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Paul Sottosanti Practical Systems Design in the Context of Darkspore.

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1 Paul Sottosanti Practical Systems Design in the Context of Darkspore

2 Overview of the Talk Some Design Goals and How We Achieved Them Things We Tried That Didn’t Work Out The Systems of Darkspore Spread throughout: Relevant Systems Design Advice Problems and Their Solutions Where Did We Still Fail?

3 Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Systems of Darkspore

4 The Constraints There must be at least 100 different heroes to collect. The game must have Spore in the name. The game takes place in a sci-fi setting. Heroes can’t temporarily level up during gameplay (as in the MOBA genre). Players can’t equip loot during a level. The game is F2P…er, actually it’s a traditional boxed product. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

5 Players will level up, not heroes. Placement choices in the editor are not going to affect gameplay. The “chain game” will be the focus of how players interact with the PvE content. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Early Important Decisions Ugliness: Forces players to choose between power and aesthetics. Most will choose power. Gaming the system: Players will just copy the most successful placements. Recognizability Collectibility Animation Quality “Sporn”: Speaks for itself. Players can’t create their own creatures from scratch. Easy hero swapping No skill trees: No way we could create enough abilities. Heroes had to be complete packages. Creative Freedom: Wanted to enable the maximum amount.

6 Wanted to bring back a sense of risk and adrenaline to gaming. Was a great hook for the press. Originated when the game was F2P and didn’t have a traditional campaign. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed The Chain Game

7 Allowed players to process the huge variety of heroes and enemies more easily. Allowed us to create other systems like type resistances. Inspired by the Magic: the Gathering color wheel. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed The Genesis Types

8 Each class has its damage increased by a different primary stat. Five secondary stats that are also increased through the primary stats. Three classes of heroes. Around fifty tertiary stats that are all percentage based. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Hero Stats and Classes Sentinels: Strength focused, high health, close range. Ravagers: Dexterity focused, fast movement/attacks, high crit/dodge, close/medium range. Tempests: Mind focused, slow movement and attacks, high power/resist, long range.

9 Allowed us to have a “best” primary stat and still make you want other stats. Helped with balance. Enabled visual stat displays. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Stat Caps

10 Gave players something to talk about and trade. Needed something to replace loot for in-level upgrades. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Catalysts Allowed heroes to grow in power on long chains.

11 Medals affect your chance of getting rare loot when you cash out. Had a hard time getting people to understand the formula. Encourage you to play through the level for real instead of skipping content. We decided early on that we wouldn’t reward playing more than four planets in a row. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Objectives and Medals Clashed with player expecations…

12 Systems Design Advice #1 Make sure the most efficient path is also a fun one! Always be aware of the most efficient path that players can take to their goal. Your decisions will shape how many players interact with the game. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

13 Increased health, damage, and size. Each one also had 1-4 affixes that made it more powerful. Added to provide intensity spikes and some additional randomness. Switched to using the higher level model to make them stand out and give a preview. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Elite Enemies

14 Huge penalties for fighting enemies high above you in level. But we don't have that...our progression gate has to be the quality of your loot. Most RPGs use level and experience as a progression gate. Hero progression is now essentially sharable, easy to swap in new heroes. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Gating Progression

15 110 is 10% harder than is only 2% harder than 500 Need enemy health and damage to scale exponentially all the way up. How to scale enemy health and damage? Linear scaling eventually fades… Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Difficulty Scaling

16 Tried 10% per level… Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Difficulty Scaling But it felt flat, needed something to break it up. 100% health on level 1 110% health on level 2 121% health on level 3 133% health on level 4 146% health on level 5 Added the concept of sublevels. 6% per minor level, 24% per major level. 100% health on level % health on level % health on level % health and a boss on level % health on level 2-1

17 Provides excitement to players when they find rare or powerful items. Provides something worth talking about (and potentially trading) with other players. What makes a good randomized loot system? Makes players go back to underused skills or (in this case) characters. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Provides replay value through adding goals; players want to farm specific bosses. Upgrades make you noticeably more powerful.

18 Random level restricted affixes, higher level unlocks new affixes (e.g. “whale” -> “mammoth”). "Unique" hand-tuned items like Eaglehorn at a fixed level with a fixed look. Looked at Diablo’s loot system… Randomness both within the affixes and the uniques. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Rings have a distinctive sound and are always magical. Powerful items have lots of different stats on them and crazy numbers like +200% attack speed. Wacky attributes like light radius and chance to find magic items. Visual changes! Leveled up skills, shattering enemies with your icy sword.

19 Items have a fixed number of points based on the item level. There are suffixes that are essentially percentage-based stat distributions. And World of Warcraft’s… Greens and blues use those suffixes for the most part. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Epics have hand-tuned stats and are a fixed level with a fixed look. Neither of these were quite right for our purposes. For the chain game we needed higher level loot to be clearly better than lower level, so Diablo style wouldn’t work. WoW loot was closer but still needed some tweaks…

20 Like WoW, items have a fixed number of item points based on the item level, with bonus points for having a larger variety of different stats on the item. Darkspore’s loot system: Green items get a suffix which is a percentage-based distribution of stat points. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Blue items get an item level bonus and also get a “prefix”, which takes 25% of the item points and distributes those in its own way. Purples get a bigger bonus and two “prefixes”, with each prefix gets 20% of the points. Suffixes and prefixes are restricted based on the slot of the item.

21 Figure out the item level. 1-1 drops level 11 items, 2-3 drops level 23 items, etc. The boss of 1-4 (and the cash out loot for 1-4) is level 20 to boost you up to the next major level. The initial item points formula: Add a level bonus for blue items (+10) and purple items (+20). Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Start with a base number of item points: 50. Factor in the item level exponentially, with items getting 5% better per level. Add in a 10% bonus for each different stat on the item (after factoring in suffixes and prefixes). Item Points = 50 * 1.05 ^ itemLevel * ( * numStats)

22 Systems Design Advice #2 Make sure any numbers that you might want to change frequently are tunable by designers. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed For items and other objects that players own, decide up front if you want tuning changes to be retroactive or not. This changes how the engineers build it and has a huge effect on your control and player perception. Be sure to always build in tuning knobs to your systems if you might need them.

23 Take the item points (let’s say, 200) and divide them based on the percentages defined by the suffix. Determining the actual item stats: For example, “of Expertise” was 50% Strength and 50% Dexterity, so the item spends 100 on each. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Those stats cost 10 points each, so this item has +10 Strength and +10 Dexterity.

24 The item level bonuses for rarity changed to +5 and +10. Final item points formula: 50 * ( )^itemLevel * ( * numStats) The stat variety bonus increased to 20%. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System The 5% per item level changed to be 5%/4%/3% depending on how far into the game you were (at high gear levels you can give smaller percentage bonuses and they still feel like big upgrades).

25 Systems Design Advice #3 Treat them very differently! Chain game reward formula is the former. The item points formula is the latter. Identify which systems need to be player understandable and which can be as complicated as you need. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

26 All of our “unique” items scaled in level, so if you found one you liked early you could still find a higher level version later on at max level. One problem with traditional loot systems: eventually characters of the same class all look the same, because the best items all have a fixed look. Decided that our “unique” items with hand-tuned stat blocks would be allowed to have a variety of models. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Naming was difficult; eventually settled on using a possessive name to indicate the stats (e.g. Electra’s Wings). Also they had rare and epic versions. Imagine playing Diablo 2 and finding an epic Eaglehorn. Eventually these items were reserved solely for cash out loot.

27 Solution: three of the slots are bound to a location and named after it (hands, feet, weapon) and three are freeform placement and named after their purpose (offense, defense, utility). Hero Item Slots Traditional RPGs have around item slots. With Darkspore we settled on six per hero. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Problem: In Darkspore many of the items can go anywhere on your hero, but traditionally they are named after the placement.

28 Systems Design Advice #4 Darkspore example: Restricting stats based on item slots. Set up structures at a deep level. Humans find structure comforting and it's exciting to your hardcore players when you break the structure later. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

29 Solution: Weapons are hero specific (though all four variants can use it). Weapons One of the main factors in making the heroes feel special and unique was the basic attack. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Problem: Can’t allow heroes to use any weapon. Breaks animations and flavor. New solution: Added a weapon store where you can buy slightly weak weapons if you haven’t found one for that hero in awhile. New problem: Can be very difficult to find a weapon for a specific hero. Unexpected but awesome benefit: Finding weapons drives players to try out new heroes better than any other mechanic. This alone made it worth it.

30 Considered the Guild Wars 2 solution of letting you merge the stats of one item with the look of another… Another traditional problem: having to replace items that you think look awesome when the stats are obsolete. Added slots for “detail” items. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Unfortunately it didn’t work with hands, feet or weapons; we had a strange technical limitation where equipped items couldn’t be invisible. We also let you stack multiple of the same model in one detail slot if you had them.

31 Used a stat system that allowed for obvious gear choices. Cutting Down the Possibility Matrix The decision space of having up to 100 heroes crossed with hundreds of items is insane. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed In-Depth Look at the Loot System Restricted all in-level items based on type. Added other very specific stats: increased DoT damage, increased pet health, etc.

32 Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Design Goals

33 Gave the higher level player reasonable loot for their level. PvP was also sidekicked; all loot was scaled as though it had been found on 6-4. Chose to “sidekick” players down instead of up. Players are unsurprisingly resistant to being nerfed like this. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Can Always Play With Your Friends Profitably

34 Elites had affixes like “thorns” to encourage swapping on the fly. Swapping cleared all debuffs and knocked back nearby enemies. Picking up a capsule restored health or power to your entire squad. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Encourage Hero Swapping

35 Games with health or mana regen lead to idling. The only way to get health or power back is to kill enemies. Because we had increased risk we knew players would use any tactics to win. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Don’t Reward Idling

36 It’s okay that some variants are better in PvE and some are better in PvP. This is really, really difficult to pull off! But a fine goal. Later heroes are not better, just different. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed All Heroes Should Be Viable Throughout the Game

37 Systems Design Advice #5 Don't be afraid to make spreadsheets that are just for you that aren't especially usable for anyone else. Be efficient. Excel is your best friend. You need to be able to explore systems and perform balance passes with spreadsheets quickly. When doing balance passes use conditional formatting to make outliers stand out visually. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

38 Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Ideas That Didn’t Work Out

39 Energy was the “squad” resource, overdrive and swapping used it. Too much to keep track of. Originally we had health, mana and energy. Running out of energy was miserable. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Energy as a Third Resource The Problems Players didn’t want to use it at all.

40 Use the name (prefix) to denote rarity instead. People are programmed now to have a visceral reaction to the color. Trying to fix the “problem” that greens are routinely better than purples. Not worth it! Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Item Name Color Denoting Power Instead of Rarity The Problems

41 Systems Design Advice #6 Frees up player brain space for understanding everything else. Don't reinvent the wheel unless you're really, really sure it's worth it. Conform to player expectations everywhere you can. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

42 Intended to almost always be sold. Needed them to be viable hole fillers. White items originally had a huge item points penalty and only had health. Five type restrictions and six slots = tough to find items for specific purposes. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed White Items as “Trash Loot” The Problems New Solution! Whites are only -5 item levels and get a basic suffix named after the classes.

43 Gave them an additional axis of rarity and encouraged people to keep playing. Some team members thought it was evil. Catalysts would last anywhere from a minute to several days after being found. Confusing for players to keep track, plus hard to implement. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Catalysts That Expire Based on Time The Problems New Solution! Catalysts only expire when you cash out.

44 Three in a row of the same color or all different colors would merge into new catalysts. Was pretty horrible when it happened accidentally. Original idea with catalysts was to make it more like the Horadric Cube. Players kept asking for a button to merge them. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Catalyst Merging The Problems New Solution! Catalysts now have link bonuses instead. No more irreversibility.

45 Systems Design Advice #7 Look for their reactions, NOT their solutions. “I don’t like x” is useful, “I don’t like x because of y” is great, and “You should do x” is useless. Trust the player’s gut (intuition) but don’t trust their reasoning as they do NOT have the same mental context you do as the designer." Evaluating playtester feedback: From Doublebuffered.com’s writeup of Jamie Griesemer’s Design in Detail GDC 2010 talk Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

46 Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Problems and Solutions

47 Doing less damage didn’t cause players to switch, it just frustrated them. Flip it around. Enemies instead deal double damage to heroes of the same type. Many players didn’t realize what was going on. Now it’s exciting and the increased damage forces you to switch. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Enemy Type Resistance Solution

48 Systems Design Advice #8 Famous example: World of Warcraft rested XP. Use positive encouragement instead of negative reinforcement where possible, especially when the mechanical result is the same. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

49 Heroes with no Health or Strength loot would die almost instantly. Instead of Armor as a base stat on all items (which we didn’t have), use Health. Base stats don’t scale like in other games because of no hero leveling. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Ravagers and Tempests with No Health Solution Other stats are problematic too. New Problem Increase the health on Defense items, other slots get their own base stat(s). New Solution Not enough power to use abilities or no chance to crit.

50 Darkspore has no skill ranks… Power costs scale when the primary stat is increased. In traditional RPGs skills level up, which increases their mana cost. Balance it so the extra damage is worth the extra power. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Power Costs Didn’t Scale Solution Opens up a support strategy with low primary stat, high sustainability.

51 Take inspiration from Plants vs Zombies. When just building one squad and getting a choice of planets, players don’t need to care about any of their other heroes. Build three squads, get assigned a planet, choose which squad to use. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Hero Collecting Doesn’t Matter Enough Solution Why not let players build them on the fly? Creates strategy and frees them from having to keep all of their creatures up to date.

52 Darkspore has no skill leveling, so the coefficient was even more important than usual. Keeping the coefficients and base damages synced up perfectly was difficult. In many RPGs, ability damage = X + (stat * coefficient). Eventually the hidden coefficient is the only meaningful number. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Additive Damage Coefficients The Problem New Solution! Use multiplicative coefficients. Damage = X * (1 + (stat * 0.04)). Could now easily change player ability damage globally by tweaking one number.

53 We want you to play together! Operatives (inspired by Left 4 Dead) threaten players who are alone. Different hero speeds plus natural inclination to run off on your own. All heroes get to travel at Ravager speed when out of combat. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Players Are Getting Separated in Co-Op Solution

54 Systems Design Advice #9 Darkspore borrowed systems from: Borderlands, Call of Duty, Warcraft 3, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2, Plants vs Zombies, and so on. Don’t be afraid to use systems from other games if they solve your problems. Your game can borrow pieces without being derivative, especially if you iterate. There are lots of other smart people who have spent a lot of time thinking about problems like yours, take advantage of it! Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

55 Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

56 The 500 th time…less awesome. People had to spend minutes just equipping loot after a level. Editing for the first time is awesome. So much customization! Maybe should have just gone the traditional route and focused on one hero… Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Editor Fatigue

57 They lost their individual identities due to all the variables. Most people didn’t even use the prefix to refer to them. Unique items had: scaling levels, variable looks, wacky names, and rare/epic versions. Also, players couldn’t farm for specific items anywhere. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed “Unique” Items Didn’t Feel Unique We wanted to have specific planet loot tables but never had time to add them.

58 Wanted to add a hardcore mode but never found the resources. Players love rolling alts and experiencing the game again for a variety of reasons: Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed No Way to Start Over Use newfound knowledge. Start over with a friend who’s new to the game. Parents want to let their kids play without screwing up their game.

59 Tried to build it for both… Ended up pleasing no one. Couldn’t decide if we were building a game for mastery players or creative players. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Audience Confusion

60 Elites added too much randomness to whether or not you could beat a level. Made chaining worthless at higher levels. We thought players would be willing to start below their max progression to get a chain going in order to beat a hard level. Not enough internal testing of the high levels, plus a beta level cap. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Players Didn’t See Chaining as a Viable Option

61 Difficult to make enough obvious counters that players will understand. See Trenched for an example of doing it right. 96 different unique types of enemies, 25 unique heroes. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed Plants vs Zombies Design Didn’t Work Out

62 Systems Design Advice #10 DO play all the classes though. Get good at your own game. Avoid bias however you can. Don't get attached to the classes you primarily play or the ones you designed. Don’t make changes based on emotion. Wait until you’ve calmed down. Systems of DarksporeProblems and SolutionsDesign GoalsIdeas That Didn’t Work OutWhere We Still Failed

63 Questions?

64 Thanks! Paul Slides will be available at: (feel free to come up and ask for a collectible business card!)


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