written by Donathin Frye (“Jaunt”)
In the first part of this article, I discussed how Verticle Design can lead to Power Creep in a number of different ways for long-lived online RPGs. In particular, I made an argument for why our more roleplaying-focused genre should approach the design of weapon and armor crafting from a perspective of Horizontal Design. There are many different ways and degrees to which one can accomplish this, as we’ve seen in newer games like Guild Wars 2 and Everquest Next, and others. In fact, many MMO designers believe that this sort of non-traditional design path is the future of the genre. Even though our games are far from being the multi-million dollar giants in the industry, we can certainly stick our hands up in the air and feel which way the wind is blowing. And we should. It doesn’t behoove us to rest on our laurels, after all.
I’d like to now share what I and the Project Redshift team are doing to approach the design of equipment and how its crafting works in our game, and then talk about how similar techniques might be applicable to other games in our genre.
To start with, a few things are paramount to understanding how combat and equipment works in Redshift:
- Your equipment determines most of what you can do in combat. In interacting with the table-top style GUI, you click on a given square or coordinate, and then select from a drop-down menu whether or not you want to move to that space, target that space in a general way (for use of AoE gadgets such as grenades), or target a specific character standing in that space. You can then assign actions to a shortcut key bar to act without ever needing to type. This is all meant to make acting easy and intuitive in combat, no matter what “build” you use. Of course, you can still type out commands and roleplay during combat, too.
A Proof of Design for Ground Combat in Redshift
- All combat equipment is contained within a single object. This is a major change from how most games in our genre work. To fully balance equipment horizontally, Combat Exo-Suits are a single object, as opposed to the helmet being one object, the leggings another, and so on. Additionally, utility items (like grenades and jetpacks) as well as weapons (both melee and ranged) are tied into the Exo-Suit’s power source in module “slots”. When you craft an Exo-Suit, you craft a certain number of utility or weapon slots. You then plug unpowered utility objects or unpowered weapons into those slots. Without the Suits, the weapons won’t work. You can always unplug a module from a slot to plug in a different module instead, giving the player flexibility without needing to craft an entire other suit. Because of this approach, we are able to use our Personal Economy for equipment to balance all equipment builds; this is the Horizontal Design aspect of what we are doing. Though there are nearly infinite combinations to craft and design, all suits will be inherently the same “quality” in terms of balance. It is purely the player’s ingenuity and the situational needs that will determine what suits are more effective than others.
- Combat in Redshift has a strong group/crew PvE focus. PvP will exist and be balanced, particularly out in space (an entirely different combat system), but will not be the majority of the combat content of the game. We want players to play together, and to work together, and to roleplay together — and so we have designed combat to support that idea. Players will create the most effective teams for exploration and dealing with threats with a diverse variety of builds, allowing them to experiment with how different suits complement and supplement one another. Because of our Horizontal Design choices, we are able to tailor a wide variety of aggressive NPC artificial intelligence to be effective against certain builds, and less effective against others. Our ability to introduce new threats and areas for exploration means that we can help direct the ever-shifting nature of the equipment/build meta-game from behind the scenes.
- Most actions have either a “cooldown” (for very powerful actions) before you can use that specific action again, and/or a post-action delay. Being in post-action delay means that you can move around and roleplay, but cannot take another major action yet (such as firing a gun). Post-action delay is the primary combat economy for Redshift, and is used to apply Horizontal Design to Damage-Per-Second, weapons, and utility actions like firing up a jetpack. That’s not to say that equal base DPS for all weapons means all weapons are exactly the same. For instance …
- All weapons are inherently balanced, too. While all weapons have the same base Damage-per-Second, variables allow weapons to excel in specific combat situations. Fast-firing, weaker guns deal more damage to Armor Integrity (think: regenerating shields) over time; slow-firing, more powerful guns deal more damage to characters with high Base Armor over time. In addition, some weapons have increased natural accuracy (think: sniper rifles) at the cost of having a slightly longer post-action delay or lower base damage. The most damaging weapons might be very ineffective versus fast regenerating armor, and the weakest pistols may do very little damage to the heaviest and most protective armor. I won’t be sharing all of our lengthy, complex combat algorithms with you today, if only because they’re what’s most likely to change during testing. That said …
- We’re all about transparency. In the Full Exo-Suit Documentation attached below, the first section shows a Standard Exo-Suit (the object that you will use to craft the Exo-Suit of your dreams), followed by four purchasable “finished” Exo-Suits with different strengths and weaknesses. The Standard Suit has the crafting economy attached to it and explained, for your perusal. All other Suits in the game will be designed by players, and will be a major driving force in the game’s economy. The rest of the document goes on to specify every other piece of Exo-Suit equipment that our players will find in Redshift when the game launches.
Combat Exo-Suit Objects (Click to Read the Full Document)
Great. But Redshift is a far futuristic Sci-Fi RPG! How could I do this on my High Fantasy RPG centered around Mages?
Well, I’d answer that question by being upfront. This is all quite experimental. No one game has found a formula for applying Horizontal Design that’s united game designers in the way that Blizzard did with Diablo 2 and World of Warcraft well over a decade ago.
But let’s imagine that I was designing a High Fantasy RPG with magical elements. Why not introduce magic to crafting in a way that allows for Horizontal Design? Let me give a very brief, but clear example below of his this could work. Note that the statistics are rather arbitrary:
In my fantasy world, certain elements can hold more magic than other elements. The more manufactured (touched by Man) an element is, the less magic it can generally hold.
A Wooden Staff – Damage: 2d4 – Enchanment Slots: 4
An Unrefined Iron Sword – Damage: 2d4 + 3 – Enchantment Slots: 3
A Refined Iron Sword – Damage: 2d4 + 6 – Enchantment Slots: 2
An Ornate Steel Sword – Damage: 2d4 + 9 – Enchantment Slots: 1
Above, I’ve created a horizontally scaling economy that states that one “Enchantment Slot” is equal in value to a “+3 damage bonus”. In designing Enchantments for objects, I would just make certain that an enchantment that uses one slot is comparable in average worth to +3 damage, or that an enchantment that uses 3 slots is comparable in average worth to +9 damage.
But, what about the difference between a Greatsword and a Dagger? Won’t the Greatsword always be better?
Well, only if you want it to be. The easiest place to start here is to make a chart:
Small Weapon (Dagger) — Damage: 1d4 — Post-Action Delay: 6 seconds
Medium Weapon (Sword) — Damage: 2d4 — Post-Action Delay: 12 seconds
Large Weapon (Greatsword) — Damage: 3d4 — Post-Action Delay: 18 seconds
Above, you’ll see that all of these weapons should deal the same damage over time on average. However, combat math is not so simple, and fighting rarely happens in a vacuum with no outside variables. The dagger, for instance, will deal more damage over-time than its counterpart Greatsword once strength and material bonuses (or whatever variables you design) are created that directly improve damage per hit. Likewise, armor systems that reduce direct damage will benefit Greatswords if damage is multiplied after that reduction occurs. And so, we may consider providing additional bonuses to each weapon-type when they score a critical hit (“crit”) that are comparable in effectiveness, but useful in different situations.
Dagger: Inflict bleeding wounds (static health loss over time) on a crit. [good vs High Armor]
Sword: Disarm their opponents’ weapon on a crit, doubling their Post-Action Delay. [good vs Greatswords]
Greatsword: Inflict a wound on a crit, causing static damage reduction for 36 seconds. [useful vs Daggers]
While all of these bonuses are a small, simple sample, they serve well as an example or template. Horizontal Design doesn’t have to stop at statistics. You can use secondary effects to further balance different weapon types versus one another, in an effort to encourage character and build diversity in your game. Of course, everything comes down to extensive testing.
But, but, what about quality? Wouldn’t a master blacksmith simply make a better sword than an amateur?
Absolutely. But, we addressed this problem in the initial design for our theoretical High Fantasy RPG. Since magic takes to objects that are less manufactured by man, we can still balance the “poor” objects without creating tiers of quality. Perhaps a young blacksmith can only make wooden and unrefined iron weapons, whereas your experience blacksmith can make steel weapons. With this system, I might actually prefer a simple wooden weapon, if I intend to then take that weapon to the town Enchanter to have them craft some magic into it. In this way, you retain your qualities, but create an avenue that allows a Wooden Staff to still be as potentially powerful as a Steel Sword in the right hands.
Just be sure not to force your blacksmiths to have to grind their skill level up forever before they can make those steel swords. Since wooden weapons will be just as effective as steel weapons, when enchanted, there’s no reason to force that grind be a process that takes months of progression and solo-play on that blacksmith player’s part.
And, remember, you can always give your crafters other rewards for their skill level, beyond just creating superior equipment. Reduced timers between crafts, reduced resource consumption, and the ability to re-string or customize objects are all other means to reward skilled crafters without thrusting your game head first into the bowels of Power Creep.
Well, that’s all well-and-good. But I want to create a Game of Thrones-like RPG, with a Low Fantasy setting. None of the examples above even apply to me at all!
First, and I have to say this, it’s okay to tell your players to suspend disbelief a bit when it comes to balancing combat. We’ve all played video games. We’re all okay with it, so long as there’s an attempt to explain why things are designed in a certain way in the game. Players will be willing to accept that a dagger swings three times as fast as a greatsword, but deals three times less damage, even if that’s not entirely believable. But, let’s create another set of examples, this time assuming a world where characters are unlikely to have access to magic. Instead of trying to 100% balance the weapons’ statistics, we’ll apply a different sort of Horizontal Design:
A master-crafted steel sword: 1d8+6 dam, expensive, partial functionality after taking 80 object damage (1d8+1 dam)
A poorly-crafted iron sword: 1d8+3 dam, average price, partial functionality after taking 200 object damage (1d8+1 dam)
A wooden spear: 1d8+1 dam, inexpensive, can be repaired up to 100% functionality (1d8+1 dam)
In the above example, we’re looking at something akin to a hybrid of Verticle and Horizontal Design, which may be more appropriate for your game. A long-lived, wealthy character may be able to afford master-crafted steel swords, but as they wear down with use, they’ll inevitably become only as good as a a brand new wooden spear. And even though the poorly-crafted iron sword will never be as good as a brand new master-crafted sword, it will retain its full functionality longer.
Sure, this isn’t exactly how swords work in real life. Again, sometimes good game design must trump reality, and so we suspend disbelief. Every game does this in hundreds of ways.
The above system creates an upkeep/maintenance cost for those long-lived characters should they wish to constantly buy new, undamaged weapons and armor, which is a strong design choice as an economy drain. Designing the system so that your game’s wear/tear/repair system favors lower quality equipment makes the system a Horizontal Design feature, because it doesn’t punish new players or characters that can only afford a wooden spear. This, in turn, partially balances the natural advantages that a long-lived character would have, economically, in a purely Verticle Design of equipment progression.
And that leads me to my final point. Horizontal Design may mean different things to every game. I’m not suggesting we take out all of the Verticle Progression from our games. But we must be willing to ask ourselves how we can encourage players to engage in the core activities that we want them to. Finding the right balance of Horizontal and Verticle Design is something that we should all consider. Our story-focused games tend to be very demanding on time, but we also have some control over how demanding they are. Challenge yourself to find ways to introduce Horizontal concepts that will cut down on Power Creep and grinding; as designers, we are inherently creative problem solvers, and we should be well-equipped to address these issues.
By reducing grind where possible and sidestepping Power Creep when we can, we make our games more accessible to more casual players who may not have hours to play every day to stay competitive. And we still allow for our most devoted players to spend more time roleplaying and interacting with other players than they could before. And that’s what it’s all about.
Jaunt is best known for his work as Senior Staff and Lead Roleplaying-Admin for Shadows of Isildur (Northlands and The Mines of Moria), and for being the evil mastermind behind the creation of AtonementRPI, as well as the popular game’s Lead Designer, Writer, and Co-Owner. He is currently the Lead Designer and Writer for Project Redshift, a professional RPI. He has created and worked on numerous RPGs over the past 20+ years, with an equal focus and passion for both storytelling and game design.
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