Monday, February 23, 2009

Begone, skills!

Yes, I copied Ysharros's recent post title for this one. Wiqd has a post up saying the same sort of thing - maybe if we say it enough times all together, something magical will happen!

Basically, these good people have been saying that if we have fewer skills to pick from in an MMORPG, it will lower the learning curve necessary to get into the game. If the skills are all quite different in functionality, depth in gameplay would not need to be sacrificed. I want to give some numbers to illustrate just how much this is true.

First some definitions are in order. Kyoryu has a great post up about "complexity" vs "depth" in game design - to sum up he says that:

complexity is the number of factors the player must consider at any moment

depth is the number of choices a player can make at any moment

I'm going to extend that definition of depth, and say that depth is related to the number of comparisons of choices the player must make, to determine the best choice. For example, if you can pick one of "A", "B" or "C", you have to know how A stacks up against B and C, and also how B stacks up against C (let's assume the order isn't important). You could say that this action has a depth = 3 according to my definition, since there are 3 comparisons to make. It has a complexity = 3, since there are 3 things you have to know (the functions of A, B and C).

As the number of options rises, so too do the number of comparisons, in quite non-linear fashion. Here's a quick table to illustrate the point: the left number is the number of choices, and the right the number of comparisons when you must choose one choice each time:


So take the typical WoW skill-bar with, say, 20 different things to do on it. Seems like a lot of depth right? Sure, 190 comparisons to make with that super-computer brain of yours seems like a lot of work! Of course in reality nobody really makes all those comparisons... but it still serves as a useful number to measure how deep whatever thought processes they DO make need to be.

Now compare those numbers with the following. Instead of picking one skill each time, you're able to pick one skill, OR two skills. So in a choice between "A", "B" and "C", you need to compare A with B and C, and compare B with C, as previously. However, you also need to compare AB with A, B and C alone, and you need to compare AC with A, B and C. You also need to compare BC with A, B and C. Finally, you have to compare AB with AC and BC. Gee that was hard work wasn't it! All up that's a total of 15 comparisons to make, compared to only 3 if just one skill had to be chosen.

And our complexity count, the number of things about the game that we need to know, has increased by..... zero. We still need only know what A, B and C do to make all of those comparisons.

Here's this relationship added on to the above table:

n....pick one....pick one OR two

That racked up quickly, didn't it! In fact, we can see that to rival the same depth inherent in a 21-skill MMORPG bar, we need only 10 skills. In a more simplified world where we only have to match the depth of, say, 15 skills in the "pick one" scenario, we would need only 5 skills to accomplish this! Even the 4 skill case offers as much depth as ye olde 10 skill case, and such forth. Suddenly my puny 8-skill Guild Wars skill bar is looking mighty over-crowded!

One problem that could be nay-sayed against such a system is that it requires players to have more manual dexterity, since they have to push two buttons at a time. This is easy to get around though: for instance, allow the buttons to be pressed in any order, and at any time - when the second button is pressed, simply add it's function to the function of the first button. Since we're going for only two actions at a time, a third button press could remove the oldest one from the list of current actions. Compare this to a combo system in any fighting game and it seems simple enough that my aged Grandmother with one hand could manage it.

As the others linked to above pointed out, another key to ensuring that combat still entails lots of options that feel radically different from each other, is to ensure that each of these 'reduced' skills offers quite different functionality. With a system like that the above numbers illustrate that there are massive reductions in complexity to be made, which would open such a game up a lot for new players, while still not making the combat any less deep for experts. Win-win, no?


Tesh said...

Interesting. Does this stem from the "spellweaving" concept?

I've written before that I'd love it if Wizard101 had some sort of "dual school" spells that had three "play modes", not unlike a MTG hybrid card that triggers different effects when you spend different color mana to play it.

Say, in W101 terms, if you have an Ice Shield up, you could play Steam Blast (a fire school spell) that would "consume" the Ice Shield to generate a Steam blast that does both Fire and Ice damage. If you have no Ice Shield when you play Steam Blast, it just does a smaller amount of Fire damage.

...this is actually tangential, now that I think about it. It's less about using two skills at the same time, more about stacking skills and battle conditions that need not necessarily be based on concurrent skill usage.

It's a bit like GW where some Mesmer skills do more damage (or only damage) when the target has a hex on them. That way, it's not just the interplay between your skills, you will also need situational awareness of what is happening in combat. (Say, someone else Hexed a foe, so your Mesmer doesn't need to perform that part of the combo.)

Psychic Captcha: my spam filter word is "permu"... permutation, much? :)

Ixobelle said...

reading this reminded me of the rune system they're going to be implementing for Diablo 3.

You attach runes to spells (or something), and they affect the outcome.

Take "flaming skull of death" and add the AOE rune to it. Now FSOD explodes when it hits the ground and deals splash damage.

Add "Chain" to the FSOD, and it hits one mob, then bounces to the next mob as well.

Chain + AoE + FSOD = bounce to the next mob, and then explode for splash damage.

it would be really interesting to have THESE be our action buttons.

our mage has three number 1 buttons: Frost, fire, and arcane.

then about 3 'shape' modifiers: missile, wave, AoE.

Then about 3 'bonus' modifiers: bounce, vamp, bind.

and a final 'cast button'.

you basically hit FROST, AOE, BIND, CAST to launch frost nove.

FIRE, MISSILE, VAMP, CAST shoots a pyro that heals you for 20% of damage inflicted. etc etc etc.

the problem is that button mashing FURY would prevail, and casting spells would be like tekken combos (or dialing a phone number), and programmable keyboards would be all the rage, to the dismay of anyone without one.

Ixobelle said...

you could also mix up the order...

Arcane, Wave, Cast uses only one modifier, and hits harder than Arcane, wave, X, Cast.


Frost, BIND, missile, cast

has a longer binding debuff (but hits weaker) than:

Frost, MISSILE, bind, cast

..which hits harder, but doesn't slow as much.

this actually sounds pretty cool.

Melf_Himself said...

I'll give an example of what I was thinking. Say I activate my 'damage' keyword and then hit 'cast'. That might be a spell that does X damage and costs Y mana. If I instead activated my 'debuff' keyword, I'd get a spell that removes XX buffs and costs YY mana. If I used both 'damage' and 'debuff' together, the spell would do X damage, remove XX buffs, and cost YY + Y mana.

In terms of the Guild Wars Mesmer, that might be the difference between a simple enchantment removal spell and something like Shatter Enchantment, which is more costly but debuffs AND hits for some nice spike damage.

Tesh: I see it as being similar to the 'spellweaving' concept, but with the important difference that you don't have to remember any special rules for how 2 skills interact. Two skills together is simply the advantages summed together, and the disadvantages summed together. So although it's cool to think of, say, Fire (DPS) + Ice (Slow-down) = Steam (blinding effect), I would actually class that as 3 different things to know, and so there would be a complexity of 3.

Of course, it's super cool to mix skills in that way (fire + ice = steam), and I think a particularly awesome combat system would combine both ways of thinking.

Ixo: It is quite similar to the way those runes are described. In fact I recall now reading about that several months ago, which is probably where this idea was born! Having those modifiers be the action buttons is exactly where I was going with it.

To prevent button mashing fury and any advantage to macro-ing, I think you could limit people to two functions at a time. Like, there's usually balance issues with spells that can do too many things at once anyway (especially in PvP since they can be used to create uber spikes). Eg you could do large damage in an AoE, or large DPS in an AoE, but not large damage and large DPS in an AoE.

The other thing to prevent button mashing is that the disadvantages (energy cost) add together as well. There are some other tricks that could be used to punish people for linking too many things together, e.g. increasing cooldowns of all skills involved, or increasing mana cost beyond the sum of the parts of the spell.

I like the mixing up the order thing, that would definitely reduce the reliance on macro's since in different situations you'd want different things, and you'd end up with a crazy number of macro buttons. It reminds me of the Warder I read about in LotRO. They use a similar idea of linking a few different base skills together, and the order matters. Eg if your first skill pressed was a shield, you'll be launching a more defense-oriented combo. However, they leaned too much towards a combo system with that whole deal, which negated the whole reducing-complexity thing. Your idea of a simple weighting depending on the order is much neater :)

A final idea to reduce button mashing / macro-ing might be to make the second button you push simply launch the spell. You'd have to add a 'nothing' button, but it would be interesting strategically, as you'd want to plan ahead to make sure you're not casting suboptimal spells by accident.

Anton said...

I'm not sure I like this idea so much. It would be akin to playing fighting games on consoles where you only have 4 buttons or so, but you have to hit combos in order to trigger the moves you want. What usually ends up happening to me is that I just hit those 4 buttons by themselves because they fail to explain anywherer how combos are supposed to be done, and I quickly tire of the same 4 things happpening over and over.

Also, gameplay would slow down if you had to hit multiple buttons to see things happen.

To combat my own argument, however, as long as you introduce combos and explain them one at a time as you go, and as long as whenever you hit multiple buttons, something happens with each button press (such as a "powering-up" effect or partial attacks that stack up) you could still manage all the 2-button and 3-button attacks and get the snappiness that single-button-presses followed by immediate actions can give you.

Melf_Himself said...

Well that's just the thing Anton, there would be no need to explain how combo's need to be done. Every combo would be a simple 2-button press that combines the functions of the 2 individual buttons in a simple, linear, intuitive way.

I would NOT propose, for example, having 2 buttons, say 'high kick' and 'low kick', and that you press both of those to execute some kind of 'move' that is an alternate sort of kick - you couldn't combine those 2 under my system, because that would require 2 kicks, which would mean you'd have no feet left to stand on :p

The appropriate analogy in the system I'm talking about would be to have a button for 'high' and for 'low' and a button for 'kick'. Then the player says to themselves, you know what, I really want to do a 'low kick'. I'll use this 'combat language' I have before me to express that by pressing 'low'.... 'kick'.

Gameplay doesn't really have to slow down... look at how fast-paced fighting games are, which require many more buttons to be chained together than we're looking at here.

Of course as you say, a tutorial system to show people how these things work would be mandatory (but I'd say that about any new game system).

JediOfTheShire said...

I think the issue of slowing down combat could be a huge problem. I'll use two very simple examples of combat being fast/slow.

WoW - What a lot of peopel are used to. Click a button and your skill executes. How fast you can effectively use your skills (with the exception of skills with casting times) is based on how fast you can click your different skills.

LOTRO - Combat is cyclical. You may only execute one attack skill in between each auto-attack. When you break the auto-attack chain by casting a support spell (buffs and heals) you can continuously cast more abilities until you end the chain with a melee attack skill, then the cycle begins again. If you don't want to use an attack skill then the cycle will resume itself but your character will be inactive for a few moments, which gives you time to get a skill off.

I know a lot of people who have a strong dislike for the LOTRO style of combat, but I find great comfort in knowing that my fellows are not going to expect me to be having spasms at my keyboard to operate at 100%.

Cyclical combat gives you time to actually take back your action if you're planning ahead. The combat may seem slow, but it is extremely effective at balancing players of different speeds against each other.

Perhaps cyclical combat would be good for this system, so it would let you plan out your attacks in an almost turn-based (although they'd be very very fast turns) way that would keep the quick people from being able to outperform the people that have slower reaction speeds.

DISCLAIMER: I am not slow. I can play fast twitchy games, I just strongly prefer not to. I value mental exercise more than riding the tips of my nerves through combat.

Melf_Himself said...

First of all, great name Jedi :)

I know what you mean, in a strategy-focused game you don't want to punish people for pressing the wrong button. But at the same time, you want the game to feel responsive to what you're doing.

I envisaged this working with a system like Guild Wars, where there are auto-attacks/auto target following which can be punctuated with as many attack 'skills' as you can afford to pay for.

Only, whichever action you're doing would be 'modified' according to what one or two skills you've selected to keep operational. So a rough example of what I mean:

You activate your 'fire' and 'ice' skills. Now your auto-attacks all do AoE fire damage and slow your target (at the expense of increased rate of mana drain, or whatever). But, if you push your 'big red damage button', you'll get an attack that does say x2 damage and x2 slowdown, and breaks out of the auto-attack rhythm. You can keep hammering this button if you want to (which would of course burn through your mana/energy/stamina/whatever).

So the only 'button-mashing' needed is in pushing the attack button (typically in Guild Wars, a spike might consist of say 3 activated skills, so I'd be shooting for something similar hear before you run out of juice).

Changing which 'modifier' you have active (by choosing one or two new skills) could be a less frequent event (due to either energy cost or cooldown or both).