Thursday, November 20, 2008

Design: Principles - Scaling

Following on from yesterday's post, I'm making a very important statement about a very significant topic. Be warned, this post is a little long...

Scaling of encounters has a bad name, and I'd say that's because of one big name RPG - The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Oblivion was a fairly bad example of what happens if scaling is done wrong, but I believe it is possible to do some scaling and have it work.

Believe it or not, there are actually a few fights in my Fate of a City module that are scaled, and the scaling is based on the player's party size and/or character level. This was mainly because if a character reached some of those fights solo, they couldn't possibly tackle a full complement of enemies, but similarly, with a party of 3 they became fairly trivial if the combat was balanced for a solo player. So keeping this in mind, here are two simple rules to keep in mind regarding scaling in an RPG.

1) Only ever scale upwards.
2) Only scale key fights.

I'll explain why.
1) Scaling should never make encounters easier. There's nothing more ridiculous than being told how fearsome a location is only to fight that it's populated with nothing more than a few kobolds that die with a single sling bullet to the head.

People should not be rewarded for doing something that they've been warned repeatedly that they shouldn't, as that just encourages them to keep doing it, and overall the story and the setting become significantly weaker.

2) Key encounters are either fights that are with key plot figures, or fights that have to be fought and will "weaken" a character for a major fight to come.

These are the tools to make the player really feel like they are fighting a truly powerful enemy, and to make them feel like they have accomplished something when they finally defeat their opponent(s).

If the player simply waltzes through without even breaking a sweat, then the thrill of the battle and the threat of danger aren't there, which means that the game doesn't have the same level of excitement.

Oblivion got scaling wrong on both of these points. For starters, you could go pretty much anywhere you liked on the map whenever you wanted and you would generally face monsters that you had a pretty good chance of defeating. Not facing additional danger because you're going deep into the wilderness where no-one has ever been in years is bad because you exploring the unknown doesn't have the element of danger that it otherwise would. A green adventurer going deep into the highlands knows they are not going to be attacked by some minotaurs in the mountains, only a lone wolf that they can easily dispatch.

Secondly, the mid-to-late game felt ridiculous. Suddenly all bandits were wearing amazing armour worth thousands of gold pieces, Daedroth and Atronachs roamed the countryside freely, and Daedra Lords guarded every Oblivion tower. What happened to the Clannfears and all the other weaker Daedra? Even worse, where did all these people and monsters suddenly appear from? It broke the realism completely (as much as it exists in a fantasy setting), and made fights longer and more tedious by arbitrarily increasing their difficulty.

Scaling must be done for a concrete gameplay effect, but the realism of the setting must take precedence over that, meaning that there must be a cap on the scaling. Having enemies that are renowned for their weakness suddenly becoming powerful enough so that they rival the player ruins realism in a terrible fashion. Furthermore, if the heroic player can only barely defeat a group of goblins, why aren't these same goblins overrunning the cities, seeing as they typically exist in ridiculously large numbers?

In short, combat scaling should be restrained, and ideally, completely invisible to the player. If it's not, then it becomes obvious what is happening and the realism of the setting is completely broken, and overall the game is less fun for the players. And when it comes down to it, games are made for the players, so the ultimate aim is to please them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Beta Release: PacSquire

I made a post on the NWN2 forums earlier today about a small project I started working on yesterday. It's called PacSquire, and is a little bit "different".

PacSquire is a mini-game designed to be played either single or multiplayer. The basic premise is that you must go around the playing field collecting the "Coldstones" scattered around. However, doing so is not straightforward, as the field is scattered with monsters who will try and kill you as you attempt to do so.

Each player has three lives, and being killed by the monster foes will deplete one of those lives. However, players are in competition, and if a player kills another, that does not deplete their number of lives, but it does put them out of the game for a short period of time.

I've uploaded the module to the vault, and it can be found here.. Any feedback, suggestions or bug reports would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Design: Principles - Combat

I've said recently that I'm going to change my approach a little from Fate of a City for its currently planned sequel Fate of an Empire. Given that some people have voiced concerns about changing the formula, over my next few posts, I'm going to explain what I meant by those statements and clarify my intentions for it. Today's post is going to be on the topic of combat. Note that if you haven't finished Fate of a City, there are a few spoilers in this post.

While I said I would include more combat in a sequel, I'm not planning to go overboard. As far as I'm concerned, a role-playing game should offer role-playing. Neverwinter Nights 2 is a role-playing game, and any module that I claim is going to be a role-playing module will be just that. As Fate of an Empire is the sequel to Fate of a City I want it to contain just the same amount of role-playing, if not more.

While I have ideas for other modules that might take on different forms, I don't have plans to turn Fate of an Empire into a hack-and-slash festival. I've played quite a number of mods that have had enough hack-and-slash to make the average Diablo player happy, and while I do like Diablo, I'm not playing NWN2 module to get my Diablo fix. While I like NWN2 combat more than NWN1 combat, it's still not the reason I play the game.

I believe the main difficulty in using combat well in a module has been explained perfectly others, in that combat should be there for a reason. Now, of course, the reasons are many and varied, but I don't believe that the hero or heroes should be wading through hordes of enemies without breaking a sweat. Of course, there is an exception to this if the enemies are meant to be weak in comparison to the almighty adventurer, but then surely the sight of the adventurer might be enough to inspire terror in those same enemies?

There will be sections in Fate of an Empire that will have a level combat closer to the keep assault in Fate of a City, but that's due to two main reasons - the increased flexibility for fights in this level range, and the increased scope of the module. I'll let you know now that the beginning of the module will start off a little more combat oriented, but the roleplaying won't take a backseat in the module.

The one thing I will say is that I'll do everything I can to make combat interesting and different. I tried to do this in Fate of a City, for example the mixed enemies in the keep assault or the confrontation with Kaladyr. Another example of trying to do things differently is the fight with Sergeant Mallum and his summoned shadows at the conduit. And finally, there are fights that don't actually need to involve combat at all, like the confrontation with the Shadow Being.

I'll be aiming to deliver more variety and unique fights given the increased durability of the heroes and the broader scope of Fate of an Empire.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Status: Reviewed and Refined

Well, after a bit less than a month, reviews for Fate of a City have been coming in with mixed opinions. In general it seems that gamers want more combat than is provided and that quests have made some players feel as though they are a Fedex Warrior at times. I've taken these comments on board for any future work that I do, though I don't foresee undertaking major modifications to Fate of a City in order to meet these requirements. There are several modders and players who have helpfully identified issues with the module, and I'd like to thank everyone who provided constructive feedback.

However, I have done a significant amount of reworking and refining of the module since its initial release, having made major changes to many areas, adding in a world map and also including a grabbag of new items. Hopefully version 1.08 should prove a completely stable and enjoyable experience for all players, but I'll still be open to tweaking the module further to provide additional support to players if they wish it.

Particularly pleasing was the review from Alazander in which he gave the module some considerable praise. The focus on choice and consequence a core aim of Fate of a City, as was providing a high level of polish to give a professional feel to the adventure.

His comments on area design being a little weaker than other aspects of the module caused me to re-examine that aspect of the module a little more closely, and as a result, I made some changes to several areas of the module.

The above is the source screenshot for the original loadscreen for the rich quarter for version 1.0. While I was happy with it at the time, it does appear somewhat bare and plain upon re-examination. The subtly of differences in texturing and colouring simply do not come out as strongly in game as they do when looking at the game from a static shot in the toolset. Increasing the contrast in textures and colouring, in combination with adding to the general "clutter" of the areas has provided a much improved look for the 1.08 release.

Finally, today I added a fairly comprehensive walkthrough for the module to the module's page on the vault. In closing, if you've already played the module, I hope you'll consider playing again, and if you haven't, then go and download it now! And I hope you vote for it!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

News: Halloween Module

Yes, I know, I'm way behind everyone else in advertising this on their blogs, but I thought I'd give a shout out to the NWN2 Community Halloween Module that was posted to the vault a few days back. This is a great effort by 25 builders to produce an eclectic mix of Halloween themed houses. While I've not visited all the houses yet, it has been fun so far.

I hope that people who play mine can get a bit of enjoyment out of it. It may be a little short compared to some of the contributions, but seeing as it was done from scratch in about 8 hours including bugtesting, I don't consider it too bad an effort. I had more ideas to implement if I'd had more time, but sometimes life gets in the way of modding.

In other news, I've also trying to do a bit of gaming as I wait for more reviews of Fate of a City. I may post a review or two here in the future.