GDC 2022 coverage has a bit slow this year thanks to virtual tickets being kind of a misnomer (if the panel isn’t live and interactive, it’s just a recording, folks!), but there are still some panels that certainly turned out to be worth the wait. Bungie Principal Technical Game Designer Alan Blaine came to talk about building challenges and reusable content in Destiny 2, defining seven stressors for tuning combat that are so dead on that I want to outline this so that we have a better working lexicon for discussion.
Blaine’s vocabulary and definitions are aimed for use with the Destiny games but are still very applicable to most MMOs. So let’s talk a bit about these stressors, their strengths, their weaknesses, and how they can be used when other online games devs are tuning challenges and creating repeatable content.
1. Time is power
Our first stressor is time = power. Think levels and gear score and key quests here, as they tend to follow the same pattern. This is why we call endgame “endgame”: The final level isn’t enough, as some games have more hoops to jump through to keep doing the newest content, and that starts only when you hit the level cap. The longer you play, the stronger you usually become, at least in RPGs. Blaine notes this can lead to toxicity due to the ease with which the stressor is understood by the playerbase, as it’s often used as a gating mechanism. It can be a hard gate, like “you cannot enter this dungeon unless you are level 25,” or a soft gate, where all the enemies are level 25 or higher and a lower-level player is not expected to have the tools/stats to participate in the content.
Next we have what Blaine referred to as “thumbskill,” though “fingerskill” would make more sense for PC gamers since we’re not using a controller, and using a controller is fairly different from using a mouse and keyboard or even touchscreen skills. There’s evidence that our hand-eye coordination skills start to fail around the age of 24, which also means that a lot of seasoned devs working on games with high fingerskill requirements simply won’t be able to physically compete with their best players. It also means that older players can be at a major disadvantage when games use fingerskill as a gating mechanism, especially as a hard gate. And this, of course, ignores players with physical limitations, ensuring fingerskill is a stressor that may need to be tackled with accessibility options.
Fingerskill can be played with by increasing mob aggression (how often/hard it attacks and what that attack looks like mechanically), scoring systems, and of course, death. And gating for fingerskill is interesting. Consider a scoring system: A hard gate might require players to certain to beat a scenario within a certain amount of time or with a numerical score, while a soft gate might still use time/points but add/subtract rewards based on that. Death is probably what we’re more used to, but MMOs are still games, and you can still use old-school methods like lives, which is something the Monster Hunter series is known for. Maybe the team shares a certain amount of lives that when spent lead to failing the mission, or perhaps players just have to restart the encounter like most WoW raids.
It’s fun to feel as if you’ve gained mastery over game controls. For those who need those accessibility options, devs can ease the stress of high hand-eye coordination requirements with things like aim assistance or locking on targets, or they can ensure higher fingerskill abilities have additional advantages when compared to more accessible control schemes, giving players scalable options on how to play. This idea of tradeoffs is key to understanding not only the individual stressors but how they interact, which we’ll get to later.
3. Battlefield awareness
Our third stressor is battlefield awareness. Fingerskill helps you aim, but battlefield awareness forces you to figure out where you should be aiming or running to first. It’s not just “do I shoot the bigger monster or the smaller monster,” but size is often used to indicate a target’s priority (the big monster is probably going to hurt more than the little one). You also need to consider environmental hazards andcover, the placement of allies and enemies within the environment, and effects, such as a red-tinted screen most likely indicating that, uh, you’re dying, buddy, and should heal up.
Being able to juggle multiple priorities helps a player gain a sense of mastery, but you can quickly overwhelm a player with too many. While you can grind levels/loot to overcome time = power or practice your aim to a degree, battlefield awareness is largely restricted to encounters, and especially when a lot is going on, it’s hard to teach someone about these on the spot. Blaine notes that it’s best to have encounters ramp up, so maybe you start with two factors (say, a cone AoE and a ground fire), then add two more (exploding minions and environmental slingshots with knockback), and build from there. This is one of the areas of gaming where watching someone else tackle an encounter can help so that you at least have a vague idea of what you’re looking for.
Then there’s communication, very much tied to battlefield awareness. Think about a typical dungeon run: You’ve got the tank in the front of the boss, the rogue behind the boss, and the healer, archer, and mage safely off to the side. If the boss summons its buddies to attack the other players, the rogue may not see that other party members are under attack. The healer may be focusing on keeping up the archer and the mage, and the tank’s got something in her face, so don’t expect her to tank everything, backstabber – you need to listen when the others call out for help so the whole group doesn’t wipe!
Communication stressors can force us to get creative. Consider battles where the boss literally splits the room such that people on one side of the fence have a different task than people on the other side. Things can get hectic fast, and good communicators can really save the day by bolstering everyone’s battlefield awareness, not just about what’s seen but what they may know is coming. Warning about enrage timers, explaining that the boss’ vocal line indicates a ultimate move, telling the raid that the tank disconnected so someone has to step up and hold the boss until she’s back… it’s important stuff that can help shift a group from being reactive to being proactive about an encounter.
While it can be fun, communication’s major pitfall is the delivery system. You often need to be quick, and especially on consoles that lack a keyboard, it means voice chat. Voice chat means a mic, which some people can’t afford or opens the door for too much toxicity over everything from age and gender to accent and location. (And please don’t be on mic gaming in your bathroom while someone’s yelling at you to hurry up!)
Sometimes communication stressors can be overcome with emotes or other communicative effects, but developers need to consider these pitfalls. It’s not just what needs to be communicated but how the players can do this and what kind of accessibility may be needed for people who don’t want to be on mic.
Some stressors are more “gamey” than others. Buildcrafting is probably the gamey-est of them all. This is about figuring out the class/skill/gear/talent/etc. loadout that’s going to give a player the most bang for the buck in a given situation. Don’t think of it just as theorycrafting; it’s also having the right toolbox to deal with unique mechanics. Time = power may force you to be level 60 to have a shot at soloing that world boss finally, but buildcrafting may require that you’ve got enough interrupts to stop the back-to-back one-shot kill moves the boss will try to pull off.
Now obviously some of these pitfalls are social or physical. Buildcrafting’s most obvious issue is time. Most MMOs won’t ask you to constantly switch your build, but some will, especially as hotbars get shorter but total skills may increase. Having that time is important, but also having that interest is important as well.
Think about when you go into a dungeon and some guy’s got his pet in an aggressive stance, attacking anything on screen. Maybe that’s fine in the overworld, but in a dungeon no one’s over-geared for, that may lead to death, and that guy just may not care to put doggo on defensive. I’m not defending “dumb hunters” here, but I am pointing out the player weakness: Some folks just don’t want to consider changing their skill set for the encounters.
Devs need to consider not just how much time the players will need to plan out their buildcraft and/or how often they’ll need to adjust but whether or not the players’ interest will hold at this phase of the game at all. Too much buildcrafting may exclude casuals from that content, while too little may make hardcores bored.
It doesn’t end there though. There’s also planning. This isn’t simply group buildcrafting, though that’s part of it, and the pitfalls are largely the same. We’re talking about coordinating buildcrafting with communications and battlefield awareness, maybe with a dash of time = power. For example, if Bree’s got a good loadout for the boss, explains the general flow of battle, and asks for Andrew to call out when new mobs rush the scene, and Andrew sleeps through all of that and lures all the mobs to Justin and MJ, getting them killed, Bree might have a hard time finishing the encounter. Planning can often be a hard gate the first (few times), especially if Andrew won’t pay attention, but usually once it’s been learned, that barrier becomes softer and softer, especially as the community as a whole understands their roles and thus may not really need planning.
The final stressor is social. No, it’s not about being popular, though that can help. It’s as simple as whether or not someone can use a looking-for-group tool (assuming the game has one), as well as how consistently your connections can show up, how many of them are able to follow instructions, how many can lead, and so on. Having social skills and being likable can help, but again, between LFG tools, guilds, Discord, Reddit, third-party app-based match-making programs, there are lots of ways to tackle this stressor.
Like planning, social is one of the more complex stressors. For example, maybe you have 100 people on your friends list, but how many will show up if you need help? Can you trust them with communication tasks? Can you get the right mix of players? These are important because especially in modern MMOs, there is often a hard-cap on player participation, which is the biggest pitfall of this stressor. Maybe I can round up enough people for a 40-person raid, but not enough of them can actually lead or communicate to get us through a hard-capped 10-person dungeon.
And this is where juggling the stressors comes in. While there are often unspoken rules about which stressors to use in building a challenge and to what degree they’re utilized, a developer can theoretically play with those factors to make an encounter appeal to a different audience, not just based on what we imagine to be “raw gaming skills” but on a spectrum of stressors that modify the difficult in ways to appeal to different audiences. One player may binge on tackling content high on fingerskill while another prefers buildcraft. And hey, once we understand a bit about how these all interact, maybe there’s a way to build an encounter that appeals to both players.
That’s exactly what we’ll do tomorrow in part two of this two-part series.