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May 4, 2010

Echo Bazaar (pt 3, Item Alternatives)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — inky @ 11:40 pm

If it’s Tuesday (which it is), it must be time for more Echo Bazaar discussion. Last post I talked about problems I saw with the existing game design. Today I’m going to talk about solutions. Or at least suggest some things that’ll cause different problems.

Before I get started I should probably mention that I’m not claiming the game isn’t fun or anything like that; I’ve played for about three weeks so obviously I’m having fun. But I do think that only a very small amount of the fun in the game comes from it as a game — it’s almost all from seeing more writing and setting. This is actually a pity from the Echo Bazaar administrator’s perspective, because content is really hard to write, and the ratio of author effort to player enjoyment is poor due to lack of replay value. With more/better game elements, you could expand the time the player spends interacting with (and enjoying their interactions with) the system, without putting in hugely more author effort. So, onwards.

To recap, the three basic problems I think the system has right now are 1) the choice of adventure (and adventuring strategy in general) is trivial, and hence other choices in the game are trivial as well 2) the item economy and the xp economy are too separate 3) there’s no overarching goal.

The third is probably the easiest to fix: find a goal and stick it in. From a purely game-design perspective, the goal needs to be something that can be achieved via multiple strategies, something that leads to multiple sub-goals, something that can be done more or less skillfully, and something that can’t be done immediately but can be done eventually. Most games tend to make this a combination of stats and items — in Kingdom of Loathing you have to defeat the Naughty Sorceress, which requires that you be at least level 13, plus you have to have a subset of a particular list of items, plus you have to have certain pets trained to a high level themselves, plus you have to beat the Sorceress in a fight. You’ll notice this pretty much matches the conditions I set out earlier; you can, say, get to level 13 a variety of different ways, and you can do it more or less efficiently, but there’s a definite fixed endpoint you’re aiming at.

Echo Bazaar has a couple obvious candidates for a way to “win”: the ambitions, the Hesperidean Cider of immortality (or something), doing something wrt London’s fallen status. Right now the ambitions have subgoals, but in practice you have to work on them linearly, and they’re all either “get your stat to X level” or “pass test of X difficulty” or “accumulate X worth of item type Y” — which are all things you’re doing anyway in the rest of the game. The cider requires you to accumulate an absurd amount of money, which is a totally reasonable final goal and different from the usual “pass a really hard stat test” ideas, but it doesn’t break down into subgoals at all; and London isn’t something there is any in-game way to deal with, as far as I know. So yeah, I’d pick some or all of these and make them win conditions (and fill them out to make them usable).

Of course, this raises the question as to what happens when the player “wins”. Most games of this kind (Kingdom of Loathing, Tiny Adventures) just let the player kick their character back to level 1 and do it again, usually with some small bonus for having gone through it once. Alternatively, the World of Warcraft/other MMO model is to have “raid content”: stuff you have to group up to do that takes a whole evening and gives a pretty small reward at the end, and you asymptotically approach perfect equipment, but slower than they put in better equipment. Finally, the A Tale in the Desert model is basically “community endgame” — where the entire player population has goals they’re trying to achieve as a group; this is combined with a world reset, that sends the playerbase as a whole back to level 1 to do it all over again. I don’t think the raid content model is substantially different from normal gameplay, frankly, so probably I’d skip that. But it seems like you could have a potential combination of 1 and 3 — like, individual characters could achieve goals and be reset to try some other play style, and in the process they’d be working on a big community goal like doing something with London.

The other two original problems are pretty tied together. Fundamentally, choices in games are made interesting because you have limited resources (and hence can’t make all of them). Resources almost always mean items — they also mean time/turns, but a game where time is the only significant resource is purely grindy (basically, what Echo Bazaar is like today). So, ok. I’m going to make some proposals here, assuming that we don’t want to throw away anything good — existing storylets, pictures of items, that sort of thing — but we can rejigger the mechanics associated with everything all we want. Thus:

1) More unlockable areas. Unlocking the advanced areas of the city is a cool mini-goal — there’s a built-in target, it’s difficult but not out of reach, you can achieve it by a couple different strategies (find an area that gives that specific item as a reward, or just make a lot of money and buy them from the bazaar), and there’s a substantial in-game reward of new content when you achieve it, plus a visual marker on the map. So how about making more areas unlockable? (Naturally, the basic areas would be cheaper, and you’d need to have some open at the start, but not necessarily all of them.) This works well with the next idea, which is:

2) Rearrange the storylets into more, smaller area groups. Like, put all the tattoo-shop adventures together into one location, put all the alley-stalking adventures into a location, etc. Doing this would remove the necessity to hide adventures when the player becomes much higher-level than them (which has very little point now, except to limit the number displayed on screen, and to prevent the player from repeating some things from “earlier in the story” — but that can be done explicitly when necessary). It’d also make it easier to find particular adventures again, and it makes it easier to implement the next change, which is

3) Focus particular adventure sets more tightly around being sources for particular commodities. Like, right now, there are a bunch of adventures that give (say) Jade Fragments as a reward; but the effect of this is to make it hard to remember where to find Jade Fragments when you actually need them for a particular adventure, since the adventures that give Jade Fragments aren’t thematically linked. There are roughly two dozen commodities now; so you could group all the adventures into, say, forty adventure areas, and have each area primarily give out only one or two kinds of commodities. Then if you want Silk Scraps, you’d know you had to deal with the urchins or the sorrow-spiders, and you’d pick an adventure appropriate to your skill level (or to the amount of silk you wanted to get). Once you have this, then you can do things like

4) Minimize the use of Echoes as currency; use commodities directly instead. This is essentially suggesting going to a crafting model. Right now, commodities are pretty fungible — you sell them (for half value, but still) and buy whatever you want, which means if you want to buy something that isn’t a commodity, it doesn’t matter what commodities you have, because you’ll have to convert them to Echoes to buy what you want. This in turn means there isn’t much incentive to go looking for particular commodities. So instead, how about if buying a Tasselled Sword-Cane requires 10 Silk Scraps, 20 Deep Amber, 50 Nevercold Brass, and 10 Echoes? This’d provide for some more definite direction in your adventuring — if you want to buy one, you’ll need to find sources for the commodities (or, if you prefer, buy them in the bazaar for double).

Together these four changes will add substantially more interlinks within the item economy (save up some Silk Scraps and Greyfields 1879 to buy Black Felt Garments, which increase your Shadowy and let you deal more successfully with the urchins to get more Silk Scraps), and make a decent start on linking the item economy and the adventuring one. But there’s still more work to do to make the actual adventuring tactics interesting, and I’ll get into that next time.

9 Comments

  1. Focus particular adventure sets more tightly around being sources for particular commodities.

    Hrm. I rather liked the creative and clever uses of different commodities in different unrelated situations (e.g. being able to get silk scraps by stealing handkerchiefs, fighting spiders or befriending seamstresses). It was one of the things I found most appealing about the commodity rewards system.

    Comment by Jota — May 5, 2010 @ 6:55 am

  2. Interesting. I played NetHack back in the day, but before Echo Bazaar I’d mostly been playing casual games. And I haven’t been too bothered by the relatively linear play of my Ambition [*] because I mostly view it in a more casual way, plus when I get bored I can go look for the Comtessa or dabble in politics or whatnot.

    [*] Minor nit: I’m playing the Nemesis ambition and I seem to have hit a point where I have two subgoals that I’m working toward separately.

    Comment by Kate Nepveu — May 5, 2010 @ 7:34 am

  3. Jota: Yeah, I like that you get commodities in different situations, but I think the general use of the commodities is pretty uninteresting — it’s “save commodity until you find one of the few unlocks that calls for X of that commodity” or “sell commodity at bazaar”.

    Kate: I’m probably wrong about the extent of some of the ambitions, yeah; I’ve only played mine, which split up into subgoals right before the “sorry, this ambition isn’t implemented any further” point. So unfair!

    Comment by inky — May 5, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  4. “sorry, this ambition isn’t implemented any further”

    WHAT?

    I’m at Nemesis 9–what are you playing and where does it stop?

    Because that would SUCK.

    Comment by Kate Nepveu — May 5, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

  5. Yeah, I’m afraid that the ambitions do run out eventually. Mine ran out around 16 (it was the Heart’s Desire / card-playing one), but I think that may be a bit earlier than others, or maybe other people just weren’t as single-minded as I was about following their ambitions. I’m sure the intent is to finish them all eventually, though; the content for regular adventures runs out around 80 but I know they have plans to go way past that.

    Comment by inky — May 9, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

  6. Oh dear.

    Well, maybe that’s when I go playing with nightmares and such.

    Comment by Kate Nepveu — May 10, 2010 @ 7:36 am

  7. […] 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 @ 2:11 am

  8. I ran out on Ambition with my Watchful around 40-ish, but I also needed my Dangerous around 40 to get there.

    Comment by Jason Dyer — July 5, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  9. (Add: This was Nemesis.)

    Comment by Jason Dyer — July 5, 2010 @ 11:09 am

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