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Keeping Heroes Alive in Mass Combat

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If the player can invest a lot of time in outfitting and leveling heroes, should a game's combat system give them preferential treatment when it comes to death? If you imagine an RTS-like mass combat situation involving a large number of units, most generic but some highly detailed with above average stats, abilities and gear it probably goes without saying that most players don't want to lose their special characters. Over time you'd expect their gear and abilities to protect them somewhat, depending on how good it is. But what about those cases where it doesn't and the character dies? Should the game's combat system have some sort of special exception for these heroes? Should they always somehow resurrect or automatically escape death (by always being knocked out, for instance, until the combat is over). What do you think it would take to get the player to live with the death and move on?

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Having your heroes temporarily incapacitated when a lesser unit would be destroyed is a pretty good system. Mount & Blade springs immediately to mind. When a unit gets to 0 HP in that game, they're either killed or knocked out depending on what type of damage was dealt by the final blow (blunt vs. anything else) and some leadership skills can allow a chance for units to survive even a lethal blow, but hero units can never really be killed, they just get laid out and revive after the fight with 1% health and a little less faith in their commander. Oblivion does something similar, where plot-crucial people will get up after being down for a while and jump back into the fray.

It does feel a little cheesy, though, and in Oblivion I remember a few tough fights where I'd find a hiding spot and let my invincible sidekick get his ass kicked for twenty minutes until he'd managed to wear down all the bad guys.

Letting them get killed feels more honest, but then you wind up having to reload an old save when you find out that a particular sidequest requires some moron NPC who'd gotten himself killed eight battles ago, like in Final Fantasy Tactics.

Above a certain scale threshold, it becomes more absurd for battlefield units to be really significant, and you're either watching your hero units do all the work, beating down scores of grunts without help (Warcraft III) or else you've got your semi-useful major character standing ankle-deep in the corpses of his squad, ineffectually firing a rifle at a spaceship while nuclear weapons impact his face with no effect (Sgt. Johnson in Halo 2).

If the game is mission-based, it's a simple matter to have the hero's survival a victory condition, and deliver a "game over" screen when they go down, but from what I've seen of your design philosophy, that's not really an option for you.

If I had to put forth an endorsement, I'd recommend a way to either protect or resurrect a certain number of units of any description, and then structure the gameplay such that the player would be inclined to use it on the important guys. Maybe you could have an almost clean run, and use your "mulligan" to bring back the sniper that got flanked, or maybe you get routed, and the five important dudes in your battalion are the only ones who make it.

In EvE, player characters can be cloned, and in the moment of your death your consciousness is transferred to a vat someplace, Sixth Day style, and your new self climbs out of the goo, has a shower, and hops into a new ship. I like that idea, since the assets are all lost, but the character is preserved (mostly), and that combines a real sense of loss with the persistence of the sentimental and strategic value of the unit.

You could model that in accordance with your fiction, of course. If you're in giant mechs, then you eject and your escape pod takes you back to base, or if you're an avatar of a deity it simply finds a new host.

One final note: Could the "hero" characters be abstracted, so that they can't be specifically identified or targetted on the battlefield? For instance, your "Fifth Squadron" has ten fighter planes in it, and one of them is Captain Rad, who imparts a bonus to all his pilots by virtue of his awesomeness, and after the battle, he's alive if his squad made it back to base. If all ten get back, no problem, but if five, or three, or even just one plane returns, he's guaranteed to be among the survivors. If they all buy it, then he's dead.

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One thing that's annoyed me about a few RTSes which had "RPG elements" for all units is that it was never really worth it to let them upgrade. The game I'm thinking of in particular here was Warzone 2100. As I remember it, a unit with a really high rank wasn't that much more special than one with a low rank and so there wasn't much point in trying to keep him alive.

In my game, I haven't quite gotten to the point where I have to make this kind of decision, but since all of the units in my game are meant to be autonomous sort of robots, I was thinking that if a unit is destroyed, it could be "rebuilt" from the charred lump of metal that's left behind. That is, I'd have a special unit which injects nanobots or something that run around and rebuild the unit exactly as it was before it got blown up. I'm not sure how it'll work at this stage, though...

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The hero could be like the standard bearer for a larger unit of troops. You might reasonably expect the unit to fight to the last man to defend the hero, and for him or her to only die when the unit is completely destroyed. (For your own value of 'completely'.)

In a mass-battle mechanic this is fairly easily done simply by having no risk to the hero until the unit is depleted sufficiently.

In an RTS it might be more awkward. Perhaps heroes have some sort of special ability that, when they're low on health, allows them to defend perfectly against a foe for a short time, thus giving time for them to be aided by a nearby ally. In such a situation you could also make their current foes a primary target for nearby allies. This might provide enough of a boost to their lifespan to be enjoyable without them being effectively unkillable. (Which, although acceptable in some single-player games, would be a shame in any multiplayer games.)

Quote:
What do you think it would take to get the player to live with the death and move on?

AKA the Save/Load argument all over again. ;) Players these days are spoiled - they tend not to want setbacks of any nature and will just reload any time they think they had one, even when the game is trying to say, "no! you can work around this! carry on! setbacks are part of the game!"

Annoyingly many game designers are coming to agree with this stance thinking that any sort of failure is 'punishing' the player. Add to that the chorus of narrative-driven games where progress through the story is the whole point, and you have an audience conditioned to expect to make an inexorable forward march through your game content no matter how poorly they play.

No amount of compensation will please most people - it'll feel like a failure. The exception is where victory is so hard that you'll take it even at the cost of your hero. This is how I played Myth: The Fallen Lords. I wanted to carry veterans over but sometimes it was unfeasible to do so. I could have reloaded and tried again, but I might have failed the mission on the next attempt. This is just moving the 'punishment' however. The game was still just as hard, and many people won't like that.

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There's a pretty good hero system for an RTS in Battle for Middle Earth 1 and 2. As a quick summary: you can build normal units which are usually groups of about 15-20 weak men or orcs or whatever, but you can also build unique heroes (such as Aragorn, Gandalf, nazgul, etc. or also a custom hero whose abilities you can choose at the beginning of the game) The way the game works is if your hero dies you have the option to rebuild him at a reduced price and when he comes back you don't lose any of the levels you had previously gained. So if you got to level 5 with your hero, you don't have to start over when you rebuild him, you're still at level 5.

I think a system like that works the best, since there is a risk to sending your hero into battle, but you don't feel like the game is over if he dies so the player can feel safe about using the hero and not having him run away whenever the going gets tough. If you can equip your hero with gear, it might be ok to have the player lose that armor if the hero dies, or that could be preserved as well, it just depends on how much you want to set the player back.

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It really bugs me when you're in a battle and a character falls and then a little while later gets up again to rejoin the battle. It feels like the rules of the game are broken and it really makes me feel as though the stuff that happens during the game is not important. I would rather a hero falls dead and I revert to a save point than to have a character rise from the dead for no reason. If another character healed the hero, that'd be fine. Perhaps a hero rising after a time would be ok if that's the sort of thing that happened with every character, but I don't see how combat would ever end then.

One thing I'm thinking is that I wouldn't mind the option to take the hero in and out of the playing field (either instantly during the battle or as a choice during a prep phase). The hero still has the opportunity to die when on the field but presumably the player would keep the hero safe unill his specific skills are needed. This would decrease the chances of loosing the hero to a seeminly random rush of enemies and make the hero's usage more of a strategic choice.

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First of all, make it difficult for them to die, without making them into tanks. Say, their defense is reasonably good, but moreover they have a good ability to flee when they're taking a beating. Give them longevity without game-breaking invincibility.

Second of all, make their death part of the rules. When Sir Scaramouche falls in battle, all his allies in a 200 yard radius go berserk for five minutes, mowing down enemies with the strength of pure pissed-off-edness. The point of this is not to make killing one's own hero a good idea strategy-wise -- and you should be careful not to tip things too far in that direction --, but to indicate to the player that life goes on (for everyone else, anyway) and that the death of that hero should not be the end of the overall narrative.

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I like the being able to remake them at reduced cost idea. This would be akin to them fleeing the battlefield when they are nearly dead, and you have to pay to heal them, and bring them back. If I knew that Sir John is not gone for the rest of the game, just for the current skirmish, I am MUCH less likely to just reload and try not letting him die.

Another possibility is to make hero units really good, but not finite. If a hero dies, I will get another. There might be a limit on how many there can be at a time, but at some point they can be replaced. There is a secret dojo currently training General Keaton's replacement should he fall on the battlefield. It could even be a gameplay mechanic, you have to put money into the training hall and protect it, or you don't get new generals.

In Fire Emblem, with all of the character dialogues and story riding on each character, it is heartbreaking to lose any of them. It's not gameplay that forces me to reload, but fiction. If there is fiction surrounding the hero, that makes things more difficult. I would make the death of a fictionaly relevant character be an end of game condition. Even if you tell people that there is a different way the story can go if so-and-so dies, it's going to be very difficult to convince them not to reload, as much as making death meaningful would be a really great change to the RTS genre. (All the grunts we send to their deaths without shedding a tear)

I also like the other ideas mentioned above, especially having the "hero" be one of the faceless members of a unit and the surviving unit keeps the hero. But sometimes I think it's nice to make the hero stand out a bit more.

A resurrection mechanic can work, but if it only works on heroes, it feels cheap, and if it works for everyone, I think it becomes a very significant element to the game - perhaps too significant depending on what kind of game you are making.

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Another solution is to make hero death a serious obstacle (e.g. permanent), but give the player time to pull the hero's bacon out of the fire.

Since we're talking about a large battle, a part of the problem is the player just not seeing the hero in distress. Plunk a giant red flashing light above the hero, and raise the alarm early enough that the player can either send help or retreat the hero. This gives you an opportunity for memorable moments...

"I remember this time that sir bob was totally surrounded by techno-guppies. His men were dying left and right around him. I had to send in the last of my reserve cavalry to cut him out. They arrived just in time - another minute and he would have been lost"

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Or have the hero get knocked unconscious rather than killed. When this happens, give the player some time to get a medic unit to the hero. If the medic arrives in time, they can revive him, but the hero is taken back to the players HQ for treatment. Once back at base he requires some R&R, so will miss out on the next mission.

If the medics don't arrive in time, then maybe the hero dies. Or maybe the enemy capture him and a secondary objective in the following missions is to rescue the hero. If the player doesn't rescue the hero during that mission, then he is lost for good.

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