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Appealing structural features of the Roguelike that could be applied to Skirmish Mode

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Introduction

I would like to give my general thoughts about skirmish mode for a colony building sim which are based on my experience of playing games in genres that include colony builders, RTS, squad tactic games, roguelikes/lites, and also chess.  In my other post I argued that there should be at least two types of free play modes: an unwinnable sandbox style mode and a winnable, supremely balanced mode that can be won or lost.  This post is about my thoughts on the latter mode and how I think it could incorporate select features of the roguelike.  Please remember that all of this is only my opinion, even though it might read like a list of demands. I don't want to waste space by writing "I think that" or "In my opinion" before every single point I make :), but I will differentiate what is fun for me from what I think is objectively better. 

I think that a skirmish mode needs replay value to be objectively good, if you will permit such an oxymoron, at least as it pertains to the quality of video games.  Whereas a platform game or an RPG can be enjoyed on a single-play through and put away forever, a skirmish mode is better if it makes you want to play it again.  A skirmish mode is akin to a board game like chess, which itself is almost like a "skill" because it demands mastery by the player.  The genre of the roguelike (and its derivative form, the rogue-lite) is based around this idea of mastery, so essentially what I'm suggesting is a sort of hybrid between a roguelike or rogue-lite (such as Brogue or Faster-than-Light, respectively) and a colony sim.

Applying Structural Features of the Roguelike to a Skirmish Mode

The features of the roguelike are similar to those of a real-life sport.  A roguelike (such as brogue) typically has the following properties:

- A single "competitive" mode with settings that have ultimately been picked by the game developer. The unified mode is important because it forces players to adapt their play to the game rather than the other way around by tinkering with settings or whatever.  It also sets a standard that can be used for seed competitions in order to build the community around the game, which can be quite important for sustaining interest and spurring further development of the game (see /r/brogueforum for an example).  Personally, I don't prefer roguelikes that allow you to endlessly tinker with classes and other such initial values; the competition just feels somehow grander if you know that everyone else is starting off with the same conditions as you are.

- Permadeath is probably necessary if the central theme of the game revolves around the player reacting to random events.  While save-loading is fine for a sandbox mode or campaign mode, there isn't much point in even allowing saving as an option because it only tempts the player to cheat.  If a save file is allowed to be reloaded after the player dies, then whatever results from further play should just be considered practice or void (i.e., the game drops from the skirmish mode back into sandbox mode).  In Hexters, I suppose having your hub destroyed would be the death criterion.  If there is no permadeath, then there needs to be some fixed duration over which the player must score as high as possible.

- A simple win condition that is preferably a binary outcome (win or lose), possibly quantified by a single scalar value.  Such a system makes tracking progress over a long series of games much easier.  I think it's best if the game can either be won or lost, because it frees the player from having to play in a certain way.  For example, if a roguelike had a score which was based on how many monsters were killed, then any stealth playstyle would be inferior to a fighter playstyle.  If there is a score, then it should capture the essence of the game.  In Brogue, the score is based on the amount of gold collected because exploration, not combat, is the central theme of the game.  But the player also gets a large gold bonus for recovering the amulet.  For Hexters, good candidates for the metric of score could be the amount of time survived, the peak power generation in watts, or the maximum number of hexters alive at once, because all of these are the core of the game.  Regardless of what is used for scoring, the average score should be tracked over the last x games, whether it's simply the win percentage, or something more complicated.

- A short game length (lasting from 90 to 150 minutes) follows if there is an expectation that the player is not going to win every game, there is permadeath, and the sole scoring metric is a binary outcome.  If you have a 15-hour game, the threat that you're going to die at any point has to be reduced so that the player has a reasonable chance at winning, but this reduces the game from a series of gutsy strategic decisions to one of crossing t's and dotting i's.  If there is a scalar scoring metric, then the game can be a bit longer. In addition to all of that, it's easier for humans to retain interest over a shorter period of time, no matter what the subject is. Any individual game is like a sports game or a piece of theatre.  Although fans of cricket or Wagner might disagree, the average length to tell a good story seems to be 90 minutes to a few hours. 

Conclusion

I actually had an entire second section to add, but since it brings in my experiences with other types of games besides roguelike (such as colony sims, strangely enough), I'll make a second topic for that.  Hopefully this has provided some food for thought.

 

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- I think that another reason that (some) roguelikes are more replayable than something like XCOM or a generic city builder is that you don't see every possible item on every single playthrough.  In contrast, in a generic city builder, you see everything on every playthrough and the terrain is really the only variable thing.  In Brogue and FTL, you only get 6-10 central items around which your build revolves and you have to make the game work with those.  I don't know how that would work in a colony sim, because the core buildings are probably going to have to be the same.  I think good values are a universe of 100 "things" of which in any single playthrough only 12 or so are seen.  Of course, in a colony sim, you can't really change the default buildings, but there could be, for example, a crafting system layered over the basic economy.  Finding crafting recipes or legendary components on the battlefield would allow the player to craft different items each game.

- I really hate it when a game has twenty different categories of statistics. This screenshot is from a tactical multiplayer game called Frozen Synapse.  It's a very chess-like, geometrical puzzle.  What's nice about it is that there are NO NUMBERS polluting the screen like you have in XCOM or a lot of other roguelikes.  And any values like speed or explosion radius have a physical meaning instead of just being some scalar value like bravery, charisma, or whatever.

frozen-synapse-beta-7.jpg

Anyways, Hexters doesn't have  lot of numbers floating around either and I like that feature.  

 

- The concept of different "systems" that all interact with one another.  FTL is a great example of this.  Certain events can set a room on fire, and the fire can spread.  But if you purge the room of oxygen by opening the doors, then the fire goes out.  Alternatively, the crew members can manually extinguish the fire. Most crew member need oxygen to breathe, but there are some alien species that don't, and there are some who are immune to fire.  Also, there are certain events that can disable the doors, making it harder to extinguish fires.  The doors have another role, however, because they can prevent hostile boarding parties from spreading throughout the ship.  The point here is that you have all of these systems (fire, oxygen, crew members, doors, etc) that are simple on their own, but each interacts with the the other so that you get a complex web of interaction when they're all put together.

 

Okay, that's about all I can think of.  I guess that this is mostly abstract stuff, but I think it's still useful and fun to think about this kind of abstract stuff.

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Wowza, what a good analysis!

All titles you mentioned are found in my steam library ;-) I can't address every point you make, but I mostly agree with everything you wrote. One of the main design points of Hexters was indeed the minimalistic approach also to UI, because I don't personally find button-polluted UI exactly fun (which is ironic thing to say considering I got no problems playing bizarro-UI games like Dwarf Fortress, heh). I believe you can have a really good amount of depth - like in FTL as you mentioned above - without having to reflect complexity in UI.

We haven't decided exactly what's the "goal" of the skirmish mode, perhaps in optimal scenario that could be also customizable? Anyway, this kind of stuff is really valuable for us since it gives us more insight for the moment we actually have to make decisions! 

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