Monday, February 24, 2014

Merry Marvel Theorycrafting

I'd like to try out an exercise, where I just describe a game. Besides enthusiasts for a particular game, there's only a few people I can think of who do this description on a regular basis. There's game reviewers, who have to limit themselves based on a word count, and time restraint. There's academics, who generally don't focus on that sort of design close-reading unless they're in disciplines where user-testing is a factor (and then the focus is the user, not the game per se) or they're talking about procedural rhetoric, where they usually just describe enough of the process under question to make their point (which is largely how it should be). There's game designers themselves, though we usually don't see that part because it happens inside the design process and is usually part of nondisclosure agreements. Post-mortems often cover some of that ground, though not in detail. I'm thinking, for example, of the Planescape Torment design document that's floating around the Internet, which shows nothing but the player's confrontation with the night-hag Ravel, and it still runs over a hundred pages. Designers describe their games in great detail, because at the stage when they're doing that description, that *is* the game. (Which I guess makes just the act of describing a sort of reverse engineering.)

Planescape: Torment, in fact, is where this concept started from. In the course of my dissertation, I described in full how text is used (or absent) in the interface. And that took about six pages. In the process, I learned a bit about the game, but also a bit about how I understood the game, and that understanding changed as the description worked itself out. Not just how I described it, but what elements I'd overlooked started to come out (why is the font for this submenu different than that one? Why is this menu placed over here?) but even just the order in which I'd arrange things. This is probably one of those exercises where the result is not particularly interesting to read, but I think going through the process for a bit is worth doing. It is, incidentally, basically the sort of thing I did back way back for Resonance of Fate.

Those preceding two paragraphs, in case you couldn't tell, were originally written for the Ni No Kuni post that I've decided to let sit for the time being. Instead, let's talk about Marvel Heroes: Dark Reign: Puzzle Quest. (I'm not 100% sure what order the subtitles are supposed to go in here.) The starting point of the game is that it's the same basis as Puzzle Quest. That is, it's a game where you swap colored stones in order to make matches, and you do it in turns with your opponent. Whenever you make a match of three, your gauge for that color goes up. Swapping three yellow stones, for example, makes your yellow gauge go up by three. Once the gauges have reached certain thresholds, you can unleash a special ability. Both you and your opponent have a health gauge, and the goal is diminish your opponent's health while they're trying to do the same to you.

That's the basic Puzzle Quest formula, and Marvel Heroes builds on it in a number of ways. First, rather than playing as a single character, you field a team of three heroes, sometimes with one the game has chosen for you.Each hero has their own special ability set, with different qualifications for use, but all drawing on the same store of stone reserves. For example, if I have 10 red action points (as the game calls them) stored up, and the appropriate characters on my team, I can use Iron Man's Repulsor Blast (10 red AP, deals 248 damage) or Storm's Mistress of the Elements (9 AP, deals 11 for each environmental tile on the board, and then destroys them), but not both. Special abilities, in case you were wondering, can be played at the start of the turn, in addition to a match. Further, each hero has their own health gauge, and if they're killed in a fight, then you can't draw on their abilities or damage stats (which we'll cover in a second). From my experience, armor and general heartiness is indicated by health; the healthiest guys on my team, for example, are either the godlike beings (Thor, Ares) or the armored one, Iron Man, while the "normal" humans (Hawkeye, Black Widow) have comparatively low health.

Another big difference is how basic damage is done. In the original Puzzle Quest, you matched skulls, and then this number would be increased by your strength stat. Here, it's a bit different. In addition to health and special abilities, each character has an associated set of statistics that says how much damage they do when you match a tile of a particular color. At level 14, Black Widow has a purple stat of 10, which means that if I match 3 purple tiles, she'll do 3*10 = 30 damage. The game automatically sets things up so that when you're matching, it uses the hero with the highest stat for that match type. So if I'm matching three reds, and Storm has a red stat of 5 to Iron Man's 8, then Iron Man will do the attack. Who does the attack matters, because the character that attacks is the one on the front line for the opponent's turn. (On your turn, though, you're allowed to just choose who gets damaged.) So you're considering not just which character will do the most damage, but also which one will most likely be able to take the hit that comes next.

Beyond the six color types, the other two stats are the aforementioned environmental tile, and the multiplier. For the environmental tile, each arena you puzzle-fight in has one or two special abilities that either player can draw on, but only if their environmental gauge is high enough. Generally, for my characters at least, environmental stats tend to be low; I think my highest is a 4. The multiplier is a little different. If you manage to match four identical tiles in one go, you clear out the entire row (if horizontal) or column (if a vertical match). But if you manage to make a five column match, you leave a M stone. The M stone acts as a wild card--it's whatever color it needs to be to make a match, though it can't be an environmental tile. It's also a multiplier, in that whatever damage you wind up doing with it is multiplied by the attacking character's multiplying stat. For example, if Black Widow has a purple stat of 10, and and a multiplier of 4, and one of the stones in the set of three is a multiplier, she'll do 10*4*3 = 120 damage, which isn't too shabby, for a turn's work. In general, the "ordinary", non-powered heroes seem to be the ones with higher multipliers.

There's also a lot of variety in the abilities. To take just the set from the three characters I have out on my iPhone at the moment, Black Widow has Aggressive Recon--for 13 Purple AP, it steals 3 AP from the opponent's six colors, except purple, and gives them to me. And she has Widow's Sting--for 9 AP, it stuns the opponent it hits for five turns, and the rest of the opponent's bench for 1. (I should mention here that abilities are upgradable through items you collect (comic covers, actually); at lower levels, the sting could only stun for under five rounds, and didn't effect the whole bench.) Storm has Lightning Strike--for 10AP, it randomly shatters 10 tiles, garnering the damage bonuses and AP appropriate for those tiles; no word on whether they do damage at Storm's stats, or the best stats team-wide. And Mistress of the Elements, which does as listed above. And Hailstorm, which is a neat one. For 9 AP, it converts 18 basic tiles into attack tiles. Attack tiles hurt the opponent every round they're in play, and mine do two damage. That is, a little fist appears on 18 random tiles in the game when this ability is played, and until they're destroyed via matching or some other means, they're going to keep doing 36 damage, every round. It's a nice "death by attrition" type move. Iron's Man Armored Assault, for 8 AP, does the opposite; it deals 108 damage directly, but also creates 3 protect tiles, which puts three random little shields in play, and for as long as they're in the arena, all damage done against me is reduced. It's in a player's interest, then, to avoid making matches that will let the opponent match the protect tiles out of existence.

As you can gather, there's a lot of strategy involved here. When choosing characters for a fight, you can choose for the opponent you'll be fighting. If, for example, you're fighting Venom, Venom's most powerful ability is a black tile-powered move. So you'll want to take out all the black tiles before Venom gets them. That means you'll want a character who has a high black tile stat--probably Storm, given the characters available in the early game. But you can also choose for the abilities you find the most useful. But once you're doing that, you probably want to choose non-overlapping abilities. For example, if there are two characters with only yellow and red fueled powers, you probably don't want them to be fighting together, because they're drawing on the same supply. You also probably want at least one really healthy character. Finally, you can choose to maximize your stat potential. In general, out of the six color attributes, most characters are really high in three of the six. In fact, Storm is the only character I have at the moment who's really proficient in black and green; all the others have their three high options among a set of four others: red, purple, blue, and yellow. I did a bit of theorycrafting--working out all these stats mathematically--and determined that, in terms of being able to deliver the maximum amount of damage to the most different tile colors, the ideal team for me at my current stat levels is Storm, Iron Man, and Black Widow--but that's not considering their relative special abilities, or the particular foes they'll be going against.

And that's the strategy before the game even begins. Once you're in the game, on any given turn, the choices are many. Do I want to use my ability now, or save it for later? Which of my opponent's men do I want to direct this damage against? Should I focus on the one with the healing power, the one with the lowest health, or the heaviest hitter? Should I be trying to maximize damage? Or filling a particular color gauge? Or preventing them from filling a particular gauge? If I move here, am I setting them up for a four or even five match? If I have this character do the attack, will they be able to best withstand the next attack from them? Is it worth it to make this move if I'm cutting into my own attack tiles or defense tiles? Is it worth making a low damage move to cut into *their* attack tiles or defense tiles? There's a lot going on.

This isn't everything, either; there's a storyline here, and currency, and the actual money side of the free-to-play model (though so far, everything that can be done with money can be done in other ways, albeit slower). Marvel Heroes does a good job of introducing all this stuff very gradually. For the first stage, you'll only be doing matches you're fairly overpowered for, which means it's much easier to work all this information out for yourself, slowly. I appreciate a free-to-play model with some depth behind it. It's a bit early to say for sure, but so far, it feels like a good substitute for my Candy Crush craze.

Later Days.

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