Wednesday 26 December 2007

Automating game play

I've just replied to a query about Unangband on the forums, that I'll expand on a little here as it's relevant to game design.

Another, when traveling in the wilderness, would it be possible to automatically, or something like that, eat something that is in your pack. Instead of arriving at your destination weak from hunger when you have food in your pack. I am sure there are others, but don't see much of a point in bringing up too much since the game isn't really complete yet and I don't know what is coming.
This is the old 'I don't want to have to think about x so can the game do it for me?' argument.

I'm actually a fan of this particular argument. As a game designer, I'm never able to make my mind up about which features work, and which don't, and which choices are interesting and which are not. For any designer shocked by that statement, consider that you really don't know the answers either: you're just guessing. Only user testing can tell you whether you've made the right choices (Play testing is a good substitute, but may just tell you that you find yourself interesting - not the most productive of strategies).

There's always a risk in balancing any changes that automate player actions, as you can end up with a game that gets played automatically for you. Don't be discouraged if this occurs. The popularity of Final Fantasy XII, Progress Quest and the Angband Borg screen saver suggests that automatically played games are a great untapped genre. Although Dungeon Siege is a great counter example of what not to do. (I mean, the whole point Diablo was to see how fast you could wear out your mouse and/or development Occupational Overuse Syndrome. Automating the clicking just misses the mark).

I've tentatively sketched out a 'gambit system' design for a future verison of Unangband. Although I've borrowed the name, I have no idea how similar it is to Final Fantasy XII as I've never played it before. I'll acknowledge that Unangband has a heck of a lot of different things to do and remember, and the more time you get to devote to choices about how to fight monsters and not which flavour of food to eat, the better. So the 'gambit system' will allow you to 'programmatically' enhance game play through allowing you to specify automatic player actions using a 'if in this state' --> 'do this action' mechanism.

But ultimately, you want to replace a 'way of automating uninteresting decisions' with more intelligent game mechanics. For instance, Angband has various resistance spells, which run out after a short time. It makes a lot of sense to allow the player to automatically recast these, provided that you're in a place where you can do so safely. But the annoyingly named Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King makes even a smarter design decision, which is to allow the player to have the spell cast permanently, in return for sacrificing some of your maximum mana amount.

The mini-game is another way of enlivening otherwise uninteresting decisions. I'm in the midst of even worse named The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass (two 'The's in the title being almost as bad as two colons), which still features atmospheric/dreary (delete one) sailing around islands from Wind Waker, but replaces the 'gee I have to watch the same unskippable animation' feature of hauling treasure up from the sea floor, with a 'guide the salvage arm' to the treasure mini-game. Much like Okami's mining game, it's not all that great, but at least you get to do something.

For the record, the only worthwhile in-game mini-game I've played is the hacking subgame from Paradroid. And that is as central a mechanic to the whole game as running around shooting droids. I suspect that the puzzle mini-games of Puzzle Quest are just as fundamental to the game play (The DS version of Puzzle Quest wasn't in stock, which is how I ended up with Zelda).

1 comment:

Ravious said...

I like the mechanics that allow automation, but at a price. So, manually casting/using/etc. it is more efficient and powerful in game, and conversely automated use is weaker in game, but one less thing to get in the way of "fun."

I think for the food in Unangband it might be better to do a "You might get hungry on the trip. Do you want to eat a meal before the trip now?" Yes/no, if yes eat until full.