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May 9, 2010

Echo Bazaar (pt 4, Tactics)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — inky @ 11:27 pm

Greetings, delicious Echo Bazaar discussion fans. In the previous post I addressed item economy, adventure arrangement, and overall game goals — in other words, the things that define your long-term strategic play. Today we’ll be talking about the short-term stuff: tactics.

There are a lot of ways you can define tactics (and for a good discussion as they relate to games, look at this article by Brian Gleichman), but for purposes of Echo Bazaar adjustment, I think we can say that the desired goal is “make the decision about what to do next interesting and circumstance-dependent”. In a sense, the issue here goes all the way back to the initial post, where we established that adventures were generally a single stat test, and (this is true, but I never said it explicitly) you can almost always choose freely which adventure to do next.

The combined effect of these is to greatly narrow the game-design space. Let me demonstrate by taking a jump to the item pricing system. If you look at the prices for stuff in the bazaar and how it relates to the bonuses, you can see there are basically two schools of thought at work in the pricing. The first school is what we can call the “D&D” or “standard CRPG-style” school of thought – an item with a smaller bonus costs less than an item with a larger bonus, and an item with a bonus and a penalty costs less than an item that just has an equivalent bonus. So the Neathglass Goggles, which give a +1 to Watchful, cost the same as the Luminous Neathglass Goggles, which give a +2 to Watchful but a -1 to Persuasive. A moment’s thought will point out the flaw in this school, though: you buy the Luminous goggles, and just take them off whenever you have to do a Persuasive test — you know when that’s going to be and can freely change equipment in between adventures, so why not? And indeed the other school of pricing is what we can call the “right” or “correct” school, where basically items are priced according to their largest bonus and anything else is just considered flavor and not really factored in.

But even though individual tests only involve one pre-known stat, there actually are still a lot of things we can do to increase the tactical bite of the game without making radical changes. First off, we can throw in one-use items. One-use items inherently have tactical bite, since at every turn you get the decision of “do I want to use this item now, or save it for later?”*. The most basic one-use item is just a +N to a stat, but there are lots of other ideas. For example (and, actually, besides the first idea, these should work for permanent items as well):

  • One-shot items that provide an effect that lasts for the next X adventures. There are a lot of variants here, but the idea behind all of them is they make “what adventure do I do next?” into a tactical choice, suddenly, since you have a limited number of turns under the effect. The most notable sub-variant of this is +X to a stat for a few turns, then -Y to the same stat (or to a different stat, or to all stats) for a few turns. Since you can pick your next adventure this doesn’t have a huge effect, but if it’s +X to a stat then -Y to that same stat, it potentially slows down their overall progression in that stat. If it’s to all stats, then it’s forcing you to lower-difficulty adventures for that time as a tradeoff.
  • Success/treasure tradeoff: an item that gives you +X to a stat, but rewards are lowered by Y%. Or the reverse.
  • Success/xp tradeoff: an item that gives you +X to a stat, but xp gained from those tests are lowered by Y. Or you lose Y xp points from your total for using the item. It’s not clear that this’d be great in the current system, but see later for more variants. Also, a more plausible version in the current system might be +X to a stat, and some other stat loses Y xp.
  • Success/menace tradeoff: an item that gives +X to a stat, but also Y menace xp, as a flat boost, or per-success with the item, or even per-failure (ie, making failure even worse).
  • Rare success bonus: the system already has the concept of rare successes for some tests that give a better reward; perhaps an item that makes them more likely to come up.
  • Items that let you substitute one stat for another: “Roll your X ability for Y tests” (probably capped at level Z) — this is more a strategic idea than a tactical one (since it provides an alternate strategy of character development, where you don’t raise X but rely on this item instead) but it can also act as a short-term X boost, and potentially interacts with other items
  • Set/costume bonuses: this item gives +X, but +Y if you’re using some other item. Again, more of a strategic choice than a tactical one, but it has some potential at the tactical level as well, especially wrt the tactics of how you spend your money. This idea also lets you give items to new players: require them to buy a three-part costume to get a +1 stat, which means effectively each item is only giving a +1/3 bonus.

I’m not listing off story explanations for any of these but I think they’re all pretty plausible — substituting Dangerous for Watchful could be “Combat Reflexes”, an item that reduces items gained for a bonus to Shadowy could be “Sticky-fingered Assistant”, etc.

* Echo Bazaar actually has one-use items that allow you to retry failed stat test, but doesn’t implement them in a great way (from a game-design perspective; I can see the argument from a convenience perspective, but that seems to contain the unstated premise that the gameplay isn’t fun and people want to minimize their interaction with it, which I’m rejecting/working to change). The items get used automatically as soon as you fail a test, so your tactical question is the less-exciting “do I spend a turn accumulating some one-use items now, or do so later?” Worse yet, I know some people are looking into this tactic and seem to be concluding that based on the number of items you get by spending a turn and the benefit you get from them, the answer is always “yes, you should”, which makes this another trivial choice. The game also has one-use items in the form of opportunity cards that benefit “extended” adventures like Inspired, Fascinating, and Running Battle. In my experience, though, people rarely hang onto them long enough to use them; opportunity card space is so limited it’s not worth keeping them.

Another place to change is the reward system. I’m pretty sure adjusting the xp system will lead directly to some tactical interest: if you make it more worth it to do harder tests, people will find ways to do them (and similarly, it’ll be less worth it to just grind away at the easiest and safest possible test). I don’t know what the numbers should look like, but I imagine you’d have what’s now, say, chancy difficulty as giving the standard xp, and things of lower difficulty would give less and things of higher difficulty would give more. To make it clear, I’m not proposing that the xp be tied directly to the effective difficulty (since that would, again, make tactical choices pretty much meaningless), but that it should be tied to the “raw” difficulty — before items and effects and so on are factored in.

But ok, this is all trivial stuff, frankly. Small changes for relatively small effects. And realistically that might be the extent of the change you could make in an existing game. But let’s assume we have a little more freedom and look into some other possibilities.

Most games like this have combat divided into multiple rounds. This is partly just a D&D-ism, but it’s also partly a recognition that you don’t usually want success or failure of an endeavor to depend on a single roll of dice — if you give more rolls, you give more chances for things to swing in the player’s favor, and you also give more spots to let the player interfere, or change tactics if things are going wrong. So one idea would be to just add rounds to the storylet resolutions: you’d roll Watchful repeatedly and have like five rounds to get three successes at a chancy test, say. But frankly this is lame, and doesn’t fit well into the existing model or the existing “feel” of Echo Bazaar, plus it’d require writing a whole bunch more text for the intermediate results. So, alternate plan: roll multiple adventures together into things that give a single resolution. We already see this to some extent with the “Running Battle … / Fascinating … / Inspired …” adventures, which let you do a couple adventures to accumulate points towards a special stat for the adventure, and then roll a test against that stat to conclude the adventure and get the overall reward*. But what about, say, a Tattoo Shop Surveillance adventure, where you can choose between storylets of variable difficulty and stat that include things like spying on the workers, overhearing things, seducing people with tattoos to check them out more closely, getting a tattoo yourself, etc, and each of those storylets gives a small benefit plus points towards the overall Surveillance stat, and then you could cash in the Surveillance stat at some point for a larger reward. Note that I’m not suggesting writing much new text here; these adventures already exist, they would just be reorganized into being part of a group. The benefit of this is now you can have mechanics that cover the whole group, which opens up the design space considerably. For instance, maybe getting a tattoo gives the biggest bang for the buck but you can only do it once or twice before they get suspicious, so you have to decide when the best time to do so is. Or breaking into the tattoo shop after hours will get some good info, but it’ll raise the difficulty of future adventures as they become more vigilant. Or some other adventure might give little benefit in itself, but, if you do it and then successfully complete the whole adventure, there’s a bigger reward.

Note that there are some hints of this already in the game: when you have one storylet that provides jade, and another that is unlocked by jade and gives a larger reward, that’s a similar kind of adventure synergy. Or there’s an adventure where you can become acquainted with a Wry Functionary, but it’s a rare success, so it’ll usually take a few extra turns to do so. If you do, though, then that unlocks another set of adventures elsewhere. I’m mostly proposing expanding these kind of tie-ins between adventures and making them the default, rather than a nice-to-have.

* Incidentally, I’m pretty sure the way extended contests works is bogus math-wise. Like, the basic way these work is you have the choice of two adventures which give you xp towards the special stat (usually the two adventures use two different stats), and then you have the choice of two adventures which let you try to resolve the adventure using that stat. Generally one adventure is easier, gives a smaller reward if you succeed, and deducts a few points from the special stat if you fail; the other is harder, gives a larger reward if you succeed, and resets the special stat to zero if you fail. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t actually work if you can analyze it. Like, I can believe that you could have two tests of equal difficulty, one of which gives a smaller reward and a smaller penalty and one of which gives a larger reward and a larger penalty. Or I could believe in two tests of different difficulty (incidentally, note that difficulty translates pretty directly to time invested in this situation, since the special stat has to be built up by going on these adventures), where the harder test gives the bigger reward but they give the same penalty. But a situation where the harder test both requires that you put a lot more time into it and has a much bigger penalty for lose seems to also require a much larger reward, not just the slightly-larger reward they give in the current system.

Another crazy possibility: substats or sub-approaches or something. Ok, fine, so we don’t want to break the system where it’s a watchful adventure so you make a watchful test. But what if we had different “stances” under watchful, so you could choose to be Intuitive or Meticulous or Scholarly or Observant, and which approach you took to the adventure affected how it came out — either some would be more effective than others in certain situations. Legends of Zork, though in general a massive disappointment, had some interesting seeds of ideas about allowing different approaches in combat and having them interact, and being able to pick approaches up as skills and use weapons that support them.

There’s one other area that ties in with tactics and rewards, and that’s Connections. But Connections, social interactions, and Knife & Candle are a subject for a future post.

9 Comments

  1. I thought you’d been far enough into the game to see situations where it’s valuable to have two skills high at the same time. These situations mean that a penalty to a stat is a potential liability, so it certainly ought to have some impact on the price of an item. It’s just that, as things stand right now, the price impact is far out of proportion to how much it matters.

    For instance, the Luminous Neathglass Goggles (which provide a +2 bonus to Watchful and a -1 penalty to Persuasive) should certainly cost less than they would if they only provided the +2 benefit with no penalty. But the problem is that they’re discounted so steeply that they cost the same as the normal Neathglass Goggles (which provide +1 Watchful and no penalty), which makes the normal ones a rather poor deal indeed.

    Comment by Jota — May 10, 2010 @ 8:50 am

  2. Yeah, I think I’ve seen maybe one test that checks two stats (an ambush of a Rubbery Man), and a handful of tests that check stat X while being unlocked with stat Y. But they’re pretty rare, enough that I wouldn’t give much of a discount. (On the other hand, if the discount was like 5% per minus, I could see that.)

    The other thing that makes the pricing weird is that there doesn’t exist an item for each category for each stat — so like we’ve talked about on the mud, there’s no Dangerous clothing, no Watchful boots, etc, but there’s also no +2 Watchful no other penalty hat. So you could argue that 36 echoes is just the going rate for a +2 hat and that’s how much it should cost regardless of whatever penalties it has, because it’s still the best in its category. Or alternatively you could argue that gloves are the “normal” slot for Watchful items, so Watchful gloves should be cheaper than Watchful items in other categories.

    Economics is confusing!

    Comment by inky — May 10, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

  3. […] about the game design, with a bunch of suggestions about balancing it for better gameplay (1, 2, 3, 4; possibly more to […]

    Pingback by Text Games That Aren’t Parser IF « Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling — May 11, 2010 @ 2:12 am

  4. Alexis from Failbetter Games / Echo Bazaar here. Dan, this was a fascinating read. Thanks.

    I don’t want to flood your comments space (and I don’t have near enough time to respond at length) but in general the issues that you identify break down into

    – things that we got wrong.
    – things that are placeholders we meant to replace with better stuff down the line. (The Bazaar is a prime example of this – we were due a major redesign in January and have just never had the time.)
    – things that do actually exist in the game that you haven’t come across yet :-) (e.g wrt your Surveillance point – c.f. http://bit.ly/cothfu, the Midnight Staircase)
    – fallout from EBZ’s identity crisis

    By that last, I mean: the original idea, in a nutshell, was ‘something like Mafia Wars or Spymaster but with actual content and gameplay’. From there I reasoned that gameplay could and should be pretty light – the MW / SM family of games have no gameplay at all to speak of (the first generation, at least). I didn’t want to confuse casual players by loading complexity on to them.

    This has been a mixed success. Some players like being able to log in, click large friendly buttons and not have to think about or remember too many details. Anecdotally, a number of our players are non-gamers. The flip side is that we do attract (by comparison with most sporadic-play games) a more sophisticated crowd – in the gaming sense, not the smoking-jacket sense. They start to find it thin.

    A related problem is that because we took mechanics which were originally flimsy, the foundations start to creak as we add complexity. Knife-and-Candle (also due a significant redesign) is a fine example of this.

    (hat tip to Emily Short for linking to the post – you’re invisible to Google Alerts)

    Comment by Alexis Kennedy — May 11, 2010 @ 2:59 am

  5. About de-equipping the Luminous Goggles for the Persuasive test; would one solution be to make them a cursed item that you can’t de-equip, at least not without some other special item? This is what nethack does with cursed items, and seems like it might solve the problem — plus, curses! Thematic!

    I haven’t actually played EBZ, so I don’t know if that approach would make sense. If perma-equipping an item would be too terrible, perhaps cursed items could crumble when you equip them — so if you wanted to upgrade to something else you could, but you couldn’t just take them off and put them back on whenever you felt like it. So the negative bonus wouldn’t just be flavor.

    Comment by matt w — May 12, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

  6. I mean, crumble when you de-equip them.

    Comment by matt w — May 12, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

  7. Matt: Yeah, that’s not a bad suggestion — it fills (I think) roughly the same niche as the “one-use item that produces an effect with a duration of X turns” idea, with the advantage/disadvantage that it’s more player-controlled as to how long it lasts. There’d probably be an interesting evolution in how players treat them as they level up and get more money, where at the start it’d be a big choice and basically determine what kind of adventures you go on (because you’d want to stick to ones that use that stat), but as you level up you’d be more willing to buy a new copy if you destroy the old one.

    Alexis: Thanks for stopping by! Yeah, a lot of what you’re saying makes sense and is basically what I figured was the case. It’s always tricky to get the right balance for your target audience, especially when it’s made up of a couple disparate communities. I’m not sure I buy that Echo Bazaar is really going to work long-term for very casual gamers — it seems like the writing and setting are elaborate enough that something with minimal gameplay interaction is going to feel a little unbalanced. But I guess you’re the one with the metrics, eh?

    My circle of co-players is starting to give some interesting reports about Shadowy jobs that sound considerably fancier design-wise than what I’ve seen thus far (though to be honest, I’m not really sure I’m going to stick it out long enough myself to see the good content at the higher levels in the non-Persuasive stats.) But yeah, I’m pleased to hear that the gameplay does get more complex (and I was also pleased to see more content for my ambition today!)

    Comment by inky — May 13, 2010 @ 11:21 pm

  8. My circle of co-players is starting to give some interesting reports about Shadowy jobs that sound considerably fancier design-wise than what I’ve seen thus far (though to be honest, I’m not really sure I’m going to stick it out long enough myself to see the good content at the higher levels in the non-Persuasive stats.)

    That also raises another unfortunate point: since the content is being written in order, that means that players are first exposed to the earlier, less refined content before they can get to the cooler bits that are a result of all the experience Alexis gained so far.

    Comment by Jota — May 14, 2010 @ 5:16 am

  9. “I’m not sure I buy that Echo Bazaar is really going to work long-term for very casual gamers…you’re the one with the metrics,”

    I wish my metrics were more specific and reassuring on the subject! A number of the casual gamers we’ve attracted have specific and developed tastes re: the setting, but not much interest in the details of the gameplay: people who read but don’t game, broadly. The killer question is how many of those there are out there, as against how many hardcore gamer types. That’s what’ll determine whether we’re here in six months. That said I would expect the gameplay to get more sophisticated over time, especially once past the intro sections of the game. Farmville is teaching non-gamers to minimax. I badly want to do a Knife-and-Candle reboot and a similar competitive game on Admired, as well as some of the refinements you’ve talked about.

    “players are first exposed to the earlier, less refined content before they can get to the cooler bits”

    We are *finally* beginning to go back and fix some of that. Getting the balance right is tricky. Long-term players include the heaviest Fate buyers, and I do feel we have a duty to fill out content gaps (like the Vake and Nemesis ambitions), but without new player growth we’re dead.

    Comment by Alexis Kennedy — May 15, 2010 @ 3:29 am

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