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Reward structure in Axe of Kings

Posted by Rowan Powell on October 16, 2016 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (0)

When working their way through a game, the player generally wants some form of payoff for their time and effort investment which can come in a range of forms depending on the game and the player;

 

  • Resources (Health, Strength, Currency)
  • Options (Abilities, unlocking something, combinations of effects)
  • Non-Mechanic rewards (Character outfits, story content, cool view)
  • Novelty (New abilities, enemies, area)

 

Axe Of Kings primarily draws from Novelty, Options and to a small extent Resources. This is because the core engagement of Axe Of Kings is Mastery of the system - knowing how to beat the monsters, maximise the effectiveness of the abilities and 'beating' the game. So the game needs plenty of fresh concepts to master fighting against (Enemy mechanics) and using (Items, Abilities) and constraints to consider (Debuffs, terrain, resources).

 

The player also wants the reward to be roughly proportional to the time or effort invested into getting the reward (The classic example being getting common loot from a raid is rather poor design), but at the same time is trying to maximise reward for investment and will attempt to identify which elements of your game have the highest ratio. One issue with this, as roguelikes and MMOs have shown repeatedly, is that players will do content they really don't enjoy just because they have the highest ratio. So the trick is having the fun content being the rewarding content, or reducing the 'price' (Time/effort) for the less fun parts.

 

The other issue I've been working on is the reward structure overall; having a range of different rewards, sizes, durations and so on. Let's take a look at the game's reward curve from the start of development, just floors of the dungeon and enemies to kill with no particular mechanics to each enemy.

A standard engagement curve looks a bit like the image below, with cycling intensity building to a peak and then tailing off.


Whereas the curve for AxeOfKings near the start of development looked a lot more like this;

 


 

As you can see, it's fairly monotonous and after only a handful of enemies the game will get pretty dull. And so it was, players got bored very quickly and stopped playing, often before clearing a single floor. The issue is once they've seen the full set of rewards, there's not much to work towards and each reward is less meaningful. So let's take a look at what the player's theoretical reward curve looks like with varied enemy health, gem rewards based on that health and the ability to complete the dungeon.

 


 

Better, but not great. Players would now sit down and play maybe a floor (Lack of good introduction to the game contributed heavily to this issue), which is no where near enough to make any of the later-stage content worth building - if they're never going to get there. To help resolve this a bit better, I sat down and thought about the immediate, short, long and overall goals the player would have and broke those down into how they applied to my game.

 

* immediate - dealing with an individual monster or clearing a room

  • short - getting to the next visible reward objective (Chest, Exit, ect)
  • Medium - Clearing the floor, levelling up
  • Long - Getting the resources for the boss, clearing the boss, beating the dungeon
  • Overall - 'Beating' the game, unlocking all the novel content

 

Anywhere that the above reward structure didn't feel varied or was simply lacking, I designed new elements to keep the player engaged at these frequency intervals. To compliment this, the reward structure;

 

  • immediate - getting gems, killing a monster, healing
  • short - gaining gems/items, getting buffs, trap novelty, exploring the rooms
  • medium - new ability, powering up, dialogue, new dungeon floor
  • Long - Beating the boss, reward screen/gem bonus, next chapter & characters
  • Overall - New dungeons, new characters, game progression and completion


 

Now the curve looks a bit more like this;

 


Much much better! There's a lot of content now to be egaged with and a good mix of frequency and intensity and the way the 'alerted' mechanic works means that the player gets frequent rises and dips of challenge, which keep adding up untill ~50% of the monsters are engaged and then it starts to taper off and monsters are cleaned up and the loot that couldn't be delt with during the fight can grab the player's attention again, but in a relaxed setting.

 

Notice how the gameplay doesn't just feed into progressing through the dungeon (Healing, improving stats and such) but also tries to focus on the two key draws of AxeOfKings - Mastery and Improvement. The game doesn't give much mastery reward if all the content is obvious from the get go, so having lots of novelty is important - new enemy mechanics, new objects and level structure are vital for the player to feel like they have something left to 'beat'. As for improvement, the game actually doesn't really let the player improve their stats (Which is very unusual for a roguelike!) but instead gives them strength through the gameplay options and the knowledge they get about enemies makes them easier to defeat (Knowledge is power!). Having items that are all consumable allows the player to keep building up the power of their character and having that extra strength at a key moment, but also the AbilityLevel system allows for a more long term feeling of progression.

 

Reward structure and pacing is absolutely vital for keeping players interested in playing the game to get to the next element of the game, but it's really worth understanding that rewards are not just in-game rewards of numerical changes. Particle effects, story, exploration, domination of an opponent, the feeling of elitism of achievement are all other valid approaches to rewarding a player. You need to sit down and understand what draws the player to your game and what the core desires your game feeds into.

Level structure in Axe of Kings

Posted by Rowan Powell on October 8, 2016 at 2:35 PM Comments comments (0)

During early playtesting for Axe Of Kings, I was looking out for how the players engaged with the various elements of the gameplay and given that I had revised the level layout before (As seen in an earlier blog post) I thought the maps were in a good spot and I could focus on the other parts of the game during testing. As it turns out, this was not the case.

 

The levels were now much more compact and meaningful to navigate given the pace of the turns and interacting with the movement mechanics of enemies was much more meaningful due to the constrained movement, but it was the same set of interactions over and over again, even worse was that it was now hard to work out where you were in the dungeon!

 

So the dungeon generation needed to be revised again;

  • Maintaining the pace through the dungeon
  • Maintaining the rate of interactions
  • Improving the number of novel situations
  • Improving the considerations of interaction with terrain

The pace of the dungeon is generally the same, though a little faster in open areas and slower in cramped areas, the interactions tend to follow the same pace, though a little faster overall due to some new additions in map objects that spawn. The number of novel situations is vastly improved and the terrain now plays a much bigger part in how the player chooses where to go. The solution I came up with are very simple and solve the main problems I was having, though I think it can be improved further, fortunately this is very easy for me to do with this new system as I can just add new room structures.

 

The game now generates some slightly different room structures but also will merge open or dougnut rooms together to further mix up the structure of the levels.

 

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I've also added a few extra objects such as locked chests and floor traps that turn out to be useful for orientating the player in the level as well as mixing up the pace of the game a little. You can see all of the new structures in the image below and how each room now tends to have something fairly identifying.

 


 

If all else fails, the game now has a map in the menu, with icons to show which rooms contain at least one of the main party members.

Why am I here? Why am I fighting this fight?

Posted by Rowan Powell on September 15, 2016 at 5:30 AM Comments comments (0)

There's an interesting psychology in how players approach certain genres of game due to their core motivations for playing those games. Fast paced cathartic shooters don't tend to invite much of a story (Though some do try to offer something up) as the player isn't looking for a narrative, just a setting to enjoy the mechanics and power fantasy. Strategy games demand an explanation of the setting, but once it's established often leave the player and the mechanics to fill in what is 'happening', calculated destruction or tense wars of attrition are often decided by the player's skill than a predefined narrative. A dungeoncrawler or other rpg often provide a running context and *other people's* stories, but leave who you are fairly open to interpretation, which I feel fits perfectly into why I play these games - I want to explore being someone else and defining a character.


 

Notably, some games go about this from unusual angles that don't fit my 'theory'. The main example that comes to mind is Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. At first look, Skyrim has all the mechanics that screams 'RPG' and the self-defining blank slate that I love in RPGs. But playing through the game didn't give me that feeling AT ALL, which in hindsight is quite revealing of how the game is presented. The game opens with you being neck deep in someone else's story - you were adventuring somewhere else and have returned home, captured and now facing execution. Skyrim is an RPG no doubt, but you are playing *someone else's* role and given that most RPGs only tend to tell a story explicitly if they are not the player Skyrim states clearly to me that the game is not about me, quite opposite from the RPGs I normally play.

 

Thinking about this can be useful when deciding how much story you need to put into your game, though notable examples such as Dark Souls and Guild Wars 2 offer huge wealth of lore material around the game for those it interests, and many people clearly are. But I've actually found it's even more useful to use the reverse conclusion: rather than 'X genre needs Y amount of story to satisfy players', I've listened to how much story the players are expecting or wanting from my game and that has been helping me understand the implicit feeling and genre of my mechanics!

 


 

When I was working on Sun & Sky, I threw together a rough intro to the game and focused on the mechanics primarily and one of the comments I got back is 'I don't know why I am doing this/fighting this' and it made me pause. My game felt like a puzzle game. There were no long-term strategic choices to be made, the tactics were minimal and all the mechanics pointed towards 'put the pieces in the right place', which if my game had been more abstract may well have not needed any story at all, but I had chosen to represent the puzzles and zones with 'turrets', 'fungal' and 'planets'. As it turns out the game therefore felt that it should fit into the strategy genre, at least to some extent. An opening cinematic of sorts seemed to settle concerns about motivation (Fitting what I theorise about strategy games! If they had wanted more development of the story I would have rethought this again as clearly the players would be expecting to journey through the narrative of the campaign to reclaim the galaxy). A player also commented about wanting longer term choices and unlock options, again not the usual expectation of a puzzle or tactics game where the resources reset for each level as mine does - but perfectly fitting for a strategy game!

 

I have resolved this conflict between mechanical-genre and feel-genre somewhat with the addition of the intro and outro sequences and I'm planning to go back and add some long-term choices (Perhaps between which planet to save!) but it was an interesting insight into how players percieve the game.

Sun & Sky

Posted by Rowan Powell on September 15, 2016 at 4:25 AM Comments comments (0)

I worked on a small mobile game called Sun & Sky from mid July to the end of August over the summer, based off an old tactics based idea for a game that had been bouncing around my head for quite a long time now - reclaim the worlds from.

 

The core concept is inspired from a webgame I played as a teenager called Creeper World, essentially a never-ending flood of 'creep' pours from certain areas of the map and you need to hold it back while you push towards certain objectives located on each world, managing your infrastructure and energy consumption. I modified this idea somewhat, removing the pylons that you needed to move the energy around and instead focus on a smaller scale of engagement - dealing with a small handful of turrets and combating terrain issues as much as the enemy itself.

 


 

This means that the game ultimately is more of a puzzle game than a tactical one, despite my original designs and motivations. The 'enemy' is a fungal that spreads across the map from hives and the edges of it's domain, which means that it's 'attack' is fairly unsurprising and you don't need to react in most scenarios, given that you've planned properly - with the exception of more advanced management of power toggling your buildings. This means that for the most part the 'challenge' is finding how to lay out your buildings in a way that they don't get overwhelmed and can make the most efficient progress.

 

The enemy types then help to cement this idea of careful placement over all else; the rapidly growing clusters will quickly reclaim ground where any mistakes leave an opening in your lines, long-range spores will cause issues behind you if you don't have the ground appropriately covered, clusters will punish you for leaving a flank exposed by launching attacks that can quickly pick off nearby solar panels (The core resource generator in the game). I'm very happy with how these 'enemies' worked out to play against as I didn't design them to 'do' anything strategy-wise except provide a new set of challenges and the level design allowed me to capitalise on where those mechanics were the most interesting. The reason this makes me happy, rather than simply having designed a good mechanic, is that I often see people theory-craft new concepts and roles far too extensively, thinking about how each little scenario plays out. Not to say this is purely wrong, I theory craft all of my designs to some extent, it's important to think about *why* you're adding something to the game, but people often get caught up in details that don't matter or mechanics end up interacting in ways they don't expect.

 


 

The turrets and terrain are where the puzzle elements of the game really start to show through though. The game starts the player off with a basic Flamethrower (Short range but quickly clears any nearby tiles) which serves the player well until they meet water tiles. Water tiles cannot be built on and Flamethrowers are too short range to shoot across them, so the tutorial quickly offers a new solution - the longer range AntimatterBioCannon (ABC for short). The second level allows quick-thinking players to take advantage of the longer range to tackle the level much more efficiently, but the Flamethrower still has it's strengths available here. The third level really pushes home the play between the two buildings available to the player, some parts of the level are simply inaccessible to the player without grasping that ABCs can get you over gaps and Flamethrowers can quickly clear a 'landing' area.

 

My favourite mechanic by far actually crops up a little later into the game (Level 7, the first map on the third planet) which is the Dehydrator. This building has absolutely no combat functionality and drains energy alarmingly fast, but offers a solution to a problem posed from here on out - two or more water tiles are between you and the next island of dry land. ABCs can't shoot that far, but Dedhydrators can turn water tiles into dirt, allowing for buildings to be placed in range of the tiles you want to shoot. But by doing this, you create even more terrain for you to defend (A dehydrated tile is often quickly met with an incoming barrage of spores trying to infest it!).

 


 

The game also features a simple set of achievements for each level (Lose no buildings, use less than X resources, use less than Y buildings) which helps reinforce to the player the goals needed for playing the game well as well as provide a nice set of shiny gold medals for those who like to hunt down 100% completion of a game. They also unlock extra bonuses for the player if they get all the medals on a planet.