Layerin’ exercise

There’s something to be said about systems that work with each other to compensate and enhance the overall experience of a player. A balancing of moments, if you will. And this post is a simple design exercise I’ve been doing in the last hour or so … but only now I’ve sat down to identify how I go about such a thing.

layered cake
I love those layers of sweet, moist and delicious ... mechanics.

Some systems build up and become enjoyable the more the player gets to use them and some systems are only fun for the first few minutes and then turn to tedium. The best example of the latter is probably Doodle God: You’ll have fun figuring out the first few dozens of combinations since they come quickly and are pretty intuitive, but once you have too many icons the search for new combinations becomes a chore. The ratio of work vs reward gets stretched out very very quickly and the player either quits or completes the thing just for the sake of it. It becomes work.

On it’s own, Doodle God is a fun diversion that quickly turns to tedium, but if you took the basic idea of it (combining different elements to create new ones) and layered it on top of, say, let’s get extremely creative here, a battle engine where each element is a different attack, then you’d have both systems working together. Now we only need a new system on top of these two to pace the experience, or in other, less elegant words: to slow down the initial reward for the combination of items. To do this I can think of three ways that are not mutually exclusive:

  • The ability to combine elements requires points that are gained in battle and during other activities. Maybe other uses for these points are available.
  • Allow all combinations from the start, but many of the elements are unable to be used as combinations due to … something. Level caps would be the traditional way of implementing this one.
  • The initial elements can be combined to form only up to, say,3 other elements. After that, the player must acquire a new element to be able to make further combinations.

The first one stretches out the process of combining elements and thus can bring some of the tedium down and even out the reward scheme while giving the player some time to think instead of blindly combining everything with everything. The second one… I’m not particularly fond of, since it’s always very artificial and basically taunts you by letting you do all the work and then deny you of your reward until you achieve an unrelated goal or objective (In the WoW universe, you need to be an experienced warrior (level 45) to be allowed to eat a freaking cherry pie).

The third one is actually pretty interesting. It relies on the designer pacing out the key elements, creating times where the player will concentrate in combining elements and other times where he’ll completely ignore the mechanic.  It’s a more hands-on approach to pacing than how I like to design (though I imagine it wouldn’t bother me while playing the game) but it’s a hell of a lot better and much less artificial than the second option.

So, basically, here we have three systems all providing different things on different levels:

  • A main reward layer composed of elements combination that requires a resource.
  • A battle layer where the main rewards are put to use and the secondary rewards are doled out.
  • A secondary reward layer that slows down the main reward layer at first and then speeds it up by the end, compensating the whole thing out if done correctly.

There’s of course many many other layers than can be added to these, like a pressure layer (the day cycle in majora’s mask), an economy layer that interacts with the reward layers and can become one itself, a personalization layer where you have to assign a number of elements to each character, a strategy layer where each element has a particular effect on enemies of certain types,  and so on.

The thing is, you need to stop at some point and look at all the layers and evaluate how each one affects the others. Because blindly adding layers can be just as harmful as having only one solitary layer as Doodle God does…. but requiring an amount of work orders of magnitude higher.

The tasteful (har har) image was taken from this source.


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