Let’s get back into the swing of things, shall we? I’ve been playing a lot of Titan Quest: Immortal Throne lately. It’s pretty much Diablo 2. It’s pretty, it has some new ideas, but ultimately it comes down to running into a room and clicking a thousand times until everyone’s dead. That being said, this game had one moment that was nearly a dealbreaker for me.
Problem: Cerberus. Or: Bosses that require entirely different tactics from the rest of the game, but don’t tell the player what those tactics are.
Near the end of the Immortal Throne expansion, players run into Cerberus. And this puppy is hard. I kept grinding my character to higher and higher levels, and trying to use special items, but still he tore me apart in an instant.
I looked online to find out how to beat Cerberus, and I found that a lot of my problems were based on false assumptions, assumptions that the game never bothered to train me out of…and one big control issue.
- Cerberus deals poison damage. I came into the fight assuming Cerberus would do fire damage, as would befit a guardian of Hell. When he roared back and breathed a spray of green flames on me, or summoned bursts of green fire from the floor, I never guessed that the damage type was actually poison, rather than fire. The problem here is the game failing to give sufficient feedback about the damage the player is taking. Unless the player has learned that green = poison, there’s nothing to tip them off to the unusual damage type.
- Poison damage is not elemental damage. This was another misconception I had while going into the fight. Poison is displayed right alongside the player’s elemental defenses, but a Scroll of Elemental Resistance doesn’t help against Cerberus at all. It took a lot of trials and deaths before I realized that all the Scrolls I was spending my money on were having no effect.
- The controls of Titan Quest aren’t precise enough to allow the player to reliably dodge some of Cerberus’s attacks. Cerberus is one of two monsters in the game that interact with their battlefields: in the puppy’s case, he causes green flames to erupt from cracks in the ground, dealing massive damage. (You can see the cracks in the screenshot above: notice that they’re all over the place, not running in nice straight lines.) The player must run to a safe point and wait out the flames. The problem is that the Diablo-style control scheme is not at all suited to this kind of precise movement. The player has to try to click on a tiny safe point while the camera is moving and they’re trying to manage their skills and inventory, and hoping their character doesn’t decide to stop halfway, or attack Cerberus instead of moving, or any of a dozen other pathfinding problems that got me killed over and over.
Solution: Be clear about your assumptions, and give the player the knowledge they need to create a battle plan.
First: When the player takes damage or is killed, they should have the opportunity to learn a bit more about what killed them. An excellent implementation would be for the game to display an icon on the side of the screen after a player is killed. When clicked, it brings up information about the attack that killed them, how strong the attack was, what special properties the attack had, and how the player’s defenses and resistances affected it.
Second: If you use keywords in your game, define them. Even if it seems obvious, players will always make bad assumptions unless you give them straightforward definitions. In my case, I assumed that ‘Elemental’ just meant anything that wasn’t physical damage. My mistake, but it’s also the game designers’ mistake for not teaching me otherwise.
Third: Know your genre’s strengths and weaknesses. Precise positioning is not a strength of Diablo-style games, so don’t have your enemies use attacks that require dodging to precise locations. A better challenge for this style of game would be a range-based attack: Cerberus could cause an aura of massive damage at close, medium, or far range, and the player would have to quickly identify the dangerous zone and move to a different range. The controls are more suited to handling broad ideas of ‘near’ and ‘far.’
Problem: Difficulty curve based on optional exploration
The single-player mode of Brütal Legend features a number of scripted storyline battles, interspersed with periods of activity where the player can roam around the game world, earning upgrades and finding hidden statues to increase their life and power. Hidden solos also give the player new abilities that can turn the tide of battle.
However, the player is not required to explore, and may move on to the next story mission at any time. The game’s difficulty is based on the assumption that the player has explored and earned some upgrades, so moving on too quickly can throw the player in over their head, causing the storyline missions to become difficult and frustrating. This problem is compounded by the story of Brütal Legend – it’s excellent, engaging, and well-written. As a player, I found myself much more interested in advancing the main plotline than spending time improving my character.
Solution: NPCs judge the player’s strength and offer advice
Brütal Legend needs to gate the player somehow, to encourage them not to bite off more than they can chew – but without making the restriction obvious. To do so, we’ll use the strength of the existing storyline, by having the warning come from the NPCs.
When the player talks to an NPC to start a storyline mission, the game checks how many upgrades they’ve found. If they haven’t found enough Bound Serpents, Fire Tributes, or Solos, the NPC will encourage them that they need to scout out the area further.
The player then has a choice: they can attempt the storyline mission, or choose to explore more. If they choose to attempt the mission, the NPC tells them that it’s suicide, but doesn’t otherwise get in their way.
If the player chooses to explore more, the NPC mentions that they saw some kind of relic or power-up that Eddie should go check out. The location is marked on the player’s map, meaning that even the most exploration-challenged player will never be totally stuck in the game. With any luck, the player will also discover a few other power-ups while they’re out in the world.
By having the NPC give this warning, it ties the need for exploration into the main plotline. The NPCs of Brütal Legend are supposed to be experienced warriors, and it makes sense for them to give battle advice to Eddie. If the player has become invested in the storyline and respects their NPC allies, they should be more likely to heed their warnings and strengthen themselves, staying closer to the game’s intended difficulty curve.