Monday, July 20, 2009

Triangular Logic

In the spirit of my second post, concerning secrecy, I've decided to show off one of the concepts I am especially proud of and keep especially close.

Like every other game design hobbyist, I have that one massive dream project that I'm completely obsessed with. Even though game design is about being creatively nimble and working with any idea, deep down every designer has that one game they'd love to make. The concept I'll be covering today is at the core of my dream game, a deeply customizable action title I'm planning to unveil more of in the months ahead. A great deal of the customization revolves around the system we'll be discussing today...

Methods of Advancement...
Games involving character customization tend to use a variety of methods for character advancement, with the most common being a level-based system. This type of advancement has been relied upon for decades, from Dungeons & Dragons all the way up to modern MMOs like World of Warcraft. In a level-based system, players earn experience points and move up to a higher character level at set thresholds. Each level grants the player increased statistics and usually a new ability or two depending upon the type of character class they are playing. There are few, if any, real choices; players earn only the stats and abilities that the developer gives them.

As a result, level-based games (of which the majority of RPGs and Action/RPGs are) tend to feel very linear and restrictive in terms of growth. You can only get as strong as the developer allows you to, and are painted into a specific role with specific options unless the developer says otherwise. The strictly vertical scale on which level-based systems work also promises more power only when your level increases; you can't beat up the Level 10 dragon now, but if you gain a few levels you can destroy him later. Thus your goal is to get stronger as quickly as possible and to overcome any challenge you may face with sheer statistical superiority. As a result, most players are intent on leveling up in the fastest way they can, ignoring the journey and focusing solely on the destination; stronger characters.

Despite the bile with which I seem to describe level-based systems, I must admit that they do work in certain applications. Traditional RPGs, where the pace is intentionally slower and focused on micromanagement, make great use of level-based systems. In any kind of multi-player experience or any game that advertises a focus on developing a unique persona, level-based systems (in my opinion) fail. Anything else I might say on the subject beyond that statement has already been covered in greater depth by others, and those interested might find the following articles worth a read:

Kreation's Edge: Treatise on Character Advancement Systems
The MMORPG motivation?

The system we'll be examining today, as you might expect, does not use a level-based system. Instead, it uses a variant of another popular method of character advancement; a Skill-based system. Skill-based games have been around for a while too, from GURPS to EVE Online, though they are much less popular. In these types of games, players are presented with a large number of abilities their character can learn; by choosing only the abilities they want their character to have, players develop their own character 'class' rather than playing only the roles which the developers have provided. Because growth is horizontal, rather than an experience 'ladder' going straight up, players must use strategy and their ability to skillfully play to advance, rather than overcoming obstacles on the virtue of having a bigger number floating over their character's head.

Skill-based systems have pitfalls of their own, though they are easily dealt with if the designer is aware of them and can devise creative solutions in advance. The most notable flaws are a steep learning curve (many different options presented all at once can be a bit intimidating) and a tendency to become unbalanced easily because limits
to prevent players from collecting all the best skills are weak or non-existent. I feel the Triangle System handles these flaws quite nicely, as we'll now see.

The Triangle System...
This particular skill-based system has a unique method of balancing which skills a player can use, sidestepping the pitfalls common to this type of advancement process. First, all abilities the player can learn within the game are divided into three groups, and these groups correspond to three stats that all characters have; the Physical, Mental, and Spiritual scores. In order to utilize a given ability, the character's score must be at or above the required amount (i.e. to use a Physical ability with a requirement of 20, the player's Physical score must be 20 or above.)

What makes the Triangle System unique is that all three of these stats do not work independently of each other; changes in one aspect cause changes to all of the others. The sum of all three stats is constant, and will always equal 100 percent; what a character is capable of depends on which aspect the player favors. For example, a player who wishes to learn a great deal of physical skills would want to increase his physical score, but this comes at the expense of his mental and spiritual standing. A physical score of 80% means the mental and spiritual scores of that character can only ever add up to 20%.

To make this information quickly accessible and easy to understand, it uses a graph in the form of an equilateral triangle, with the physical, mental and spiritual scores set at each vertex, or point. The player's current statistical makeup is represented as a point within this triangle; this type of graph is known as a ternary plot, for those remembering their high school Statistics classes. To get a clear idea of this works, mouse over the triangle image above; as your cursor moves within the triangle, it represents any combination of the three statistics that a player might have. This flash example comes courtesy of James Mastro.

The triangle is effective as a method for players to build a unique character because it self-balances. A
player can never become the best physical, mental, and spiritual fighter at the same time; gaining new abilities and growing stronger in one area means giving up abilities and growing weaker in another. By finding just the right balance of the three aspects, a player can build their own clearly-distinguishable persona without being able to become omnipotent.

In order to change their position within the triangle, players spend special points earned by completing storyline segments, defeating especially powerful enemies, or meeting special objectives. Each point increases a given stat 1%, but players can expect to earn several of them at once. It is worth pointing out, however, that even a starting character (whose scores are all divided equally, resulting in 33% in all three aspects) is fairly powerful. In fact, being completely balanced during the entire game can be fairly effective itself; while most games punish versatility by putting must-have special abilities in either/or positions, a 'Jack-of-all-Trades' character has access to a wealth of abilities and has the statistical strength to make all three effective.

Because of this non-linear growth, there is never a point where a new player is worse off than someone who has already been playing, at least from a statistical point of view. While there are differences in abilities and gear, these can be overcome with player skill; new players are not automatically excluded from content designed for experienced players. This allows players to experience the excitement of character advancement without leaving their friends behind at a lower level.

The Triangle System is something I have been working on sporadically for several years, with several revisions, tweaks, and overhauls to make all of the various interconnected elements working in unison. It's something I am especially proud of, and have constantly flirted with showing off, especially when class or level-based game systems are discussed. Though we've covered the basic mechanics, there is still a lot of details yet to be revealed. For example, we have not covered the abilities that characters can learn, nor have we examined the core statistics that the triangle builds upon (including those used by equipment).

These will have to wait for another day, as there's another unrelated project I want to discuss, and that will prove to be a much more difficult piece to write. I also have been working on improving elements of the system (and the game it belongs to) that are not quite ready to be shown here, as well as a community based project that is in the early planning stages. I will attempt to update more regularly, as I now appear to have at least a few readers.

As always, feel free to leave any thoughts or comments you may have. This is a concept I am especially proud of, and would be happy to candidly answer any questions my readers may have about it, and am also interested to see what others think. Thanks for reading.