Features: Design Process

Building a feature from inception to implementation is a multi-part process. While writing the notes for this article I considered magic systems, stealth systems, and even crafting systems. I finally settled on combat for this article. The reason for selecting combat is because it is often the most complex feature in any game or the most re-used feature from one codebase to the next. The complexity of creating a new combat system is the primary reason that it is re-used across multiple games and codebases even though it may not be the most appropriate form of conflict resolution for each individual game. This is where the multipart process comes into play as we will be tailor making the feature in this article to our hypothetical game. The process goes from theme to mechanic to balance to review. The reason for this simple lineup is because actually creating the feature is complex enough. When we’re designing it we want to decide very early on whether it’s a non-starter or not, thus very simplified core concepts.
Since we are claiming that features should be tailored to their games and that combat imparticular doesn’t need to be a clone of a previous game, we should probably outline our hypothetical game in this example. Our game is called ‘Company’ and it is a horror game based in a company coal mining town in the late 1950s. In this setting, the coal boom of the 1940s has passed and things have been going downhill. Problems with the mine and in the town itself have begun to manifest and not all of them are natural. If you need a good visualization think of the movie ‘October Skies’. In the ‘Company’ the supernatural are handled by staff and players create characters within the setting which are tied into the unnatural events or the company town as naive heroes, grizzled paranormal detectives, government agency flunkies, down on their luck coal miners, and more. We don’t want the player base to have to much power, we want them to fundamentally be victims, but we also want them to have a motivation for interaction with risky scenarios otherwise where does the horror come from? This leads into our first step in the process, theme. Our theme is horror, powerless, and mystery.

Right away we probably want to consider two different kinds of combat. Social combat with other PCs and generic NPCs that represents an equal power scale. This can be something fairly simple taking into account stats and any potential weapon being used. Make it turn-based and have town police or company security break it up if it’s in certain areas. Basically a more traditional player vs player resolution system, but slower paced to de-emphasize its use. Our focus will be on the main combat system that will be used between PCs and unnatural events. In this system, let us move away from the traditional trading of blows and instead go for a turn-based system with options. In this system, you will have 60 seconds to select an option: confront, flee, or hide. Each of these options will have a visible % of risk.
HorrorCombat Elements

+ Confront: This represents confrontation with the person, thing, or situation which threatens your character. This can be physical, verbal, or some clever solution. This risks injury and stamina.
+ Flee: This represents running away and avoiding the threat to your character. This risks stamina and a small chance of injury.
+ Hide: This represents backtracking, hiding your trail, or finding a spot to hide. This risks injury and makes fleeing risk more stamina.

+ Risk %: This will show the risk of penalty and cost. The higher the risk % that is represented the more costly or detrimental an action can be. [Example: Confront is 80%, Flee is 15%, and hide is 35%. If Confront is selected then there is an 80% chance of injury and stamina loss. The higher the % value the more severe the expected injury or stamina loss can be]

+ Stamina: This represents how much energy or effort a character has left. If you run out you cannot flee anymore and choose to confront becomes extremely risky.
+ Injury: This represents any injuries or penalties to your character. This can be cuts, bruises, broken bones, etc etc. This is not a health pool but instead a status system.

There is our initial outline of a system based on theme. It has some notes on mechanics but this just leads us into the next step in the process, the mechanical step where we take our initial ideas and tie them together into a more cohesive system. In the mechanical step, we want to identify risk, reward, and playability. Despite the fact, our outline already has the term risk in it that isn’t the kind of risk we need to identify. In this case, a risk is what happens to the loser of a HorrorCombat conflict. Since we want to promote horror, powerlessness, and mystery the risk for outright loss should not be death but instead capture or injury. The reward obviously should be what happens when a character succeeds in fleeing or confronting a scenario. This should probably be something akin to discovering something about unnatural events, revealing a mundane cause, or merely escaping without significant injury. Then we have playability, how does this function within the gameworld? How will combat begin, how will it resolve? What causes HorrorCombat to begin instead of social combat?

The playability aspect is kind of involved and it really depends on how eager you want people to be to take risks in combat. In our example we want them to feel that it’s dangerous to be involved in often so we’d probably want HorrorCombat to only be possible in non-public areas and be triggered events instead of roaming NPCs that can be avoided. Likely it will begin with some kind of introduction paragraph explaining the situation the character is in and what their perspective of the threat is. This would be done whenever non-generic NPCs, scripted events, or staff trigger combat versus social combat which would be done with player versus player. Overall playability wise this one-sided combat will turn weak player character situation into a more interactive experience with the opportunity to achieve partial victories with information or items gained from lucky confrontations.

From theme and mechanics, we lead into balance. This would be something that would likely take advantage of player testing but in general, you want to weigh the different playstyles or options a player has. In our example of HorrorCombat, we want to ensure that just fleeing from all scenarios isn’t the default option that all players selected. While fleeing does feed into our horror aspect if that is the most reliable option that works the majority of the time than it’s not exactly scary is it? Oh danger, run run run run, got away. Instead, we want to encourage risking confrontation with our rewards beyond simple excitement. This would require reviewing the risk and reward from the previous step. Once we’ve decided on something we loop back into balance and let us say that we’ve determined that resolving a scenario with confrontation gives insight into the unnatural events and heals your injuries faster. We want people to be risk takers, but we know that resolution through confrontation is also likely to lead to a character being incapacitated and taken for more horror stuff.

HorrorCombat Review

+ Resources: Stamina and Injury
+ Options: Confront, Hide, and Flee
+ Risks: Capture or significant injury
+ Rewards: Mystery information, quickened healing, and clues
+ Triggers: Non-public places, not roaming NPC based
+ Resolution: Fleeing to escape or confrontation to resolution.

In the final review process, we create a shorter outline like the one above and look at the simplified system from a high level. We clearly have an operational system that works within its own realm. You have the risk and reward, the way it plays, and the general mechanics of the system. With all of these tentatively decided we would take the review step and determine how it would play into the other systems and mechanics for the hypothetical ‘Company’ game. Since this is a working example and not a full game I don’t have other systems to tie into, but we can explore some basics. Combat has a lot to do with character survival and how risk is perceived in your game. You’ll want to ensure that in a horror game that there are other strong social and economic ways of handling situations so fighting is rare. You may also want to tie your combat resources like stamina and injury in our example to other systems within the game. A medical / caretaking mechanic and perhaps a lifestyle mechanic for stamina.

All in all, we’ve managed to outline a fairly serviceable combat feature in this article with our process. It may not be ready to go into code but it is a new take on combat for a genre that needs a-typical combat systems. It addresses the various commands we might want in the system as well as the reasons for taking different actions within our risk and reward parameters. We aren’t entirely clear on the numerous scenarios that players will be encountering within our system, but given the mystery nature of our setting, it’s something that can be changed regularly or determined later. For any readers unsatisfied with the article or the combat feature within I would encourage you to attempt to create a-typical combat systems in the discussion thread for this article. As noted previously combat systems tend to be the most complex portions of a game and are often copy pasted from one game to the other for this reason. So having an engaging combat system even on paper is a fair step forward for any development discussion.


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