Design Blog 09 – With Great Power…

Hey Grant here again,

In my last blog I mentioned a concept that I refer to as ‘Responsibility’. Now I’d like to talk some more about it and how it is used in a couple of my favourite games.

What do I mean by this?

Basically the player should be able to trace back a particular outcome to either their own skill or a decision they made.

Examples:

  • I didn’t react quickly enough to that boss’s attacks’

  • ‘Whew! I made the right call!’

  • I jumped too early’

  • I should have put that unit somewhere else’

It’s the flip-side of player agency; by making sure the player is always in control of what their character does we aim to make them feel responsible for their ultimate success/failure.

Why is this a good thing?

If it’s clear to a player what led to them getting killed – be it poor choice, action or even just inaction – they will make a note of it and try to do things differently next time. Hopefully the feeling of having learned something reduces the frustration caused by failure, as it means that even in defeat you are improving. The same is true for victory; if they can trace a success back to their own skill it shows their progression as a player and even if they ultimately lose it reinforces the feeling of ‘Well I’m getting better, maybe the next run will be the one!’

Examples in other games:

Here are two examples of recent games that I think implement this concept really well. As usual I highly recommend them, especially to those interested in a challenge. 

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

A tactical strategy game where the player must save the earth from alien attackers by adapting their technology and using it against them. XCOM offers a lot of meaningful choice in the form of decisions such as:

  • Which technologies you should research first, which affects what equipment you will have at each point in the game

  • How best to spend your scarce resources on this equipment

  • Which missions should be picked, with the ones you don’t pick having small negative effects that build over time if left unchecked.

These are all part of the base management section of the game, and all are related to Responsibility, but the parts I want to talk about here are the combat missions.

The missions in XCOM involve you giving orders to a small squad of soldiers, moving them carefully about a grid trying to kill or stun any aliens they come across. It’s basically the closest thing to ‘Wizard’s Chess’ we’re likely to get. Your tactics are very important here as your soldiers’ armour has all the hardiness of wrapping paper and they will crumble into dust after a couple of hits. This means that if you make a poor strategic decision, such as ending your turn with a troop out of cover or spreading the squad too thinly it is almost guaranteed to result in someone getting killed.

While there are absolutely situations that feel like there was nothing you could have done, these are few and far between. Most of the time you are able to say ‘Nope, I shouldn’t have done that. That was a mistake’ and the fact that you can name your soldiers only adds to this feeling. It’s hard not to feel guilty and even a litte upset watching a soldier with your grandmother’s name survive 19 missions, become a glorious world-destroying badass, then get suddenly blasted into mush because you were too hasty in trying to kill one enemy. Sorry Granny C, but without a proper strategy your jet pack and plasma shotgun were useless.

They might as well replace those stats with “Just 3 days from retirement”

Spelunky

A procedurally generated platformer that is absolutely ruthless. Spelunky is the purest form of this design philosophy; every single death is due to an oversight on the player’s part. You didn’t look down before leaping and land in a spike trap. DEATH. You throw a rock at a crate of explosives and find it launched back at your face. DEATH. You smash a pot to grab some treasure, only to find a spitting cobra inside. DEATH. All of these can happen in a split second and before you have time to register what happened you get the game over screen, complete with a replay of your demise and a little bit of text explaining just how you fucked up.

Now you’re thinking ‘A-ha! So if I just take my time and check everything I will be fine!’ Nice try but WRONG. Even forgetting the unavoidable situations and enemies that require rapid-fire reaction times, if you spend too long in a level (say because you stop every few steps to check ahead), an unstoppable, insta-killing ghost will appear and begin chasing you. That’s right, this game punishes both being too hasty and being too cautious.

Spelunky forces the player to strike a balance between moving as quickly as they can while also giving themselves as much time as possible to check the environment for hazards. This means that even if you are aware of every trap, enemy and dangerous situation that you can run into, there is still a chance you’ll mess up your timing and get killed. And you will have only yourself to blame.

This explosion was caused by my own bomb. Yeah…

How are we going about it in Monstrum?

Well for starters we are trying to give everything dangerous some kind of signpost. Any sounds loud enough to alert the monster will be loud enough that the player should notice them. Every trap will be visible to a vigilant player and no room should have only one entrance and no hiding spot, there should always be a way out if players are skilled and clever enough. In addition we are working on some new systems to give the player more control of how their playthrough will go, increasing the impact of their decisions on their chances of success. More on that later

While all this may seem at first like we’re making things too easy, remember that one of three deadly monsters could come round the corner at any moment. That stress and the pressure to keep moving make it harder to stop and carefully scan the environment for dangers. Being chased is even worse, in fact that is when a player is most likely to run into some kind of danger. Monstrum requires constant vigilance and quick reaction times if you are to survive and make it off the ship.

I hope this blog and the previous one on choice (assuming you read it) have given you an insight into the kind of game we are trying to make. The reason I have chosen now to discuss these design decisions is that several upcoming blogs will probably reference them. For example you might see something like:

So why are we putting this feature in Monstrum?

  • It adds meaningful choices and so increases player Agency

  • The skill based nature of the sequence increases the feeling of Responsibility

and those of you who have read these blogs will understand what I am talking about.

And as a thank you to those people, here’s a gif of the (currently empty) cargo maze

I have to go now, my planet needs me,

Grant