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tmandry

Balancing a game with two "big" elements - feedback requested

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tmandry    122
Hello GameDev! I've been working on the idea for this game for quite awhile, by myself and with some other developers, but it involves two important elements and I'm not quite sure how to balance them, i.e., how much weight and importance to give them in the game and how much time the player should put into them. I ask that you read the full description to get a good idea of what the game will really be like. I'm sorry if I go into too much detail but it's a pretty intricate concept that I want you to get an idea of. Lastly, consider anything I say to be subject to change; I have a good idea of what I want but that can change with your input. Overview The best way to classify this is an RTS/hacking game. It's set in a full-fledged fictional city full of corporate and government intrigue and the premise is that you're a black-hat computer hacker up for hire. You'll be recruited for all kinds of covert missions with a team (field operatives if you will) of around 4 people doing the dirty work, while you're offsite monitoring and directing their progress, looking for possible threats, and getting them past security and the like with your skill set. Missions would involve things like sneaking into a building to steal plans, spy, or plant evidence for framing for a crime. The interface consists of a 2D iconified RTS-like world view called the blueprint, a shell, and a comm window. If you've ever seen Alias - you'll be a lot like the computer guy. So the game's biggest elements are hacking and real-time strategy. Hacking Most people get skeptical when they hear that the game involves hacking. The hacking element aims to be fairly realistic by incorporating a simulated linux shell, simulated servers you can shell into (with some effort) and wreak havoc on, and the ability to write scripts/programs using an ECMAScript based language. Hacking will get the player into security video feeds that allow him to monitor his team and block the other party from doing the same, getting past hi-tech locked doors, and do strategic things such as shut off power to certain areas of the building or even city. In fact, hacking gives the player the ability to do a wide range of things in the simulated city. Open-ended game play will be made possible (in addition to storyline-driven missions) by the fullness in which the city is simulated. It should be possible to tinker with little aspects of city life, such as, I don't know, traffic light controls... Real-time Strategy This is the real meat of the game. Strategy should be considered in everything you do. The most direct expression of the RTS element is of course the directing of your team. But there are lots of things you can do with hacking that are strategic. For example, you need video feeds of your team to monitor them and to make sure they won't run into someone around the corner, but only have limited bandwidth so you'll have to choose which cameras to watch. Or you may find yourself inside an important server you want to erase some data on. You can be very disruptive and destroy lots of stuff, but you'll probably be detected which could lead to big consequences, so you've got to be stealthy. I think one of the most interesting elements is where hacking meets the real world. If there's a cop standing outside the building your team needs to sneak into, you'll have to deal with him, ideally by diverting him. This can be done in a number of ways; for example, if you've hacked your way into traffic control you can set all the lights on a nearby intersection to green and cause an accident. This demonstrates the open-ended nature of the game. (I'm well researched in game AI and can make things like that happen.) Misc Adage as it's currently being called is made in C++ using the Qt library (which so far has turned out to be -perfect- for this game). I have a group of experienced C++ coders (including myself) interested in developing for it; I've started but need to take a critical look at the details of the design before I move much farther forward. Here's a (very) rough mockup I did a long time ago of the interface and gameplay example, and I also have an early look at the beginnings of an implementation (those lines would be walls...). Questions and Problems The advantages (and goals) of this game design are that it allows the player to be immersed in the real-time action and make important on-the-spot strategic decisions in a 3rd-party, somewhat omniscient setting, while feeling as if they are a vital part of the action (hacking). This should, in theory, give them a sense of power and reward. Well-designed missions can also use these elements to keep the player on the edge of their seat, forcing them to make important decisions while at the same time pressuring them to keep up with their job (hacking), keeping the team safe and undetected and making and discovering avenues for them (finding site maps, unlocking doors and the like) so that they can get the job done, and fast. That said, actually accomplishing that will be difficult. Do you think the design I described can achieve those goals? How can I tweak the design (or goals)? What do you like or not like? I can already highlight some specific issues... Hacking: Time and Difficulty. Hacking shouldn't be too difficult as to harm the game's flow, but it shouldn't feel trivial. Players (mostly, you know, geeks) will want it to feel real and like they're accomplishing something. Also, hacking can take time. This is where the balance issue comes in. How much time should be spent hacking, and how much directing the team? Currently my favorite solution is having the team able to do a lot of its job on its own, giving the player time to do their thing, and only depending upon him when they're in a sticky situation or can't or don't know how to continue. I'm sure you can think of more. So, please, let me know what you think and what you think I need to change, add, or throw out in order to achieve a good balance that will be fun. Or if you have something to say about another thing I mentioned, feel free :). Thanks a lot for your input. [Edited by - tmandry on November 25, 2007 11:09:10 PM]

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MSW    151
The overall concept is pretty cool. But fairly realistic linux hacking is going to make it nitche game.

Basicly you have two different games goin on. The team basied stealth side and the hacking side. From your mockup it looks like the stealth side isn't player controled.

Sure you have little buttons for zooming in and all. But your team members are apparently just green dots with nothing to distinguish them from one another, or even what thier status is. Also there seems to be a lack of ways to interact with them, tell them where/how to go about completeing thier mission...In other words its just seems to be little more than a graphicly complex AI controled timer (you have until the red dots and green dots meet to hack a diversion, etc). Don't get me wrong, I like that its abstract...It just needs better presentation of what you can do with it, where the security cameras are, if they are on, what direction the units are faceing, if this area is an elevator, stairs, key features you or your team can take advantage of.

As for hacking, if you want a sizeable audiance you will want to overhaul it. Abstract it down to key essentials. decide what it is you are willing to allow players to do with hacking and simplify it. As is you are asking a LOT from players, not only should they know something about navigating and hacking linux servers, but they may need to type fast, spell correctly, and know how to program too...the game balance is already way too heavy in this area for the vast majority of gamers.

The old PSX game Carnage Heart allowed players to program battle robots and sit back to watch them work. It used a simple graphical tile basied programing system that was easy to use and was robust enough to get the job done. There are several more games like it too that use flow chart like programing systems. for a more general audiance I think these games should be used as inspiration for your hacking solution.

Also keep the scope local to the mission at hand. Changeing traffic signals is cool and all...but realisticly if a car wreck outside a building can so easily distract the security force then they need to be fired.

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tmandry    122
Thanks for the thoughts. Sorry my mockup gave such a bad idea of things but in reality you'll at least be able to see which direction characters are facing (arrows?) and mousing over them will bring up a tooltip/menu with status and some commands. I forgot to mention that. I do want the player to have a good amount of involvement with the world. Also, in my traffic light example the cop was just lounging around, possibly looking for speeders or something. I see what you're saying about keeping a local scope, though. At the same time I want the player to have lots of options, so that's another issue.

I definitely know what you mean about the hacking. It will make it a niche game. What I don't want is for the game to be something like Uplink, which is a completely dumbed-down point & click sort of "hacking" game without much point. The flowchart idea enables any user to do it and still have to think logically and such, but then it won't appeal as much to a lot of people I know. Another option which you'll probably say is too much is a sort of hybrid where you could pick what to use, having more flexibility with javascript.

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Gyrthok    412
Quote:
Hacking: Time and Difficulty. Hacking shouldn't be too difficult as to harm the game's flow, but it shouldn't feel trivial. Players (mostly, you know, geeks) will want it to feel real and like they're accomplishing something.


Given that the majority of the gameplay is going to involve hacking, perhalps you could make it more a matter of difficulty? For example, easy could be a dumbed down version thats simple to get into, and Hard could be the realistic Linux Shell? Either that, or you could include a Tutorial to gradually ease the player into it, (RTS's like Starcraft do this, the entirely singleplayer campaign could almost be considered one giant tutorial).

The abstraction also seems interesting, being able to pan around the blueprints of a building and guide a squad through. Given that you can hack video camera's, have you considered having Helmet Camera's on your squad so you can see what they see in order to more directly view their progress? Perhalps having a Photo Icon of the person leading to a camera uplink to his POV could help the player become more attached to the people he's commanding?

It could also supply some rather interesting problems, for example some recent addition that isn't in the blueprints, a lack of video camera's in a particular area, or perhalps only having very outdated maps at your disposal. In this sense, your squad mates would also work as a set of eye's and ears if the area is either low tech or heavily firewalled.

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tmandry    122
Well after some discussions with people we've decided that we'll probably cut the programming aspect altogether, since it doesn't really have many uses when it comes down to it. This doesn't affect hacking very much either; the player can still hack using game-given tools.

Quote:
Original post by Gyrthok
Given that the majority of the gameplay is going to involve hacking, perhalps you could make it more a matter of difficulty? For example, easy could be a dumbed down version thats simple to get into, and Hard could be the realistic Linux Shell? Either that, or you could include a Tutorial to gradually ease the player into it, (RTS's like Starcraft do this, the entirely singleplayer campaign could almost be considered one giant tutorial).


We actually discussed both ideas awhile back. It's good to hear someone echo them. On the tutorial side we would have the first few missions ease the player in. As for difficulties, that's what I meant by giving the user a choice and I think it can be a good idea, but the challenge will be the added complexity for us (the developers) and keeping a consistent game feel. I suspect a good brainstorm with my developers will probably resolve that.

Quote:
The abstraction also seems interesting, being able to pan around the blueprints of a building and guide a squad through. Given that you can hack video camera's, have you considered having Helmet Camera's on your squad so you can see what they see in order to more directly view their progress? Perhalps having a Photo Icon of the person leading to a camera uplink to his POV could help the player become more attached to the people he's commanding?


Yeah, helmet cameras sound like they could be a good idea. It would probably mean more initial investment for the player (dealing with money is another part of the game) but could definitely help. You might have already gotten this but keep in mind that all video feeds are abstracted into the blueprint, so rather than seeing a first-person view of the
agent you'll just see the things he sees (the game is 2D anyway). When there's no video for a particular area it'll just be grayed out with the known "static data" (building layout and such) still shown. It's really just the old RTS fog-of-war concept.

I really like the idea of getting the player attached to the people he's in charge of; I'd never thought of that. And having feeds from their POV could help accomplish that.

Quote:
It could also supply some rather interesting problems, for example some recent addition that isn't in the blueprints, a lack of video camera's in a particular area, or perhalps only having very outdated maps at your disposal. In this sense, your squad mates would also work as a set of eye's and ears if the area is either low tech or heavily firewalled.


Yes it's these kinds of things that I like to make strategic/tactical problems out of. Thanks for the ideas; it really helps :).

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negatecx    122
First I have to admit I don't fully understand the game design concept. But I have a few comments that I think may help you regarding balance.

As others have already pointed out, hacking -- at any significant level -- is going to turn off most gamers. However, I don't think that you should necessarily dumb down this element of the game too much. I think it is important, though, that you decide whether it's an RTS-style game or whether the focus is on hacking.

If the focus is on hacking, then you need to really ensure that what the user can do is scalable with their abilities. Perhaps provide them some tools to use, a step-by-step guide at first, etc. But you should also make it very scalable for the hardcore gamer that wants to really get into the nitty-gritty stuff.

Personally, I would probably address the design as an RTS-style game, then include hacking as a sort of sub-game. It may be a necessary portion of the game, but the player doesn't have to get bogged down in it if it's not their "thing." However, if they are really into it, they can play this sub-game even more. With that in mind, you may want to also include some other sub-games.

As far as scripting -- and I'm not sure how much this applies to your game -- it would be somewhat interesting if the player had the option of scripting various events and so forth to happen simultaneously. That way they can plan their attack or theft or whatever and basically play "hacker commander" and support their spies (or whatever) by launching scripts that shut down the building power or shut off alarms or send the police on a call somewhere else, etc.

At the end of the day, the hacking does need to be easy enough to do and easy enough to learn, because the point is to create a fantasy for the player about doing something "bad" or "wrong" or "cool" without them actually being able to do it. After all, a real hacker doesn't need a game they could just hack.

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