Friday, June 14, 2013

Design (Part 2) - Power without Gameplay


This will be a series of articles about game design, using the popular games DOTA and League of Legends as illustrative examples. The specific words, "Design is an Optimization" was coined by the design director of Riot. It means that to him, design is an iterative process of optimization.

Thus if some aspect of DOTA or LOL seems inferior or different to the other, it is because a conscious choice has been made by its designers – the trade-offs have been examined, the benefits judged more than the costs.

Trade off #2: Power without Gameplay

This is a problem where a skill has too little complexity to provide any gameplay, yet has enough power to influence the course of the game. The game outcome then feels unsatisfying to both sides as no gameplay was invoked.

Passives and Auras

Passives and auras are an obvious offender here, as they contribute towards you winning the game without any action required on your part.

The poster child for this effect right now is the Crystal Maiden - she has a very strong global mana regeneration aura, but her viability is curtailed by designing her with severe weaknesses - nearly the lowest movespeed and hit points of any hero in the game, and a lack of any escape mechanism. Basically she contributes to her team winning the game just by... existing.

I know you guys only want me for my mana aura, I feel so used *sobs*

How do we mitigate this problem, when auras and passive skills are a staple part of RPGs everywhere?

Riot has tried to make aura or passive skills more interesting by making sure their passive effect is minor, and compensating by adding active effects to them in order to promote gameplay and allow decision making.

For example, Sona in League of Legends is an aura based champion (she has 3 auras!) which relies on an aura switching mechanic where only one aura can be active at any time, and every time you change aura a different active effect is triggered around her – this creates an engaging game play mechanic where the timing of the aura switches matters just as much as what aura you have on at the time. Additionally, every 3 aura changes, her next auto-attack is imbued with an additional property based on the last aura used, which subtly alters her role from being a mere back line aura supporter into a champion that also actively contributes by attacking the enemy. I think this is an excellent reimagining of the Bard type RPG character.

Master Yi has an ability called Wuju Style that passively gives him attack damage, but it can be clicked to provide him double that bonus for a short burst, and afterwards he loses the passive benefit until it finishes its cooldown. Teemo has Move Quick that passively gives him increased move speed, but has an active ability that gives him a temporary burst of speed.

Active skills can have low complexity too

Lion in DOTA2 famously has an ultimate called Finger of Death which he can get at level 6. All it does is inflict a large amount of damage to an enemy instantly, at long range, quite likely killing them. That’s it. That’s all it does. It’s pretty one dimensional. You can’t dodge it, there’s no counterplay - if Lion wants to cast it on you, he will. It's got a long cooldown for balance, but that's of no comfort for the poor guy he just killed.

Fingering you back to your fountain since 2005

Doing high damage isn’t a bad thing: it’s just bad if it’s unavoidable and generates no gameplay. Luna gets an ultimate at level 6 called Eclipse that can potentially do even more damage than Lion’s Finger of Death. However, the way it works is that it fires 4 beams over 2.4 seconds which target random units in the area around herself - the trick is to ensure that the enemy hero is the only enemy unit around her so he gets hit by all 4 beams and dies.

This immediately creates a host of counterplay possibilities: you are “safe” when encountering Luna with allied creeps, as they they will absorb most of the beams if she tries to use Eclipse. If you meet her alone, and you have a mobility skill, you can bait her into using her Eclipse, and then immediately jump out of range, wasting her spell completely, since Eclipse does damage over 2.4 seconds, not all at once. Luna will be aiming to catch you off guard when your mobility skill is off cooldown (if you have one) or ambush you when you're traveling through an area without creeps - or, even if you're safe among creeps, she can quickly clear the creeps with her Moon Glaives, leaving you exposed.

Aha! We have created this elusive thing called "gameplay" where both players have to use judgement and skill to outmaneuvre the other. Compare this to Lion's Finger of Death, which offers very little gameplay in comparison.

Why do low complexity skills exist?

Diversity of skills is one reason. If some skills are complex, shouldn't there also be some skills that are simple, even though overly simplistic skills generate no gameplay? I realise this is almost like saying a restaurant should serve some food that doesn't taste good, but there lies the answer too - taste is a subjective quality.

Some players enjoy the simple mechanics of Lion's Finger of Death - it's powerful, long ranged, they have the certainty it can't be dodged, and it does exactly what they want, every single time. And I enjoy playing the Crystal Maiden, and so do many people I know. So... objectively less interesting gameplay, but subjectively more fun for some players? Maybe diversity of complexity is itself a positive element in game design, rather than seeing complexity as a variable you need to constrain within a specific continuum to avoid the problems of too much and too little complexity.

Legacy and thematic considerations are another reason these skills remain. Many of our conceptions of typical RPG fantasy characters follow archetypes set in stone - a Paladin, for example, always has some kind of defensive aura that protects his party, because, well, he's a Paladin. Sometimes, simple is beautiful. Looking at it holistically, I'm not sure this hypothetical skill can be improved by increasing its complexity and gameplay - say by giving it an active component that temporarily gives his party a larger defensive buff for a few seconds and then disabling the passive for another few seconds. Sure, objectively you've gained gameplay, but sometimes, in game design, maybe you shouldn't sacrifice everything else at the altar of gameplay after all.

Final thoughts

League of Legends champion designs are a lot more restrained on both ends - avoiding overly complex or overly simple skills, trading off the optimal level of complexity against gameplay. There aren't many examples of Power without Gameplay that exist in their game - maybe Heimerdinger or Veigar, some of their older legacy champions that are due for remakes.

On the other hand, DOTA2 hero designs are all over the map - you have some really complicated heroes and skills, creating a Burden of Knowledge problem, and you also get some very simplistic designs which generate very little gameplay, which create the Power without Gameplay problem.

As I mentioned in Part 1, League of Legends is a product of design,while DOTA2 is product of evolution. Evolution is messy, unexpected, illogical, but occasionally, it sometimes does some things better than something that was deliberately designed.

Next post in this series deals with "Randomness as an element in game design"