skill based gameplay

I’m not going to show off my menus in this post. Even though they’re awesome. Or the music. Even though that’s even more awesome. I’m just going to talk about some new balancing. Boring stuff!

But this is the most important part of the game—any competitive game, really. Zarvot is first and foremost a competitive game, and thus must be skill-based.  Two equally-skilled players should be able to play a tense match.

A skilled game clearly has some downsides, however. Players new to the game, or matched with a skillful opponent, are at risk of being utterly destroyed. This is disheartening to the losing player, and to myself as the game’s designer. There are ways around this, but they’re difficult to pull off.

The first way is to make winning more lucrative. In games with a very high skill ceiling and a very steep learning curve, winning payoffs are usually astronomical. Either in that it has large social gains (everyone loves you if you’re good at X hard game) or monetary gains (tournaments). In these types of games, once you get beyond a certain skill level, the very act of getting better and analyzing the game becomes fun. These titles are very polarizing.

Another way is to add alternative goals or easier ways of playing the game. For example, in many team-based games players can relegate themselves to a supporting role such as a healer. Or, if a player is not skillful enough in terms of aiming in a first person shooter, there may be lock-on weapons that require less skill.

And finally, the best way, in my ultra-important opinion, is to make the gameplay fun enough that losing doesn’t really matter. As you may imagine, this is exceedingly difficult to do for a competitive title. By making the game competitive, it inherently has to reward “winning” more than “losing,” and therefore “losing” is still undesirable.

In deathmatch style games such as Zarvot, killing an opponent is a win. Each kill is a small victory. Many of these types of games assign each player a kill/death ratio at the end of each round, effectively telling each player how well he or she did. If you killed one enemy and died four times, you have lost in the deathmatch sense. Some games decentralize killing and dying, by adding point rewards to various actions, or by having an overall objective that matters more towards winning than killing the opponent does.

Currently the Zarvot’s TUG mode is an objective-based game. You can die however many times you want, but it won’t do you any good if you just keep farming kills. The goal is to get the ball to your objective, and away from the opponent’s. If you are focusing on killing, it’s exceedingly difficult to get the ball anywhere. In my opinion, the most fun party gametype I have currently. It’s hectic and because there are infinite lives and another objective, players aren’t too sad about dying—they don’t have to sit the round out.

New players are always going to be the hardest to test for. You’ll make the game deeper or more skill-based, and then a new player will not like it. Whenever a new playtester goes up to my game and is visibly (or audibly) frustrated, my heart sinks. Playtesting is, as someone once put it, an invitation for people to tell you why you suck and why your game sucks. It’s unfortunate how terrible it can make you feel, but it is the greatest tool in a game developer’s arsenal. When a new player plays your game and is frustrated, he or she will stop playing. That will shatter your little heart!

But that’s okay. Pick up all the tiny shards, zip them up in a baggie, and bring them home to mend. Sit down, and while gluing yourself back together, think of how to minimize frustration. Why was the player frustrated? Sit, and think about it. Create a solution, implement it, and go test it out again, once your heart is taped up and ready to go.

Zarvot will always be a competitive game, but obviously casualized. It will not be as cutthroat as the frame-perfect input dance of Street Fighter, but not as easy and shallow as Tic-Tac-Toe. It’s the ideal zone, where it’s fair game to trash talk yet accessible enough for a family game night.

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