Prototyping Turn Order
Hey Everyone! Jordan here!
In this update I’d like to talk about our turn order design for the game - how we handle turn-based moving and shooting. We’ve been following your discussions on the BattleTech forums and as game developers, they’re always really exciting to see. We learn a ton by reading your different points-of-view, so thanks!
We were originally going to wait a little longer to talk about Turn Order so we could actually show it to you in-game and in-action - but we can see how passionate you guys are about this topic and we don’t want to leave you hanging. As your forum threads reflect, we all understand that tabletop and computer games are two very different animals, even when they are trying to simulate the same fictional reality.
Whenever I’m at a game convention, I’m always asked, “Why don’t you just port the BattleTech tabletop rules to the computer? They’ve worked great for 30 years!” For the answer, let’s start with the obvious - tabletop games have the enormous benefit of in-person social interaction. Being around the table with your friends is entertaining all by itself and taking more time to resolve game results is not necessarily a negative. On the other hand, waiting for a remote opponent in an online game can be frustrating at worst and boring at best. Even if your opponent is your best friend, it’s just not the same as being the table together.
Beyond social interaction, another key difference between tabletop and computer games is how you absorb information. For example, during a tabletop game, every move and every die roll you make (along with all the moves and die rolls of your opponents) happen at a speed that allows you to process that information. And don’t underestimate the tactile and social fun of rolling dice or the visceral feeling of filling in armor boxes on a ‘Mech’s record sheet. It is the tactile power of those experiences that helps us understand and retain the game information conveyed during the event.
BattleTech’s turn order is a good example of a tabletop design element that doesn’t port well to the computer. The tabletop design attempts to reflect the fictional reality of 'Mechs and vehicles moving and shooting simultaneously by splitting movement and combat into two different phases. Movement order is based on initiative, and then alternated between players. Combat is resolved simultaneously - players take turns rolling damage, and then that damage all takes effect at the same time. This works great for tabletop, where it’s easy to accept the nonlinear abstraction. Even though my attack may have destroyed your ‘Mech, I know you’ll still get to roll for its damage to mine. This is much harder to present on screen, where a certain linearity of events is expected!
So, now that you understand the basic design challenge, we’ll start where HBS always starts - at the goal level.
Our design process starts with explicitly stating the goals for every system, so that we have a way of evaluating if the system design is not just “cool” but most importantly achieves its design criteria. The design goals that impact the turn order system are:
- Fluid play in both singleplayer and multiplayer game modes - This is actually a bigger deal than you would think because our emotional reactions to a turn order system are quite different with a computer opponent that takes zero time to make a decision and a human who takes considerably more than zero time.
- Make Light 'Mechs useful and versatile - Light 'Mechs were included in the game to be used as scouts, flankers, and forward observers. Historically, these roles have appeared in BT fiction more than in game play, so one of our major goals is to make Light 'Mechs really useful.
- Don’t overwhelm me with information - BattleTech is a very information heavy game. Previous computer / video games have handled this in one of two ways: greatly simplify the game, or overwhelm the player with too much information. We want to find a balance that allows us to maintain the depth of the simulation while making sure that the information provided is digestible and actionable.
- Provide me visceral feedback on my actions - When you perform an action you should see a satisfying result to that action, and most importantly you should understand the results of the action.
- It’s gotta feel like BattleTech! - This one might seem obvious, but it’s important to make it explicit - the results of the turn order system should feel like BattleTech.
Working from an established set of design goals for a system, we like to move directly into rapid prototyping. As designers, it’s always tempting to engage in lengthy debates, waxing poetic about the merits of different approaches, but we’ve found that it’s by far more effective to simply try out each compelling idea! Our designers and engineers jump right into Unity to quickly create crude working versions of design concepts that we can play right away. These prototypes look ugly, and are missing a lot of bells and whistles, but they’re enough for us to really get a feel for how the design element plays in both singleplayer and multiplayer scenarios.
This approach has made working on BATTLETECH a great deal of fun for for the entire team as we can all discuss the merits of each approach from an informed position. Even more importantly, the rapid prototyping methodology has allowed us to vet the game design many months before a fully architected code base would allow us to.
We have built and played the hell out of seven (7!) different approaches to turn order, from a completely linear XCOM-like system to a completely simultaneous action system with many variations in between. Since a simultaneous action approach is a natural one to gravitate to for BattleTech, I’m going to take some time to outline how those particular prototypes went in a bit of detail.
Our first simultaneous action prototype was one in which players plotted both movement and combat secretly and then watched as the round unfolded. The biggest issue with this prototype turned out to be with targeting and weapon selections for each 'Mech. In the prototype, players could target enemies with specific weapons while plotting their movements and then, during a simultaneous resolution phase, they’d see their choices play out in real-time action.
Sound great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, things often went very differently than folks anticipated. Watching everyone’s plans going awry is supposed to be part of the fun of a simultaneous action system but instead, players felt frustrated watching one of their MechWarriors slavishly waiting to shoot their designated target rather than unloading in the rear armor of an enemy 'Mech that wandered right into the line-of-fire. To compensate, we started to give the MechWarriors the ability to override the player’s targeting and weapon selections in specific circumstances and... eventually it just started feeling like the player was losing control of critical decisions. So much for Simultaneous Action Prototype #1!
Our next attempt at simultaneous action was to break the round into two phases, Movement and Combat - with both phases being revealed simultaneously. The idea was that player would plot movement for all their 'Mechs and then everyone’s movements would be revealed simultaneously. The players could then use a scrollbar like a video “scrubber” to roll time backwards and forwards to determine when to fire during each 'Mech’s movement, who the target was, and which weapons would fire. This prototype was interesting, and returned complete control to the player, but was a slow and laborious system to interact with.
Both of our simultaneous action solutions also really failed on the information overload and visceral feedback goals I mentioned above. Because so much happened so quickly, you often found yourself needing to dive into each 'Mech’s data after the action just to understand what happened in the previous round. As you can imagine, that wasn’t very fun. The other goal these prototypes failed at was actually the most important - they felt like you were commanding fighter planes, not BattleMechs. They didn’t feel like BattleTech.
I won’t take you through the pros and cons of all seven Turn Order prototypes we built and played the hell out of and instead cut to the chase by introducing you to the turn order system we finally embraced and are building the game around.
So - Where Did We End Up?
Here’s the basics:
- Each weight class of ‘Mech has an Initiative value. Light ‘Mechs are the fastest, with an Initiative of 4 and assaults are the slowest, with an Initiative of 1.
- Combat rounds are divided into 5 Phases, counting down from 5 to 1. ‘Mechs are allowed to act during the Phase that matches their Initiative. (That 5th Phase is the province of extremely skilled MechWarriors piloting Light ‘Mechs.)
- Each Phase, each side takes turns choosing a ‘Mech to Activate. When a Mech is Activated, it can both move and then fire its weapons. However, once the ‘Mech fires, its turn is over and it can’t act again until the next Round of combat.
- After you Activate a ‘Mech and take a turn, the game attempts to give the next action to the other side. If the enemy has units available to use in the current Phase, they get the opportunity to activate one of them. If, on the other hand, they have no more units they can activate in the phase, and you do, you’ll get to go again.
- This means that if you and your opponent are both using full lances of assault ‘Mechs, every Round will be pretty predictable: You’ll go, then your opponent will go, and so forth until all eight ‘Mechs have been Activated and have taken a turn.
- When the game finishes counting down Initiative values and Phase 1 units have taken their turn, the Round ends. The Phase counter resets to 5, and every ‘Mech is ready to act again.
And now the really cool part:
We think this is a neat system because it reinforces and distinguishes between the different weight classes of ‘Mechs - but the place where it really becomes really interesting is when you start reserving ‘Mechs’ Phases for use later in the Round.
Any ‘Mech that isn’t an assault can be held in reserve when its turn to act comes up. That temporarily sets its Initiative Value one lower. So a Light ‘Mech that normally acts in Phase 4 will instead act in Phase 3.
With this system, you can keep reserving your ‘Mechs’ actions, holding an entire lance of ‘Mechs until Phase 1, if you wanted to.
What’s so interesting about reserving actions? First of all, consider the case of a whole lance of Light and medium ‘Mechs being reserved until Phase 1, where they’ll get to act right at the end of a Round. Then, when the round ends and a new Round starts, they’ll immediately get to act again in Phases 4 and 3! (This tactic isn’t theoretical - in a recent battle, I snuck up behind our Lead Designer Kevin’s Centurion with a Jenner I’d reserved to Phase 1. Then, on Phase 4 of the next Round I got to make a full alpha strike right into his back armor.)
As you’d guess, there’s also a lot of value in using this tactic to locally outnumber an opponent. You want your engagements to be uneven in your favor, and you want to be able to fall back from any engagement in which you’re outnumbered. Focusing your forces in one spot when your enemy is spread out is right out of Sun Tzu.
Our initiative system, which allows you to reserve units, means you can locally outnumber your enemy in time as well as space. If you can take three actions in a row, and all three actions are effective fire on a target with no chance for it to respond by moving or returning fire… you’ve essentially made part of the turn a 3-on-1 battle.
Conversely, reserving your faster ‘Mechs to break up long sequences of enemy action with opportunities to respond can be useful in preventing your own forces from becoming focus-fired.
We’re reinforcing the role of Light ‘Mechs in other ways, but this system is a significant component of their value. Light ‘Mechs get to choose where and when they engage, and if used carefully can be exactly the tool you need to get out of a bad situation. Heavy and assault ‘Mechs pack a much bigger punch, but the tradeoff is that they’re inherently more predictable - and thus are more often reacting than acting.
This turn order system is the one that made us immediately say, “Yes, that feels like BattleTech.” (Randall Bills, who’s in charge of BattleTech at Catalyst Game Labs, had the same reaction, which is obviously a good sign!) It captures the feeling of the world in that 'Mechs feel like 'Mechs, not aircraft or stationary gun platforms. It really helped to emphasise the difference between the various weight classes of 'Mechs. The tactical choices are interesting and the results are immediate and understandable.
And this model also clearly fulfilled all of our design goals from above:
- Fluid play in both singleplayer and multiplayer game modes - Because control frequently passes back and forth in this model, singleplayer flows smoothly while still giving the player a variety of tactical options and there’s almost always something to watch or do in multiplayer.
- Make Light 'Mechs useful and versatile - As explained above, this system gives Light ‘Mechs an inherent initiative advantage which can be used in many different ways.
- Don’t overwhelm me with information - Focusing on moving only one unit at a time, and allowing both sides to clearly see the results of JUST that action, really helped focus the amount of information being presented to the player on a moment-to-moment basis - all the complexity of BattleTech movement and attacks is still there, but now it’s being presented in a very digestible way.
- Provide me visceral feedback on my actions - Plotting a ‘Mech’s action and immediately seeing the damage done by your attack is really satisfying!
- It’s gotta feel like BattleTech - While this admittedly a subjective criteria, this turn-order model immediately elicited this response with the team.
Now, we know you can’t play this system yourself yet (we’re working as fast as we can!) so you’ll have to trust on this one, but our play experiences tell us that this turn order system hits the right balance for both singleplayer and multiplayer game play.
You can head over to the forum now to discuss all the crunchy details with your fellow BattleTech fans here.
And, be sure to tune into the DEATH FROM ABOVE show on Hyper RPG’s Twitch channel to see how it plays out in their live-action BattleTech RPG. The #DFA team thinks it’ll make their livestreaming combat more engaging and understandable. Should be fun!
Talk to you all soon - Jordan
New BATTLETECH Dev Q&A Incoming
Starting at 2pm PST on April 13, we’ll be answering any follow up questions about the Turn-Order System discussed in the update and your burning questions about Interstellar Travel. You can ask your questions in this thread on the BATTLETECH Forums or, if you’re able to join us live, you can also ask any other questions in chat - although we can’t promise to be quite as forthcoming on those.
And, in case you missed our first Dev Q&A, you can find it here on the Hyper RPG Youtube channel at the 1:00 mark.
Haven’t visited the BATTLETECH Forums in awhile? Mitch and Kevin regularly answer questions in the Ask the Devs sub-forum, we’ve seen some amazingly creative work in the Fan Art & Creations sub-forum, a lively General Discussions area as well as a BattleTech tabletop section where Randall from Catalyst answers questions and a Tabletop Discussion area.
We encourage you to check out the community over there when you get a chance!
Death from Above Update
But! Death From Above is more than a show to watch! Each week the audience can directly influence the game by donating weapons, buffs, the chance to use a special ability and more to either our heros or the opposing force they’re up against.
In case you haven’t seen the show yet, here’s a quick synopsis of what’s happened to our intrepid mercenaries so far!
After breaking Lord Commander Garrilac out of the prison planet of Hastur II, the Mercs have started to earn a reputation as they make their way from one battlefield to another in the periphery. They have formed an alliance with a Lord in the Periphery and found a piece of valuable Lostech.
However, a shadow hangs over the newly-christened Mason’s Marauders. The team’s mysterious benefactor continues to hold the team under their thumb with threats to what they care for the most. The Marauders now find themselves locked in a conflict with House Davion, having taken a contract from House Marik. Will the Unit live long enough to discover who their benefactor is? Or will their next drop onto the battlefield be their last?
Tune in to Death From Above on the Twitch channel, Hyper RPG Tuesday nights for role playing and Friday nights for battle at 6 PM to find out.
And, for you Shadowrun lovers out there, Wednesdays at 5:30pm PST you can watch a motley crew of Shadowrunners on Corporate Sins!
Bye for now!