Thursday, 8 November 2012

Is Zero Damage OK?

I am immersed in video games at pretty much every hour of the day, in one way or another. I think my favorite thing that comes of this is that I get to look at games under several different lenses. I find it very interesting to see what stands out to me when I am recording a Let's Play of a game, as opposed to simply playing it for myself. Similarly, one thinks very differently about games when you are looking at game design. Now that I have had the chance to actual build several very small projects, I would say that thinking about building a game is even separate from thinking about game design. I've enjoyed analyzing and discussing game design for several years now, but it feels very different from actually sitting down and pondering every minute detail about a game you are personally responsible for creating. That is where this post comes in.

About 8 months ago I had the chance to do something I've dreamed of since I was a young boy. I got to make an RPG. It was a very simple text based C++ game that ran in the console window, but I was all over that project. I built what I think was a very simple but somewhat elegant system that has a lot of flexibility. More importantly I got a real look at what it takes to balance a game. I knew it was hard, I've played RPG Maker before, but I've never gone so far as creating my own stats and making my own damage formulas. More to the point, it's an interesting challenge to ensure that not only is the game balanced, but balanced across all character paths. My game featured 3 classes and 3 different equipment "paths" which anyone could use. I wanted to ensure each class and equipment setup was at least moderately viable. Otherwise you risk the player unknowingly choosing a path that makes the game too hard, or picking a path that makes the game too easy and removing all challenge.

Anyways this is all going somewhere I promise. One of the interesting decisions I had to make when creating Hero of Legend was on the topic of 0 damage. I found during testing that it wasn't uncommon for the Wizard's melee attack to do 0 damage, or for the Fighter to take 0 damage from melee attacks. My first reaction was that this is clearly a problem and I need to adjust the formulas to account for this. While pondering how best to do that I began to wonder though. Is doing 0 damage really a problem? So of course I immediate response was then to look for parallels in the games that I have played.

The best parallel I could think of was Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. In that game, some of the hardest bosses are pretty ridiculous. A few of them have in excess of 10 million HP, making for a very long fight. The best way to deal with that is typically to stack defense, and occasionally an elemental immunity or two. In other words the best way to beat the boss is to arrange your equipment in such a way that at least one character takes no damage. Of course this leads to a somewhat uninteresting fight since you literally cannot lose. More to the point, stacking defense likely comes at the cost of some offense, and with so much HP those bosses are just going to take forever to kill. So then, is that good gameplay?

Personally I think that it is. To me, RPGs are all about choices. In order to orchestrate a situation where the hardest boss in the game is incapable of dealing to deal a single point of damage, a lot of work must be done. The player makes a very clear choice to commit to that strategy. Regardless of how fun that particular battle may or may not be, I think it's satisfying to see your strategy be effective. In fact many of my favorite games revolve around the concept of high level, long term planning more than moment to moment execution. Now the issue here is that in Star Ocean, making that choice is a much deeper process. One of the game's biggest systems is the item create/modification system, and in order to get the defense necessary you have to use this system extensively to get the required equipment modifiers. In my RPG, the choice isn't quite as deep.

Basically, there are 9 different clear paths to playing my RPG. There are 3 classes and 3 equipment paths, essentially requiring the player to make 2 decisions. You can mix and match equipment if you so choose, but that's unlikely to happen in most cases. With no big grand system governing all of this, it feels a lot less interesting for 0 damage to occur. More to the point it feels like it kind of happens on it's own. Ultimately though, 0 damage is still a result of player choice, and it does come with pluses and minuses. It's not unexpected that a Wizard would focus on magic. That's a choice though. The player chose a Wizard, and the player chose magic boosting equipment. Chances are they may never even notice their melee does 0 damage, they will be too busy tossing fireballs. Similarly, the player who chooses a Warrior and goes for physical oriented gear will take 0 melee damage most times. They will notice, but they will also notice they get torn apart by special attacks, and they have little ability to heal themselves.

So with that, I settled on the fact that 0 damage is in fact OK so long as it is gameplay. In most cases I think this will come down to the player choosing what they want their strengths (and by association, weaknesses) to be. I think it could also be applied to other types of gameplay though. Perhaps an enemy has a shield which blocks physical attacks. That forces the player to deal with an interesting situation: how to circumvent that damage immunity. My game doesn't have anything quite so complicated though, and I think something like that would have to be telegraphed very well to not be frustrating. Choices are more relevant if the player is aware of at least some of the consequences associated with them.

In hindsight I think I would probably have wanted the Wizard's attack to deal a small amount of damage instead of 0, though. If it isn't the result of an understandable mechanic like the aforementioned shield block, dealing 0 damage can be frustrating or just feel bad. Dealing 1 damage feels just a bit better, while still conveying the message that this route is going to work so well. Conversely, taking 0 damage actually feels really good because it's a choice that is then playing to your benefit. You can directly see that your choices are paying off, at least in that moment. I guess what it comes down to is that 0 damage is fine and good when it plays to your favor. When you are on the short end of the stick, it's probably better to reduce the damage to a small amount, even if it's a simple check that causes you to do say 1-5 damage if the damage formula reduces your output to 0.

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