The nature of items and advancement

April 21, 2015

candy-crush-sweet So I was listening to the latest episode of Blue Peg Pink Peg today and Patrick, one of the hosts, started talking about the "Candy Crush" draw of Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game. Maybe that was too many proper nouns to follow... The basic idea is that in a persistent game, what drives the player forward is the desire to unlock new stuff - to get to that next level and see what's there. It's why people get drawn into mindless games like Candy Crush. There's some primal force in us that just wants to be told that we're cool, however trivial the system doing the talking is. This discussion on the podcast was surprising to me because just the day before, I had been doing some soul-searching of my own regarding the topic. I was wrestling with a fundamental problem in Gloomhaven where characters' hand sizes never increase. No matter how many cool ability cards they receive by leveling up and buying cool stuff from the store, they always have to get rid of some other card to make room for it. Where normally a player would have that positive endorphin rush of leveling up and getting cool new stuff, there would also come with it a negative feeling of having to lose something. Instead of constantly reaching higher and higher levels of power, it seemed instead like the player was just treading water. They were, of course, getting more powerful, but that's not how it felt. Now, yes, of course Candy Crush is a terrible, mindless game, but that doesn't mean that it's successes should be ignored. If I can give players that sense of progress and growing power in a task that is engaging and interesting, well, that seems like a potent goal. But how? The obvious answer is to increase the characters' hand size as they level, but that is also the wrong answer. Increasing hand size just means that it takes more turns before the character gets exhausted, which means you have to make dungeons larger to compensate, and before you know it, running through a scenario is taking 4 hours instead of 90 minutes. It's just not viable. darksun The true answer lies in the item cards. You see, item cards were already problematic because they didn't feel like items. You didn't equip them, you just added them to your deck where they occasionally gave you something different to do while contributing to the overall sense of stagnation. I was really, really in love with this idea of everything about the character contained within a small deck of cards, but was that really, really necessary? What if item cards lived outside of that deck of ability cards? Would that really be the end of the world? Once I actually sat down and thought about it, I realized the answer was, "No." And I also realized that it solved a lot of problems. Instead of ability cards that are added to your deck, items are their own separate thing that a character can equip to get a bonus in addition to their abilities. They can carry a potion that will immediately restore some of their hit points once per battle. They can wear a helmet that protects against certain status effects. They can wield a weapon that augments their normal attack actions. Right away, acquiring items felt more exciting and empowering. Now scrounging for gold in dungeons actually gave results that players could easily perceive as an advantage. There was no gaining one power to lose another. Now it is all gain. Pure endorphins. Of course, leveling from experience still gives a character new ability cards they must exchange for old ones, but I decided to also tie that into a character's capacity to carry more items. At first I was thinking that a character could only equip a number of items equal to their level, but that suffered from some thematic problems. "I'm level five, so I can carry around 3 swords and 2 sets of armor." I decided to break the items up into groups - head items, body items, leg items, hand items and small items. Characters can only equip the normal accepted number of each of the larger items (one head, two hands, etc.) and can equip a number of small items equal to their level. This made a lot more sense and still have some extra empowerment to the process of leveling up. So that's where we are on that. Combined with the whole revelation last week of putting the experience on the ability cards, I had a lot of work to do updating all the cards. It's always worth it, though, to make the game more engaging and fun to play.

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