Knowing Your Ingredients
The game design process is most entertaining for this designer when science and art are shaken vigorously into a homogeneous cocktail. Mathematical modeling contributes the science; “how is a given system expected to perform over ‘n’ iterations?” Playtesting contributes the art; “if only a single iteration is played, is it still rewarding?” In design, it’s possible for a well-modeled system to fall flat in testing, and for a well-received system to satisfy testers but challenge design preconceptions when subjected to examination. It is a designer’s job to break systems down into their constituent parts, and to understand how each ingredient contributes to the flavor of the finished product. With knowledge gained from experimentation, a designer can adjust the individual ingredients and adjust for any unpleasantness that may reach the player’s palate.
The goal, then, is to isolate the individual elements in play on a system that needs design attention. FPS movement, for example, is obviously set to a maximum speed, but what of head bob or acceleration? What of turn speed, or field of view? The deeper the designer digs, the more likely they are to identify new ingredients which can be adjusted to affect the final product. Not all systems are complex, but a nuanced understanding of a system’s inputs can allow a designer to account for new system interactions, or balance unexpected player behaviors.
Retrovirus was developed and designed iteratively, with a focus on having partial systems in for experimentation as soon as possible. The beginnings of these systems start as ideas, often tossed out at round-table meetings. They then are written down, and interpreted into a system, some inputs for which are exposed to the designer. Then begins the cycle. For a weapon, it may mean adjustments to rate of fire or projectile spread, and not just damage. The end effect on expected damage per second output might be similar to the effects of damage itself, but the effect on how the weapon plays can make the difference, roughly, between a shotgun and a rifle.
Once multiple systems sit together as part of a game, they will tend to overlap. In the case of Retrovirus, the Dual Strike (akimbo, fast-firing, hitscan) and the Rifle (slow-firing, heavy damage, hitscan) recently occupied similar niches. Eventually in playtesting, the Dual Strike had proven superior even in the long-range niche where the Rifle was supposed to be king. The original design of the Dual Strike, though, would not have experienced this niche competition. Earlier in development, the Dual Strike was a projectile weapon, meaning players were asked to lead their shots to some degree. Though its shots were accurate, by the time they reached the target area, the target itself may have moved. To account for the difficulty players were feeling in landing these projectile shots, we shifted the Dual Strike, Retrovirus’ starting weapon, to a hitscan model, so shots fired accurately would land instantly on their targets. The problem, though, was deeper than that. Our Minigun was not landing well at mid-range where it was supposed to flourish, and our Shotgun could be ineffective even up close.
The element tying all of these weapons together was hitbox size. The core design for Retrovirus called for shots to be landed more easily than in Descent, and an increase in hitbox size in multiplayer would make all weapons universally easier to use. In deciding to experiment with hitbox size, and identifying it as a key ingredient, the Retrovirus multiplayer was tuned in the desired direction. Creativity, and a broad understanding of all of the systems in play, allowed for each weapon to maintain a unique niche while pulling down the skill requirement for the projectile-based Dual Strike.
You can try our new flavor of multiplayer in the current alpha build of Retrovirus. Let us know what you think!