All posts tagged “permadeath

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Flinthook – Frustration & Game Design – 2

So in my last post I talked about the issues I have with the controls in Flinthook. No lets get to the other stuff.

Ships In Flinthook

Spikes and Cannons

I already mentioned how great the art in Flinthook is. Not all of it is used terribly well though. A major gripe are environmental hazards blending into the background. This is yet again very basic stuff. Any amateur game designer knows that interactive objects need to stand out. This goes doubly so for a skill based game like Flinthook. What I don’t understand is that the artists and designers were clearly aware of this principle. Enemies are bright and colorful. Purple is used to show that an enemy is invincible and champion enemies are bright green. So the only logical conclusion is that this was done on purpose. I can think of two possible reasons for this design decision.

The first is that it was purely the artists decision. That actually makes sense. If the ships are primarily brown and grey then cannons and spikes would have similar colors. This assumes that the artists are acting completely independent from the game designers though. This is a terrible way to develop games. At worst this issues should have been fixed after playtesting. But they weren’t.

Another possible reason would be a misguided attempt to make the game difficult. The problem with this thinking is that this doesn’t make for a satisfactory challenge. It isn’t really unfair, it just isn’t fun. Scanning every room when I enter it doesn’t make me feel like I’m getting better or playing more skillful. It makes me feel like the game is being stupid and me having to compensate for that.

 

Flinthook spikes original and edited to make more visible
Spikes? What spikes? Oh those….

 

Fixing this particular issue wouldn’t be too difficult. One could either make the hazards stand out more by using strong colors, or reduce the amount of objects in the background. The ideal solution might be somewhere in between. I’m not saying this solution would be great from a aesthetic perspective. I do believe that it would be more fun though.

Ship Design

There are other issues I have with the rooms in Flinthook. Unlike the problem with the spikes, which I believe to be a legitimate dealbreaker, these are more minor annoyances. Some rooms seem to be deliberately designed to fuck the player over for example. Spawning red shielded enemies around the platform the player is most likely standing on is kind of a dick move. Secret rooms being always the same is boring and I literally still don’t know what many ship variants do because they don’t seem to really make a difference. Some are pretty good though. During my research for this article I ran into a low gravity ship for the first time. That was pretty neat. Flinthook needed more of this kinda stuff.

 

Flinthook enemies around

 

The real issues lead back to the controls I examined in part one. The level design doesn’t seem to be done with the clunky controls in mind. This results in wildly different skill requirements room to room. I don’t know if Flinthook actually sorts possible rooms by progression. I assume it does. Yet it still happens way too often that a single room just isn’t worth doing because the layout feels much harder then any other room on the same ship. It doesn’t help that the chests usually aren’t really meaningful enough to care about them. All this sucks the fun out of the game. Flinthook just never feels like I’m getting something out of it. Which brings me to….

Upgrading, Sidegrading and Nograding

Making Progress

I should probably mention at this point that I’m not a huge fan of permanent upgrades in rogue-lite games. I’m not a big fan of Rogue Legacy for this very reason, although I give it some slack for being there before everyone and their dog started making these games. I did play the similar structured Dead Cells though and enjoyed it very much. In general I think that a game with strict permanent upgrades like health, damage and defense encourages bad play, since the player can just grind out upgrades until they eventually win.

One way around this is to rely on sidegrades instead of upgrades. Dead Cells did a great job here. All the fun stuff is unlocked relatively cheap and the strict upgrades are intentionally expensive so they serve mostly as  something to sink cells in when there isn’t anything else to unlock at the moment.

In Flinthook the vast majority of perks consist of strict upgrades. Pretty much every imaginable stat has a minor and major improvement perk. This isn’t fun. This doesn’t enhance gameplay or allows for different playstyles. It’s a grind. It’s not even that it’s impossible to use stats for fun improvements. The Binding of Isaac for example juxtaposes stats to great effect. Extremely high shotspeed but low damage or high health but low speed can make for interesting gameplay. Flinthook has a handful of perks that go in that direction, usually by punishing health for some benefit. But overall I would say that out of the almost 100 different perks there are maybe 10 which I would consider interesting. Most of those improve the movement options, like the dash ability.

Overall I’d say that boring perk design brings the entire progression loop down. The idea of slotting upgrades in and out before a run is cute, but if every run still feels the same there is hardly any point to it.

What Do I Get Out Of It?

Another aspect I want to examine is how Flinthook rewards players. Flinthook seems to think that the rewards it gives are better then they are. The relics are a great example of this. I’m the kind of guy who will reads the entire backstory of a game. I love scrolling through bestiaries for some flavor text. However, these things aren’t the reason I would play a game. They are a secondary reward. In Flinthook relics are treated like some sort of substantial unlock during a run. I didn’t care about it and none of the people I watched playing Flinthook cared about it. The lore is pushed in the foreground because Flinthook doesn’t have anything better to reward the player with.

In the same vein, getting more experience through perks and curses isn’t something anyone really gives a shit about either. I was baffled when I saw how many of those existed. The best reward for gameplay is more interesting and varied gameplay. It’s really as simple as that.

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com

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Flinthook – It could have been good – 1

Do you know the kind of game that could be so much more but just doesn’t work for some reason? Flinthook is one of those games. It got a pretty substantial period of hype when it came out. That hype died out very quickly though. The reason for that is that it’s just not very good.

I got suckered in by the great presentation of Flinthook. The art and sound is legitimately great. And it looks like a lot of fun. So watching people play it on Youtube I felt compelled to try it out myself. And I had fun with it for a short while. It is considered part of the course for rogue-lites to have a bit of a rough start so it’s natural for players to be forgiving to a new game. Unfortunately though, Flinthook never really got any better.

Flinthook

On a side note I’d like to point out that it sucks to see Let’s players trying to be “nice” when it is blatantly obvious they don’t enjoy their experience. I know we all like small indie studios. As a hobbyist developer I can very much relate to the hard work put into a game. But at the end of the day the next game can only be better if we are willing to criticise.

While I’m sincerely disappointed with Flinthook, that isn’t the reason for this post. I also bought it as a piece to study. Seeing how I’m developing a game in a similar genre  (because the world sure needs more rogue-lites right now) I wanted to see what I could learn from it. I don’t think Flinthook is particularly well designed. Unless I’m missing some genius underlying design that just didn’t shine through it seems that Flinthook gets even some of the most basic things wrong. It is rare to see a game with great presentation to be let down by its gamedesign. I find that interesting.

Controlling Flinthook

This is the big obvious one. Flinthook can be controlled with mouse and keyboard or a controller. As of the latest patch an additional controller configuration is available. All those control schemes have their own issues though.

Keyboard and Mouse

K&M has an inherit problem with analogue movement, so platforming becomes a bit of a challenge. Additionally the mouse pointer to shoot is locked to a circle around the character instead of allowing for free aiming across the screen. Still this is probably the best control scheme available. If I were to change it, I would unlock the mouse cursor and drastically reduce, if not outright remove, the auto-aim. There isn’t much that can be done about awkward platforming on a keyboard and it’s unfortunate to fail at a section that you know you would be able to do easily on a controller, but it is something people can get used to.

Default Controller

The default controller setup on the other hand is a complete failure. Movement and shooting is bound to the same analogue stick, combining what was strictly separated in the K&M controls. It is possible to aim without moving by holding down a button, but that just doesn’t make up for the lack of control. It feels incredibly restricted.

Pro Controller

That being said it is commendable that the developers listened to feedback and added an alternative control scheme. Shooting is now done with the right stick making it feel much better. Jumping has been moved to the right bumper though. On the surface that makes a lot of sense, since using the face buttons would require the player to get their fingers of the sticks. But the hook is mapped to the right trigger making jumping and hooking awkward. I think it’s generally a bad idea to have very similar actions next to each other on the controller. To fix this I would map the jump to when the left analog stick is pressed up.

Takeaway

I get that I’m no really explaining my issues properly and some people will be perfectly fine with the controls. I know however that I don’t even think about the controls in the vast majority of games that I play. Not being satisfied with any of the control schemes in Flinthook seems to indicate a deeper issue.

This is admittedly speculation on my part, but I don’t think the controls have been considered early in development. I believe Flinthooks moveset was designed in a vacuum. The question was “What can the player do?” and not “What can the player do and how can they do it?”. This attitude also shows itself in the level design. Everything might be possible by utilising the entire moveset, but the controls make some combinations of actions so hard to do that the result are the frustrating mess of what I would call the “fuck you rooms”. If you played Flinthook you probably have an idea of what I mean.

Ideally the controls would have been configured from the start. The only time this isn’t possible is when porting a game to another system. Even then the very least should be rebindable controls. I donÄt get why rebindable controls aren’t done for controllers in particular. It is very simple to do. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What should have been different

These issues are also why I don’t think Flinthook can really be fixed now. Even the changes I proposed wouldn’t make the game feel great. To do that a redesign of the moveset would be necessary. Obviously this would have to come with a huge redesign of the rooms and therefore isn’t meant as practical advice.

One thing to change would be to drop the slowdown mechanic completely. It is quite superficial to begin with and dropping it would give everything else more room to shine, as well as remove pressure from the controls to fit every move in. Another, and in my opinion better, way would be to drop the jumping instead. Hooking is perfectly fine mechanic for moving around and it could easily carry the entire game. I don’t see a clear reason while jumping needed to be in the game as well. This also wouldn’t really make the game much easier, but it would provide some much needed focus.

Anyway this post turned out longer then anticipated. There are still many other things I want to talk about in Flinthook so I guess expect a second part very soon.

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com

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Darkest Dungeon – A slow and insidious killer

Introduction

After my look a Hearthstone last time, I figured It’s only appropriate to cover a game next where randomness really does screw you over. Enter the Darkest Dungeon. I’ll only give a brief introduction to the game. For more information I recommend watching the various Let’s Plays of the game. It’s funny to watch people suffer.

 

Darkest Dungeon Title screen

 

Darkest Dungeon is of the rogue-lite breed. While actual rogue-likes aren’t really made all that often these days, there has been an abundance of rogue-lites in recent years. Rogue-lite usually really means three things. Permanent death, a lot of random nonsense and high difficulty. By this definition XCOM is a rogue-lite as well. Huh.

The gameplay of Darkest Dungeon consists of two parts. First there is what one might call the base building, where heroes can be recruited, relieved of stress and upgraded. Buildings may also be upgraded permanently. The other part is going into dungeons with four hero’s at a time to bring back loot and kill bosses. That is basically it. It is the wide variety of classes, trinkets and quirks that make the game.

I mentioned relieving stress. It is of course important to understand that Darkest Dungeon is inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

Theming

Specifically it transferred the idea of cosmic horrors to a medieval setting. If I had to give a reason why Darkest Dungeon is as successful as it is it would probably be it’s theming. And not just the chosen theme itself, although it is quite imaginative, but rather the way the game is designed around it.

The inclusion of a stress meter is only the most obvious example of this. What the cosmic horrors are fundamentally about is despair and the realization of ones own lack of control and insignificance. This is something Darkest Dungeon reflects wonderfully in its gameplay. Which is why the game shouldn’t really be played with the same mindset as most other games.

So how does the game incorporate the theme in the design? First there are the critical strikes and misses/dodges. This isn’t a new thing by itself. Lots of games have those. But here they are tuned up to eleven. Enemies have very real chances to hit critically, often resulting in a character being close to death immediately. Enemy crits also stress out characters, while player crits heal stress. This creates massive swings in a battle. Even worse, the game is balanced in a way where a fight is already challenging when everything goes right. An unlucky hit from an enemy and the game is flat out unfair. I’m not complaining. It is part of the point. The player is never completely in control. And they are not supposed to. And indeed, sometimes a high level hero will be hit critically by four of the damn spiders before I can do anything. But that’s despair for you.

This isn’t an universal excuse though. If there were a large number of players who don’t “get it” I’d argue that the game doesn’t do enough to communicate it’s theme. This isn’t the case though. And sometimes we as consumers should be able to take a step back and realize that some things just aren’t for us. Just like a horror game can get away with bad combat, so does Darkest Dungeon get away with huge swings and setbacks. It is not an excuse for bad design in other fields though.

If a game banks on its theme as much as Darkest Dungeon does, consistency becomes very important. And for the most part it is consistent. There is just one mechanic which makes absolutely no sense in the game. I’m speaking of course of veteran and champion level heroes refusing to go into lower level dungeons.

 

Darkest Dungeon Base

 

Imagine a game with the same mechanics as Darkest Dungeon. Image that instead of fighting an unknown horror it is about leading an adventurers guild. Imagine sending a champion, slayer of orcs and rescuer of damsels, to kill rats in the taverns cellar. It makes sense that this champion would refuse to do so. This is thematically consistent. However in Darkest Dungeon it is not. The stress mechanic implies every character to be close to their breaking point in every run. There is no way anyone would feel like some tasks were too easy for them. It shatters immersion by contradicting the theme.

There are mods to remove this. But they miss the point as well. By removing the limitation altogether they break the on-the-edge difficulty of the game. Which is an even bigger deal. From a pure game design perspective the mechanic makes sense. Blocking of characters forces to experiment with new parties and keeps every aspect of the game challenging. I’ve seen suggestions to delevel the characters for the dungeon. But that only solves half the problem as well. Part of the reason this mechanic exists in the first place is that it shouldn’t be possible to go through the game with the same one or two teams, forcing the player to try something unfamiliar (again being consistent with the theme).

Grind

Darkest Dungeon also has a lot of grind in it. Grind being loosely defined as repetitive tasks in gameplay with various distinctions like “it’s only grind if it is not fun”. Personally  I disagree. I think grinding can be perfectly fun and it is also fair to like a game despite or even because of the grind. I propose a definition of grind in video games as “A factor correlating to the amount of time the game goes on without expanding its possibility space“. This probably sounds very technical. But what I mean is if nothing new is happening in the game it becomes a grind. These new things things can be anything from introducing new game mechanics (skills, classes, enemy types) to story or purely visual additions.

 

Darkest Dungeon combat

 

From this perspective Darkest Dungeon is very front-loaded in its approach. In the beginning of the game there are new classes to try out, new buildings get unlocked and the different dungeon types to be explored. Around the time the player has killed the level 1 bosses though, most of the possibility space has been explored. A handful of new enemies and changed up attacks are all we get until the very end of the game. This isn’t to say that this is necessary a good or bad thing. In fact I very much dislike the way games use game mechanics like breadcrumbs because the designers feared players would immediately stop playing if nothing new happened every ten minutes. Darkest Dungeon isn’t on the roller coaster side when it comes to these things. But it is very much the other extreme.

It doesn’t help of course that the grind is mostly artificial. The afore mentioned blocking of characters is one thing, but the most egregious example of this is found in the endgame. The Darkest Dungeon has four floors. Every character can only finish one of those. Meaning we need 4 * 4 = 16 unique high level heroes to finish the game.

I get the reason for it. Taking your A-Team through all four levels would be too easy. The solution is just as bad though. If I have let’s say eight level six heroes I’ve already proven that I can beat the high level dungeons. There is no need to prove it again. This is what I call you-did-it-now-do-it-again-syndrome, where a game refuses to end properly and instead forces the player to grind just that little bit more. This is by far the most annoying part of the game. The Darkest Dungeon itself is a perfectly good last challenge. It’s just all the preparation before it that feels unnecessary. Darkest Dungeon is one of those rare cases where being a shorter game would have benefited it.

 

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com