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Sandbox Gaming - my 2p

Discussion of the various insights into what to consider when developing a sandbox game. Each blog will look at a different aspect. The first one is about Gaming Perception.

Author: Meligar

Sandbox Gaming - pt IVa. Economics

Posted by Meligar Tuesday April 16 2013 at 11:26AM
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One of the most challenging aspects of any sandbox game is economics. Just as in the real world there are people that will make it their raisin-d’être to amass wealth, the same will occur in the game. A typical though flawed response is to make the process of amassing wealth overly complicated or worse, make the accumulation of wealth effectively pointless at some stage of progression.

When designing an economy in a game there are therefore a few fundamental features that need to be considered. The first is whether to have an in-out or a closed-loop system. Then it is a question of how (or even if) the books will be balanced. Finally it is application to the Sandbox.

An in-out system is where there are methods utilised by the players for adding wealth to the game. There are by the same token mechanics for removing wealth. A closed-loop system is where there is an amount of wealth in the game and though this may change, it does not do so through the actions of the players. In this blog, I will consider the common aspects of an in-out system as this is the most common to games.

Wealth Sinks

Wealth sinks as the names suggests are means by which wealth can leave the game. This is obviously the ‘out’ side of the in-out system. As wealth leaves the game, there is a need to replenish it in order to achieve targets. Replenishment is dealt with later, but first a quick look at the common wealth sinks.

Single Use Assets

The simplest mechanic is to include single use assets. These ensures that wealth is consumed though puts the choice of how and where to spend the wealth in the hands of the gamer. There is however a drawback in that mechanics for asset accumulation and sale has the potential to turn this into a wealth generation model. A player can reach a point where the sale of built consumables to other players generates more wealth than the overall running cost of the assets required for their construction (gold farming is an example of this).  In and of itself this not a bad mechanic as theoretically as demand drops so too does the sale price to the point where sales are no longer profitable.  This system can suffer from requiring to regularly stock up on consumables and also hyper inflation. The latter can occur when non-consumable assets are only marginally inferior.

Progression

Improving assets can include a wealth element. This may be alongside an experience cost such as in the case of developing character skills, but can be on its own, such as purchasing knowledge from a game controlled vendor. Progression is generally designed to give ever decreasing benefits. For example a character level 5 will easily overpower a character level 1 while a character level 45 will be fairly level with a character level 41, all else being equal.

The principle drawback with this method is that progressions invariably come to an end. Examples include achieving the end of the skill tree for a character and having top-end equipment. Once this has been achieved, wealth generated simply accumulates.

Running Costs

While these work best in a persistent universe setting, they can be used to ensure that wealth continually leaves the game. Generally speaking they should work both like an elastic band and drag.

Drag is the easiest concept to include as it is nothing more than a basic running cost for an asset. This may be wages for personnel in an army, the living costs for a character or the price of replacement parts and maintenance of a vehicle. This can be a linear cost, i.e. 5 tanks cost five times as much as 1 tank.

By elastic band, it is meant that the further the player pushes their position, the more expensive it becomes to maintain it in an exponential manner. This prevents self-sustaining growth which can prove disastrous to a game. In the above example, the elastic band mechanic could be for every 10 tanks, you also need a full-time mechanic and therefore have to pay the extra wages while for every five mechanics you need a full bay which also needs costly maintaining.

The limits of what is considered as an un-stretched elastic band within the contexts of the game should be considered before launch and based on the relative ease of wealth generation. In a casual game, wealth generation should be sufficient to allow for a large self-supporting and defendable power base before spiralling costs kick in. A hard-core game may have spiralling costs on virtually every aspect from production and asset size through to maintenance.

There is therefore always a benefit to scaling back operations.

Decay

Decay is the removal or downgrading of assets either through use or time. Decay may be set to repairable or not. In the case of the latter it is effectively a consumable that has been obfuscated or a wealth generating item with a ‘use-by’ date, e.g. perishable trade items – sell them to game controlled markets before they rot. Where repairing the items that are decaying is highly expensive, alternative options will be sought which could prevent wealth from being lost from the game. If by the same token, repairs are cheap, it not only fails to achieve its end as a wealth sink but also becomes a pointless chore for the player.

Wealth Generation

If people want to buy stuff they need a means of getting money in the first place. This is the ‘in’ side of the in-out system. Generally speaking there are only a couple of obvious paths for wealth generation though how they are dressed up in the game setting is almost limitless.

Hack and Grab

The most used method of generating wealth is to attach it to computer controlled assets and transfer it to the asset that successfully eliminates them, i.e. that bear you just hacked down had 35 gold pieces. Logic may be suspended if fitting. The main drawback with this mechanic is that it is difficult to regulate the accumulation of wealth, leading to hyper-inflation (or either the costs or value of assets) in player controlled markets or serious issues with game controlled markets.

Farming (aka Hoop Jumping)

Similar to Hack and Grab, though adding a step before wealth is acquired. The step can be anything from obtaining items from game controlled assets and selling it on to other game controlled markets (getting bearskin instead of gold in the above situation and selling it to the local fur trader) right through to building an asset from collected components and flogging it on to somebody else. The ultimate source of wealth however is the game. Hoop jumping is simply farming through the use of triggers instead of a 'virtual' item, e.g. returning to the village elders after slaying the ettin to get a reward without. 

Next Blog

In the next blog I will look at the closed-loop mechanic, balancing the books and application to the Sandbox.

Sandbox Gaming - pt III. Construction Risk

Posted by Meligar Tuesday March 26 2013 at 7:34AM
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In essence is it is simply the delay between starting to attain an asset and the asset coming into play. This may be as trivial as collecting points through various means, to setting a sequence of events in order that will generate the asset. Examples of the first would be collecting lego blocks in order to build a house, while the second would be going on various quests to find the Holy Grail/Golden Fleece. There is a period of time between initiating the goal of having said asset and getting it. During this period there is no advancement though there are factors that continue to pose a risk.

In the case of the lego blocks, stacking them and moving away to find more leaves the stack vulnerable to lego thieves while the second puts the questing characters in mortal danger while they are out adventuring.

The role of the game designer is to balance the risk against the value/perceived capability of the constructed asset. Risking character death for a 0.1% improvement is not going to happen, while players will throw character after character into the pit just to get a thousand-magnitude upgrade (anyone playing old Traveller RPG will be familiar with the concept used in character creation).

There are therefore a few fundamental features (beyond the actual asset) to consider when assigning Construction Risk:

Coolness

Never underestimate player desire for something few others have. While the vast majority of people are not prepared to pay more for a virtual item than the same item in real life (including spectacles, cars and prostitutes), they may well be willing to expend a lot of in-game resources, more so than the asset’s capability compared with standard/common equivalents.

Time

There is a point where a delay turns into a grind. There is a point where a grind becomes a turn-off. Determining these values is dictated by the pace of the game. Where plans can span years (such as in Phoenix: Beyond the Stellar Empire), research times of a year are not unreasonable. Such things would be utterly insane in an Xbox game.

Plant-the-Flag

This is where the object of the plan is to achieve a psychological victory (rather than simply getting an opponent’s assets). The target in which the ‘flag’ is to be planted need not be defined by the game mechanics; it can simply be a group of players deciding that this is the object of the plan. The anticipated degree of kudos and self-congratulating determines the amount of resources that will be expended to achieve it. A good sandbox game design should embrace this. There are various tactics such as ‘halls of fame’, medals and various other forms of ranking achievements.

 Story Arc

While plant-the-flag mechanics are good at promoting activity within a game, they do have the potential to become repetitive. Where a game is a persistent universe, there is the possible option of adding an ever expanding story arc. This is more suited to games that are turn-based and have a speed of play closer to real-time. The ability to build and destroy within a sandbox can lead to situations occurring that, when combined with a story arc allow for unique situations. This not only allows for a group of players to achieve goals similar to plant-the-flag, but dictates that some events can never be repeated. The destruction of an alien homeworld, the exodus of an entire species and the founding of a religion that will over the course of years, change the entire galaxy. Shaping the entire game universe for years to come (such as described in the Fall of Tate) is a powerful incentive to spend resources.

Sandbox Gaming - pt. II - Asset Value (Capability) against Resources

Posted by Meligar Thursday March 7 2013 at 5:45AM
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Before I step back onto my soapbox, I have to clarify a few points, I consider a sandbox as non-linear gameplay resulting in emergent gameplay, though even these terms are not all encompassing, if they were then there would be no need for the term sandox. I also do not subscribe to the idea that free-roaming is in any way necessary for a sandbox and vice-versa. Here I purely look at the perspective of building things and knocking them down with the view to achieving an open-ended scenario in which the players decide how they are going to achieve their goals, both game designated and self-appointed.

Right, up onto my pedestal  where was I?

Asset Capability Against Resource Cost

In this blog I will use chess pieces to explain my points. While not a sandbox pe se, using superior damage reduction capabilities of ablative armour against its poorer resilience for example would need clarification.

Imagine how chess would differ if the pieces in it had 'hitpoints'? Imagine if a knight could remove the first pawn that attempted to take it but fall to  the second or a rook could only be taken by knight if the taking piece is also back row and supported (can be theoretically taken) by another piece. Imagine if the pieces had differing hitpoints and support values, or even support values that were variable to the position being taken and the position doing the taking.

The nature of sandbox games is that there are invariably a great many more parameters to consider for every asset. I have used the word asset, though this is interchangeable with piece (as in chess) item, position or even location in some cases.

When developing a game system, it is fundamental to start with as few parameters as possible. In chess, this effectively stops with assigning a starting location for each piece and a method of moving. From this the game evolved, establishing strategies (fool's mate) and tactics (forks and skewers) based on these two parameters. The nature of sandbox games however is that assets invariably have a lot more parameters that often are integral to a much more developed combat and/or interaction mechanic within the game.

From a development point of view therefore, it is much better to first establish a baseline in any mechanic. For example, any piece can take any other piece simply by moving onto its square. A more advanced mechanic for example could have the baseline, all weapons deliver their damage value, while all armour stops their defensive value. This can still be applied to chess by presuming all pieces have a weapon that delivers 2 damage and all pieces have 1 armour and 1 hitpoint.

Advancing this mechanic is very straightforward assets can be given differing damage, armour and hitpoint values.

Armour can be given variable defence, such as preventing an average damage based on their armour value. This introduces concepts such as critical damage (where the armour just happened to stop zero damage).

The introduction of the term average is a big step forward, moving the game from purely predictable to probable outcome. The nature of play therefore changes from the bare minimum to ensure victory to the perceived minimum to ensure victory. From experience, where the outcome is not guaranteed, many players will opt for overkill.

This last point brings me onto the purpose of this blog assets against resources. As a designer of a sandbox, you can virtually guarantee that players will strive for the utmost overkill. This allows you to weight the resource cost against the asset capability disproportionately while still confident that the asset will be sought after and utilised in the game. In fact, failing to give superior assets a disproportionate resource cost to asset capability makes all inferior assets in the game largely pointless.

As the quantity of parameters inherent in the sandbox increase, so to does the risk of design oversight. This is where two or more assets (which could be two or more pieces, a number of pieces and a location or some other situation) combine to skew the advantage unfairly in one direction. The simplest way of looking at this is if the combined asset capability under relatively common situations is greater than the resource cost of an asset with the same capability, then there is a design oversight. In our modified chess game, this would be allowing any piece that reached the opposition's back row to convert to a queen. Another example would be allowing the weakest character to equip powerful weapon where the effort to become a powerful character is magnitudes higher than the effort required to acquire a powerful weapon.

One option is to pre-nerf assets as they are added to the original game design. This essentially means that the degree of disproportion of the resource cost to the asset capability is overly exaggerated at the time of inclusion. This is achieved by a number of methods. The first is simply making the time factor to acquire said resource exceptionally long (multiple hoop jumping due to low drop rates, or time to completion being vastly inflated). Another option is to distribute items into the sandbox, limiting their presence in the game. This allows for observation of the asset for a period of time before allowing them to become mainstream or introducing modified variants. The last (common) option is to simply dissallow combinations until certain hoops have been jumped, e.g. low-level characters can't weild powerful items.

In the next blog I will look at Construction Risk. This feeds heavily back into asset capability against resource cost.

Sandbox Gaming - my 2p

Posted by Meligar Tuesday February 26 2013 at 8:57AM
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Simple Sandbox

The premise is straightforward enough, give players the tools to both build stuff and knock down other people’s stuff. The setting is purely cosmetic.

At its simplest, it can be three shakes of the first before displaying what you have built (paper, scissors or stone) with the opposition doing the same, resulting in either draw or winner-loser. Rinse and repeat.

Expanding it further

What happens if you expand the game to multiplayer?  If more than two players you can opt not to display on the third shake but if anybody point their choice in your direction, you automatically lose. In all other cases, your choice is measured against anyone pointing their option at you. On the next turn, those that didn’t chose and are still alive, now have the shotgun option, which defeats anything other than another shotgun. Shotguns have one use and anyone killed misses a go. Rinse and repeat.

Clearly, making anything other than a rather dull hand-waving game requires quite a lot more. In my upcoming blogs I look at the various areas (as I see them) in sandbox design.

First on the list is Gaming Perception

The fundamental point of a sandbox game is that it is perceived as never ending. Players need to subscribe to the view that no matter how one-sided it can appear, there is still a game to be played. If this is not sold to the player then there is utterly no point in playing the game. What will happen is that players will gravitate to the faction they perceive as having already won in order to get a game where they are not immediately ganked. The result is that there is nobody to fight and the game will die.

By instilling a perception that joining the underdog generates the best game, you achieve a self-balancing system. The genre specifics of this will be dealt with in a later blog, but the mechanic is self-evident. As more people join underdog, they acquire the majority player/asset base and are no longer underdog resulting in a shift of recruitment to the new underdog.

The simplest means of instilling the perception is to list the benefits, i.e. features that come into play as the balance of play is upset. On a civilisation type game this could be economic pressures for the larger faction, while the smaller faction gains efficiency benefits. It might be options for more missions or missions that can only be performed by a set number of players per faction. Experience may be modified at specified odds thresholds – twice as many enemy players, the weaker side gets five times as much experience.

It may be more subtle. The control of assets and organisational structure of a faction may be inherently designed to become ever more convoluted with increasing players or the play options may be limited, meaning that there are an optimum number of players within a faction and a faction will ultimately gravitate towards that number, i.e. joining a small faction grants you more power within the faction to shape its direction.

Other options include the instability model where the power to wreck an established faction from within increase exponentially as the faction increases in power.

 

The main point however is that if these mechanics are transparent, you ultimately condition players to do your job of game balancing for you.

A word of caution though, an elite cadre can still be better than an army of grannies! 

Next Blog

Asset Value Against Resource

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