Designing Gameplay - Tradeoffs
To make an exploration game interesting poses some new takes on traditional challenges in game development. A combat-focused game has to find a way for not just the first 10 or 100 combats to feel exciting, but for a player to still relish a battle when they've done thousands before. You can create a great variety of enemies, and give the player a long list of skills, items, whatever it may be - but as they say, quality over quantity. It doesn't matter how many attacks the player can make if each one does the same damage and has the same effect (different animations really don't get you that far). Even if you have a bunch of different attacks but the best one or few for all your enemies are the same, combat's going to feel very stale very soon. A better design would have a few attacks that crush certain enemy types, and don't do much against others, so people will have to search for the optimal strategy or face a tougher fight. But even better is if the player can succeed with several different strategies, each with their merits and problems. You need tradeoffs.
This principle applies across most if not all types of games. Even the best story-based games typically include choices that have meaning, decisions the player has to make weighing the pros and cons. So what does that look like in EXO? The most basic tradeoff is choosing to go to one system over another. Galaxies are set up as a huge set of discrete points of interest, where each one can be a solar system or another kind of object. Each time the player is ready to travel, they have to choose their next location from potentially hundreds of thousands of systems(!), and in so doing, they lose their time and some fuel. For a decision to feel meaningful, there has to be a cost. Just losing a little time as I go doesn't feel like enough cost to make me value that choice, and so the fuel is a little extra incentive. Also, systems that are farther away cost more fuel, so that's an additional factor players can consider. But if the only thing you have to consider is fuel, now there's just an optimal choice, where before there were a bunch of same-feeling options (read: both are bad). To make this feel like an impactful choice, players also get to know just a little about the systems they scout out as options. A point will tell you maybe "Multiple star system" or "rogue planet", or "Unrecognized scan signature" if the player has never been to a place of that type before. It might be worth it to travel a few hundred light years for an unrecognized signature to some, but others might prefer to conserve their fuel and explore the local region.
Of course, that's not the only choice players get to make. In the past week I have been refining the experience for investigating a derelict ship. Now, since this is not a AAA game, investigating is not walking/jetpacking around, flashlight out, exploring the darkness (it's hard to make a dead spaceship look and feel awesome with few resources). Instead, it's an opportunity for meaningful decisions. I had in mind three things that could be done with a derelict: check the ship's logs/computer, loot the cargo hold, and salvage the remaining parts. Obviously, if the player can just do those three things every time, they will, no interesting decisions involved. I had to make it matter which you chose to do, and in what order.
And so the security system was born. I wanted it to be possible to do all three activities, but not without risk. The ship computer, now, does not just give up its secrets for free; you have to hack it to obtain the information locked inside. But, if you mess up (i.e. get unlucky) then it could destroy the cargo, or even the entire ship! A number of other consequences could also occur - so should you hack, or not? As in the navigation example, giving the player some information can help make the decision feel meaningful. If they know nothing about their chances of success or anything else, each player will decide exactly once whether they are going to hack ships or not, and do that every time they find a derelict. So, the player is told the difficulty of the hack and how severe the consequences are for failing, and they can make their decision of "is it worth it?" The ability to preview the gain from hacking can be unlocked a little later on, making the decision potentially even more interesting. But that's for next week's blog on progression.
Returning to the main tradeoff here - which activity to choose at a derelict - the computer security is interesting in itself, but simply incentivizes the player to do the hacking last. Salvage the parts, get the cargo, and then try hacking the computer. There needs to be more.
Enter... locked cargo! When I first was designing this, I had the cargo unlocking just like the computer hacking - some difficulty to unlock, some negative consequences when failing. But as I mentioned with the combat game example, reskinned versions of the same thing are less interesting than entirely different features. After some brainstorming, I settled on an item lock. Simply put the item it needs in the slot, and the cargo is yours. How does this make a tradeoff? Well, it doesn't, if you have the item in your inventory. Unlock the cargo already! But, that's a feeling of getting lucky that I want to include. The true tradeoff is when you don't have the item, and you would have to leave to go acquire one. In some cases, you might not even recognize the item it's asking for (as you can see in the image below, you're given the icon of the item to find). But if you do, maybe you know it's easy enough to get, and you can leave, get one, come back, unlock the cargo, and then salvage or hack. If it's not that easy, though, maybe it's worth risking destroying that cargo to get the other resources now.
This way, it's a decision whether to hack first or hack after you've found the key and unlocked the cargo. Next, and last, is salvaging. This involves some tradeoffs in itself - use a rarer and more expensive salvager for a higher material yield? Try to keep the part whole to attach to your ship? (See the buttons in the top right of the screenshot.) But, I also want it to affect the other two activities in some way. For the cargo, I took some inspiration from "realism" (that is, imagining logic applying to my space fantasy) and decided that salvaging the fuselage would destroy the cargo, guaranteed. That gives another "resources now, or potentially more later" decision. It's not an amazing tradeoff, but I can imagine a player trying to salvage the part if they can attach it to their ship. This way, it has the additional consequence of destroying the cargo if you fail to keep the part whole.
Just one piece of interdependence left, and that is how salvaging affects the ship computer. To be honest, I was not sure how I wanted this to work, but just in writing this post I have decided to make each piece of the ship sort of "contain" some of the ship computer, so the more intact pieces, the more exploration information you can gain from hacking. In this way, hacking first has the highest risk, since the whole ship might be destroyed and you can't salvage nor loot cargo, but it also has the highest reward: getting the most exploration information, and getting it now.
These tradeoffs, risk for reward, some now vs. (potentially) more later, higher investment for higher returns - reflect real-world decisions we have to make, which lends EXO's decisions an impactful feeling, and offers the opportunity for different playstyles to manifest based on personality (or on the whims of your game-playing self). The two features I've explained here in some depth are just some of the tradeoffs you can expect to encounter in EXO, but I'll reserve the rest for you to learn about when the game is eventually released!