Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Time for another post about game mystery and The Secret Plant Society. Previously, I talked about the game's almanac, and how it leads you into discovering new things by showing you where you are missing links.

Recently, they've added some sort of blackout feature to hide plants your friends have that you haven't discovered yet. I guess they want to keep up the mystery, but I feel they're hurting the game overall for no real benefit. Discovering new plants is really the only thing driving players forward in the game, and to do that they need to guess all the combinations of plants they can hybridize. If your friends are ahead of you in the game they will have found plants you have not yet found, so you can scout out their garden to see what they're doing and get some clues to what you should try next.

So you head over to a friend's garden and take a look a their plants. If you've found a particular plant already, the game will tell you the name when you see it in a friend's garden. Like this:

If you haven't discovered the plant yet for yourself, you get the old "???" of mystery, as seen in the next picture.

But now they have added this new blackout feature and made it much harder to scout out your friends' plants.  Now, if your friend has a plant you haven't yet discovered you get this:

Very mysterious, sure, and while you can see the outline, which does contain some information, you can't see the colors and other details. The colors are especially important because many plants are color combinations of others. Red and yellow begonias make orange begonias, for example. If you can't see what color their new begonia is, you can't guess what colors of begonias were hybridized to make it - you won't be clued in to what colors to focus on. Green begonias are a great example of this, because crossing the blue and yellows isn't intuitive because the blues are advanced and have a very long growing time, while the yellows are very slow. (In fact, I'm only predicting that cross will work because I saw them in my friend's garden, and haven't found them myself yet.) They've taken away one of the only clues you could find when you're stuck on trying to figure out what to try and hybridize next.

This is an additional issue for the game, because learning something about plants you don't have is the only reason you have for visiting your friends at all. Taking that away is very bad for a Facebook game, as they thrive on friend-friend interactions.

Games should have mystery, but they need the right kind of mystery used in the right way. Don't hide information from a player unless you're sure you need to. Think carefully about whether using that information would add fun to the game or take it away? The almanac having ?s instead of showing you all the combinations you need to find is a good thing to hide. The game is more fun if you don't know that ahead of time. Hiding what your friends have found is weird, first of all - if I went to my friend's garden how would their plants be invisible to me? But I think it also makes the game less fun because when you can see the colors of the plants you can guess what makes them - and that's fun.

On a slight tangent, you could just call your friend and ask them for all the combinations they found... but most people don't. It's interesting to think about why they don't.

Monday, November 22, 2010

League of Legends: Amumu

Next up in the League of Legends character design review is Amumu.

His concept is that he is a sad and lonely mummy. It's a little bit weird, but they really sell it with the spell names and character vocalization. He is built as a tanking character, with high health.

Don't let this fool you, his spells are better than average, they simply aren't high-damage spells. So already you should note that this chart of 4 stats isn't really an "overall power level" chart. Also, I haven't found Amumu to be any harder to play than Ashe, in fact, I would say that all tanks are easier to play than fragile DPS characters because it's much easier to stay alive as a tank. Not only do you have more health and armor, but the other team doesn't prioritize killing you (they go for the damage dealers first). On to his spells.

Bandage Toss: this is a skill shot (you fire it in a direction, and it can be avoided) that sends out one of your mummy bandages like a tentacle. So already it has coolness points for fitting the mummy theme and totally being a tentacle. If it hits it deals damage, stuns the target, and then drags you to the target. This is a very strong ability, and I can understand the overall medium difficulty rating for Amumu based on this being a skill shot, since using it well can make or break your game as the sad mummy. As with all skill shots, you feel extra good when you hit with it. Pulling yourself into a fight is quite interesting, tactically. It's great if you can catch a fleeing enemy, and they get to feel smart if they can anticipate it and dodge it with a slight change in their path. It can be dangerous to Bandage Toss into a group of enemies, but some of Amumu's other abilities work best when you're in the center of the fight. A.

Despair: The poor sad mummy wants to make friends, and so this toggle ability deals damage to all enemies around Amumu every second. The comic flavor here is nice, and this ability fits well into Amumu's overall setup. He can Bandage Toss into a fight and then deal damage to everyone. It's also good while chasing an enemy to deal damage to them if you're both running along at the same pace. Area effect damage is a pretty standard design, but it's well used on this character. Also note that this damage is a percentage of each enemy's maximum health, making it more effective against other tank types. In general percent-of-max-health damage is a great way to give players options against very high-health enemies they might otherwise feel are hard to take down. B+

Tantrum: This ability has a passive feature. The more you upgrade it, the less damage Amumu takes from attacks. Damage reduction on a tank type is clearly fitting. The activation of this ability deals damage to enemies close by all around Amumu. This is fine, but not really much different from Despair. This ability deals more damage in a single shot, while Despair deals lower damage every second... but the result is often the same. There is another interesting layer to this ability, the cooldown is reduced each time Amumu takes a hit from an enemy. That's cool design for a tank - the more you hit him the more often he can use this ability. Sadly Amumu doesn't have any way to make you attack him, so not really any combos with this part of the ability. Also, the three parts of this ability don't quite all go together, and it feels like there's a little too much going on here. I'd rather see something more interesting here, or at least taking off the damage reduction part to make it simpler. B-

Curse of the Sad Mummy: All enemy champions in a good-size radius around you can't move and can't take action for 2 or 3 seconds. Wow, that is powerful. Certainly this ability is among the most powerful in the game. You can halt fleeing enemies in their tracks or interrupt a coordinated assault on a teammate. This ability works very well with any other area of effect spell in the game, trapping foes so they're all hit by the other ability. A.

Taken together, three of these abilities are an excellent combination. Bandage Toss brings you to the center of the action, so you can lock down the enemy team with Curse, all the while dealing damage to all your enemies with Despair. Every pairwise combination is strong and all three together is exactly what you want in every team fight. If there's a flaw in this it's that you pretty much have the same plan each time. Making Bandage Toss a skill shot helps with this - requiring more skill and reactivity from you so that your 1-2-3 isn't always a done deal. Also the overall fact that Amumu is set up like a tank means you're relying on your allies to take advantage of the lock down your providing. Amumu is certianly the most fun to play when your teammates have your back and you can coordinate enough during a team battle that you feel awesome about how you used your spells.

Tantrum, sadly, is left out of all of this. It's aoe is much smaller than Curse, so using them in conjunction doesn't often work. It's pretty good for farming (gaining gold for killing the peons), but Despair has it trumped in that department. I still like the "cooldown reduced when hit" part of Tantrum's design, but the disincentive it gives the opponent to not kill you isn't nearly enough to dissuade them compared to the damage Despair is doing. Besides, they're leaving you for last anyway, and the ability doesn't do anything to save you when it's 4 or 5 against 1. Overall a B+ character design.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

League of Legends: Ashe

In this first of a possible series of posts in which I talk about the design of a champion from the most excellent online game "League of Legends" I will examine Ashe, the Frost Archer. For those that don't know, League of Legends is a 5v5 PvP online game in which you control a character with 4 spells. As you play you improve the power level of those abilities and buy items to further strengthen your character. All the while you are trying to kill the enemy champions and wreck their base. It's very awesome, and it's also my go-to game for examples of doing everything right in a modern online game.

Ashe is one of the champions you can play. She has a ranged basic attack. Her primary role is damage dealer, and has rather low health and does not move very fast.

The shape of these stats is interesting and a good design for a game with lots of characters to choose from. Ashe's high attack gives her a clear role, and she will attract players looking to deal a lot of damage. Video games have given us plenty of characters like this over the years, so many that this configuration has a nickname: the glass cannon. On to her spells.

Frost Shot - this is a toggle ability, and while it is toggled on it makes Ashe's attacks slow the movement of her target. It's great for chasing down enemies and sometimes reducing the rate at which a melee attacker can get to Ashe to kill her. A good ability for a low health character to have. B+

Volley - this fires a cone of arrows that deal damage and also have slowing properties. This ability is very good for killing the peon helpers that each team has in the game. Doing that helps you push into the enemy base and also earn extra money. Ashe benefits a lot from equipment that increases her damage and attack rate, so more money is good for her. A solid ability for her to have, it is also fun to use. B+

Hawkshot - firing the hawkshot reveals an area from fog of war. This can be useful, but it's a somewhat advanced ability for a character intended to have "easy" difficulty of play. Knowing what the enemy is doing is very important in LoL, so this part of the ability is certainly good. Hawkshot also has another function. When you upgrade this ability you get a tiny bit more money from those peons I mentioned. Gaining money is good for Ashe, but it's pretty good for everyone, and the way this works is quite boring as a spell. In Ashe's original design, the map-revealing part of this ability didn't exist. All it did was earn her more money. It was weak and boring. Not a good ability at all. F without the vision upgrade, and a D as it is now.

Enchanted Crystal Arrow - the fourth spell of a champion is their "ultimate," the most powerful ability they have. This arrow flies across the entire map until it hits an enemy champion (or flies uselessly off the edge). When it hits an enemy champion it deals a bunch of damage and stuns them for a while. The further it traveled the longer they are stunned. The "fire in a direction" makes this what they call a skill shot - it takes skill to aim it properly, as opposed to abilities that always hit the target you click on. This can take more skill than most, because you are often firing it so far away that the target might move and be missed. You have to anticipate them a little or know when they are likely to stay put long enough to get hit. This arrow is one of the best designed and most fun abilities in the game. Because it can fire across the whole map (5-6 screens away) and can be a devastating stun and damage dealing blow, it can create epic moments of success and near-success that you'll remember for days. A+

I've fired Ashe's arrow into a fight halfway across the map, stunned an enemy that was killing one of my allies, and reversed the outcome of the fight, giving my ally the kill instead. When that happens you feel proud and your allies commend your skill.

Now let's take her abilities together with her overall setup. As I mentioned, the slowing of frost arrow is good combination with her high damage output. The volley can slow a group of enemies in big fights, so similarly good, and helps shape her persona as a frost archer. The vision from Hawkshot can have synergy with the giant arrow, finding an enemy for you to shoot... but the Hawkshot is visible to the enemy, so they'll move before the Enchanted Crystal Arrow reaches them. Also the way you aim the Hawkshot is annoying. You have to click it's final destination, instead of firing in a general direction. This is because it can reveal hidden stuff at the very end of its path. Its range is large, but not the whole map, so if you click too far away Ashe will move before firing it, which can take time or put you in a bad position. It's a little hard to coordinate since you're clicking a location far enough away that you can't see yourself at the same time. Again, for easy to play, this ability just doesn't fit. It also doesn't fit in with her overall theme, making it feel tacked-on. On another character, or with a better implementation, this would be a C or even B, but because it's hard to use (not for pros, maybe, but for new players) and because it's not a great fit for her, I dropped the score.

I'd like to see her Hawkshot replaced entirely, but if not, it could at least be made to fire in a direction, and reveal hidden all along its path instead of just at the end.

Overall, Ashe is still one of the most fun to play, and she becomes very powerful later in the game. I give her an A-. It would be a B+ based on the strict sum of her abilities but the Enchanted Crystal Arrow gets bonus points for being so epic.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

GDS2 Design Test Fixes

Because my brain does it for me automatically I decided to record my changes to "fix" some of the cards the Great Designer Search 2 contestants submitted in their designs. I just picked out the cards and mechanics that I felt like fixing and skipped the rest, so it's more like a sampler to supplement your GDS2 and general Magic design reading. Oh, and I give permission for the GDS2 peeps to use anything they want in this post.

Irix the Wanderer - His plus ability should be the "regrow a spell" ability. You could add "at random" to it if you wanted to power it down a little. I think I'd then try Fork (Reverberate) as his minus ability. The ultimate could remain the same and overall you'd have a much more synergistic planeswalker. Like this:

3UR / 4 loyalty
+2: Return an instant or sorcery card at random from your graveyard to your hand.
-2: Copy the next spell you cast this turn. You may choose new targets for the copy.
-9: Until end of turn, you may cast spells in your hand without paying their mana costs.

Primal - What if you got the bonus if you cast the card using only one color of mana? Like the opposite of Sunburst. "If you spent only white mana to cast CARDNAME..." This solves the non-basic land problem nicely, because lots of nonbasic lands make colored mana (obvious, I know). A few constructed-quality primal cards could also be interesting stressors on deck building. You can play two colors, but you'll want to be sure all your lands can produce the primal color you're looking for (again, upside for non-basics instead of downside). Neat how one simple change can keep the essence of this mechanic and sweep away the flaws.

Liliana of Shadow - how's this:
3BB / 4 loyalty
+1: Each opponent loses 2 life, you gain life equal to the amount lost this way.
-2: Destroy target creature, you gain life equal to its toughness.
-5: You gain an emblem with "pay 1 life: draw a card."

The first ability is a little bit like Sorin, but it's a lot like Syphon Soul, which predates Sorin. Also, always push your planeswalkers on first design. You want people (in FFL) to play them a lot and you want them to be as powerful as they reasonably can be.

Obscure in Shadow - I don't know why they didn't say it, but you could take the top card of the deck and put it face down instead of the countered spell. That would create cool morph mystery. On second thought, I know why they didn't say it. They don't want to be redesigning your cards, they want you to figure out how to redesign them yourself. In fact, you need to prove that you can do it almost as much as you need to prove you can design cards in the first place. That, or this suggestion still fails the "spells can't be morphs" rule - but you're clearly counting on persuading the rules manager on that front anyway.

Twilight Zone - don't be so fancy and fiddly. Deathbringer Liege did everything you want to do here, just do a variant of that card. Don't be ashamed to re-purpose an old design when it fits your current plan. +2/+2 for a white spell and -2/-2 for a black spell would be pretty saucy. If you want something more elaborate that's fine, but the fastest way to junk up Magic is by throwing around unnecessary counters.

Library Raid - I would do this:
Draw X cards, then discard 3 cards, where X is the number of attacking creatures you control.

Accomplishes your goals, and Alexis would play it in a deck. If you mean "attacking creatures" then say it; don't say "tapped" and make people figure it out.

Bladetooth Totem (fixed)
Tribal Artifact - Beast
T: G
G,T: Target Beast creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn.

You should do the most basic thing when it serves your purpose. +3/+3 might feel boring to you, but every set needs "boring" cards. Being too fancy is the mistake the GDS2 contestants will make the most often. My rewrite of this card is simple, obvious, and also a perfectly printable uncommon magic card (in a tribally themed block).

The Venser, Planar Guide design made me think of this card. It's tangentially related:

Upgrade Engine
1, T, sacrifice a permanent: Search your library for a permanent with converted mana cost one more than the converted mana cost of the sacrificed card, and put it onto the battlefield.

Yes, the name is a reference to Dominion.

Drothar Deftblade deserves mention as one of the few truly cool ideas in all of GDS2 so far. Now since we're here...
Creature - Human Assassin
T: Destroy target creature, if you do, put a loyalty counter on CARDNAME.
When CARDNAME has 2 loyalty counters, flip it.

Creature - Human Rogue
When CARDNAME deals combat damage to a player put a loyalty counter on it. Etc.

The flipped half is fine. Don't let them bully you too much about what can't be done for technical reasons. All Mark does is assault the rules manager with things that can't be done, he's not one to talk. As for it all fitting, we got levelers to work out. It took a ton of work, so you can only afford to do it when it's really awesome and worth it, and only on one mechanic per set. If you keep going with this be sure to balance it with extra simplicity elsewhere.

Thought Watcher - an easy one to fix:
Creature - Merfolk Spy
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield look at the top 6 cards of target opponent's library and exile one of them face down. Put the rest on the bottom of their library in random order. Whenever an opponent casts a spell you may reveal the exiled card. If it shares a name with that spell, draw 3 cards.

It's a little long, but retains all the mystery. Note that I specifically avoided searching the opponent's library. Doing that would take a lot of time. Worse, it would give you too much information about their deck and possibly their hand. It's more interesting if you only get a limited selection of their deck to work with. Both you and your opponent gain a lot of mystery and excitement this way. There's an initial hit or miss moment for you, and then they don't know if their best card was in the six you saw.

Ace of Ants - another easy fix:
Creature - Insect
Revelation - whenever CARDNAME is revealed from your hand you may pay 1G, if you do, put two 1/1 green insect token creatures onto the battlefield.

I'm sure Daniel had a good reason for Revelation to only work when things you control reveal cards in your hand. I'm also confident that he's wrong. Why not also trigger when your opponent's make you reveal it? It's a hilarious little trap against cards like Blackmail. Naturally, I also took the advice of the WotC crew and made the result simple: always two dudes. You could make it 3 or cost just G, whatever. If you're desperate for the "big X upside" (which is a fine thing to want) you could have it related to the CMC of the card (not "spell") that caused the reveal; "where X is equal to the converted mana cost of the card that caused you to reveal CARDNAME from your hand," but I'm not entirely sure the rules manager will be okay with it. Well, put it in the file and hide when he reads it.
It might also be interesting to have a few colorless-only Revelation costs - those cards could be used the way colorless cycling cards are used in any deck, even when you can't cast them.

Showdown as a mechanic needs work. It's a cool concept that's awful as written. Here's a possible fix: "Each player in the showdown reveals a card in their hand, simultaneously. The player whose card had the highest converted mana cost scores a point. Repeat this process two more times. The player with the most points wins the showdown."
This may have flaws, but it does also have strategy, and might be super fun. Try it.

Arathori, The Spellspinner
Creature - Spider Wizard
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, for each creature you control, reveal 3 cards from the top of your library and put an enchantment card revealed this way onto that creature. Put the rest of the cards on the bottom of your library in random order.

I'm not totally sure I got the wording right, but again, a rules manager or the templating team can help you. As Alexis said, development can find the right number of cards to reveal, so I just stuck with 3 for now.

I was trying to fix Jonathan's Swarm mechanic when I came up with this:
Shadow Clone - when CARDNAME attacks, put a 1/1 color name token creature with "this creature must be blocked" onto the battle field tapped and attacking.

Naruto fans rejoice! Which also reminds me, one of you should bring back ninjitsu, that mechanic is cool and needs to be rescued from the other memories of Kamigawa.

Well that's it for me for today. GDS is always fun to follow along with!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Online Games vs The Rules

I was reading this article by Tomi Walamies, and this line got me thinking: 
[Magic Online] has removed the attitude of "Gamers are supposed to game the rules as well." This makes for a healthier environment.
Have video games, and especially multiplayer online games, trained a whole generation of players to think differently about game rules? Before video games, players had to read rulebooks or more commonly, learn the rules from others. Many board and card games has incomplete rules for some situations. When things like that came up, players had to figure it out for themselves. If your friend was sneakier than you, they could manipulate these situations to their advantage. If they were a bit of a bully or simply had a stronger personality, they could declare the result and you'd go along with it. In some circles the game came to a standstill as players discussed or argued about what should happen.

Compare that to the video game world. The game has to have a solution for every situation (crashing is not really acceptable anymore). Anything that's against the rules can't be done. Also, the systems of punishment are very different. In real life, there are a lot of rules that you can break and nothing will happen. Not immediately, anyway. Only if you are later found out are you punished. In online worlds, you can't break rules, or if you do, the punishment is swift and unavoidable.

So how is this shaping the next generation of players?

For one, this has bred a new kind of "rules bender" player. Because video games have such unbreakable rules, some feel that anything they can do must then be okay. They find all the bugs and exploits they can, and abuse them as much as possible to get ahead. When I see that I feel they're behaving badly - but to some of them it's simply how the world works. If the game doesn't stop you, it must be allowed. Are these the same kids that would manipulate you socially if they were playing a board game?

Are video-game kids more used to "unseen outsiders" making the rules for them? Is it easier for longtime MMO players to feel comfortable in a modern governed society?

Will we have a reduction in the percentage of weasels and cheaters in that generation?

For a game like Magic: The Gathering, which has an online game and real-life game with identical rules, I imagine that more players will feel confident standing up to cheaters in the real world because the online version has taught them the rules. (This is certainly part of what Tomi is referring to.)

I also wonder if online game players are less able to play their opponents. They don't get experience reading people. They also rarely get the verbal acrobatics of trying to confuse, anger, or frustrate your opponent with conversation. I don't know if this is true, but I like to imagine that the online poker champions have to wear hats an sunglasses when they enter real-life events because they haven't trained in hiding their facial cues.

There  is also the other side of this coin. If you're playing an online game, especially with friends, and encounter a rule you don't like you're stuck. In real life, at least for games, you and your friends can agree to change the rules.

As a higher and higher percentage of kids (in a higher and higher percentage of countries) are trained by online games, what changes will we see in the way their generations handle real-world rules?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Social Game Design: Retention part 3: Mystery

Mystery works very well in social games. I'm a little surprised it's not used more often as a core mechanic.

Some former colleagues of mine at Gamehouse released a Facebook game called The Secret Plant Society. In this game you grow plants in pots. You start off with some clover plants, but if you grow them next to each other you occasionally get mystery seeds. What do those seeds grow into? You have to plant them to find out. There is a deep and highly branched tree (pun!) of plants for you to discover. Since you don't know what plants combine to make what, there's a lot of mystery.

How they use that mystery is what I find most fitting for Facebook. You get a "mystery seed" when the plants cooperate, but you need to grow it to find out what it is. Naturally, growing takes real time, and this mystery combined with sporadic gameplay can really hold a player's interest. You've already got the "cool thing" but you have to wait to see what it is. (As should be obvious if you're paying attention to social network games, the delayed results of sporadic gameplay are one of the most successful mechanics available.)

Another thing The Secret Plant Society does to enhance the mystery experience is to show you an almanac of all the plants you've got. 

This almanac automatically records the combinations you find. More importantly, it hints at what you've yet to discover. For example you can see here that I've crossed yellow and scarlet begonias to make orange ones. There are also some yellow begonia crosses I haven't discovered yet, but there are empty boxes with "?" in them. These blanks give you some idea of what you don't have, and that brings you further into the mystery. This is very similar to the way most achievements that you have not earned in games have a blank outline. You know you're missing something, but what is it?

Even if you don't have plant breeding in your game, you can still put in a little mystery in things like crops. For example, in the shop you don't have to show the grown plant. Show only the seed (and the name). Players then have to grow the corn to see exactly what it looks like. It sounds like a small thing, but you just need enough of these small things to add up to keep a player interested in your game and curious enough to remember to come back and play again a few hours later.

From big mysteries to small mysteries, you should think about what you can hide from the player for a little while. What will they be so interested to discover that they'll come back later to see it?