This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 »
This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 »
Two weeks ago I wrote an article which introduced the problems of building a story arc in a multiplayer game. I wrote about three challenges:
This week we’re going to examine a number of games that I feel have a fantastic story arc and discuss the mechanics that make them awesome. I’ll even include a few thoughts about Atlas!
Street Fighter IV is one of my favorite eSports games to watch due to some very clever mechanics.
SF4 encourages interaction because there’s nothing else to do! Players always face their opponent and there aren’t any other objects to interact with except their enemy. Game designers often build overly-complicated systems that get in the way of playing with the other player, but SF4 provides no such distraction which allows for some very intense combat.
Also, the loss of health doesn’t impact a player’s ability to play. In an RTS game, if I lose an expansion, I am then blocked from building certain compositions because I don’t have enough resources. If an expansion is destroyed it means that I have lost certain ways to play. But in SF4, if I’m at 10% health, I can still do every attack combo at full damage. This almost always allows a player to have a real hope of a comeback.
Most importantly, as the game goes on the Ultra and Super meters build up, and both players have more powerful moves as the match continues. The increasing potential damage output leads naturally to a rising tension. A player at 10% health will likely have the ability to do an ultra combo, so the leading player has to be especially careful.
There are obviously great differences between the mechanics and gameplay of different MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) games. Lets just focus on the core mechanics they all share and why they build such great story arcs.
A core mechanic of MOBA games is resourcing — usually it’s experience points (XP) and gold which you use to improve your hero. The resources are located in the middle of the lanes for both teams, and by acquiring lane resources players are immediately close to each other which naturally leads to interaction. Also, camps in jungles can be gathered by any player, so these provide anchors that draw players together. More importantly, to maximize gold and XP, teams need to spread out their heroes, creating many points of interest and ganking opportunities for both teams. If teams could collect just as much gold or XP by sticking together there would be only two points of interest on the map: the two 5-man team clusters!
MOBA games also have a natural tension mechanic in the loss of defense towers and the increase of respawn time over the course of the game. Early in the game, the towers provide a safe zone of large areas of vision and extra defensive support, and if your hero dies you’ll respawn in only a few seconds losing very little resource-gathering time. But, as the game continues, towers are destroyed and safety and vision is reduced. Players have less of a sense of where their enemies are and it can take over a minute to respawn. This creates a rising pressure where small errors in positioning your hero is punished more severely the longer the game goes on.
I’ve heard that some MOBA games can suffer from the “prolonged ending” syndrome where a team can perform a game-winning move early but the match drags on for another 20 minutes in an excruciatingly-slow loss. As frustrating or true as that might be, the purpose of this article is to shine light on what mechanics allow for a strong story arc. In MOBA titles the losing team often has to win just one critical team fight to equalize the teams or begin a comeback. A lead in XP or gold should increase the probability of winning the next team fight but not guarantee the win. A MOBA designer might seek a careful balance between the benefit of a resource lead with the ability to skillfully control a teamfight.
One of my all time favorite board games, Settlers of Catan does a fantastic job of creating a dramatic experience for both new and experienced players.
The core interaction mechanic is the trading of resource cards with other players, but the structure of the resourcing is the real trick. The game has five resources that all players need throughout the game. No one player can easily generate all five resources. In fact, a player might only be able to safely generate one or two of the five. This heavy restriction makes trading and interacting with other players a necessity.
As the game goes on, players have more points and more pieces on the board. The gravity of each trade increases — it might help an opponent get another victory point, and that opponent might only be 2 points away from a win! The board becomes more complicated and convoluted. The victory points function almost like a ticking clock: the total number of victory points only increases throughout the course of the game. Thus, players feel pressure to make bigger plays as the end of the game approaches.
And my absolute favorite “mechanic” in Settlers: players get to balance the game as it’s played! In many resource-driven games, the person who first gains an economic lead can compound his advantage until he’s in an un-loseable situation. A game like Settlers might seem like the perfect candidate for the “prolonged ending” problem, but players actually have a way to hurt the person in the lead: Since victory points are mostly transparent (everyone can see the board, but sometimes a player will have a hidden victory point card or two), and trading is the only way to get all the resources you need, players can simply choose not to trade with or help the player who’s in the lead. This social pressure creates a natural equilibrium for the game state so that a player with too large of an advantage will be deliberately pushed back towards equilibrium. Most of the time, when the game ends, losing players are only a point or two away from winning themselves, and they all had a pretty good shot at winning the game the whole time.
The “equilibrium mechanic” is particularly fascinating because it’s not an explicit mechanic that’s stated anywhere in the game. In the rulebook players are simply told, “You may trade after resources are collected” and that’s it. And yet, a players opinion at any particular point in the game could be the most critical component to Settler’s dynamic. I’ve seen many board games rely on these types of social pressures in trading to succeed, but I don’t see it often used in video games.
We’ve tested hundreds of different prototypes of gameplay to try to create a compelling and dramatic story arc for Atlas. We’ve been very successful in some ways, and we’re still problem solving in others.
Rising tension: RTS games provide some simple mechanics for increasing tension over the course of the game: As the game progresses, armies are bigger and are augmented with more upgrades, and more expansions mean an increased area of vulnerability. We believe that the natural growth of size and strength of armies and economies during the game will naturally increase tension. However, we still need to make sure there is plenty of interaction throughout the game instead of a single battle, and we’re experimenting with things like key objectives on the map that become important defensive locations or important resource nodes.
Encouraging interaction: This has been, and continues to be, the primary focus for our game. Most of the time in RTS games players don’t want to attack because losing a battle in a traditional RTS is very punishing. Initially we tried to “force” interaction by making players collect resources next to each other, or we had them claim certain objectives to win the game. These broke the game because the first player who grabbed the resources or the objective quickly snowballed into a win.
In our research we found that the main reason players didn’t attack was fear — players were fearful that they’d lose their army and thus lose the game. We began to experiment with respawn mechanics for units. For example, if a player loses their whole army in a battle, their resources will trickle back to them and they’ll be able to build a newer, better army! This was almost too successful — players attacked nonstop and didn’t care if their army died since it didn’t matter. Similarly, killing an enemy army felt meaningless. So we subsequently introduced a minor punishment: players receive back only ~70% of their lost unit value. Our goal is for players to show some caution and planning, but still maintain plenty of interaction across a match. (The 70% number isn’t permanent – it will adjust based upon playtest data.)
Prolonged endings: We currently suffer terribly from the prolonged ending problem. Games are interesting for 15 minutes, climactic for about 2, and then drag for another 10. To help solve this we’ve planned a lot of experiments, such as:
By clearly defining the problem of prolonged endings we’ve created an objective benchmark for whether these experiments are satisfying our goals.
The next time you’re playing a multiplayer game, try to notice all of the brilliant tricks that designers have used to make it a great experience. Hopefully you’ll have a newfound understanding of what the designers were trying to achieve. Maybe we’ve also given you a glimpse into how we approach problems in Atlas: we define a goal, then structure the parameters of the problem, and then devise experiments that will help overcome the problems to achieve the goal. We have a long way to go until we have a solid story arc for our game, but some of the pieces are falling into place nicely.