Dark Souls 2 Design Ravings

Dark Souls 1 may be my favourite game. It has stern competition from the original Command & Conquer, but there are no other games in the last few years I’ve poured as many hours into. As you might expect, therefore, when Dark Souls 2 came along I quickly preordered one of the super-special editions, happy in the knowledge I would be sending some more money to a company who had made an absolutely stunning game the last time around, and a game I only paid £10 or so for after it had been out a year. Having played it through once – and then having gone back to the original for my first playthrough in around half a year – I found myself with so much to write about I just had to put some of these thoughts to paper. If you’re not interested in some detailed thoughts about the two Souls games I’ve played (I have yet to play Demon’s Souls), feel free to skip this one. Otherwise, let’s begin. I’ll start off talking about the things the game does better, then I’ll talk about the things the game does worse (alas, a list that is both much longer and deals with much more significant parts of the game), and then conclude with some final thoughts on the whole business.

For Better:

User Interface:

The UI is clearer – you can see more items at once, check out a larger selection of items more easily, and so forth.

PvP Lag:

Although I have been hearing issues about the “soul memory” system in the game – designed to help balance PvP encounters, but apparently it can be exploited in order to do the exact opposite – the loss of lag is a hugely important point here. Even if the PvP mechanics may be weaker this time around I still prefer to play this in DS2, not 1, simply because the lag is pleasingly minimal. It doesn’t have the minimal latency of something like CS:S, but it’s still eminently playable now, and doesn’t boil down – quite as much – to farming backstabs by exploiting the lag.

NPC Invasions:

There seem to be many more NPC invasions now which come at a variety of points in the game. These NPCs have an interesting range of builds, appear whether you are human or hollowed, and are much more challenging than the ones in the original. The fact they appear regardless of your status is also a huge step in the right direction for the concept.

Resting at Bonfires:

You now only need to touch a bonfire to activate it, not sit at it. Entirely minor, but nice.

Multiple Soul Uses:

You can now choose how many in a pile of souls to use at once instead of having to pop each at the same time. Truly wonderful.

Humanity/Human Effigy Improvement:

Humanity is no longer an item you only use if you actively want to PvP, or if you want to kindle a bonfire. Instead, the new “Human Effigy” item gives you a real reason to be human – each time you die your maximum health is reduced slightly, so the Effigy becomes an item that you possibly want to use before particularly tough sections, maybe even between bonfires (though as I’ll go onto later, the bonfire placement is far too kind this time around), and balancing how often to use them vs their scarcity is a good move in the right direction. Equally, the removal of some specifications around invasions and being human/hollowed combines with this change very well.

New Items:

There are many more usable items (like firebombs, resins, etc), and the extra variety is appreciated. I couldn’t find more than one or two of them on my first playthrough however, nor anyone who sold most of them, but I shall assume I missed it.

For Worse:

Level design.

This is one of the big ones. The level design is, unfortunately, scarily simplistic compared to the two dozen labyrinths we traversed back in Dark Souls 1. This was a feeling I got to an extent upon playing DS2 first, but after I went back to DS1 and explored areas like the Painted World anew, this realization simply could not be ignored. Here is a map of one early area in Dark Souls 2, Heide’s Tower of Flame…

HTOF

…and here is a map of a mid-game area from Dark Souls, Sen’s Fortress:

Sens

Just flick your eyes between those maps (thanks to the Dark Souls wikis for both). Yes, the first is a sketch and the second is detailed and neat; yes, Heide’s Tower of Flame is simply a smaller area; yes, Dark Souls’ Ash Lake and Lost Izalith, for example, are very linear (though even Ash Lake has more alternate routes than HToF!); but the problem is, the Tower of Flame map is indicative of almost every area in Dark Souls 2 – a straight line with one or two tiny diversions – whilst the Sen’s Fortress map is equally indicative of almost every area in Dark Souls 1. The only large, densely-packed area is the Lost Bastille, which has five bonfires. In Dark Souls, an area of that size – the Burg, say, or the Painted World, or the Depths – would have one or possibly two, but the level would be designed in such a way that there are multiple paths to take, shortcuts to unlock, and the level design would be incredibly dense as a result. This pattern unfortunately repeats across the game. Most areas are fundamentally a straight line with a few minor tangents that basically lead back to the same original direction; almost no-where is that multi-layered maze-like level design that worked so incredibly well in the original DS.

The second issue with the level design is more aesthetic and thematic. For any game with an “exploration” factor the ability to surprise the player is surely paramount. This may seem obvious, yet many games fail this simple test – the only place in Skyrim that might awe the player is Blackreach, for example. In the rest of the game, even though you don’t know specifically what lurks in each cave, you do know what lurks there in more general terms. You know what a Dwarven ruin will look like, what a cave will look like, what a draugr-infested place looks like, etc. I really value the moment where the game confounds your expectations, or shows you something you didn’t even know was there, or gets you totally rethinking what you thought you knew.

One of the best things for me about the Souls series is their ability to constantly surprise you. Maybe for a boss you’ll fight another player, or maybe you’ll uncover a secret in the most obscure of places, or find a region whose architecture makes you utterly reevaluate the fictional world in which you play (a la Ash Lake). Unfortunately I found the first half lacking in this regard – one boss surprised me and sent me spiraling into a little pondering of the in-game lore, but otherwise nothing really struck me and amazed me. The gameplay was fine, the storytelling decent (though too many items boil down to “This sword was used by an ancient hero – or was it?”), the aesthetics of the world (mostly) as great as ever, but nothing made me rethink what I thought I knew. However, the later half of Dark Souls 2 really picks up in this regard. In the first half there was probably only one area which had the same impact as being snatched by the crow out of the Undead Asylum, seeing the Moonlight Butterfly perched upon a distant ledge, descending into Blighttown and realizing an entire civilization squats amid the foundations of Lordran, being cursed for the first time, or winding up in the jail in the Duke’s Archives. All those moments in Dark Souls both impressed me with the creativity and the audacity of the game’s design, and made me feel the game could continue to surprise me both aesthetically and mechanically.

Moonlight

Passing through Darkroot Garden, you see this perhaps minutes, perhaps hours, before you ever encounter it close up…

Although the first half lacks any real surprises and often feels like a rehash of DS1 – indeed, see the plot spoilers below, there is a reason for this – the second half of DS2, in fairness, has many such moments. At one point I was sure I was approaching the penultimate boss which I thought would just be followed by a 5-minute ride to the final boss, and then discovered the boss I expected was actually an NPC and three entirely new areas had just opened up to me; at another, rather than descending down into the depths of the planet (a common Souls theme) I found myself climbing up higher than one has ever been in a Souls game (this is debatable based on your interpretation of Drangleic geography, but I think this region is subjectively significantly higher than Anor Londo was). Another point saw a visually arresting area unlike anything before in a Souls game whilst elsewhere assorted secrets referencing the original game point towards all manner of lore speculation. Whenever I thought I knew what the was going on and what the game “was”, on some fundamental level, it changed things up and surprised me, and that is something an exploration-focused game should always try to do.

The last aspect of level design lacking is that foreshadowing the previous game did so well. Often you could make out something in the distance, either a structure or a boss, and later would find your way towards it. This made the entire world feel incredibly connected (see the next section) and quickly raised the interest and excitement to get to this location on the player’s part. The “here’s something you’ll be fighting!” is less common this time around, or rather, is almost entirely lacking. In DS1 Ceaseless, Kalameet, the Moonlight Butterfly and the Iron Golem are all enemies you likely see long before you ever fight them, and you wonder – are these bosses? NPCs? When will I fight them? To its credit, Dark Souls 2 undermined this expectation nicely by turning what I was sure would be a boss into a very cryptic (and very large) NPC towards the end, and similarly I was very surprised when encountering a character I’d heard a lot about (and knowing the Souls’ series perspective on “King” characters), but these were really the only two examples. You cannot see outside the little corridors the game channels you down at any point, and the corridors themselves are, for the most part, sadly very dull.

World design.

Roughly speaking, the world structures of each game are as follows (in both cases you begin in the middle).

DSmaps

Dark Souls 1 is split into two halves – the first half of the game where you navigate the central interconnected wheel, and then you gain access to a fast-travel system and the four spokes open up. Once you’ve reached this point you know your way around the core well, and fast travel is only available to pursue the paths that branch out. It is worth noting that the levels on this path – Duke’s Archives, Tomb of the Giants, Painted World, etc – are every big as multi-layered as the others, but they just don’t connect with each other. When you’re in these regions you can still see other parts of the map, and the world still feels huge because you’ve explored most of it before gaining access to the fast travel system. By contrast, the latter game is a very simple structure. You have four main paths, and later you gain access to the branching path in the bottom corner. No regions connect with each other. This, combined with the fact you can now warp from the start, combine to make the world in Dark Souls 2 seem flat, uninteresting, unconnected (because it is!) and simply a far less interesting place to explore.

In Dark Souls, on one’s first playthrough, one is overwhelmingly likely to pass through the “expected” route – through the Burg, the Parish, the Depths, Blighttown, and through to Quelaag. However, if you really look around (and fight through some Drakes), you can sequence-break that and move around a lot of Blighttown. Alternatively, if you take the Master Key on a later playthrough, you can totally change the order you do everything by opening the tower Havel is locked in, or even more importantly, the door between New Londo and Blighttown allows you fight Quelaag first if you’re so inclined. You can also fight the Four Kings as anywhere between the second, and the penultimate boss, of the entire game. Sadly, nowhere in DS2 is there a comparitive level of freedom to decide on your own route even once you know the game well. Even though the hub area has many routes, most are closed off when you start, and it only really offers you five linear paths, and the second half of the game – although far stronger – also sticks to the generally linear regions. There is no sense of mastery over the game world on repeated playthroughs, nor a reinforcement of the idea that you are exploring one area.

Another glaring weakness is, as hinted at above, is that even the levels that lead to each other are not connected! You almost never see things in the distance you’ll later find your way to, and the rare times you do – for example, you can see the Tower of Flame from Majula – the perspective and location are all wrong. However, the most shameful example of this involves the middle of one of the early paths the game sends you down, when you find the structure shown below.

Earthen peak

You will note, I am sure, that there is nothing atop this windmill-castle-thing. No lift, no path, and certainly no volcano. Indeed, there is no volcano anywhere even remotely in sight. As you progress through this region (Earthen Peak), you reach the top of the structure and defeat the boss. After that, you get in a lift and go upwards… into the air… and emerge into this area, Iron Keep, a castle within a volcano with lava and flame for miles around.

Iron Keep

Which, basically, means this area of the world is laid out like this…

IMpossible

…and the upper half is entirely invisible from the ground (Credit for first two pictures go to Matthewmatosis (Youtube), last picture to maplejoker-anno.tumblr). This hammered home to me more than anything else that these were just levels in a game, not segments of an actual world I was exploring. Anything like this would not have been considered for a heartbeat in the beautifully pieced-together map of DS1 – where you can stand atop Sen’s Fortress and look down upon the Parish, or walk through the Tomb of Giants and catch a glimpse of Ash Lake – and, whilst this example is more extreme than others, this repeats throughout the game. A quick look at the map viewer for the game shows a huge number of both logical and thematic discrepancies. No-Man’s Wharf is way below the sea level seen from the Bastille, Sinner’s Rise is entirely invisible from up above, going up the lift from Aldia’s Keep launches you into a sky area you hadn’t seen anything of before (though a visually amazing region), whilst the Shaded Woods path goes from a forest into an area akin to the Giant’s Causeway (again, aesthetically impressive, but entirely incongruous) and then into a desert all without any real warning.

Ultimately, Lordran felt like a single location that had stood for thousands of years and finally fallen into ruin, through-out which you might run across a few other souls on their own personal quests or missions, picking through the ruins of this astonishing megastructure/city/fortress that stretched far up into the sky and deep underground. Drangleic, alas, feels like a sequence of tunnels and people specifically laid out to greet the player at every turn. It’s more like a sequence of “levels” akin to, say, early FPS games where you basically “teleport” between each level (Goldeneye style), rather than anything approaching a connected world. In fact, although the areas in Demon’s Souls are not connected, I believe they do not overlap either in as horrifying or jarring a way as some of the DS2 ones do.

Story.

I recently bought the Dark Souls design works book, which is fascinating. At the back is an interview with Hidetaka Miyazaki, the design lead on the first two Souls games, and in the interview he mentions that one of his inspirations for the lore of the Souls games was reading Western fantasy books/RPGs – his English wasn’t amazing, so he wasn’t entirely clear on what was going on, and had to form his own connections. This in turn inspired the way the story/lore are told in Souls games, and I for one love it (and it is something I aim to emulate in URR). I think the storytelling in DS2 remains strong and encourages you to piece things together, but those pieces are far less interesting than the pieces in the original game.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW.

Seriously, major ones. I know some people – like me – read at a pace where just seeing “spoiler warning” is not enough to stop you reading before you read on a few words, so let this sentence be the final warning. If you’re like me and adore the Souls story, stop reading at once. Otherwise, let me state up front – Dark Souls 2 introduces the idea of a repeating or cyclic history. I have no objection to the “cyclic nature of history” plot ideas – Japanese games seem more willing to use this than their Western counterparts, but this is far from an exclusive rule (e.g. Mass Effect). However, in this case I think From Software made a colossal misstep by assigning a cyclic history to the Dark Souls lore. Now, I should state, to an extent the existing lore suggests a cyclic history, on a very small scale – the bonfires keep those cursed endlessly resurrecting, yes, but on the grander scale of history Dark Souls 1 has no mention of repeating patterns. The world began with the dragons; the Lord Souls were discovered; Gwyn forged “civilization” atop the archtrees; but now even his soul is beginning to fade, and must either be replaced or allowed to die. Nothing repeating or replaying is mentioned. By contrast, a little delving into DS2 lore makes it quite clear this is the case – “many civilizations” have risen and fallen on the spot where Drangleic stands (which is where Lordran once stood); the four Lord Souls have been taken by other creatures, who have been defeated by other “chosen undeads” (though DS1 does imply this very concept is a fictional creation if you talk to Kaathe or consider the role played by Gwyndolin), who have each had to make a choice about keeping the First Flame going or allowing Dark to spread. You begin the game tasked with seeking four Great Souls, and each of these corresponds to one of the four from the original game – Seath, Gwyn, the Witch of Izalith and Nito (though Seath had a fragment of Gwyn’s soul, the nature of the Dark Soul is different in DS2). They have taken new forms, but their origins are apparent for those who care to look. The new location of Seath’s soul features a Duke and an entombed Dragon; the new owner of Gwyn was also a king who overreached; the new owner of the Witch’s soul tried to relight the first flame and appears to have been cursed by Chaos; while Nito’s new owner is also a foul amalgamation of corpses dwelling far below the Earth. This isn’t “cyclic history” – this is just repeating the same ideas, which were wonderful the first time, but we’ve seen them before.

As much as I wish to say this is just a part of the story… it just strikes me as lazy. By the game’s own admission the first half is a “repeat” as you gather the same four Souls. For those Lore-buffs, you will note that the Lord Souls are what gave Gwyn et al their power, not something inherent to those individuals/creatures themselves. That may be, but that’s no excuse to just say “other creatures now have these souls and are rather similar to their original owners!”. The second half of the game when you break away from the four Souls from the first game is far more interesting and varied and had far more “surprise” moments than the first half, which (sadly) only contained one or two. In general the original lore – about Navlaan, Aldia, the Dragon, the Giants – is genuinely great, and I’ve enjoyed keeping track of the internet’s collective deductions about all this new lore, but the rehashed lore is very uninteresting.

PLOT SPOILERS END.

NPCs.

In Dark Souls 1 each of the few NPC characters has their own story which might not necessarily link up with your tale; they have their own objectives, and you can only trade/talk with them for certain periods. They move through the world and may die or live on their own quests. Completing these quests was an interesting extra challenge in the first game and one lacking in Dark Souls 2. NPCs don’t generally have their own quests, and once they get to the game’s hub, they then just don’t go anywhere! They just sit still until the end of the game and never do a blasted thing. Many of DS1’s characters were far more tragic – Solaire and Seigmeyer spring to mind, not to mention Sif and Artorias – whilst DS2 lacks a single NPC I felt a damned thing for, though I guess Lucatiel wasn’t half-bad. And I am convinced that “Laddersmith” is not a real profession.

Notarealthing

Enemies/bosses.

There is a fine line between “homage” and “reusing the same art and AI assets we used in the first time”, and alas, Dark Souls 2 falls squarely on the wrong side of that divider. Two entire bosses from DS1 are simply lifted wholesale into DS2 whilst others (Najka, Royal Rat Authority) are lifted from DS1 but reskinned and with a few new moves, and others (Royal Rat Vanguard, Dragonrider, and then… Twin Dragonriders!) are, as much as it hurts me to say it, just phoned in. I am not rose-tinting DS1’s bosses – Ceaseless has hitboxes large enough to strike you in the next country, the Bed of Chaos is a travesty – but the selection is far more limited, many have far less impact (as they have less lore behind them) and some are simply direct copies, even with the exact same name as in DS1. DS2 does have some great bosses – the Smelter Demon has an interesting core mechanic (proximity does damage), the Executioner’s Chariot is very different and original, the Demon of Song is a magnificent concept (though not the most fascinating fight), but… the list is short.

Repeated Chest Ahead!

Repeated Chest Ahead!

Other, much smaller issues:

Four K-, er, Rings:

You can now put on four rings instead of two. This is a totally pointless change; any meaningful decision-making between your rings is gone. In Dark Souls 1 the Abyss forces you to use one ring for the Covenant of Artorias and thereby restricts you to a single ring; Lost Izalith all but requires the Orange Charred Ring to survive on lava; many rings are very strong in Dark Souls 1 and – unless you’re a good enough player to have the Red Tearstone Ring on 24/7 – offers a lot of tricky choices. Even the amazing Ring of Favor and Protection, boosting three key stats, breaks permanently when removed; its cousin in DS2 can simply be repaired. Four rings is far too much, and there was no point where I felt uncertain about which to wear. Also, the Ring of Binding is vastly overpowered (for singleplayer, anyway).

Randomized Crow-trading rewards instead of fixed rewards for specific trades:

This is inherently stupid.

NPC Graves:

If you kill an NPC, they return as a grave, and you can still interact with a ghost. So there is now no penalty for killing NPCs, and the weight of your decisions in DS1 are lost. Souls games are meant to eschew the weak hand-holding of so many modern games, and yet they’ve removed a minor but excellent aspect of it here.

Cursing:

Cursing – which used to be a permanent reduction of your max health by 50% until it is cured – is now an almost meaningless ailment, thereby constituting another step back from the amazingly bold/confident (ballsy?) game design of DS1.

Summary:

So what went wrong? For the most part I enjoyed my first playthrough, even though some bits left me cold the first time I was playing them. Other parts impressed with their aesthetics or some of their enemies, but upon further consideration their linearity compared to the first game became apparent. The fundamental problems are two-fold – the development team tried too hard to create Dark Souls 2 instead of a new Souls game, and – for whatever reasons – they moved away from the maze-like structure of the first game (at both the individual level scale and the entire world scale) towards a world of straight lines with minimal deviation. Too much of the first half draws from the first game; too few bosses, NPCs or areas feel at all original; and too many regions just boil down to straight lines which try to cover up wildly inconsistent geography. There are many small improvements, but the few major steps backwards are just too significant. After finishing DS2 I returned to DS1 for the first time in six months and instantly fell back into its incredible world. I thought I was certain to want to 100% DS2, and yet nothing from that world actually calls me back. There’s so much to go through to get to the more interesting segments, and even those segments are still just walking from one point to another. I’m sure I’ll revisit it some day, but Lordran, not Drangleic, remains my Dark Souls home.

Real-Time Strategy “Level Design”

As well as development updates, I’ve decided I want to start writing more pieces about interesting mechanics or things I admire in other games outside roguelikes. This is a long and detailed blog entry about level design in a genre nobody really talks about level design in – real-time strategy games. When conversations like this happen it’s generally about multiplayer balance, typically for Starcraft multiplayer maps that come with their own strategies for each of the three sides. However, here I want to talk about level design for singleplayer missions in RTS games, specifically the original Command & Conquer, one of the most well-balanced and well-designed games I’ve ever played. There are three missions in particular which really show off the thought and effort put into making these missions not just “maps”, but actual levels that demand more thought from the player than build tanks -> move tanks -> win. If people are interested in more entries like these as well as game development ones, let me know.

So, this is our first example. At the start of the mission your forces need to reach the green cross, but they are blocked by a pair of enemy vehicles on the bridge. These are Mammoth Tanks, the strongest units in the game – a single one of them would destroy your entire force by itself, let alone two. You begin with six units. The largest is an MCV (“Mobile Construction Vehicle”), a unit required to construct a base, and therefore vital. You also possess a single light tank with an anti-armour cannon, two “attack bikes” (at the front of your force) with anti-armour rockets, whilst the two “buggies” either side of your tank can only damage troops. Your tank and two attack bikes, whilst both strong against armoured units, would be pulverized in direct combat with the Mammoth Tanks. In this case, the game requires you to utilize the design of the level to survive, and if you wish to play optimally, to take advantage of – and, perhaps, even exploit – the game’s AI.

Strat1

As above, you have been given two buggies to start the game with. These are flimsy and can deal no real damage to armoured units, but you have been given them for a reason. Your attack bikes are effectively minor glass cannons – a Mammoth Tank would destroy them in one or two salvos, but their rockets deal significant damage. Thus, your first step is to send a buggy down the white line, get the attention of one Mammoth, then have it lead it away. At this point the player has two options – one is arguably the optimal play, whilst another is simpler to carry out and requires less simultaneous movement of units, but leaves the player more exposed after it. This less-optimal play would involve you having a second unit go in, distract the second Mammoth, and have them go around in that loop whilst your other units get across the bridge and set up a base. Your tank and attack bikes will then be able to protect your fledgling base, though you will need to keep your buggies moving. However, unless you are willing to keep commanding your buggies in an endless circle which will distract you from the rest of the mission, you need to find a permanent solution to the Mammoth Tanks.

Strat2

Instead, the optimal play is to have your tank & bikes move up behind one of the Mammoths chasing a buggy, and attack it from behind. Sometimes the AI will turn its attention to the new attacker, but sometimes it won’t. I’ve never worked out what the exact trigger is for this – maybe it’s random, but I doubt it, as C&C is a very deterministic RTS with few RNG factors. I think it has something to do with proximity – if the Mammoth Tank feels it is sufficiently close to its target (the endlessly-fleeing buggy) it will ignore those shooting at its rear armour. Thus, you need to keep your buggies moving in circles. This must be done slowly, so they don’t advance too far on the slow Mammoths and get the Mammoths to turn around and destroy your useful units, but still stay out of range of the Mammoths’ weapons. This must be done whilst having your armoured vehicles attack the Mammoths, but not getting too close, and also moving your MCV (that large vehicle, one that lets you construct bases) across the bridge to build a base. This is a demanding task with several parts, and the map is specifically built so that you have to use the units you’ve been given very carefully, but at a cost of leaving your base undefended whilst you deal with the initial Mammoths. This could not be done without a map design of this sort; it looks impossible at first if you attempt open combat, but ensures the player can find a single very specific solution to master the situation. You are also under a constant time pressure in all late-game missions in the game because you know the map’s very finite resources are being mined by your foes every second that passes; you could wait until you’ve killed the Mammoth Tanks before building a base with your surviving units, but you are instead encouraged by this additional pressure to send your MCV on unguarded whilst your units stay back to handle the tanks. Although your base will be initially undefended, against the tank and the two attack bikes the non-retaliating Mammoths will fall reasonably quickly, and certainly before the first waves of enemies – primarily troops, against which the tanks wouldn’t be that much use anyway – come at you from the enemy base.

In this second example, you start the level with a single unit, a “Stealth Tank” – it is invisible to all units unless it strays within a tile of an enemy unit. They are flimsy, and would die in open combat to any of the units or defensive buildings visible here. They are also revealed if they stray within a single tile of an enemy unit. You are tasked with retrieving the red unit – an MCV, and the only one you get in the level to build your base with. To do this you must find a way into the base and then find a way to construct your own base after that, without having the ability to extract your MCV and build safely outside the walls of your foe.

Strat3

Here, the player is unable to use traditional RTS strategies to retrieve the MCV. You obviously cannot build up a force to enter the base (because you have no production buildings), and nor do you start with a force sufficient to break through even the weakest of the three gates surrounding this base. The first part of this mission is more like a puzzle game where you must find a particular route through the level whilst avoiding enemies that behave in specific ways. There is a single path to enter the base and retrieve your mission-essential unit:

Start99

Having done this, your secondary objective is to destroy all the enemy units and buildings on the map. You cannot get your MCV safely out of the enemy base, and thus the player must build their base within the enemy’s. The tall yellow buildings with blue/white tops are “Advanced Guard Towers” (AGTs) – these are powerful defenses with a significant range, as (approximately) shown by the red circles below. You cannot build within those circles, nor safely move your units within them, as they will come under fire you cannot resist at this point in the mission. However, AGTs require power, and there are three power stations your Stealth Tank can safely aim at by uncloaking (they must de-cloak to fire) just north of your MCV. Killing two of these power plants is not sufficient, but all three is. Once your stealth tank is positioned safely, they can destroy those power plants, disable many of the base defenses (though not the smaller yellow towers, nor the tanks) and thus start to build a base.

Strat5

Subsequently, the optimal strategy is arguably to build walls outwards to block enemy vehicles, and although this is too complex to show in a diagram, many of the enemy buildings and enemies are positioned in such a way as to encourage the player to slowly advance across the base and taking it over in a very specific order. So, on this map the player is tasked with finding a route through obstacles – a very un-RTS principle – before thinking outside the box and finding a way to take out a base from the inside whilst not triggering its external defenders, rather than attacking from the outside. Were any of the buildings placed differently – for example, a second AGT on the left side of the top gate – this map would become impossible. As it is, there are just enough power plants within safe firing range for your fragile Stealth Tank, and just the right locations for defenses, to enable a very specific and unique strategy and get the player thinking carefully about the power/defense/enemy layouts the mission has put in front of you.

In this third example, you start with two groups of units split off from one another. The units at the bottom need to navigate the lower half of the map to retrieve a non-essential cache of money in the village at the end of the green arrow; the units at the north of the map need to enter the base in the centre-left, capture its buildings, and start building a base from there. In this case, you have a lot of units and the base is only guarded by a pair of standard “Guard Towers” (blue circles) – these are weak against tanks, but tear through soldiers. You are only given soldiers, but the makeup of your soldiers, and using both your forces effectively, are the keys to making the opening stages of this map far from trivial.

Gunboat

Your unit composition on the top is very cleverly thought through. You have a dozen normal soldiers (blue); one commando (the light green), who can one-shot any troop at range, and instantly kill any building if in an adjacent tile; and three engineers (dark green), who can capture buildings (note the three yellow buildings within the western base – these are what you are expected to seize). Your troops are not sufficient to overcome the two anti-troop guard towers; your commando, being infantry, cannot possibly get close enough to destroy them (using C4 in close proximity). The engineers are essential. The only solution is to use the standard troops as fodder; they must run ahead of the commando into the guard towers to allow him to C4 them both. Guard towers target enemies closest to them, so the player needs to also ensure the commando hits the guard tower in the one-second window between its bullets without giving it time to ID the commando as the “closest enemy” and open fire. Commandos briefly overlap with the a tile a building is built upon during the placing of the C4 – ensuring they will be considered the closest enemy – so meeting this timing window is essential.

Additionally, there is a “Gunboat” patrolling (the white circle) left-to-right-to-left on the river. This gunboat will destroy your troops if it comes into range; a second use of your lower units is to keep an eye on the gunboat, and ensure that your northern units only attack the guard towers within the safe window whilst the gunboat is on the other side of the map. Much like the first level discussed in this post, this adds a secondary time pressure – the player’s sacrifice-then-C4 attack on the western base must be carried out before the gunboat concludes a single loop, and you should ideally command the southern force of soldiers to keep an eye on the gunboat and avoiding sacrificing your key northern troops before you get the chance to then sacrifice them to the guard towers.

On this level, then, the defenses of the base, much like the above second example, are specifically designed and placed so that your unit composition must be used in a particular way to overcome them. This sacrificial solution is also particularly fitting because the army you are playing as for this mission, a strange kind of terrorist-militia-irregular-army-paramilitary-cult-populist organization, are willing to sacrifice unimportant soldiers (within the plot), and this mission nicely reinforces that from a thematic standpoint.

Finale

Ultimately, all three of these missions ask far more of the player than to merely build a base, build up an army, and conquer the enemy. In all three cases this is certainly a later objective, but rather than simply starting the player off with an MCV, some resources and some escort units, they each ask the player to think about the tactical situation in more interesting ways. In the first the player has to utilize the map to their advantage to overcome an apparently impossible battle, and take advantage of, or even exploit, the AI. In the second the player has to navigate through a “puzzle” base before cautiously developing their own base within the limits imposed by the enemy’s fortifications. In the third, possibly the most interesting, the player needs to control two different groups of units; use the southern unit group to assist the northern unit group in timing their attacks to avoid the gunboat; and then to launch an attack in a narrow time window where you need to manage both your meat-shield units and your crucial unit very carefully with one-second time windows for destroying the buildings in question. Rather than multiplayer maps that demand perfect balance (or at least strive towards it), or maps like those offered by most RTS games which are merely “somewhere to fight” (looking at you, Supreme Commander), the layouts of these maps and the specific and few units given to the player provide unique and interesting challenges, and also show the player particular tactics or strategies that could potentially be deployed in later missions even without the restrictions these missions have. Whilst other C&C games certainly have some interesting levels, the original still stands out to me as a cut above the rest.

Short-Term Luck and Long-Term Skill

Having finally found my way back onto my own website (a surprisingly challenging task these past few days), I present a blog entry in two parts. The first shorter part will discuss the current status of URR (short version: development resuming in under a month!) and the second will be a more theoretical bit of rambling about games, luck and skill, “investing” time/effort into a game, and similar (short version: roguelikes are sort of like poker. In a way. Kind of).

I’ve been thinking about what I want the next release to entail. Roughly speaking, I had several major objectives for this release: ziggurats, ziggurat puzzles & artwork, history and civilization generation, and the encyclopedia. I’ve now decided that I want to prioritize the gameplay aspects of the first two of that list over everything else for this release. I would estimate one/two months ZG2work remaining in ziggurats, and development will be resuming towards the end of May. Despite the progress made on flag, religious icon, creation myth and history generation, I’ve decided to leave these for 0.4. I want to get some gameplay out. I want people to see what I’ve been working on in URR, get some feedback, and actually try to release two versions a year. Lastly, I realize that the flag/ religion/ history/ myth gen aspect is (like everything…) larger than anticipated, and really merits a release in itself. So that’s what it’s going to get. This means 0.3 will have a lot of small changes/improvements, but will be primarily focused on ziggurats, exploring them, solving the puzzles within them (which get harder with each floor), and last – but not least – finding a particular kind of item atop the ziggurats that will tell you a little bit about the future of the game. I’m not going to say anything more about that – you’ll have to master a ziggurat to find out.

Now onto this post’s scheduled dose of video game pondering. I’ve long thought there was a strong corollary between roguelikes and the various games of poker, so I’m going to discuss a few of the strong simiZG2larities I think they have and how they relate to roguelike game design. Some time in the past now, I played poker semi-professionally in order to supplement my income for about two years. In that time I believe I logged something around a million and a half hands online, though I do no longer have the datamining files any more so it could probably be +/- 200k or so. Regardless, there are three central ways I’ve always thought roguelikes scratched the same itch as poker, and I’d be keen to hear what people think about these comparisons. The first is in relation to luck and skill, the second is in relation to “investment”, be it time, money, effort, or whatever else, and the third is in relation to the skills they demand.

Poker has a very high short term luck aspect. Every single hand dealt is completely random. What this means is that if you put the world’s best player in a room with the world’s worst and have them play a single hand, the world’s best would win more than 50% of the time, but it would be far from 100% because so much of that single hand depends on that particular deal. This is why poker players, particularly online ones, don’t count results from single hands, or even generally from single sessions, but across months, or hundreds of thousands of hands, etc. Over that kind of time span, the number of strong and weak hands anyone is dealt, the number of times a player is in a particular position, the number of times the player is at a table with strong players or weak players, and every other factor that affects a given hand will even themselves out pretty quickly. With such a large sample size the stronger players will pull into the lead in the long run whilst the weaker players will fall behind. Of course the weaker player will sometimes win and the stronger player sometimes lose, but in the long term the stronger player will lose less from losing hands and win more from winning hands than the weaker player. Indeed, many say this is a crucial part of the game’s appeal, and something purely mechanistic games don’t have – weaker players remain keen to play and risk their money because they will win sometimes, and this is why “professional poker players”, as a demographic, are vastly much more numerous than, say, professional chess players. There’s simply so much more money around.

I would suggest that a single hand in poker is roughly equal to, perhaps, a single floor in a classical roguelike, or a single room in the Binding of Isaac, or a single ship engagement in FTL. The elements of that floor are broadly random (though obviously within predefined parameters), and you never know when entering a single floor whether you’re going to be particularly lucky, unlucky, or neutrally lucky (were there such a term) on that floor. Equally, rooms on Isaac range from the trivial to the painfully difficult once you reach the Chest, and ship fights within a given sector of FTL have a reasonable amount of variation – though they are not labelled as such, you will encounter particularly challenging ships now and then, equivalent to unique foes in classic roguelikes or miniboss rooms in Isaac. In the short term there is a big element here, and sometimes it may overcome the player (though it reassures me that people can get 20+ game streaks in games like Crawl, thereby demonstrating the mastery a skilled player than possess), but over time the stronger player will survive that room the more often (perhaps reaching 100% in some games). What you will face in each room or floor or battle is luck, but completing a given playthrough comes down entirely to skill.

ZG2

Then there’s the second comparison which I think bears mentioning – that of “investment”, both in terms of time and effort. This is less true of “ring games” in poker, but very true of a tournament. Let us say you pay $50 to enter a tournament of 2000 people. The way poker works, the top 10%, i.e. 200 people, will get paid. The 50th place finisher will get $50, the 40th only around $100, and it will quickly ramp up to a very, very high first place prize. For 2000 people to go down to 200 people could take the best part of half a day. If you enter the tournament, play, then bust out 51st, you have just spent $50, and 6 hours, for nothing. In fact, you would have been better had you not played – you could have spent the time and money elsewhere. Compare this to a roguelike and you get the same formula, at least in terms of time – you invest a lot of time in a character, and whilst upon dying you may learn something new, it’s hard not to feel you wasted your time on that character (at least for me). The reward of eventual victory in a new and challenging RL certainly offsets this, but it’s still hard to not feel some time was wasted. Unlike games with checkpoints, or the ability to quicksave, or whatever else, I would suggest that you are taking a gamble when you invest your time in a roguelike in a way very akin to a poker tournament. You risk a lot, but the reward – the satisfaction – trumps almost any game where you can save/reload. It’s up to the player to make that risk/reward decision.

Thirdly, and finally, the kind of skill each demand. In my department at the university, there are a lot of people who play chess. Though I have played a few games, won a few and lost a few, I’ve never particularly enjoyed chess. It’s too mechanistic. “Skill” in the early game and the late game, for me, comes down toZG2 nothing more than a memorization exercise of learning good openings, weak openings, how to counter openings, etc. Where’s the skill there? Whilst I admit the midgame has a lot of room for genuinely interesting, skilled play, the early game in chess is so dependent on rote learning – and a good/bad opening sets you up well/badly for the entire game – that the game as a whole just doesn’t appeal. By contrast, games with short term luck ensure this is never the case. You are constantly kept on your toes, and constantly challenged by having to deal with something new. You can’t rote learn in poker – you have to adopt a new strategy every single hand, broadly speaking. The same goes for roguelikes – obviously you have to learn the rules and mechanics, but there is minimal rote learning of what you do with them (outside “find the vibrating square” in Nethack, “collect three Runes” in Crawl, etc). Every floor and every situation is unique, and it demands at every stage the kind of mastery over the game that, in chess, is only found in the midgame. A game which makes you respond to something new at every moment seems to me infinitely more interesting.

In case it was not clear, I think these are all good things. I like that roguelikes (for the most part) avoid getting stale, or at least get far, far less stalZG2e than non-procedural games, and I like putting my time “on the line”. Naturally when I lose a Crawl character at 14 runes (sigh) it’s infuriating, but with what I now know about the extended endgame, I’m confident I’ll get a 15-rune victory at some point before too long. Equally, whilst I won’t say a roguelike “never gets boring”, it certainly does so at a point slowly than other singleplayer games. There’s also a great level of satisfaction to be gained, I think, from that kind of mastery over the procedural elements of a game, and one generally greater than mastery of mechanistic elements. That feeling that you can defeat “whatever the game throws at you”. I discovered roguelikes about the same time as becoming good at poker (the latter became “relaxation” after the former), but the two really do work on very similar psychological levels. How does all this whatnot tie into URR? Well, I am going the permadeath route, but I want death to be a less regular happening – and one the player has a lot more control over – than in, say, DF adventure mode. Short-term luck should affect your floor or current foe, but it should never turn a great run into a dead run without your control. It’s a tricky balance to get, no doubt, but there are enough games in which it works to make me confident it’s a balance I can get right.

Skill Trees, Part I

All the concept work has paid off, and we have here a skill tree. This is the one for the ‘Slashing Weapons’ skill (swords, scimitars, etc) which is a skill (and a type of weapon) found in the Medieval Era.

Each colour/letter combo denotes something different:

Red ‘D’ = Damage Upgrade.
Green ‘A’ = Accuracy Upgrade.
Pale ‘X’ = Unlock a Special Attack.
Yellow ‘O’ = Increased chance to spot openings in combat.
Blue ‘S’ = Increase a stat (Str/End/Dex/Int/Wil).
Light Blue ‘U’ = Upgrade weapon abilities (e.g. ability to sever limbs, for slashing weapons).
White ‘+’ = Start of the skill tree.
Orange ‘T’, Brown ‘P’, Purple ‘F’, Silver ‘C’, Olive ‘V’ (not shown) = ??

The double-lines around the D on the right denote that the cursor is currently resting on that skill. Soon there will be a little box which will follow your cursor around and tell you what each skill would do if you unlocked it. The blank squares have a cost like any other (see below), but do not give you anything; they are a larger investment for the significant upgrades like raising a stat or unlocking a special attack. Each skill tree will look totally different, though there is some commonality between some skill trees in some eras (for instance, the Medieval weapon trees – Slashing, Long, Short and Heavy Weapons, are roughly comparable).

As for progressing through this thing – you can unlock all of a skill tree. The challenge of choosing your path comes from prioritizing certain areas of the skill tree to collect early before the price goes up, but if committed to a particular skill tree, you can unlock the entire thing. The cost of each section of each skill tree goes up rapidly, but the overall skill cost does not. That is to say, if you have 100 XP to spend, you could either unlock ten starting points on ten skill trees, or – on a skill tree you’ve already purchased nine parts of – make a single purchase for the full 100 XP (these are not actual values, obviously). I think  the rising costs for each skill tree offer an interesting way to make you choose decisions whilst still allowing for specialization.

A few other conceptual decisions have also been made.

1) I’m going to remove the quotes from the loading screens: I will leave them on screens about political/social/cultural choices and the ‘strategy’ element, but for the normal gameplay segments, they will be removed and replaced with more detail instead.

2) World Generation and player generation will be split. A lot of people have said this, and I’ll make it happen. This might be 0.2.0, but will definitely be 0.3.0 if not.

3) As has been hinted above, URR is no longer just medieval. I have three eras planned, but I intend to keep #2 and #3 closely guarded until there is a reasonable amount of content for them. We’re looking at 1.0.0, or more likely, 1.1.0 for that (so the first half of next year).

Lastly, I hope this entry was worth the fortnight wait and lays out much of the planning for 0.2.0 in terms of skills. The next entry will focus on the changes to combat, some of which – openings and special attacks – have been hinted at here. That will also likely be in a fortnight. I’ve not entirely switched to fortnightly entries, but fortnightly entries are generally going to be a lot larger. After that entry, I’ll probably switch back to weekly as development on 0.2.0 really gets moving. So, let me know what you think about the skill trees, and the options for how you advance along them

Unrelated final note. Some people commented on the description of the ‘Swimming’ skill before I removed the old skills, and seemed to think it was a reflection of me as a developer (i.e. apparently a colossal anorak). So, allow me to set the record straight for those of you who read it: it was a joke.

On Prester John

I’ve had a few questions lately about the kind of setting the game inhabits; most people have been classifying it as ‘high fantasy’, and that’s a little away from the setting I’m going for. I thought I’d take an entry to describe the inspirations behind URR’s setting and how this’ll be reflected in the game design decisions.

A central inspiration is the myth of Prester John, or rather, the way it filtered into medieval society and how it affected perceptions of the outside world. It was the idea hatched in Europe around the twelfth century that another christian emperor called Prester John existed in some undefined region east of Europe. It served as the idea that there was somewhere another ally that Europe could count upon in its conflicts, and that some parts of the far distant world were potential allies. This location varied between central Asia and eastern Africa depending on the version of the myth. Dozens of different stories existed about him and his empire, ranging from the entirely worldly to the fantastical; an assortment of mythical creatures were believed to be exist in John’s empire, and the empire itself was thought to be in a variety of places. Even more so, people came to associate Prester John with a variety of different real-world figures, ranging from Genghis Khan to Zara Yaqob, even though they all variously denied being this mythical figure. Effectively, it was a strange amalgam of facts about battles, empires, lands, geographies, histories, all put into a single narrative that was far more desirable and reassuring than the truth, and one that was a reflection of a fundamental lack of knowledge about the rest of the world, and what creatures were and weren’t just figments of legend. Similarly, it altered which distance empires were believed to exist and in what configuration, along with their rulers, important battles, etc.

This is the kind of setting I want to cultivate; that the world is fundamentally unknown, and that each civilization has different (and probably wildly inaccurate) understandings of what the rest of the world is like. The further your starting civilization is from others, the less accurate your knowledge of the far-away civilizations will be. Similarly, you might think that a particular mythological species dwells in one area, while it actually dwells in others; I’d like to get other civilizations having the same misunderstandings about other civilizations. Equally, there may be myths about species which don’t actually exist – I intend to randomize what recruit-able species are and aren’t generated in each world, but this won’t be known until you seek them out and separate the fact from the myth. Myths about all creatures will always exist, but some creatures will be real and some creatures won’t each time. Even within existing creatures, myths may give you inaccurate information at first, as I’m intending to build an amount of randomness into each species, too.

Thus, the URR world is fundamentally medieval, except for the fact that while we never discovered all those strange creatures, the player probably will. I’ll warn everyone now that next week won’t have a blog entry; I have a lot of thesis work that needs to be done. If you’re new to the blog (I see a lot of new sites that have started registering on my incoming traffic recently), I suggest you check back previous entries or the info page for the kind of thing that comes in most blog entries and to get a better idea of what the game currently looks like. See you all in a fortnight!