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Monday
Apr142014

Codex Design Diary: The "NPE"

In this story, one thing leads to another.

At the Game Developer's Conference, I let some of the conference associates play Codex. Link Hughes (designer on Guild Wars 2) was among them. He didn't have much time to get into it and he had to leave early, but he gave several comments about what he called the "NPE." The New Player Experience. I thought it was so stupid to have a jargony acronym for this that I have remembered it ever since. (Sorry Link, I'm not saying the concept is stupid!)

He was talking about various reasons that it's bad if a game is hard to learn. Yeah sure. There's a lot to games like Magic: the Gathering or Codex and it's kind of inherent to games of that complexity that they take some effort to learn. Codex in particular is trying to do something very different than other games of its type, too: it's trying to be a strategically interesting after years of play, even without *having* to endlessly refresh the card pool. (Sort of like how you can play Starcraft or chess for years without needing new pieces for the game to be interesting.) It's been so much effort to make the game really work how it needs to that I've been much more concerned with that than how we end up teaching it when it's done. That's not something you can even directly work on until you have it all hammered out.

Plus, every time we make any decision about the game, we're indirectly considering the new player. It's often easy to solve some design problem by adding more stuff: more rules, more words, more pieces. But that's not elegant and I always push back. At every step, I try to fight off the feature creep of more more more to keep things as elegant as they can be, given what we're working with. So the beginner benefits from all that.

Link just really went on about this NPE thing though, it was clearly very important to him. I told him how the "NPE" in Codex is that we suggest you start by playing just one hero instead of three. That this simplifies the game quite a bit. It's not just those hero cards themselves, but all the spells and units that are associated with those heroes that you don't have to worry about for your first game. It's cutting 2/3rds of the cards right off the bat, basically.

Link thought that was a good idea. He was looking for more ways to make it easier for a beginner though, or ways for them to care more about trying the simplified version rather than skipping it.

Designing The NPE

Later on, I thought about what Link said. I thought about how I've had to spend all my effort on making the game work correctly, so that's why I hadn't put that much thought into New Player Experiences other than the "only one hero" thing, which is a pretty good way to start. But...what if I really cared about this? What if we said this is super important, and we maximized for the NPE? What would it even look like? I like to do that when things like this come up, and it's basically what we did for asynchronous play a year ago. If we had to change everything around to support this new idea, what would we even do?

The good news is that the answer is easy. It practically designs itself (very much UNLIKE "what if the game was entirely asynchronous?"). To make things as simple to learn as possible, you would want to use the one hero game I mentioned above, except you wouldn't want it to be any of the existing heroes. You'd want a new one, outside of any other factions. A neutral faction, basically. You'd want simpler cards than usual to go along with the hero, and not quite as many cards overall as for a full game.

There's a specific reason that you really do need new cards for this, as opposed to using cards we already have. Each faction has a "starting deck," sort of like in Puzzle Strike, or Dominion. These cards are the ones you're going to see the MOST as you play the game over and over. On the one hand, you want them simple, but there's a larger force that makes them not simple. Precisely because they come up so often in so many games, they really need some texture. They need to do a bunch of different things that are at least kind of interesting and that give you various options to start along different lines of strategy.

For a beginner, you want them all blank or something. Probably the eurogame farming-themed version of Codex would do that. But wow would that be a worse game. It would be like playing Puzzle Strike without any character chips in your starting deck, imagine if those were blank how boring the game would be overall.

So the NPE wants a neutral faction starting deck that is as simple as it can be, and that doesn't need to be played 1000 times or something. If these cards are simpler, you won't be bored the first few times because you'll be trying to learn how the overall system works. It was actually super easy to figure out what these cards should be for a beginner. It took like 10 minutes to design them.

Great, so far, anything else? The flying mechanic came to mind immediately. The beginner should play without anything having flying. Flying works differently in Codex than in MtG, and it's a bit more like it works in a video game. In Starcraft, a zealot (ground unit) can't hit a mutalisk (flying unit) ever. It just can't. The mutalisk can get free hits on the zealot and that's just too bad for the player with the zealot. Same in Codex. It's not that this is complicated, it's just that it's one more thing to explain, and it's faster to get going if you don't have to hear about that before you even start.

Furthermore, if you already knew how the game worked, it would be very easy to tell you about flying. So I made three extra neutral cards that you "unlock" after you're comfortable (after 1 game, probably). One has flying, one has anti-air (which lets you hit flying stuff) and the other is another mechanic called overpower which is kind of like MtG's trample. The point here is that you don't have to know that stuff to start, then we give a very small set of new stuff after you play once that are the exact things you should learn next.

NPE Combat

What about COMBAT though? That's the thing that has changed over and over for the last year because of trying to make the game work asynchronously. In a previous article I talked about how there's two kinds of attacks, the "auto-attack" and "micromanaged attack." It's immediately obvious to us experts that we could really, really simplify the explanation for your first play if we only told you about the auto-attack part.

In the main game, auto-attacking can only hit the opponent's "base," which means their hit points, basically. In the NPE, we could restrict it to that, but it's a better into to the game if they are able to attack other buildings too. That's fine though, auto-attacking COULD be allowed to hit other buildings if we wanted it to. There's no real reason it can't, the problem only arises when it's allowed against other things that can block, like units and heroes. Buildings don't jump in front of each other to block, so we could expand the auto-attack to hit any building the player wants without any problems.

I tried this is an actual playtest. It worked fine. It was very smooth and simple. If anything, it worked...too well.

Yeah, too well. Here's the issue: what we tell the player when they are ready to transition from the beginner game to the full game. Most of what we tell them is stuff that just expands what they already knew. Now you have more heroes, and more cards that go along with them. You get some more buildings that correspond to your new cards. You get a couple extra buildings too, whatever. Your cards now say slightly more complicated abilities on them. it all feels like a natural progression...except for combat.

For combat, we tell you, "So there's a whole OTHER way to attack that involves this thing called a patrol zone. You didn't even need that for the version you played, but now there is such a zone. And it has a bunch of rules that say how it works, blah, blah." A player might think, "But...I just played it without all that and it seemed fine? What is the overall point of all this patrol zone stuff compared to what I just played?" The answer is that this whole extra set of rules lets you attack heroes and units, in addition to buildings. Ok, but when it's framed like this, it sure seems like a loooooong way to go to get that.

One Thing Leads To Another

Maybe the issue isn't the NPE. Figuring out what the NPE should be was very simple, actually. Maybe the issue is that the NPE has really shined a light on a problem with the main game. If the NPE works so smoothly and simply, isn't there some way to slightly modify it to allow for attacking units and heroes or something? I mean we really need all this extra rules junk JUST for that?

The last year of development says: yes, we really do need it. But damn it, this thing about transitioning from the NPE to the full game really, really shows how much rules baggage there is. To understand a bit about this rules baggage, let's consider two different kinds of difficulty for a player: 1) the difficulty in understanding the rules, and 2) the difficulty in making reasonably good decisions once they understand the rules.

The patrol zone system was a huge improvement in category 2 there, even though it comes at the cost of being worse at category 1. One problem that some versions of Codex have had, including the one that was at last year's Fantasy Strike Expo, is that analyzing what to do in a combat was really much harder than it should have been. It's too much detail to explain exactly why that its, but the general gist of it is that you wish it was like this:

"If I do X, they will will probably do Y. Ok, now I know if I want to do X."

not this:

"If I do Y, they might do A, B, or C. If they do A, then I could do E or F. If they do B, I could do G or H. If they do C, I could do I or J. Ok I will explore the possibility they do A. It looks like my answers of E or F both lead to bad outcomes. In another 10 minutes, I will work out that basically all these options are bad and I'll decide to do nothing."

So the bad thing here is when the player has to think through a whole tree of possibilities, most of which aren't ever going to happen because it turns out they are bad for you. Systems that had this property were usually very easy to EXPLAIN, they were just too confusing to actually play. The patrol zone cut out all those useless trees of bad options and made it very clear if you do X, the outcome is Y, the end. Very easy to play.

This NPE thing was really taunting us though. It was easy to explain AND easy to play through. So in order to attack heroes and units, we need to a whole bunch of stuff that takes time to explain? I mean yeah it's great that after that it's easy to play without being confused, but something seems wrong here. It's just too much of a leap to go into this whole patrol zone thing JUST for attacking heroes and units.

Changing Codex Combat Yet Again

This whole situation made me re-examine my priorities. Do we NEED to be able to attack heroes? Do we NEED to be able to attack units? Well, one of the core concepts of Codex is that you can attack heroes to deny the opponent from playing spells that hero has. It's fine to play the NPE without that, but the full game's heroes have access to very powerful spells and the ability to interact with those heroes in combat is really good. So...yes, that assumption still stands, you need to be able to attack heroes.

Do you need to be able to attack units? Hmm. Sort of? Maybe not? Actually a lot of the game still works if you can't, and just a bit of it doesn't.

And then the tantalizing prize of "simple to explain AND simple to play" felt a little closer when I figured out a way that allowed the NPE combat rules to also attack heroes (but not units). Wow we're pretty damn close now! Can we just give up on attacking units? Can we make special units that are the only things that can attack other units? Maybe that would work. We thought through that at while, and it's kind of a lot of work, and if it all worked perfectly, it turns out a bit sadder than what we already had. blah.

And now here's another problem to pile on: in some versions of this, especially the ones that expert playtester KEVIN broke, the slippery slope was too high. In a previous article I mentioned how giving a certain thing in your patrol zone +1 HP solved that, but if we take the NPE combat and patch in some rules to let you attack heroes (and units??) then are we back to too much slippery slope?

Answers

That was a lot of questions. Maybe sometimes you have to want something bad enough to find the answers. I wanted it bad enough. After all the many, many combat systems we had, I managed to find one that was kind of inbetween the cracks of things we had tried before. Similar, but not the same. It seemed to solve all the above problems all at once: simpler to explain, simpler to play through, and less slippery slope. Yes, really.

This new system lets you attack up to one hero, rather than more than one. It lets you attack up to one unit, rather than more than one. It still lets you attack any number of buildings. If there is a pesky critter on the other side of the board, you CAN deal with it. You can't slippery slope them down to nothing from just a slight advantage though.

Furthermore, because the things you can attack are simplified down to that, it now becomes easy to force an order of resolution. If we say that you announce all those attacks at once, and the other player then resolves them in a set order, then takes their turn, it actually eliminates the trees of bad options to think about. What I mean is that if we say "the order resolve things is always the attack vs 1) a unit, 2) a hero, and 3) any buildings then it means you don't have to consider the possibilities of what if it all gets resolved in some other order. You know the order all along, and so do they. You don't have to work it all out in every possible order just to be able to do anything.

Going Forward

I have tested this new version and people seem happy with it. I'm happy with it. There is no more patrol zone, there's just one way to attack, and it's pretty smooth to play. This is the version that will be shown at Fantasy Strike Expo this June. I really hope that this concludes the very large amount of time put into the game's system design, and we'll move on to balance of power level stuff. I'll open that up to all of you with a print-and-play version, but it looks like that will probably be after Fantasy Strike Expo, and after a kickstarter for Yomi's expansion. It's coming though and then you'll finally be able to see what all these articles have been about.