Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

10 December, 2006

Weekend Design Challenge: Brute force gameplay
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:17 PM

A great post over at Tales of the Rampant Coyote talks about The “Brute Force” Problem. (Thanks to Damion for the pointer.)

The main point of the article can be summed up by the quote, “‘Old school’ adventures didn’t expect the party to ‘clear out the level.’” The lamentation is that parties expect to go through and kick down every door and slay every monster. That seems to fly in the face of what makes RPGs so cool to a lot of people: the opportunity to live in the world setting. Computer RPGs (including online RPGs) seem to be the worst offenders in this case. The article points out that while you could probably figure out the outcome of a simple battle in a paper RPG given statistical die rolls, MMORPG players have this down to a science. The DPS rating is right there on the sword, after all! It’s all about the wholesale mathematical slaughter of walking bags of xp.

So, I figured I’d throw this challenge out to the smart people that read my blog. Go read the article, then respond here or there. Consider, what can we do to get people not to brute force games? My thoughts after the break.

The primary problem, in my opinion, is that players are only doing what we reward them for doing. In my response to the post, I said:

Well, it’s a question of what is rewarded in the game. We have established conventions for handling combat and the defeat of enemies, so it’s really easy to have the game reward you for killing masses of enemies. It’s not a surprise that people go through and murder everything systematically when that’s the best way to get ahead.

So, I think the first obvious thing is to stop rewarding people for brute-forcing things. If they only way they’ll advance levels (like in original D&D and most computer/online RPGs), then it should be small surprise that wholesale slaughter is the order of the day. It makes no sense to leave behind potential XP, especially in a half-empty dungeon where you can potentially make a safe retreat. I also mention that the locked door in the dungeon might have the item that makes the last fight easier, or perhaps even possible depending on the scenario. Miss that Sword of Undead Slaying +5 or that Anti-Magic Wand and that Lich at the end of the dungeon is going to eat you alive. (Well, eat you undead, maybe.)

Note that this isn’t just a class vs. skill-based system argument, either. Use-based systems often encourage brute-force techniques: sitting in a corner casting the same simple spell over and over again, or perhaps having your assassin-type character skipping through meadows picking flowers in order to increase vital skills, or perhaps performing genocide on helpless woodland creatures to increase your weapon skill.

So, one thing to do is start rewarding the completion of a quest instead of simply rewarding the slaughter of opponents. You’ll notice that most games have started moving toward rewarding players with considerable experience for completing quests. But, most of these quests still require killing masses of enemies, and that still rewards experience. You also have the problem that this is prone to exploitation. If you reward all the experience based on quest completion, then someone who figures out a quick way to finish the quest can get easy experience. (“Oh, crap, did you know players could hop over that wall and avoid 90% of the zone?”)

But, I also think that part of this issue is unavoidable. Fantasy tropes make it so that slaughtering orcs wholesale is the way to go. As I said in my response to the original post, “Killing a few orcs and leaving the bodies around to scare off other orc raiders isn’t as “cool” as going to the orc camp and killing every single one of them….” There’s the expectation that you will go in and kill them all. (Of course, someone else replied that even Conan used his wits to get around certain obstacles instead of just relying on his sword and his brawn.)

I think that the brute-force aspect is also part of the game. As Raph said in his book, people want to optimize the experience. People will figure out the reward, and find the most consistent way to get that reward. If that requires brute force, then that’s what the player will apply. Trying to frustrate the player by taking away the brute-force solution doesn’t seem to be advisable because that might, er, frustrate the player? Usually not the recipe for success.

So, what are your thoughts? Is brute-force simply a fact of computer/online RPGs? Or, is there something that we as designers can do in order to encourage the player to not brute-force the game?

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  1. Yeah, I read that article the other day. I think the difference between old RPGs (including tabletop D&D) and new RPGs, in regard to the “brute force” situation, isn’t the design. Even back then, players had the incentives to kill everything they could to gain experience points. The difference is the gaming culture surrounding RPGs. Back then, RPGs were new, so player expectations hadn’t really developed yet. There’s no formula that was lost 10, 20 years ago and can be recovered to save the day.

    So what to do? I don’t think just rewarding quests more than kills will greatly reduce machinistic slaughtering. Quests usually take more time and effort than simply killing mobs, so xp optimization still favors killing. That it may not be as fun makes little difference, because many, if not most, modern RPG players are more intent on challenge and competition than fun (which isn’t to suggest that challenge and competition can’t be fun in themselves, but I think most players are drawn to grinding for some other appeal than fun).

    I’m sure many would immediately assume it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I think we should at least consider the possibility of removing all xp rewards from kills. Kill-rewards are certainly the easiest avenue of character progression, but there are other viable methods.

    For example: You could keep some player control over progression through quests, shops and guilds from which to purchase items and skills, etc. But you could also add greater variability and discovery to the game by using unpredictable encounters as avenues of progression. In many of the great novels RPG-players love, there is quite often some unexpected encounter through which the protagonist learns, grows, or is even transformed. Skills/spells could be particular to certain NPCs, certain texts/runes, etc. Even classes/skillsets and other modes of being (like vampirism, lycanthropy) could be dependent upon chance encounters.

    Anyway, what I’m talking about is a drastic sidestep. I’m sure there are other methods of avoiding kill-grinding, but I doubt the problem can be avoided through only mild adjustments of the usual models.

    Comment by Aaron — 10 December, 2006 @ 4:22 PM

  2. Actually I think that it really is that simple. Make killing a zero sum gain and suddenly there is no point to scraping the barrel for every last little kobold to get the xp. I’m not the only who remembers more than one friend in high school D&D sessions asking “I’m five experience points short for my next level, can I walk out of town and find a goblin to kill?”

    From the very beginning the reward has been tied to the killing. No killing, no reward. Eliminate the kill = reward factor and replace it with something else and you have a chance to eliminate the brute force attack.

    Problem there is that your ‘something else’ had better be compelling. People expect that the grind of killing will equate to growth. Take that away and fail to provide something compelling and your game will flop.

    Comment by Grimwell — 10 December, 2006 @ 9:57 PM

  3. In D&D, players could come up with clever solutions that avoided some brute forcing. Clever solutions in a computer game are tricky. Clever solutions in a MMORPG with Thotbot are no longer clever.

    D&D has permadeath, which affects the risk/reward calculations.

    The reasons WHY D&D rewarded for killing monsters was so that in game-terms, there would be an excuse for PCs to become more powerful so they could take on new (and interesting) monsters with new (and interesting) abilities and fighting tactics. In a MMORPG, a lot of the reason why players want to level up is so they can beat/outrank other players; realistically, the monster abilities and fighting tactics don’t change much over the levels. Giving XP for completing the quest vs. killing monsters doesn’t really change this fact; players will just grind on the same quest over-and-over instead of sitting in the same killing fields for hours.

    When players do find an optimium path to the end of a quest that allows players to bypass monsters, MMORPG companies (aka: blizzard) change their rules so that bypassing the monsters is a bannable offense.

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 11 December, 2006 @ 1:38 AM

  4. I think there will be some massive culture shock amongst the players when someone actually does create a game where the brute force approach is sub-optimal. Some of them have been trained for a decade and more that brute force is the strategy of choice… the first service to suggest otherwise will need to be prepared for some backlash.

    On the systemic level, I’m hard pressed to think of a subsystem or mechanic in present games that doesn’t feed into a brute force approach in one way or another.

    To pick just a few nits…

    Classes are almost always combat-centric. Horizons is the only game I can think of that had anything like classes that did not revolve around combat roles.
    Hit points mean a foe must be killed, as opposed to just incapacitated. They also mean everyone fights at full effectiveness until dead. IRL, sliced hamstrings and shattered elbows are notoriously difficult to “shrug off”…
    XP rewards only accrue upon success, i.e. defeating, i.e. killing of a foe. Usage-based skill system rewards work similarly. IRL, you are at least as likely to learn from your failures (assuming you survive them).
    Treasure chests seem to be making something of a comeback of late, but the primary equipment-collection and wealth-generation tactic is still looting fresh corpses.
    The only fully defined system in many games is combat. Everything else is generalized (i.e. trivialized) into a overarching “skill check” or “saving throw”, maybe with a delay timer attached to represent “some activity here”.
    Ever notice how most traps are one-shot (if they exist at all)?
    Lets not even start on AI. “Oh look, my best friend’s corpse… better keep patrolling. Gee, aren’t there supposed to be some guards on this door? Raise an alarm? Nah, let the guys sleep, they had a hard day.”
    Levels, as currently implemented, simply mean that eventually you can brute force through a situation (assuming you don’t hit the cap first… then you need to wait for the expansion). Of course, you can’t change this until you have other viable options actually defined and in place…
    Armor class and similar “generic defense scores”, by abstracting out the concept of active defenses, enables the Boris/Conan style pile of bodies, “200-on-1, 1 wins” combat scenario.
    Insta-perma-healing enables brute force as well, as does the absence of any chance of perma-death, no matter how remote the possibility.

    A game where brute force is not the most effective strategy and tactic will be a very different game indeed, IMO.

    Comment by Craig Huber — 11 December, 2006 @ 5:44 AM

  5. One more point before I wander off: DDO is a near perfect example of some of the reasons why simply changing to mission/quest XP is not quite enough to solve the problem. Some people have a lot of time to fill, others need to see at least some progress despite a dearth of appropriately tuned challenges or they aren’t going to stick around…

    Comment by Craig Huber — 11 December, 2006 @ 6:07 AM

  6. The root problem is that these games are just too easy. It’s entirely possible to play one of these games to completion and never lose a fight – never have to run away – never get below 50% health – never face a single serious challenge at all.

    In the real world, you spend a LOT of time running away.

    The real reason why heroes don’t go through and clean out the Orc lair would be because they would DIE, hacked to pieces, when they opened the door to the main Orc cave and discovered 50 pissed-off Orcs inside. But in most current fantasy games, this would not be even the slightest challenge.

    Combat should be *fraught with peril*. Halo on Legendary should be the default approach for combat-oriented games. But it isn’t. Because companies don’t like to make the games too hard, lest it cost them players. That’s your real problem.

    Comment by Anon — 11 December, 2006 @ 9:17 AM

  7. I’m not recommending this but:

    Take Super Mario Brothers 3. Play a random level. Do you find yourself brute forcing it? I bet you don’t. The mere inclusion of a timer keeps you from scraping lightly occupied corners too much.

    Imagine an RPG where the experience players got was based on damage they did in a dungeon minus the damage they took divided by how long it took them to clear the dungeon (and all the rewards were only given to a player when the dungeon was explicitly finished, and it was made visible front and center on the screen). So, XP = ( damageDone – damageTaken ) / dungeonTimer. I’m not suggesting this rule would result in a better game – but certainly you’d see very different (probably much riskier) game play out of players. No hunting down of stragglers, certainly.

    (Ironically, this is actually sort of already the case, of course – but it’s just not made explicit. Clearing dungeons actually ISN’T efficient in the long run, compared to other kinds of min-maxing.)

    A really interesting comparison to all of this, I think, are the Zelda games. Take Zelda:Ocarina of Time. The player actually gets the exact same rewards they would in a level based system (heart containers increase life, new swords improve damage, new items give players new verbs), but those rewards are doled out for exploring and defeating unique enemies only once after finishing unique dungeons. Zelda does not really reward repetition or the killing of harmless scrubs. Further, the resources a player has are intentionally capped very, very low – a player only has to prod the environment for a very short period of time before their bombs, money, sling shot ammo, and so on, are completely full. Consequently, players can’t really get an advantage by, say, reentering the same room 500 times, killing one enemy 500 times, and looting it for money 500 times. I’m convinced this is related to the appeal of the Zelda games – they don’t really encourage boring play.

    To be honest, I’m not sure how such ideas would map to the kinds of long term, group-oriented play that MMOs need. But I do think they’re worth noting.

    Comment by Nathan McKenzie — 11 December, 2006 @ 11:46 AM

  8. I feel compelled to mention Thief in this context, if only because I was playing it today: In Thief, the only explicit rewards are for stealing valuables; kills are always incidental and are sometimes counter-productive if you are trying to stay unnoticed.

    So its not like XP and kills haven’t been decoupled before.

    And the expert difficulty level explicitly forbids the use of brute-force.

    Comment by Isaac — 11 December, 2006 @ 4:58 PM

  9. “Imagine an RPG where the experience players got was based on damage they did in a dungeon minus the damage they took divided by how long it took them to clear the dungeon…”

    If everyone played fairly, this would be awesome. The problem with MMOs is that you have to contend with pinheads unplugging their internet connection in order to warp through barriers, exploiting pathing or geometry bugs outside the bounds of gameplay, and any other trick they can figure out in order to achieve the goal in the least amount of time possible.

    While MMOs obviously have a lot in common with D&D, it’s much harder to cheat when your DM is sitting across the table from you.

    Of all the repetitive tasks in MMOs, killing monsters over and over (within certain limits) is perhaps the most generally accepeted by players. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to do better, of course. But in addition to providing advancement of some type, whatever activity replaces the killing has to be at least as compelling.

    As Winston Churchill once said, “Brute force grinding is the worst form of MMO advancement except all the others that have been tried.”

    Comment by Moorgard — 11 December, 2006 @ 8:32 PM

  10. Moorgard:

    Yeah – even as I was typing that out, I was thinking of all the tedious Mephisto runs I did in Diablo2, as well as runs where I killed the first half of the council at the end of Act 3 because those two encounters dropped far, far more high quality treasure than all other nearby encounters (and, as an added bonus, both of them had fixed layouts, which made them much faster to do). It was much closer to what I was suggesting above – and to be honest, it was no better than “sweep and clear the floor” grinds (maybe because I wasn’t really in danger as I did it? Or because it was just as repetitive?)

    In fact, given the system I listed above, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found players dashing in to a dungeon, killing a single orc, and then evacuating immediately, getting hoards of XP in the process. It’s definitely a system that would be hamstrung by all sorts of non-obvious holes, I imagine.

    Comment by Nathan McKenzie — 11 December, 2006 @ 9:43 PM

  11. One of the things I have remained consistant on in all my years of pen and paper gaming is how I reward people for kills. If you have never fought an orc before, you get full exp because you just experienced and learned how to kill an orc. The next time, not so much learning going on, less exp is given. Eventually, if the party hangs around killing orcs they’ll stop getting exp because they have nothing left to learn. All this is completely unrelated to their level.

    That’s the thing that causes brute force in games. I’m level 1, level 2 is at 100 exp, killing a rat yields 5 exp, therefore if I kill 20 rats I level from 1 to 2. Furthermore, in many games, now that I’m level 2 and need 300 more exp for level 3, I can still pop rats for 5 exp each, so I just need 60 of them. In some games the exp will reduce, but only when you’ve “outlevelled” the creature.

    One way to eliminate brute force is to make the exp reduce based on the experiences of the character, this forces them to seek out new targets and explore more areas to maximize exp gain from killing. To make up for lost exp if a character chooses to remain in one area, quests. And yeah, this means that the questing explorer will gain exp at the greatest rate, and the location grinder will level the slowest. I don’t have a problem with that.

    Comment by Jason — 12 December, 2006 @ 8:07 AM

  12. The only games where you learn from every fight but gain nothing for a kill are the overtly twitch-based games.

    Thief is a good example. Splinter Cell is probably better.

    Comment by Cael — 12 December, 2006 @ 8:35 AM

  13. I’m glad to see Zelda mentioned. It’s abandonment of “XP for kill” in exchange for “XP for exploration” is very effective. The worst scumming that you can do is recharging your heart containers with easy enemies, but that is rare and far between.

    Note that Zelda also addresses brute forcing the boss monsters. While you can fight the boss as many times as you want, between each fight the boss will be fully healed. You thus can’t just whittle away the boss with a twenty deaths – you need to defeat the boss in a single go.

    Another genre that should be mentioned is Roguelikes. Nethack, for example, has (pre-castle) an effective timer against brute forcing – starvation. Crawl keeeps this timer going throughout the game. Both of these also tend to force players to think their way through difficult encounters by providing enough variety of tools and tricks that pure combat is sub optimal. However, they do suffer from the tendency to reward “clearing” the dungeon. The lack of fast respawn, however, helps keep the brute force strategy of redoing the same level to accrue equipment at bay.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 12 December, 2006 @ 9:42 AM

  14. I already commented on Tales, but I’ll underline my biggest point here:

    Let people play their classes.

    If I wanted to brute force my way through everything, I’d play a warrior. How do priests become better priests by killing things? It’s strange, isn’t it? What kind of incompetent rogue is going to kill the 50 guys between him and the thing he needs to steal?

    Designers don’t do this, because not killing things is seen as too “easy.” (Never mind that in many cases, it isn’t.) To be fair, it IS hard to balance. But, it doesn’t need to be perfectly balanced. Brute-forcing isn’t balanced, either. There are always classes that are going to be better at brute-forcing things than others.

    Comment by Tess — 12 December, 2006 @ 5:28 PM

  15. Brute Forcing CRPGs and MMOGs

    [...] Psychochild’s design challenge this week involves the ‘brute force’ approach most games take. To paraphrase the old saying, most MMOGs are ‘walking around, hitting mobile bags of xp, and walking around’. The Man wonders if that’s a requirement, or not. [...]

    Pingback by MMOG Nation — 13 December, 2006 @ 1:16 PM

  16. One of the root problems is the fact that the focus of MMOs has shifted to spreadsheet style stat-tweaking. Remove the focus on stat and level progression, and instead focus on character development. There is so much more that could be done in regards to character development, but MMOs have become so obsessed with numeric displays (WoW is one of the worst offenders) that we’ve lost site of what an avatar really is, and what we can do to make an online MMO experience entertaining, engaging and magical.

    Comment by Tholal — 15 December, 2006 @ 12:22 PM

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