Saturday, February 05, 2011

Sentimentality: an interesting choice?

Recently Ben published his list of attributes and features for the Game That He Would Like To Play. This is a ramble on one facet; Sentimentality as an item statistic. I don't know where it's going to end up, but it feels like a topic worth exploring.
The trigger text:
Rather than having players continually searching for new better items like in Borderlands I’d like them to all be like the Angband ego artifacts that level up as they are used, slowly getting more magical and more powerful. The longer the avatar uses a weapon type the sharper and sturdier it becomes because the avatar looks after it. This maintenance is a part of the weapons skill.
Also the avatar becomes used to the weight and feel of the weapon and so grows sentimentally attached to it, after certain time periods they notice new places that magical gems can be placed to give the weapon special abilities, like firebrand.

I, too, enjoyed ego items in angband. They were never the most powerful items you could get, but the agency they gave you in helping shape the weapon you require made them very desirable in the mid game, and certainly helped you connect and appreciate the item more. Sentimentality is certainly a neat way of attaching an in-game mechanic to an external feeling. They also happened to be a great money sink as each new ability cost more and more.

One of the problems with ego items from a gameplay standpoint is that if they are too powerful, there is no need to keep looking for other items as you have the best in the game. Each new weapon found from then on in would simply be an inconvenience, or a resource to convert to money at best. If it's inconvenient, then why have it in the game at all?

A while ago I read another article by the developer of 100 rogues on the decision to cut out the store because it didn't actually add any interesting choices. This is kind of the same topic, but from the other side. Keith saw that a game should be stripped down to a series of interesting choices, and attempted to remove any such items or game devices that seemed to get in the way. My comment on 100 rogues was that the removel of the shop didn't increase the set of interesting choices, but simply moved the same choice to the point of pickup, rather than at the point of sale once you know there is no shop.

Once you know. That's another part of analysing gameplay. It may take a number of playthroughs of a game to realise that there are elements that are simply not required. I played many, MANY games of 100 rogues with a full inventory out of sheer habit. True, I didn't come across a shop, nor did I ever actually use anything that I was carrying, but in my mind they were somehow intrinsically useful. I had to make an interesting choice as to whether the item on the ground is better than any item in my backpack (and shuffle around accordingly), with a glimmer of hope that upon completing the whole dungeon there would be a shop or possibly just a highscore modified by the loot picked up. Realising that this wasn't to be the case meant that there was no point carrying items that you had no intention of using, and therefore the item found on the floor lost their interestingness unless it competed successfullly with the items I was currently wearing.

Once you know.
I've been playing ToME4 recently and have been noticing that the game is intentionally set up to be replayed. Not only does the game slowly expose other races and classes to play, but knowledge gained in previous plays can change the way you play it on subsequent visits. Once I'd cleared the starter dungeons, Bree is inundated with lightning elementals, which in turn leads the story through to a large boss battle with predominantly lightning damage. My mage had been cruising up until that point, but with no resistance to lightning damage the game got incredibly hard. My next play through as a fighter, I kept an eye out for lightning resistance items to help get past this stage. Items that may have been deemed useless in the first play through are now worthwhile, but do they warrant space in the backpack (and the weight limit) to carry through until they are needed? An interesting choice. I know most roguelikes have this type of player knowledge vs character knowledge mechanic (and some could say that it's the hallmark of a roguelike embodied in permadeath), but ToME4 seems to make it more front and centre with a more scripted experience.

On the point of ToME4, I have also stopped playing recently as a new patch removed the ability to sell items at the store. My lament was exactly the same as with 100 rogues; all it does is remove another avenue for making an item interesting (to gain money for that once-in-a-lifetime deal in a shop), and leaves the decision squarely at the point of pickup. I used to prize a girdle of carrying to give my characters more lugging power, but now you may as well just go for a resistance girdle as the only things worth retaining are gams with 0 weight and artifacts.

So back to sentimentality. As long as we're prepared to give up a reduction of choice from items, maybe there are other benifits to be gained from having sentimental items? Maybe (in a Daikatana-like fashion) the item leveling is a mechanic itself that allows for lots of variability, and that the player more or less stays with 1 item for the duration of the game? Is making an item more personal and meaningful worth it?

Recently I picked up Football Manager 11. I'd played the demo when it came out and didn't seem to be too much different from FM10, so I thought it'd be Ok to skip this year's incarnation (or at least wait for a steam sale). A number of personality oriented games had me pining for FM again, so I fired up the demo and saw how far the game had come in making the people in the game more alive. In the demo I'd received some recommendations from my back-room staff that a player wasn't performing and needed a rest. With the new interaction system I invited the player into my office for a conversation. I started off by stating what my back-room staff picked up, that he needed to have a rest due to poor performance. He responded negatively and said that he thought his performance was Ok. My options in the conversation tree were somewhat limited in how to respond, one giving an ultimatum, one conceding, and one somewhat concilliatory. Still relying on the advice of my staff, I thought that the lad just needed some discipline so I gave the ultimatum. His tone turned sour. "I don't like the way I've been treated, I'm not sure I made the right choice coming here". Hmm, wait a minute. This was someone I just put on? Upon looking at his record for the month he'd been with us his performance had been Ok. I can see why he's upset and now here I am, stuck in a room with a person that has legitimately claimed to be mistreated. The options in the dropbox weren't pretty either, so I'd effectively scuttled my relationship, and thus the performance of this player for the team by not paying attention and investing time to know the players.

On the other side of the coin were a number of players that, through multiple seasons of winning against all odds and massaging them through games with half-time and full-time talks, had me down as their favourite person. It's hard letting go of someone that has you as their favourite, even if that's the most economically sound thing to do. Both of these scenarios indicate that there is intrinsic value to develop a relationship or increase sentiment with in-game objects without the need for bonuses. Or is the game giving bonuses by allowing players a little extra oomph if I'm their favourite coach? You can certainly help prolong a winning streak by keeping everyone's morale high. I don't get the feeling that a player, through sheer sentimentality, will stay with the team all the way from Conference South up to the Premiership. The emotional attachment still is evident in the game, and the game encourages and rewards sentimentality, but not at the expense of the core mechanic of continually needing to search for the next big star.