Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play


Embedded Gaming

That's a game up there. I mean an actual, playable version of the Secret of Monkey Island, embedded directly into the blog.

You can click on the Play Demo button and start playing this classic point and click adventure right now, no need to download anything, no need to install anything, and no need to interrupt your browsing.

Apparently this company, InstantAction, is going to allow you to embed games in HTML just as easily you can currently embed YouTube videos.

Of course, I don't know how practical this sort of thing will really be. I imagine you won't see hardware-intensive games being embedded any time soon, but in the meantime, it's a neat little look into one possible future of online distribution.

So give it a whirl, see what you think. It's Monkey Island after all, you really can't go wrong with Monkey Island.

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What is X-Com? Until last week, X-Com was a fantastic little PC turn-based tactical game. A game which let you build up a fancy base, while researching cool technology, and recruiting soldiers. A game where, with your base fully operational, you could send out squads of guys to shoot down UFOs, investigate crash sites, and fight the alien menace.

X-COM: UFO Defense

X-Com is dear to many PC gamers and turn-based game fans, and seeing as I happen to be both of those, it’s a game dear to me, as well. The great mix of genres, the chance to do so many cool things in a single game, and the deep and satisfying turn-based combat are what define X-Com, what make it such a special game.

So hearing, last week, that the X-Com license is being used to make a First Person Shooter did not exactly elicit an enthusiastic response from most X-Com fans, myself included.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’ll be a decent game. It’s being made by the same people who made Bioshock 2, after all. But do we really need another First Person Shooter on the market? Do we really need to convert a property near and dear to many a gamer’s heart into a genre as far removed from its roots as is physically possible?

The most disheartening thing about all this is probably how eager the online games press is to play this off as a good thing. I realize it’s not in their interest to be skeptical about new game announcements, that it’s better for them to be optimistic about everything the publishers toss their way, but it’s doesn’t make it any less depressing to see them fail to question these sorts of decisions on behalf of the longtime fans, who do not have as public a voice.

The Kotaku article on the subject is a perfect example. They quote the new game’s press release, filled with appropriate buzzwords like “high-stake odds” and “strategic gambits” and then proceed to conclude that “the strategic stuff is still in” and therefore “it’s the first-person stuff that has people angry.”

It’s silliness, old-school X-Com fans aren’t going to be appeased by promises of “strategic depth” from PR material for a game that switched genre from a strategy game to a shooter, and the author shows a profound intellectual dishonesty in proclaiming that the first person perspective is the biggest problem fans will have with the game, rather than, you know, the fact that it’s now a shooter.

Unfortunately, this sort of coverage is pretty much par for the course, though there is some more balanced coverage out there. A PC-focused site like Rock, Paper, Shotgun, for instance, took this opportunity to write a couple of insightful and personal pieces about what X-Com meant to them, and what it means to the many fans of the old games.

Further silver lining comes in the form of extra exposure for indie projects that are apparently trying to fill the X-Com shaped hole in our hearts. Since little hope remains of another turn-based tactical game bearing the X-Com name, these indie efforts have the potential to define the future of the hybrid-semi-genre.

The first such promising project is Xenonauts, currently in development by a small indie studio. It looks like it will be released commercially, and their site shows some very polished concept art as well as design ideas about different aspects of the game. Since it's still in fairly early stages, I recommend keeping an eye on their site if you are interested.

The Geoscape in Xenonauts. Looking good!

The other major project I’ve seen come out of the woodwork with the FPS announcement is UFO: Alien Invasion, an open source X-Com clone or remake based on the Quake 2 engine. Though I just found out about this project, it’s been in the works for quite a while now, is still updating on a regular basis, and looks to be quite mature, not to mention free!

A UFO crashsite in the open source UFO: Alien Invasion

I haven’t tried it out myself yet, but I plan to give UFO: AI a whirl soon. It even supports multiplayer, including cooperative control of one team, or two teams facing off! Maybe I can con a friend into trying it with me, after all, a multiplayer, cooperative X-Com sounds about as close to heaven as I dare imagine.

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Designing S3: Stats

A while back, I wrote a post explaining that Setting Sun Saga (or S3) is a game I plan to make based on the model of Final Fantasy Tactics. This will be the first in a series of posts discussing various mechanics of S3, and attempting to outline an initial design for all these relevant mechanics.

Present thinking has led me to conclude that I want the unit stats in S3 to closely match those of FFT, and consequently, I will begin by describing the stats in that game, and then explain how I am planning to change aspects of these stats to better suit my game.

For reference, I recommend the excellent FFT Battle Mechanics Guide written by one Aerostar. This fantastic document provides a great deal of invaluable insight into the mechanics behind FFT, and some of the rationale for the way those mechanics were designed.

The Stats of Final Fantasy Tactics

Final Fantasy Tactics uses a Direct Stats system for its character development, and if you give the linked article a read, you will see that I agree with this approach for a tactical RPG where the player is tasked with managing a large roster of characters. So what stats does FFT use?

  • HP. This one is fairly self-explanatory, most RPGs feature Hit Points as an abstraction of unit health and well being; how far a unit is from death, to be more precise.
  • MP. Magic Points, used for casting spells and using abilities, another RPG staple, often also called Mana.
  • CT. Charge Time, in the Tactics series, is a bar that fills up to 100, granting a unit a turn when its CT is 100 or more. This determines the initiative order of units, as well as when spells are cast.
  • Move. How far a unit can move on its turn, in squares.
  • Jump. How high a unit can jump while moving, a unit will have to find alternate routes to bypass squares it cannot jump to.
  • Speed. Each invisible Clock Tick, the unit's CT increases by its Speed value, meaning that units with high Speed get turns more often.
  • Weapon Power. A rating indicating the relative strength of a weapon. Used in damage calculations for physical attacks. FFT allows you to dual wield weapons under certain circumstances, with each weapon having a separate Weapon Power.
  • Physical/Magical Attack. Two stats with very similar usage. They are used in damage calculations for physical and magical attacks, respectively. Unlike Weapon Power, these are innate to the character, and grow as the character levels up.
  • Class, Shield, Accessory, and Weapon Evasion. These four evasion percentage values are used to determine the unit's chance to evade attacks (by lowering an enemy's chance to hit). How these stats are used depends on which direction the unit is attacked from, and whether the attack is physical or magical. Weapon Evasion only applies if the unit has a weapon equipped, as well as a special ability that allows blocking.
  • Bravery. A special stat modified in combat and via special events, it determines the chance for the unit to use a Reaction Ability (such as Counter) and is also used in damage calculations for certain weapons or classes.
  • Faith. Another special stat like Bravery, it determines how much a unit is affected by magic spells (both friendly and hostile).
  • Zodiac Sign. Every unit is assigned a sign of the Zodiac that never changes over the course of the game. The twelve Zodiac signs have compatibilities with each other, and compatible units inflict more damage on one another, while incompatible ones deal less.

So, keeping in mind that I'd like to keep the stats in S3 pretty close to FFT, which of these are worth keeping, and which ones need to be replaced or revised?

Stats Worth Keeping

Hit Points are a no-brainer, really. You always need some way to represent how hard a unit is to kill, and while there are some interesting alternate ways to approach this problem, I don't think they are compelling enough to warrant complicating such a crucial aspect of every character.

Furthermore, a simple HP stat lends itself nicely to the way Tactics handles armor, that is, by simply boosting the unit's max HP instead of modifying some Damage Reduction value. I like the abstraction this provides, since Damage Reduction is hard to balance in these sorts of games (in Disgaea 3, for instance, the equivalent stat's damage reduction capability grows at a much slower rate than a unit's damage potential as it levels up, making the stat essentially useless). It's also ultimately not a very interesting way to grow your character in a game without some sort of aggro and tanking mechanic.

Move and Jump are also obviously necessary. Units will need a way to represent how far they can move, and how they can traverse the landscape, and these stats allow those abilities to be easily modified as well.

CT and Speed are the quintessential stats that make the Tactics series interesting, and different from other strategy RPGs. They add interesting tactical considerations, since you have to worry about the order your units get to act in, as well as casting times. This leads you to plan your actions more carefully, so that your big attacks can hit before an enemy can move out of the way, or otherwise screw up your plans.

The presense of the Speed stat also adds interesting character development possibilities, since you can build a character with high Speed, and use that as the unit's primary strength, since it will get more turns than units with a lower Speed.

Weapon Power is a simple and elegant way to manage the damage contribution that a character gets from a weapon. Having a stat like this makes it easy to compare two weapons to see which is better, at least on the surface, and interesting formulas can be used to base damage calculations off Weapon Power combined with other stats, ensuring that all classes don't use the stat in exactly the same way, while maintaining its use as a useful comparative between different weapons.

The different kinds of Evasion used in Tactics are another interesting departure from most other games. Suffice it to say, I think Evasion combined with the way HP is handled, facing modifiers, and an otherwise 100% success rate for attacks gives the game a unique feel, and I intend to stick closely to this system in S3. I actually have a whole 'nother post forthcoming about the way Evasion and Facing will work, so I won't go into detail at this point.

New And Revised Stats

While MP or Mana are just as tried-and-true as HP, they are an uninteresting way to represent what should be one of the most important parts of a character: the fundamental source of its power and badassery. Games like WoW and Dragon Age show that you can differentiate how a class works and, more importantly, how it feels to a player very effectively simply by changing the resource that the class spends to use its abilities.

Consequently, S3 will not use a simple MP system, but rather the dual resources of Focus and Stamina, which are spent and replenished differently and which fit nicely into the lore of the game. Unlike a game like WoW, however, and because a big focus of S3 will be switching classes like in FFT, all units will have both of these resources, but they will use them in slightly different ways. A post outlining the details of the Focus and Stamina system is in the works, and I will go into the details at that time.

FFT's Physical Attack and Magical Attack stats are the primary method of influencing the damage output of a character using a weapon or casting a spell. They are a clean and straightforward way to measure and build a character's ability in one of these two fields of expertise, and the classes are roughly divided among these two paths as well, so that building a character with high PA predisposes that character to be good in those classes.

I really like the directness of these stats, and I intend to go the same route in S3. I am, however, considering adding a third such stat to help diversify character builds, and more cleanly distinguish a third "tree" of classes that primarily depend on this new stat. If I decide to go this route, PA would likely become something like Brawn, MA would become just Magic (or maybe Brains?), and a third Attack stat called Agility would be added for nimble and ranged classes.

As I said, this is still just something I am considering, and while I think there would be some interesting potential there, particularly in hybrid classes that depend primarily on two of these stats, or even all three, it could turn out while designing classes or testing things out that the original mix of Physical and Magical Attack is enough.

The remaining pieces of the FFT stats system are the two alignment stats (Bravery and Faith) and the Zodiac system. Of these, Zodiac is closely tied to FFT's story, and frankly I consider both it and Faith to be deeply flawed and not very interesting. Bravery, on the other hand, has some promise, but in FFT it has minimal effect on the gameplay for the most part, and only certain physical classes use it for more than chance of counterattack.

For S3, I am planning a much more integral stat called Morale, which will resemble Bravery in some regards, but I intend for it to be used as a more direct representation of the concept of unit and squad state of mind. Just like the resource system, I have an in-depth discussion of Morale in the works, so I will hold off going into detail at this time, though I will say that I want Morale to feel like an intrinsic and dynamic measure of a unit's current status, like HP, rather than a static stat that only changes from equipment or levelling.

What's Next

Hopefully, this post gives you an idea of how a unit's internal workings will feel. I know I haven't gone into a lot of depth about the new systems I will be introducing, but this post is already plenty long enough, and they deserve their own space to be properly fleshed out.

My next Designing S3 post will likely go into detail about either Morale or Evasion, so stay tuned for that.

Also, as always, I would greatly appreciate any comments you may have on the set of stats outlined in this post. It is only through brainstorming, feedback, and iteration that this game has the chance to be any good.

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Direct vs. Derived Statistics in RPGs

In the RPG space, there are generally two ways to handle character attributes or statistics.

Each stat is used and modified directly.

The first, simpler solution defines a set of stats that a character needs for the mechanics of the game to work, and then exposes them directly, allowing items, spells, level gains, and other modifiers to explicitly raise and lower these stats as necessary. Japanese RPGs tend to go this route, with simple stats like Attack and Magic, which are then directly modified by improved weapons or accessories. I will refer to this method of managing character stats as a Direct Stats system in this post.

Damage is derived from Power which is derived from Strength and Agility.

The second common solution, and more popular in western RPGs, is a system of primary attributes like Strength and Dexterity, which are often directly customizable as a part of the leveling process, but which generally do not affect game mechanics directly. Instead, these primary attributes control derived stats like Attack Power or Critical Chance, which are used directly in game mechanics, and which are calculated from the primary attributes according to some formula, which can vary depending on the character class. For example, in WoW, the Attack Power derived stat raises damage from physical attacks and is derived entirely from the Strength attribute for most classes, while Rogues instead use both Strength and Dexterity to compute it. I will refer to this method of managing character stats as a Derived Stats system in this post.

The benefits of a Direct Stats system are simplicity and understandability. As long as a player understands a stat's basic function, it is fairly easy for him to figure out how important it is to his character, and consequently, what items and abilities to concentrate on. If he wants to make a character that is exceptional at killing things by hitting them with a hammer, and knows that the Attack stat directly affects weapon damage, he knows to prioritize Attack over other stats.

A Derived Stats system, on the other and, can be a lot less understandable, since it tends to be cluttered with a large number of stats, some of which seem to represent similar concepts (Strength vs. Power?) and explaining the relationships between them is no small challenge. This is exacerbated when primary attributes are treated differently by different classes, meaning that even if a player learns how a stat works for one class, they may be in trouble when they try another.

The downside of a Direct Stats system is that with such clearly defined stats being the only defining characteristics of a character, it can be harder to differentiate characters. For instance, it is likely that all physically oriented characters will need the Attack stat, despite the fact that they are meant to have different flavors and different powers. With such a clear-cut set of stats, it's hard to put the stats to use in creative ways that still makes sense. Sure you could make a class that loses Attack instead of HP when it is hurt, for instance, but a lot of people are going to complain that such a weird mechanic ruins their immersion.

This is where a Derived Stats system can really shine, you can add a lot of variety to the mechanics governing your classes when you choose to derive stats differently for Rogues than Warriors, for instance. Furthermore, having both derived and primary stats available means that you can bind certain abilities or class features in unexpected ways, sometimes using a primary attribute for an attack, for instance, and primary attributes also work well for role-playing scenarios outside of combat.

The Right Tool For The Job

As is often the case with this kind of thing, neither of these two approaches to character development is necessarily better than the other, instead, there are specific situations where one may be more useful than the other.

The Direct Stats system most commonly shows up in Japanese RPGs which have simplified and distilled the systems they learned from early western computer RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima. Those games, on the other hand, adapted their mechanics from pen and paper RPGs, specifically Dungeons & Dragons, which through four editions has kept and refined the quintessential Derived Stats system of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma.

The origins of these two systems are not a coincidence, and considering them, we can quickly come up with some conclusions about the types of games best served by each system.

Derived Stats are often the best fit for games that share a lot of similarities with pen and paper RPGs. Games where the player only controls one character, for instance, can have complicated derived stat arrangements because the player will only have to master that one character's class to be effective, without having to worry how another class works. Such a system is especially important in a multiplayer game like WoW, where players often have to work together and share the loot they find. Since even classes with similar functions, like Rogues and Warriors again, need different primary attributes to grow their derived stats, you can easily create loot that is more useful to one than the other, reducing conflict over who should get an item.

A Derived Stats system is also a great fit for games which, like pen and paper RPGs, offer a lot of gameplay outside of pure combat scenarios, since the variety of available stats, all important to different types of characters, and all with specific flavors (my character is very Wise!) can be used in conversations with NPCs, in quests, or generally to advance the plot.

The Direct Stats system can be equally valuable, however, and it is often the best choice in games where the player must control or manage a large number of characters. Imagine that you have a roster of 20 characters, each has a slightly different class, and each class derives its relevant stats slightly differently. Do you want to have to remember exactly how each one of those classes uses the Strength attribute every time you need to decide who to give a sword with +Strength on it?

Similarly, a game with a heavy focus on combat, where battle is the primary gameplay mechanic and 90% of your time is spent fighting something is probably better served by a Direct Stats system. This is particularly true if the combat in question is highly strategic, and requires a lot of meaningful choices from the player at every turn. In a game like this, information is one of the most important resources at the player's disposal, and being able to clearly present information about the player's characters, so that it is always clear exactly what a stat does, and how the character will be affected if that stat is buffed or debuffed, can make the game a lot more satisfying and enjoyable.

So there you have it, each of these two systems has their uses, and the key is to consider what kind of game you want to make, and what you want the player's experience with the game to be like.

The next time you are playing an RPG, gentle reader, consider how the designers chose to represent your characters' attributes. Chances are there are good reasons they chose the system they did, and you can learn quite a bit by considering what those reasons might be.

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