Sunday, May 2, 2021

Storytelling Through Skill Trees

 Humans are not trees. It’s a radical statement to make, I know, but try to bear with me while I explain this difficult concept! Humans, in fact, do not begin as a single entity and then branch out to catch the sun’s light. Instead, when we grow what we try to “catch” are various abilities, skills, and knowledge as a means of reaching a personal goal. No two of us are chasing the same sunlight. 

Which is my really obnoxious way of saying: Why are we so convinced that skill trees are a great solution to map character growth over time? If we look at evolutionary psychology in books like “The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory” or “The Strange Order of Things” we find that psychology professionals have identified that organisms basically grow in whatever way they find the most success. Even trees and plants will change their growth patterns over time based on the resistance that they meet in their surroundings. So if all of the biological world is based on the concept of adapting to their unique stressors, why are we building all of our games with rigid skill trees? Why does my D&D character sheet require that I be a wizard or a bard or a fighter? Why do I pick my difficulty when I begin the game, and get locked into these systems? This stuff doesn’t fit our evolutionary needs. Adapt or die, these are the rules of the whole world. If your system doesn’t allow adaptation, then it incentivizes death. 

The common wisdom found in game design communities will, however, contradict me here. Players WANT to be a Bard because they don’t want to have to do a ton of research into building their character for a silly game they play twice a month on tuesdays. Figuring out the entire system just to understand how to build the most powerful character is an awful way for most of society to spend their free time (obviously some people do like these things, and more power to you! Literally!). People want to walk down a path somewhat mindlessly, and make a few choices along the way knowing that they will still have a good time in the process. This is a natural desire for each of us, because we want to feel like we’re good at things without having to spend our lives mastering those things. In fact, even in real life, most of us are unconcerned with becoming the most or the best, we’re largely just trying to figure out how to Make The Thing in the first place. The idea of becoming the best Thing Maker alive is absurd. 

Fortunately for us, we as humans have already spent boatloads of time and energy learning how to educate other humans in healthy ways, and to do so while they are quite literally incapable of understanding how to plan out a complex skill tree path. As children, we are placed into schools which teach us a set curriculum, and as we advance through our education we pick up skills along the way. Some of us will pick up more math skills than others, some will pick up primarily physical talents, and still others will focus on the arts. Often, we will pick up a set of skills society enforces upon us, which we do not find daily use for. How often have you or your friends complained about having to take that advanced calculus class, knowing your career goal is to bake cupcakes? How often have you been out with a group of friends and you break out that “party trick” you learned years ago but never had any specific use for because you learned it completely aside from whatever your core path was? We all have those “useless” skills that don’t come out as a daily occurrence because we thought they’d be worth it at the time.

The point that I’m making is that a person isn’t a collection of skills carefully chosen, but a collection of skills of which only a carefully chosen few are repeated. In other words, I like to design games, and so I write a lot about game design, and so people view me as a game designer. I’m also an artist, but I do that much less, so people view me as an artist much less. If your Cleric doesn’t also have a set of skills from when they tried being a Barbarian, are they even a real person? 


First grade teachers will cover a generic set of skills we think are essential. Reading, Writing, Basic Math, etc. are all represented. By the time you reach 18 you have dropped any number of skills by the wayside. But we treat characters in games as if they start at the beginnings of a tree, and branch out as they go. Reality tends to work in reverse, where we start in the branches and funnel into increasingly-specific direction over time. If school were a skill tree, you’d start off with an extremely nonlinear pile of skill to choose from, and somewhere at the half way mark of the game, you’d finally have the 30 required skills to earn your certification as a Paladin. Once you’re a Paladin, you can officially dive into those deep Paladin skills that just would not be useful to anyone else. The “Paladin” class, in this example, acts as a signpost. It’s a guide saying “if you come this direction, your experience will look like this” and is a good way to direct people towards a specific goal. This concept has been proven to work so well that every school system on the planet finds some rough approximation of it, even if the details vary. So why on earth do we build games the other way around? Why am I choosing my class at the start of my character? Why am I locked in with lateral movement a near impossibility? And look, I acknowledge that multiclassing in an RPG is there to solve exactly this, but come on folks, we all know that’s not the same thing. In real life I don’t get a degree in art and then a minor in english and then only get to either be an artist or a writer for the rest of my life. That fluidity of adaptation is essential for human evolution and happiness both, and is something we should strive to include in our game design. And ok, saying all this is well and good, but how do we make it happen?

The key features of this evolutionary look at personal growth is that we start off general and end up specific after walking through a series of gates. This really isn’t unlike how Outriders handles its skill tree.

On the left we effectively have elementary education, then there’s a clear delineation where you can branch into a new path if you choose. Unfortunately, you’re stuck with only a few places where you can jump between the three trees in this image, so this works more like a D&D multiclass system where you can choose a new career path, but you’re defined by the choice you made when accepting that first job (our company LOVES lateral movement among our employees, just fill out these 6 forms and reapply after a minimum of 2 years in your current role and you’ll be considered for that pay cut!). The way humans like to work is to have a more open pool available. Mechanically, this would be more like drawing from a large pool of skills which get increasingly specific as you go along. For those familiar with CCG games, this is sort of like drafting a pack of Magic cards. You start with a broad pool of possibilities, but each choice you make narrows your focus down so that later picks become almost predetermined. Which sounds rather confusing, so let me make a chart to demonstrate that visually.

Let’s avoid debating how to organize those DnD classes, that’s not the point here. But the idea is the same regardless of how you structure things. On the left is a list of skills for everyone, and as you go right it filters down to be skills for each specific class. If we were to continue the Magic The Gathering example, the green box on the left would include cards of all kinds, then the next column represents when we’re given boxes of cards for each specific color, then next would be deck types, and the red on the far right would be boxes full of cards catered to popular meta decks. As you move from left to right, you go from generic to extreme specificity, just as you do when you progress from elementary school to college. Your development is along whichever path you like, and then once you reach the end you must prove you have achieved mastery. Is your MTG deck a “red” deck if you have 5 red cards in it? 10? In real life, if you want to be known as skilled in a particular area, you take a certification exam for that skillset. In other words, you qualify yourself as “a red deck” by proving that you have enough skills to use the term. In this skill tree, you do the same thing. If you want to call yourself a rogue, you have to have… let’s say 10 skills in the rogue tree. Once you have any 10 rogue skills, you are officially a rogue. Congrats! I don’t care if you have 25 points in wizard, or 45 points in paladin, if you have 10 rogue points, you qualify to call yourself as a rogue. 

This aligns much more closely to how we, as humans, expect to learn. There are goals to reach at the end of the path we’ve chosen, and it’s our task to reach the goal we choose. No two people will learn in exactly the same way, but generally you get to where you want to go. As opposed to the purely linear skill trees that we see in games like Outriders, or the ones we get in games like Path of Exile which start off at a particular class and then try to add the nonlinearity at the end, which is the opposite of how we humans learn and grow.

There is, of course, quite a good reason people tend to design games in this “backwards” way: People get overwhelmed by too many options. If you start off in the “Everyone” bucket, you have far too many choices at once, and how on earth could you ever possibly choose? Again, we look at developmental psychology for our answer. We don’t allow kids to choose the classes they take, we give them a set curriculum and they learn all of it. Once a kid knows more of what they like, we start to give them choices to make, such as choosing types of curriculum to take in high school (which sometimes takes the form of choosing blocks of classes, and other times in choosing entire high schools). Then we don’t let them fully branch out until college, once we know what they like. So in the above example, perhaps you could choose a class to start with, and then change that class at any time. If you choose, for example, Wizard, you would begin collecting skills within the wizard curriculum, moving from generic skills into magical skills, and if you reach magical skills and suddenly realize you want to pivot into a Warlock instead, well that’s fine because you haven’t reached the point where the skills required is different from a Warlock anyway, so no big deal. Once you choose Warlock as your new class, your current skill list is the same, you just have a new goal. If you choose to then become a Fighter, well you’ll have to start over from the physical skills list instead of the magical skills list, but at least you don’t have to relearn the skills for everyone! And already this feels much more like what it’s like to be a person going through a real education process, realizing that you want to learn something new.

The other aspect of this is what to do with unused skills, and to which I suggest limiting the immediate skill list you have, such as how you can only build a deck of 60 cards in Magic The Gathering. Then you take all the skills you’ve learned, apply the “build” you want, and there’s your character. This is also how we work in real life, we’ve all got those party tricks we can break out, but our core “build” is just the skills we use over and over in our daily life.

This guy gets it

But this isn’t an article about game design, despite how much time I’ve devoted to that so far. No, this is an article about narrative design. Mapping skill trees to human development patterns doesn’t add all that much to the game design process, but it fundamentally changes how we are allowed to tell stories in these games. Imagine you’re the child of strict parents who are forcing you into Paladin college, but you’ve always known you’re a Bard in your heart. Maybe you take night classes and dream of running off to the circus, maybe you only look onto Bard skills from a distance, but either way you have a problem: You don’t WANT to progress the way you have been. Now your skill tree is greyed out, and there’s only one path to choose. You can see the other roads, but they only bring you agony. You can never be anything but what you are. Life is awful. 

At least life was awful, until you met Him. He changed you. He showed you the way things could be, he showed you the world. He taught you a Bard skill! It was a simple one, but you have a skill point on that forbidden tree! How is that possible? Weren’t those other trees greyed out? Were they? Or could you have put those skills there at any time, if only you’d allowed yourself? Sure, your parents will be pissed now, but it’s not like they can stop you from learning, right? And maybe they’ll even tolerate a few skills, I mean it’s not like you’re at the real hard stuff yet, right? It takes a while before you can unlock those Bard-specific skills anyway, this is just a phase, you’ll grow out of it before then. Which, of course, you don’t. You get your first Bard skill and you’ve crossed the threshold. Your parents see this trigger and disown you. They know you have a Bard skill, and no son of mine will be a filthy Bard! Not under MY roof!

In this example we have a set of skills that unlock based on triggers reached by hitting a threshold. Then we have quests that react to those same triggers, your parents changing their dialogue based on if the boolean variable “hasBardSkill” has been flipped to true. It’s simple stuff, programmatically. What’s important, though, is that we have that natural movement from unskilled to skilled which matches human development. If you started off by choosing to be Paladin, and only ever got the chance to multiclass, this storytelling would be impossible. You’d already be hard-coded into your class from day one with no way out, and what is a story without personal growth and change over time?

But I’m not leaving it there either, because I drew the earlier connection to developmental psychology for a reason. Characters in stories have goals. In some cases, those goals have to do with reaching a particular location on a skill tree. In other cases, they may just want to be a different person in a more abstract sense. Maybe the character is a child who just really wants to be like Daddy, so they try to learn the same skills he learned. Maybe the person has anger management issues and needs to develop those skills, or maybe they’ve found themselves trapped in a life of crime and they want out. Maybe they are getting bullied and the only reason they care about the skill tree mess is to keep them from being hurt. People grow over time, at all stages of life. There is a biological imperative in all of us which tells us to keep adapting, even if many of us try to ignore it because we don’t want to believe that we can change, or because we’re simply happy where we are. In games we map this growth onto what we call a Skill Tree, but in reality what we’re mapping is the development of our own minds. If a person has a mental block against allowing themselves to become a particular type of person, something common among abuse victims, that might manifest as a greyed-out skill tree, as in my earlier example. A skill tree is nothing more than the path of growth a character is allowed to move along. If the path is linear, then that person is only capable of growth in a particular direction. If the path is open, the person is allowed to grow more freely. Which shape the tree exists in will determine the possible reality that will define the person. Or at least the reality they impose upon themself. What kind of person has a linear skill tree? What does that say about their political or religious beliefs? What kind of career might they prefer?

To offer an example, consider the film Easy A. It’s a romantic comedy where the protagonist feels invisible as a teenage girl in high school. Her goal is to be popular, and the moment she trips that “isPopular” trigger, her life completely spirals out of control. Sunk cost fallacy keeps her there for a while, but eventually she has to come clean and resume her normal life. She’s not trying to become a Wizard or a Barbarian, but she is definitely trying to learn a new set of skills in the Popular Girl tree. Those skills, however, cause her nothing but trouble and her story focuses on how she must quickly learn to adapt. As another example, look at the anime Mob Psycho 100. Mob is a psychic high schooler who must avoid using his powerful psychic skill, which is triggered by stress. He has the skill unlocked already, but wants a new set of skills over on the “Physical Skills” branch instead. He has found that the more physical skills he has unlocked, the more able he is to control his use of those psychic skills he’s so worried about. It’s all a great way of mapping depression onto verb use, and shows us how we can demonstrate a character’s personality based on what skills they have, and which ones they feel like they need. These are two examples, but just consider the stories you've read or watched. Consider how the protagonist uses their skills in a way that either helps or hurts their progress through the story. Consider what skills they have at their disposal and why they did or did not use those skills in that story. Try to imagine what their skill tree might look like.

Each of us has a skill tree full of nodes we’ve unlocked. Each of us has a set of skills we are willing to use, and a set of skills we are unwilling to use. If we were a videogame, our preferences and the walls we build for ourselves would all manifest as variations in the UI that presents our stats to the person controlling us. 

What class are you? What class do you not consider a possibility for yourself? Is it because that tree is in some way locked for you, or is it simply that you’d have to go too far back on your tree to switch to that other path you’d need to be on?

Hopefully that gives everyone something to think about. Thanks for reading! I’d love your comments and thoughts below!

Saturday, January 9, 2021

My Learnings On Quest Design So Far

 Video games are built on the basis of choice. When a player is presented with a scenario, it is up to them how to adapt. Storytelling in games is based on presenting interesting scenarios and allowing interesting adaptation. The difficulties lie in that while we are accustomed to stories being recorded in linear fashion in the form of books or films, we haven’t yet mastered what it means to tell a story involving choice. Games are a young medium, and so we look to our elders for advice. Those elders, unfortunately, do not know how to walk our path, but they can teach of their own journey, and we can adapt from there. With this idea in mind, I’ve been studying how linear stories are told for the sake of better understanding how nonlinear ones might be. Recently I’ve done a series of articles examining linear stories through the lens of quest design. What is the quest design of Lord of the Rings? And then what is the quest design of a romantic comedy or a mystery novel? These questions are explored further in those articles, but in this article I’m summarizing the lessons I’ve learned. Please join me as I go on my own quest to better understand quest design in games!

One clear lesson has been that quests, as any other form of a story, come with a beginning, middle, and end. You must first accept the quest, then you must be on the quest for a while, then you must resolve the quest, either by turning it in or by giving up. Knowing that, let’s break down those different parts and their elements and examine them closely.

The first part of a quest is the acceptance of that quest. You can’t begin a story without someone accepting some element that will cause an increase in drama over time. Perhaps your character must pick up an enchanted ring, or uncover a magical castle that had been hidden away. Perhaps your story is more mundane, and your character simply accepts a rumor that has been spread about them. The methods for accepting a quest vary based on the personality of the character and the type of story being told. While one character might accept a quest eagerly, another might refuse the quest, but then later end up in a situation where they’re forced to reconsider. In each of these cases, there is some form of acceptance, directly or indirectly. So what are the elements of accepting a quest? 

  • Accept the quest

  • Refuse the quest, then accept later

  • Refuse the quest, then be forced to accept later

  • Refuse the quest

Those few options are the basics, but you may well be able to imagine others that could be on this list, I’m more interested in you being able to understand how to add to the list, rather than being comprehensive myself. So we have multiple ways to accept or refuse a quest here, but there’s another aspect of this acceptance/rejection of the quest. What is the specific method of acceptance? In other words, HOW is the quest accepted or rejected? In game design, we only consider something a quest when there is an explicit acceptance or rejection, usually in the form of a UI element. In other words, if you don’t walk up to a quest giver and say yes or no to them, it’s not a quest. However, I submit to you that any player choice can be the acceptance or rejection of a quest. As an example, look at the quest design in the romantic comedy, Easy A (which I dive into in more detail here). The protagonist of Easy A never accepts a quest, the drama of the film arises as a consequence of her telling a lie about her weekend plans, and that lie spiraling out of control. The quest was accepted, but only in the form of an action, the protagonist was not consciously accepting a quest. We also do this in games, we just rarely discuss them as quests due to that lack of conscious acceptance. Metroidvania games give players different abilities throughout their adventure, and once a player finds an ability, the world reacts by allowing them to access new regions, and there are entire schools of game design devoted to ensuring the player will accept those quests and go where the designer intends. In other games, such as Demon’s Souls, you will be given a quest as a consequence of your exploration, without the need of a new ability. When you open a particular door, a dragon will arrive to spray fire at you. There is an implicit quest built into this exchange, as the game is subtly offering you a chance to slay this dragon, even if not at the moment. In open world games like Guild Wars 2, you will often receive a quest simply for entering a particular region. When you cross the border into this area, a quest is assigned to you as a way of giving you something to do in that region. Other games might do this by way of a hub world, where you are presented with the list of quests associated with a region before you accept entrance to that region, such as happens in Mario 64. All of these are methods by which a player can accept a quest through their own action, without ever being forced to walk up to a quest giver. 

This act of being offered a quest breaks down into two parts. The method by which the quest is offered to you, and the method by which you choose to accept it. Here are some ways a quest might be offered to you:

  • Interact with a character

  • Interact with an object

  • Gain an item

  • Gain some knowledge

  • Enter an area

  • Use a verb

And here are some differing methods you may have of accepting that quest:

  • Explicit binary choice (yes/no)

  • Implicit choice (automatically happens as a result of the action)

  • No choice (happens whether you act or not)

For some examples, think back to Super Metroid. When you get the Super Missiles, there’s an implied quest to go and open all the Super Missile doors. You can reject that quest in some cases, but progression is locked behind acceptance of at least a few of these. That’s an example of gaining an item. Super Metroid also uses Enter Area quests, which appear on your map when you trigger those sequences, offering a more explicit version of a quest to keep you aware that you’re moving forward, instead of relying entirely on implicit agreements. In Outer Wilds, the quests are all implicit, and locked behind gaining knowledge, as is the case in most mystery stories. You unlock new information and now you want to go somewhere to uncover yet more new information. These types of quests happen without any direct agreement and are sometimes required before you can progress, thus they fall into either the implicit or no choice categories. And hopefully that gives you enough to extrapolate from there, imagining other types of quests or just noticing how games handle these implicit and explicit agreements.

Sorry, Kaltunk, you’re obsolete, buddy….

Now that we’ve discussed the parts and pieces of accepting a quest, I want to move onto what happens once you’ve embarked upon that quest. In stories like Lord of the Rings, this is the bulk of the adventure and excitement, the ring wraiths trying to kill you as long as you carry the ring, the events that unfold along the way to the goal, etc. This is also where emergent gameplay happens, and where many interactive story designers will default to telling linear stories. As in these last two sentences, being on a quest offers interaction types that will break down a couple of categories, so let’s dive into those.

When you’re on an adventure, there are two different ways that adventure changes over time. There’s the internal struggle and the external struggle. The external struggle is the sequence of events which happen around you as you progress. In the case of Lord of the Rings, it’s the various armies and nasty creatures which Frodo interacts with on his way to Mordor. The internal struggle is the way the rest of that affects the way you interact with it. As time goes on, Frodo becomes increasingly hostile as a result of carrying the ring, and this changes how he perceives people around him, most notably his friends. The internal and external struggles are the throughlines which define a character and the story around them, and so modeling those things in your game is extremely important. 

External struggles break down as follows:

  • Specific events

  • Environments

  • Mechanical stressors 

Specific events are the cutscenes and scripted sequences which happen along the way to your destination. They’re “story time” moments which tell specific, linear events that must be conveyed for the story to function. Environments tell the story of a particular region, if you need a forest full of zombie orcs in order to sell the threat of a nearby necromancer, this is all the ways you accomplish that. Mechanical stressors are things which fundamentally alter your interactions for a time, such as the vampirism system in Elder Scrolls or the covenant system in Dark Souls. These are external systems which alter the expression of internal struggles in some way, and which bridge the gap between the internal and external worlds. In other words, this is the one ring in LotR. The ring is an external object that causes internal stress on Frodo, and that stress changes how his personality is expressed. 

Internal struggles will list out slightly differently because internal struggles require external expression in order for the player to understand they exist. As such, it is that expression which may change in order to convey narrative, and that expression which is relevant to quest design. Here are some things which may be changed to express an internal mental state to the player:

  • GUI changes/animations

  • Character progression changes

  • Mechanical interactions

A character’s internal struggles over the course of a quest will be reflected partly in their perceptions of the world around them, expressed to the player through the GUI. So if Frodo starts to see Sam as an enemy, you would have to convey that to the player by showing Sam as an enemy in your UI elements. Character progression systems reflect a person’s internal conception of self. If a character no longer sees a way for them to grow as a person, this might be shown via a lack of skill tree options. They’ve reached their peak and are still unsatisfied, until some new event reveals a new branch of that skill tree. Mechanical interactions are simply the way a character directly manipulates the world around them (otherwise known as the game mechanics). Altering any or all of these things expresses a change in the player character. Obviously, this has serious ramifications for user experience, so handle with care. Notably, this is also where the forbidden phrase, Ludonarrative Dissonance, comes into play since gameplay systems are invented without consideration for how they express character, but they’ll do that expressing no matter how little thought goes into it. I realize I brushed past this section super fast, but it’s a bit much for the scope of this article, and you can read some articles I've written in the past to see my thoughts.

The specific events that happen to the protagonist of a story change the internal workings of that character. This is how most stories are told in linear media, just think of how much Frodo changes in Lord of the Rings, or how much Luke changes in Star Wars. These characters are exposed to new ideas as they explore their worlds, and those ideas change how they view those worlds, as well as themselves. The changing viewpoint changes how they interact, and all of this can be modelled through gameplay as long as we understand how to connect the dots.

Scrooge's end-game skill tree is pretty wild!

The last piece of the puzzle is the resolution of the quest and the reward. While studying the rewards systems of linear media, I came to a very quick realization that in the vast majority of cases the character just wants the world to go back to normal. This is the hero’s journey formula, which states that the hero will go on an adventure and return home forever changed in some way. That change is the reward, and the act of going home is part of the quest. If you’ve returned home, then the quest is over, there need not be any further reward. In games, quests are often simply part of a whole experience, and we use rewards to motivate the player to keep moving forward, since there’s no real way to generate internal motivation easily when you’re doing something just for entertainment.

In the end, I can’t think of a useful way to list out possible rewards that are in some way narrative, because there’s just too many options, you can reward a player with virtually anything. This is also the part of quest design that video games are the best at, and I won’t pretend to be a greater expert than those people who’ve made RPG games all their lives. Basically, you probably already know how this works, I have nothing new to add. 

So we’ve now covered how to begin, end, and design the experience of a quest. I’d like to take this moment to walk through a few quests from different media, and an example I make up on the spot, all just to show how to use this knowledge. 

The first example I want to look at is the Lord of the Rings example, since it’s just a very straightforward setup for us, and one I assume most people reading this article will likely be familiar with. In LotR, Frodo is given the one ring by his uncle. Upon receiving the ring, nothing of note happens, it just sits in an envelope for a while until Gandalf comes back and tells Frodo he has to bring it to the elves. On the way to complete this task, it becomes clear that the ring is drawing the forces of evil to it. The quest to destroy the ring actually begins with the elves. Frodo is present for the discussion of the quest, and agrees to the adventure after hearing the details. This is an explicit choice, it may as well have been a yes/no at a quest giver. He has been given time to understand that as long as he holds the ring, evil will be drawn to it, and that he must walk the ring through the enemy camp if he wants to succeed on his quest. The core of the quest involves simply walking to Mordor, and the dangers inherent to that act, since his enemies can feel the ring and constantly seek it. If this were a game, the ring might increase enemy aggression range or something similar. The quest resolves itself by throwing the ring into the lava, which destroys much of the forces of evil in the process, allowing the world to return to its quiet, normal state. That return to normalcy is, itself, the reward for the quest.

The second example will be the 90s film, Matilda (based on a novel, but I’ve not read it recently enough to use it for this example, so I’ll focus on the film). Matilda is the story of a little girl who develops psychic powers as a result of strong emotions while trying to navigate the abusive culture into which she was born. She uses those powers to bond with her favorite teacher, and eventually gets herself adopted by said teacher as her biological family leaves the area to flee law enforcement. The “quest” of the film is to understand herself and her powers as she grows up in a culture that wants her to be someone she is not. She gets this quest by using a verb in the form of arguing with her father, resulting in her accidentally discovering her powers. She accepts the quest eagerly after this, though it is an implicit acceptance, there’s no one asking if she wants to be psychic. Once she has accepted the quest, she begins exploring her abilities by using them to gain advantage over bullies who had used their own strength to get into their positions of power. The quest is an exploration of all the different ways her new verb can be used, and the quest is resolved once she has upended the power dynamics of her society enough that she can put herself into a better situation. The structure of the film is much similar to a Metroidvania, in that she wanders around in various environments, exploring new powers as she discovers them. The reward for this quest is a life more accepting of who Matilda was from the beginning, as she befriends Ms Honey and eventually is adopted by her. 

So let’s do a hypothetical quest, for the sake of exploring these concepts in a game. I’m going to try to make choices that aren’t genre-specific so you can hopefully imagine a number of ways this story could be told. 

Let’s start with the acceptance of the quest. I want to do something I see a little less often, so let’s go with an offer and a rejection. In games that amounts to the player seeing the quest, and then ignoring it. So let’s have an NPC quest giver, but the player decides to click no on the window when offered. But I want to force them to accept later, so let’s say there’s also a powerup that they can get which is related to the quest. Since there are two methods of acceptance, let’s design the quest around an interaction that can happen regardless of how you have accepted it. Let’s borrow from the nazgul and say that as long as you have a special power, enemies are particularly hostile to you and chase you as you pass by (which translates to an in-game mechanic of merely increasing your hostile range with enemies, and maybe causing neutral enemies to become hostile). The quest itself will exist as long as you’re within a certain area, so let’s say a particular town. The goal of the quest is to find someone who can dispel the aura of hostility for you, and you accomplish it only by going somewhere new within the town. Once you complete the quest, since this is a game, you get an item which does the inverse of what happened while you were on the quest: enemies are less hostile to you.

And now to put some paint on this. If the quest is all about overly hostile enemies, and your goal is to reach an NPC which causes those enemies to become less hostile, let’s say this all centers around village rats. When you enter the town you hear about Farmer Maria’s rat problem. You speak to her, and she tells you that ever since she went out into the woods last week, she’s had a terrible rat problem. Everywhere she goes, rats come out of the woodwork to terrorize her, and she desperately needs your help. You tell her you’d love to help, but you’ve got a world to save. You leave the village and continue your quest only to be confronted by a rat, which you kill as it’s your main mechanic after all. Upon killing the rat, you gain a special status effect called “Hated By [Town]’s Vermin” which causes rats to spawn every few seconds. This completely disrupts your plan, so you go back to the village and speak to Farmer Maria. She tells you about a rumor that deep beneath the village, in an old network of caves, lives The Ratomancer. You go down into those caves and find your way to The Ratomancer. You speak and quickly find that he’s actually a nice guy who just thinks mice are cute and pretty neat, so the villagers long ago nicknamed him The Rat Romancer, and he’s lived here in shame ever since. Really, he’s just a lonely guy who wanted a friend, and he’s sorry you got caught up in his war with a neighboring cave wizard who’s been cursing passersby with cheese pheromones. He gives you a rat gland and says to apply it twice a day and call him in the morning if the rats come back. This rat gland works beautifully and now rats don’t attack you anymore! 

Systems-wise, this quest requires several reusable implementations, such as status effects, the ability to either spawn enemies near the player or increase enemy aggression range, and the ability to cause enemies to become less hostile to you. These systems could be reused for many quests for many uses throughout the game, but it’s definitely a matter of if they’re worth it for your production. Hopefully, though, you can see how all this can be useful regardless of the systems available to you.

By breaking a quest down into its component pieces, you gain the ability to program reasonable systems that allow for interesting gameplay-focused stories. By telling gameplay-focused stories, you lessen the number of explicit story moments you have to craft, cutscenes you have to direct, and overall improve the flow of your game. You may even save some production time, or allow yourself to make a more complex game with a small team. You may also stumble over all this and ruin everything, but I believe in you! Go forth and use these thoughts to inform your game design, and if you’ve got any thoughts on how I’m just totally wrong, feel free to comment below. 

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Quest Design for Character Verbs

What are the verbs required to complete a quest in Books or Movies, and how do those verbs inform the story?

In my previous articles I’ve examined how quests are set up in films and novels, how characters get them, what makes them interesting, etc. Then I examined what type of players are attracted to what types of quest. Now I’m going to combine the two a little and look at what type of characters go on these adventures, and how their personal skills and abilities inform that adventure.

As in the previous articles, let’s start with Lord of the Rings. Who is Frodo Baggins (the protagonist) and what abilities does Frodo Baggins have? He’s the star of one of the great adventures of all time, but he’s merely a hobbit. Hobbits are a race of people who relax in the hills, leading quiet lives. We think of great adventurers as being these amazing warriors, but Frodo doesn’t even know how to use a sword until after the adventure begins and Aragorn trains him a bit. Frodo also has no special abilities or magic power of his own, though he is, of course, carrying a cursed ring. In fact, his only viable option when confronted is to hide. The only verb his gameplay should have (aside from basic biped verbs like walk, jump, etc) is “Sneak”. That said, Frodo has two versions of that verb, one with the ring on and one without it. Being able to play as Frodo for the duration of a game would mean that the game can be completed entirely by avoiding combat situations. Technically, he does learn basic sword fighting combat, but he really only ever uses that to defend himself, because of his lack of prowess. 

If we look at a character like Aragorn, who is in every way the main character archetype, he also doesn’t have that many verbs. He knows how to use a sword, and he’s good at tracking. Aragorn’s personality is on display in how he uses those verbs, but most of his utility comes from knowing things, his only unique verbs are Use Sword and Track. 

For the sake of dialing things up to eleven, let’s look at Gandalf. Gandalf is the most robust character as far as player abilities are concerned. In the LotR stories, he summons eagles and fights off a fire demon, even turning the tide of several battles. So what are the abilities he uses to accomplish these incredible tasks? Well, he can summon light and create a shield to block attacks. He can push and pull things around with his magic. He has some power over fire, able to light and dissipate different flames. He also seems to be able to heal people and drive out evil. So to verb those, Gandalf has Heal, Push, Pull, Summon Light, Light Fire, Extinguish Fire, and Banish Evil. That’s basically it. Summoning eagles and turning the tides of battles are all things he does with nothing more than his wit. He’s a physically strong character, and skilled in combat, he may even be able to see the future to know when to use all this, but his active skills you can put onto your game’s UI is a relatively small list.

While considering this small list of abilities, I thought back to two things in my past. 

The first is a lesson I learned while in animation school, which is a lesson taught by Disney’s animators: Character comes from how a person reacts to something. 

The second is Magic The Gathering. Magic uses a relatively small pool of keywords that it gives to all its cards, and the way it uses those keywords (which are often literally verbs) does a phenomenal job of conveying character through a limited series of interactions. 

So to begin, I want to more closely examine how these things work. 

In animation, the way we choose to make a character react greatly impacts how that character reads to the audience. There’s a common example in a popular book that shows a character going from a standing position to a leaning forward position, as if peering over the edge of a cliff. In that example there are multiple ways to get from starting pose to end pose. Perhaps the character doesn’t want to lean, so they stay as far away from the edge as they can until the last moment. Perhaps the character reacts wildly to whatever they’re seeing, so we get a huge Tex Avery style take as the character jumps into the sky before settling into that forward lean. How you choose to get from A to B will completely change how the audience perceives the character. 

In Magic The Gathering, there’s a whole mechanic called the Stack, which organizes how actions happen. This organization means that if you play a creature, and I can respond to that action with a counterspell. If I cast a counterspell like that, you can respond by redirecting that counter to something else. I can then respond to your redirect, and so on and so forth. Each action I take, and each action you take, can be responded to by the other player(s) in the game. Because of this, cards will have abilities that change how they interact. Perhaps your creature has Flash, which means it can be played at any time. Perhaps your creature has Hexproof, meaning it can’t be targeted by enemy spells. Perhaps your creature has a non-keyworded ability, but even without a keyword, cards will have specific action verbs that convey their character. These verbs change the way a creature reacts and interacts with the other cards around it, and thus change the personality of that card. Magic uses these actions and reactions to convey different characters, or different aspects of the same character, all the time. Each card is designed to imply some story moment, or explore some personality.

A pirate, the queen of vampires, and a goblin who just won't go away!

So if personality can, indeed, be conveyed best through reaction, then it is those abilities in Magic which convey the story of whoever that card represents, since those abilities determine what reactions are possible. This tracks, there are a number of articles written by Magic’s designers to explain how they approach this process, so we know this is, indeed, true. So if that’s true, then in order to convey character in a game, we must use mechanics that can elicit a reaction, and we must then facilitate that reaction. In other words: If player A does something, player B should be able to respond to it. 

What does this look like? Well if Frodo has Stealth, his opponents need a way to pierce his stealth and reveal him. If Aragorn has Sword Attack, his enemies should have Shield Block. If Aragorn has Track Footprints, his enemies should have Conceal Tracks. And so on and so forth for each character relevant to our game design. 

One thing you might immediately call me out on is that “Conceal Tracks” makes “Track” useless, and other variations of this (Stealth isn’t useful if your enemies can pierce it). The way that Magic handles this is simple; Only certain abilities can be used fast enough to respond at instant speed, and there’s a cost associated with those abilities. Conceal Tracks takes a heck of a lot longer to do than Track. If you spend all your time concealing your tracks, you’ll never escape the person tracking you. Piercing stealth isn’t easy, especially when the person has magical stealth, like Frodo. Maybe you can pierce the veil, but only once per day and only for 5 seconds at a time, so you have to be PRETTY DANG SURE before you activate that ability. Blocking a sword attack isn’t very costly, but the longer you keep your shield forward in a defensive stance, the more open you are to attacks from other directions. Each skill you use can only be responded to by certain abilities. Each response should have a definite cost, and should be balanced. This is difficult, of course, but this is standard game design work. 

Everquest did tracking 20 years ago, and it's almost never seen since!

The other side of this coin is how do you design a quest to capitalize on the verbs of the characters participating in it?

In other words: how could you ever possibly predict who’s going to go on your quest, and cater that quest specifically to that person in a way that makes it feel compelling?

I want you to look at the mechanics of the quest design we’ve been looking at in this article series. Quests in movies and novels usually come as a consequence of actions the protagonist took for other reasons, and they usually maintain interest throughout the quest by expanding on the initial setup. In my romantic comedy example, the “quest” comes as a result of a choice the protagonist makes, and the film spends the whole story making increasingly ridiculous extrapolations on that choice. Olive feels invisible and decides to lie about her sex life, so she ends up branded a sex addict and gains a horrible sort of notoriety that makes her long for the invisibility she took for granted. To put that another way: Her verb is what accepts the quest. Olive, in Easy A, has one critical verb: Lie. Each time she uses Lie, her reputation gets worse, and the quest ends when she decides she can’t handle it anymore, so she begins using her other verb: Truth. Frodo Baggins has two verbs: Sneak, and Ring Sneak. Sneak gets him out of a number of situations, but he’s not up against normal adversaries, he’s up against the forces of evil. Some of those evil beings can see through Sneak, and so he must use Ring Sneak. Using Ring Sneak is what summons the Nazgul, the ultimate form of the enemy’s evil powers. In film, novels, and every other form of story throughout history, the character gets themself into a situation by using their verb, and out of that situation by learning a new way to use that same verb. If we want to improve quest design in open world games, we must learn to do the same. 

So let’s return to that question: How could you ever predict who will go on your quest, in order to cater the quest specifically to them? 

Lock your quest behind a verb. 

A new verb, fresh from the oven!

This is the crux of Metroidvania game design. This isn’t a new concept at all, it’s just something we don’t tend to use in open world titles. As players explore your open world, they get abilities and powers that allow them to enter specific spaces, and getting into those spaces is a quest in itself. If your enchanted ring can only be found by people who are small enough to fit into a tight space, then we know that anyone with the enchanted ring can reasonably be assumed to be small, and thus the enchanted ring can be what starts the quest that requires going into a tiny, hidden door. 

The verbs you choose will also matter. The current design paradigm for MMORPGs is that each verb is fragmented into hundreds of individual inputs. Your verb may be Sword Slash, but what you’ll end up with is a tree of 15 different attributes of Sword Slash that each changes your sword stat and then 28 skills that are affected by that tree, primarily including things like Sword Slash 1, Sword Slash 2, Poison Slash, Strong Slash, etc. This way of designing skills makes it utterly impossible to design a good quest based on them, because every character has an impossible to predict combination of these fragmented skills. The worst part is all of them effectively do the exact same thing just with different numbers anyway, so it’s really not any more engaging. Don’t get me wrong, I love MMOs and this way of fragmenting skills has never once bothered me, but it’s not simple. In my experience, simplicity is always the key to good design. 

In order to find that good design, I suggest we all simplify our open world games down to a key list of simple verbs. If you need suggestions of what verbs are the simple ones, I suggest looking at Magic The Gathering for inspiration. They’ve been doing this for 30 years at this point, and there’s all manner of articles, podcasts, blog posts, etc. from people on the design team discussing what techniques they use to decide if a verb is worthy of being turned into a keyword. I recommend this article and a podcast linked at the bottom of it, which I'll link directly here where Mark Rosewater discusses what motivates this decision for the game. 

For those in a hurry, the podcast mentions three key points to consider

The first reason you choose to keyword something: How much of the job is it going to do to set expectations? To draw the eye? To be splashy?

The second reason is: Does it need to be keyworded to make the set (game) work? 

The third reason is: Can it be conveyed through a non-keyword means? Does it need to exist?

I believe the same thoughts can be used to arrive at suitable verbs for an open world game’s mechanics, in particular an MMO where you really need to get mileage out of everything you code. 

And with that, I’ll leave you to it. 

Thanks for reading this continuation of my series of blog posts on quest design in games, as seen through the lens of non-games. The next article in this series will be the last, as I examine quest structure, linearity v nonlinearity, and how to wrap all of these other blog posts into a neat package to present to your manager who will tell you the game has been restructured for a more casual audience, and is now a match 3. 

Thanks for reading!