Monday, October 6, 2008

Less Is More

Previously I wrote about a Quake 3 modification I made named Art of War, and how it was the inspiration for BrainWorks. But it wasn't the first Quake 3 mod I made. That honor belongs to an unreleased game variant simply titled Less. The concept of Less is simple: All items are less powerful, less health or ammo per pickup. It's the opposite of Excessive Quake. Excessive is fun because who wouldn't want to be uber powerful. Doesn't that mean Less is less fun to play?

I believe that when done correctly, less is more. The actual numbers on an item don't mean anything; only the relative values matter. For example, you could multiply all health, armor, and damage values in Quake by 1000 and the game play wouldn't change. Players would start with 125,000 health and each rocket would do up to 100,000 damage. Strategically nothing has changed. I call this "Pinball Inflation", as pinball games have been adding extra zeros for decades. Some tables now have scores that reach the trillions.

Online RPGs like World of Warcraft have a similar issue, where you can gain levels and deal extra damage, but you fight monsters that have more health. The difficulty of the fights don't change that much. At best you might gain a totally new kind of ability as you gain a level, which gives you another tool at your disposal, and that's the only way the difficulty increases. So for MMOs, the number inflation game is a method of unlocking more content. Players would be daunted if the first time they picked up a class of character, they had 30+ different abilities to choose from. It's better to start them with 3 to 5 and have them gradually learn more.

All that said, it's crucial to realize that gaining levels doesn't actually make your character more powerful, relative to the content you're doing. Sure you might kill goblins in 2 hits instead of 3, but you'll eventually move onto killing stronger goblins. The primary purpose of gaining levels is letting you experience more content in the game while maintaining the same difficulty.

I started the design of Less from a similar standpoint: I wanted Quake 3 to have more content. Reducing the benefit of each item might seem like a strange way to add content, but listen to the logic. A typical game of Quake 3 involves controlling the two to five best items on the map: red and yellow armor, megahealth, and powerups like quad damage and haste. But on the level there are dozens of items that rarely matter, things like boxes of ammo and weapons. You'd think weapons would matter more, but when they respawn every 5 seconds after pickup, pretty much everyone has any weapon they want. And the ammo a weapon provides makes that weapon's associated ammo box irrelevant. There may be 50 items on a level, but only 3 of them matter for a typical game.

The concept of Less was to make all items have a roughly equal play value on average. Then the best players would be those who knew which item was most important in the current situation, and what their opponent needed the most. You could end up with a game where the winner was the person who best controlled a box of rockets and a box of machinegun bullets. And that adds a deeper level of strategy and tactics, thereby adding more gameplay to the game.

You'd be suprised, but it's actually possible to tweak the numbers for each item to make this possible. The game plays like Bizzaro Quake 3, where you start timing the respawn of ammo boxes and small health balls in addition to armor and quad damage. It's definitely the same game on the surface, but the high level strategy of how you play the map is totally different.

While I don't have the source code in front of me, here are some of the changes made, to give you a sense of how dramatically the gameplay shifts.
  • Railgun Weapon: Provides 2 slugs (3 seconds) instead of 10 (15 seconds)
  • Railgun Slug Box: Provides 5 slugs (7.5 seconds) instead of 10 (15 seconds)
  • Lightning Weapon: Provides 24 ammo (1.2 seconds) instead of 100 (5 seconds)
  • Lightning Ammo: Provides 40 ammo (2 seconds) instead of 60 (3 seconds)
  • Quad Damage: Lasts for 8 seconds instead of 30
  • Red Armor: 50 armor instead of 100
  • Yellow Armor: 25 armor instead of 50
  • Orange Health: 25 health instead of 50
  • Yellow Health: 15 health instead of 25
When playing Less, you have this constant sense of never having enough of anything, and that in turn creates a sense of fear and tension. The big question is, though, "Do these changes make a better game?" I'm curious what other people think, and next week I'll share my own thoughts on the difference (and connection) between making a game balanced and making a game fun.


Dave Mark said...

Gee... you put strategy into a shooter? Wow.

I think that one of the most interesting experiences I had in the shooter world was being at a LAN cafe playing the original Rainbow 6. Now that death actually meant something (i.e. you sit out the rest of the round) people slowed waaaay down and used strategy and tactics as a group. They were very careful. It was also very realistic (I suppose... I've never been in a situation like that in real life *shrug*).

That's one of my pet peeves with shooters. People feel quite comfortable running out in the middle of places knowing that they can either:
a) survive
b) find something to heal with
c) respawn soon anyway

While that's fun for idle amusement, it's not what I think of in terms of entertainment.

I have this same mantra on TF2 where people do the run-and-gun mentality... and lose. I tell them "It's not how many people you kill, it's killing the right people at the right time." As people learn and pay attention to that, the team as a whole gets better.

Ted Vessenes said...

Having plentiful health and a low respawn time on death certainly makes people more aggressive, and you can see it in the way a BrainWorks bot plays in free-for-all matches with lots of players. It realizes the cost of death is so low that a cavalier attitude is the best way to score points. Obviously this isn't ideal for any team-based situation (and the bots are more conservative in that situation as well).

One of the most popular Quake mods is Rocket Arena, actually, where players spawn with a bunch of weapons and ammo but there are no items on the map. In particular, there's no health or armor. So the game is pure combat tactics and hunting. It's a very different kind of strategy than a standard item based deathmatch game.

On the other hand, I wouldn't say standard deathmatch has no strategy either. It all comes down to estimating what items your opponent needs the most and thinks they can safely obtain, and knowing how and when to unexpectedly head them off to wherever they're going. That's not a totally nonstrategic game, but it doesn't necessarily have the same amount of strategy as a pure combat game like Rocket Arena has.

The real question is how many interesting items there are on the level, since those define possible destinations that a player wants to run to (other than the obvious destination of an enemy player, which you want to find to shoot). The game is more strategic with more items worth taking, and the easiest way to add strategy is to reduce the power of the overpowered items rather than increase the value of underpowered ones.

By the way, in designing Less I also ran into the problem you mentioned where the cost of death is too cheap. I solved this by reducing the initial ammunition a respawned player starts with. Under standard Quake 3 rules, a fresh spawn gets 40 bullets, each of which deal 7 damage. With a typical 30% machinegun accuracy rate, that's 84 damage, almost enough to kill the standard player (who has around 100 health, due to the lack of armor). I think I gave new players half the starting bullets, so they were really encouraged to find more ammo or another weapon as soon as possible.

Gros said...

Where can we download this mod ? I find it very interesting to train strategic skills and I would like to test it as soon as possible :-D

TheHighFive said...

This is the main reason I don't stand play MMORPG: "All that said, it's crucial to realize that gaining levels doesn't actually make your character more powerful, relative to the content you're doing."

The more you play a MMO the more your character gets "better." The more you play a FPS or RTS the more YOU get better.

Ted Vessenes said...

Gros: Right-hand column, first section, first link will download the current version.

thehighfive: I wouldn't say that you can't become a better player from playing an MMO more, any more than playing an FPS more guarantees you become a better player. Rather in FPS games there's just one way to get better at your job: become more skilled. And in MMOs there are two ways: become more skilled and get more gear. MMO designers combat the gear inflation by releasing new content that requires "bigger numbers". Most of the time you end up in a situation where you can substitute gear for skill or vice versa, and the sum of the two determines the maximum level of content you can beat.

I've been playing World of Warcraft for years, and I certainly won't claim there's more skill required than in a game like Quake. But I'm not convinced there's less skill either, among the top players. Pretty much all the really strong MMO players I've met have come from a FPS background. I can personally attest that I was still a bad player when I hit level 60 (the level cap at the time). It took me several months of raiding to learn how to play my class. But I've also met lots of people who have played the same class for years and are still bad at it. They just use gear as a crutch and hope they don't screw up too badly.