Design Process for AURO’s Skill Redesign
There has always been a very low level core philosophy about AURO. It’s one of the first things I laid out for the game, and it has remained consistent. While it is useful in always giving me a general design goal, it is too low level to actually guide the more specific game design decisions.
Basically, the process of designing this game exists almost totally in the world of the Disciplines system. If the Disciplines are fantastic, the game will be fantastic. If the Disciplines are weak, then the game will be weak. This is something that I’ve been aware of since the beginning, but we’re reaching a certain point now where things have to shine.
Quickly: a lot of people who may be reading this may be unfamiliar with what AURO is. Essentially, it is a single player, turn-based randomly generated dungeon-crawling strategy game (will be available on Windows, OSX, iOS, Android and Linux) that’s currently in alpha. Click here to learn more about it.
The Scoring System
We’ve been in a closed alpha for a few months now, and I’ve gotten some really good feedback from a few testers. I’ve also been able to dive into the code myself for the first time in my development history (I’m not a programmer, but I guess you could say I’m becoming one). This has allowed me a kind of flexibility in the “designing, implementing, testing, and redesigning” loop that I didn’t have with 100 Rogues.
I’ve been doing this for awhile and making incremental changes while getting a bit of feedback from others on things, and this has been incrementally useful. However, partially influenced by my recent article on score in videogames, I set out to revisit the scoring system for the game. As per the terms of that article, I knew a few things had to be fulfilled about the scoring system. I knew it had to be simple; that a player could really track how well they were doing without pulling out a calculator and doing a bunch of equations. I knew that the player had to be able to see how they were getting these points, so that they could feel like they owned these points. And I knew that the scoring system should yield numbers that are as low as possible while still maintaining some flexibility and elasticity (a score of around 100 for a high score seems about right).
So the big question is, what should award points in AURO? Well, I’ve always known that efficiency should be awarded. Getting through the level quickly (in terms of number of turns) shows skill. I’ve also known that killing several monsters in a single turn should also be awarded (comboing). So, what I’ve come up with is the following (keep in mind that specific numbers will almost certainly need to be tweaked/changed, these are only estimates):
At the start of a level, there is a number called LevelScore. Let’s assume this number starts at 50. This number is the amount of points added to your total game score when you complete this level. Each turn, it reduces by 1, and you can see it reducing on-screen. If you kill more than one monster in a turn, you gain (MonstersKilled squared) points to LevelScore. So kill two monsters, gain four points. Kill four monsters, gain sixteen points; etc.
I came up with this about a week ago, and it’s still sounding pretty good to me. We had some other approaches before, that all were a lot more complicated. Further, the other approaches awarded points for making a single kill. I don’t think the game should do that. What you have to remember is that if you don’t make it through the level alive, you get zero points. You only get the points when you make it to the end! So, killing single monsters, to me, is part of just basic survival.
The system will be balanced so that players of lower skill levels can still get some points by merely surviving through a few levels. However, it will become very quickly apparent to them that moving very quickly through levels, or comboing, will get far better results than simply trying to stay alive. Merely surviving isn’t really rewarded.
The system will beckon them, will dare them, to get greedy and risk their own survival for the sake of bigger points.
So, with this in mind, I’ve had a lot of soul-searching to do about what the roles of these disciplines are, and how they fit into this vision. One thing that I hope other game designers take away from this is just how fundamental and important your game’s goal is to a game design. I think the question of “what is the goal” is too often overlooked in videogames.
For those who aren’t familiar, there were five disciplines before: Fire, Ice, Elude, Guard and Impulse. The first one that stood out to me as problematic under this scoring system – and maybe should have always stood out as problematic – was Guard. The reason for this is that Guard’s concept was “staying put and absorbing damage”. When you look at the scoring mechanism, you can see that clearly, this has no use. It is a hammer in a world of screws.
I figured, though, that there were probably other problems like this, and so I constructed THE TRIANGLE.
This triangle represents the three possible useful applications that abilities can have:
- COMBOING: Killing two or more monsters at the same time (awards points)
- EVADING: Allows you to get past monsters and complete stages quickly (awards points)
- SUPPORT: Support abilities amplify the effects of other abilities.
(It’s funny, but looking at it now, it’s a bit like the high-fantasy class-game thing, where really, all classes can kind of be broken down into your tank, your wizard, and your support.)
These are the only ways that skills can actually be useful in AURO. If a skill does something other than one of these three things, it is useless and should be changed or removed from the game.
For instance, the FIRE tree has a lot of abilities that involve setting flames around, or summoning fire elementals, or what have you. All of these result in large swaths of monsters being attacked. Or the Elude tree has abilities that let you jump over monsters’ heads, to move quicker, or set up traps for monsters, to avoid them completely.
This chart, and this realization, is incredibly useful! A lot of a game designer’s job is work dedicated to making his job easier. It would be almost impossible for me to design even a dozen well-balanced and unique abilities without having done this work first.
So the first thing to go was Guard, obviously, for the reasons I mentioned above. However, I did think that there was another possibility for some of its abilities, so I held onto some of them in a new tree which I’ll get into in a few moments.
The next step was to analyze skills on another level, a level which I’ll call “flavor”.
Finding the Flavor
Designer David Sirlin has talked a lot about flavor in asymmetrical fighting games, and I think his definition is somewhat close to the one I’m using, although not exactly. What I mean by it is, “how does this tree feel to use?” We can give a tree a very strong and distinct flavor by placing dots on THE TRIANGLE in different shapes and formations. For instance, in the following example, there are three possible “shapes” made of dots:
Each dot represents a skill in a Discipline (so like the first one, the orange guys, might be all three skills from the Fire tree, for instance). This is helpful, because we can pretty easily identify if two abilities are achieving the same results (as is the case for the bottom-center blue and purple dots).
The above are just examples of what could be done, and not exactly what I went with. After much deliberation, I came up with four distinct shapes of my own, and this helped me figure out what would replace Guard.
So here, in blue you see ICE, in green you see ELUDE, in orange you see FIRE, and the purple one is the new one, which I’m calling FOCUS. Focus is a tree that’s really very balanced, having no extreme strengths and no extreme weaknesses. It is a tree of subtle power that does a little bit of everything.
Also, you might notice that one of the original five trees is missing! It was IMPULSE. The problem with that tree was that it was based on randomness. Sometimes the abilities would be good, sometimes they would be bad. But they would almost always be flat, and lack real flavor. I think that I was thinking “random is enough of a flavor of its own”, but it’s not. Where does “random” go on the chart? Random doesn’t fit anywhere on this chart, and so it has no place in this game. (I should mention that some of the abilities do still have random effects, but that is not their foundation.)
The shapes I have there are a sort of combination of “what is currently the case in the existing build of the game” and “what I’d like to be the case”. I’m working towards some kind of coherence slowly. Another interesting point is that I’ve been bringing the number of disciplines in total down.
Here’s what I have now, in terms of trying to verbalize that flavor:
Again, this doesn’t completely match up with the above chart, as it’s still a process I’m going through. But I’m trying to come up with really strong mechanical identities (flavors) that also are backed up by something thematic that makes a little sense. Like, it would be weird if Fire was the thing that was all about escaping; people generally associate Fire with destruction. It’s good to have thematic material that works how people expect it to, if even roughly.
Finally, this is all very abstract, so something might seem perfect on this level and then make no sense in practicality. This kind of thing does provide us with a new lens, a way to look at our mechanisms that we couldn’t have done before. I really recommend all game designers do work like this to balance and design their games. Build weird abstract charts like these, specifically based on your game’s goals. Everything in your game should have a direct connection to achieving the goal, or it should be cut out.