Monday, April 20, 2009

On CCGs, Fun, Money, and Business

I've been doing a little bit of research on CCGs (Collectible Card Games, e.g. Magic, YuGiOh, etc) lately - both digital and physical - and generally they run into a few basic problems. The biggest of these is balancing money vs. fun.

Essentially the way these games work is that you pay for either a service or for actual cards/pieces/whatever, to expand your library and create the deck/arsenal you want. The obvious, inherent problem here is that in addition to the cost of entry (buying a starter deck or buying the game) you have to pay extra on top of that to get to the entry point you want to be at.

This is a tricky problem because anything you do to help the player out will immediately and drastically affect your profits. CCGs are pretty much money machines, but then, this isn't the Better Business blog.

So we'll take a hit on profits, specifically the constant stream of it. Create a digital package (which we call a "video game") with a base of cards, with something like 20% unlocked at the start, 40% unlocked through a single player campaign, and the last 40% unlocked through competitive play.

Now there are two routes we can go: leave the base game as standalone and create expansion packs with new cards and a new single player campaign, or charge a subscription fee for competitive play online.

Expansion Pack Goodness
The key thing about using expansion packs is that, development-wise you already have an engine built, so all you really need to do is focus on new content. If you're feeling adventurous you can add in new features as well. It's compact, it's optional, and if you add enough content your customers will never feel ripped off.

This is the key here, as you keep a healthy community going because, well, no one has to pay to play - and community is the most important aspect here. It becomes very cyclical, in that the better your community is, the more likely you are to sell your expansion pack. Of course, this is the least lucrative of the available options, but will also keep your player base fat and happy.

Subscription Fees and Fears
The main thing with subscription fees is that there's more to consider than recouping development costs and paying for bandwidth. You have to be certain of two things:
  1. That your service is good enough to be worth a subcription fee. Glorified chat rooms are NOT paid services!
  2. That your subscription fee is reasonable compared to the quality, content, and support of your game. There have been several games that could have been infinitely more successful if they had lowered their monthly fee to a price point fitting of their game (ex. D&D Online, Age of Conan).
These are the downfalls of many pay-to-play games, it becomes hard for people to justify a price point so high ($15/month isn't a lot in the scheme of things, but when you've just paid $50 for the game it's asking a lot) for a product that is clearly in its early stages. Keeping customers, and keeping customers HAPPY, is far more important than the extra loot you'll pull in for those first couple months.

While I've spilled over a bit into MMO territory, I do believe that this sort of model will be vital to CCG-esque games soon enough - they're practically built for the medium. These are somewhat random thoughts on the matter, but it was something that popped up in my mind recently (while considering game design options) and I wanted to regurgitate my thoughts onto the internet!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Street Fighter Revisited: Designing A System

I wanted to come back to Street Fighter IV for a moment, as I was recently thinking about how defensively oriented the game is. It's hard to catch opponents and at higher levels of play it seems that things like Focus Attacks aren't used very often for anything besides cancels, so I started thinking of a way to alter the game to be a little more balanced between offense and defense.

Eventually, this led to a rethinking of the current system and the addition of a new one. Obviously it'll be broken at some level because, well, there's no way to do any sort of testing, but really what I'm going for here is the theory of the system.

Before we get into it, you may want to read the previous Street Fighter IV posts, as this is building upon those suggested changes, and wouldn't work as well without them. Now ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you...

The Momentum System
The idea itself is very basic, and in a way somewhat similar to the K-Groove from Capcom Vs SNK 2. Each character's health bar will pulse - essentially a heartbeat (I suppose you could call it the heartbeat system, or adrenaline system, but nomenclature isn't the point here). This is really just another gauge on screen, done without adding anything bulky to the interface - there are tons of different ways you can handle it, but this way seems the most unintrusive.

We'll say the heartbeat starts at 1 beat per game second. We'll call this 50%. As you attack, the heartbeat speeds up (meter increases) and as it does so, your damage percentage increases at a rate of 3:1. This means at 80% you are doing 10% more damage than normal, and at 100% you are doing 16.7% more damage than normal. Your heartbeat also goes up minimally when you're hit (1% per hit).

When your heartbeat hits 100%, you go into Momentum Mode (or whatever the hell you want to call it) and for 5 seconds your heartbeat will not decrease, Focus Attacks absorb two hits instead of one, and Supers cost only 2 bars of the Super gauge. Afterwards your heartbeat resets to 25%, not 50%.

Your heartbeat will only decrease during moments of inaction (including whiffed normal attacks), at a rate of 10% per second above 50%, and 5% per second under 50% - when decreasing, your heartbeat will hover at 50% for 5 seconds, and your heartbeat will only begin to decline after 2 seconds of inaction. Also under 50% your damage percentage decreases at a rate of 5:1, so at 0% you are doing 10% less damage than normal, and you gain heartbeat (back up to 50%) at a 1.5x rate.

Let's sum things up in a list and see if we can't simplify all this a bit now. There are essentially two sets of rules: above 50 and below 50.

Above 50%
  • Damage increases 1% for every 3% heartbeat increases
  • Heartbeat decreases at a rate of 10% per second
  • Heartbeat will pause at 50% for 5 seconds when decreasing
  • At 100%, player gains 5 seconds at 100%, 2 bar Supers, and 2 hit armor on Focus Attacks
Under 50%
  • Damage decreases 1% for every 5% heartbeat decreases
  • Heartbeat decreases at a rate of 5% per second
  • Heartbeat increase is boosted by +50%
  • Heartbeat will begin to decline after 2 seconds of inaction
  • Heartbeat remains stationary when blocking or performing a special move
  • Heartbeat increases on successful attacks
  • Heartbeat increases minimally on damage taken

And that's it. The trick here is that characters who are not made for frantic close combat (Dhalsim, Vega) shouldn't be negatively affected - this is why under 50% it's harder to lose momentum. Generally the idea is to keep combat going, and that if you decide to stay away from your opponent for long periods of time you also have to make the conscious decision to reduce your damage.

This system rewards the aggressor, and in a way is a counter to the Ultra system. The idea is to prevent staring contests and keep both players on the move at all times.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Spy's Sappin' Mah Game!

I am, admittedly, not a big fan of shooters. Specifically of the first person variety. So when I enjoy an FPS, it's a big deal. It's an even bigger deal when I find one to be completely awesome.

Enter Team Fortress 2. A class-based shooter that is fast-paced, team-oriented, and bucketloads of fun. This is one of the rare times I'll take a game and put it on a pedestal. The game has its faults, but they're mostly balance issues that I believe will be ironed out in time.

The great, great thing about this game is that it avoids the big pitfall of the shooter - generally you are either killing, or being killed. This very basic ideology is the downfall of many, many games, as there are really only so many ways you can kill or avoid being killed without one way being clearly better than the other. In single player games this means you strive for that one, most efficient way, and in multiplayer games it means you either choose the best way or end up frustrated.

TF2 manages to squeeze 9 completely different playstyles out of "kill or be killed," each of which is fun in its own right. You can switch from the fast, furious Scout, who can't take a hit but is incredibly mobile, to the Engineer who sits back and builds defensive equipment. Not only are these classes a great variety, they also provide enough difference in style of play that almost anyone can find a character they enjoy and can play effectively. This character usually ends up being a gateway drug into the other classes of Team Fortress.

In addition to these, the geniuses at Valve (creators of TF2 for the uninitiated) have begun putting out packs of new achievements and weapons for each of the classes. Unfortunately, here there is room for improvement, so let's run down a quick list:

One at a Time

These packs are released one class at a time, and usually several months apart. This means you usually get a large influx of whatever the new class is for quite some time while everyone gains the new achievements, which are a problem in and of themselves...

Achievement Whoring

To unlock the new equipment, you have to get a certain number of achievements. This would be fine except that some of the achievements are silly (see: example) and result in people doing stupid things they wouldn't normally do to unlock achievements. Silly and fun achievements are fine, but they shouldn't be required for new equipment.

Either add more standard achievements that reward good gameplay (without upping the amount needed for new equipment), or remove achievements as the qualifier. Maybe use kills/points instead?

Equipment Balance
Some of the new equipment is great (see: the Pyro's Flare Gun), adds a new dimension to the character, changes the way you should be playing, and fills out some gaps (while creating new ones, which is very important).

Some, however really do nothing for the class (see: the Heavy's KGB). They fall short of being useful, and are really only a status symbol. In the example of the KGB, the heavy really shouldn't be meleeing much at all, and when they do, slower swing speed and more crit is not at all useful. It fills in no gaps, it creates no interesting situations, and in general is somewhat half-assed.

Finally, some are simply clear and better options than the weapons they replace (see: the Medic's Blutsauger). Once you get these items there's really no reason to ever switch back. This essentially introduce an artificial form of "leveling" into a shooter, where it has no business. If the class needed a boost, it needs it across the board, and if it doesn't, there's no need to make a weapon simply better. The Blutsauger loses the ability to crit, but crits, in addition to being a rare occurence in the first place, aren't really a concern for the medic. There is no reason to not use this weapon, and that's a poor design decision.

Altogether, TF2 is still an awesome game, and these updates certainly don't detract from the experience in any way - they are additional and never detrimental to playing. I only think if the new equipment erred on the side of being more interesting, and they released updates for two classes at a time, we'd be in much better shape.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


My friend Mark who does that whole webcomic thing is working on a flash game named Turble. While I have nothing to do with the project I'd plug it because, well, that's pretty cool. You can check out his updates on it here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Like Wedding Crashers, Sans Vince Vaughn

I recently made the huge financial decision to drop $15 on Castle Crashers for XBLA, and I must say I'm very pleased with the results.

The game is in many ways an homage to old school arcade sidescrolling brawlers like the original TMNT or X-Men arcade games. At its core it's extremely basic - light attack, heavy attack, jump, magic - but it throws in a few key RPG elements and some fun combo-style gameplay, and it really helps to bring the sidescrolling brawler into the new millenium.

Of course, what with this being a game design blog, we're not here to review the game, we're here to tear it apart. The game is tons of fun and is in no way an incomplete package in its current form, but if we wanted to make it better, well, there are a few things that we can change.

The Spice of Life
The biggest and most obviously RPG-ish element of Castle Crashers is the fact that you level up while you play, gaining points to put in some basic stats: Strength, Magic, Defense, Agility. This is a great way to keep the game fresh as you play through, and a way to give your current character an identity and play style.

Unfortunately, it falls a little bit flat. Characters end up being similar as so few stats mean everyone is putting points in the same crucial areas. One of the more obvious instances of this is the fact that you don't gain any new magic abilities unless you specifically put points in your magic stat. This is intuitive and makes sense, but the problem is that, if you want to keep things as fresh and fun as possible, new abilities are key.

The problem isn't that you gain abilities by putting them in the magic stat, it's that you don't get them for putting them anywhere else. If once every 4 or 5 points you put into each stat you gained a new ability, it would really give each character their own identity as you leveled them a specific way. A few examples of said abilities would be something like a new combos/attack for strength, a last stand ability for defense (when HP is critical take less/do more damage), or a double jump for agility. They don't really have to be AMAZING, just fun and useful in some situations.

Up Your Arsenal
The weapon selection in the game is great, and there's a ton of variety and fun little things to be had here. Really the only suggestions I have for this are more, varied effects (stuff like crits and and elemental properties), maybe something like extra knockdown, a percent chance of instant kills, or even weapons that actually grant new abilities.

The other big suggestion I have is to change how the weapons attack. Obviously the issue here, with this sort of game, is that you have to create new hand-drawn animations for things to attack differently, but it would be cool if you wielded swords and maces differently, and they then took on different properties on attack (maybe even a different combo set).

The game is incredibly fun, and has a lot of replayability, but it would be great if there were more levels. Obviously this will always be true and any great game can always use more, but I'm imagining a world map not unlike Super Mario World, with lots of different levels, secret levels, hidden pathways, bonus levels, and the like. Of course, in a $15 game it's asking a lot to have this much content, but if they put out Castle Crashers 2 with all the above additions and a world this large, I'd be willing to spend a little more for the amazing experience it would undoubtedly be.