Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Analyzing A Valley Without Wind's Further Transformation From 1.1 to 1.2

It really hasn't been all that long since my reflections on the changes from 1.0 to 1.1, and yet already we're to another major turning point for the game. Version 1.2 represents three huge steps forward for the game, despite the fact that the 1.2 release notes aren't as fantastically long as the prior ones were.

This time around we didn't add any new enemies.  No new missions -- we didn't even tweak any missions.  Not a single new spell or new enchantment.  In fact, all the stuff that made 1.1 such a huge step forward for the game is absent here -- and yet this new version is arguably a much more substantial evolution of the game.

This Whole Business With Tiers Vs Levels
Okay, so we changed the word "tiers" back to "levels."  That doesn't sound terribly impressive!  And if you're playing through a single continent of the game -- the first continent, anyway -- you would notice almost no difference between tiers and levels.  This, I would posit, is actually a good thing.  We tried to stay close to what we had that worked while still fundamentally reworking the bits that didn't work.

And one of the biggest bits that didn't work was the whole concept of secondary continents being like a "New Game+" mode for various RPGs.  The idea that on your second continent you had to take two steps back to take three steps forward was both counter-intuitive as well as kind of un-fun.

All the gory details are in the endnotes if you want them, but the big-picture change is that we're no longer making you take any steps back.  You just keep going forward as you get to further continents, and in all respects it feels a lot more like a traditional RPG progression.  This is actually something of a feat in terms of the math involved for a Metroidvania-style game balanced the way ours is.

This change sounds trivial, and if you were a casual player, it is.  But if you were playing enough to go through several continents, the frustration of starting over each time was definitely palpable.  I felt it, too.  It was a major sticking point for many, and now that sticking point is gone.

The Effects OF Procedural Spells On Balance
I said we didn't add any new spells this go-round, and that's technically true.  But the feel of the game is that it has exploded with new spells.  There are various modifiers that get randomly assigned to spells that you both craft and that you find as loot, and so a given copy of Fireball might have various ancillary bonuses or abilities that make it different from all the other Fireball spells you've seen.

This is nothing new -- Borderlands and Diablo and so forth have done procedural loot for years and years.  But it's new to this game (though we were dabbling in that area with our Enchants system, which was already procedural in this manner), and it makes a world of difference.

There are a lot of cool spell effects that players have wanted for a while, such as more powerful spells that only work in the day or the night, or things that damage you but damage enemies more and then give you some health back if you hit them, and so forth.

But the reason this is particularly exciting for AVWW is what it does to the balance of the game: it makes it an ever-shifting, always-interesting thing.  I've had players and reviewers comment on how they would find a favorite spell or spell combination, and -- combined with a specific enchant loadout -- they would get stuck in that rut forever, basically.

If we made some obviously-more-powerful spell then they would switch to that and get stuck in that rut.  What we really needed was spells that were circumstantially more powerful than others, and we had some success with that during our 1.1 timeframe by giving enemies shifting resistances and so forth.  But that only goes so far against a player who is bound and determined to use their favorite spell even when it's not completely advantageous.

The new system in AVWW encourages experimentation because you now find all sorts of cool spells that do things that you might never have seen before in the game; so your allegiance to a given spell or set of spells hopefully shifts as you progress through the game, and ultimately you experience more of the game's content rather than just a narrow subset of spells that originally appealed to you.

Put another way: we're now making better use of our existing content, rather than just heaping more content on top of the existing content.  If you were bound and determined to use Energy Slice all the time as your main weapon of choice, our addition of 40 new spells would just give you 40 more options to ignore.  Or one new option to choose and 39 more to ignore.

But instead we added 50-some different spell modifiers that get used in various combinations, and now the "coolest spell" is going to be changing itself up as you play.  Again, nothing new: Borderlands fans know this effect well, with an even smaller amount of base guns.  The concept fits so amazingly well with this sort of already-highly-procedural game that I'm not sure why we didn't think of it before.

Revising Crafting To Reward Exploration And Take Pressure Off Missions
Missions in this game tend to be fun.  However, there are only so many of them and if that's the only way to get key crafting ingredients then you're going to be doing a lot of missions.  What we heard, repeatedly, was that many people just wanted to explore the cool environments more -- and yet there weren't compelling enough rewards in most cases.

Our first thought was to make new rewards for people to find -- spell scrolls in particular -- and indeed that's something we'll be doing in future versions.  But more fundamentally, we decided to expand the scope of player choice in how they go about their business.

Previously you had to play missions if you wanted to advanced.  End of story.  Now you can completely ignore missions if you wish, and free exploration can provide all that you need in order to win.  You can't completely ignore free exploration and just do missions -- that was never the case and still isn't -- but you can still do very little free exploration if missions are your main thing.

How we did it was simple: we made it so that the "stash rooms" around the world now directly are what contain the arcane crafting ingredients.   The common crafting ingredients were already found by doing things like knocking down trees with your spells, anyhow.  On the flip side, missions now never grant crafting materials -- they instead grant you entire procedurally-generated spellgems as direct loot.

The linchpin is this: we introduced a rarity system, and the uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary spells can only be crafted, never found.  You find rarity orbs as another part of your free exploration, and you can choose what spells to imbue with extra power by using the rarity orb as part of the crafting process.  Thus if you do have a favorite spell that you want in your arsenal, you can still get a particularly cool version of it to use for a number of levels.

Or you can branch out and try something else: the choice is yours, but the numbers are no longer such that players can compile "ideal spell loadouts."  When players start doing that, you know you have a problem because they are trying to find the best rut to put themselves into!

Citybuilding Is Back With A Vengeance
So!  Back in beta we had a citybuilding component that was top-down, and it was pretty fun for a lot of people.  But it was really disconnected from the rest of the game, and it wasn't fun enough to justify splitting up the game the way that it was.  For 1.0, then, we really scaled that whole thing back and did a really mild form of "citybuilding" that could barely be called that, all from the side view.

Those folks who had dreams of us building the Actraiser spiritual sequel for 2012 had their dreams come crashing down, and were understandably upset.  Heck, it was a part of the game I had been really adamant about having from the start, but I was the one to cut it.  It wasn't working well enough at the time, and I was faced with a choice: focus on the parts of the game that were working well and do a few things well; or keep our attention divided and do a lot of things poorly.

That all changes with 1.2, to my great delight.  It's been another one of those random flashes of inspiration, but we finally have a citybuilding model that is integrated into the game all the way down: it plays out on the existing world map, it uses the NPCs you were rescuing anyhow, and it then enlists those NPCs to help ease tasks that you were undertaking anyway.  Awesome.

As a part of this, it also gives the individual NPCs more of a sense of personality than they once had.  That's relative, mind you, but it's a step in the right direction.  Additionally, it gives each continent more of an individual, personalized feel.  And lastly, it gives us a really powerful simulation framework to do more cool stuff with in the future; though personally I think that sending NPCs on dispatch missions to do your bidding and help take down the overlord peg by peg is pretty cool.

More Mysteries, More Ways To Find Mystery Clues
In the past, we had two mysteries in the game, with a total of 28 clues.  This new version adds a third mystery and 41 new clues -- it's basically like adding a whole new short story into the game, as the third mystery is very narrative in style.

Back at 1.0 in particular, mystery clues were really few and far between in general.  You could only find those in certain really large buildings that had puzzle rooms, and only rarely even then.  And puzzle rooms were particularly unpopular with a large number of players, to make matters worse.  So we've now removed puzzle rooms, and instead made it so that secret missions located anywhere in the world give you a mystery clue as an added bonus if you have a mystery unlocked.

Paired with that, we also made it so that some of the basic mysteries no longer have any unlock requirements; though that won't stop us from having really difficult unlock conditions for some of the deeper mysteries to come.

This lets players immediately start learning more about the game world, which is quite an unusual world.  Some critics have called the game world "nonsensical," but my answer to that is that the game world is actually considerably less strange than that of Super Mario Bros, and about on par with most of the classic SNES-era Final Fantasy games.

The problem is that most things weren't explained, or were only hinted at in the mysteries (which were way too hard to find) or in the tooltips for various buildings and objects that you might not find until late in the game.  Now more of those hints come earlier, and we're steadily building out more mysteries in general to flesh out the story of the world and what has happened to it.

The story is quite unique and compelling, I think.  But it very solidly puts you in the shoes of the character who is thrust into a broken world without knowing just what has happened around them, and then has to discover the truth for themselves.  Personally, I really prefer that to just being handed all the answers -- I think that's one of the interesting things that games can do that non-interactive forms of entertainment can never match in quite the same way.

Some folks might see the new mystery mechanics as doing just that -- handing out the answers for minimal effort.  But there's a difference between basic information, middle-secret information, and highly-secret information that should be hard to find.  Simply by setting (or not setting) the unlock conditions to mysteries themselves, we're able to gate access to those different levels of secret-ness. 

And hey, even for the basic mysteries you still have to actually complete a goodly number of secret missions before you have all the clues.  And then you have to "read between the lines" as you read the clues in order to really understand more what is going on with the world.  That's different from a lot of novels or movies where at the end they try to make everything abundantly clear even if you were only sort of paying attention earlier in the work.

The changes this time around were deep, but not wide.  We found a few key areas to focus on and really improve or expand, and so far the feedback seems to be that this is an even more exciting release for players than 1.1 was.  Though of course 1.1 was a necessary precursor to this.

Looking forward to what comes next, my biggest focus is going to be on making the world feel more alive and interactive.  Part of that means expanding the citybuilding system with things like graveyards (finally!) and new ways to use our newly-expanded NPCs.  Part of that means adding more procedural bits so that there are ever more rewards that are exciting to find as loot -- or foes to face, as the case may be.

I also hope to add in an events system where certain things might occur just naturally as you explore, like running across some major villain who you can fight or flee, etc.  That sense of "you never know what might happen next" is what makes playing a new game so fun, and it's one of the things that I feel like we can do with a procedural game: extend that feeling beyond just the first few hours of playtime so that the sense of discovery and exploration remains hours and hours in.

That's the goal, anyway!  Thanks for reading.

Endnotes: Details About The Math Behind Levels And Tiers
Much earlier in this piece, I said "The idea that on your second continent you had to take two steps back to take three steps forward was both counter-intuitive as well as kind of un-fun."

We've known this for a long time, but it was by far the best model we had until a flash of inspiration a few weeks ago.  Way back in early beta for the game we used to have levels and even EXP, and it was a mess: balance was impossible to maintain at the scale that we needed for the game without the game rapidly getting enemies with health in the tens or hundreds of millions.  And by level 200, your spells might be doing trillions damage.

Wait, what?  Well, the problem is that for purposes of this being a Metroidvania-style game, we really needed each level/tier to increase in difficulty by about 1.5x compared to the level/tier before it.  And of course that compounds -- so a monster with 10,000 health at level 1 has over 30 trillion health at level 100.

Why don't most RPGs have this problem?  Well, they use a system of really incremental boosts to various stats.  When you move to level 2 from level 1, you get something like +5 HP to your existing 70 HP, and maybe +1 to your Str stat, but not remotely every level would you get that.  They have a lot of complex incremental math, plus a very tightly designed roster of enemies to be level-appropriate at each point in the game, and so that's how they achieve their balance.

Adventure style games, on the other hand, are about skill more than a numbers game.  You get big jumps in power: and not very many jumps in said power.  You get your first energy tank in Metroid, and suddenly your health just doubled.  Whoa is that not sustainable in an "infinite" sense.  There's a reason you only get so many health tanks.

But what we have is an infinite Metroidvania, and so the only two ways that we could see this working was to either have the numbers get unworkably large (both for the computer and the players), or to have the levels periodically reset.  We renamed them to tiers rather than levels in hopes of distancing players from the concept so that the resets wouldn't feel so out of place since tiers already were ostensibly a "new" concept.

That worked... kind of well.  It was certainly the best thing we could think of until recently.  The key breakthrough was realizing that to linearize the game we had to blend the RPG and the Adventure mathematical models, and to do that involved two sets of numbers rather than one.  If you just have Attack Power and you try to scale that in an Adventure fashion, the numbers get unworkably huge; if you scale Attack Power on an RPG scale, then an overlord who is 5 levels higher than the players will be easily killable by any player of moderate skill as soon as they start the game.

So what we did is this: we increase your Attack Power on that RPG sort of scale, so you feel like you make a familiar small amount of progress in your stats (as do your enemies) as your levels go up.  But to make this work in a Metroidvania sense, we added two other stats: Penetration and Resistance.

These stats aren't "real," they aren't used in any numerical model, they are just a representation of the relative level of your level versus the enemy.  The higher the level of the attacker, the higher the Penetration.  The higher the level of the defender, the higher the Resistance.

And that's where the 1.5x scaling factor comes in.  Regardless of your Attack Power value, if the enemy is 1 level higher than you, then the Penetration and Resistance make it so that you actually deal considerably less damage to that enemy.  It feels much more natural and isn't something that most players need to study or even think about any more than most players think about how Str affects their attack damage when they are playing an RPG.

That's it.  It seems simple because it is.  And perhaps it should be obvious, but I'm not aware of any other game that uses this model, and it certainly wasn't obvious to myself or anybody who commented on the game.  We had intensive discussions with a lot of intelligent players about this very issue last November and on, and nobody brought this up.  So perhaps it's only obvious in retrospect: and usually that's the mark of a sound mechanic, I've found.  It feels familiar and right and obvious as soon as you see it.

This isn't a landmark breakthrough or anything all that profound, don't get me wrong; but it is a nice hybrid mathematical model that anybody making a game with similar goals would do well to at least experiment with.

Endnotes: Strategy Creeps Meekly Away
Back in alpha and beta we thought we were going to have both strategy and citybuilding components to the game.  Then neither worked out that well, and we wound up stripping down the citybuilding into something very tame, and taking out the strategic part all together.

I had been thinking that the strategic component was more likely to make a comeback in a strong form compared to the citybuilding, but I was wrong.  Strategic-style thinking can just mean long-form decision making versus short-term "tactical" decisions, and if that's the case then this game already has boatloads of strategic elements anyhow.

We don't need to further saddle it with an awkward strategy-game-style interface, which I've discussed at length before.  You can get all of the strategy-game-style thinking and choices with heavy opportunity costs in any genre if you structure it right, and that was something we were aiming to do here.

Even more of a problem with the concept of a heavy strategic component to this game, however, are two things: 1) in this genre, the player expects for their own actions to always set the tempo; and 2) in this genre, the player generally expects that if they are persistent enough they will eventually win.

I know that some games like Din's Curse (which I've not played, but my co-designer/programmer Keith raves about how good it is) mess with #1: they have things happening in the world on the game's tempo, and you the adventurer are having to complete things on the schedule of the world rather than in your own sweet time.

That can be done and work really well, but it's not what AVWW is about: AVWW is and always has been about the self-directed taking of power from a hostile world.  My favorite examples of that are the original Metroid and Silent Hill 2.  You start out weak, but gain the strength you need to overcome the obstacles that are insurmountable at first.  You can do it in a fearful, plodding fashion; or a curious, happy, exploratory fashion; or even in a rushed, excited, whiz-bang fashion.

But having the game set the tempo basically excludes the first two styles of play, among many others, and that's why having an active strategic opponent who can damage you while you're out adventuring was never possible for this game.  For many months we had a turn-based strategy game system in place to combat that, but then you're getting into two distinct systems of how the game keeps track of the passage of time, and that is intensely confusing as well as odd if you are a new player.

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, it's just not a good idea to throw in the kitchen sink. ;)

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