Combat Lethality in NEO Scavenger
A few players have recently brought up lethality and permadeath in NEO Scavenger, and how that impacts their fun in the game. NEO Scavenger is a fairly harsh mistress, so it tackles some difficult questions of balance, especially where "game over" is concerned.
Since this is something that affects everyone, I wanted to centralize that discussion here, so folks could read and share thoughts.
One specific question actually comes from a post on Game Dev Gone Rogue, and brings up the question of player choice vs. randomness in determining the player's death.
I think the 'hardcore' gaming thing is hard to balance right; the combat could do with a look.
I was scavenging - hidden, with tracks covered, and attracted a dogman. Combat started with him two spaces away.
I was very well equipped (cleaver) and in very good condition. I'd chosen the Strong and Melee traits. I'd killed a dogman unarmed in the cryo chamber at the start and another one later, with a crowbar - no sweat. I'd recently killed a bandit and got his rifle, and was pushing a trolley full of supplies. I'd just spent 15 minutes of my life organising this trolley and three backpacks.
Because the dogman was so close and it was bad terrain retreat would have been a desperate option, so I parried, then caught him in a trap. I got three good hits in with my cleaver before he was able to strike back once with a 'graze'. He wasn't for running away so I traded blow for blow for three turns, hitting him each time. Third time he hit me, I died of 'cardiac arrest'.
There was no right way to play the situation. Escape was no safer than confrontation (due to the terrain, tripping) and would have seemed too conservative a strategy given past outcomes. The dogman appeared too near for me to swap to my gun and fire, so I was committed to melee combat. I chose my moves well and got lucky rolls, but still died, following an optimal strategy under the best conditions.
I can endure an unlucky setback, but sudden and arbitrary death is an absolute turn-off. I can't face going back to the game, cos it's not a safe investment of time and I don't see how I can learn from the situation and do better next time around. In an ideal game, defeat is always your own fault in some sense.
This is meant in the spirit of constructive criticism; I'm sure the right balance can be achieved but it's not there yet.
First of all, thanks for the detailed info and candor. This type of feedback is very helpful to me, especially since it pins down what feels "off" about the mechanics, specifically.
The "sudden, unexpected game over" described is something I had to tone way down in earlier builds. Combat (and sometimes scavenging accidents) were causing fatal wounds, and it felt like the game was playing Russian roulette each turn.
I agree that's not fun, and I like how it's described as an unsafe investment of time. Even more so, I agree with the philosophy that defeat should always be the player's fault (i.e. usually for taking unnecessary risks).
There are a few tactical choices I might have made differently, but overall, I think G is right that there was a high probability of game over in this encounter, arguably no matter what choices were made.
In practical terms, I think what happened was that the dogman got a high damage roll on G's upper chest. Hit locations have a normalized damage tolerance, and most have corresponding "thresholds" above which bad conditions happen.
The upper chest has a "cardiac arrest" threshold at 0.9, which is to say, the tissue of the heart is completely ruined when the upper chest is 90% destroyed. This is instantly fatal (in NEO Scavenger. In reality, one could probably survive with a destroyed heart for a short time, but NEO Scavenger assumes that time is shorter than the next battle round, or the opponent just takes advantage of the wound). Not all locations have fatal thresholds, but the upper chest, head, and lower chest are some that do.
Certain weapons, the dogman's claw, cleaver, and wrench among them, are capable of dealing that kind of damage in one shot, provided the wielder has the "Melee" skill. The "Strong" skill also amplifies melee damage, so the lethality can actually be a bit higher.
Conversely, damage is randomly determined on a bell curve, with the highest probability somewhere near the middle of the prescribed range. Lack of skill or strength further decrease the upper limit. On average, a dogman (who has strong and melee coupled with lethal claws) should require 2 hits to a single hit location to reach 90% of that location's capacity. One-shots are possible, though, as are weaker hits.
So this just describes the current system. As designed, we end up with some cases of "game over" due to a random roll for damage and location in battle.
Realistic? I think so. Fair? I also think so, though G is right that they were railroaded a bit into a hard fight. Fun? Maybe not so much, and I'd like to talk about some options for increasing the fun. Particularly, ways that won't ruin the fear factor and sense of challenge NEO Scavenger has.
We could always scale down damage vs. hit locations, such that more hits are required to cause fatality. However, I've heard many complaints that battle takes too long right now. This is even after damages were slightly increased from their original specs. Players feel like battles are a bog. If anything, battles should probably be shorter.
Dogmen could be rarer. Or made into something one could avoid or prepare for, rather than encountering them everywhere and often. This is likely going to happen anyway, as they're meant to be a more regional threat.
That said, raiders and the like are still pretty dangerous. And there will always be a "killing blow" in battle. No matter how low damages get, there's always that last, fatal strike that puts a target over the edge. Lower damages give more time to course-correct, but they also diminish the urgency and risk of battle.
I could have the "DM" intervene before player death. One thing a good DM would do in a situation like this is to "fudge" the die roll, using some sort of dramatic outcome to punish, but not kill, the player. I like this approach, and it fits with my goals for the game (i.e. a computer-based, single player equivalent to pen and paper RPGs).
However, leaning on the "DM as a savior" crutch has it's own pitfalls. If we use it too much, the player will start to expect it, and will probably lose the sense of danger. I think fear and danger are two things NEO Scavenger has going for it, so I'd hate to lose that edge.
We could change the way scavenging attracts monsters. Perhaps if there was more of a strategic option to avoid your battle, that would have helped? Especially if it was a non-lethal setback that guaranteed your escape. That way, you could weigh your options before the battle, and decide if it was worth taking the gauranteed hit in exchange for escape, or if you wanted to take your chances in battle.
Or maybe even a middle ground? E.g. you aren't guaranteed escape, but you can take a few injuries or lose items to start at a greater range.
I kinda like that last set of approaches. If that were somehow built into all battles, we could sidestep the issue of feeling cheated when killed in battle. Basically, players are in control of certain battle factors before it starts, but they have to "pre-pay" to get them. If they choose the option to guarantee avoiding battle, it costs something dear, but they're safe. If they choose anything less, the price is accordingly smaller, but the risk of death in battle is higher.
That was the purpose of the scavenging danger bars, but maybe that system is a bit too abstract. Also, that brings the in-battle system of retreat/range control into question. It could be that said system isn't doing its job, and could also fulfill this role better.
I'll have to give this some thought. Adding a new system is a big deal, and it's possible the existing systems are just flawed and in need of updating.
Also, I'm not sure what kinds of options we can give a player that are both fair and realistic, but I'm sure at least a couple could be brainstormed. Losing items and taking injuries are two "prices" we've already mentioned, and escape/longer starting range are two "bonuses."
I won't act on this yet, just because I like to percolate ideas a bit :) And I'd love to hear what you guys think. Overall, though, I think there may be something here.
As always, thanks for the feedback. Discussions like these really help make NEO Scavenger better!
Dan Fedor - Founder, Blue Bottle Games