Situational gameplay

This is a continuation of previous post where I stated that endless repetition kills gameplay.

Therefore, game should encourage players to use different tactics in different circumstances. The goal is to make player guess and search for the most effective playstyle again and again. Game does this by varying relative cost-effectiveness of skills and tactics in different situations. Especially important here is the word relative. There's no point in making all tactics equally harder or easier: the one that used to be the best will still stay the best.

My goal here is to explore options of bending gameplay this way in real, MMORPG-like game.

The problem

The goal is to design a battle system (core of a gameplay) for an MMORPG, so that it encourages player to experience as much gameplay options as possible. Different gameplays must indeed feel different enough to be fun for the player.

I accept the following restriction. Set of skills/spells/abilities player is allowed to choose from does not substantially change from quest to quest. "Substantially" means, say, 95% of all abilities are fixed and available in all quests. Sure, list may change from patch to patch as a result of balance tweaking, but in every public game release the list is fixed.

Refusing to fulfil this restriction is risky. It is nice to have different gameplays available in game, but it is way too dangerous to force player into gameplay that is too different. Player must be able to use previous knowledge gained in game. Abusing unique rules for every quest makes such use essentially impossible. Imagine chess when every other game you have to learn new pieces. Not the best game design example. Something has to be fixed in stone, and I choose to fix the list of abilities.

What is allowed to change from quest to quest without restrictions, though, is the situation player gets into.

Solution method

The idea behind it is to change gameplay by making different tactics effective in different situations. This is accomplished by tweaking effectiveness of individual abilities from quest to quest.

Cost-effectiveness of an ability is by definition its usefulness relative to its cost. Therefore, to increase effectiveness of an ability, in-game situation should empower its useful effects and decrease costs; and vice-versa to have effectiveness decreased.

Following sections explore exact means to achieve that in MMORPG.

Overview of character abilities

I bring this rough classification of in-game character abilities, because it proved useful to develop means of changing each ability's cost-effectiveness.

Each ability has associated costs and effects. Costs are undesireable consequences of using the ability, such as draining mana or HP, wasting time standing still, etc. Effects are, on the other hand, beneficial, for example: damaging foe, healing self or ally, etc.

By beneficial effect: show...

By costs: show...

By use case: show...

This classification is by no means exhaustive. There are abilities that, when allowed, can substantially change gameplay on their own. For example:

  • Instant teleport to target destination or foe.
  • Disable traps temporary or permanently.
  • Ability to see through the walls.
  • Stealth: way to become ignored by enemies.

These powerful game changers are dangerous, though. They tend to be either overpowered and used all over the place, or underpowered and forgotten by everyone. Would not be wise to allow them everywhere at any time, as it is way too difficult to balance them against normal-style gameplay. But being used carefully as special abilities tied to particular places and quests, they can be indispensable.

Tweaking skills

The above classification gives a good hint on how to vary effectiveness of each skill from quest to quest without changing skills themselves.

Tweak ability power.

  • Foe's vulnerability to certain skill obviously increases its effectiveness; resistance to skill decreases it.

Tweak resource availability.

  • Making resource plentiful makes skills that use it more effective; scanty resource makes them less effective overall.

Make use cases suitable or not.

  • Facing lots of weak foes increase effectiveness of AoE, multi-target and weak but cheap spells; few strong enemies do the opposite.
  • Foes that share a weakness make it effective to exploit the weakness; absence of such common vulnerabilty makes universal spells more effective.
  • Slow-moving meelee foes encourage use of quick-cast ranged abilities, cast-on-the-move spells and mobile playstyle.
    • To promote cast-on-the-move even more, make enemies able teleport once in a while.
  • Foes casting ground AoE with noticable cast time promotes cast-on-the-move, too.
  • Fast-moving foes encourage fixed-target ranged abilities and discourage melee and AoE.
  • Not sure how to shift predictable/probabilistic effectiveness...
    • Same effects, same cost, same probabilities. What can make unpredictibility more desirable? Some kind of defence against all previous attack types? Rather pathetic reason to use unpredictable abilities, but may possibly work.

Tweaking gameplay

Finally, when we have developed predictable means to tweak usefulness of player's abilities, we can use them to manipulate the gameplay. Kinda the point.

There's not much I can say at this point besides that it is not easy and requires thorough consideration. Not every change in skills results in change in gameplay. Some tweaks result in trivial change in player's behaviour. Some even result in poor gameplay with no fun at all. Obvious advice here is to playtest everything. Possibly, when/if I have more actual experience in this, I'll be able to write more on subject.