Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Frayed Knights: improvement by constraint. Or: bypassing the hat and going straight to the rabbit

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 18, 2015

FK2AtComicCon1It’s funny. Right before Salt Lake Comic Con last fall, I was pretty sure that I’d settled on “it” for the UI for Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath. And to be fair, as far as keeping things simple enough for strangers to pick up and play the game, I did okay. Not great, but okay. But that was because I’d limited the menus and pre-assigned “slots.” As I started to have to worry about how the player would actually modify or set up those slots on their own, I realized that what was simple to work with on one end was becoming a bear on the other.

So I’m re-doing things again – although it’s really more of a refinement of the Comic Con interface rather than a complete overhaul. I’m glad I got that feedback.

The issue was – and is – overwhelming the player with choices. It sounds like it shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. Too many choices means it takes too much time – and too many button clicks or scrolling or whatever – to pick an action. What it really means – through hard experience learned in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon – is that players tend to settle on a few (possibly sub-optimal) choices and ignore the rest, and it’s unnecessarily complicated to choose something from their self-imposed subset of choices. “Analysis paralysis” can occur in gaming as well as real-life, and when that option-tree gets to be too wide or too deep in the UI, it… gets ugly.

I’m loathe to pare down options too much, because for me, that’s what makes an RPG fun – the variety of interactions with the world. I love having gazillions of options, assuming I am relatively familiar with the system. But I have redefined how some of those interactions work to make things cleaner. A lot of it comes by simply reorganizing things in the game so they have a more clear-cut role. A lot of it, too, is coming into play by forcing the player to make the hard decisions beforehand about what to prune out.

An example of the first is in the equipment. I’ve already talked before about how the equipment in Frayed Knights 2 is a lot more single-purpose. There’s no more potential for fireball-shooting bow-ties, for example. Not that I had any in the first game (that I remember), but the potential was always there, which meant organizing the player’s potential actions was a lot harder. In the sequel(s), worn equipment is restricted to passive effects. Weapons are used for direct attacks, and any special effects are strictly limited to things that happen when they score a hit. Scrolls are only for casting “friendly” spells. Wands are only for casting offensive spells. Spellbooks are for learning new spells. Potions and bombs have a limited number of varieties.

This allowed actions to be grouped together. So if the player needs a character to drink a healing potion, instead of simply going to the inventory and hunting down which of dozens of items was a healing potion and then using the item, they can go immediately to a potion list. They can still do it the hard way (outside of combat), too, but it’s a helpful way to guide the player to possible actions.

Spells are a more recent change, and an example of the second approach. After a whole lot of gyrations trying to allow the player to organize a large spell list for ease-of-access, I decided to get rid of the large spell list. I mean the character’s personal spell list, not the game, where the potential spells available is near infinite. But here’s the thing: in a game with nearly infinite spells, it doesn’t make sense to keep a whole ton of old, crappy spells hanging around in your personal spell book anyway. So now, spellcasters start with the potential for only nine spells – three per action tier – in their active library.  There’s also a small ‘reserve’ list to allow you to temporarily swap spells without permanently removing them from your library. (Note: There’s a skill in FK2 that allows you to increase that starting spell capacity).

I’ve also removed the idea of real-time decisions* to augment spells or not. It was one more choice to make before getting on with the spellcasting. I love the concept, but again – in a world with nearly infinite spells, it’s not hard to find a new, higher-level spell to do approximately what you want. Again, the idea of keeping some lower-level spells around forever no longer makes sense. The player still has access to a million times more spells than even Frayed Knights 1 offered. He or she just has to make the hard decision of what to keep and what to lose in advance, rather than playing a pack-rat.

The changes feels like the “it” thing with the design and UI. Like I’ve narrowed down to “it” – the right thing. But just like after Salt Lake Comic Con and more feedback, it’s all subject to change. But it does feel like the right direction. I just wish I’d figured that out before I’d written all that code and done all that testing to make it work the other, more complicated, ways.

Yes, ways, plural. Sheesh. Some days I feel like what John Carmack reportedly said to Michael Abrash after over a year of false starts experimenting with the graphics engine: “If we knew what we were making before we started working on it, we would have been done in a month.”


(* UPDATE – Currently, there’s still a skill for augmenting spells, but it does so automatically within limits. It’s good to extend the value of spells for a couple of levels, but we’ll have to see how things work as the whole game comes together. It may simply be that there’s so much upgrade potential in the game that it’s really not a useful ability)

Filed Under: Design, Frayed Knights - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    What you say seems counter-intuitive to me. What’s the point of having thousands of spells whan you can only really have less than a dozen prepared ones and a few “spares”? It is like inventory magagement puzzle, only with spells, which isn’t fun. Besides, I don’t like having “Fireball I”, “Fireball II” and “Fireball III”. I prefered having fireball, empowered fireball and maximized fireball.

    Pfft, like if a large list of spells was ever a problem. Give me a table with hundreds of rows, some options to narrow down the search (such as damage type, single target / AoE or damage / debuff / buff / heal), a regexp capable name filter, some sorting options and I’m good. Quick slots of 1-0 are great for what I want to use often, but I’m not intimidated by staring at tables with hunderds of rows. Sure, give me the option to put spells to trash, but also to look through that trash later. Seesh, I sometimes even write programs that print tables filled with numbers for fun. Then stare at the numbers and try to make as much sense of them as I can.

    OK, that was ranty and off-topic, but what is with the game designers these days. Pft, “less is more”. You have computers with ridiculous processing power compared to what’s even possible in Pen and Paper RPGs, so make use of them, damnit!

    BTW, I am not drunk.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I hear ya, and I kinda went with that approach in FK1. And I went about halfway there with FK2 before changing things. Now, one could argue I just needed a cleaner UI, but in the end the majority of players found it frustrating and ended up just using a handful of spells anyway. So while I’m with you in theory, I’m trying really hard to strike a balance.

    In FK2, instead of “Fireball, empowered fireball, and maximized fireball” you’ll have… well, more nuanced variety. Definitely not having FB1, 2, and 3. In fact, that might be part of the challenge, and you’ll have to choose between them:

    Spell 1 might be Argyle’s Mediocre Inferno, which does explosive fire damage for 10-20 points (meaning everyone outside the primary target takes 5-10 damage) with a +2 magical attack bonus, and uses 8 endurance.

    Spell 2 might be Pummeling Fist of Doom, which does group-based blunt damage for 8-16 points (meaning 8-16 points against everyone in the group) with no attack bonus, at 7 endurance.

    Subtle differences? A little. The first one may be more effective against smaller groups, the latter against larger groups. You may choose to have both (maybe sacrificing another group-based non-damaging spell), or have to choose one over the other, based on your preference. In another level, you may find something better that causes you to drop both. It’s the same choice you would have had to make in FK1 in mid-combat, but you have to choose your spell loadout in advance.

    To help make up for that, scrolls and wands take up a much bigger role in FK2+. Both have a limited number of uses, but they can provide a really nice supplement to your spells. And, like the spells, they come in a near-infinite variety. *AND* you can take skills that allow you to use scrolls or wands of a different style of magic – or a higher power level – than the character could normally cast.

    So ultimately, you’ve got way, WAAAAAY more choices and options as a caster than you had in FK1, even with all the augmented spell feats. You just have a more limited “inventory” of spells to work with.

  • Cuthalion said,

    It sounds like these are good improvements. I don’t mind having lots of options to look through (it’s great!), but when there’s no easy mechanism to compare them, I give up. And when I have to look through a big list every time I use it, I also give up. So the ability to pick ahead of time is good, even if I’m not sure strictly limiting the number of spells per caster is necessary. And the focused equipment sounds like a generally good idea. The only disadvantage is I can’t abuse it as easily as I could with Morrowind enchantments. 😛