Thursday, October 28, 2010

Games done right: Lessons from Force Unleashed

For starters, let me clarify that this blog post is about the original Force Unleashed, not the newly-released sequel. If it seems weird that I'm talking about a game that has been on the market for two years, you must be new to the blog. I never played Guitar Hero in any incarnation until about nine months ago. I'm still occasionally working on unlocking everything in the 2006 hit, Marvel Ultimate Alliance. I grabbed Bioshock for Christmas and have yet to load the disk, and I just grabbed Arkham Asylum a couple of weeks ago. When it comes to video games, I'm not really on top of things.

However, let's not think of this post as a discussion of the merits of what is effectively ancient gaming history, but about why I think the folks at LucasArts really got some things right with this one, and why game designers from both the digital and tabletop genres can take some things away from this.

Read on for my brilliant ideas.

No scaling, no problem

A pitfall that many, many games fall into, both of the video and tabletop variety, is allowing the world to increase in power level as a game progresses. I think we've all played games where, in the initial stage, our hero takes out the standard baddie with three hits. As we progress, however, so does the level of the competition, so while our character is now much more powerful, in the end it makes little difference, as the enemies are also tougher.

This isn't an inherently bad thing, of course, and is justified on two levels: first, in the interest of keeping the game challenging, and second, by reason of our hero taking on bigger and bigger challenges as he becomes stronger and stronger. These are both completely valid, as maintaining a challenging game is important and our powerful hero shouldn't be content to just beat up on weaklings. The downside, in my opinion, is that it skews the reality of the game world, and it doesn't hurt from time to time to be reminded of how far you've come.

Force Unleashed really finds a great middle ground on this. At the start of the game, the average Stormtrooper, at least in packs, is something of a threat to Starkiller. In a large, open room, with enemies in all directions, it's certainly not unreasonable to get into a bind and die at the hands of red blaster bolts from all sides. Starkiller can use his mighty powers to fight off a few at a time, but that energy bar drains painfully fast, leaving the player to rely heavily on melee, or routinely find a corner to hide behind to rest. As the game progresses and Starkiller refines his terrible power, Stormtroopers remain constant. Sure, as the game goes you encounter enhanced types and troops with various special abilities or immunities, but the basic Stormtrooper in the end is not a threat to the mighty Jedi, and even these unique or special units remain what they are from the first time they're encountered, right through the end of the game. This serves as a reminder of how far you've come in developing the character, and gives that feeling of unbridled power that I'm sure the designers were going for.

We can apply this lesson to our tabletop games as well. While our starting level Figher or Wizard or Thief begins adventuring, the tavern encounter with a local tough guy or the brush-up with highway bandits is a big deal, and we have to play it safe. However, when we've advanced to high levels and prestige classes and are routinely foiling the plans of dark gods and their high-level minions, those low-level threats don't cease to exist. Every once in a while, when in some new territory or town where are characters are not renowned or feared (or both), the local bar brawler or knifeman is likely to take on these out-of-towners, at least so long as they don't wear their prestige out in the open for all to see. The occasional encounter with a threat, once so great, but now so small, is fun for players and lets them really see how far they've come in the world.

Boss battles, drops, and maintaining the scene

In reflecting on the Force Unleashed gaming experience, I found that I really enjoyed the boss battles more than I normally do. There didn't seem to be any grind to it, and I think I've figured out what the key is to that success. The designers did very well in providing battles that flowed naturally and offered a lot of variety and different types of challenges.

It's become popular in any number of video games that bosses drop health, mana, or other resources throughout the battle. This is important in these cases because, honestly, the battle is written as an endurance trial and the statistical hit/armor/damage ratios are stacked firmly against the player. Diablo III comes to mind, as a great amount of talk has been issued from Blizzard's design team, discussing how this new sort of mechanic will be present in at least some of their boss battles. If Blizzard is doing it, it certainly isn't going anywhere.

Force Unleashed takes a different approach, which certainly isn't unique, but which I think was well executed. During many of the boss battles, after sufficiently knocking around the opponent, reinforcements are called in, usually in the form of a common enemy that has been seen through the level. These bad guys aren't really there to challenge you so much as they are to allow you to earn a health drop, since you get health restored for each kill that Starkiller makes. I felt that this method was far more immersive than waiting for some red or blue globes to come spilling out of the boss at predetermined increments. Nothing comes immediately to mind as to how this might translate well to a pen and paper RPG scenario, but even in that realm it's always better to give players the chance to reap bonuses by taking action.

The other great aspect of the boss battles, I thought, which also certainly isn't unique, is the mutli-stage boss battle that is often employed. Instead of Starkiller finding a tactic against a boss that works and simply exploiting it, most bosses mix them up and have several methods of attack and alternate between them, forcing the player to mix things up as well. In the first stage, the fight with General Kota begins as a lightsaber duel, until you sufficiently damage him and he turns to flinging things at you from across the room. What starts out as a button-mashing melee battle becomes a game of dodging or blocking his projectiles, trying to survive this attack so that you can again get close enough to deal some damage.

This sort of thinking can greatly improve our tabletop showdowns with the major villains of our campaigns. One common shared experience that all gamers have is the endless grind of trying to defeat some villain, endlessly trading damage, taking health potions to extend the fight, and ultimately wearing down the enemy to win the day. Nothing is more boring or anticlimactic. Why not take a page from video games such as Force Unleashed and give your villains several cards in their deck, mixing up strategy and changing the conditions of the fight every few rounds? Maybe the dark wizard must charge a spell over several rounds to do devastating amounts of damage, and so in the interim defends, runs, or disorients his opponents so as to buy himself time. What if the final encounter is a running battle, with the enemy moving from one defended position to another, each requiring the player characters to overcome it before they get a crack at their target? Determine victory based on a "king of the hill" scenario or based on possession of an item for an extended amount of time. Change up the conditions of the battle, or even of victory. Sounds like a more fitting end to a campaign than a race to see who can knock out the most hit points first.

In closing

None of this is new information, I'm sure, but I felt like sharing my thoughts on it. Far too often we look at video games versus our beloved dice-rolling to be either/or, but it really doesn't have to be. As designers and game masters, we can take a lot from every genre and use it to improve our players' experience.

That's it for today. I'm off to review some movie from 1998 that I've heard was pretty good. Happy gaming!


rologutwein said...

Though I personally don't like The Force Unleashed as a whole, the game play was (at least at times) fun. Personally, I found the scaling issue to be a lot more pronounced (maybe I just sucked at playing the game). The more powerful I got (I felt) the more enemies I encountered who were just 'immune' to whatever powers I had just acquired.

That having been said, however, there were 'grunt' Stormtroopers in the game who did seem to remain constant throughout. And that is something I greatly appreciate in video games and in table top. Not everything in the world should 'scale up' to be the challenging for players. It just sets an unrealistic escalation of power in whatever game world you're in. It also robs players of the rewards of surviving their adventures. While you should never make it 'easy' for your players, you should allow them (when they've earned it) to be the 'badasses' that they are. At the beginning of a game, a single Stormtrooper may be a real challenge. In the later stages? He'd better bring a lot of buddies. Scaling up in numbers I have no qualms with. In fact, it only adds to the feeling of 'power' that high-level heroes should have. What I would object to is that suddenly every 'grunt' is 10 times as good.

So, before I ramble more. I think you're right on here in concept, even if I don't think that The Force Unleashed is the best example of that.

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