This blog post was originally published on the Sacred Fire dev blog.
We’ve received a great question in the comments section of our last year's Kickstarter. The commenter was rewatching Sacred Fire trailers and had an intriguing idea: wouldn’t it be more fun if we hid the success probabilities of choices? It sounded like an interesting idea so we wrote a blog post about it.
Sacred Fire is an upcoming narrative psychological RPG about romance, loyalty and revenge. It’s inspired by ancient Caledonia and the struggle of local people against the mighty Roman empire. If you’d like to see how probabilities work in Sacred Fire, you can watch our developers commentary at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfkfqNqSmNc.
First, here’s a summary of the original question:
I see that with each action in the Sacred Fire trailer, there are percentages of success. I think it would be really interesting to play without knowing what chance of success your actions have.
When players have several options how to act, they usually have one that they like the most. However, when they see the chances of success, they might be discouraged and end up doing something else.
I caught myself doing this several times when playing games like Torment. After that I sometimes had a feeling that I don't play the game, that I am merely doing what the game suggests I should do.
Sure, turning the percentages off would definitely lead to making some bad decisions, some that are doomed to fail, but that way the story is entirely in the player's hands. We would be the ones making the decisions. And if we fail, at least we fail doing something we believed.
So are probabilities ruining role-playing experience?
There are many factors involved: UI design, game rules, and the actual writing:
- What are the choices? How different are they? Is one clearly 'right'?
- What are the consequences of a failure?
- Do you get to retry a failed choice?
For example, in Sacred Fire especially early in the game, when you haven't built up your inner strength and influence in the society, you struggle to speak up. If you fail, no one knows but you, right? No one notices.
The game lets you try as many times as you like. You just get more frustrated (Anger increases) or scared (Fear increases) with every try, based on your personality and the circumstances: what’s at stake in the situation. And your emotions change the odds, anger will help you speak up, fear won’t.
There is something satisfying about having a choice you know is hard and likely to fail and still staying true to yourself and passing it.
Especially if it costs you something rare or limited: your willpower points or a few seconds of your time. And once you do this, it strengthens your inner power in-game, so you are rewarded for taking the less likely choice.
That being said, playing to your strong sides builds positive memories and confidence, so the game doesn't reward you just for hard choices. But too much confidence strengthens both your pride and aversion others feel toward you and you will have to deal with new interesting challenges.
This way, the player gradually un-learns to play by probability and learns from experience with the game. You are free to choose and you know the game will reward and test you and make the consequences interesting. This way you are free to role-play.
Furthermore, in Sacred Fire it’s you who determines what your character is most likely to do in a given situation. So, it's not the game telling you what to do. The game is reacting to your character creation, tracks your choices and provides consistency to your role-playing through probability.
It may happen that you won't need the probability to be displayed and it might be enough to indicate something is a risky choice, out of your character, out of your skill set. But it's too early to say what our final design decision will be.
Also, if you really like a choice and it has low chances of success, in Sacred Fire you just have to pay for it with your limited willpower resource, which means you really believe in this choice.
In reality in most situations you pretty much know what your chances are, because probability is nothing else than how many times you have to try before you get it right.
Or in other words, we know from experience that we have tried ten times to reason right off the bat with a neighbor when they complained about noise and it never worked. So we know that our chances to work this out are better if we let them vent first.
As far as physical action goes, the same principles apply. For example, Andrej, our creative director, has played recreational soccer all his life. He doesn’t think he’s special and still in a match in the heat of the battle he can make split seconds decisions based on the thousands of experiences he had trying something and failing or trying something and succeeding.
That’s just how our brains and muscle memory work, how an activity becomes second nature to us after time. We know at what distance and angle our shot is likely to score, and when it's better to pass the ball.
We imagine an ancient warrior in Caledonia has spent much more time shooting bow, than a modern man playing soccer. And other players (or warriors) know the odds too, so if you score from an impossible angle or hit a fast-moving target with your arrow, it’s going to create respect and renown for you.
This way in Sacred Fire you are motivated by winning to take the easy shot and you are motivated by prestige to take the hard one. It's all about who you want to become as a character. It's about understanding a little bit better, through role-playing, who you, the real you, are.