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Colony Ship RPG Update #7: Iron Tower Studio Design Principles
Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Tue 19 July 2016, 13:33:19Tags: Colony Ship; Iron Tower Studio; Vince D. Weller
The latest Colony Ship RPG update is an interesting one. It's not just about the game itself, but also about how it exemplifies what has become Iron Tower Studio's signature design "brand" - the core principles that all ITS games will share. There's a lot of stuff here that the Codex will like, but also some contemplation on the complaints people had about The Age of Decadence. It's very long, so I can only post a fraction of it:
- Stats & Skills Matter not only in combat where they provide various bonuses but outside of combat as well, when exploring or dealing with people. It’s a deceptively simple aspect, so let’s examine it in details.
What it means in practical terms is that your character would succeed in areas where his/her stats and skills are strong but fail where they are weak. For example, a perceptive person would notice something others won’t; a brute would be able to move a heavy object, etc.
Obviously, the effect can be minor (i.e. you moved a boulder and found a couple of coins underneath it!), major (you moved a boulder and found a passageway to another area!), or anything in between (you moved a boulder and found a passageway to another area where you found … a couple of coins! T’was a good day for adventuring).
Usually, stats and skills are checked in the following situations:
- Multiple solutions (i.e. different ways to arrive to the same destination, everyone’s happy and nobody’s upset)
- Optional content (limited ways to unlock optional content, aka. “gated” content)
Multiple solutions are an important gameplay element, which allows you to go through a game in a manner fitting your character, but it is the optional content that truly differentiates one playthrough from another and boosts replayability (because solving the same problems in different ways isn’t enough).
Naturally, optional content must differ in accessibility. Someone’s old shed should be easy to break into (let’s say everyone with a single point in lockpick, which is 80% of all players). An area that resisted all attempts to get into for decades or centuries like the Abyss should force most people to turn back to preserve the setting’s integrity (let’s say only 10% of players should explore it). The rest of the content would fall somewhere in between.
This approach greatly upset some players who felt that they were punished “just because they chose the ‘wrong’ stats”. Some RPG players are notoriously obsessive-compulsive and won’t rest until they create a character that can get the maximum amount of content, which does require reading online guides and meta-gaming like there’s no tomorrow – the fastest way to kill all enjoyment and ruin the game. Of course, the counter-argument is that failing repeatedly (considering how easy it is to make a character ill-equipped for what you're trying to do) is an equally fast way to kill the enjoyment.
I’m not sure there’s a way to “fix it” as those who want to get maximum content in a single playthrough will continue to metagame no matter what. The moment you tell the player "sorry, buddy, you need to be this tall to ride this", some players won't accept the failure and would want to know this kind of info in advance. Not many people see it as "you win some, you lose some" design. Anyway, I'd love to read your thoughts on this matter.
- Non-Linear & Replayable
First let’s define what it means. Linear design is easy to understand: you move from A to B to C, always in this order, which takes away the freedom of choice completely. Then we have the “Bioware design”: do 4 locations in any order, which as an illusion of choices, much like dialogues where you get to say the same thing in 4 different ways.
True non-linearity requires two things:
- Multiple ways leading toward the endgame location (i.e. branching questlines), so you never have to travel the same path if you replay the game
- Very few “required” story-telling nodes (locations, conversation, events) the player simply must visit or trigger in order to progress.
The positives are clear. Now let’s take a look at the negatives:
- The game will be short because you’re taking all available content and splitting it between multiple paths and filter it down via mutually exclusive decisions. AoD has over 110 quests, which is a lot, but you get no more than 20-25 per playtrhough and that’s if you leave no stone unturned.
- The game will be even shorter because it’s easy to miss locations and content. Throw in the gated content and non-combat gameplay and it will be even shorter.
Not surprisingly, "the game is too short" was complaint #3, right after "the game is too hard" (#1) and "too much meta-gaming" (#2).