Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Working on tweaking the mechanics

It’s easy to get caught up with features, graphics, optimising and going through a checklist of items to do when you work on a game, and not set aside time to keep fiddling with the mechanics. There are an absolute ton of variations to the mechanics of any game. The only real way you know if the mechanics are right, is by trial and error.

If you wonder what the hell I’m on about with ‘game mechanics’, it’s basically the rules and systems by which the game is played. For example, in chess, the pieces all move in different ways. Some can only move forwards, some can only move 1 square at a time… None of the chess mechanics are obvious. Imagine designing it from scratch. We take for granted the idea of a knight moving over other units, or castleing, or units like bishops having infinite ‘range’, but none of them is ‘obvious’.

Right now, my bugbear is support units. GTB has repair trucks and ambulances for attackers, hospitals and repair yards for defenders. My current mechanic is this:

The support units pulse out ‘waves’ of effect at a certain interval and radius. Any damaged vehicle (repair) or soldier (hospital) within that radius at the time gets X of their health replaced.

Look! Neither side is bothering with hospitals or repair units…

This seems ineffective, and there is little real incentive to use these units. I might have just set the costs for them too high or the effect too small, but in fact i think it’s more fundamental. By the time people are losing health, they are a lost cause, and the interval between lost health and death is too slow to enable a health pulse to really do much good.

Possible solutions:

  • Ultra-rapid health pulses to ensure timing not an issue,
  • Reduce armor and shields and increase health of all units
  • Make support units dirt cheap so they are worth it anyway
  • Allow recently destroyed / killed units to be revived by the pulses.
  • Change the mechanic entirely so that the units don’t use pulses, but act as damage modifiers to protect everyone within their radius, effectively making them mobile buffs.

I’m planning on trying out the last option. It involves a lot of fiddly code, but what doesn’t eh?

BTW, stuff like this takes AGES, and it’s why I REALLY hate clones of games, where some talentless drone comes along and just copies an existing game design but slaps on some new textures. Yes, it really is easy to copy the mechanics of a popcap game, but coming up with those mechanics took a ton of work. This stuff is never obvious, and I personally don’t think it can be reliably learned from books. I think you have to just keep trying stuff.

13 thoughts on Working on tweaking the mechanics

  1. If you go with your last option will the unit be able to get their back to full 100% Or will just act as a damage modifier. As a player I would expect my unit to reach full health. How about instead of pulses those units have a radius effect and put a constant health increase over time to all units with-in that radius? I would also allow that if two hospitals or repair yards have over lapping radii that they have double the impact for units in that area. Keep the cost of them high though.

  2. Damage prevention does sound like the most feasible approach. Repair can work but yes, it either requires relatively durable units or very frequent checks. For our mobile repair stations and whatnot it actually does the math every single frame. Not a big cpu drain, on the whole, but avoiding that kind of need for per-frame computation is a good idea if you can do it.

    Regeneration of dead units is actually a good mechanic to explore as a separate unit, if it fits into what you’re wanting to do. For ours it just ties into the “on death” logic and instantly revives the dying unit at its own location at the cost of some its health (if you have an “energy”/”mana” bar for these it could use that instead).

  3. I’d be inclined to give the repair action more like weapon mechanics – the repair unit has to aim at individual units, each use costing some energy, with a limited energy rate, and costing more energy to repair units that are further away. So the repair unit can do some good when it’s back at a safe distance, but to be really effective it has to get closer. If the problem is that by the time armor is gone it’s too late, the unit could repair armor and give up on still-living units when their armor is gone.

  4. The resurrection of mechanical units makes more sense than with living units. Even if you can’t get the vehicle working, you could at least scavenge it for parts.

    Perhaps you should use different fixes for the two unit types to make them feel different. However, if the unit types are already different enough then that would just add needless complexity.

  5. As Polyyergic suggests, there is a 6th option, which is allow them to repair armour/shields as well/instead.

  6. Well you can try using support sklls instead of units as support, Company of heroes had special skill points for “off map” skills (basically spells in a traditional medieval RTS).

    You could try skills/spells that are casted that have area of effect instead. This takes away the logistics of having to fiddle with where you put support units and you can just focus on how much spells points a player is limited to or earns throughout a game.

    Knowing when abstract from units/simulation to skills/spells imho is probably one of the least understood aspects of designing strategy games.

    Supreme commander had serious issues of trying too hard to simulate everything instead of doing what is best for the gameplay even if that means doing silly “video game” like things. For instance in Supreme commander 1 units individually were animated and loaded into transports, and the units had to be right size to fit in the transports (as per real world). In supreme commander 2 they just instantly warp/disappear into transports that wouldn’t fit them all from a real world perspective.

    There is lots of bone-headed game design like in Supreme commander 1 in many modern games and I have to wonder if anyone on the team remembers they are making VIDEOGAMES. That “it doesn’t have to be real, it has be fun”. I notice game developers going out of there way to make gameplay encumbered by fancy simulations/animations that have no relevance to the game and just get in the way of the fun.

    This often means having transports that are like portable holes. :)

  7. You could always try the approach in TF2, and allow the support units to heal units past 100% health.

  8. Indeed. Company of Heroes does that in various setups too.
    Right now I have a simple 50% off damage multiplier for all units in range, and that’s a bit hardcore, so I might need to tone down the ranges a bit. I do like the simplicity and clarity of the mechanic though, especially with a nice visual cue showing which units are being supported.

    Now I need to get the AI to prioritise shooting at effective support units, and do a ton more play balancing, as ever.

  9. Couldn’t you try the support units not so traditional support units? Such as maybe the support units could give speed boosts every now and then, in the pulse wave form.

    The pulse wave would spread out slowly from the support unit and as the pulse wave hits your units on its way, they gain a short speed boost.

    Or maybe they the support units could produce a temporary shield which can be shot down and so on. Or maybe they could give more armor at times and so on.

    There are plenty of other options too. You just need to find those source of innovation. I personally got those ideas above from Starcraft 2 Sentry unit and it evolved from there.

    Using just basic heal and repair functions feels a bit dull.

    Or maybe the support units could salvage dead soldiers and machines and that way gain energy or mass and use that energy or mass to whatever thing they would do, maybe to produce, duplicate or clone an existing near by unit so there later on would be two of those units on the field instead of just one. (This idea came from Hostile Waters game and the Scarab unit.) Think about zombie armies made out of dead soldiers and clone armies made out of destroyed tanks and so on.

  10. Or maybe the support units even could salvage destroyed vehicles or dead soldiers and take their weapons so the support units would be adaptive vehicles and soldiers which could carry to differently functioning weapons and so on.

  11. The medics evacuate wounded soldiers, which then heal in hospital to be deployed again later. Effect: Every heal provided boosts income by a percentage/value.

  12. I quite like that idea. You would just get some points back for the dead guys, to spend on new ones. Although the way the game works, there is no way to prevent you spending them on tanks, which makes little sense.

    There is theoretical potential for various units there. Some give off a general protective boost, as the current ones do, but others could salvage wrecks as they went over them, or restore health actively mid-battle.

    In fact, maybe my original idea for a ‘command truck’ could do the area of effect thing…
    Bah, this game will never be finished…

  13. A guy who’s lost a leg is not much good on the battlefield, but can still put on bolts at a tank factory. So there, points gathered from rescuing “dead” soldiers going into tanks can be explained away.

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