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Eliminating grinding (v10 released)
by jasonrohrerFriday, June 28, 2013 [6:20 pm]

With the release of version 9, I was trying to change the direction and feel of The Castle Doctrine, pushing it away from a puzzle designing-and-solving game and toward a tactical, Roguelike, designing-and-bypassing game.

The solution in v9 was unlimited backpack slots, and for the most part, it worked. However, there were a few existing negative dynamics that were magnified by this change.

As intended, robbers are much more powerful in v9, in that, with enough money, they can bypass anything with tools, regardless of their skill. However, money is scarce and always at risk of being stolen out from under you, so acquiring enough money to buy enough tools to brute-force bypass good security requires skill. Or at least it should.

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/v10Announce/grinding.jpg

These lingering negative dynamics can loosely be grouped together as grinding. Yeah, it might seem like players grind against their own best interest, because grinding isn't an interesting way to play. However, it's the game's fault for letting them do it in the first place. The game is essentially whispering, "Hey you, pssst, over here. You can play me in this skill-free way too. In fact, that's how I'm meant to be played." Of course, players listen to what the game is telling them.

Problem 1: Grinding past dogs

The first grind-inducing problem is that you start each new life with $2000. You might spend this building a new house, but you might also spend this on tools. In version 8, $2000 would buy not very much house but quite a lot of tools---however, you could only carry 8 tools at a time, so starting tool purchases were not overpowered. In v9 where you can carry an unlimited number of items, tool prices were raised dramatically to compensate for this. For the v9 price of $100, that crowbar better be made in Switzerland out of forged titanium alloy. However, even at this ridiculously steep price, you can still buy 20 of them with your new-life allowance.

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/v10Announce/fineCrowbar.jpg

20 crowbars means 20 dead pit bulls. By exploiting the mechanics of dog movement (dogs refuse to walk over other dead dogs, and dogs keep getting closer each time you use a tool), it is possible to bypass loads of dogs with those 20 crowbars.

It turns out that dogs are the best way of protecting family members (the family likes dogs as pets, but they refuse to stand near mechanical traps). But if the robber is coming in with 20 crowbars, the family becomes impossible to protect, in practice, with your starting house budget no matter how you arrange the dogs.

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/v10Announce/Pit_Bull_with_baby_1892.jpg

Should the price of the crowbar go up even more? After all, the gun in v9 costs $1000. The idea is that the gun shoots safely from a distance, whereas the crowbar must be used while standing right next to your potentially perma-deadly target.

Note that 20 saws, which you can also afford with your starting $2000, are not as much of a problem. Yeah, you can cut through lots of walls with those, but you need to know where to cut. The crowbar is rather unique in the way that it interacts with moving threats.

But no, I didn't want to raise the cost of the crowbar. You have to be standing next to a target to used it. That should be dangerous. The crowbar should be cheap as a result. I decided to focus on making the crowbar more dangerous to use.

As it stood, dog positioning had little tactical impact. If a dog is next to you, you can use a crowbar on it. If a dog is an odd number of steps away, you can take steps toward it, as it steps toward you, and eventually be standing right next to it. If a dog is an even number of steps away, it seems like you're stuck, since taking steps away preserves the distance, while taking steps toward it will eventually result in a final step where the dog lands right on top of you. However, in v9, you could rectify this situation by using a tool somewhere---on a wall or anywhere---which would also trigger the dog to take a step without you taking a step. After that, the dog would be an odd number of steps away. What if there was no place to use a tool? You could always fall back on throwing the incredibly cheap drugged meat, which was supposedly balanced by turning a pit bull into a sleeping land mine. However, a sleeping pit bull is even easier to approach and club than a lively one in v9.

This all seemed wrong to me, because it rendered dogs useless as security in the game, where I had wanted them to be the most tactically rich part of the game. In v10, I changed the movement mechanics so that animals do not move when you use a tool. Now if they're an odd number of steps away, there is no simple way to change that. I also made drugged animals unkillable, so they really do turn into sleeping land mines. Yes, drugged meat is very cheap, but there's now a properly-huge trade-off, since you can block yourself in by using it carelessly.

Now clever placement of dogs can provide viable security for family members. Consider this simple device, which ensures that the dog is always one tile away from the robber, no matter how the robber approaches:

http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5442/9070350518_f4f79251f5_o.png

Yes, there are ways to bypass this device, but they all require careful, tactical play. You have to study the situation and find a weakness. Marching in there with 20 crowbars will accomplish nothing, even against this lone dog. There's no way to grind your way through dog-based security. Well, except if you've got thousands of dollars to waste on loads of guns. But there's no way to accomplish that without skill, right?

Problem 2: Grinding across multiple lives

The second grind-inducing problem is that you start each new life with $2000. Yeah, that should sound familiar from above. However, this grind-strategy also exploits the way that death works.

There is a stiff penalty for dying---you lose everything, including your current house which you may have spent hours building. But what if you have nothing to lose? And when you start a fresh life with $2000, you have exactly nothing to lose, because dying at that point will bring you right back to another fresh life and $2000 more.

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/v10Announce/lifeCycle.jpg

Thus, that initial $2000 is totally free of both cost and consequence.

In some ways, this is a good thing, because it creates at least two different classes in the player population: those who have accumulated wealth and become risk-adverse, and those who have nothing to lose and are still risk-taking. Both classes are needed for the game to function well as a whole.

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/v10Announce/classes.jpg

However, I want all parts of the game to be deep and interesting, no matter what class you are currently in. In v9, since the fresh-life player faces no real consequences, they have no interesting or tense decisions to make. Why not just plow ahead into a dangerous house? If you die, then just plow ahead into the same house again. Keep trying. Maybe after enough grinding, you'll stumble your way through via trial and error.

The other factor here is that the player has $2000 to blow on each of these throw-away lives. Combine this with the fact that unused tools are dropped into the target house's vault upon robber death, and throw-away death robbers are motivated to carry a full load-out every time. This increases the payout if they ever manage to break through. You can easily do this many times per minute on a given house, which means that you can pump the value of a house up by $600K or more every hour. Even if the perpetrator doesn't break through for the payoff themselves, it still results in an unnatural economic spike that can be gratifying to create.

Furthermore, the same dynamic can be exploited on weaker houses that a robber knows how to bypass. Why not pump $10K into the house first, across a five lives, before finally bypassing it? Yeah, there is a risk that some other robber will come along and snatch the payout before you do, but if so, you can just repeat the same trick again. Eventually, you will succeed.

A fresh-life robber who pulls this off suddenly has way more at their disposal than the previously-mentioned 20 crowbars. How about an unlimited supply of guns? That was supposed to require skill to acquire, right? And guess what? Players were doing this all the time. It had become the way to play the game.

Both of these problems are related to the consequence-free nature of death when you have just started a fresh life. This issue has been discussed ever since v5, and for a while, adding some sort of static consequence seemed natural: maybe some kind of timeout (where you can't respawn for X minutes after dying) or maybe some kind of financial penalty (where with each new life in quick succession, you start with a bit less money).

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/v10Announce/timeout.jpg
(Umm.... yeah, they actually make these. Available in both navy and white.)

The problem with a timeout is---obviously---that it takes you out of the game. Perhaps you have an hour to play today, but you make a mistake at the beginning of that hour and die, and then you spend the rest of your available time waiting in timeout. The problem with the financial penalty is that it must be severe to properly deal with the issue of multi-life tool dumping (even if it's as severe as 50%, $2000 + $1000 + $500 + ... is still $4000). Both of these mechanisms could be tweaked through some kind of dynamism (where the amount of time that passes between deaths is factored into the timeout or penalty), but this is complex under-the-hood behavior that is hard for players to reason about and needs explaining.

Furthermore, both solutions are overkill, because it's not fresh starts generally that are the core problem---starting fresh immediately to work on your own house again with a full $2000 is fine and should be encouraged. The problem is starting fresh over and over to grind against the same target house.

The solution in v10 is to add a penalty for dying in a particular house: a timeout before you can re-enter just that one house. So, if you're trying to grind your way through across multiple lives, or you're trying to dump a bunch of tools by dying there, you'll be stopped right away by the fact that you have to wait an hour between such attempts. The tools you dump will likely be taken by someone else in that time, and trial-and-error grinding is impractical when it must be spread out over days instead of minutes (again, some other player will likely get through via tactical skill before your slow trial-and-error method ever pays off).

And thematically, the per-house timeout fits. After all, it was a little strange to be able to start new lives so burden-free in previous versions. Your previous self and previous family are gone forever, but you move on without a care? Now there is some trace of your previous life still lingering: a temporary chill that prevents you from re-entering the house where you died.

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/v10Announce/windowGhost.jpg

In previous versions, there was plenty of tension surrounding death when working on your own house (you stood to lose the whole house you were working on), but not enough tension on robbery death in many cases (when you had nothing to lose). Along with dealing with the multi-life grinding issues, this house-chill mechanic also adds needed tension to all robberies.

Which, when you think about it, is the same thing as eliminating grinding from robberies.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log



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