Thursday, April 2, 2009

Free and Easy

In teaching the theory of electronic game design, one of the basic concepts that has to be ingrained in my students is the fact that everything you see on-screen has a mathematical underpinning. Even if that mathematical underpinning is as simple as a percentage chance that something will or won't happen (what we actually call an "algorithm" in the trade), there is an equation that determines all outcomes. That equation may be a simple percentage chance based on one character's attribute (the simplest pen and paper role-playing game may use this), a chain of calculations designed to create a percentage chance (based on attributes, skills, weapons, terrain, range, defender's armor class, and lots more), a chain of percentages that use look-up tables to determine outcomes, or even complex physics calculations based on speed, materials, and cover.

To illustrate this principle, many of my math-challenged students have to learn to simulate some algorithms using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that calculates percentage chances and uses a look-up table to check against certain attributes or situations that they have quantified. Then, I introduce them to a free game on the web called Dragon Tavern. Dragon Tavern is a free, fantasy role-playing game with a host of character class options that is a hybrid of high fantasy and steampunk. It features a minimum of artwork and all results are strictly text-based. But, if you mouse-over various spots on the page, the algorithms used to determine your percentage chances for success are clearly delineated. In addition to the fact that I've been addicted to the game for so long that one of my two characters is in the Top 100 of its character class and the other is closing in on position #330, it is a dynamic teaching tool for basic game design. Plus, I've had students who have continued to play a half-dozen characters after discovering the site during their course work.

To be sure, the character sheets may look amazingly like those of Dungeons and Dragons, Tunnels and Trolls, and the Fantasy Trip of old, but the process is almost (though not quite) as interesting as generating characters for the old Traveller series. In the old Traveller series, one would enlist in various branches of a futuristic space navy or merchant service and develop the character's skills, attributes, and weapon sets via rolling the dice through various terms of service. Of course, Traveller had the strange anomaly that your character could die in character creation before you ever got into the game. That anomaly no longer exists in the newer (and quite beautifully done) Traveller D20 version.

In Dragon Tavern, you don't "roll" through terms of service, but you do focus on the type of character you want to be. My oldest and best-performing character is a Steam Crafter, a steampunk-type character. I chose the character class and the place from which he hailed before the program gave me my basic attributes and weapons. Naturally, I was able to select some adjectives describing my character's appearance and a catch-phrase for being triumphant, as well as one for the inevitable deaths.

Battle is far too simple for some players to enjoy. Although Dragon Tavern provides a ton of calculations in the background (available for viewing via mouse-over), it is simply one-click combat. Then, the program rolls the percentage dice as modified by that ton of calculations. with a regular "monster," you only have to roll the success percentage (or less) on one occasion to win the fight and gain the experience points and treasure. With "boss monsters," you may have to roll the success percentage up to five times (at my highest level so far). Whenever you miss the percentage roll, you take a wound.

When your wound total is equal to your wound allotment, you're dead. You aren't finished with the game. Your character is automatically resurrected and you don't lose a character level, but you incur (remember this old chestnut?) an experience point debt. So, until that experience debt is paid, you only receive half credit for the experience you're gaining within the game.

As a free game, you are allowed 25 action points per character per 24 hour period in your real life. You can purchase additional credits to perform more than 25 action points in a day and you are given bonus action points whenever you level up. I actually spend less than 10 minutes per day between my two characters, but it's something I look forward to on a daily basis. Some of my students play up to a half-dozen characters per day and, alas, there have been times that they were supposed to be working on their own game designs that I have walked by their monitors in the computer labs and seen them catching up on Dragon Tavern.

That's probably a good sign. If hardcore game design students who have grown up on the likes of Gears of War and Half-Life are interested enough to keep playing a text-based game, the designers must be doing something right. And, as I hope you'll be able to see from the "boss fight" pictured below, the designers seem to have hit something that I enjoy, as well.

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