Sunday, 20 May 2012

Windshields and warriors

I've been thinking about the role of monsters in games, particularly with the recent Diablo discussion on Roguelike Radio's comments thread, and a recent attempt to play Torchlight (which for some reason had lost a whole lot of my character's progress). I'm also coincidentally at a point where I'm not finding gaming terribly satisfying: I suspect because I'm wading through sub par games like Deus Ex: Revolution, while waiting for the next brogue, Binding of Isaac, Terraria or Dark Messiah of Might and Magic to catch my imagination (to name some gaming highlights of the last few years).*

My favourite games have something in common: monsters, and enemies in general, exist in those games as an obstacle, not a resource - whereas Diablo, Angband and many others have you exploiting monsters for loot and experience. I realise Terraria requires you farm drops to find certain items, but boss monsters and Skeletons aside, you're almost always (until after the Wall of Flesh) better off searching for chests to get the same drop.

Jeff Lait used the analogy of 'windshield' monsters while discussing the fact that most monsters in most roguelikes are designed to be spattered with minimum effort while on the way to the end game. I'm not convinced that this is the case: brogue for instance has very few monsters you can safely ignore even while you are deep in the dungeon. Windshield monsters exist primarily for flavour: they're one step up from the bats and rats you see crawling around Diablo's caves, but unless you foolishly let your guard down and get mobbed, you're unlikely to ever die to a windshield.

brogue on the other hand, has too many 'puzzle' monsters: in the sense monsters you can solve fighting for to reduce them to a trivial challenge. The two I'm thinking specifically of are pink jellies and acidic mounds: the former require you fight in a doorway and always attack the weakest split, and acidic mounds require you fight naked, but there's also the list of monsters you typically keep negation for.

So assuming puzzle, exploitable and windshield monsters are not satisfying challenges, what should a typical monster do? In a finite resource game like brogue, or the Binding of Isaac, it is easy. Monsters should exist to consume your resources: either health, or consumable items - slowly wearing you down for the final fight, but only if you underperform in killing them (the Binding of Isaac) or if you are not able to evade them (brogue).

In infinite resource games like Terraria, their function is less satisfyingly clear cut: you can always grind yourself against the resource cost of more powerful monsters because the rewards in these regions are much greater as well. Terraria balances this by making the most valuable resources (minerals) acquired only through mining, which is higher risk than emptying chests, and gives you no immediate pay back, so it is possible to end up with a short term resource deficit which outweighs the long term benefits of what you have acquired. There's also a clever (or frustrating, depending on how you look) set of gating mechanics which forces you to traverse certain challenges before you can get higher tiers of equipment: some of the tiers are optional, which makes for a lesser game IMO.

* I'll be posting a 'help me pick a game to play' post separately. Day Z is a good candidate.

9 comments:

magikmw said...

Interesting post, you managed to clear my thoughts on the matter of monsters.
And yes, I belive everyone should play DayZ, even if just once.

Abe Heron said...

I seem to recall old school d&d (ODnd and possibly Basic/Expert) gave experience based on amount of gold extracted form the dungeon rather than just as a factor of number/hit dice of monsters killed. This was due to the fact that monsters were generally far too dangerous to tackle head on and alternative solutions to the problem could thus be just as rewarding (to both characters AND players).

The only game I can think off the top of my head that came close to that was Thief. You have to play it in Hard mode, then not only monsters (guards) are not resources, but they actually cause you to lose the game if you kill them. You instead have to rely on retrieval of gold as your resource (as it allows you to buy better equipment to advance through the later stages).

Abe Heron said...

Oops too tired... I just realized you might be talking about monsters as resource consumption rather than just as resource grantors. I think Thief on hard could still stand as they neither consume your resources nor grant you any, but pose a challenge on how to 'sneak' past. If playing on Normal mode, you would obviously be tempted to fly a few arrows their way, thus consuming a resource. Of course, there remains the greatest resource of all - player's time, and I have yet seen the game that does not consume that, and sometimes to a greater extent than anything else
(some type of games even center themselves around it).

Darren Grey said...

Hmm, some interesting thoughts... I've never liked windshield monsters much, which is why I like 1HP games - no monster can be a windshield.

Having said that, in designing Rogue Rage I've deliberately made many monsters windshield, with no special abilities and low HP, but they act as a resource to increase your rage counter. Windshield monsters are shown in lower case whilst the interesting monsters are all uppercase, to make the separation in their purpose clear. The windshields are also fun to kill in a basic gratification sort of way :)

RogerN said...

IMO "windshield" monsters feel more pointless in modern games because of plentiful healing. No amount of damage taken by the player is meaningful until it has the potential to kill him in the near future; the player can just sip a healing potion or wait for the next auto-regen cycle.

In contrast, some of the most exciting games of DoomRL I've had were played with reduced healing availability. Even the lowliest zombie is suddenly a threat because you *need* to get past those monsters without taking damage. I guess you could say that you're driving without insurance and you can't afford cracks in your windshield :)

I think this phenomenon is partly because of saved games. We want players to be able to save their progress at any time because that's a valuable and convenient feature. But at the same time we don't want players to mistakenly save their game in an unwinnable state (too little health for example). So plentiful healing is the quick-and-dirty way of dealing with the problem.

That, and modern casual gamers just don't like to die. Ever.

Holsety said...

"[...]what should a typical monster do? In a finite resource game like brogue, or the Binding of Isaac, it is easy. Monsters should exist to consume your resources: either health, or consumable items - slowly wearing you down for the final fight, but only if you underperform in killing them (the Binding of Isaac) or if you are not able to evade them (brogue)."

Fits The Slimy Lichmummy like a glove.

Windshield monsters are boring, but you don't want every fight to be something that requires the players full attention and skill. I'm sure there's some balance to be struck between difficulty and pacing that will leverage the best experience...

Todd Page said...

I like Darren's idea! Lower-case means I can probably mash you if I am in the appropriate dungeon level/area. Upper-case means I have to think. Finding the right mix of these too is difficult. I agree that brogue is almost TOO good at 'puzzle' monsters. Sometimes I just want to mash stuff.

(I always feel bad criticizing any part of brogue because they are tiny fiddly complaints and don't take away from the fact that it is the best pure roguelike)

Joseph said...

I prefer a sort of system where rewards are not dropped by dead monsters.

Super Mario does this. So does Gauntlet. I guess if you are playing for score you'd kill the monsters, but I never did. I played for depth/distance.

Baddies and other obstacles serve to grind you down so you are weak against the boss. They aren't farm-able.

Matt said...

"Windshield monsters are boring, but you don't want every fight to be something that requires the players full attention and skill. I'm sure there's some balance to be struck between difficulty and pacing that will leverage the best experience..."

I disagree. If a monster can't kill you, what is the point of it even being there?

A speed bump that slows you down or consumes a bit of resource? Why not just allocate less resource or speed to the player?

A meaningless transaction of melee attacks for items and experience? Why not just give them to the player outright and spare the illusion that they "earned it" by pushing a button to accept the transaction?

Games will be fun again when the monsters are scary again. Everyone wants them to be a game mechanic first and a threat second.