This is the first of what I hope to be many articles on game design and theory. Initially I intend to use The Empyrean, my first public release, to draw from. Mainly I wanted a forum to discuss some of the decisions I made in that game, how and why the decision was made, and offer a little insight into the thoughts behind them.
For the first article, I wanted to touch on one of the more bizarre concepts in the game, and that is the mechanics behind the Daoist class. Before we get into the why, I feel a little bit of background necessary.
When the game was first conceptualized, it was a drastically different game from what was eventually released. Everything was much more standard within it’s genre: a Medieval European setting, warriors and mages, and what is now the Daoist class was the more standard fare, a cleric. The initial testing was actually a Bukkit mod for our SMP server that added elemental magic, with the ability to switch elements, and each of the elements representing one of the standard RPG classes. Since this was a server plugin, there were no new items, and this meant that the standard healer weapons, maces and staves, were not available. To make do, the rogue element (fire) went unarmed, the warrior element (earth) used a sword, and the mage element (air) was also unarmed but from range. What to do then with the cleric? The only other weapon in the game at the time was the bow, so I added a few spells dealing with arrows to the mix. A cleric with arrows didn’t really make a whole lot of sense at the time, but I went with it in the name of balance.
Eventually I decided to pursue this game concept more fully. Every hack or shortcut I had to make because it was a server plugin grated on me, and when I finally decided to make an actual client modification, I saw the opportunity to redesign the structure of it all. This is when the Chinese mythology theme came into the game, and for the most part it was just an overlay. The soldier was still basically a warrior, but the arrow-firing cleric didn’t fit anywhere. At this point, the cleric was a mess of healing spells and damaging arrow attacks, and I had to make a choice: abandon the bow, or find a way to somehow integrate those two wildly different concepts. I liked the bow, and since it was in the game anyway, it felt wrong to cast it aside and make a new weapon for the now Chinese-inspired cleric, and I had no idea what that would be anyway.
The first attempts at marrying these two mechanics together were awful. A special shot that let you fire an arrow that healed the caster for an amount based on the damage dealt, and another shot that did the same but healed a random ally. Feedback on this was that it felt clunky and awkward, and that the bow didn’t really fit with the rest of the class. I was determined to make it work, but I was out of ideas.
A few months down the road, as the other classes were being polished up and the new enemies and items were making their way into the game, I noticed something while testing the stronger arrows. Hitting my allies during combat was obnoxious, and since they moved around a lot, healing them was equally difficult. I thought that if there was a way to combine those two aspects, I wouldn’t have to worry as much. If my heals missed my allies, they should at least try and damage my enemies. I experimented with a few different key bindings to make this happen by attempting to cast both with mild success. It was better, but not great.
That’s when I got the idea to combine them at a base level. Why hack it together with awkward keyboard shortcuts, when I could just make the spell do both, depending on who it hit? I tested a few spells with this mechanic and loved it. I didn’t have to worry about my allies moving around like crazy people. Sure if they were low on health I had to be more careful, but since my attacks now healed them if they got in the way, that came up much less often. Making this new type of spell work with the bow was almost too easy. The same mechanic that fixed the target problem seemed a natural way to fix this one as well. Arrows that cast my spells for me was an exciting idea, and one that I still really like as a mechanic.
In testing, this mechanic held up well. Conjure arrows, shoot them with wild abandon, and everyone is happy. This also took what was previously a very energy-intensive class and made it more about preparation. If you have enough arrows, you can last the whole fight and not have to worry about regeneration or waiting on a heal so you can get a few ticks back first. A few of the original arrow skills made their way back into the class, since those were now just a good at boosting healing as they were at boosting the disjointed damage when the class was first started.
I have to say that this is one of my favorite mechanics in the game. It really brings the different aspects of the class together in a way that feels right. So why does our healer have a bow? Because his arrows heal us.