 Dead 1 & 2 and Team Fortress 2

Now we move onto the masters – Valve Software. They use a lot of techniques to keep players pursuing game goals and encourage certain behaviours. First up is the Left 4 Dead series. The goal for every level is pretty much get from A to B without dying, where the path from A to B is littered with many, many, many zombies. If you could do it at your own pace, the optimum strategy is to slowly creep forward and shoot out all the zombies with your pistols. Bor-ing. Luckily Valve implemented the AI Director whose sole job is to monitor your “stress level” and adjust challenges accordingly. If you’re moving too slowly or having too easy a time, it’ll send in Special Infected or a horde rush of zombies. It’ll deny you resources such as health kits and ammo. And because the threat of zombies and Special Infected is actually worth heeding, the only place that is truly safe is the safe houses at the start and end of every level. You have no real option but keep moving or die.

The next example of Valve’s I’d like to mention is the one that’s absorbed a significant percentage of my life: Team Fortress 2. Here they can’t rely on plot or a linear shooter experience to make players play the game correctly. Of course each level is combative: teams are either attack or defence, or a map is a collision of two attacking teams fighting over the same goals. So there’s the natural tendency to win that pushes you forward. Valve, however, have included a whole raft of little encouragers. The faceless Announcer gives audio cues on what’s happening on the battlefield (“Alert! Our control point is being captured.“), and has enough character to make you think emotionally about the updates rather than rationally. For example, if she cries out this you’d be more panicked than if some robot voice said: “Cart at 95%.” As an additional signal and encouragement, the battlefield itself will change in response to teams achieving goals. For example, certain pathways might block off if the opposing team has pushed their cart far enough ahead, or on the flip-side, your spawn room will move if your team is pushing ahead and capturing control points. These all give you clues on your teams momentum which would be hard to gauge yourself, especially if you’ve just respawned.

Another motivator: a bottle to the head.

Team Fortress 2 also has little things like nemeses – if you are killed three times by the same guy without you killing him, they are your nemesis – to encourage you to seek out targets or try different tactics. Nothing spurs you on better than revenge. They reinforce this with the kill-cam that shows after every death who killed you. Even the game mechanics themselves encourage you forward and to adopt certain play styles which mostly amounts to “work as a team”. A team that is organized and works together can steam-roll scattered defenders. Conversely, a strong team-based defence can take advantage of an attacking team just dicking about by moving the battle front and lock the attackers in further away from the goal. Double-conversely, they have game mechanics to deal with stalemates. Stalemates are situations where the best efforts of both teams means neither substantially gains or loses ground, and so the game itself loses momentum. Team Fortress 2 has options for teams to build up an Uber (aka invulnerability) or a Kritz (massive damage) and give themselves significant momentum. There are tactics to block these, and block the blockers and so on, but all these mean that people need to actively adopt strategies and react dynamically. There is no one killer strategy, so games can be tense without being too stressful.

Sims 3

The last example I want to look at is Sims 3. The Sims series are pretty heavily focussed on creative expression, sometimes to the detriment of gameplay. You can create your own Sims, their house and their neighbourhood, but there were no real motivators other than the ones you put on your characters. Of course you wanted them to do well and survive (although this is deflated by the well-known and highly abused cheats like “kaching“). There was the march of time which meant your Sim creations might die of old age… but then you can shut that off too. As a result, the Sims 3 feels more like a toy than a game. And, hey, we definitely need those sorts of entertainments. On the upside, Sims 3 introduced a game mechanic called “Opportunities” where little tasks would randomly be presented to your Sims. They could take these or leave them, but the important factor was that every Opportunity encouraged your Sim to get out of the house and interact with the community. When you’re customizing your Sim and their home, it gets very easy to just want them to stay home and fall into the same grinding routines. Opportunities encourage a little different gameplay to liven things up, and perhaps encourage your Sim to grow in a direction you hadn’t expected.

Kung Fu Legends

So what have I learnt? In a sandbox game, the Principle of indifference (aka Laplace’s rule) reigns. In other words if a player doesn’t know any better, they might as well choose randomly from all things they could do. Moreover, they’ll choose each with equal probability. But if you can’t differentiate actions in the world, you don’t know what is interesting or useful. Therefore even if you have a game with expansive environments and total freedom, you need to urge the player in some way or another. Many of the examples above have a strongly defined responsibilities at any given time. Sure, you can go off and do what you like, but you risk getting bored or beaten if you do.

I think the bounce idea for quests in MMORPGs has some merit. In a procedural sandbox like I plan Kung Fu Legends to be, I think it’d be nice to have some characters to anchor yours on. You build up a social network via doing things for people. While I’d like to avoid the mimesis-breaking “Thanks for completing that quest. Here’s another immediately after!” syndrome that MMORPGs adopt, maybe for every quest (whatever that means) someone will comment on a direction for the player to pursue. It might be introducing you to another character, it might be your Master making a snide remark about your poor fighting form, or you could be introduced to a new enemy. So you get the same controlled bounce idea, but allow a bit of dynamic anchoring. And of course, if the player ditches the Storyteller’s suggestions, that’s fine.

I’d prefer to not have a mechanic like Sims 3’s Opportunities where they strain mimesis to give you things to do. I’d prefer things to stay very much within the game world. A great mechanic for this is the ghostly Master that watches over you. They can give advice on things to do and relay a little bit of detail lost by the video game artifact such as reinforcing an NPC’s emotional reaction (“Hmm, I think she was angry about you forgetting her birthday, but didn’t want to say anything. You should perhaps find her a gift to make it up to her.”).

I don’t want a fixed, linear narrative like Bioshock 2. Heck, even Oblivion has a linear progression through its proper story, but it had the adventure of visual exploration. You were allowed to ditch any quests and just run over the countryside, investigating anything that looked neat. In how I’m thinking Kung Fu Legends would go, I don’t have the advantage of visual exploration. Which would be a good argument for having a linear narrative, but where’s the fun in that? šŸ˜‰

I think it’d be worthwhile stealing using as inspiration TF2’s Announcer idea for signalling to the player via an overlooker. The Master can fulfil this role quite nicely, being a ghost and a kung fu master. They can provide trustworthy information whilst not having to interact with the world. The counterpoint would be The Storyteller who acts like Left 4 Dead’s AI Director and putting pressure on the player just enough for them to have fun.

The last thing that has given me pause is the creativity angle. Minecraft, Sims 3 and (to a lesser extent) Dead Rising 2 show that having a creative angle can make a game much more interesting. From what I’ve planned, the major creative outlet in Kung Fu Legends is how you live your character’s life. It’s the long-term creativity where you mould a character towards an ideal. The problem with long-term development is that you don’t get to see immediate results (and thus, feedback). To combat this I’ve thought of things like:

  • Training montages so you can skip through weeks, months or years of basic training and get your character to where you want to play them from. Everyone loves a good training montage.
  • Letting things like finances be fairly broadly defined so you are allowed to design your character freely within certain bounds. Not that there are individual item costs, but if you want to dress like the upper class, you have to be in the upper class.
  • Sharply edited lives so you can race through an entire life in a weekend, but have legacies that you can continue to play with.
  • Thinking maybe, just maybe, it might be worth considering a slightly more graphical approach…

But I’m not really sure where to go with it. I want creativity without micromanagement, but haven’t got any examples on hand to take inspiration from. Might as well continue playing games and keep my eyes open.