Interview with Christophe Boelinger
As promised, here are the answers to the questions you asked Christophe Boelinger!
So without further delay, here you are!
Q. How do you create tactical decisions in the game mechanics that are fun instead of mundane (i.e. why bother using a sword over a mace)?
A. Generally when I design a game system or game mechanics my base rule of work is to try to respect every aspect of real life (if we can talk about real life for an Heroic Fantasy world). ;)
Meaning I’m trying to translate into the game mechanics every rule and possibility that real life normally offers. It has very often proven to be efficient, I guess because life is naturally balanced and offers nice challenges.
Q. What are the differences between balancing a turn-based tactical game vs. this game (more RTS as far as I understand)?
A. I’m not sure I got your question right, but I’ll try to answer from what I think I understood anyway. I have worked mainly on board games so far. So to me, designing a turn based video game is like designing a real table top board game or miniature game. Not many things change. Even better, I could say that the computer brings many advantages like:
- No rulebook to read for the player, meaning more freedom of richness hidden under the hood of the machine.
- More freedom of terrain, multiple levels (or floors), and various ground types. This richness is almost impossible to access on a board game because you would need to add so many pieces in the box that at some point the game would become too expensive.
- Visual representation from various angles, sound effects, and stats appearing when you pass over the units instead of having a counter with multiple numbers and stats on it. All those technical features helps having a game that looks more simple even though it can be tactically very challenging because of all the parameters we can implement in the units and for the terrains and types of floors.
Balancing such a game will of course be very demanding, because of all those various professions, classes and subclasses, and the freedom of evolution that we want to leave to every player. But hey, I guess that’s the price to pay for a maximum freedom of choice given to the players! ;)
Q. How do you think enemy AI should be written and balanced in this sort of game (Turn-based JRPG)? Should the enemies simply follow a static script? Should they learn as the battle progresses, or should they randomly select an action based on a pre-set number of abilities?
A. Once again I think we should follow the rules of life. When you are facing an opponent you can never be sure of his reactions or his future course of actions. Of course judging from his look or outfit you can have a good guess on how he should try to act. But if he always acts the same way, where’s the fun? And most of all, where are the surprises?
So to my POV I would say that most units will react according to their class or sub-class, but every now and then they could and should go for another direction / type of action that will totally surprise the player. And that’s real life again!
Q. Hi Christophe, I was a huge fan of Archipelago, and learning that one of my favourite multiplayer tabletop game designers has teamed up with one of my favourite single-player strategy RPG designers was a dream come true. That said, virtually all of my favourite elements of Archipelago have to do with the interactions between players, and I'm wondering how that might've informed your thinking on Unsung Story, which is mostly a single-player affair.
A. Thanks! As you mentioned it is not easy to have interactivity with others in a single player game. :(
But the interactivity with NPCs could be possible! As Matsuno mentioned already, we don’t want the starting game to be too complex. Meaning that we won’t be able to input all rules of life and actions you could take in real life right from the start of the game. But each scenario should bring new game mechanics to the game. Then of course my ultimate dream would be to implement some more interactions with the NPCs other than just attacking; if it is possible trying to negotiate, buy/sell equipment, recruit, and so forth with the NPCs... Of course as mentioned in the previous questions, you will never know how they will react to your approach. Sometimes friendly, sometimes aggressively... surprise again would be the best. But once again, I might be going too far, since those are my dreams that might not be fulfilled right from the start... We gotta think of the developers also!
Q. How can you keep a game about strategy balanced while giving the players options to choose multiple characters? Whenever there is inequality in the choice of characters there is usually an unbalanced difficulty in the campaign. The only game i have played recently that did this well was in Dark Souls; the sorcerer is the easiest one to use while deprived is the hardest. Even though the characters were not equal at the start it didn't decide which player was the better player especially during pvp battles, actually if you had deprived then your character could end up being stronger in the long run. While many other games give certain characters too much power and ruin the game because either everyone chooses that character or you are at a disadvantage for not choosing to conform to that character.
A. Let me be honest: with a game of such proportion, achieving 100% total balance is never possible. Let’s even imagine you do tons of play tests and think your game is balanced, millions or thousands of people playing the game day and night all over the planet will always find one class or another best suited to advance faster or be more powerful. But this is in certain given situations, certain scenarios. If the scenarios are quite different, sometimes you might need more warriors, sometimes more wizards. That’s the first good thing about Unsung Story.
And even if at the end you would find out that the mages are better to your POV, that would be okay also. But it’s a single game, and you took the easier path. If you really enjoyed the game you will probably play it all other again choosing a different path, and avoiding or forbidding yourself from using the class you over used in your first campaign.
I played Skyrim a lot, and when my character became too powerful to my POV, I started a new campaign with a totally different character. I’m not inventing anything here, just stating the facts ;)
Q. What are your main references regarding board games and other videogames to create the system of Unsung Story?
A. As a matter of fact, I usually don’t use any reference games when I’m designing a game. I like to be creative, innovative and bring a new input to a new game. But I can say that my favorite games at the time could influence me in some way.
- Favorite Video Games : Final Fantasy Tactics, Civilization
- Favorite Board Games : Space Hulk, Earth Reborn, ADD (old version) ;), Dungeon Twister
Q. In many RPGs I played there were 1 or 2 (max) strategies that were far better than any other. In these cases, players would play many hours to acquire the best items and abilities and smash everything. What do you think of this model? Do you see advantages in creating more possible competitive strategies?
A. I would not like it at all if the game would end up this way. :(
I think the variety of scenarios, objectives, missions, and classes and sub-classes evolution should bring sufficient challenges and choices to avoid that. Each scenario should place the player in front of difficult situations that he should have to adapt to. Trying the same strategy on each and every scenario should tend to fail at some point.
Of course the first scenarios shouldn’t be too difficult ;) I mean the player is learning the basics of the game. But once the basics are acquired, I would like the players to be successful in their mission only after a few tries, not right from the start. The players should learn from every failed attempt and try again while changing their strategy, deployment, selection of troops, etc...
Q. One difference between designing a board game and a video game is that most video games integrate a more linear type of narrative. Are the strategy mechanics you're designing in Unsung Story meant to have synergy with the themes of the story? To what extent are the mechanics and narrative informed by one another? Thank you much for taking the time to do this interview!
A. Matsuno is creating the main story, the characters, and the global design of the game. I will take care of the more finesse mechanics, more "down to earth" aspects if I can say so.
So for each story or scenario that Matsuno creates, my goal is to adapt it as best as possible, bringing a new twist and challenge to the player for each one of those scenarios. I will create and input little twists that will surprise the player and always push them to review their strategy and experiment new tactics.
Q. What are the most important things you've learned in your experience with game design, and how are you going to apply them to Unsung Story?
A. I would answer the same as question 1, which was:
“Generally when I design a game system or game mechanics my base rule of work is to try to respect every aspect of real life (if we can talk about real life for an Heroic Fantasy world). ;)
Meaning I’m trying to translate into the game mechanics every rule and possibility that real life normally offers. It has very often proven to be efficient, I guess because life is naturally balanced and offers nice challenges.”
Q. How do you balance making mechanics approachable for new players while also having enough strategic depth to keep players engaged?
A. Tutorial my friend! Tutorial is the key to everything! From beginners to hard core players! ;)
Here’s an example from one of my published board games that really illustrates my point: Earth Reborn has a tutorial made of 9 scenarios. Each scenario is a totally different story, setup, terrain, forces, etc... Each scenario brings a new set of rules and new challenge to the players. The first one being really for beginners with only movement, close combat, and interacting with objects such as doors. Not even shooting is available! So this is really for very beginners. The last scenario includes searching in rooms, capturing, torturing, spying, multi level scenarios (with multiple floors I mean), and much much more... To the point that scenario 9 is as close to a RPG as a board game could get because you can do almost anything you want!
Q. Players have different preferences for play style, difficulty, and other game play aspects; how do you make a game appeal to a player base with different preferences?
A. I don’t know yet if the difficulty will be adjustable in the final game... Too early to say I guess. But I think if a tactical game is well thought out and proposes a really progressive learning curve with a nice story and a good instinctive interface; it should appeal to most of the players. And anyway at the end it’s almost impossible no matter the field or product to please everybody on this planet! So I guess there’s no need trying to reach that fictive goal, better concentrate on making the best game we can and hope it will appeal to the majority. ;)
Q. Do you have any books that are invaluable to you in game design, whether board game or video game?
A. Nope, I don’t use any books for game design. I use 38 years of game designing ;)
I started designing games at the very young age of 8! I have a collection of around 3,000 board games, RPGs, card games, etc... Around 600 video games... and my books are only comic books (around 50,000!) and about 10,000 miniatures for all the miniature games you could almost imagine. ;) So constantly living in this SF / HF / Super hero world of mine as a kid, I think this occupation suits me perfectly. ;)
Q. What are some common mistakes you see in other tactical systems? Too random. Not enough freedom of choices. Not enough possibilities.
A. Not enough variety. Not enough creativity. Too linear. But hey, I’m listing all that and maybe I won’t be able to do better. :(
Q. Tactical systems are mostly geared fully towards strategy with a pinch of luck, how do you decide how many luck-based decisions to include?
A. Luck is a good thing to a certain extent because it’s something you have totally no control on. The result is that the same scenario can turn out totally differently based on luck only. But I don’t think it’s the best thing or best choice as game design. The same scenario should turn out differently based more on the different decisions and tactical setup the players did.
I would say that for me the good proportion in a strongly themed tactical game would be 70% control and 30% luck. 10/15 years ago I would have said 100% control based, and 0% luck, and this is almost the case of Dungeon Twister (95% control estimated versus 5% luck). But then a very skilled player is almost unbeatable, first thing. And second thing, the element of surprise brought by luck, the drastic changes it can bring over the course of a scenario are so much fun that nowadays I think a part of luck is required in such games, but not too much.
The players have to feel like he almost has a total control. But once again in life you can’t control everything. Things happen sometimes against your will....
Q. What are you favourite video and board game tactical systems?
- Favorite Video Games : Final Fantasy Tactics, Civilization
- Favorite Board Games : Space Hulk, Earth Reborn, ADD (old version) ;), Dungeon Twister
Q. Favourite 60s, 70s and 80s songs?
A. My favorite type of music has always been Hip Hop and R&B, along with electro music. Mostly dance floor stuff. ;)
I also compose, write, sing and rap. I have a home music studio.
Q. I'd like to see some discussion on t is your favorite win condition other than "defeat all enemies". What's your take on this - have you given any thought to "defeat leader", "protect ally", "defeat X enemies", "survive X rounds", etc.?
A. I would love to have many different styles of objectives, victory conditions, and so forth... and I think as long as Playdek and the developing team will allow me I will use and abuse of all those different goals and missions. Once again, if you look at the objectives in the Earth Reborn board game, they are very various and different. One of the objectives is to release some weight from one of your guys who has a constant digestive problem in the toilets! And the opponent has an objective where he is supposed to place a bomb in the toilets (or maybe I removed this one at the end!).
But once again, very different objectives could mean a lot of extra developing for the team, so I have to respect that also, while when you design Board games your limitations are more in the quantity of equipment in the box and the thickness of the rule book. Each world (video versus board game) has his own advantages and disadvantages; I guess we just have to deal with them ;)
We would like to thank Christophe from taking time to answer these questions, and we can’t wait to see how he helps shape Unsung Story! As a reminder, we are doing another interview this week with Rebecca, our Assistance Producer, so feel free to stop by the reddit thread and post up a question: http://www.reddit.com/r/theunsungstory/comments/2568p2/questions_for_the_assistant_producer/
Thank you all, and we hope you are having a great week!