Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How Darkspore Will Evolve the Action RPG

Lead Designer Paul Sottosanti goes beyond the creature creator to show off an aRPG of surprising depth

Darkspore Lead Designer Paul Sottosanti knows numbers. Turning down a Harvard acceptance to study Computer Science and Graphical Design at another Ivy League school, Carnegie Mellon, Paul did a stint on the Magic: The Gathering pro tour before going to work at Wizards of the Coast as one of the folks in charge of game balance for the immensely popular collectable card game.

But when Maxis presented a chance to work on Darkspore, Paul couldn’t turn down a title that had more legs, pun intended, than its predecessor. “The Spore editor was so awesome – the best part of the project by far – that the idea of taking that and building an RPG around it sounded amazing to me… I couldn’t not join the team at that point.” Paul made his entrance as a systems designer and, with the help of a couple interns, designed and balanced every hero and enemy ability (as well as the reward systems and overall tuning during the three year lead-up to launch), working his way up to Lead Designer in the process. So he’s clearly the right guy to talk to regarding the nuts and bolts of the game.

Darkspore’s Influences
And the nuts and bolts of Darkspore incorporate lots of nuts and bolts from a number of other games, some of which will surprise you. And Paul isn’t shy about drawing out those relationships. “If we borrow a mechanic from a game, we’re always open about that. We’re not going to try and reinvent the wheel if there’s something that already works well. We’re also not going to copy games wholesale, but great games are built on the foundation of other games.”

Some of the blocks making up that foundation are bigger than others. “Even before I joined, the Maxis team had three pillars: Spore and the creature editor, Diablo and the core action RPG gameplay, and then Pokemon – not the kids elements, but the idea of collecting and building a squad and taking it into battle. My background came in useful there – knowing how to create those combinations between cards or, in this case, heroes.”

Those pillars have an entire superstructure of games and concepts before we rise to the lofty heights to which Maxis’s ambition has taken Darkspore. Just to name a few that came up in our conversation:

DiabloCore action RPG gameplay, left mouse button-driven interface, and difficulty structure.Co-op and PvP arena play. Collectable, switchable heroes. Pretty much everything else. Oh, and no Baal runs.
PokemonThree grating little words: Collect 'em all!Heroes are worth collecting, though some are purpose built for PvE and PvP. Bonus: you won't need a reference chart to avoid getting beat by a second grader.
BraidHot-swap to two other heroes to take advantage of their abilities or greater hitpoints and energy points.Healing and energy charge up all your heroes, not just the active one.
GearScore /PlayerScoreEquipment determines your capabilities more than arbitrary XP and character level.Stat caps limit the amount of gear you can stick on individual heroes, but purchase stat cap increases to make early game heroes viable later in the game.
BorderlandsInteresting, tactics- and combos-driven co-op play. Match types with an enemy and you'd do no damage.Instead of dealing no damage when you match types with an enemy, enemies do double damage to you. No such penalties in PvP.
SporeEquipping heroes via a stripped down creature editor allows a little customization.Appendages and spines remain uneditable. So long sporn.
Need for Speed / arcade racersRemember the nitrous system from the more arcadey racing games - it builds up as you progress and gives you a nice, if temporary, boost in speed.Instead of a boost in speed, Overdrive, with a touch of the spacebar, you take half the damage, enjoy increased attack speed and reduced cooldowns, and supercharged passives for at least 6 seconds.
Call of Duty MultiplayerA new gun nearly every level - a constant barrage of new gameplay options.New heroes and squad options are yours with every match until later in the game.
League of LegendsSame-round persistence. Darkspore's Catalyst system allows players to loot artifacts, forming powerful stat buffs that persist as long as they play a level chain.The level chain is the twist here – it’s double or nothing for your rewards if you opt to go on to the next level with your current squad. You keep your catalysts but can make no other changes.
Plants vs. ZombiesMatch-up screen shows which zombies players will face before the action starts, so you're never facing a balloon zombie without a thorn or fan plant.Sadly, the item vendor has none of Crazy Dave's eccentricity.
Super Mario Bros.Major and minor levels, e.g. 1-2, 2-3, etc. with big boss fights between major levels.If you stretch it, Jinx could be a sort of liberated Princess Peach.
Warcraft IIIStrength-based, dex-based, and mind-based heroes - players always know which equipment is best for which hero.Stat caps allow players to experiment beyond the primary stat.
Dance Dance RevolutionDifficulty of song is represented by shapes. Edward Tufty's "spark lines". The Maxis team carried this forward to teach players about characters using stat caps and stat bars of varying lengths.You don't have to get spasmodic to win a difficult round.
Left 4 DeadThe Smoker can renders a player helpless until a friendly player releases him or her. Or, you know, they die.Instead of a long-tongued Infected mob, Darkspore operatives are effectively mini-bosses that perform the same function in co-op play only.
Paul's ChildhoodHouse rules from the CCGs of Paul's youth: the loser could change out their cards, but the winner had to use the same deck.Same goes for Darkspore PvP - lose a best-of-3 match, and you can switch to a second or third squad. The winner has to keep playing what they have.
World of Warcraft ArenaThe trick is to get your opponent to use their debuff-removing trinket or one-off abilities too early.Instead of trinkets, in PvP the idea is to get the other team stuck in their hero switching cooldown so you can finish off their low health heroes.

What Darkspore Does Differently – Depth of Gameplay
Despite those associations, Darkspore never dips into the derivative any more than a game like World of Warcraft. Both games knit together their own unique tapestry from the fabric of preceding games, but those fabrics always make sense to the whole of the game; none have the air of a marketing gimmick or a feature a dev shoehorned into the game out of blind attachment.

Strategy and tactics are a big part of what makes Darkspore a unique, cohesive experience, and in the lengthy playsession I couldn’t turn my brain off and click away the nasties, as in most action RPGs I’ve played. “We can get away throwing complex challenges at players in a way that Diablo and other action RPGs can’t, because we allow players to switch between their heroes and, between levels or matches, their squads. In Diablo, if you’re a fire mage, you’re pretty much a fire mage unless you re-roll. So Blizzard can’t really do a creature that’s immune to fire damage, because it’s frustrating for the fire mages. But we can do that stuff, and we do do that stuff as you move into Invasion and Apocalypse levels.”

Invasion (7-1 to 12-4) and Apocalypse (13-1 to 18-4) levels are akin to Diablo’s Nightmare and Hell levels, but Darkspore does difficulty… differently. “Take the Terrasort enemies in Cryos who shoot out a spread of three fireballs. In Invasion, they shoot out 4 fireballs, two of which are aimed at you, so it changes the pattern that you’ll have to use to dodge. If you don’t dodge, you take double the penalty. In Apocalypse, there’s five fireballs and the whole game speeds up.” Paul described ghostly enemies that dodge 25% of melee attacks in Onslaught, which isn’t a big deal. In Invasion, that dodge chance ramps up to 50%. In Apocalypse, that’s now 80%. We don’t ever want to ramp to 100% because if you lose two heroes and can’t switch, we don’t want to make the game unwinnable.”

And if the roughly 100 hours of gritty gameplay it takes to get through Apocalypse isn’t enough of a challenge, the Maxis team has another sequence of challenges in store. “Star levels address another common RPG problem. When you get to 18-4, you start farming loot to be able to beat it. You eventually beat it, and you’re still farming loot. Eventually you hit the hero level cap of 200, but you could beat the content with a hero level of 190. The content hasn’t gotten any harder.” Paul noted that they could have solved that by adding 19-1, but the problem reemerges as you get 19-1 loot. Instead, continuing on past 18-4 brings 18-4*1 (or “star one”). “If you get to 18-4*10, every single enemy is elite at that point and has 3-4 affixes... it'll be interesting to see what happens with that. ”

As for star level rewards, Paul’s team came up with an interesting alternative to loot inflation. Completing star levels multiplies the chance for players to earn rare items and epics. “Basically, the chance for you to get an epic is multiplied by the number of star mode levels that you completed. Complete 3 star mode levels and all the sudden your chance to get an rare or epic is tripled.” Sans star levels, the best chance you’ll have to earn a Purified item (the best in the game) is 8%. Complete one star level and you now have a 16% chance. Complete them all and you’ll have an 80% chance at cashout for any level in that major level range.

What Darkspore Does Differently – Co-Op Play
If star levels aren’t your speed, Darkspore has a number of gameplay innovations that players will find much closer to the start of the game. One of which, and one which, astoundingly, no action RPG has yet done well, is co-op play. Like everything else in the game, Darkspore doesn’t just throw more mobs at you if you bring a friend (or three). Enemy health is, in fact multiplied by number of co-op players, but Paul explained that mob damage-dealing doesn’t go up by the same amount (it’s about 2.5x for four players).

Another twist for co-op is the Darkspore Operative, which locks down a player, rooting him or her in place, prevents switching, and deals damage over time. Paul explained that this was a mechanic to keep players together: “The Operative sort of like the Smoker in Left 4 Dead, if your friends are around, he’s not a big deal. If your friends aren’t around, it is a big deal.”

What Darkspore Does Differently - Accessibility
Accessibility might strike you as one of those game development buzzwords that media types trot out when we run low on questions, but for Darkspore I felt that accessibility was an important concept. Darkspore has 25 heroes with 100 total variants that players will need to have more than a passing familiarity with. There are hundreds of enemy types, many with elite abilities, and to progress much beyond Onslaught, players will need to identify and respond to these threats quickly. The game has thousands of interlocking systems, relationships, mechanics and moving parts (I know this, Paul showed me his dazzling array of spreadsheets), and if Darkspore wasn’t accessible, it’d be bound for the hardcore strategy niche, where baroque features like representative graphics are frowned upon.

Yet Paul steadily maintained that a grandma with decent email checking skills could learn her way to Darkspore domination. One of the secrets is the game’s single-mouse button design, another takeaway from Diablo. Another is the pace of gameplay. Concepts and heroes are introduced one at a time. While your playing, Paul explained, you’re playing. Players can’t equip new items or change out squads in game. Even need-greed rolls are anathema, Paul explained, because it would encourage players to pour over stats instead of fighting on. That, Paul grinned, and in a game where every hero is playable, every item is potentially a “need.”

“In order to help people manage that space of a hundred different heroes. We looked at Warcraft 3 and its strength heroes, mind heroes, and dexterity heroes. We have Sentinels, Ravagers, and Tempests. Sentinels want strength for weapon abilities , greater damage, and health, Ravagers want dexterity for dodge, crit, and more damage, and Tempests want mind, which increases their resist, power, and increases their damage.”

What Darkspore Does Differently - Stat Caps and Classes
Among online games, it’s rare to see hard caps on players’ stats – it ruins the illusion that players can create and develop essentially open-ended characters within their specialty. If, for example, Blizzard announced that Spell Power in World of Warcraft would be capped at, say, 1,000 points, we’d hear universal condemnation. Such a move would be needlessly limiting, ruining a number of players' conceptions of how to viably play their class.

However, stat caps are a cornerstone of Darkspore hero development. Was this a tough decision for the Maxis team? “It was, at first, but I’ve been almost blown away by how well it’s worked for us... We look at it more as tanks in World of Warcraft. Tanks are always trying to build defense and get to the cap. Once they’re at the cap, they can explore other stats. The nice thing about that is you know what stat to look for. You can look at an item and immediately see if it’s good for you. Does it have defense and, secondarily, stamina and a couple other things. “

That said, you’re not stuck with the stat caps you have at the beginning of the game. “As you increase your Crogenitor level, you can unlock new stat cap upgrades, which will shift all your caps up. The relationship stays the same – Blitz will still have a large dex bar, a large crit bar, and a small mind bar – but the numbers behind the scenes get bigger.” Paul explained that this upgrade works for entire tiers of heroes, so you won’t have to unlock heroes individually.

In other words, stat caps give guidance and allow players to build powerful characters, yet also give the player room for versatility as well. And, well, caps can’t hurt when trying to balance the game, either.

What Darkspore Does Differently – Speed Limits
One of the more intriguing things Paul said to me was regarding Maxis’s efforts to combat speedruns. Rapid content consumption is one of the plagues of online achievement-based play. Some speedrunners are simply achievers bent on bettering their times, but more than a few typically don’t enjoy the content they’re rushing through, misunderstand the fundamentals they rushed past, actively denounce the game based on those misunderstandings, and put social pressure on other players to push through the content faster than they’d like to as well.

While not actively punishing speedruns, Maxis makes speedruns less attractive in several ways. First, the teleporters to the boss stage shut off while there are still enemies nearby. This ensures that trains of enemies, or at least nearby mobs of enemies will be defeated before the player can progress. The more compelling reason to take it slow, however, is that players have 5 objectives per level. Getting a gold medal in one objective – goals like “beat the stage but avoid using the two health obelisks” - adds 6% to your chance to get a rare item when you cash out at the end of the stage.

If you speedrun the stage, chances are you’ll fall behind in the medal count, and that means you’ll fall way behind the itemization curve. Paul showed me an “Epics per Hour” spreadsheet which pretty much confirms this rendition of the tortoise and hare fable.

What Darkspore Doesn’t Do

Wrapping up the interview, we explored several concepts that met the Maxis chopping block. The main one was EA’s first foray into the free-to-play morass: Battle Forge. The parallels seem apparent. Isn’t Darkspore the perfect game to push a microtransaction at every turn? How about a buck a hero (first three are free!) or a flat price to unlock a tier’s squad abilities?

No one would come out and say for fear of boxing themselves in, but microtransactions seem utterly un-Maxis-like. Think of all the Maxis titles you’ve played (especially if you were a nineties Maxis junkie like me) – the various iterations and spinoffs of SimCity , SimAnt, SimEarth, SimEverythingElse, The Sims and The Sims 2 (/cough The Sims Online), all the way up to Spore. Sure, Maxis has dallied with content packs for The Sims series, but each boxed title was always it’s own experience. A digital dollhouse, yea, and often closer to a toy than a game, but a compact, unique, and elucidating experience. Somehow a mandatory microtransaction model just doesn’t make sense coming from a developer whose made a storied name of making big, unwieldy, complex systems like cities, towers, and everyday lives, and turning them into gems of perspective, simulation, and unified meaning.

But then again, perhaps the year’s richest, deepest RTS doesn’t make sense coming from a proud digital dollhouse maker either. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to. Our sincerest thanks to Paul Sottosanti and the Maxis team for patiently answering our questions, and we wish them luck in the continuing development of Darkspore, which went live on Tuesday, April 26th, 2011.

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