So Gamescom was this week and they’ve shown a bunch of work in progress footage from Bloodborne, a PS4 title which is due to be released next year, from the studio and director who created Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.
I’mma warn you now, this one is actually about videogames, so it might not be the best read for everyone. No complaints if you read on anyway xP.
When I finished the first Dark Souls, I said that an ideal game would offer the satisfaction, challenge, and player flexibility of a Souls-type game, and also the fluid movement, responsiveness and outright “I look really cool”-ness of an Assassin’s Creed game. Bloodborne looks like it might fulfil that wish. Therefore, I’d like to talk a little about a couple of other wishes I have for Bloodborne, and other future games in general.
Here’s an easy one to start with; non-rubbish collision physics. In a videogame I want to be able to do everything I can in real life, and then more. For example, in a game I can take a few bullets, the odd stab to the face, and fall a few hundred feet every now and then and it doesn’t really matter. In games I run everywhere (or as long as my stamina bar lasts). I’d be exhausted inside 20 minutes if I ran around as much in real life as I did in games. Stuff like that is an extension of a natural ability (running) or an addition of an ability that just doesn’t exist (wounds healing spontaneously). And of course in a game I have permission to fight people with swords and shoot them with my gun and beat them with my fists. So when in-game my avatar comes up against an ankle high ledge and can’t walk over it because either I lack the ability to jump or raise my leg, or the collision detection means I’m walking into an invisible wall it really upsets me. Less of that would be nice. If the game needs to limit my movement just put up a big wall or make it an endless drop or something. Fake invisible walls are super annoying and amongst other things they: break the player fantasy, expose the game engine in a way which is jarring, stink of sloppy and slightly lazy design. Of course if the rest of the game is good enough such a thing is barely noticeable and I won’t complain. But it is something that niggles.
That one’s quite achievable, this next one isn’t. I don’t think it’ll be in Bloodborne, or any game in the near future either. I would like RPG (particularly Souls type games) games to revamp Strength and Dexterity as parameters. As far as in-game stats go they’re usually the primary offensive stats for melee weapon users, but in actuality they’re very boring. The primary reason for their boringness being that all that these in-game stats do is increase the damage numbers of your attacks and make certain weapons usable. In terms of is this a sensible system, the answer is yes. The numbers STR and DEX represent the player’s physical strength and skill at arms respectively. It stands to reason that use of certain weapons requires the player to be strong (you can’t carry a giant sword if you aren’t a bit strong) and have a modicum of skill (you can’t effectively fence with a rapier without a little bit of training in the art of swordplay) and some require both (to carry around and operate a large anti-materiel rifle you need both strength and training in certain skills). It also stands to reason that the more strength and the more skill the user has, the more effective they will be with the weapons they are presented with, hence increasing STR and DEX increases damage numbers.
So what’s my problem with this way of doing things? Even though it might be a good simulator of the player’s growth, it doesn’t actually present the player with any growth at all. The player’s actions themselves do not change whether your STR and DEX are very low or very high (apart from perhaps using a different weapon). The animations the player has for attacks and weapons are the same either way. The root problem here is movement rigidity or command rigidity. The player-avatar carries out the same moves corresponding to the same commands every time. Games with a “skill-tree” type level system or a turn-based combat system don’t usually have this problem because the player isn’t as active in combat or in deciding their avatar’s development as the skill-tree pre-ordains what the player may or may not learn and the order of combat is already regimented by the turn-based structure. However, this is where I think the kind of ‘free-levelling’ system that Souls games have can learn from skill-tree games.
A skill-tree rewards the players with the next specific “skill” along in the tree when the player reaches the necessary level. Like trees, skill-trees often branch, so the player may specialise in one type of skill, but investment in one branch means it is impossible to access certain other skills down other branches. The game distributes the increases in statistics without player input, by either predetermined increments or chance distributions. The “skills” that the player gets to choose are basically the new moves the character gets. The free-levelling system in Dark Souls and the ilk lets the player directly choose their stat distributions with each level, but there is no procession of “skills” trotted out to the player. Their “skills” are actually their own skills, that is, to be able to pull off flashy moves and show-stopping combos, the player has to learn to perform the inputs and execute them with the requisite timing. There is no simply selecting what move you want from a list and letting it play out (though there is a different skill to using that properly). What Souls loses out on then is that the combat system is therefore very simple. You have your attacks and that’s it. You only get to decide how hard each one hits by increasing your STR and DEX values, but your moves will always be the same so long as you use the same weapons and the like. How you chain them together is up to you, but ultimately, that skill belongs to the player whether they are level 1 or level 100. Hence, sometimes it feels like levelling up in Souls games is barely a reward, and the increase in the avatar’s ability is only noticeable if you’re busy watching damage numbers and direct hit modifiers and damage scaling all the time. And that sucks all the fun out of fighting.
So what I’d love to see instead of STR and DEX just raising your damage numbers which just simulates an increase in skill and strength, is an actual tangible increase in the player-avatar’s skills and strength. How to implement? I’d love to see something like weapon swing-speed increase with STR. The biggest foible of very big heavy weapons is their slowness, which never alters no matter how much STR the player accrues. The player can become very good at timing their attacks, but the weapon itself never speeds up. I think a good reward for players who invest a lot of stat points in STR would be to scale weapon swing-speed with STR. Obviously, an eight foot greatsword should not come to be able to swing faster than a single handed sabre, but within reason, it should get faster at 40 STR than at 20, and perhaps it should get almost as fast as your quick little scimitar.
Of course, this makes it hard to want to pick a DEX weapon over an STR weapon, especially since the main advantage to DEX weapons is that they outpace STR ones which are usually bigger and heavier and thus do more damage and have more range. To make them almost as fast? Wouldn’t that invalidate the use of DEX weapons or rather, how do you alter DEX levelling to balance it against the STR build? Well, frankly, I’d want DEX weapon swing speed to also scale with STR, just with diminished returns. That is to say, a stronger person should be able to swing their sabre, or flash their rapier, or draw their katana slightly faster than a less strong person. But how much faster the weapon gets should not be on the same scale as a gigantic greatsword or a towering lance, which should be almost immovable without any strength, but much easier to wield with some. In addition to that, which would then give an advantage to players who used both STR and DEX, I would want DEX (which stands for, let’s not forget, dexterity) to reflect an increase in skill with the weapon. The best way I can think of to simulate that would be to give the weapon more moves, or rather, an option to use new moves.
In Souls games your moves with a single weapon never change. A high DEX should allow the player to also “level up” those moves. There are a couple of systems I have in mind which could work for this. The first unlocks ‘advanced’ versions of the same moves as your DEX passes a threshold. So a single slash could become a quick double slash, or a dashing slash with longer range. A powerful slash could gain a charging-up quality which allows greater guard breaking and damage. A high DEX could also open up potential for more fluid combos from light attacks into strong attacks and even special critical combos at very high DEX, which should be difficult to perform in terms of player skill, but highly rewarding in terms of damage. Obviously, this kind of reward should only be open with an heavy DEX investment. The main issue with this system is that even though the player now has a selection of advanced and simple attacks to choose from, each weapon still only has one (albeit extensive) set of moves which belong to it, which isn’t too bad, except for certain situations when a weapon’s moves simply can’t reach certain enemy hitboxes (horizonal slashes can’t touch very short enemies, long thrusts often miss especially tall and thin enemies).
The second idea I had deals with this previous problem, and I imagine is somewhat simpler to implement. It’s simply that at higher DEX, you should be able to use movesets from other weapons, with more of them being unlocked as you go. This should obviously be within reason, you can’t use a dagger like an halberd, and it’s not possible to swing a two handed greatsword like a double-ended twinblade. That being said, if it’s reasonable it should be allowed, so you could swing a katana like a longsword, or use a scimitar like a rapier. Of course those examples are actually quite useless, since it makes no sense to use those move sets. But, for example, if you’ve played Dark Souls, especially in PvP, can you imagine using the katana’s dashing attack to any reasonably sized weapon? That’d be a serious bonus given its speed and range and might be, for example, a higher DEX reward for sword-type bladed weapons. Why I don’t think this idea is too great is that it’s kindof patchwork to just open up all the moves from other weapons to use on one weapon which isn’t really so much progression and development as variation. I also think that very quickly players will settle on their favourite moves which will invalidate using lots of the others.
My final idea is probably the least practical. It requires a much more precise hitbox system. Instead of having controls correspond to a certain type of move (light, fast, strong, slow), they would correspond to a certain angle.(vertical, horizontal, thrust, diagonal left to right from below, etc.). At certain angles enemies should have weak points or certain combinations of moves should be able to open up an enemy’s guard for a critical attack, for example. As DEX increases, more varied angular combinations should lead to different critical attacks, and different critical results too, including but not limited to limb loss, slow-down, a percentage life-loss, a continuous life-loss, and perhaps even weapon loss and disarmament. This would also have to be based on a more precise hitbox system and depend on where your weapon’s attacks land, cutting off an arm, a leg, piercing the chest cavity, cutting off the weapon-hand etc. I don’t think this kind of precision is currently possible in the type of games I have in mind, as it almost crosses into the territory of fighting-games proper, which really can’t be implemented in an action RPG at the level I have in mind with the current technology. One day though, that’d be nice.
It should be noted that all these systems should apply to STR weapons as well as DEX weapons, but again, with diminished returns. You should be able to expand your abilities with your great hammer, but not too much, since there are only so many ways you can smash an enemy with a giant lump of metal, it ain’t exactly as subtle as weaving your way through an enemy’s defences and cutting through a narrow gap in the armour with a katana blade.
Now, I don’t know anything about programming or game design, so I’ve no idea how practicable any of my ideas are. But then, as someone who loves playing games, I feel like it’d be really exciting to me to have a more complex expanded combat system in an action RPG type game, which generally are notorious for slightly awkward, cumbersome, and clunky fight systems when compared to the more stylish beat-em-up type games.
Anyway, that’s that.
If anyone who actually knows anything about real videogame design is listening, well, just let me know you heard me by bringing out a brilliant game in ten years’ time or something.
If you ain’t into videogames, mad props for reading all the way to the end. xD