Gameplay as a Hierarchy of Cycles

I’m going to quote a post in whole that covered most of what I was meaning to write on this subject but far more succinctly than I imagined possible. Brenda Braithwaite’s post “Design Truth 1″:

Focus on second-to-second play first. Nail it. Move on to minute-to-minute, then session-to-session, then day-to-day, then month-to-month (and so on). If your second-to-second play doesn’t work, nothing else matters. Along these lines, if your day-to-day fails, no one will care about month-to-month, either.

This  seems like an excellent imperative to good game design – especially a mechanics-based game. In counterpoint, (though I could quibble about “good” vs “successful” design) whole games are built on hooking players with long-term investment, be it emotional, social, or time (read: sunk cost fallacy), rather than refined short-term, low-level gameplay (see: grindy MMOs, Zynga), or some kind of story that players get invested in despite the gameplay (see: Final Fantasy games). I think an argument can be made for classifying games according to higher-level design philosophy. But yes, Dredmor’s core is certainly in the mechanics. Well; the mechanics and the insanity, which might count as “story” content though ours is decidedly nonlinear. But I digress. I’ll be doing a lot of that.

[It just struck me - I think this attention to the fundamentals of gameplay is what Jonathon Blow was getting at in a response to one of our earlier trailers. Strong iteration of mechanics is clearly something he is focused on, as evidenced by his work.]

But yes, to bring this back around, the Dredmor beta, at 0.90 coming on 0.91 very soon here, is just breaking through the stage of everything being horrible and horribly crashy and not-fun into a stage where we must consider game balance and pacing in larger, longer cycles of gameplay.

Let’s consider these cycles of gameplay as a subject in itself, from “second-to-second play” to “minute-to-minute play” on upwards. The smallest cycles repeat within larger cycles which repeat within yet larger cycles, all in differing combination. The dynamics which arise out of matching smaller cycles with different sets of larger cycles presumably create interesting gameplay (“emergent gameplay”, if you like). This does not require an ‘open world’; such an experience could be entirely linear and planned (the prime example perhaps being the various arcs at play in a film). In Dredmor’s case we’re somewhere between the two, probably leaning toward open world, what with the roguelike random dungeon generation. (As for digression, from the mention of films, there’s a hell of a lot that should be said about pacing in games. It’s certainly something we need to give some attention in Dredmor.)

Right, well: gameplay cycles can perhaps be usefully arranged by scale from lowest-level (built from the most basic game mechanics) to the highest-level (contingent upon the dynamics between all lower cycles working together) like so:

  1. An individual action (attack, manipulate object, get/drop item)
  2. Complete interaction with a single entity (slay the monster, pull a lever and gather loot, unlock/bash chest, defuse/step on trap)
  3. Clear a room (deal appropriately with all entities in a room, perhaps full of traps, perhaps a squad of monsters, or just steal all the gold)
  4. Clear a series of rooms (take on & complete a quest? negotiate the dynamic between themed rooms? This is a stage I’d like to do better with.)
  5. Clear a dungeon level (advance character stats, items, and wealth through the course of a dungeon level, then deal with a leveled-up set of monsters in the next level.)
    edit: 5.5. “Improvise successfully against the unexpected” situations you meet across levels [for Brian] Not sure what this means just yet, but we should probably do something with it.
  6. Run the course of the game (Start as a weak, poor adventurer; Over the course of the game find the inner strength [read: phat loot] to defeat Lord Dredmor! Or die in a disgraceful dead-end, corpse surrounded by gibbering blobbies.)

Quantifying the game in this manner lets me break down the gameplay to see if it is actually succeeding on each level. Or, even, to consider what mechanics should be tweaked or added to enhance this or that level.

The real-world messiness of the Dredmor project did not of course allow us to take the ideal approach as suggested by Braithwaite, to start at the bottom and build up from a prototype of the lowest level gameplay. It happened more like we stuck a few globs on a rough armature that Nicholas dragged out of the back of his closet, expanded outward, poking, finding weak spots, and filling in; stepping back to consider the experience (of ourselves and others), then adding, cutting, or changing as seems appropriate; ripping out the heart of the game with a spoon then replacing it with some jury-rigged assemblage at the last minute, whatever. Such is theoretical game design hitting real life development.

It’s fun.

Update: I just found this post by DanC (of Lost Garden), “Creating a System of Game Play Notation”, which fits closely with what I was getting at above – that is, a methodology for looking at gameplay. And he’s got a chart with a hierarchy of gameplay elements. Clearly this thinking has been around for a while.

Posted in Dungeons of Dredmor, Game Design | Tagged , , , ,
13 Comments

13 Responses to “Gameplay as a Hierarchy of Cycles”

  1. Brian says:

    Hmm, some handy new’ish bookmarks for further study—how timely!

    I like The 6 Step Plan(Doubles as a guide to Cheese addiction via Dredmor?..), though somehow I was expecting a Step 6.5 between “clear a general level” and “generally clear other levels until death or glory”.

    Something like, “Improvise successfully against the unexpected”—guess in this context would be something like Special Levels that twist the “established chaos” of the general level of level of the Dredmor experience. Best Roguelike tackling of this notion I’ve seen is Triangle Wizard…where suddenly your motivations and playstyle can be thrown a bit off by randomly happening Special Levels—-such as an Arena level with massive spawning teams, a growing prize mechanic not featured anywhere else, some spells suddenly not working at all while others gain more value than usual, and so on.

    Since a Roguelike can’t usually hit the “second to second” twitch enjoyment factor given the turn-based concerns—the lure of the delightfully unpredictable, even if it can be “known of” like the above example. MMO’s are all about predictable days into months—I reckon Dredmor can do better to keep things lively.

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    • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

      Good point, I’ll add in a 6.5, or 5.5? — I don’t stick to any of this as immutable rules by any means :)

      Hmm. I really, really like this idea of breaking/changing the rules of the game for certain areas/times – if only to break the gray noise of completely random gameplay topology up into some peaks and valleys (there I go, using a visual metaphor again. This train of thought requires another post… ). … but yes, breaking the rules. I remember a prime example from Half-life 2 when they supercharged the gravity gun so you could pull soldiers and stuff mounted on walls — it broke the rules previously established, and it was great fun.

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  2. Lekon says:

    I’d disagree on the Roguelike can’t usually hit the second to second bit. Turn based can be just as exciting as real time, and just as nerve racking. Sometimes you’ll end up in a situation where you know just what to do, and are in that zone of perfect strategy. Sometimes you have to stop, and each second is you running through various methods of how not to die in your mind.

    Lately I’ve been playing a lot of T.o.m.e., and couldn’t really point out just why it was so much more fun to me than Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. This actually helped me understand it. DCSS’s second to second is a lot less interesting than TOME’s. Both have great long terms and room to rooms, but TOME gives more options on fighting each enemy, even as a thief or fighter. Everyone’s got their own special mechanic instead of just “You have a yellow mana bar, you have a blue one”.

    Brian mentioned Triangle Wizard as well, a game I love, but I think falls into great short term, no long term for my view. For some reason I can never stick with it. The advancement always seems way too random for me. Still a blast every now and then though.

    Anyways: Nifty post as usual David!

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    • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

      I wouldn’t mean at all say that Roguelikes don’t hit the second-to-second level of gameplay! I’d say that intense action can happen /in the brain/ even if it isn’t happening on-screen – further, intense but non-meaningful player action on screen (noise vs. signal, if you like) can get in the way of a game being any good; I would never want a game to waste my time for the sake of wasting my time aka artlessly padding game time.

      Some of the best feedback I’ve got so far on Dredmor is that the game really shines when you’re almost dead, desperate, and have to basically try to MacGyver your way out of a situation using what random crap is available. I think we’ll really push this as we add more the weirder mechanics that’ll arise from spells/magic items/special skills and crafting/traps.

      Haven’t played TOME or Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, though followed slightly what’s going on. But I think I get what you’re saying about actually having different mechanics vs. changing the colors and numbers. (Which is fundamentally why I think Elemental sounded so terribly dull and would never live up to MoM … but that’s a rant for another time.)

      I’ve no idea what this Triangle Wizard game is (reading up on it now), but we do have a wizard named “Triangulon” in the Dredmor lore, and he DOES like triangles just a bit more than is natural…

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    • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

      Ah, and I see the second-to-second gameplay being or not being a part of roguelikes was was in response to Brian, not my post. Ahem. Carry on!

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      • Lekon says:

        Wait. You’re making a Roguelike and haven’t played DC:SS or TOME?

        *baffled* Ah… go do some playin… research asap! Those are two of the most fleshed out, well designed Roguelikes out there. Both have incredible interfaces, and great choices for player creation.

        Both DC:SS and TOME are great in that last bit you mentioned, about being “almost” dead and having to figure out a way to survive, or running into an enemy that if he fights you on his terms, you will die. Horribly. If you can figure out how to take him on your terms, you will win.

        Think my favorite thing in TOME lately is that they completely got rid of potions. Instead there are infusions you can have (Healing, Regeneration, Shielding, random teleportation.) that work on timers, but you can only have 3 or 4 ready at a time. Have to decide if you want to carry a pair of heales to stagger the timers, or a shield and a curing spell.

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        • David may not have played DC:SS but I have. I also tried TOME but I never really got into it as much as Crawl.

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        • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

          Hah, I must admit that I’m not actually much into roguelikes in and of themselves. Sure, I’ve played a few. I know how they work and follow what some of them are doing. But it’s not my primary area of interest – to say the very least, I’m an artist, right? I do graphics. So right there we’re moving away from the realm of Roguelikes (though I like making an argument about Dwarf Fortress is superior when viewed in the original ASCII because of its wonderful expression through icons rather than representation, which is what roguelikes are all about of course. Now I think I’m undermining my own point…)

          I have to admit, I’m a bit fearful of Dredmor being described as an out-and-out roguelike as it has been in the few rounds of publicity we’ve been having because of the expectations that brings to the table. Obviously having drawn and animated graphics means there’s a hell of a lot we can’t do that ASCII roguelikes can do very easily; we’re structurally limited on content. Certainly, Dredmor is heavily influenced by roguelikes, but I think it’s another step removed. Maybe it’s a “roguelikeish”.

          Basically, I’m a bit nervous that roguelike players will be upset that Dredmor is not simply a roguelike-but-with-graphics (they know not what they ask of this poor artist!); Some responses to the recent trailer have been negative on those grounds. But really, it’s not like we made a roguelike and removed all the fun detail – we made a game and, if anything, we’ve /added/ tons of crunchy numbers and details as mechanics have been revised as of Dredmor 0.90. Then on the other hand, maybe non-roguelike playes will be put off by the “roguelike” descriptor.

          I just don’t know. I guess time will tell, and I’ll have to be mindful of how I describe the game in promotion.

          If nothing else, we’re definitely adding a special difficulty level for hardcore roguelike players who enjoy pain.

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          • Lekon says:

            Latest version of TOME is a lot better than the old days. And your last comment actually gave me a lot of hope.

            The bit about hardcore mode as a special difficulty instead of the default. That’s my favorite thing about TOME, the default difficulty gives you extra chances and doesn’t say “Now. Start running piggie!”

            As to Roguelike vs “ish” Nah, you guys are fine. Usually a lot of folk think Roguelike as in “LOOT!” and “CHALLENGE” two things Dredmor seems to be doing very well. Lately some of the RL’s are trying to get away from the whole ascii and 9000 keyboard command asthetic, which is one of the main reasons I fell for Dredmor so fast. It has a real interface, it doesn’t take memory of tons of commands, and it looks awesome. (Dave’s got mad art skills, eyebrow boy.)

            Why not just refer to it as a “Single player tactical RPG with cheese”?

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  3. Lekon says:

    I have no idea why my post came up twice. That is… odd. I seem to have broken the matrix. Doh. Any way one of the nice folk can edit that first half out?

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  4. Brian says:

    Heh, lively times here—looks like I should clarify my notions!

    -ToME 4 is the specific latest and, for a growing number, greatest ToME incarnation—though there are others still kinda hopping on along.

    -My “usually” second-to-second contention would’ve been better served as “generally”, even with the hat-tip to “twitch factor”. Limitless time to react to a situation brings certain things with it, but said situations can still be rather hairy as traditional Roguelike design tends to beget players getting into something akin to “The Zone” in professional sports/e-sports—or more commonly we fall for holding down a movement key or something and everything goes to hell on us despite hours of successful play vanished into the ether.

    There are oft untrodden methods to give more oomph to the “coffeebreak RL” stylings—a semi-recent stylish one that seems to have fallen off the cart by the name of Dungeonmans would certainly be the the Cul de Sac of Dredmor. Otherwise, smart use of auditory cues, music, and visual aspects can all help to encourage a general mindset—there are reasons why boss themes in most games are the best tracks: They are meant to have you as awake and “in it” as possible given them being climax points not unlike major cutscenes.

    -In the end, for historical rantings I won’t subject this place to, Roguelikes are simply a thing under the umbrella of RPGs—with further taxonomy mainly an effect of willing and unwilling niche-carving by market forces and perhaps often too insular a playerbase. So, Dredmor is an RPG—and one entirely possible to stand as a springboard for “Dredmorlikes” or “*Dredmor” in the *BAND tradition, and so on. Label as the fancy takes, and the legacy will perhaps manifest itself after the fact—as the devs of Rogue certainly didn’t reckon ahead of time how the history would play out.

    TLDR: Achieve good adjectives, awesome nouns, some positive action-verbs—become thy own definitions of X versus a tree growing under shade.

    -ASCII can do some things tricky to do visually in an economic sense, but Graphical doings can upset applecarts the other way around too—the current “classic” example being the Tile version of Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup allowing for one to visually reckon things like what weapon a Goblin is wielding and other bits that simply can’t be put forth as intuitively in ASCII. Neither visual approach has lived up to their respective full potential either, so there’s that as well.

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    • Lekon says:

      I was referring to TOME 4 as well, best of a long line of awesome. New version comes out soon too!

      I fully agree on the bit about the “Zone” in a good Roguelike, figuring out where you’ll go, how you’ll get there, how to get past Bill the Troll or Sigmund the @*!*#.

      Dredmor seems to be getting a bit close to the midground of RPGS, which is a good thing. A bit from here, a bit from there, tons of customization, and choices of difficulty. That’s always good.

      Really, so far everything Gaslamp has shown looks great. Nothing as of yet has made me feel any worry or “Uhoh… they’re putting *that* in?”

      Between Dredmor, Desktop Dungeons, and Starfarer, life will rock.

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