Updated Tue, Apr 26, 2011 by Ethec
Yet Paul steadily maintained that a grandma with decent email checking skills could learn her way to Darkspore domination. One of the secrets is the game’s single-mouse button design, another takeaway from Diablo. Another is the pace of gameplay. Concepts and heroes are introduced one at a time. While your playing, Paul explained, you’re playing. Players can’t equip new items or change out squads in game. Even need-greed rolls are anathema, Paul explained, because it would encourage players to pour over stats instead of fighting on. That, Paul grinned, and in a game where every hero is playable, every item is potentially a “need.”
“In order to help people manage that space of a hundred different heroes. We looked at Warcraft 3 and its strength heroes, mind heroes, and dexterity heroes. We have Sentinels, Ravagers, and Tempests. Sentinels want strength for weapon abilities , greater damage, and health, Ravagers want dexterity for dodge, crit, and more damage, and Tempests want mind, which increases their resist, power, and increases their damage.”
Among online games, it’s rare to see hard caps on players’ stats – it ruins the illusion that players can create and develop essentially open-ended characters within their specialty. If, for example, Blizzard announced that Spell Power in World of Warcraft would be capped at, say, 1,000 points, we’d hear universal condemnation. Such a move would be needlessly limiting, ruining a number of players' conceptions of how to viably play their class.
However, stat caps are a cornerstone of Darkspore hero development. Was this a tough decision for the Maxis team? “It was, at first, but I’ve been almost blown away by how well it’s worked for us... We look at it more as tanks in World of Warcraft. Tanks are always trying to build defense and get to the cap. Once they’re at the cap, they can explore other stats. The nice thing about that is you know what stat to look for. You can look at an item and immediately see if it’s good for you. Does it have defense and, secondarily, stamina and a couple other things. “
That said, you’re not stuck with the stat caps you have at the beginning of the game. “As you increase your Crogenitor level, you can unlock new stat cap upgrades, which will shift all your caps up. The relationship stays the same – Blitz will still have a large dex bar, a large crit bar, and a small mind bar – but the numbers behind the scenes get bigger.” Paul explained that this upgrade works for entire tiers of heroes, so you won’t have to unlock heroes individually.
In other words, stat caps give guidance and allow players to build powerful characters, yet also give the player room for versatility as well. And, well, caps can’t hurt when trying to balance the game, either.
One of the more intriguing things Paul said to me was regarding Maxis’s efforts to combat speedruns. Rapid content consumption is one of the plagues of online achievement-based play. Some speedrunners are simply achievers bent on bettering their times, but more than a few typically don’t enjoy the content they’re rushing through, misunderstand the fundamentals they rushed past, actively denounce the game based on those misunderstandings, and put social pressure on other players to push through the content faster than they’d like to as well.
While not actively punishing speedruns, Maxis makes speedruns less attractive in several ways. First, the teleporters to the boss stage shut off while there are still enemies nearby. This ensures that trains of enemies, or at least nearby mobs of enemies will be defeated before the player can progress. The more compelling reason to take it slow, however, is that players have 5 objectives per level. Getting a gold medal in one objective – goals like “beat the stage but avoid using the two health obelisks” - adds 6% to your chance to get a rare item when you cash out at the end of the stage.
If you speedrun the stage, chances are you’ll fall behind in the medal count, and that means you’ll fall way behind the itemization curve. Paul showed me an “Epics per Hour” spreadsheet which pretty much confirms this rendition of the tortoise and hare fable.
Wrapping up the interview, we explored several concepts that met the Maxis chopping block. The main one was EA’s first foray into the free-to-play morass: Battle Forge. The parallels seem apparent. Isn’t Darkspore the perfect game to push a microtransaction at every turn? How about a buck a hero (first three are free!) or a flat price to unlock a tier’s squad abilities?
No one would come out and say for fear of boxing themselves in, but microtransactions seem utterly un-Maxis-like. Think of all the Maxis titles you’ve played (especially if you were a nineties Maxis junkie like me) – the various iterations and spinoffs of SimCity , SimAnt, SimEarth, SimEverythingElse, The Sims and The Sims 2 (/cough The Sims Online), all the way up to Spore. Sure, Maxis has dallied with content packs for The Sims series, but each boxed title was always it’s own experience. A digital dollhouse, yea, and often closer to a toy than a game, but a compact, unique, and elucidating experience. Somehow a mandatory microtransaction model just doesn’t make sense coming from a developer whose made a storied name of making big, unwieldy, complex systems like cities, towers, and everyday lives, and turning them into gems of perspective, simulation, and unified meaning.
But then again, perhaps the year’s richest, deepest RTS doesn’t make sense coming from a proud digital dollhouse maker either. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to. Our sincerest thanks to Paul Sottosanti and the Maxis team for patiently answering our questions, and we wish them luck in the continuing development of Darkspore, which went live on Tuesday, April 26th, 2011.