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For quite a while I wonder how to formulate this concept, which seems to be common, yet barely addressed within games. It is about the concept of player controlled characters (PC) being consistently superior to generic non-player controlled characters (NPC). This also must not depend on the actual player skill (defined as what the player can actively do), and instead be inherent to the PC itself.

Now for RPGs it's usually something like destiny, magic, superior skill, backstory, better (enchanted) equipment, having a rare power.

But what if it's about space ships with equal size, type and equipment? How could I explain that a player can repeatedly and easily grind through 5-10 space ships which he himself is using without having much room for player skill due to weapons and thrusters working automatically? Effectively pushing a button to start attacking just as his opponents are doing. Let's say it's the early phase of the game, just to keep this abstract. Also let's assume a standard, futuristic setting with no special lore-based elements like psi powers or crystals.

What guidelines or concepts exist which can be used to justify PC superiority in general? In a mathematical sense, do I have to explain -75% damage taken and +300% damage dealt as baseline for all PCs in a credible way? Or is that a silently accepted premise of games in general?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As always, use comments to ask for more information or suggest improvements. Avoid answering questions in comments. \$\endgroup\$ – Alexandre Vaillancourt Jun 17 at 16:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the premise in question is wrong or needs more clarification as to the game type/setting. In many games, the superiority is given by weak AI, not by sturdiness (health, armor, damage) of the player. This can be easily observed when modding games and seeing the properties of NPCs. \$\endgroup\$ – Tomáš Zato Jun 19 at 15:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TomášZato - The premise is set up in a way to prevent the most predictable answers and to keep them generalized and not focused on my setting (I could just come up with any worldbuilding specific sci-fi solutions (crystals, psi-powers), but that's not a game-design based answer). But I'd agree that it's difficult to ask the question properly - but it got a lot of answers and quite good and helpful ones. \$\endgroup\$ – Battle Jun 19 at 18:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ If, by your own admission, the player is using the same equipment, then it seems like you've ruled out everything besides skill (or plot armor). Would a high-intellect attribute help your character so that he/she could modify their existing equipment to improve it and make it technologically superior? Maybe their skills are not directly in combat, but in improving their chances before combat has even begun. "Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while Defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win" -Sun Tzu \$\endgroup\$ – code_dredd Jun 19 at 19:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Battle I would've, but the question was marked as "Protected", so I can't post it. \$\endgroup\$ – code_dredd Jun 20 at 5:23

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You might not have to.

When a player consistently wins against seemingly bad odds, they are far more likely to attribute it to their skills as a player than to having a mechanical advantage. You rarely have to justify generosity to the players. They will just handwave it and move on with the game. Quite a lot of games are doing this.

Often you design the gameplay and encounters the way you want them to be and then adjust the difficulty by tweaking the relative damage output of the PC and NPCs. If the game has to give a 12x mechanical advantage to the player to be winnable, so be it. And when you aren't sure whether your game is too easy or too hard, you just offer multiple presets to the player and call them difficulty setting.

On the other hand, if your game is very simulationist, very transparent regarding the math used to resolve combat and it seems implausible within the narrative of your game for the player to be so much better than their opponents, then it might still be too obvious for the player how much you are cheating in their favor. In that case consider another option: Just give the player easier challenges in the early phase of the game. Don't give them the worst ship in the game with the worst equipment. Give them the second worst ship with decent equipment and put the enemies in the starting area into the worst space clunkers possible.

I am looking forward to using my "superior skills" (cough) as a spaceship captain to win some awesome space battles in your game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I guess handwaving it seems to be best answer so far. However I feel it would conflict with the degree of realism I'd like to implement - there should be some reason why it's the case, to justify at least a factor of 4x. Do all who happen to be the best of the best become the characters controlled by players (so it would be selection)? Are there issues with the onboard AI despite them being already quite powerful even today? looking forward to using my "superior skills" (cough) as a spaceship captain to win some awesome space battles - Just push the auto-attack button gracefully! \$\endgroup\$ – Battle Jun 17 at 12:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Battle: We follow the hero's story because their story is the interesting one to follow. Imagine if every movie had to explicitly justify to the viewer why this person is the protagonist. You're trying to do the same but from a gameplay perspective. \$\endgroup\$ – Flater Jun 17 at 14:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Battle: If they're special in some way (as you say), and they achieve great success (which is the basics of making the player feel accomplished), then the same definition I just gave still applies. We follow their story not necessarily because of who they are at the beginning of the story, but because they will achieve interesting things during (or at the end of) the story. The same applies to emergent gameplay (as opposed to a fixed story). The player doesn't question why they are great, they just assume they are great because they want to win. \$\endgroup\$ – Flater Jun 17 at 14:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Battle If your game is very simulationist and it seems implausible within the narrative of your game for the player to be so much better than their opponents, have you considered to just give the player easier challenges in the beginning of the game? Don't give them the worst ship in the game with the worst equipment, give them the second worst ship with decent equipment and make the enemies in the starting area the most minimalist ships possible. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Jun 17 at 14:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fighting the junkers could be cast as a "tutorial" phase to make it more palatable to users. It's supposed to be easy to let you get a feel for the game initially. \$\endgroup\$ – jpmc26 Jun 17 at 16:46
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What guidelines or concepts exist which can be used to justify PC superiority in general? In a mathematical sense, how can I explain -75% damage taken and +300% damage dealt as baseline for all PCs in a credible way? Do I have to do it at all or is that a silently accepted premise of games in general?

I mean some games do essentially just that with no given explanation. Take Dynasty Warriors for example the controlled character just does way more damage than the ai controlled allies. Despite potentially swapping characters with your AI friends in the next battle. People just accept it or attribute to 'skill' at this point.

If you really do want in universe explanation I recommend asking over at https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/. As they're much more suited to building out lore/explanations for you.

One option to keep in mind though is that you can tweak the way effects are granted to lend more plausibility to your explanations. For example you mention the player takes 1/4 damage, but they could instead just as easily avoid 3/4 of all attacks at them. This would shift from a ship based effect(sturdy hulls from a custom vessel, extra shields from a special generator) to a pilot based one(ace pilot best in the fleet). Temper the math with grazes(reduced damage hits) and smaller (say ~20%) damage reduction to get the same exact effect as -75% damage if desired.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for Worldbuilding SE \$\endgroup\$ – val Jun 17 at 15:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for spreading the effect on multiple factors. Reload time, magazine size, hit rate, weapon turn rate, damage. Does not work when the game mechanics are well-known though. \$\endgroup\$ – knallfrosch Jun 17 at 16:17
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You don't have to

Player superiority is so well established by the thousands of games that have gone before that it is highly unlikely to raise the slightest eyebrow. More broadly, the protagonist(s) in nearly all fiction are outpowered compared to those around them. It is simply accepted to be the case.

Drawing attention to it is likely to be more difficult to do well than simply ignoring the issue and carrying on. You could, depending on tone, also "hang a lampshade on it" and point out the absurdity before carrying on regardless.

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Explaining it

Now for RPGs it's usually something like destiny, magic, superior skill, backstory, better (enchanted) equipment, having a rare power.

The common thread in the things you list is that the player has something that others don't. Whether it's destiny's favor or a rare skill, there is something that separates them from the general rabble they interact with.

But what if it's about space ships with equal size, type and equipment? How could I explain that a player can repeatedly and easily grind through 5-10 space ships which he himself is using without having much room for player skill due to weapons and thrusters working automatically?

The answer is the same: find an explanation that justifies why the player is different from the others. For example:

  • The player managed to get their hands on a prototype ship. The manufacturer was unable to bring it into production due to external factors but a handful of prototypes exist. (example: The Expanse TV show)
  • Similarly, the player belongs to a civilization which has above average engineering skills. It's not impossible for this civilization to have died out if you want a reason for why the player is unique in their setting. (example: Superman is the almost-last of his superior kind)
  • The player has an exceptional crew, the cream of the crop. They are able to eke out victories because their skills dramatically impact the efficiency of the ship. Expert pilots, expert engineers, expert marksmen, ... a well oiled ship runs better (example: Mass Effect. Shepard has access to Black Ops level equipment and recruits exceedingly skilled people to their cause)
  • Destiny favors the player. If you allow for destiniy (or a deity) to favor an RPG player, the same allowance exists for a player in space. There's no reason to assume that fate/god is bound to a planetary surface. (example: any RPG where they player is "the chosen" - this is a very common trope)

Not explaining it

However, I do agree with others that you're better off not explaining it and expect the player to assume that they are really skillful, as opposed to the game holding their hand.

Everyone wants to feel like the hero who is superior to their opponents. Don't take that magic away unless you absolutely have to.

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What guidelines or concepts exist which can be used to justify PC superiority in general? In a mathematical sense, do I have to explain -75% damage taken and +300% damage dealt as baseline for all PCs in a credible way? Or is that a silently accepted premise of games in general?

Generally in YOUR case : Easiest Concept would be that the players superiority in-game comes not from HARDWARE, but from Superior Software. Either that the PC is a gifted coder, whose targeting, engine power control/efficiency, and shield frequency rotation patterns, are superior to any similarly equipped ship OR the other route - Humans are humans...but enemies are AI/scouts/drones and completely unmanned. And that these older unmanned ships have somewhat outdated software, generally outclassed by any modern system.

Generally as in a generic "Why are heroes better than non-heroes" :

Plot convenience. The story MUST progress, and the hero MUST NOT die to the first goblin he/she comes across (IE S01E01 of Goblin Slayer). Nothing more. Is John Wick PHYSICALLY different from you and I, such that a bullet wound does not cause him to bleed out internally? No. If John Wick were not the hero of a story, he would die. And it would be a bad story.

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Don't explain it
Pretty much all games do this and it is more than accepted. If you will explain it it will probably lower the satisfaction. Just imagine your spaceship needs to shoot down enemies that look like ducks instead of bad-ass star cruisers (even though they have the same stats), would that be satisfying?

You could also take a look at Bloodborne for comparison as they have quite a unique take on this. A lot of NPCs can and will pretty much one-shot the PC. This makes for an insane high learning curve but proves all the more satisfying for the right kind of player.

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i don't think you need to explain this at all.

When you win a life or death fight, its not the losers that get to tell the story, if the ships are equal than its a 50% chance you win each fight.

sure you could say the odds of winning a 50/50 battle 10 times in a row is unlikely. but that is why they are the main character, they are the one with the story to tell. no one needs an explanation because they are emotionally invested in this person winning, they won't question something that is possible.

You are more likely to win 20 50/50 fights in a row than win the lottery and we don't need additional lore for someone winning the lottery beyond that it happened.

The mechanics used to ensure the player has a slight advantage need not to be described to them or explained since theoretically they could do it without the advantage

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    \$\begingroup\$ Basically, survivorship bias? It could even make sense if the game is hard, saving and reloading is cheap and easy, so it is likely that a player has been reloading saves multiple times during a full playthrough, and the game would be almost impossible to be beaten on a single save. \$\endgroup\$ – vsz Jun 21 at 4:38
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Players receive many advantages that are generally silently accepted like you mentioned. Mainly the ability to repeat encounters and bring in outside knowledge. Given the same ship and even the same exact character, players still come out ahead due to this fourth-wall version of precognition.

Games like SUPERHOT and Hotline Miami are good examples of this. The player can win 20 coin flips in a row because they (in theory) went through all one million possibilities. Think of it like the Doctor Strange approach.

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In all these games the players are the "heroes" of a story

They are on a path in that story where everything is interesting, exciting and relevant.

It's rather like the way that people depicted in films never go to the toilet, spend hours doing laundry or fill in forms. If these things happen they just kind of occur outside of the story

It's the same with the players in a RPG

Given that this is the way that the "story of the characters" work, it is not surprising that if they have a fight it will have a heroic outcome. If they find a treasure it will be enormous. If they fall in love it will be with the most beautiful.

This is not a matter of luck - or as you are concerned with - the laws of reality in the world in which they live. It is simply the path of the hero to tread a way that is brighter and a better story than everyone else

See Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces if you want to understand the relation between hero and their story

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Is your question "how to make my player win without advantage"? If they have no physical advantage, equipment or anything, the only things I can think of that could help them are intelligence and luck.

Example: Your player shoots an enemy spaceship at a spot that makes it destroy 2 other ships. Or the player gets lucky and the enemy gets an asteroid in the face.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please note the updated scope of the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Alexandre Vaillancourt Jun 17 at 16:36
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In a mathematical sense, do I have to explain -75% damage taken and +300% damage dealt as baseline for all PCs in a credible way? Or is that a silently accepted premise of games in general?

You could achieve this naturally through rapid fire. You can shoot projectiles as fast as you want by clicking the fire button. If you're shooting 4x faster than them, then you will take exactly 75% less damage and do 300% additional damage, even though you are firing the same projectiles as they are, and your ship has the same durability.

This doesn't remove the contrivance entirely, since you still have to wonder why your opponents aren't shooting quickly as well. But at least it shifts the burden from the inexplicable magical superiority of your ship to an inexplicable incompetence of your opposing ships' pilots. Something that the sci-fi film industry seems to be perfectly happy with.

Or perhaps it's a hell of a lot easier to navigate the ship with a PC keyboard or Nintendo controller than from the cockpit.

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protected by Philipp Jun 18 at 14:03

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