LEVEL 2: “I Have no Health, and I Must Respawn.” First obstacle report.

Worrying about abilities and races so early in the game development process is unnecessary. It is like worrying about making the perfect pitch to an investor before you have even come up with a business idea.

Ted — one of the main characters from the video game based on the book of the same name “I have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”

Last week I planned to write an article about Player controlled characters (from now on, PCs) in game design. Yet, while writing the article and working on my own game, and the progress report, I realized that the “popular” methods for designing PCs were useless for my game`s design.

Races and classes. Abilities and skills. Backgrounds and traits. All these things are almost synonymous or at least easily associated with PCs in games. Almost so much that when talking about game prototyping designers (me included) have the tendency to immediately assume that their games need fantasy races and passive abilities without ever sitting down and asking — do I even need any of those things? What are they adding to my game?

This is what I meant when I said that they are useless. Useless if they are put in the game based on only assumptions.

Why does this happen? “Well, Dungeons & Dragons (from now on DnD) has classes and fantasy races. Plus DnD is so popular, thus I need that thing as well.” Yeah… sure, but you are not making DnD. Your game is your own game. It has to be able to stand on its own. If you only copy elements from DnD then you will end up making a Heartbreaker game**

**Heartbreaker game — a game that is like another game, but is better in some aspects. The Heartbreaker is in competition with the game it emulates for attention and most of the time is lost in redundancy since it is not able to pump out more value than the game it emulates.

The other problem is that all the game elements I mentioned are on the micro-level. Worrying about abilities and races so early in the game development process is unnecessary. It is like worrying about making the perfect pitch to an investor before you have even come up with a business idea. Too soon and too much micro-management.

In other words, PCs are not like dice probabilities that you can calculate and predict without making your hands dirty. But, the function of characters is more abstract — the characters are the game. You interact with the game through them.

Sure, look at what other designers have done before you. Analise your “competition”, but don’t assume that you should copy what they have done… unless it actually reinforces the experience you are trying to re-create.

Basically, the PCs are the game… How do we figure out what characters we need?

Characters show us what your game is going to be about and what the players will wish to be good at.

We need some help to do this. We have to look at our compass for guidance again. If you re-read your answers to the three questions then you will be able to decide:

1. What kind of characters does your game need;

2. How should you design the character creation system to make character like that;

3. Constantly check whether the things you are designing are helping you to achieve your games goals.

Let’s use my compass as an example again.

What was my game about?

In short: My game is going to be about a disruption that happens in a community. The disruption forces the player characters to throw themselves in tense circumstances to confront the disruption, thus hopefully bringing life back to normal and achieving catharsis.

Ok, so what does my short description imply about the characters I would need for my game?

  1. They need to be weaker than the disruption or have a disadvantage against it — this will be crucial for creating horror;
  2. They need to be shepherds of a broken community— this will be the motivation for fighting the disruption;
  3. They need to be motivated enough to jump-in tense circumstances- characters need to become “stronger” by searching and dealing with those disruptions;
  4. They need to be able to bring/achieve catharsis — the PCs should have the chance to get rid of the disruption or do something of equal value;
  5. They need to be risking something — there is no horror if the characters cannot lose something.

The other parts of the compass are going to help me to gain a deeper understanding of what all of these things mean.

Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

I could stop here and go with the battle plan that I have now and create the elements I mentioned. Yet, I am going to go and use the compass I created to its full effect. You should do that as well.

If you look at your compass, the answers to the other two questions can add more clarity on what you need to make.

In general, one thing repeats itself over and over again in my answers — Death Drive.

How did we get to Death Drive?

We need tension in the game, yet tension is not one thing. Tension is a composition of many things… one of which is stakes. There is no tension if characters cant loses something. What that means is that stakes can only appear if PCs are trying to do something dear to them.

My idea is to “mechanize” this by using the classical Freudian theory Death Drive.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

What is Death Drive? It is the drive towards death and self-destruction. What that means is that to a certain level people are compelled to do certain things. Some are compelled towards destruction, others towards creation. This compulsion can lead to addiction. The more addicted we become the stronger versions of those addiction agents we need to please us.

Death Drive also helps us to understand where the disruption can come from. For some characters (not necessary only PCs) the Death Drive is so high or they have such taboo desires that they can’t please them in safe ways thus resorting to illegal ones. This can create the disruption.

Death Drive can also be used as a motivator not only fot Pcs but also the monsters. In short, the players will have and will need to act on their drives and please them. If the character is healthy he is going to wish to help people and be rewarded for that. If the death drive is too strong he might be motivated to do bad stuff and be rewarded for bad stuff. Yet, they are required to please them or the death drive will consume them.

Death Drive can also add another layer of tension. Personally, I think that the balancing of the drives might be tense enough, but just in case lets add Obfuscation of game states to the mix. The game is going to obfuscate all kinds of information from the players. Information that is considered important: health, ammo supplies, enemy locations u.c. The lack of information forces people to feel like they are in a thick fog of uncertainty. This also adds tension.

How did we get to Tension points?

Then in one of the answers, I have an idea called Tension points (working name). What were those supposed to do? In order for a player to do a deed that his character is not able to do, he can choose to gain Tension (points) instead of failing the action. As the Tension points increase:

  1. The GM is going to be allowed to introduce more conflict in the game;
  2. The players will be allowed to remove some of the tension points if they will introduce conflict themselves or increase their Death Drive.


Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

What is the lesson of this article? In short, the characters are the game and they will determine what the players can do in the game, and what they should strive for.

Don’t make assumptions about what your player controlled characters and/or character creation systems should be like. Look at your compass and use it to figure this stuff out. Your compassis going to imply the answers. You only have to see them.

This concludes this progress/failure report. I hope that I will not have to lose another week like this anymore, but I feel that the topics are only going to become harder and harder to write about…

So… I have regained that one life that I lost. I have not gained enough experience points to level up and start writing about the next topic. However, in the next article, I am going to continue this progress report and finish it for good.

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