I cited some of my influences way back at the start of this series. I left one out. One other thing that’s really shaping my vision for this gameplay is this:
Mass Effect 2 (and to be fair, a LOT of other games) are an influence on how I want leveling to work. But not in an imitative sort of way. Like, I play those games and my goal is to do the exact opposite of everything they did. What do you call that? A negative influence? But that makes it sound like I’m just imitating the bad parts of the game. An inverse influence? Anti-influence?
I don’t know. Whatever. My pitch for the leveling in this game is to show you that screenshot above with the subtitle of, “NOT THIS.”
Here’s what I find unsatisfying about it:
- Increasing costs. To unlock level 4 face-shooting costs 1+2+3+4=10 points, which is enough points to take TWO levels of singing, baking, and schmoozing, and still have a point left over to put in hula-hooping. It’s basically a system that punishes any attempt to min-max. This system of point allocation tells the player, “Spread your points around. Don’t specialize. Make sure your character is bland. Like everyone else’s.”
- There aren’t very many levels. It’s a ladder with 4 rungs. You’re not going to get vertigo when you reach the top and look down.
- It’s possible to get everything. It’s not that hard to max your character out, which means that those choices you made about where to spend your skill points weren’t all that important. In the end, your character is just like everyone else’s.
- The levels don’t FEEL very significant. Well, it depends on the game. In Mass Effect 3, the tier 4 unlocks did feel like they did something.) But it’s rare to take a level and find yourself thinking, “Wow! That’s a lot nicer!”
- Foes level with you. Or not. You can’t tell. The game doesn’t say. But fights at the start of the game take a lot less time than the later fights, despite the player being max level and having great gear. Maybe you’re ten times more powerful than those Cerberus mooks at the start of the game. You can’t tell, because later on you’re fighting mooks with twelve times as many hitpoints. You never get the sensation of crushing a previously daunting foe.
Now, this doesn’t mean that all games that work like this are bad. I’m sure this kind of system is a lot easier to balance. But it’s not the kind of game I want to make.
I want a game where you can’t get all the levels, and you have to make choices about what powers mean the most to you. I want levels to be important. I want the player to feel like they’re getting more powerful, and I want them to be able to see the results of the power gains when they pull the trigger.
So leveling works something like this:
So what I’m going for is a system where every attribute has ten levels, and the player should be able to “feel” all of them. That is, the player should not have to squint at the screen thinking, “I just put points into movement speed, but I can’t tell if it did anything.” By the end of the game, they should have about 66% to 75% of the available skill-ups.
Monsters will not have levels or any level-scaling. If you fight one of these green things in the first minutes of the game and it takes 6 shots to kill it:
It will have the exact same number of hitpoints when you’re effortlessly tearing through groups of them on your way to the final boss.
As the game goes on, formidable foes become common, common foes become mooks, and mooks become cannon fodder. New robot types will appear at the top of the hierarchy, but you’ll still see those lowly bots and always have them around as a subconscious baseline measurement of your relative power.
How you spend points has a huge impact on how the game feels. Let’s consider the first three abilities in isolation: If you dump everything into shot speed and energy you’ll be able to pump out huge volumes of ineffectual bullets. If you put everything into shot power and energy you’ll be pounding foes with uber-strong shots that blow them apart with explosive force. There will be a long delay between shots, so you kind of have the feeling of the DOOM 2 shotgun, where you have a huge burst of damage and then a nail-biting wait. If you put everything into shot power AND shot speed, then you’ll be able to pump out MASSIVE damage for about two seconds, and which point you will be completely out of energy and need to go hide and suck your thumb until you recover.
So maybe you’ll dogfight. Maybe you’ll snipe from a distance. Maybe you’ll play hit-and-run. Maybe you’ll put a lot into shields and be kind of tank-y. Maybe you’ll put points into movement speed and outrun missiles.
This game is as much about skill as it is leveling. I mean, that awesome level 8 movement speed doesn’t do you any good if you fight like a turret. And those devastating maxed-out lasers won’t help you if you can’t hit anything. This means that the “best” way to allocate your points probably varies from person to person, depending on what sorts of things they’re good at.
I’ve done some playtesting with the Spoiler Warning cast, and so far the game seems to be doing what I want it to do. These leveling decisions are spaced out, so the player is probably going to be kind of reactionary on their first play-through. If they’re running out of murder juice, they’ll upgrade energy. If they’ feel like they’re not hitting hard enough, they’ll buy more shot power. If they’re dying a lot, they can buy more shields.
Now, there ARE drawbacks to a system like this. Without level scaling, there’s no safety valve for struggling players. Sure, grinding for a couple of extra levels would help, but it will never negate the challenge. In World of Warcraft or Borderlands, there’s eventually a point where foes can’t overcome the level gap and you can allow a crowd of them to gnaw on your ankles without suffering any harm. That doesn’t happen here.
It’s also possible to “break” a game like this. And I’m okay with that. I enjoy experimenting with leveling mechanics, looking for sweet spots and finding things that feel fun. I don’t feel the need to “harden” the game against Josh-type players. For some people, breaking the game is the game.
So that’s the idea. The gameplay won’t please everyone, but I’m pretty sure it will please someone.
And just so we have some screenshots to look at, I made this:
I turned the buzz-saw foes into these drilling… robo… worms? I guess? Anyway, it fixed that swastika problem I had and also made these guys really creepy.
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