Posted by: Xalthorn | September 20, 2007

Dungeon Escape Design

Overview 

Throughout the design of Dungeon Escape, there was one thing I was adamant to maintain, and that was simplicity and ease of play.

During the design process many ‘improvements’ and ideas occurred.  However, if they added unnecessary complexities and record keeping, they were discarded.

The aim of Dungeon Escape is to have a game that people can drop in and out of at their own pace (casual gaming).  A player who plays for a limited period each day must not feel that they are falling behind the players who play all day, every day.

Whilst designing Dungeon Escape, a friend pointed me in the direction of an article by Raph Koster on mudflation.  The article talks about the age old problem of persistent games.  To briefly summarise, a persistent game faces many problems including but not limited to: rising power of players; areas of the world made redundant by new content; accelerated levelling.  The article is well worth reading.

I was pleased and surprised that I had already been dealing with many of these issues with the overall Mondestia Website design, including Dungeon Escape.

What is it all about? 

In Dungeon Escape, you create and play a heroic adventurer who is able to adventure in magical dungeons for a limited time.  A brief overview of the story goes as follows:

The dungeon career of a hero is limited. Only heroes aged between 13 and 22 are able to venture into the dungeons due to the arcane magic that controls them. Why these 10 years are special is unknown, but it has been accepted as the way it must be.

There are 10 months in a year and a hero can only enter one dungeon each month. For this reason, the ages of heroes are recorded as y.m with y being their year and m being the month of that year. For example, a starting hero is age 13.0 and the final month of dungeoneering is 22.9. In the month of their 23rd birthday, they are no longer able to use the dungeons and must return to their home territory.

This means that a hero can only ever venture into the dungeons 100 times. Whether a hero descends into just the first level of a dungeon or whether they descend deeper than anyone has ever been is not important, it still counts as a single dungeon attempt. For this reason, heroes take risks to go deep into dungeons to make the most out of an attempt.

This age range fits nicely into the cliche of RPG character ages and the limited career serves many purposes.  A common problem of persistent games is that players reach the top level and sit there demanding new content or picking on the lower players.  With this system, the player is forced to remort and start a new character.

This may seem cruel and short sighted, with players not able to keep their ultra powerful, favourite hero, what will they have to show for all of their hard work?

This is where the overarching system of Mondestia kicks in.  Throughout the hero’s career, achievements will be unlocked and gold is collected (more on that later).  The achievements are a permanent record of the player’s achievements and the gold can be used to develop the player’s home which is a part of Mondestia, not Dungeon Escape.

The idea is that Mondestia is the home of the player, and the heroes that are created and sent through dungeons are from that home.  Any special awards and achievements reflect directly on their home city, which is where the true persistence comes from.

Hero Defeat

Heroes do not die in the dungeons.  If they succumb to the foul beasts inside, they are transported out of the dungeon to safety, although they will lose anything that wasn’t equipped and will have gained no advancement from the dungeon expedition.

Escape

As the title implies, the aim is to escape from the dungeon.  Each dungeon has a fixed number of levels. At the end of each level, the hero has a choice to either go deeper into the dungeon or escape with what they have gathered so far.  If they escape, they gain an increase in power which is directly proportional to the level that they escaped on.

Each level in a dungeon gets progressively harder as more and more monsters are likely to be encountered.  Therefore it is often a huge risk/gamble whether to take what you have earned so far and leave, or go deeper for bigger rewards and more danger.

Treasures

Every time a monster is defeated, you would expect treasure to drop.  Maybe random treasures, body parts, and so on.  The big problem of such systems is the record keeping required (not to mention that if a monster drops an amazing item, why wasn’t it using it.  And where did that rabid bunny store a longsword?).  It may not sound much, and to be honest, is nothing in an online game which can do all the work for you, but the game is also designed to be played on a table with a very fast learning curve.  It shouldn’t take more than five minutes to read the rules and start playing.

As such, when a monster is defeated, it may drop treasure tokens (the amount again being directly proportional to its power).  These tokens allow a simple tally or collecting of counters to be done around the table.

The tokens can be used in, for want of a better phrase, vending machines found within the dungeon level itself.  The machines will ‘sell’ items appropriate to the setting and difficulty of the game.  Another reason to go deeper into the dungeons..

It also avoids the issue of monsters dropping items that no-one really wants and ends up discarding.

If the hero is defeated, the treasure tokens are lost with every other non equipped item.  If the hero escapes, the unused tokens are converted into gold coins for their home city.  This means that you cannot save tokens between dungeons, but there is still a use for those you earned but did not spend.

Game Content

Because the game mechanics limit the power of a hero, I do not need to worry about having to release content for ever higher power heroes.  Instead, I need to ensure that content exists at all levels.  As such, there will be regular releases of new content and when new areas are created, there will be content at all levels.

Equipment

This is probably the biggest change I am making to the genre, and has been the hardest thing to accept for some of my Alpha testers.

Nothing, not equipment, items, spells, whatever, can increase the attributes of the hero.  Weapons are a tool to allow the hero to strike a monster, nothing more.  The ability to perform the strike comes from the hero, not the weapon.  Also, the defensive ability of a hero has nothing to do with his armour.

The upshot of this is that you can dress your hero in whatever you can buy/unlock/find.  You are not ‘forced’ by a game mechanic to favour one weapon or armour over another one.  If you like the look of the bunny ear hat, pointed slippers, and big rubber mallet, you use them, more power to you.  If you would rather wear a full suit of plate armour, wield a flaming greatsword, and clunk through the corridors, that’s your choice but don’t be surprised if you get rescued from the monsters by an idiot in bunny ears, pointed slippers, and a rubber mallet.

Personalisation all the way.

Attributes

Surprisingly, this has been accepted far more easily by the testers than the lack of equipment effects.  I’ll go into detail in a later post, but you don’t have attributes as such.  Everything you do is controlled by a single power attribute.  It’s very simple, easily translates to a board game (it’s been tested and it works), requires very little record keeping, but is still extremely versatile.

Abilities

As already stated, equipment has no effect on a character in any way.  And the hero has only one attribute, so how do we record and use special abilities?

A hero can gain (buy/find/unlock) powerstones.  The powerstones can be charged up with abilities or ‘channels’.  The hero can then channel their power through this ability to create a desired effect.  Generally, using such a channel will remove (empty) it from the powerstone, but some have a chance of remaining for another use.

This is how spells and special attacks/abilities are implemented.  Powerstones come in various sizes (a size determining how many channels it has) and the size of the powerstone a hero can equip is limited by his power attribute.

Pets – untested, may well change in function

A hero can also have a pet.  Again, these need to be bought/found/unlocked, and they are all essentially equal in everything but appearance.  This is in keeping with the idea that the game mechanic shouldn’t force players to have certain things.  If a pet gave additional attacks in combat, then every player would have a pet, even if they didn’t really want one.

Quite what the pet will do for the hero is something I’m thinking about.  Whatever happens, a player without a pet should not be any less effective than a hero with a pet.  The pet can allow the hero to do ‘different’ things, but not ‘more’ things, if that makes any sense.

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