Monday, May 25, 2015

Audley's Workshop: Balancing an FPS Sandbox

A while back, I did a blog on having certain weapons appeal to multiple playstyles, referring to the horribly vague MtG archetypes Timmy/Johnny/Spike to label the players to whom those weapons would appeal.  It focused on having weapons in Halo be both fun and competitively viable.  I mentioned the Halo Reach Grenade Launcher as the pinnacle of success for designing weapons for all players, then pointed out three examples of weapons that appealed to two archetypes and failed to meet the standards for the third.

Today, I'm revisiting Audley's Workshop with a focus on tweaking some weapons from the Halo series to make them more viable competitively or more appealing to the broader player base.  There won't be any focus on Timmy/Johnny/Spike here, just strictly on some weapons that get overlooked in Halo for either being shoved too far into a niche, being too unreliable, or simply not having enough identity on their own to be embraced by the players.

The Needler.  Everyone knows the pink mist.  Or, in a strafe battle, the pink missed.

Halo 3 and Halo 4 had decent incarnations of the weapon, but even then its niche was very difficult to abuse and relied heavily on flanking and catching players by surprise in order to get kills with.  By the time a player had time to turn and react to the first needle connecting in H3, the others were already locked on and tracking to set up the super combine.

But as we move into Halo 5, where the Thruster is readily available, and players are going to be able to quickly break those lock-ons, how does one make the Needler more useful?  Hell, the weapon already had trouble keeping up with any side-to-side motion, whether strafing or simply running in a straight line perpendicular to the wielder... so where is the Needler missing power?

While you may think, "Hey, the Needler's tracking could just be improved to make it harder to dodge!" -- reducing counterplay isn't a wise decision for a weapon that is theoretically a very fast kill weapon between time-of-engagement to time-of-death.  While the actual travel time of the needles makes the kill time long, the actual time to react from being shot is substantially smaller.  Reducing post-reaction counterplay is not the way to go.

"Well then Audley, I guess you have an idea?"  I do, and I've mentioned it on forums in the past.  You know what weapon the Covenant never had a true successor to in Halo, despite having plenty of CQB weapons?  The shotgun.  What if, instead of a standard melee, using the melee with the Needler unleashed all of your needles in a uniform cone ahead of you?  If seven, or eight, or whatever the arbitrarily chosen supercombine number happens to be managed to lodge themselves in the target, you get the insta-kill as usual.  Suddenly the Needler is a much better weapon in CQB, which immediately improves its definition in the sandbox.

This also improves the Needler's options versus a player running perpendicular to you; instead of simply praying the tracking decides to work at your range, you lead your shot and unleash.  If they aren't terribly far away, and you angle your shot (melee) correctly, enough needles will land in their side to score a medium range kill with the Needler.  (Audio cues will be necessary for this "MULTIPLE NEEDLES INBOUND" situation though.)

Voila, the Needler is now the best weapon in Halo history.  You're welcome, Bung343.

Oh, nice, the Plasma Rifle.  A weapon that gets praised in Halo: CE for fitting well into the sandbox with its hitstun and quick camo uses.  Hardy LeBel did a wonderful job with this gun and making it useful in Hal-oh, wait, you're telling me outside of HCE no one uses the Plasma Rifle?  Because it's a shit generic automatic weapon with no niche or role at all?

Well, we need to fix that!  No weapon should be useless.  Let's talk about how to make it better, without treading down roads been walked before, such as the hitstun method which limits counterplay potential.

As a visible projectile-based automatic weapon, the Plasma Rifle is a weird beast.  Players can literally dodge the shots (unlike the hitscan incarnations of the Assault Rifle) and see where they need to move in order to stay ahead of their opponent's reticule.  This is good, it offers counterplay.  The slower projectile speed compared to most weapons in the game makes it difficult to use.  It leaves us with an unreliable weapon, especially at longer ranges.

In non-Combat Evolved Halo games where the Plasma Rifle is available to be used, its most common role is for a quick couple of shots followed by a melee.  A pretty shitty niche as other CQB/melee weapons outshine it in that role, and other automatics (SMG/AR) outshine it in gun roles.  As a gun, the Plasma Rifle is pretty shit.  Its other common use, in H2A's case, is to put a couple of shots in, back down into cover while you switch to your BR, and finish with a headshot.  A role where it is outshined by a Plasma Pistol (outside of Warlord, where there is no PP).  Uh oh, looks like we have a weapon that isn't very useful in its intended niche.

So how do we make the Plasma Rifle more reliable at range, or stronger as an automatic?  How about we do both at once -- by removing the limitation that each shot fired only has one particle, instead splitting it into two?  To make the weapon more effective at range, the plasma could feature a dissipation effect -- where the plasma spreads out, becoming able to hit a wider area at range.  This would still have significant damage versus shields, but be relatively useless versus player health.  The damage would still degrade at range based off how much of the spreading disc of plasma hit the player, but the focus here is to soften shields.  The second part of the damage would remain in the center of the disc, increasing focus on hitting your shots accurately as a player gets low on health (in line with Halo's core combat philosophy across the series where you body shot until a player is low/out of shields), then headshot.  The central portion of the Plasma Rifle's bolt could convey headshot bonuses, as well as pack a substantial punch to health any time it connects to an unshielded player.

Suddenly you've got a weapon with nuance for use (do I focus on aiming accurately or just try to drop shields as best as I can, do I have teammate help?) while it still has potential to stand on its own as an automatic, due to having a centralized point of increased damage for penetrating health and finishing off players that have had their shields dropped by the high energy plasma.

But let's not stop there; I've only been talking in 4v4 so far, there's another niche the Plasma Rifle was absolutely overshadowed by its UNSC BTB, versus vehicle health.

It makes zero sense to me that UNSC vehicles are so resistant to plasma damage.  That shit should shred the fuck out of vehicle health.  C'mon now.  Bump up the UNSC vehicle health damage from Plasma-based weaponry.  UNSC vehicles are built to withstand other UNSC vehicles' weaponry, not Covenant weaponry.  UNSC ARs/Magnums/Rifles should not be stronger against vehicles (outside of rifles versus weak points) than Plasma Rifles.

Okay, now we've buffed the Plasma Rifle to viability.  Who are we looking at now?

I'm afraid I don't recognize that weapon.  I don't think I've ever seen anyone use it.  What is it?

Oh, that's the Carbine?  I thought that thing was just a myth made up by those bastards that played playlists as Dinos and ran around shouting "wort wort wort" to be funny.

Here we have an example of a weapon that is perfectly capable in its own right (usually, I think in H3/H4 they intentionally made it weaker than the other options just so they'd never have to bother worrying about it.) but which rarely gets used apart from a pick-up to hold as a sidearm in case you run out of ammo in a power position you don't want to leave.

The Carbine has no role of its own, it's simply the "harder to use Covenant BR"; I say harder to use because it's single shot, versus the BR's burst.  Mistakes are punished more, and it's high shots-to-kill leave plenty of room for mistakes.

So how do we give this thing a role?  Sage Merrill had a pretty good idea once.

But if this blog is to jerk myself off--err, challenge my own design mind, I need to explore a different avenue.  One that doesn't involve "oh just aim for the body if you can't aim and you'll get a flashy kill; it'll be sweet I swear."

First let's examine the canonical design of the Type-51 Carbine.  By design, it is meant to be a riflesque version of the Type-33 Light Anti Armor Weapon...also known as the Fuel Rod Gun.  The Carbine literally fires supersonic radioactive projectiles at the target.  It's most often wielded in campaign by Jackals, the "snipers" of the Covenant military.

So using this knowledge, what can we do to the weapon to give it some identity?  Looking at its Big Sister counterpart, the Fuel Rod Gun, we know that the fuel rod "deploys" after being fired a certain range -- making it move much slower and explode upon the next target it hits.  Thinking about this, Carbines could do the same after a certain range.  Within their intended range (max red reticule range or whatever) they could still fire the standard method that ultimately operate like any other rifle in the game, but as you extend beyond that range, the fuel rod "decays" turning the bolt into an explosive projectile.  This could make it useful for pinging targets behind cover in long range skirmishes, damaging light vehicles as they attempt to flee, or packing an extra punch against smug DMR wielders who think their superior range gives them safety.

Ultimately, this change gives the Carbine a unique role as a dual-threat weapon; a rifle in standard ranges with some potential for splash damage or anti-armor potential in extreme ranges (hello BTB crowd!).  Suddenly the weapon has flavor that allows it to stand out from the other weapons of its niche, and you may actually remember it exists!  (And hey, making the Covenant Rifle explosive isn't that farfetched, we DID have a Supercombining Needle Rifle.)  And for those of you who can't visualize how I imagine the longer-ranged Carbine bolts to work...just imagine the Phoenix from Perfect Dark.

One last Halo weapon before I delve into my "bonus" topics...

"Audley, I didn't play Halo 4.  What the fuck is that?"

Don't worry, it's not a morning star.  It's the Pulse Grenade.

I encountered a poll on GameFAQs asking what the most useless weapon in Halo 4 was, and the #1 answer, with 40% of the vote (passing the Suppressor, Storm Rifle, and the Gravity Hammer) was the Pulse Grenade.

In my experience, this wasn't true.  Melee+Grenade throw was an instant kill with Pulse Grenades active...sharing this knowledge even convinced Eric "Gh057Ayame" Hewitt to include Pulse Grenades on-map in his Team Throwdown settings which were used for competitive tournaments during H4's lifespan.

So, if I'm so convinced Pulse Grenades were one of the strongest CQB weapons in all of Halo 4...why do I feel the need to talk about them?  It's all about player perception.

When you see the Pulse Grenade's animation, and its name, you expect it to be a sort of delayed-explosion that deals a ton of damage.  In reality, the Pulse Grenade's damage is front-loaded.  It takes place instantly in the giant circle of doom you create.  Add in Halo 3's Power Drain animation to a player's knowledge base, and you expect the Pulse Grenade's giant orange doomglobe do also deal significant damage over time.  Nope, not the case.

Literally the only good uses for the Pulse Grenade were to finish off players who were severely weakened -- the delayed effects were negligible at best and completely avoidable at worst.  But the instant burst of a well-thrown pulse grenade (or, in the primary usecase, a pulse grenade thrown at your feet immediately after a melee) was unavoidable, and made the pulse grenade a potent option as a finishing tool.

So, to reiterate clearly after all that jumbled rambling...

The Pulse Grenade needed nothing more than an animation fix to better clarify it's purpose to the users.  It was an instant burst tool, not a delayed-damage like most grenades, nor an AoE drain like the Halo series' past tool, the Power Drain, which carried a similar animation.  Clarity of design is just as important as unique flavor and potency, otherwise your users simply won't grasp how good it actually is.

That's all for my Halo weapons to rework...Now for two bonus guns.

Perfect Dark - Reaper.

OH DEAR GOD THIS THING WAS A MONSTER.  Viscerally, it was one of the most fun weapons to use in the history of FPS.  But in terms of viability...dear god, the weapon was ass.  It wasn't really intended to be a serious use weapon from what I can gather; hell, in game canon terms, humans aren't even supposed to be able to wield it, only the Skedar are.

If you didn't play Perfect Dark and are wondering what the fuck a Reaper is...  Imagine you took the bottom of a blender or food processor and made it the size of a chainsaw.  So you have a giant rotating fan-o-death that can shred people to death.  Got that in your mind?  Okay, that's just the SECONDARY fire mode of the Reaper.

Now imagine, for the primary mode...  That each of the tips of the "fan blades" can fire bullets, and as the fan spins faster, your rotating death fan of doom and despair fires faster as well, and is essentially the fastest firing machine gun in the history of anything ever.

Got it?  That's the Reaper.  Don't got it?  Here's a video.

With great fire rate comes great inaccuracy.  Dear lord the thing was inaccurate.  Unwieldy.  The melee secondary fire mode was fun, but mostly useless unless you had a really good corner to hide in for ambushes.

In terms of fun factor, the Reaper was fantastic.  It was a weapon you'd pick up just to watch it spin as you were hypnotized by murderous glee.  Unfortunately, there was just no way to reconcile its RoF with its accuracy to make it work for players...or was there?

The Reaper's kill time was surprisingly fast, when bullets actually hit.  Myself, I'm not a fan of randomly making bullets miss because you arbitrarily want to limit a gun's power.  Drastically reducing the damage per bullet and increasing the accuracy could've gone a long way to making the Reaper a bit less farfetched as a tool -- and as a cost for the increase in accuracy, tuning the recoil to actually RECOIL (rather than again, just being a random spread of bullet trajectories).  Alternately, taking the Halo "ripped-off-turret" approach of reducing the player's movement speed could also curb some of the power given back to the player by more consistency in the weapon itself.  A final route, though probably too ahead of the technology curve for Perfect Dark's day could've been to greatly increase the magazine size (from 200 to 1000) and add the potential for the gun to overheat as it approached its faster RPMs, leading a player to want to micromanage the heat and avoid spinning too fast.

And the final gun... Quite possibly the most hated gun in FPS history...

The Klobb.

How could this have been fixed?

Just delete the goddamn useless piece of shit.

That's all for my random blog on FPS sandbox design, hope you enjoyed.

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