Sunday, October 5, 2014

Wasteland 2 design thoughts

I'm taking a brief psychological break from obsessing about Clockwork Wars.  To help distract myself, I've dipped full into Wasteland 2, which I Kickstarted a couple years ago and which was recently finalized and released.  I have powerful and bittersweet feelings for the original Wasteland. I played parts of it in 1988, when I was 15 years old, on my Commodore 64.  After years of Ultima, Bard's Tale, Wizardry, etc., it was a breath of fresh air.  A different kind of world, where other humans were your primary enemy, rather than dragons and trolls.

Wasteland also broke my computer.  This was the time of 5.25" floppies, and disk drives with loud mechanical parts, and my computer was towards the end of a long and storied (primarily gaming) life-cycle.  Wasteland's robots and mutated bunnies made my disc drive explode like a blood sausage, and I doubt I got to see more than 10 hours of the game.  It was a highly traumatic experience.

So it's with some excitement (and trepidation) that I've entered into the world of Wasteland 2.  But it's been very satisfying, and certainly a reminder of how "old-school" RPG's used open world + lots of text + skill checks to craft evocative narratives. 

One design aspect that interests me about RPG's is whether the game system gives you control over one player-character (PC) or a party.  The advantage of one is that you, the player, can better experience the world through the eyes of your individual PC - and therefore, you have a more personal experience with the crises and challenges that emerge.  Planescape Torment is a good old-school example of this, and all the Elder Scrolls games are excellent modern ones.  But a party system allows for greater tactical possibilities in combat, which has always been a central feature of Dungeons & Dragons and its many progenitors.  Furthermore, a party allows for multiple archetype representation:  you can have a brawler, a thief, a healer, etc., etc. and get to role-play each of them.

Wasteland and Wasteland 2 are firmly in the second category of forcing you to control a party of characters, where each should be developed in a particular specialty so that you can deal with as many different challenges as possible.  The number of character skills and attributes is, at first, overwhelming - especially if you haven't played a game like this in a while:

Animal Whispering?  Toaster Repair?  You're tempted to take them, aren't you?  As was I.  In the end, certain skills are more useful than others (Field Medic, Demolitions, Safecracking), but with 3-6 skills being developed for each of 4-7 characters, you're going to be able to play around with most of them a bit.  

One subtle decision that Wasteland 2 has made when it comes to using skills is that it forces you to select a character and their skill when you want to use it in the world.  For example, you're exploring a research facility and run across a locked safe in a side-room.  You're not an idiot, so you suspect a possible alarm or trap.  You have to select a character (left click) with a high Perception skill to inspect (right click) the safe.  That inspection reveals a trap.  Now, you need to select another character (left click) with a high Demolitions skill to disarm (right click) the trap.  Once the trap is disarmed, you need to select another character (left click) with a high Safecracking ability to open (right click) the safe.  Maybe the same PC is strong on all 3 of these skills, which makes sense thematically and reduces the "strain" of having to switch characters so much.  But maybe the skills you need to meet a particular challenge are distributed among 2-3 party members.  Lots of clicking ensues.

The designers could have made it so that, if you have your entire party selected, you can right-click to meet any challenge using the appropriate skill from the character with the highest value.  In other words, a lot of this could have been automated to reduce click-strain.  And some reviewers have been complaining about this, and for all I know, the developers are going to patch this in.  But there's another side to this.  When you select a character to test a skill, you've temporarily put yourself in their shoes.  This enhances the role-playing aspect of a game that utilizes a party system.  I think I appreciate that.  It's interesting that a character select via left-click can cause me to make a slight, but meaningful, psychological shift like that - embodiment, or something like it.

Another issue that always comes up for me when I play party-based RPG's is optimal party size - with regards to this issue of personalization and connection.  Too many characters in the party, and I start to lose interest in the entire group as a whole - because it gets harder for my cognitive architecture to perceive the individual and unique value of each character.  I suspect that optimal party-size in part depends upon some inherent aspect of human cognition and memory load, since it just gets too hard to juggle so much information from more than 7-8 characters (for example).  Another factor is probably the breadth of specialization offered by the system.  Let's say that there are 20 unique skills in a game, and that each character can become an expert in 2.  You could theoretically have a party size of 10 to accommodate the entire range of possibilities.  Interesting that you rarely see that solution vs. 4-5 characters who each can specialize in 4-5 skills.

Wasteland 2 parties can increase to 7, and personally, I think that's too much.  I max out at 5, and I kind of wish the system limited me to that.  I'm pleased with the Hobo I just recruited, but do I really need another shotgun expert?  (what a great sentence to be able to write)