Archive for February, 2010

Meditations On Death And Failing

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

In game design, which is really just an extension of systems engineering, death is a “fail” state. The definition of fail can be debated to some extent but in general it is a condition where the system parameters/data is in a non-preferred condition and/or the system itself may now have become unstable or non-functioning. In Armageddon Empires the Mutants might have just nuked you and it’s game over man. In Solium Infernum you just lost your stronghold…but if you are playing multiplayer with other humans the analysis can be more complex since others have game states to manage and the game does not necessarily end when you do.

Game over is the ultimate fail state in games as well in life. The problem with offering games as entertainment instead of games as a simulation is that reaching the ultimate fail state is not really “fun” unless you change the meaning of fail or add some type of meta system to the set up. And by not really fun I mean game over means game over. You can’t enjoy pushing buttons and pulling levers on the state machine if it is locked up for you. So game designers often change the meaning of fail by respawning, removing lives, penalizing a game variable or two (i.e. your stats) or just ignoring the ultimate fail completely and letting you try again. Adding a meta game is something that is often done when the system is brutal and unforgiving. Imagine a hard core rogue-like that once your character died would lock up and never let you play the game again on that or any other computer. You can get ridiculous (although there are certainly some sci-fi novels I’m sure that have explored this)taking it one step further and imagine a system where when your character dies so do you. I offer just one (not very original) observation that almost all religious concepts of afterlife or reincarnation or even nirvana seek to add some type of meta structure to what we observe as our system of reality. So the ulitmate fail state… let’s call it perma-death has to be handled carefully.

Failing is actually not a bad thing. In fact according to the design theories of guys like Raph Koster (cf a theory of fun) failing is part of the “learning and mastery” process that makes games fun. Dwarf Fortress’ failing is fun ethos works on so many levels. Failing is learning. A complex system can only be learned by failing in many cases. Each failure adds more information to the picture or map that the player forms of the game system. This might be called “progressive” failure. Small failures that while deemed one step back serve to spur the protagonist forward. Read the biography of any successful interesting hero and you will most likely find a trail of fails that shaped the hero. So as a game designer I see my objective as providing opportunities to fail that don’t frustrate the player. Failure should rather open up new vistas and opportunities. In Planescape Torment failure in the classical sense of character death was actually required to progress the storyline. I’m digressing here a bit but as I approach the design of Rogue Expedition I do so with the goal of making failure and integral part of the design.

Besides the learning and mastery component, one aspect of engineering progressive failure into a game design is the classic risk vs. reward calculus that accompanies the decisions you present the players. Offering choices to interact with the game that cover a broad spectrum of risk vs. reward can ameliorate the “frustration” felt by players when failure occurs. This is because “if you don’t make it, it’s your own damn vault.” In Rogue expedition the key mechanic will revolve around facing “encounters” by succeeding in “challenges” that are resolved based on a player’s stats, the difficulty level of the challenge, and the opportunity for the player to arrange what I will call “tiles” via “heroic actions” to claim points. Claim enough points and you succeed in the challenge. That’s all rather abstract but I will explain it in much more detail down the road. The key thing will be that when an “encounter” is presented to a player, there will be several choices along the risk reward spectrum that each define unique challenges and ultimately unique rewards.

So here are some Design Axioms:
Failing is Learning
Learning is Fun
Choosing how to fail means it’s the player’s own damn vault
Not failing is exhilarating….where the exhilaration is proportional to the cost of failure

I want to conclude with the mention of two games that are on opposite ends of the spectrum in their treatment of failure but both of which I find to contain inspirational design elements:

Demon’s Souls is worth considering for its very unique and clever way of handling failure. Failure, that is death, has consequences but it is not entirely devastating. Basically you lose all the souls that you were carrying and you become a ghost. The souls collected by slaying demons function as both a currency and experience points which let you increase attributes or buy/repair important equipment. The interesting thing is that you can do a “stain run” to go collect these lost souls which can be a lot easier said than done. There is a great risk vs. reward mechanic going on here that you are always massaging in your head….since there isn’t a soul bank you have to always consider just how many souls you want to have on you and whether you should minimize the loss risk by spending some to trim your stash down (and the risk as well) Also, if you find that you are stuck on something in the game, you need to strategize a bit on spending some souls to overcome that obstacle…..that may take you in different directions for your character than you initially intended. Failing and learning by dying is par for the Demon’s Souls course. But the game has a wonderful group of mechanics that ameliorates the frustration and rewards inventiveness and calculated risk taking.

Puzzle Quest is another game favorite of mine that sits on the other end of the spectrum for handling progressive failure. Like Demon’s Souls you cannot end up in an ultimate fail state where it is game over (although consistent high risk fails in Demon’s Souls will gimp you terribly). Puzzle Quest however will pick you up in the most loving care bear embrace, dust you off and set you on your way. I like Puzzle Quest a lot but the one thing that it is missing in my opinion is some penalty or risk vs. reward mechanic to put the fear of “falling skulls” into you. I feel like something is wrong when I can challenge the same Ogre in his tower 5 times in a row until I manage to beat him without any penalty other than by bruised self esteem. Puzzle Quest is great in that it taunts you with persistent challenges that you can fail at and then learn from to best them when you try again but it is lacking a much needed tension because you have no fear of failing. What I do like about both these games it that they each solved the fail and reload problem in unique ways much like Planescape Torment did so many years ago.

Fail

British Cottage Bedrooms

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Wait that’s not right. Anyway, there is a neat article on British One Man Indies that is a nice read and features Cliffski of Gratuitous Space Battles fame. I found myself nodding in agreement through most of it. I especially agree with this sentiment “But I get to spend all day every day doing what I love, and there’s no real price to be put on that.” That’s doubly so when you are in the fun design stage of a project like I am right now with Rogue Expedition.

A Word Of Caution

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

I just wanted to offer a word of caution for players of Solium Infernum. The Diplomatic Protocols of the Infernal Conclave can be deceptive. Many Archfiends tend to get lost in them scheming of how to time their insults and demands and how to manipulate the rules to their own advantage. Some begin to think inside of the diplomatic box and forget that rules are only useful if other players follow them. This results in a false sense of security that your stronghold, your seat of power is safe. This is never the case since the slightest transgression against the sanctity of Pandemonium will result in excommunication for a player and that means that the heretic no longer need obey the Infernal Protocols.

If you have a neighbor who is within quick marching or flying distance to your stronghold always be on guard. Consider placing a combat card in one of your stronghold’s attachment slots just to add some uncertainty. You never know when a desperate, vindictive or just plain crazy Archfiend will pick the go for broke with excommunication gambit. It might not make sense to you but you need to keep yourself thinking outside the box….or at least pop your head out of it every once in a while to get an appreciation for the lay of the land. Nothing in Hell is certain except punishment.

Pain And Punishment

Phill Cameron Chit Chat

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

I meant to post this but my mini-crunch on 1.05b side tracked me a bit. Anyway, I did an interview with Phill for Game Set Watch/Gamasutra where I pick open the fun game price scab and also talk about future plans for SI and my new project Rogue Expedition. I’m having a lot of fun putting RE together right now. Design is always the most kick-ass part of the whole process πŸ™‚ I hope to have some interesting posts here soon on how I am approaching this Rogue-like board game on a computer…..influences, design goals, and what I am playing right now for inspiration.

Solium Infernum Update 1.05b Release

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Update Instructions:

The 1.05b update is compatible with all save games from previous versions. It can be applied to any previous update version.

Multiplayer PBEM Note: I strongly recommend that hosts update to this version. All other players should as well but 1.05a and 1.05b are compatible. There are a lot of nice fixes here though so I would encourage all players to update especially if you have lots of excommunication going on in games.

Thanks to everybody who tested out the beta and to all the bug submissions I got over the last few days….some were really nice finds that I am happy to have terminated.

You apply it by overwriting the three files AIScripts.cxt, MainIFace.cxt and GameEngine.cxt it the Solium Infernum install directory which is usually Program Files\Cryptic Comet\Solium Infernum

You can use a .zip file here: Solium Infernum Update 1.05b ZIP

Or a self extracting .exe here: Solium Infernum Update 1.05b .Exe

Important:
For the self extracting .exe, some windows systems will not let you copy directly to Program Files so you might need to first copy them to your desktop or another writable location and then manually copy the three files over.

Bug Fix Notes (Only Partial):

Fixed bug where attaching Praetor with level bonus to Place of Power resulted in PoP gaining that level bonus to its level permanently

Fixed bug where player did not get refunded prestige wager from Vendetta when opponent was excommunicated.

Fixed bug where legion returned to Bazaar for lack up upkeep displayed EOF text for artifacts and relics attached.

Fix bug with Dimensional Gate ritual that allowed player to abuse targeting process

Fixed bug where legion that was bought in Bazaar but did not have valid Canton to deploy to had inspect icon on message that caused script error when clicked on.

Fixed bug in level up response message for Praetor who defeated Champion of Pandemonium

Fixed bug where player was excommunicated multiple times with repeat messages and the excommunication list also had multiple entries for player causing problems with Expel the Heretic event and Dissolution of the Conclave

Fixed bug where event to reinstate excommunicated players was not working properly when one player could not be reinstated due to the fact that they were occupying Pandemonium at the time.

Fixed bug where player removed from game was not also removed from excommunication list

Fixed bug in Conclave dissolution process where loss of Pandemonium due to event could result in control being assigned to Conclave which does not exist

Fixed bug where you could dismiss Personal Guard under certain conditions

Fixed bug where Bribing an enemy legion without having a valid deploy hex caused an error

Fixed bug where removal of a player from the game could cause incorrect visibility data for newly created legions in the Bazaar

Fixed bug for Strategic Confusion ritual where selecting invalid target messed up remaining targeting choices

Biting Off More Than….

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

you can chew….You need to be able to admit it and moving on is sometimes the best option as bitter as it tastes to swallow that pill. I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last few weeks – on and off trying to prototype a new twist to Solium Infernum that I was going to release as a free mini expansion pack. I have dropped it once, then moved onto a more compact mini-expansion idea and then tried another stab at the “big idea” approach and now finally realized that I need to moderate my ambition….otherwise a mini-expansion pack is going to morph into a full blown expansion pack and that’s just not something I want to approach at this point. But for S & G’s documentation sake here is how the “big idea” really was too big for now.

The “big idea” actually seemed pretty simple: Let one player assume the role of avenging Angelic Hosts that launch incursions into the Infernal Pit to punish the other players. The details proved however to be rather more complicated.

My main design goal was to do a twist on the Cults of the Wastelands mini expansion pack that I offered for Armageddon Empires except this time the role of the “spoiler” would be played by a human opponent. To do this I had to overcome a couple of big hurdles….invent a resource system for the Angelic Hosts player and come up with a win condition as well. The benefits would be great if I could pull this off. Ideally the Angelic Host player would offer yet another cooperate/defect dynamic to the game that would spice things up even more. It would be in all the Archfiends interests to make sure that the Angelic Host did not “win” the game but of course having the “Angelic Host” hammer your opponents would also be in a players interest as well. Balancing that dynamic would ideally add a whole range of new decisions.

The key design issues would then be how the Angelic Host player would interact with the Archfiends. Success for the Angelic Host player would mean loss of prestige for the players and most importantly the loss needed to be distributed unevenly. My initial idea was that the Angelic Host player would first send scouting parties to a Canton and then invest effort into setting up outposts and eventually stronger fortifications. This would result in an Archfiend having a continual drain on prestige the longer the Angelic Host operated with impunity in a players domain. I won’t go into other details other than I fiddled with a bunch of different rules variations…sometimes the outposts were hidden from all the players besides the one owning the Canton etc. Weight was given to locations that would border two or more Archfiends so that both would lose prestige and be able to act….and successfully removing an incursion fortification would gain the Archfiend prestige.

I already had a good idea how I wanted to handle the resource system for the Angelic Host player. I have always loved the design idea of players actions generating “negative action points” which can be used by other players to fuel resistance and roadblocks for the “acting” player. That type of system provides an elegant negative feedback mechanism to restrain would be leaders. One of the best examples of this type of mechanic is the wonderful little card game called dungeoneer So the basic idea would be that as the Archfiends used “souls” in their turn orders, the Angelic Host would be granted points to spend to torment the Archfiends.

The last key hurdle was coming up with a Victory condition for the Angelic Host and this was something that I only partially explored. There are a lot of possibilities ranging from the Angelic Host scoring Victory points to a build up for and conquest of Pandemonium that dissolves the Conclave and wins the game for the Angelic Host. I honestly didn’t get very far into this aspect before I realized that the whole endeavor was not working out well. In the prototyping I did getting the balance right for this idea proved really difficult. Putting a “spoiler” into the mix calls for a very deliberative approach to get it right and more importantly the design is way too ambitious for 4-6 weeks worth of work which is what I had planned for the free mini-expansion pack.

So I am going to back burner this and hopefully maybe come back to it as a more major expansion to the Solium Infernum universe. In the meantime I have gone back to the idea of a less revolutionary mini-expansion pack that smooths out some of the rough edges from the game.

So here is what I have in mind right now(and remember this could all change) and it will be a free addition for players who have already purchased the game:

Curses – Direct ways to affect your opponents’ prestige. The plan is for each Discipline except Diabolism to get a unique one.

Resource Fonts – Level up in a Discipline to level 3 and you can create an “Attachment” for a place of power/stronghold that gives you the chance each turn to receive a tribute card that contains an amount of the resource associated with the Discipline (Martial Skill => Ichor, Deceit => Darkness, Prophecy => Souls, Destruction => Hellfire) If you create one then your max Diabolism Level is capped at 6 minus the number of Fonts that you have created. Also if you create a font then the next font requires one level higher in the discipline you are choosing. i.e. if you created a soul font at level 3 Prophecy then a hellfire font will require level 4 in Destruction.

Assertion of Weakness – A new diplomatic action. Make an assertion of weakness before the Conclave against an opponent who has an unoccupied border hex adjacent to your holdings. The Conclave authorizes you to move into the single canton and remain there for X turns. If your opponent cannot eject you from the Canton (and only the Canton…this is not Vendetta) in X turns then you gain the Canton and he loses prestige (and you gain some as well).

New Praetors, Artifacts and Relics

New Events

A Regular Infernal Census
every 5 tokens where 1 prestige point is generated for each Canton held

I’m going to shoot for a May/June time frame for this and I’m still trying to think up a good name. πŸ™‚

Solium Infernum Beta Update 1.05b

Monday, February 8th, 2010

This is a beta for an improvement on 1.05a that mostly addresses fixes to unusual excommunication scenarios. It also fixes some basic “gross conceptual errors” that I had with excommunicating players and also reinstating them that could cause problems when the Infernal Conclave was dissolved because things had “gotten out of hand” πŸ™‚

Here is a .zip file of the update Solium Infernum Update 1.05b Beta ZIP

It is compatible with all previous save games and since there are no data structure changes it is also compatible with 1.05a for multiplayer games. It is a beta though so although I am pretty sure it won’t cause problems I can’t guarantee it and would like to get some brave players to try it out before I go official with it. If you try it and do run into a problem then please send me a save game and a brief explanation. If you are playing a multiplayer PBEM game then I’m happy to fix anything that might get broken if the host wants to send me the folder contents.

Here are the key bug fixes:

Fixed bug where attaching Praetor with level bonus to Place of Power resulted in PoP gaining that level bonus to its level permanently

Fixed bug where player did not get refunded prestige wager from Vendetta when opponent was excommunicated.

Fixed bug where legion returned to Bazaar for lack up upkeep displayed EOF text for artifacts and relics attached.

Fix bug with Dimensional Gate ritual that allowed player to abuse targeting process

Fixed bug where legion that was bought in Bazaar but did not have valid Canton to deploy to had inspect icon on message that caused script error when clicked on.

Fixed bug in level up response message for Praetor who defeated Champion of Pandemonium

Fixed bug where player was excommunicated multiple times with repeat messages and the excommunication list also had multiple entries for player causing problems with Expel the Heretic event and Dissolution of the Conclave

Fixed bug where event to reinstate excommunicated players was not working properly when one player could not be reinstated due to the fact that they were occupying Pandemonium at the time.

Fixed bug where player removed from game was not also removed from excommunication list

Fixed bug in Conclave dissolution process where loss of Pandemonium due to event could result in control being assigned to Conclave which does not exist

Fixed bug where you could dismiss Personal Guard under certain conditions

Cyberstratege Award

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Solium Infernum was given a special award for 2009 by the French strategy gaming magazine Cyberstratege.

Merci!

Cyberstratege Specia lAward

Gaming Daily Review

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Gaming Daily gives SI an 87% and really likes the diplomatic aspects of Hell:

“Hell is full of red tape. The Conclave works like the most uptight victorian goverment you care to imagine. You can’t simply start a war – you have to have cause to start one. Whether that be because someone refuses to meet your demands or because they would rather go to war than take an insult from you….”