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Friday, 27 November 2015

Jack of all trades vs the one-trick pony

Cast your mind back to the start of the year, and a discussion we had about how digital interactive fiction is breaking out of the gamebook ghetto by using maps, comics, animations and audio instead of prose. Or as well as prose, anyway. Among many good points he made in the comments, Emanuil Tomov said this:
"There's a useful tension, even a moral one, in reconciling minmaxing with possible unsalutary effects this could have on the narrative. Imagine a system where you can either spend or hoard XP, spending being linked to short-term benefits, hoarding being linked to 'advancement' through a richer background for the character, learning skills through interesting narrative that deepens your understanding of the character, forming certain bonds with powerful allies, etc. XP literally represents your experience in the world. Now imagine a PC who spends all their XP short-term and they're really, really, really good in a pinch; but they're completely flat, a competent, one-trick bit player in a story where they could've been much more. It's an interesting trade-off both on the minmaxing and the narrative front.
This point about the value of versatility reminded me of a section in Game Architecture and Design, which I co-wrote with Andrew Rollings to get the horrors of working in the trenches at Eidos out of my system.

The book is twelve years old now, and games have sure moved on, so don't feel you have to run out and buy it. By the time I was working at Elixir Studios, only a few years on from the Eidos of the late '90s, software development for games had been completely revolutionized, and that made my job as designer a pure pleasure. But I digress; we were talking about versatility...

Versatility in gameplay
A useful rule-of-thumb for anticipating gameplay is to ask what is the best and worst thing about each of the player’s options. For instance:
  • This maneuver does the most damage, but it's the slowest
  • This maneuver is the fastest, but it leaves me defenseless
  • This maneuver gives the best defense, but it does little damage
And then there's a unique kind of choice:
  • This maneuver is never the best or the worst, but it's the most versatile
So a useful question to ask yourself when designing a weapon or strategy for your game is "When, if ever, is this the best option for the player?" Most choices that you put into the game should be the best in some way. And one of these can be the choice that works only moderately well, but in many different ways: the jack of all trades option.

The more unpredictable the game environment, the bigger the payoff for having versatility of choice. Beginners in particular will benefit from versatile options in a game, as it means there's something they can do while working their way up the learning curve. But versatile options are handy for expert players too. When fighting an expert opponent, you must expect the unexpected, and choosing the versatile maneuver or unit may buy time to put together a more considered response.

One obvious kind of versatility is speed. The fast moving character or unit can quickly go where it's needed. So, normally, you won't want the fastest units to also be the best in other ways.

Also, the value of a fast-moving unit depends on the game environment. On the battlefields of the 14th century, a knight was deemed to be worth 100 foot soldiers. That wasn't because knights were each individually as tough as 100 men, but rather because, in a terrain of hedgerows, ditches, ploughed fields and heathland, the knight had more chance of being at the right place at the right time.

There are many other ways to make an option versatile. If a beam weapon can be used to mine asteroids as well as to destroy incoming nuclear missiles, then that versatility can make up for a disadvantage elsewhere. Of course, if there is no compensating disadvantage, there's no interesting choice. Be careful not to make the versatile choice dominant over all others. Also, be aware that the versatility of a choice may not be obvious even to you as designer. In the last chapter, we saw how the designer of the fantasy game Arena hadn't originally anticipated the way players might use the fireball spells.

You can measure versatility by looking at the switching costs in the game. This is how much it costs a player to change his mind about the strategy he's using. An example in an espionage game might be if you recruit a spy and later realize you need an assassin instead. The switching cost is however much you wasted on the wrong character, assuming for the sake of argument that the spy is not usable elsewhere. So, say that both cost $1 million. When deciding which to buy, at first you'd think, "If I buy the spy and I need the assassin, I'll end up paying $2 million. If I choose right, it costs me just the $1 million. On the other hand, suppose I buy both now. I only need one, so I'll have definitely wasted $1 million."

Now suppose there is another character, the ninja, who can function as either spy or assassin. How much should the ninja cost? It depends how unpredictable the game is. In this example, if the game were completely predictable, the player would know in advance which character to recruit and so versatility is of no value - the ninja should cost $1 million just like the others. In a completely unpredictable environment, the average cost would be $1.5 million ($1 million if I choose right, $2 million if I choose wrong), which is what a good gambler would pay you for the ninja. Since the truth will lie between those extremes, the versatile unit should cost more than $1 million but less than $1.5 million.

Versatility is more prized in an uncertain environment. No multiplayer game is completely predictable, since you can never know what the other player(s) will do. Even in a relatively predictable game, some levels are more uncertain than others. All of which makes the choice between specialization or versatility an interesting one because it all depends on the circumstances.

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