Guide To Designing A Pet Game Part 11
11. Tutorials, Quests, Reputation, and Levels
Playing a game is all about having interesting stuff to do within the game. So what exactly do you intend your player to be doing within your game? Game design philosophy is divided into two camps, those who favor sandbox play and those who favor structured play. I prefer structured play, myself, because I like the experience of being given assignments with rewards attached. In my experience structured games do a better job at being fun in the same way a novel or movie is. In a story the main character's goals are what drive the character to strive against their opponents, make progress through the plot, and better themself as a person. Goals create dramatic tension and also help give the player a sense of their role within the social and philosophical context of the story. Not that all structured games have story, but in games without story a structured sequence of goals first helps teach the player how to play and after that continues to guide the player through all of the game's content in a sequence that makes it feel intuitive to tackle each new challenge; sequence also regulates the pacing of the player's experience, helping avoid either long stretches where nothing is new or overwhelming floods of too many new things at once.
Though they are not my personal cup of tea, I'll try to give a fair description of why sandbox fans like that kind of game. Sandbox games are more toy-like than structured games, and their design often takes inspiration from toys like building blocks and Legos, doll houses, train sets, science experiment kits, and the namesake of this kind of game, sandboxes with their associated sand-shaping tools. They are fun in the same way that playing with blocks and dolls is. This type of game is supposed to support the players in choosing goals for themselves and telling stories to themselves. (Whether most existing sandbox games are actually any good at asking the player what goals they choose or giving positive feedback to the player for accomplishing those goals, well...) Sandbox games are compatible with player-created content, which in turn can be a strong part of participating in a game's community. One goal of sandbox game design is enabling emergent gameplay, where the players can use the pieces provided by the game to build more things than the designers ever dreamed of. Sandbox games can potentially provide a more free and realistic experience than the scripted dramatic experience of more structured games.
Tutorials, quests (or achievements), reputation, and levels, while more characteristic of structured games, are all allowed in sandbox games too; it's more about how you use them. Sandbox games pretty much should not have required content and should have limited amounts of sequential content. In a sandbox game tutorial and quests, if present, should not get in the player's face but instead be available as optional activities that can be done whenever the player wants help or feels bored and is looking for an idea for want to do next. Reputation and levels, if present, should also be like optional quests – the player can decide they want to work specifically to earn these because of associated benefits, but it shouldn't prevent the player from playing the game if they are not interested in pursuing these.
In a more structured game, tutorials aren't just about explaining how the game works to the player – they are also the first impression the game makes on the player, and everyone knows how important first impressions are. In the realm of fiction-writing people always talk about hooks and contracts with the reader; these things apply just as much if you substitute 'player' for 'reader'. A reader will start reading a book or a player playing a game because something external to the book/game has caught their attention – it may be that an acquaintance is playing the game, or a reviewer has reviewed the game, or the book/game has attractive cover art and a title that suggests the content is something the reader/player would enjoy. Once the audience gives the book/game that first minute of their attention, that's where the hook comes into play. The book/game needs to give the reader/player a feel for why its world is an interesting one to spend time in, give the reader/player a glimpse at some impressive things they could accomplish if they play a while, and then immediately give the player a task that gives them a taste of the gameplay and how that gameplay is interesting and satisfying. This taste of the gameplay is the contract with the reader(player). The rest of the game should be relatively consistent with this sample so the player doesn't feel like they've been the victim of a bait-and-switch.
In a sandbox game glimpses of impressive future possibilities and initial educational tasks might be presented in a more exploratory manner. If the game has NPCs, it's common to have low level NPCs standing around playing with some of the in-game elements, and high-level NPCs with fancy armor and architecture serving as living examples of what the player might choose to strive for. Talking to them might give the player an option to listen to that NPC explain what they are doing. Of course players of a sandbox game come into the game expecting to explore and experiment; they look at the mouse pointer and GUI options for clues and poke anything that looks interesting in a way other gamers aren't conditioned to do or aren't interested in doing (adventure gamers might be an exception). But still, in many games there are objects that it's just not obvious how you use them. Error messages are a pretty good solution to this. For example, say there are large rocks in your game and the player tries to gather one. This action shouldn't fail silently, or worse insult the player without specifying what they are doing wrong. (Humorous insult error messages can give a game character, but they should be helpful too.) Instead it's important to have helpful messages like, “You need to break this into smaller pieces before you can lift it.” or even more directly, “You bang the hammer on the rock but nothing happens. Maybe if you had a chisel...”
What is a quest or achievement? Level requirement and mission objective are more terms for the same thing. Basically this is a task that you assign to the player. You can present the task through an NPC (including a mascot pet), through a building acting as an NPC (schools are commonly implemented this way), through a found or activated object like a scroll, bulletin board, or obelisk, or through a menu-accessed list. Typically the game maintains a list of all quests the player has accepted or been mandatorily assigned, including the dialogue or written text that the player heard or read when first presented with the quest. This quest tracker may contain additional help, like information about where necessary objects can be found on the map, how many necessary items are currently in the player's inventory, or how many specified tasks have already been done.
Common quest types include:
- Kill X of monster Y
- Kill monsters of type P or Q until they drop X of quest item Z
- Go to location A and talk to NPC B
- Obtain X of item C and give them to NPC D
- Craft X of item E
- Grow X of crop F
- Tend a pet of type G X times
- Own X of pet type H
- Get a score above X on mission/competition I
- Win X missions/competitions
- Perform complicated combo J for the first time
What is reputation? This is when an NPC or faction of NPCs want the player to do tasks for them or tasks they approve of, and the game counts the number of these the player does to determine how friendly the NPC or faction is to the player (and sometimes how hostile an opposing faction or enemy NPC is). In a dating sim the reward for having a strong relationship with an NPC is having that NPC requite your love. In a more platonic situation an NPC who is very friendly may sell you rare items or give you discounts if they own a store, or may allow you to recruit them if it's a tactical game or adventuring-party RPG, or may teach you secret crafting recipes and techniques, not to mention that you may unlock more advanced quests from this NPC. A faction is similar – they often sell special items or discounted items, teach advanced recipes and techniques, and offer advanced quests to a player who earns a high rank within that faction. Faction tabards (outfits), tattoos, and mounts are some of the most popular faction rewards in MMOs, as well as ranks or graphics which decorate the avatar's name.
Levels are something everyone has encountered, but should your game have them? What is their purpose and how do they work? Well, levels measure the amount of time a player has put into a game. (This can get fouled up if you have major gameplay types that don't generate XP, unless this is balanced by them generating more money or other benefits than XP-producing activities.) Some games have separate level systems for different types of gameplay, such that a player might be a level 12 crafter, level 10 fighter, or a level 20 PvP-er, level 17 PvE-er. Levels have a secondary function of helping the player select battles and quests of appropriate difficulty, while still allowing them to select easier ones if they find the game difficult or harder ones if they find the game too easy. Leveling-up commonly rewards the player with an energy/health/mana refill, gives them stat or ability points to spend, and unlocks new quests, abilities, purchasable items, and sometimes new areas of the game or new areas of personal property (for the player's garden/ranch/house/town).
It's common for levels to be quick and easy to earn at the beginning and slower as the game progresses; however one of the most common mistakes online games make is stretching the interval between levels so far that players get bored and frustrated with their inability to advance and stop playing. I instead recommend setting a standard amount of time leveling-up should take starting at around level 20; or in terms of time, gaining a level should never take more than 2 days of intense play or 5 days of casual play (about 10 hours). In an RPG with classes, class balancing also needs to take this into account – if one class takes longer to kill the same monster, that class needs to either need less XP per level or receive more XP (and loot) per monster.
There are two functional ways to hybridize structured gameplay with sandbox gameplay: alternation or blend. Alternation would mean that the player gets to spend time in a sandbox area in between missions or levels. This is common for tactical, RTS, tower defense, and speedpuzzle campaign games. Blending is when structured content and sandbox content exist in parallel; for example the player might have to complete the next quest or mission in a linear progression to advance the plot, but the player can take a break whenever they want to do non-linear sim or minigame activities, which might even give rewards that made it easier for the player to get past a difficult quest or mission. Most MMOs are a blend, which is one of their major differences from singleplayer RPGs, which tend to have few or no sandbox elements. When singleplayer RPGs do have sandbox elements they tend to be minigames, and are usually all locked at the beginning of the game; the player must unlock them one at a time by progressing through the main plot. Well known examples include The Gold Saucer in Final Fantasy 7, Triple Triad in Final Fantasy 8, and fishing, snowboarding, battleship, archery, etc. in the Zelda series. Of the pet-themed singleplayer RPGs I've seen, those that have minigames tend to use them in a structured way instead, as required activities to train the pets, or as contests that only occur at certain times in the plot.
- Gameplay Experience: [Structured, Sandbox, Alternating, or Blended?]
- [Describe how the major activities in this game create this type of experience.]
- [Describe your game's tutorials and how they teach basics]
- [Describe how content near the beginning of your game acts as a teaser/contract with the player.]
- [Describe your game's quests &etc. if any]
- [Describe your game's individual NPC reputation system, if any.]
- [Describe your game's factions and their reputation system, of any.]
- [Describe your game's leveling system, if any, and what type of things it rewards.]