Ok, Echo Bazaar. It’s the hot new game which everyone is talking about, but I see surprisingly little discussion of the actual game design. Since I am interested in game design, it seems like I should post about it. So I will!
I’m going to probably post this in a couple sections. This first one is just an introduction to the game for people not familiar with it; you can probably skim if you’ve played already.
To start off with, I should say that I’m not going to talk much about the setting and writing, because that is generally covered by other people. The premise is basically Victorian England + the Underdark, so you get fancy society parties, spiders that eat eyeballs, mysterious golem dockworkers, and honey-dens where you go for a drug trip that is literally a trip. The writing is generally charming; there are a couple writers and one is notably better than the others (and the setting isn’t totally consistent across them all, which is irritating) but none of it is unbearable. (The easiest way to get a feel for both of these is to poke around the site, or look at some samples.)
I’m also not going to talk much about the twitter integration. You do need to have a twitter account, which it uses for authentication and to get your friends list. You can, once a day, get a boost in the number of actions you can do by tweeting something about the game, and in any case, to start playing, you have to make one tweet. This is about the level of integration I’m fine with — I don’t do the daily tweeting and it doesn’t scale if a lot of your friends are playing, but it’s not as aggravating as, like, Mafia Wars.
So what am I going to talk about? Well, to start out with, here’s how stats work: everything is a stat. You have four core stats (Dangerous, Watchful, Persuasive, Shadowy), each of which you accumulate xp in, and you go up a level when you get enough xp (to go from level N to level N+1, it costs N+1 xp). You can also pick up and lose other stats as the game goes on, stuff like “Connected: The Great Game” to show how spy-connected you are, “Wounds” to track your injuries, and “Seduction: a Rising Artist’s Model” to track an on-going project. These also have you accumulating (and losing) xp, and the level going up and down correspondingly.
There are two basic things stats are good for, unlocks and tests. Generally speaking, adventures don’t show up unless a particular stat is within a certain range of values, and most adventures then have some test which involves matching a stat (usually but not always the unlocking stat) against some difficulty. Unlocking is pretty straightforward in practice: as you start out looking around, say, the neighborhood of Spite, you’ll see a bunch of low-level Shadowy tests. As you raise your Shadowy stat, new adventures show up and old ones drop off the list. In some cases, adventures are nested: the main adventure is unlocked by having a stat of whatever, and then you have multiple ways of dealing with it, which have their own unlock requirements (in some cases items will also act as an unlock — you might have an option you can only choose by using 40 Moon-Pearls; these almost always involve “spending” those items, so you lose them). Tests are marginally more complicated. The model is pretty simple: subtract your stat from the difficulty and look at the difference. The difference converts into a probability of success*, which is rolled against and either succeeds or fails. There is some facility in the system for a rarer super-success, but I’m not sure how that works, if it’s based on your chance of success or just a flat 5-10%. If you succeed in a test, you get 2xp in the stat, plus some other reward — sometimes a boost to some other stat, sometimes items (usually equal in value to the difficulty of the stat). If you fail a test, you get 1xp in the stat and either nothing or (at higher levels) some xp in a “menace” stat like Wounds or Nightmares.
- -5 or less: straightforward — 99% chance of success
- -4 or -3: low-risk — 90% chance of success
- -2 or -1: modest — 75% chance of success
- 0 or 1: chancy — 50% chance of success
- 2 or 3: high-risk — 20% chance of success
- 4 or more: almost impossible — 5% chance of success
To re-emphasize, I’m basically making these numbers up based on my casual observations (and I’m pretty sure that at higher levels of difficulty, the range starts to widen), but the general idea is right — you almost always succeed at straightforward things, you generally succeed at low-risk or modest but may fail, even several times in a row, you often fail chancy tests several times in a row, and it’s generally not worth trying to succeed at a high-risk or almost impossible test.
There are two things you can do to affect the outcome of tests. The four main stats have a “retry” item you can accumulate by spending actions in cooperation with another player (eg, Sudden Insights give you a second chance on Watchful tests) — if you fail a test and have one of these items, you automatically use it and don’t fail the test, though your action is still spent unless you use it immediately afterwards to retry the same test. The other thing you can do is wear items, which give stat bonuses (again, generally just for the main stats, though not always).
This is almost enough background to start talking game design, but let me touch on a couple other features of the game briefly. The opportunity deck is a deck of cards at the top of the screen. Normally your adventures come from your current neighborhood (there are eight neighborhoods, a basic and advanced one for each stat, where the vast majority of adventures are unlocked by and testing that stat), but you also have a number of slots for opportunity cards which depend on your current lodgings. These are drawn randomly from a deck of, I’m guessing, a couple hundred cards*, and you can deal them out into your slots. Once there you can keep them until you decide to use them or discard them to make space for another draw.
*Like the other adventures, opportunity cards are unlocked by having certain stats at certain levels. For the main stats, you’ll usually get the opportunity card at a minimum stat of X, and then the test will be almost impossible until your stat is X+5 or X+10 or X+15, but opportunity cards, more than other adventures, unlock on weirder stats — there are a number of ongoing storylines that weave their way through the opportunity deck, with each step in the story one unlocked by getting the previous.
There are a few other ways to unlock adventures. One particular way of note is your ambition: a long-running goal you can choose relatively early in the game.
Finally, the bazaar is the center of the economy. You can buy and sell items at any time, with the usual thing of the sale price being roughly half the buy price, and probably 95% of the items you go through in the game are available from the bazaar. There are some special items that only come from adventures, but not many and not reliably.
I’ve left out various things, but that’s enough to get a grounding in the game, so I’ll stop here. Next time: implications.