Design Blog 08 – I choo choo choose you

Hi there. Grant here again, coming at you from our chamber of design, which is just a room that Jaime locks me in until I earn my freedom by producing blogs.

Today I am going to talk about a core tenet of Monstrum that I feel I haven’t adequately mentioned when talking about the game. The main reason for this is that it while the other main points of the game are pretty easy to get across quickly, this one requires a bit more explanation. This feature is Player Agency, and below I explain what it is and why it is such a big part of Monstrum.

What is Player Agency?

Agency is a measure of how much control the player has over their gameplay experience. This is usually achieved by giving the player meaningful choices to make over the course of the game and by ‘meaningful’ here I mean ‘has an actual impact on the way the game plays out’.

For example, let us imagine a shooting game in which the player is given two missions, X and Y and the choice of which order to do them in.

  • If the order that the player chooses makes no difference to the experience they have (I.e mission X and mission Y play out the same regardless of whether they’re picked first or second) I would describe this choice as non-meaningfulNon Meaningful: Imagine he was a lying bastard and both pills brought you out of the matrix.
  • However, say the order changes how the second mission plays out.
    • If the player chooses mission X first, mission Y increases in difficulty, but yields greater rewards for completion.
    • If the player chooses mission Y first, mission X becomes easier, but yields less rewards.
    • Here the player is given a meaningful choice between difficulty and reward, as the choice they make will affect how their game will go from that point on.

 

Now that was a meaningful choice. It definitely affected his player experience.

 

Why is this important in Monstrum?

At first glance this seems a counter-intuitive feature for a horror game, I mean aren’t the best horror games the ones in which the player feels out of control and powerless? This is the reason I don’t talk extensively about it when people want quick summaries of what the game is about, in case people get the wrong idea. The agency the player has in Monstrum is full control over their actions in the the game, which will in turn affect their experience. The reason for this is that it helps increase replayability.

Replayability is a huge part of our game, and we want to make each playthough as unique as possible. We have taken several steps to maximise this difference.

At the most basic level we have:

  • Procedurally generated level layout and item placement
    • This ensures that there is a degree of variation between runs, so that when the player loads up the game each time they don’t know exactly where to go
  • High difficulty
    • This increases the likelihood of players having to play the game multiple times to complete it.

This alone still does not provide enough variety to keep the game interesting. Even if the player does not know where the items are each time they know exactly what they’re looking for and the game always plays out the same way. Combined with the high difficulty this just becomes a one off challenge to beat. It is easy for me to imagine someone just playing the game just to beat it and leaving it for good once they have. So for more variety we can add:

  • Content splitting.
    • That is, we don’t put all of the content in the game in one particular run, so the player is encouraged to play the game again to see more of it.
    • Examples of this:
      • Large pool of different rooms to choose from each time
      • Different monsters
      • Rare items

Now we’re getting somewhere. However by putting a focus on giving the player plenty of meaningful choices we can increase the difference between runs even further. By making sure the player’s choices have an effect on the gameplay hopefully we can inspire the mindset of ‘Ok last time I played the game I tried X and things all went to shit, let’s go for Y this time and see how that works out’.

Another reason for making sure the player has total agency over their actions in the game is that it means that they are responsible for any failure that occurs. But I will cover this concept in a later blog, using some examples from other games.

How are we achieving it?

So how do we maximise the amount of agency the player has in Monstrum?

Well firstly we have no arbitrary roadblocks. There are no large areas of the ship that require sub quests to access so the player can explore freely however they wish, right from the get go. Think of the ship as an arena or labyrinth as opposed to a dungeon.

On top of that we have multiple escape routes, so they need not go for the same one each time but can choose to switch it up, or if they prefer they can master one route before moving on to the others. We have a system in place to encourage variety as we randomly pick an escape route and make that one slightly easier so as to force the gamers who just want the most efficient route to completion each time to try different options.

We also limit the number of items a player can carry at any given time, meaning they will have to prioritise. Is it worth just grabbing all the escape route items and some light sources? Or would it be a better plan to take them to the route one by one and keep stocked with items that help distract the monster?

And recently we have added the power system (oooOOOooh). This has been teased at in other blogs, and will soon have its own full feature but for now I will give a brief summary of how it works. The ship is old and many parts of the ship are depowered but the player will be able to spend a limited resource to power to parts of the ship, with different effects. Here are some sample situations that can arise from this system:

  • Powering the lights throughout as much of the ship as possible
    • This will make finding the items needed easier, but will restrict escape route options and access to secrets and collectables
  • Powering every escape route to keep your options open
    • Again this makes the game easier to complete, letting the player just pick whatever route they get all the items for first, but without light they’ll have a harder time finding items
  • Going for every secret in the level
    • In addition to incurring the above costs, while secrets sometimes contain game-assisting items, collectables can only be kept if the game is completed, making things more of a challenge

These are only basic examples, and until now I have avoided mentioning that powering certain areas of the ship will provide useful abilities to the player, because I will get into that when writing the power system blog. But hopefully this will allow the player to have some really different runs of the game. That’s all I can talk about now, but power system and responsibility blogs coming soon.

Until next time,

Grant