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Preparation, initiative, and timing: Making combat click in serene RPG Book of Travels

"We deliberately made this a 'slow' game loop because we want to signal that the journey and the preparation is more important than the end or usage."

Combat in Book of Travels, a serene social TMORPG -- that's 'tiny multiplayer online role playing game' for anybody not in the know -- set in the painterly peninsula of Braided Shore, is a unique affair.

Although there's no PvP in the early access title, those traveling through Might & Delight's supernatural world will have the chance to brawl with (or perhaps flee from) all manner of bandits and beasts.

In those tense fight or flight moments, players must engage with a system designed around preparation, initiative, and timing to fend off their adversary and land a deciding blow. In-game, wanderers can signal their intent to fight putting their hand on their sword, casting a red ring into the world in search of an opponent.

After selecting a worthy adversary, players will have the chance to prepare for battle by casting spells in the form of 'knots' and sipping any helpful teas they might have brewed. Then, it's all about timing. The longer players wait to strike their opponent, the more accurate their blow will be -- but while their chance of hitting their target will increase with each passing second, they'll also remain vulnerable to assault.

It's a novel system that leans heavily on risk and reward to ensure combat encounters are purposeful, weighty affairs. As creative director Jakob Tuchten tells us during an email Q&A, it's also a system that requires a bit more fine-tuning ahead of Book of Travels' official launch. 

Game Developer: Why did you shun a more conventional mechanics in favor of a system that asks players to take a measured approach to brawling?

Jakob Tuchten: That's something I ask myself literally every day at work: why do we have to do things differently, instead of using time honored design and tropes? In all seriousness, we wanted combat to be quick and energetic with preparation being a core part. We looked a lot at Kurosawa for inspiration and built a style where choreography is key.

You've mentioned the system is designed around preparation, initiative, and timing. Could you explain how you blended those three pillars into a cohesive whole, and what that means in real terms? Did it take much iteration to find the right balance?

We always liked the idea of the moment before combat being equally, if not more, important than the actual battle. Judging your opponents prowess, weighing the odds, and preparing are parts of that. 

To be honest, we are not fully there yet. The feature needs more love and polish, but it shows promise. The timing part is especially intriguing to us -- having various players express their character through how willing they are to play with the odds. A young adventurer might strike fast, swarming with low probability strikes, while a methodical warrior might wait until they have a 80 percent chance. That's roleplaying through combat.

When in combat, players are able to choose when they attack to inflict huge damage. Could you talk about how you designed and implemented that mechanic, and how you feel it builds tension?

Working with chance and gambling is something that we liked for our combat system. I mentioned the role playing dimension, but it also offers some neat comeback opportunities.

Since the system allows you to try your luck with a strike at, say, 10 percent, it makes it so that you actually have a chance to beat overpowering odds. That dynamic really appealed to us and we believe it sets our combat apart from many other solutions. You might go into a fight playing it safe, but if it doesn't go your way you will most likely need to strike fast at a lower percentage to win. It gives the combat a nice dramatic curve rather than a linear experience.

On a technical level, what was the biggest challenge you faced when building your combat system? I'm also keen to hear what you did right. Could you talk about one of your major design successes?

We have had many tricky times with this feature. The biggest might have been making combat smooth in online multiplayer, an issue that still is being worked on to this day. Besides that, the combat UI has been hard to get right and still needs tweaking.

As for successes, I really like the side view, dance-like movement of the combat. It looks visually nice and makes combat feel a bit more immersive than standing face to face with your foe exchanging wild blows constantly. It has a nice ebb and flow to it.

You spoke about the combat UI being hard to get right. What specific design challenges did you face, how did you overcome them, and how do you feel you can add even more polish?

Since the game uses a pretty unique game view where you cannot rotate the camera and it uses a very low field of view (close to orthographic), objects and 3D models are by default victims of pretty severe overlapping. When multiple characters are involved in combat, targeting and positioning of the worldspace UI becomes rather tricky. 

We have a number of tricks that we have implemented to handle this, one being that characters involved in combat always align and try to find space to separate in the X axis to increase readability. Also the UI elements are aware of their positioning and are nudging each other to keep space in between.

It still has to improve, both graphically (where all the interface needs more work and polish, feedback etc) and when it comes to the onboarding/threshold part of the feature. Having the ability to practice against scarecrows that don't fight back would be a great way for the player to learn combat, for example.

How did you actively factor preparation into combat gameplay -- what does that look like in real terms, and how did you make that engaging?

Because of our ambition to reward preparation, we needed to make sure that there is sufficient depth in that gameplay. One example is the [ability to] brew teas that provide long term effects. In order to fully optimize the potential of teas, one must first acquire the recipe, find the proper reagents (some can be very obscure and force you to travel far to find), and then prepare the tea close to a fireplace.

We deliberately made this a "slow" game loop because we want to signal that the journey and the preparation is more important than the end or usage. You are not granted skills upon leveling up and cannot use them with a mana pool that regenerates automatically. When it comes to engagement we are asking a lot from players in this regard. They are asked to go through many, many steps in order to get boosts like this compared to other games. We just have to stand by our vision and hope that players will see the charm in the struggle and the journey, as we do.

Touching on the chance and gambling aspects of combat, how did you refine that system to ensure it felt balanced while still providing opportunities for extreme risk/reward strategies?

We are big believers in not over balancing. We have willfully designed the risk/reward aspect of Book of Travels with the goal that sometimes, for some players, you will be too powerful, or in other cases way too weak. We dread a butter-smooth difficulty scaling where foes adjusts nicely to players level. With that being said, we have some design concepts that keep our features within intended frames. Because higher level doesn’t necessarily mean stronger stats where you are using a term called PG or "player grading". 

This rating is only used internally and tries to summarize a players combat capabilities based on a number of factors such as equipment quality, time spent playing, and level. On the corresponding end we have DG or "danger grading" that we can then try to match up and balance towards suitable matches. The gambling aspect of combat then becomes the actual tiebreaker that can make a player beat a stronger DG or a greedy player lose to an enemy with lower PG.

To ensure some form of stability you can play the combat without using the gambling aspect. This will then play out a bit more like a classical game where you wait your turn (based on your speed) and then strike to damage your opponent. That can be described as the baseline sequence that pretty much makes your PG align with corresponding DG. But then, at least for me, I always feel "why wait all the way to 100 percent? Why not strike at 95 percent? - that's basically a hundred percent chance.." and then I'm drawn into the game of odds again.

You mentioned adding more variety and depth, including new dangers and additional contexts. How difficult would it be to incorporate those features into the current system and what would they look like?

If you envision the various dangers filling certain "roles" in the ecosystem of potential combat, we still have many roles to fill up. We lack combat encounters that can be described as "annoyances" and creatures that signal "mini boss". We believe that this type of content will affect the game in a very positive way and make players a bit more incentivized to gather in small groups more often to overcome them. However, content like this won't really affect the combat system as currently constructed. The more plausible way to deepen the gameplay is instead to add in skills and special behavior on the enemy side. That is currently lacking in the game now and is very needed.

We have a couple of new "dangers" that are being developed. They will be popping up when we add the next big part of the world map; the South. The challenge for us here, besides the obvious production steps of producing animated 3D content that needs to blend into our hand painted world, is more of a contextual nature. We never want our dangers to be symbols of evil that mindlessly attack you without any explanation. Instead, a lot of work is always put into contextualizing the characters/creatures so that the lore explains or gives understanding to their behavior. 

Coming up we have more Kettem [enemies] as one example. They are malicious half winds that manifest in various places and become visually connected to the area such as being made of driftwood or old boats when appearing on shorelines for example. Or Maisu (demons that spawn when people are cursing) that need to both be a danger and a narrative about how it got created, told by NPCs close by or something similar. The story that each danger tells is equally important to us as is the gameplay function -- that way, enemies and dangers can be enriching to players that don't what to engage in fighting as well.

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