Sunday, August 9, 2009

Combat of Pure Strategy (Pt. 1: Introduction; Melee)

Mot introduced me to a game called GOPS (short for Game Of Pure Strategy). It’s an exceedingly simple game, but the results of the game are determined purely by strategy. It’s one of the few games that involves absolutely no element of chance while remaining non-deterministic.

I’ll give a general description of GOPS before continuing; if you’re familiar with the game, feel free to skip this paragraph. GOPS is best played by two players. The game pieces are three sets of tokens with value markings on them. Usually tokens are marked with values that start at 1 and increase in a regular fashion (it’d be interesting to have token values increase according to a power law or some other distribution—I haven’t experimented with it before). Each set of tokens is identical to the others. Each player claims a set of tokens, leaving one set left over. The left over set constitute a stock that will be contested by the two players through a simple bidding process. Bidding proceeds by a token being selected out of the stock at random, then both players play a token (simultaneously) of the value they wish to bid. Whoever bids higher claims the contested token. The tokens that the players bid are discarded. Play continues thus, with players bidding on each token in succession and the higher bidder claiming the contested token, until the stock is exhausted. Once the stock is exhausted (the players’ tokens will be exhausted at this point, as well), each player totals the values of the tokens they have won. The player with the highest total wins the game.

If my description doesn’t make sense, feel free to check out the Wikipedia article. Or this.

Several months ago, Mot and I had a series of discussions about fitting GOPS as a combat system for an MMO. I think it’d be great for melee combat, and with some modification it may also work for magic and ranged combat (I’ll cover ranged/magic in a later post).

No random numbers need apply. The system would be relatively simple, as well. Show the combatants the tokens they’re bidding on and give them a time limit within which they must select the token they wish to bid. Better melee characters can receive bonuses for winning certain kinds of tokens. There could be special tokens as well that could be injected into the contested slot (the player would press a hotkey to queue abilities into the contested slot in place of whatever token would otherwise have appeared) by either player in an attempt to perform a special attack.

Combat would be constituted of contests which are organized into rounds. Bidding on one contested token is one contest. Each contest would have a time limit of 5-10 seconds. Sets of 5 contests constitute a round of combat. Whoever wins the round (whoever has the higher total value of tokens won) deals damage to the opponent and performs whichever of their own abilities they had won during the round. A one-on-one combat may take 5-8 rounds depending on who is fighting. This would be slower-paced than most MMOs, but this is not a problem because I aim to emphasize tactical decision-making and not rely on twitch mechanics to keep the players aware.

Why have combat of pure strategy?
  • It reduces the role of chance to a bare minimum.

  • It gives players a good reason to pay attention to combat.

  • It is non-trivial to win a combat.

  • It is entirely based on the strategic thinking of the players—you lose because you make mistakes or misjudgments, not because the dice weren’t in your favor.

  • It creates micro-level tactical and psychological contests that are missing from most MMORPGs. It’s very satisfying to read your opponent’s bids and expend as few resources as possible to beat them.

Potential weaknesses:
  • Combat may become too long.

  • Players don’t necessarily want to have to pay attention to combat on a second-by-second basis.

  • The first round or two is a feeling-out period where the results may be not strongly correlated to skill (the players are still figuring out what the other’s strategy might be). If players don’t fight one another often enough or if players switch targets rapidly, the draw of the GOPS system is severely weakened.

I think it’s at least worth prototyping a pure strategy combat system. I see a tremendous upside and a lot of appeal for players who enjoy skillful play but still want an RPG-like experience.


motstandet said...

absolutely no element of chance ...
selected out of the stock at random

That aside, the issue I see with this is the same I saw in the MTG-esque combat system we also discussed months ago. Id est, free-roaming combat is hard to achieve. What happens when 2 players are engaged in combat and a third comes along? Can the game become a 2v1 spontaneously? Or must the 3rd player wait until the round is over?

Obviously if there is no free-roaming world, this isn't a problem. Something like GW, where the party is constructed beforehand, and the game knows exactly what the teams are.

Melf_Himself said...

Decent idea. Thoughts:

1) This sounds like it would be a bit slow paced... if anything I've always wanted to increase the pace of MMO combat. I don't see any loss to increasing the speed, because the correct play is going to be judged by "feel" more than by number crunching. I'd decrease each 'round' substantially.

2) You don't need tokens as rewards. Instead you can make the reward for each bid have more of a combat context - e.g. the winner gets a positional advantage, or does X amount of damage.

3) Instead of players running out of tokens to decide a particular battle, I'd just put them on a cool-down. That should make it feel a bit more MMO-like, and help prevent issues with changing targets etc.

4) A simple control system might be to list the available tokens on your screen similar to a skillbar in a standard MMO, and use the scrollwheel to select the one you want to use. Keeping it simple like that could let you stagger other simple combat systems on top without things feeling too crazy.

Dblade said...

It would be poor. GOPS seems to me to be a sucky game, for two reasons:

1. If you don't know the value of the token you are bidding on, its pure randomness. Winning an individual token could mean losing your highest bid for a 1 point card, or losing the game because the one card you dumped a low bid on was actually the king. Even if you knew after you won the bid, it's impossible to strategize until most of the cards are gone.

2. if you do know, there's no game. If both players can see that the token being bid for is a 1 point, they will both discard their lowest bid token on it, to tie. GOPS doesn't seem to have anyway to resolve ties.

Maybe I'm missing something, but all i would do in GOPS is bid the exact same value of the token I would be bidding on, 1 for 1, 2, for 2, etc. That means once i got to 9 and up, i'd win no matter what, because my opponent would lose the highest value bid cards if he did anything else.

If i couldn't do so, and each token was damage on me, I would reverse it, and bid my highest on 1, and win every bid till my opponent ran out of HP. Or we'd tie and kill each other.

Maybe you could amplify on this some and deal with some of these objections for me.

evizaer said...

1. You know the value of the token you're bidding on.

2. Then no one will win. You play the game to win, not to tie.

I guess you don't understand the point of strategy. You're supposed to bid on cards in a way that will allow you to end up with a higher total value than your opponent. That means that if your opponent is bidding even value, you can bid one higher and win a card. Once this occurs, the rest of the game is completely changed from the static tie condition that you believe is all people will do. Your opponent has to win SOMETHING, but he doesn't know on which card you will chose to bid low to offset your previous higher bid.

It's pure strategy. There is no hidden information (that is actually useful). There is no chance.

You should try to play the card game before you write it off.

Dblade said...

Nah, I know already I wouldn't want to play this MMO. I can't see this system working. Not in the context of an MMO, where you kill a lot of enemies over time and advance your character.

evizaer said...

Yes. You want a trivial game that you can "complete" easily and with little thought. (Keep in mind that every MMO does not need to have interminable grinds where you kill thousands of enemies to make any progress.) I'm trying to design an engaging system that will require skill for success. Different tastes. I don't think that the MMO design philosophy that embraces trivial tasks has much of a future, though--that may just be my bias towards games that offer meaningful decisions and reward player skill.

I should probably write a posts that frames my design strategy and goals better.