Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 27, 2012
Judge:Sergeant Highway. Drunk and disorderly, assault on an officer, urinating on a police vehicle?
Highway (Clint Eastwood): Well, it seemed like the thing to do, sir.
— Heartbreak Ridge (1986)
Hindsight is a great thing. Sometimes it reveals that the thing that seemed to be the thing to do, maybe wasn’t the best thing to do. Which is useful if you find yourself in a similar situation in the future. Like if you are making a sequel…
I had a lot of very cool ideas when I started work on Frayed Knights. By “cool,” I really mean, “naive,” “stupid,” “impractical,” “useless,” “boring,” “unnecessarily complicated,” or flat-out “wrong.” Fortunately, I weeded out the worst of them pretty early. Things like having “only” seven different cities your party would visit. Or having really complex conversation systems with a detailed reputation and knowledge-transference system (across said seven cities).
But a lot of over-design still made its way to implementation – at least partially. I never came close to really meeting the potential I spent so much time trying to manufacture. And in retrospect – though it seemed to be the thing to do at the time – it’s probably better that I never took advantage of it. Just ‘cuz you can do something doesn’t mean you should. For example, the ability to ‘stack’ armor. I thought it made sense that you would be able to layer on armor that was historically worn that way – like wearing a padded gambeson under chain mail, which was in turn under plate mail. Yeah, I totally went there. It’s in the code – partly – in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon. Thankfully unused.
That’s not to say I can’t envision a game where that wouldn’t be a cool – or even critical – element. But Frayed Knights was not that game. And in retrospect, I put a ton of effort into things that were more in danger of distracting the player from the core gameplay than improving it.
Sometimes – such as with the spell system – I made a sincere effort to take advantage of the complexity and flexibility of the system. I don’t know if anyone playing Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon – other than myself – has ever cast all of the available spells (or had them cast upon them). People pick a few and stick with them – especially in a system that allows you to “upgrade” spells quite a bit, as Frayed Knights does. And as a designer, I didn’t create a compelling need for all of those spells. I took pains to make them all different, but those differences tend to get lost in the jumble of numbers and heat of battle. Equipment and enemies were in the same boat.
While having all kinds of intricate detail sounds good and works well in a game where you may only have a dozen spells or items, it scales poorly. And in reality, in order to have a prayer of keeping things remotely balanced, I ended up with a ginormous spreadsheet full of formulas that I used to help me keep everything more-or-less balanced. In a sense, it calculated all the stats for me based on certain parameters, and then I’d fiddle with the final results. That was still a ton of work for a game with spell and item counts well in the triple digits (and monster counts very near to that).
But in the end – does it really matter than this spell does 5% more damage for 5% more endurance cost, with a -1 to its attack chance, over another spell? Not really. It was cool that I could do that (and a WHOLE LOT MORE), but those kinds of subtleties aren’t very interesting to players. To be honest, that’s not all that interesting to me, either, and I’m a junkie for that kind of detail. In many ways, my efforts to add so much flexibility actually obscured my end-goal: It’s easy to lose the forest for the trees when you are overwhelmed with stats, particularly when you (the designer) are up against deadlines and have to re-balance a bunch of monsters and equipment to fill a “hole” between levels 5 & 6 where there isn’t enough going on, etc.
After a lot of effort put into getting the technology for Frayed Knights 2 up-and-running on a new engine, I’m finally to the point where I’m starting to “port” the actual game mechanics from the old codebase. This is actually way more fun than it sounds, as it’s going faster than expected; it helps when you are working in familiar territory. But it is also giving me the opportunity to correct some of these problems, strip out a bunch of useless / boring / non-functional / obsolete / poorly implemented stuff, and clean things up. I get to address these kinds of problems, as I am in the midst of creating a bunch of new content for a whole new level range that I’d barely touched before (Frayed Knights 2 is currently addressing a level range of around levels 10 – 20, with an upper cap currently set at 24).
One approach I’m moving to is to take all those separate formulas from my ginormous spreadsheets, and put them in-game. So instead of calculating and tweaking and transcribing tons and tons of stats from spreadsheet to game, it’s all built into the game rules, and all I have to do is define these game elements by their deviations from the “norm” for a particular type / level. Not only is this tons easier to create, balance, and maintain – but it really helps me focus on the important aspects of the game. It’s easier to avoid getting drowned in subtle differences, so I can really focus on the role of that element in the game, and how it remains interesting.
After all, as a player, I am rarely concerned with subtle differences in an enemy’s hit points or chance of resisting spells. What is interesting to me is how I have to alter my tactics to best deal with the threat. It’s even more interesting when I’m dealing with a mixed group of enemies with complimentary special abilities.
So while there’s still a lot of numbers going on in the background, the focus right now is on me stripping away the obscuring variables and getting down to the essentials. A lot of this can be done with zero impact on the player – the game still looks and plays the same – but they provide me with an easier interface as a designer.
Some things, however, should be done which would have an impact on the game. For example, in Frayed Knights 1, there were lots of pieces of equipment that offered very little difference from each other. The differences were so subtle as to be completely uninteresting. Ditto for spells. Should I reduce the number of spells, feats, and items available in the game, to make things much more straightforward for the player? I’m still mulling this one over.
The challenges here include:
1. I don’t want to “dumb it down.”As an RPG fan, I tend to prefer the games with deeper mechanics. I like exploring the gameplay possibilities, and testing out weird builds. That’s fun for me. That’s where Frayed Knights got its complexity, and I don’t want to lose where it came from. But complexity for the sake of complexity is not “smart” – it is its own brand of dumb.
2. It must remain compatible with the original game. Characters from game 1 can be imported into game 2, and while I’ve always acknowledged that they may undergo some changes in translation, I’d rather it not be too extreme. The core of the system must be intact.
3. I’d like to preserve (and enhance) some of the cool side-effects of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink in the original design. For example, having a gazillion spells meant that I could make several spells completely optional in the game, and let players find these spells by having them taught to them or learning them from scrolls. If anything, this would be enhanced by fewer overall spells (so it’s less of a “ho-hum, yet ANOTHER spell” feeling when you acquire a rare spell).
4. Part of the charm (IMO) and genesis for Frayed Knights was in its homage / parody of the RPG hobby, which often included an overwhelming plethora of options (particularly as the games matured, and the publishers kept wanting to crank out more source material for players to buy). Will I lose that by streamlining things? Did I take that too far in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon? Did anybody even appreciate the joke?
5. If I keep things the way they are – well, how can I improve the player’s experience? I caught a bit of grief with interface design that I ended up optimizing for the “worst-case scenario” – but I don’t know if anybody other than my testers ever came close to a worst-case scenario, and instead found themselves frustrated by what felt like an unnecessarily cumbersome approach for what should have been pretty straightforward (for example, Arianna using active feats).
These are all things that I would appreciate feedback on.
If you haven’t played Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, you can get it here. There’s even a free demo. Even better, to see what I’m talking about when I mention the depth and tons of detail and content, you can check out the free strategy guide. Yeah, there’s a ton packed in there. I’m rather proud of all that, really… but going forward, I want to make sure I’m truly improving things.
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