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An open letter to Jeff Vogel


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The following is the text of an e-mail I just sent to Jeff Vogel. It contains some thoughts about game design and why Jeff's customers like his games so much. While I did write it for him, I've also decided to post it here in case any members of the community have strong thoughts agreeing or disagreeing with me.

 

TEXT FOLLOWS:

 

On occasion, I'll go to the local casinos with one of my uncles to gamble a little and relax. While my uncle and I both go to the same place, we play very different games. My uncle finds his way to the craps tables -- he likes the crowds, the common experience, and simply the fun. I, on the other hand, settle down at a poker table. I like the psychology, the thought, the sheer cleverness of the game.

 

Both games rely heavily on random chance. However, in craps there is no strategy, no narrative, no control over the random chance; the dice will roll seven one in six times, pure and simple. In poker, there is a sort of control. You can't control what cards you receive and what cards your opponents get, but you can work around the randomness, and ultimately the best player wins -- even a lucky player will be outmaneuvered by a smart one.

 

Why am I telling you this story? I was reading through the forums about Avernum 2: Crystal Souls, people discussing the accuracy cap in particular, and random chance in games in general. Your customers are (metaphorically) poker players instead of craps players: We like the smart game over the flashy one. We want to be able to figure out clever solutions to problems, to be put into situations where we stop and think "Hrm. What do I need to do to get through this?"

 

(We also like the narrative qualities, the stories that weave throughout your games. I have nothing to try to add to that: You're good at it, keep being you.)

 

The turn-based-ness of all your games has always been a benefit to this mentality. The ability to stop and think at any time -- heck, there have been times where I've set a game down and walked to the kitchen to make and consume a meal while mulling over a turn in that game -- is a major draw to turn-based games for me.

 

However, a heavily used RNG is not conducive to that. It is in fact a detriment. Accuracy caps and wildly variable damage make offensive plans and defensive projections much less meaningful.

 

I think in general it is good when the most random aspect of a game is the loot generation -- that determines the tools one has at hand to solve problems. Once tools are acquired, then plans can be made. More-random loot and less-random combat (not non-random, obviously. Just less-random -- remove accuracy limits and tighten damage ranges to keep things more consistent across the board) means that individuals have to create a personalized plan for their own situation, and be reasonably confident that it will work so long as the plan itself is solid.

 

I've played and enjoyed nearly every game you've released since Geneforge 4 or so. I know your outlook on game design would be described as "conservative." However, I also know that you rebuild your game engine every few trilogies, and will at some point be changing everything up. I hope that these thoughts stay with you and perhaps positively influence that change in some small way.

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It's pretty hilarious to suggest that A2:CS (or any Spiderweb game) has "a heavily used RNG". Relative to what, Chess?

 

I also don't understand the Poker/Craps analogy. Poker is about two things: making the best of random chance, and bluffing (and its auxiliaries like reading your opponent). Spiderweb games are not heavy on random chance: you want them to be devoid of it, I know. They don't involve any bluffing. And Craps is even more of a different animal. So I'm not sure I follow the comparison.

 

 

But the big objection I have remains your ridiculous simplification, that no amount of random chance can coexist with "smart games", "clever solutions", "situations where we stop and think"... that's nonsense. You don't like it: that's legit. Everyone has preferences and I support your acting on them. But making sweeping statements about what sort of things Spiderweb players enjoy, not to mention what does and does not constitute a smart game: not so legit.

 

FWIW, I have had plenty of criticism for SW games in the past, and I don't love A2:CS as much as I had hoped. I'm all for criticism. But the logic behind your criticism does not hold up.

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I should preface this by saying that this post is not meant to pick on you or anyone else in particular. Since this thread leads off with the issue of randomness in Avernum 2: Crystal Souls, I thought it a good place to respond.

 

To me, there is a huge difference between an event being certain (0% fail) and not certain (> 0% fail). But once an event is uncertain, the exact maximum caps matters a lot less. And the difference between a 95% cap and 90% cap is frankly trivial, no matter how you look at it. Let's put some simple numbers behind it. Suppose you have an attack that does 1-10 damage with a 95% accuracy cap at the accuracy cap. You do 5.225 points of damage on average with this attack. And if that same attack has a 90% accuracy cap? You average 4.95 points damage, a frankly trivial difference. And of course if you are not at 90%+ accuracy there is no difference at all. And the entire "difference" applies in at most 5% of attacks. Honestly, in beta testing the game I played through various times and never ever noticed the cap at all. The first time I even knew about it was on the forums.

 

And as for wildly-variable damage, I'm not even sure what that means. What I can say is that in general players never complain about their attacks having too much damage too much of the time. If you are supposed to have 5% critical hits and a bug makes it 10%, no one ever complains. But if it is 4.8%, you can expect a statistical analysis and a full explication of the bug.

 

To me, randomness and variability are what make combat interesting in a game like Avernum 2. If I know that I will always succeed in a combat in the same way every single time, I really don't even need to be there. A robot could take my place and get the same result, and what's the fun of that? Strategic planning means being able to plan for unexpected contingencies, like your awesome spell attack not quite wiping out that boss like you expected. And it cuts both ways. While a bit of bad luck means you have to scramble a bit, a bit of good luck can rescue a difficult situation.

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Concerning the accuracy cap, suppose a round of combat consists of four attacks. The probability of a round containing at least one miss is 0.3439 with a 90% accuracy cap. At 95% this chance is 0.1855. The chance in accuracy cap makes at least one miss in a single round of combat about twice as likely. (If the accuracy cap is p, the probability is 1-p^4.)

 

More annoying to me are multiple misses in the same round. The chance this occurs at 90% accuracy is 0.0523 (about one in twenty rounds of combat). At 95% the chance is 0.01402. The chance is 3.7 times greater at 90% accuracy that a round combat will contain at least two misses. (The probability is 1-p^4-4(1-p)p^3.)

 

I don't have a problem with an accuracy cap, but I think 95% is better. I would even prefer some sort of asymptotic cap more -- just make approaching 100% accuracy require much more skill. In practice, this still works out to a cap since skills and abilities are effectively capped, but it feels more "in game" to me.

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I haven't touched the game yet. Honestly, nothing Avernum has ever come close to capturing what I enjoyed about the Exile series. From what I know about games in general, whether or not a mechanic is enjoyable really comes down to whether or not it enhances the experience. In a tactical game like Xcom, the fixed miss chances add a lot of tension and force the player to play as conservatively as possible. It also sometimes forces the player to make leaps of faith or to run fast and loose and try to mitigate the collateral damage. Point being, not being able to anticipate your turns to 100% precision create drama, and that's where the fun happens.

 

The Avernum games have felt more and more like a slog with each iteration, the primary reason being the sheer amount of trash combat. It generally winds up feeling like a chore or just another type of wall to prevent the player from progressing past that point. Basically, if you've leveled up enough so that your numbers are bigger than the enemy's numbers, you get to pass and continue with the game in that direction. Otherwise, you're just not supposed to go there yet. Exile didn't have these sorts of hard limitations because its ratio of health to damage and the way it handled magic allowed for a lot of flexibility, which benefited the free exploration style of gameplay.

 

So what does the accuracy cap add?

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A good example of a less-random game is ToME, a roguelike which has a lot of tactical depth. There is no arbitrary accuracy cap, for one thing. Accuracy is a factor, but once you have 20 accuracy greater than your opponent's defense (in a stepped scale where '20' practically means "a lot more than 20"), you are guaranteed to hit every time. Nearly all combat effects can be intelligently predicted with sufficient knowledge of the game's mechanics (some of which are not immediately obvious but members of the community are usually quite knowledgeable and willing to share that knowledge). Damage is usually either fixed values (after all variables are taken into account) or in a tight range (max damage about 1.5x of min damage).

 

The bottom line is that in that game a player can sit down, read all of their abilities, know EXACTLY what they do, look at they opponent, know EXACTLY what offenses and defenses they have, and from that data build a plan. I'm not saying Spiderweb games should copy this model exactly by any means, but there is a reason it's one of the most successful "true" roguelikes out there. It hasn't given up on the old guard of gamers who look back fondly on Ultima or Rogue (the original!).

 

Heck, I've even pitched a bunch of Spiderweb games to the people over there when the Spiderweb humble bundle was going on. At least a few of them bought Spiderweb games because I pitched it to them -- so the crowd is similar.

 

Most Spiderweb combat, by comparison, is unexplained and unclear. Resists are listed as a percentage, but characters don't always resist the percent. You can very practically hit a target with a firebolt one turn and they resist 65% of the damage, and next turn use the same character to hit the same target with the same firebolt and the target resists 75% this time. Plus your damage could be pretty far off what it was last time. And this is all BEFORE critical hits are considered.

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I've been playing XCOM on neb's account, and my sniper has 115 Aim. I don't often see anything other than 100% chance to hit, and even then it's only as low as 85-90%. It makes me unbearably angry when I miss.

 

Meanwhile, I swear the stupid alien Mechahitler units are rigged. I miss maybe 9/10 shots I miss, even though hit is like 80%. *grumble*

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A good example of a less-random game is... a roguelike...

This made me laugh. ;) I mean, okay, ToME is maybe less random than many roguelikes, but it seems like you're not talking about the games overall, you're talking about one specific element (the accuracy roll). Right? SW game damage is pretty tight-ranged as well, in practice, once you level up a few times and start rolling, like, 50d3 for attacks.

 

I think though that you're really overstating the proportion of CRPG players in general, let alone "old guard" gamers, who dislike any spot of random chance. You mentioned Ultima; that has rather more missing in it than Avernum does. (I also think you're exaggerating about ToME's relative success amongst roguelikes, but that's a digression.)

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As one of those "old guard" types who started with D&D (among others) and text adventures then moved up to Wizardry 1-3 and Ultima 1-4, I do not see an excess of randomness in A:CS. A long sword (essentially the default fighter weapon) did 1d8 damage in D&D. Some of D&D's competitors did multiple d6s for damage. Wizardry's basic healing spell cured a d8. Most of Jeff's stuff uses d3s. That is far less variation of damage than the "old guard" games that I played. For that matter in many of those games that was random variation in your characters basic abilities, originally based on 3d6 not by assigning skill points. I grew up expecting to miss and consider it realistic that sometimes the characters hit, sometimes they miss, sometimes that get a lot of damage, some times a little. That sounds a lot like real life.

 

I like turn based games for a lot of reasons, including the OP's statement that I can stop, think and plan tactics. To paraphrase the elder Von Moltke, no plan survives contact with the enemy. I would find a game boring if everytime I decided to kill these four goblins, those four goblins died, no more, no less, my characters never stumped, they never shined, everything stayed right in the middle of the bell curve.

 

I don't know why Jeff changed the accuracy cap. It could have been to make the game a little harder. It could have been to reduce the effectiveness of the min/max approach to putting all of your points in just a few skills. I do not see that it had much of an impact on my play through so far with a non-optimal party on normal, which is after all the type of party that a majority of his customers are likely to have. I am at the point now that I wish he had not so that I could stop hearing about how the sky is falling.

 

There have been a couple of different threads in the forums lately for people who do not like randomness in their games. That is fine for them, but there is a huge amount of randomness even in the game of poker that you mentioned and some of us like randomness.

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I think most people misunderstood the poker/craps metaphor. Because both games have random factors; I outright stated that. It would be boring if everything was predetermined. In the metaphor, craps is akin to AAA action games -- loud, fast, flashy. Not to mention very, very random, since the entire game is 2d6. Those games can be fun, but definitely not what people buying from Spiderweb are looking for. Poker, on the other hand, is more controllably random: a player can look at his hand, run probabilities to figure out what the odds are of assembling a good hand, whether or not it's likely to be the best hand at the table. Then, the players are all taking actions (betting, checking, raising) which carry signs and symbols as to what each player has in their hand: by reading those symbols a skilled player can be reasonably certain what his opponents have and can manipulate that knowledge to an advantage. So yes, it is random, but it's a game where skill is more important than the rolls of the dice: Barring some ridiculous circumstance wherein one player consistently gets the best possible hand each round, and thus cannot be outthought, skill and experience end up being the deciding factor more than the result of random chance. This differs from craps (or roulette, or slots, or most casino games.) in that there you put money down, random chance is calculated, and then you gain or lose money. There's no way to presciently determine what the next roll is going to be.

 

Maybe what I'm bemoaning is not the overuse of an RNG, but the fact that most battles (barring a few interesting ones) tend to be "My numbers are big. Are your numbers bigger?" "My numbers are smaller. You win." Even the puzzle bosses tend to be incredibly obvious. Frob the only frob nearby. It's the boss' weakness! What a coincidence. It's only when the fights are really close that tactics or skill matter, and then things are kinda okay. Probably the time the RNG is the worst is when you're punching a little bit above your weight; someplace you really shouldn't be quite yet but you aren't totally outclassed. Those are the times when tactics ought to shine the most but are so easily outdone by a couple lucky rolls from the enemy team, or a bad streak on your team's side.

 

At one point I travelled to Erika's tower about three levels too early. There was no way back and I didn't have a good backup save (I dislike making backup saves, partially because they feel too metagamey), so I had nowhere to go but forward. As I hit the traps in her tower, I used scumbag tactics just to get my first party member through the gates so everyone else could magically teleport to that guy. When I hit the mind-control trap and found the two named enemies there too powerful, I tried a few interesting tricks and tactics (like using Call of the Storm to herd the berserk empire troops into the non-berserk ones), but kept hitting a brick wall because the two bosses were just too strong. Eventually I remembered that I have one character who can, actually, magically teleport (the mage with blink), so I put her to the top of the party, blinked her through the fight and around the corner, then ended combat to make the rest of my team snap right to her. Used that same trick on the next few traps too. For the final battle I had to burn through a bunch of my hoarded consumables (energy elixirs, mostly) to get together enough power to get through the fight. Eventually my team made it to Erika, battered, tired, and a lot lighter on potions than I liked (MUCH lighter on return life scrolls than I liked), but alive.

 

Did I feel accomplished? Did I feel that I was able to find a clever way through? No. I felt like I cheated. I felt like I hacked the game to just skip the content. I felt like I was thrown into a bad situation by a bad click on a menu. It wasn't fun. I went back to ToME again today, because talking about it here made me realize how much more fun I had playing that. My character recently had some opportunities to do things that I knew would put her into fights where she'd be absolutely outclassed (like a level 17 taking on level 30 bosses). I took each of those opportunities, and most (MOST! Not all) of the time I made it out without dying, because I could control the situation enough to keep alive, coming up with turn-by-turn plans where the status effects were relevant, spacing was relevant, health levels were relevant. I'm playing a fire-heavy mage and at one point I was up against a fire wyrm (immune to fire) which was also an archer and could kill me with about one or two hits if my defenses were down. In Avernum, a situation like that would simply mean death. In ToME I could whittle them down and eventually win, not because the game was easy, but because the game gave me opportunities to be clever. I eventually won by fighting the wyrm in a long thin tunnel that I could teleport straight from one side to the other; I'd hit the wyrm at long range, let it get close, take a few hits to my magical shields while hitting back, pull back slowly until my back hit a wall, then teleported to the other side to do it all again. It was slow, difficult, and I almost died several times when I miscounted my mana and ran out of mana to teleport to safety, or just didn't notice how low my shields were and dropped to the tiniest sliver of health. When I won, I was exhilarated. It was a cool fight. And it was a very random fight -- the wyrm's classes were randomly selected, I got archer and rogue, but I could have gotten something like berserker and paladin which would have been much harder. The wyrm's damage output was highly random, because it was based on the AI's choices and those are hard to predict. But I could very quickly notice some rules of thumb: If my shields are down, don't get hit. If my shields are up, I can probably take two hits without worrying, three will be scary but leave me alive. Four will probably leave me as a blood smear. That was a fun fight. The most fun fight I've had in Avernum 2 is... um... uh... I guess the fight against Limoncilli? That general who was really fast and had a grey pass. That was pretty fun, since he kept jumping around and I had to stay on my toes to keep my tank taking most of the damage.

 

TL:DR; I like feeling clever and doing clever things to win fights i really oughtn't win.

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Those games can be fun, but definitely not what people buying from Spiderweb are looking for.

 

Probably the time the RNG is the worst is when you're punching a little bit above your weight; someplace you really shouldn't be quite yet but you aren't totally outclassed. Those are the times when tactics ought to shine the most but are so easily outdone by a couple lucky rolls from the enemy team, or a bad streak on your team's side.

 

I am not sure what research you have done to determine what people buying from Spiderweb are looking for. I do know that what I am looking for is a little different than what Slartibus is looking for, which is a little different from what Sylae is looking for, which is a little different from what you are looking for. It sounds to me that you are looking for a more tactical experience (which is more modern than what SW provides) than what I am looking for.

 

While good tactics can help you beat an enemy when you are punching above your weight, they have to be using bad tactics (or at least tactics not as good as yours) for that to happen. Or, you need to get lucky and they need to get unlucky. Successful combat is about being better than the person you are fighting at the time and place that you are fighting them. Attacking a more powerful enemy and hoping that they will fight stupid so that you can beat them with superior tactics is just another form of gambling.

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Randomness has disadvantages and advantages. The main disadvantage is that a single miss can change the flow of the combat and there will always be a small chance that you will die even though you didn't do any mistakes. It does not actually reduce the tactical component, it just changes it. Instead of just thinking which move is best, with randomness involved, you also need to calculate all possible outcomes in your head, it makes things actually a lot more complex. Not everybody's cup of tea.

 

Also I wouldn't calculate the influence on hit rate based on average damage. 95% hit means on average every 20th hit will miss. 90% hit means that on average every 10th hit will miss. That it double the chance to have a miss scenario and that means double as often you need to react on that failure. It can have a huge impact butterfly-effect-like.

 

Usually I don't really like randomness very much myself. It just makes games too complex for me and I'm having trouble keeping all the possible outcomes in my head. It made games like Battle for Wesnoth incredibly hard for me to win. I just wasn't able to position my leader so that no matter how bad the result he can't die.

 

But sometimes randomness seems interesting, especially when I play a Pen & Paper(-like) game, because it really seems to dictate where the game is going and makes it more unpredictable and interesting.

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