When you’re working on a big, long-term project it helps to have some clear design goals. These goals act like a compass, keeping you on-course even when the path ahead is unclear. With Patch Quest, I have three goals I want to balance. The game needs to be flexible, meaning it can support a wide variety of different content and encounters. It needs to be deep, meaning the player’s choices really do matter. I also want to encourage freedom, meaning every player can approach the game in their own way and have a unique adventure. In this article I’ll talk about each of these goals and about some of the ways I’m trying to meet them.
Goal 1: Flexibility
Some games are brittle. By this, I mean that making a small tweak to one of the rules can have unexpected domino effects that break other parts of the game. Fighting games like Super Smash Bros: Melee and Street Fighter 2 are a good example of this. They have dozens of characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and the player must pick just one of them to fight with. Learning all these characters can be great fun (I’ve certainly put more than my fair share of time into Smash) but it comes at the cost of brittleness. Even a small change to one character can make all the other characters much stronger or weaker in comparison.
The opposite of brittleness is flexibility. A flexible game can swap out rules and content without causing quite so many runaway domino effects. Here are some of the ways I’m trying to create flexibility:
I. Competitive multiplayer games are inherently brittle because the players are all trying to outcompete each other. Over time, the players all gravitate towards only using the very strongest strategies and any change that alters these strategies will drastically impact how people play. As a single player game, Patch Quest avoids this kind of intense competition.
II. Card games like Hearthstone and Magic: the Gathering can have hundreds or even thousands of cards that are all mechanically unique. They do this by splitting the cards into content layers, each of which can be varied individually. A Hearthstone card has a mana cost, an attack stat, a health stat and some effects text. The effects text is actually layered even further into keyword abilities like Taunt or Battlecry. By mix-and-matching different values for each layer they can create a dizzying variety of cards without making the game too overwhelming. Patch Quest also uses a lot of layering to help improve flexibility.
Goal 2: Depth
Many games can be completed by grinding (performing the same dull, repetitive tasks over and over again). Others can be completed by getting just the right set of lucky dice rolls. These games can be fun, especially if they have a good story or are played with friends, but they aren’t deep.
In deep games your decisions matter. The choices you make have subtle consequences that ripple out and influence your chances of success in the future. Here are some of the ways I’m trying to create depth in Patch Quest:
I. Randomness can add a lot of spice and variety to a game. Without it the game will play exactly the same way every time, which is no fun. But too much randomness can negate the players skill, which is just as bad. We all know how it feels to be hit by a Blue Shell at the end of a lap in Mario Kart or when your opponent top-decks Pyroblast at the end of a Hearthstone match.
To feel fair, randomness needs to be telegraphed. There needs to be enough time for the player to consider the new information and change their plans accordingly. In Patch Quest, I’ve tried to keep the core gameplay as deterministic as I can. This way, players can plan out their next move and be reasonably confident it will work as expected. The game does have randomised elements, but I’ve tried to always give the player enough tools and enough time to manage it.
II. Games of perfect information like Chess and Go allow the player to read several moves into the future. At high levels, this results in a lot of “he will play here because I will play there because he played somewhere else” But this can also make the game very daunting because if you can read out all these moves then to play well you must read them out. This can cause “analysis paralysis”, where the number of possible plays is so huge that players don’t feel comfortable choosing any of them.
Other games get around this by hiding some of the information. For example, in Hearthstone you can see what’s on the board and you can see what’s in your hand. But you can’t see what’s in your opponent’s hand, meaning any plans you make need to be short-term and flexible. This kind of hidden information is a good way to make games deeper without requiring the player to be a maths wizard. In Patch Quest you can only see one patch away in any given direction, meaning what lies beyond the screen is hidden until you get there.
Goal 3: Freedom
Many games can only be completed in one way. In Super Mario Bros, you jump across every level in the same order, every time. But other games give the player real choices that impact what they will see and how they will progress.
I. Open-world games like Skyrim and Zelda: Breath of the Wild let you play their content in pretty much any order. In fact, these games have so much content that most players will only ever see a small fraction of it. This non-linearity means that every player has their own unique adventure and gets to make choices that really do impact what they experience. The Patch Quest map is also open and players can freely choose which way they explore first. Different routes will lead you to different quests and hazards, making you adapt on the fly.
II. Most role-playing games let you mix-and-match your armor, weapons and abilities. In fact, most genres have some form of customisation these days. Players really enjoy expressing themselves through their appearance and playstyle.
In Patch Quest, the player can choose their costume and a set of equipped items. The area you’re in has a big impact on how effective your choices will be, so you’ll need to regularly switch it up. You can also edit your character’s face, for good measure.
A Balancing Act
The big problem with having multiple goals is that goals can often conflict. Improving strategic depth can restrict the player’s freedom to choose bad moves. On the flip-side, flexibly swapping out content can make it harder to develop consistently good strategies. It can be difficult to balance all of these goals without sacrificing one of them.
But that’s OK, because trade-offs are ultimately what design is all about! Many games have wrestled with these problems in the past and we can learn a lot from their solutions. I also have some fresh ideas for how to ease some of these conflicts which I’ll be talking about on this blog over the coming months.
Next week’s article will shine a spotlight on some of the creatures you’ll encounter while exploring in Patch Quest. Stay tuned!
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