There are certain design decisions that I when I read about or experience in game I’m left in a state of puzzlement as to what the developers were thinking. Two of these which seem to go together is a horrible interface and either no tutorial or a lackluster one. For this post I’m going to focus on the latter as at this point in the industry there should be no excuse for certain genres not to have a good tutorial. I thought originally that this was going to be an easy entry to write but when it came time to think up good examples of tutorials the only ones I remembered were the lousy ones. Before we get to what makes up good tutorials, let’s talk about certain “truths” of bad ones.
1. A manual no matter how big it is doesn’t replace a tutorial: I’m looking at all those wargames, 4x strategy titles and multi system games for this one. I think some of these designers believe that the only thing stopping people from playing their games is that they don’t read a 200 page manual. What they don’t understand is that there is a difference between reading 200 pages of information and digesting 200 pages of information, I can read a 1000 page book on Flash programming does that make me the world’s greatest flash programmer? It does not, as without being able to understand all those pages you won’t learn a thing.
Another part of this argument is that I don’t care if your manual breaks down every system in the game; it still doesn’t equal a tutorial. There is a difference between reading about how combat works and watching or using combat in your game. In my opinion a game with a horrible manual and excellent tutorial is better than a game with an excellent manual and a horrible tutorial.
2: Sandbox != tutorial: For this one I’m bringing back painful memories of Supreme Commander when it first came out. The tutorial of the game was in essence a massive spawning stage with paragraph descriptions of things when you tried to use them. Sandbox design are in my opinion is the worst way to try and teach someone how to play a game. You’re effectively giving someone on their first day of shop class an entire garage and say “build a car”. Learning by doing doesn’t really work if the person is starting out with zero knowledge of how things work.
3: Give me a teacher not a tour guide: Now then, this one you can insert most war games and expert level turn based strategy titles here. This kind of tutorial falls into two camps first is the guided tour in the manual. Chances are anyone who has tried to learn how to play a wargame knows about “the tutorial game”. In which the player loads up a save game and then alt tabs back and forth between the manual or just reads the manual and do what they are told. To be honest this is just stupid in my opinion, first off you are playing the game out of context. Sure you are attacking enemies and moving units, but do you really know why you are doing it or how the game works? Also having to stop and start the game hurts any kind of learning as the experience isn’t constant.
Next is the in game version of this, mostly seen in strategy titles. Here the player is basically guided through playing the game. The problem is that once again you are not teaching the player the game, you are telling them what to do. Let’s use one of my favorite examples for a second:
The game tells you it’s time to raise your military spending, so you bring up the funding screen and move the slider to the right. The game says good job and you move right along.
The problem is that nothing is explained to the player about this mechanic. What is the importance of the slider? What if you moved the slider left, what would happen? Why did you need to do this and what situations would you need to do that again? Another detail that hurts is that usually these tutorial games have you dealing with a completely prescript AI, which eliminates any kind of learning about playing against it. Telling someone what to do is only going to help them in that one particular situation, explaining to them what needs to be done will help them in the future; you can pretty much insert that “give a man a fish…” saying right here.
With the bad out of the way here are some elements of good tutorials that can actually teach the player something.
Escalation teaching: I believe the oldest and least intrusive of teaching the player. These games there are no tutorials per say instead the game basically teaches the player through action. Old school action titles are some of the best examples of this, especially Mega Man. Instead of starting off the player in a complex maze of spikes and death pits, the player’s first task is to make simple jumps up to platforms. There is no failure here, if the player misses there is usually ground to catch the player. Later on in the level the ground is removed and the player must do it under penalty of losing a life; enemies or some new obstacle are added to the formula. The same method is also seen in the Mega Man series themed levels, such as lights going on and off or platforms that disappear and reappear.
What is brilliant about this is that the player is being taught the game without knowing it. There are no “press X to jump” messages here instead the designer is slowly but surely removing the safety net from the player. This culminates in the final areas as a grand final exam of every mechanic combined; see the Dr. Willy stages in Mega Man for this. Later games may have a few messages but the style is the same. In Batman Arkham Asylum the game doesn’t introduce all of Batman’s gear at the start or every enemy type. Instead they are unlocked as the game goes on making sure that the player knows how to do X before Y is revealed.
Piece by Piece: Next are tutorials that while they are removed from the normal play style of the game they still can give the player a good explanation of the mechanics. Best seen in most real time strategy titles, these games either feature 3 or 4 “tutorial stages” or the first act of the game is considered the tutorial. Here each stage limits what the player can do and has access to what is required for the tutorial. Another aspect of this is splitting the tutorial into beginning, middle and late game mechanics. This is a great way of not overloading the player with rules while making sure that once they are done that the game can really start. Lately Dawn of Discovery was a good example of this, starting out the game introduced your lowest class of citizens, then moved up, then introduced needs and wants and so on. What was great about this is that it flows in the general structure of how the game works; basically I’m going to be doing the same thing in the full game just without the limits placed on the tutorial.
“Read all about it!”: This one is one of my favorites and is so simple I don’t understand why we don’t see it more: After Action Reports. AARs are limited to PC only titles, which is someone writing about their play through. Talking about the mechanics they saw or why they made certain decisions, it’s not important if the player wins or loses but to chronicle their experience. What I love about this style is that it allows someone to see the game in context and see how someone goes through the game. They are also an inexpensive way of drawing publicity to your title as it allows a gamer to see exactly what the game is about. Another subtle use is that they can be used to design an actual tutorial about your game. Creating a game diary or AAR lets you see the logical order of how the mechanics of the game are used; knowing how the player is going to experience the game should give the designer an idea on how to structure a tutorial.
Press the Start button to start the game”: Yes we all know about these types, the tutorials that are designed for the complete and utter novice at your title. I bet we all groaned when a game tells us to use the analog stick to move your character, still no matter how useless they are to the hardcore I still believe they are important. You always have to assume that someone who has never picked up the genre before is going to play your game and having something remedial can help them learn it. Still I do believe that tutorials like these should be skippable from the start or after going through them one time.
In my opinion it is absolutely heinous why designers of complex titles forgo some kind of tutorial for their games. It is not that hard to create a tutorial as I’ve mentioned above and all it can take is some small direction to get the player to learn the basics. The designers who completely ignore a tutorial or create a half- ass one have no right to ever complain about sales or a diminishing fan base as they are the ones causing it. This past week during the big Steam Sale Hearts of Iron 3 was on sale for $7. I looked it up having attempting to learn Europa Universalis 3 and finding the lackluster tutorial in EU stopped me dead. HoI3 from impressions has the same problem and I realized that for $7 it still wasn’t worth it for me to fumble through the game and give up after an hour or so. When you can’t even sell me your game for $7, maybe you should stop and think about how to fix that.
A few months ago I wrote about getting Demon’s Souls for the PS3 before I even had one and how it sounded like the perfect game for me. For the last few weeks I blazed through it and finished the game one time and started a new game +. Demon’s Souls is most likely the closest we are going to get to a mainstream rogue like on the consoles.
For those just tuning in, Demon’s Souls is an action RPG on the PS3 where you must fight Demons of course. What separates it from other titles is the difficulty curve. In the game the souls of your enemies make up your experience and money, if you die all your souls are dropped onto your death spot and all enemies respawn in the world. If you can make it back there you can reclaim all the souls, but if you die again then all those souls are gone. This is not Diablo where the enemies are mindless grunts, they will attempt to block, counter and swarm you and enemies wielding larger weapons can easily tear through your defenses. A stamina system prevents you from moving like a hyperactive rabbit as attacking, blocking, and evasive moves are tied to it. What makes Demon’s Soul so interesting is how they added complexity to a genre known for hack and slashing.
As I mentioned earlier souls count for experience in the game and to level up, you have to make it back to the nexus or hub world alive. Once there you can use them to raise one of your attributes up one point which also raises your “soul level”. Each time you level up the cost to upgrade goes up as well. It is a great way of scaling the game, early on having over 1000 souls seems like a lot, and later on you’ll fight enemies that will pay off more than that when killed. Increasing your attributes define your play style, there are 3 broad ways to play: Melee, Magic and range. Of course tricky players will try to create hybrid characters.
The design of Demon’s Souls that I love is how progression is handled. As I mentioned in a previous entry I view progression along the lines of Time and Skill and DS keeps the balance between the two tight. I would say playing DS it is maybe 55-60 skill, 45-40 time. Here is in my opinion how DS breaks down between the two.
Skill: Every fight in DS early on is life or death as you learn about the game. Learning to maximize on your stamina pool is vital, attempting to keep pressure on an enemy with less than a quarter of stamina left is suicide. Knowing what you can and cannot fight is important, even the best players can rarely take on more than one powerful enemy at a time. There are many attacks and situations where stats or gear won’t save you and it all comes down to quick reflexes. As you play through the game your understanding of the enemies and their patterns will increase and that once tough foe will become a cake walk. Chances are you will die when you first meet the dragon, the octopus men and of course the vanguard and that is the point. Death is a learning experience and at some point you will be able to face those threats and defeat them.
Time: Like all RPGS your “deadliness quotient” can be measured in your attributes and gear. Increasing your attributes has two benefits, first is allowing you to create your own custom warrior and second raising your soul level will increase your defense. Enemies who could take you down in one hit early on will barely scratch you after an upgrade. Gear must not only be earned but it also can be improved, weapons and shields can be upgraded with droppable materials. Of course to get these improvements takes time, materials come in three grades with the higher grades harder to find. Throw in a special material that comes in limited amounts per game means that if you want everything you are going to play the game again and again.
Games like DS that straddle that line between time and skill are some of my favorites. You need to have skill to survive in them to get the better toys; while those toys won’t replace skill they will make life easier for you. For example in the original X-Com you damn well need tactical skill to keep your squads alive, but skill alone won’t save you. Improving the tools you have available is the only way to survive the later fights. Another aspect of DS has to be its multiplayer options which can seem like an oxymoron for such as solitary game.
Multiplayer in DS is based on the form the player is in. In Body form the player has full health and has no modifiers to damage. If the player dies they enter Soul form, where they have less health but get an increase to damage. While in soul form the player can put themselves available to be summoned by Body form players as blue phantoms. As a blue phantom the player can help the player in their game, gaining souls off of defeated enemies but no loot. If the blue phantom survives to and defeats the boss demon they will be revived in body form. For the more malicious players, you can invade another player’s game as a black phantom. Here the black phantom’s job is to hunt down the player and kill them, gaining their body back and the souls of the player. What is interesting about this is as a black phantom the enemies of the world won’t touch you allowing you to use them as a double team. The host player can summon others into their game for backup which I did to take down an invader. Also while playing the game online you can search bloodstains on the ground which will replay the last few seconds of another player’s life; chances are I have a few of them around. Besides entering someone’s game the final interaction is leaving messages on the ground using generic scripts to create a message. If someone likes your message and recommends it, you recover full health.
Multiplayer in DS while in Body form makes things very interesting; I know that I can pull in backup whenever I need it, but also realize that at anytime someone can come in to make life very painful for me. With all the love I’m gushing over DS, the game is not perfect but I have a problem with my problems and yes I did mean it like that.
I’ve gotten to the point of playing so many games that I can tell when game mechanics were put there for a reason, or as an arbitrary decision to make up for poor design. DS is one of those games that it feels that the designers went over every inch of the game space to develop the game. Nothing feels like the designers had to cut corners or be lazy in DS. Yes there are parts of the game that are extra hard or long, but the designers wanted it that way. World 5-2 is a gauntlet of pain that is going to give you hell, but once through the designers have a peace offering in a form of a shortcut through the level on repeat visits. Earlier I talked about the 3 main styles of play: Melee, Ranged and magic, in DS there are many fights that are tilted for and against those three styles. Some boss fights are unbelievably tough if you try them with melee, but become inconsequential when using magic. I don’t believe the designers did this out of laziness but to force the player to adapt and fight through their character’s weakness. With those nitpicks aside I do have one problem with DS that I can’t attribute to design decisions but to the style of the genre itself.
DS is a game that is built primarily around the player’s skill first with stats and loot a distant second, the problem is that skill can only go so far in keeping player’s involved. I’ve reached my plateau in DS; I know how to beat every enemy, know every pattern and know where all the loot is. The rest of the experience is dealing with grinding for better stats which doesn’t interest me. Fighting enemies in a new game + I can beat them the same way, the only difference is that they take longer to kill. My only options for improvement at this point is to grind out the materials I need to upgrade my weapon or farm enough souls to raise my soul level and neither option sounds enticing to me. Even with PVP we are all the same skill wise once you beat the game, the rest comes down to gear and stats. I should rephrase that to mainly stats as there is a limited # of equipment in the game. There is such a thing as the best armor or the best spear weapon in the game and once you have them there aren’t any more carrots left to dangle. No new epic monsters to fight or new places left to explore.
I was telling some friends the other night at some point, someday someone will make a game that combines DS with Diablo and I will cry tears of joy. The worse thing I did though was going from playing DS to Torchlight, I’m running around and thinking “where the hell is my stamina meter for swinging my staff all those times?”
Well I’m pissed, someone who shall remain nameless because I don’t know who did it, played an event that took away 6 of my tribute cards which made me lose the Ichor that I finally managed to obtained. However it is finally time to vent some steam:
Skip ahead a few turns and once again another event drains me of my tribute, but that isn’t important right now. I’ve chosen as my vendetta single champion combat meaning its praetor V praetor. What is interesting about this is that it is a way for a non combat oriented archfiend to still strike a blow against his neighbors, by hiding a bad ass praetor waiting for a challenge like this. You don’t even need to have a praetor in your army to issue the challenge as both you and your enemy have 2 turns to get someone signed up. Now entering the ring is my pick:
Now let’s talk about the attributes relating to praetors besides the bonuses they provide when attached to legions they have their own unique stats that are judged in single combat. First off are hit points which is self explanatory, when they are all gone the challenge is over. Attack, Defense and Infernal are the important ones, they are measured by skulls, shields, and orbs respectively. Skulls and shields are used to enhance the combat moves you pick for your praetor; orbs are used for special moves. Luck works by increasing your attack and defense stats for that round of combat based on a dice roll done behind the scenes. For each round of combat you must choose a combat move for your praetor to use; by collecting manuscripts you can teach exotic combat moves that have a variety of affects but all praetors have the following moves:
Melee Attack: This move allows the praetor to attack the opponent, the player can enhance this by placing 1 to 5 skulls from their pool to enhance this. Luck plays a factor and a roll based on the luck stat will determine a bonus given to the attack.
Melee Defense This move allows the praetor to block an attack. This one can be enhanced by using 1 to 5 shields from their pool; luck will also enhance this move as well.
Guarded Attack: A cross between the previous two, this moves allows the praetor to attack and defend in the same move. The player can assign 1 to 4 skulls and 1 to 4 shields to this move.
Infernal Burst: This move is the special one, you must spend 3 orbs to use this move each time and this one cannot be blocked by luck or shields normally, it will do between 1 and 6 points of damage to the opponent.
And my first attempt at combat ends in…. nothing, turns out he did not have a praetor and I won by default. Meanwhile I don’t know what the hell this thing is but I must have it:
After many, many, many, many turns later I finally got a single champion fight so I can now show you how things went. Since I uploaded that first pic my praetor hit the gym so to speak with thanks from that event, you can see the differences in this battle breakdown picture:
(All math calculations are done using my stats on the left and the opponents’ stats on the right)
Let’s start with round one: I use a guarded attack rated with 4 points of attack, 3 points of defense and 2 luck, the 2 luck raises my attack to 6 and my defense to 5. My opponent uses a melee attack of 5 with 2 luck giving him an attack value of 7. However the luck also raises his defense which he had 0 and now has 2 points. As you can see I did 4 points of damage (4 attack + 2 luck -(0 defense + 2 luck), and I lost 2 points of health (3 defense + 2 luck – ( 5 attack + 2 luck) ). Giving our totals at the end of round 1 13 health for me 7 health for him.
Round 2: I played an infernal burst using up 3 of my 5 orbs for the match. As I mentioned earlier infernal bursts cannot be defended against by normal moves nor does luck stop it, but it does enhanced it as you can see. I end up doing 6 unstoppable points of damage and losing 2 points of health (0 defense +3 luck – ( 4 attack + 1 luck), ending the round 11 to 1 in my favor.
Round 3: I went all out with a 5 skull melee attack enhanced by 3 luck, the enemy only uses a 2 defense melee block. To make things worse for him it seems that his luck roll gave him a 0, meaning he takes 6 points of damage (5 attack + 3 luck – 2 defense).
So that is single combat in a nutshell, thanks to that victory I was able to enhanced his stats a bit more, coming up in our next part I breakdown how my game is going.
P.S Also I did not managed to buy the Beast 🙁
For this part we’re going to talk about diplomacy in SI. There are 5 diplomacy states that a player can be at: Neutral, vendetta, blood feud excommunicated and the pair of Blood Lord and Blood Vassel, with of course neutral meaning no one is fighting yet. Vendetta can happen if a player making a demand or insult is refused by the targeted player or if a player has their demand met 3 times by the same player. After that the player who made the insult or demand is allowed to claim vendetta. Vendetta is like a mini war lasting for several turns, the player can choose one of three ways to win the vendetta, by capturing enough cantons, defeating enough legions or winning in single praetor combat. The player can choose how many turns he wants the vendetta to go on for with less turns earning more prestige if won. The other player cannot see the objectives of the vendetta and must either defeat the player or hold out until the turn limit is over.
Blood feud is what happens if a player has completed 3 vendettas against another player, when this happens we have a full on war. In normal circumstances blood feuds go on until one of the players is defeated from the game, which is done by taking over their stronghold. Of course during blood feuds both sides can capture each other cantons as long as they are connected to their respective territories.
Last and certainty the most dangerous is excommunicated. This state can happen either by event or if a player makes an attack on the conclave that are situated at the Pandemonium. When either events happen that player becomes excommunicated which has 3 powerful affects. First the bazaar is closed for that player meaning no more buying troops or items. Second any player may attack the excommunicated player’s territory. This also means that the excommunicated player can basically wage war on every player as they are no longer bound to the rules of diplomacy. Third it gives the excommunicated player a chance to win the game another way. Once the Pandemonium is held captive by a player, if that player holds on to it and their stronghold for 5 turns they will win the game by default. Normally the game ends when the conclave draws a certain # of tokens, this event can happen at random at the start of the turn. However once the Pandemonium is taken this event will not occur giving the invading player a filibuster like affect at stopping the game from ending.
Besides death and destruction there are a few ways of being peaceful with your neighbors. First is sending gifts to your fellow archfiends, depending on the size of the gift and the rank difference between the two, the receiving player cannot make any demands or insults at you for a certain # of turns. Next when all hope of winning is lost you can swallow your pride and become the blood vassal to another player’s blood lord. When this happens you lose half your prestige and are now completely out of the running of winning the game. From this point it is your job to help your blood lord win. Before you think that you can double cross your lord at the end, your prestige is automatically added to your lord’s stockpile when the game is over.
The important parts to get out of the diplomacy in SI is that in order to do any real damage to your fellow players you need to get into a vendetta or blood feud with them, but as you can see there is a lot that goes into it. Hopefully I’ll be able to get into a vendetta with the AI so that I can show off single praetor combat.