Saturday, December 13, 2014

Designing Tensai, Part 2: Playing Your Opponent, Not Your Cards

Last night, I wrote about how design by subtraction helped shape some of the primary mechanics of Tensai, and mentioned the use of a two-layer Rock-Paper-Scissors system in order to allow a very readable, clearly understandable elemental weakness chart while also giving room for those at an elemental weakness to be able to outplay their opponents through several layers of predictions-on-predictions-on-predictions.

I also mentioned this Action Type system gave me more control over one of the most bitched-about aspects of Pokémon from its competitive community: RNG / randomness / “Hax.” In Pokémon, some matches can be turned on their head in an instant by the random chance to inflict a status effect or have a stat lowered, or the bane of defensively-boosted stall teams: a critical hit.

The first two (status effects or debuffs) were easily remedied through Action Types. An attack move was considered “effective” if it was neutral or better against the opponent's move (For example, a Melee move was effective against Melee, Ranged, Magical, and Supplementary moves such as heals or self-buffs.) If an attack with an additional effect, such as a debuff or status effect, was effective, its additional effect was applied. While it's still somewhat random how often status effects would actually be effective, it wasn't decided by the game or some dice or some pseudo-randomized bullshit. It was decided by the players.

Because the effective chance would generally be a bit higher than most Pokémon status effects (apart from Spore / Thunder Wave's 100% hit rate), I tended to make the status effects weaker by comparison, including Stun (Flinch) and Unstable (A stun that takes place AFTER the player uses another attack or is hit by another attack...this would work great in combination with low Priority moves on one turn into a higher priority move on the next turn.) as common effects, rather than paralysis or Pokémon-level burns that cut attack by half.

When Triton (the programmer) asked how I could make critical hits not as game-changing, I stopped for a second and thought, “What is it that makes critical hits so bullshit?” A crit in Pokémon ignores any defensive boosts (treats you as +/- 0 stages, so anyone who's spammed Defense Curl or Harden doesn't have an advantage anymore) and deals double the damage. But the defense-piercing effect isn't what made it so frustrating.

It was the unpredictability and the abruptness of the effect. You never know if or when your opponent's next hit will land that lucky 6.25% chance to crit. If your strategy is built around stalling out, odds aren't entirely unrealistic that a critical hit could happen. But it's random, and you can't tell when it is coming. Oftentimes, a crit will completely wipe out the wall you were using to stall, and leave your entire strategy in shambles and you with a very slim chance at salvaging victory. Basically, you were playing against the game, not against your opponent. And that's bad.

So, how do you address that problem? Well, it's a turn-based game. My answer was to simply make the bonus damage effect take place a turn after the critical hit. Rather than a critical immediately flipping the board over in chaos, it creates a tipping point. The board can be flipped, but it is not a guarantee. The game is thrown out of balance (coincidentally, I'd renamed the “Critical Hit” into “Knocked Off Balance” to reflect that the creatures were more vulnerable for a turn.), but the player who was standing tall on the jousting platforms (man I miss American Gladiators) wasn't necessarily knocked into the pit.

By making the critical hit damage take place on the move used the turn AFTER the “critical hit” effect happens, what changes?

  1. The player on the attacking end knows that, their next attack is going to deal a LOT of extra damage.
  2. The player on the receiving end knows that they have to do everything in their power not to let that extra damage take place.

Since the damage bonus is tied into a status effect, the player on the defending end has the option to simply swap out their creature and take regular damage. If this system were applied to Pokémon, the interactions from this situation would be limited, but still add a layer of Yomi – if you predict the player wants to swap out of the damage, you have the advantage in guessing which Pokémon/type they are going to bring out next and can either use a move with a type advantage, or swap to a Pokémon that will have an advantageous match-up. You also have the potential of using higher priority moves (or regular moves if you're faster).

But this isn't Pokémon. Even if you're knocked off balance, the inclusion of Action Types still offers you a manner to have your active creature take zero damage in the next turn. For example, if your opponent's strongest move is a Melee type, and you have an Aerial-type move, and you predict your opponent is going to attempt a coup-de-grace, you can choose to use an Aerial-type move to keep your previous advantage. But he can predict your prediction and use an otherwise-less-optimal decision to go for more likely damage; for example, choosing an Aerial move as well to go for better coverage of your defensive options.

Some creatures also had passive abilities called Stances that made it so upon them entering the battlefield (or using a supplementary move) they were treated as using a specific Action Type, such as birds in the game having an “Airborne” Stance that allowed them to be treated as using Aerial moves when no Action Type was set by their selected move. Because of this, a player could use being knocked Off-Balance as an opportunity for a free swap-in, if their Stance matched up well against the predicted move. You're gonna use a Ranged move to try to capitalize on my off-balance creature? I'm going to swap in my Tortoice with the passive, “Defensive” so he takes no damage as he comes in.

So thanks to the inclusion of Action Types, my “delayed effect” solution to critical hits is given even more depth than it would've had if plugged straight into Pokémon (where it'd still be better than the current iteration). The player “screwed over” by the random chaos of a critical hit is still given some degree of control of what happens next. They're not playing against the game that decided the critical hit happened...they're playing against the opponent who decides what happens next.

And that's all for Part 2 of Designing Tensai. I'm not sure what or when Part 3 will be. Just stay tuned!
Part 1
Part 3
Part 4

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