Avatar Combat Revision
Let’s talk about avatar combat.
I’ve said before that our swordfighting system is where our ship combat system was a couple of years ago: the foundation of the system is there, and we’re confident we’re on the right track, but we still have serious iteration and polish to do.
Over the last few months, I’ve been working almost completely off the radar on just that: a major iteration of the avatar combat system. At the same time, most of the content team has been doing the same for the avatar missions; the animation team has been revising all the swordfighting animations; the UI team has been revising the UI and the particle effects; and the sound team has been iterating all the sounds of avatar combat.
In short, we’ve been stripping avatar combat down to its foundation and building up again. We’ve learned a lot from the first major iteration of the system; we know what worked and what didn’t, what was fun and what was dull. We’ve gathered a lot of feedback from you as well as feedback from our internal test team. We’ve applied that knowledge to create a new system that (in my naturally biased opinion) is much more fun and engaging, as well as easier to learn and easier to use.
I’m going to talk about the overall vision for the system, and then touch briefly on the major changes I’ve made. We’ll be publishing more devlogs on the new avatar combat in the future, so if I don’t address a concern you have here, it’s likely to be in one of the future devlogs.
First, let me talk about the origins of the revision, and some of my sources of inspiration. Back when we first started talking about adding avatar combat to the game, long before we shipped, I had an idea of what I wanted it to look like and what I wanted it to feel like. The model I had in mind was somewhat of a cross between Shining Force Neo and Bushido Blade. I wanted a system that would let me slice through armies of minions like a hot knife through butter, but that would be tactical and complex in a one-on-one duel between evenly matched opponents.
One of my highest priorities after the madness of the game’s launch was to go back to the avatar combat system and thoroughly review it. It was added late in the development cycle, and was thus the system in which I had the least confidence.
What I discovered was, as I mentioned above, a good foundation with a very early iteration built on top of it. I spent nearly a month doing nothing but tweaking various configuration values, altering encounters and skills, and adjusting basic combatant stats, hoping to get a gut-level feeling for the system’s strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, I came away with a short list of fundamental changes that I was confident would enhance avatar gameplay.
So what are these fundamental changes?
Initiative begins at 100 and regenerates constantly.
One of the earliest things I realized is that fights were back-loaded. In a fight against a weak opponent, you rarely got to use an interesting special move. By the time you had enough initiative to execute a special attack, the enemy was dead. Worse, those special moves often had drawbacks that made them risky to use against multiple opponents—which was the only time you were likely to have the initiative to use them.
What I wanted was to open fights with my cool special moves. If I was going to kill an enemy minion in two swings, I wanted those two swings to be exciting and impressive. In short, I wanted fights to be front-loaded, not back-loaded.
Under the new mechanic, you always begin every fight with the ability to use your most powerful special moves. Minions die in a few swings, but it feels reasonable that they die, given how over-the-top your first attacks are.
Additionally, moving initiative to a regeneration model instead of a degeneration model allows for more time to think and plan. If you hesitate a second or two before attacking, you aren’t penalized with the loss of your available resources; in fact, hesitating gives you more initiative to spend.
Initiative is the universal combat currency.
I found that I rarely used finishing moves during my testing and evaluation. In concept, they were extremely powerful and effective, but in practice they were almost always overkill. Prep and basic attacks were the only required tools to win almost every fight, and had the additional advantage of not requiring me to keep track of my initiative. Since I was already trying to remember the balance and health values of three or more enemies as well as my own balance, this simplified combat for me substantially—at the cost of interesting options.
I forced myself to use initiative-requiring abilities and initiative-generating abilities, and discovered that the gameplay was substantially more fun. More challenging as well, of course, but that was an artifact of the many overlapping mechanics. Based on this experience, though, I resolved to make initiative management a critical component of the system. Every move, with only a handful of low-end exceptions, would require initiative, and the primary limitation on your power in combat would be your available initiative pool.
Balance does not affect defense.
One of the most frustrating things to deal with in evaluating the combat mechanics was the way in which balance loss lowered defenses. I knew what 100% balance meant—it meant the target would probably avoid my attacks (though maybe not always, if it was a weak minion-type enemy). I knew what 0% balance meant—I would likely hit with my attacks. But what did 63% balance mean? It didn’t mean a 63% chance of missing. What about 59%? If I took my target from 63% to 59%, was it time to start attacking ‘for real’? Or would that just be a wasted cooldown?
Practically, what I discovered was that balance had exactly two states: zero and not-zero. I didn’t care about any of the values in between. If my target was not at zero balance, I made him lose balance. If he was at zero balance, I made him lose health. I could have just as easily replaced balance with a simple binary scale and it would have had the same impact on the combat.
An additional problem with this binary model was that I had two different skill lists: prep attacks and everything else. While my target had balance, I used one skill list. While he didn’t, I used the other. There were no real crossover skills that I might use in either circumstance. In actual gameplay, I chose one prep attack and used that exclusively until my enemy had zero balance, at which point I had two to four ‘real’ attacks I would use. That means that for the first half of the fight, at least, I was pressing the same single button over and over and over.
I tried a variety of changes to balance to see what might address this issue, and what I eventually realized was that the whole notion of ‘prep/basic/finishing attacks’ was flawed. It segregated damage in a way that encouraged me to pick one of each and just use that one all the time.
So I eliminated the concept.
Attacks, in the new system, are just attacks.
This means a fairly significant change for balance, as well. Instead of lowering your defenses, balance now operates in much the same way that armor does in the ship combat system. When you take damage, you take balance damage. As your balance drops, you start taking some of the damage to your health instead. When your balance reaches 0, you’re taking all the incoming damage to your health.
We now call it ‘Guard’.
For the player, it’s a constantly regenerating pool of ‘hit points’. As long as you’re only taking Guard damage, the fight isn’t serious yet; you’re still mostly safe, and will quickly recover once it’s over. For enemies, it’s ablative armor: once you knock their Guard aside, they’re in real danger—and special abilities that can bypass Guard are much more dangerous and significant. Minor enemies no longer regenerate Guard, and even lieutenants regenerate more slowly than the player.
Skills, effects and outfitting are all more effective.
There is some appeal in tweaking tiny, subtle values to alter your character’s performance. However, the price a system pays for that is a sense of disempowerment; it’s hard to feel like you have the ability to change combat outcomes when your entire involvement is to change a tenth of a percentage point here or there.
Intellectually, I knew that the skills I was using, the effects I was applying, and the outfitting items I was equipping were all significant. Intuitively, though, it all felt a little empty and pointless. If I needed to do more damage, I didn’t feel like I could take an action and do more damage. If I was getting slapped around by a tough enemy, I didn’t feel like I could do something to stop him, or get my defenses back up. As a consequence, when I won a fight I didn’t feel as elated as I should have; when I lost a fight, I didn’t feel like there was anything I could have done differently to change the outcome.
So in the revision, I significantly increased the scale of all the combat statistics, to give me more room to adjust the content. Then I increased the relative power levels of nearly every element of your character customization—in most cases, to at least double what they were. A very damaging skill is apparent when you use it; an effect that makes your enemies less accurate is extremely visible. You will be able to tell powerful weapons from trash weapons at a glance.
The ultimate goal of this change is to ensure that you always know what your character is capable of, and when you choose to take an action, it has immediate, predictable, satisfying results.
There are fewer skills, organized into longer chains.
One recurring problem we saw with the initial avatar combat system was that we were able to beat missions that you often couldn’t. Internally, as well, we’d get complaints that a mission was too hard, or a given school was too weak compared to the other two. When we’d try to reproduce these issues, we’d often find the opposite: the mission was too easy, or the school was actually overpowered.
The problem was in skill selection. It was nearly impossible to build a functional, powerful character on your first attempt, and even experienced players would have difficulty figuring out why they would choose skill A over skill B. There were too many chains, and those chains were too scattered in their contents, to provide a clear guideline for character construction.
In the revision, I set out with a goal: when you took any chain to its end, you would have a functional, powerful character, even if you never took any other skills. I looked at the existing roles our internal teams were using, and came up with three core chains: Offense, Defense and Control.
Every school has these three chains, with 8 skills in each chain. Taking all 8 guarantees you a character that is comparably powerful to all the available content in the game. It also creates distinct archetypes, so that a character with the entire Defense chain will focus more heavily on avoiding damage and slowly whittling an enemy’s health down. Each school has their own particular implementation ‘flavor’ for these chains; for instance, Dirty Fighting’s Control chain is focused on short-duration stuns, while Fencing’s Control chain is focused on longer-duration offense debuffs.
Within each chain are synergies between skills intended to increase the benefit for taking the whole chain instead of just part of it; for instance, Florentine’s Offense chain includes a skill that applies the Weakened and Shaken debuffs, and a later skill that will remove those debuffs from a target and inflict significant health damage on the target. Those synergies also extend between trees and between fighting schools; a Fencing Offense player can add the Bleeding effect to a target, and a Dirty Fighting Offense player can remove that effect for additional damage.
For a new player, the skill chains provide a quick and easy guideline to steer their early skill choices. For an experienced player, they provide a set of clear benefits and tradeoffs to choose from. As well, optional non-school-specific skill chains such as the Guns chain offer more options and diversity of character customization.
Almost all skills are area-effect.
I believed at the outset, and continued to believe through the revision process, that our combat system should feature fights against hordes of enemies punctuated by tough battles with individual lieutenants and bosses. Unfortunately, the previous system focused so heavily on the one-on-one duel element of the combat that the ‘hordes of enemies’ idea had mostly fallen by the wayside.
As an experiment, I added a 90 degree AOE arc to every single attack skill in the game. The result was more fun, more exciting, more engaging, and more like what my vision for avatar combat had initially been.
I’ve since done a lot more tuning and tweaking of the actual AOE values for each skill, but the core concept has remained: you almost never fight just one enemy, and nearly all your skills will hit at least two or three enemies. A typical fight involves five or more enemies at once, and harder fights have even more.
Position matters much more; enemies that sneak behind you can’t be hit by most of your skills, so you’re frequently adjusting your position to lure enemies into lining up for a powerful attack. Facing matters as well; you frequently turn to hit an enemy on your flanks before returning to your main targets ahead. Terrain matters, as you pull enemies into more confined spaces to encourage them to bunch up. It’s a lot closer to the original spirit of what we set out to do, and it’s a lot more fun.
Enemies have distinct archetypes and a broad skill selection.
The Content team has been hard at work creating enemy archetypes and unique skills for every major faction in the game. No two factions are exactly alike, and they all have custom combat behavior inspired by lessons we learned creating Bey’s Retreat and Forteleza.
I’m not going to reveal too much of this change, because I suspect the Content team wants to talk about it themselves. However, I will say that the fights are much more flavorful and varied, and there are a lot of clever surprises in store.
Lots of other minor changes.
In addition to the broad changes, I’ve done a lot of low-level tweaking and adjusting. For instance, I’ve changed the global cooldown to be a bit longer, giving more time to plan your next move; I’ve consolidated many of the effects to simplify them; I’ve altered the distance at which enemies will stand while fighting you. The other members of the avatar combat team have made hundreds of changes as well, covering everything from animation and sound to UI and outfitting.
Upcoming devlogs will cover some of the specifics of our testing plan and our schedule for release. As we get closer to the final milestone of work on this feature, we’ll be releasing a lot more detailed and specific information about the new skills, the new chains, the new outfitting, and how all these things come together into the new avatar combat experience. This is still an iterative process; we’re bringing players in to try out features of the system and give us feedback, and that testing process will expand as we approach the release milestone for the system.
I’ve always said that our avatar combat was a good foundation on which to build. With this overhaul, I’m actively enthusiastic about what we’ve built on that foundation. I find myself concocting reasons to ‘test’ the avatar combat, often for much longer than it really takes to test anything. I’m having a great time with the new stuff, and I believe you will too.