Age of Wonders: Planetfall - Dev Diary #57: The plot thickens - Customizable Campaign Experiences II

Eomolch

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Aug 10, 2018
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Welcome everyone to the second part of our dev diary about player freedom and choices in the Age of Wonders Planetfall Campaigns. Two weeks ago we were looking at the player choices on the campaign star map and during character customization (if you missed the dev diary, you can still find it here). Today we will continue with everything that happens within the missions themselves.

(There will be some story spoilers in the following passages, so people who want to explore every bit of the Planetfall campaign by themselves should stop reading here )


Open RMG World

When you go back to the campaign missions of Age of Wonders 3 or 2 and analyze them from a high level perspective, you will notice a high number of bigger and smaller differences to the campaign missions in Planetfall. Back then, maps were completely hand-crafted, fine-tuned and scripted to let the player experience the story carefully built in by the campaign designer in the best possible way. The map was divided in areas that could often only be reached one after another, so that the player would always trigger the series of events relevant to the main story in the same order. This way, all effort could go into polishing and optimizing the experience of that one linear story experience. Something I write with the greatest respect by the way, as I enjoyed all my campaign runs of previous Age of Wonders games as a player before I ended up joining Triumph for Planetfall.


In Planetfall we wanted to use RMG-based maps as a basis for our campaign stories and consequently approached the mission design with an entirely different ideal in mind. If we compare previous AoW campaigns to old-school RPG stories, then what we opted for in Planetfall can be best described as an open world RPG experience. This starts with the open semi-random map layout that invites the player to explore the planet in all directions and ends with the AI players that often act as NPC quest givers, offering the players optional side quests – or alternative paths to complete their main story goal. And like in many open RPGs killing the quest giver is always an option...

upload_2020-3-25_12-9-37.png

The first of many requests from the entitled Sina of House Timur…

upload_2020-3-25_12-10-19.png

...and she is not amused when her requests get turned down.

Explicit Choices

There are two different types of player choices that you will find in the Age of Wonders Planetfall campaigns, though the same distinction could be applied to many other games.

The first kind of player choices are the explicit choices. They are what players will typically think of when they are asked about their play through decisions and are characterized by their explicit choice moment, when the player is directly asked to make a mutually exclusive choice in a dedicated story interface. In Planetfall these are the story messages, and the player can’t continue the game before one of the available story buttons has been clicked. This way the importance of the decision is stressed, and part of the reason why explicit choices like this are usually reserved for the most important, epic or impactful decisions that the player has to make. If done right, they are preceded by a buildup that gives the player the right narrative context to at least guess how their decision will impact the development of the story, yet the choices should never be trivial and leave the player pondering for some time before they make their pick.

In addition, Planetfall uses explicit choices as a tool for the player to shape their character by giving them agency over the pivotal moments when a character can evolve in one direction or another, based on their decisions. In the last dev diary we already showed an example of this, where the player gets to make a decision about Jack (or Jackie) Gelder’s haunted past. Below we will look at another example from the first Assembly mission – Gardip XX – where Ellen (or Elliot ;-)) Shaw finds a Vanguard scientist inside a Spacer camp and the situation gets out of hand rather quickly.

upload_2020-3-25_12-11-59.png

Does the player want Ellen Shaw to stick to her Assembly protocols? Or do they think that there is still a spark of humanity and empathy left inside her?

The important part as campaign designer is to make sure that all the available options play out authentically and make sense for the involved characters. But also, all options need to be balanced out from a game play perspective and offer a trade-off between gaining and losing different resources or in game assets of comparable value.

In case of the current example, Ellen Shaw can rationalize her empathy through an argument of Assembly superiority:

upload_2020-3-25_12-13-6.png

If she does, the player will be left with a clean conscience and a Vanguard hero to integrate (quite literally, Synthesis ftw!) into their Assembly armies.

On the other hand, it is just as plausible to let Ellen Shaw do what the Assembly knows to do best: Take things apart and reassemble them!

upload_2020-3-25_12-13-33.png

In this scenario the transformation of Anna Smithson will complete the following turn – and the player gets their fresh Assembly hero to field in battle.


Implicit Choices

The other type of choices include what would commonly be perceived as “player freedom”, so any situation within a campaign mission where the player has the freedom to take different actions that are either directly linked to a quest or work through normal game systems such as diplomacy, but have obvious narrative implications.

An easy example for this is when you receive a quest from an AI player in the campaign, e.g. the “Cooperate with Sina” quest mentioned earlier. If the player accepted the quest as an explicit choice, they are still left with a number of implicit choices to make as they continue to play: they can a) start to work towards completing the quest at any desired moment, b) ignore the quest (most campaign quests don’t have a turn limit) or c) fail the quest by declaring war on Sina – or completing the alternative quest line where a rival agent offers the player the means to blackmail Sina instead of helping her.

What all the implicit choices have in common is that they are quite often not tied to a specific moment within the game, but stay relevant and optional for a long period of time. They are dynamic in the sense that new alternatives can be discovered through map exploration or the continuation of different parts of the plot, but also in that they require the player to weight them against each other and incorporate them into their strategy. In that way they can be much more demanding for the player than explicit choices, since they require the player to pick the right time to perform – or not perform – the relevant, linked actions. At the same time they invite the player to try out unconventional strategies or even inspire them to test the system and deliberately take choices that look like they should break the plot.

upload_2020-3-25_12-14-38.png

Declaring war on your ally in the second Amazon mission was surely a good idea...

During development this is also when some QA testers will proof their evil talents and come up with creative game play decisions that nobody would have ever expected. Like the time I received a bug report for the game crashing when the tester started razing his HQ on turn 1 of any campaign mission.


Explicit vs Implicit

Using explicit and implicit choices both has its different upsides and downsides. It may seem like explicit choices are the superior type of choice, as they are more tangible and make a direct impact on the player experience, especially since they are more often acknowledged by the player as something that gives them control over the story. However, explicit choices can only truly shine in the right narrative context, when they are backed up by a cast of implicit choices that first foreshadow the bigger choice moments and later allow the player to stick to their role-playing experience in all the details. After all, what good would it do the player if they lets Ellen Shaw reassemble the Vanguard character, but would later be forced to stay friendly with all non-Assembly commanders they meet?

So while both types of choices have different characteristics and strengths they both have the same importance for the complete customizable experience that we want to achieve in our Planetfall campaigns. To determine when a decision should be implemented as an explicit or implicit choice is one of the many challenges during production, and the reasons to pick one over the other can be anything from involved workload to interface problems.

As an example let’s consider the implementation of multiple competing campaign paths in Planetflal, e.g. in the first Kir’Ko mission – Arcadia Caeleste:

upload_2020-3-25_12-15-42.png

Here, there are three main story paths tied to campaign victory conditions:
  • “Searching for Answers”
  • “Pay-Back Time”
  • “The Harmony Beyond”
Choosing which main story arc to follow and complete is a very important decision, so one could ask why this isn’t presented in a big explicit choice moment? The short answer to this question is: for greater flexibility and a more interesting plot. The long answer starts with a list of all the things that could go wrong if the player locked themselves in one of the three options without alternatives.

Let’s say the player chose the “Searching for Answers” path, where they are asked to forge alliances with the Celestian leader characters on the planet:
  • But what if those characters get defeated by another AI player?
  • Or if the player changes their mind, declares war and defeats the Celestian leaders themselves?
  • Should they then lose the mission? Or wouldn’t it make much more sense to only block this particular campaign path and leave the other two paths still open?

Similarly, let’s assume the player decided to follow the “Pay-Back Time” story arc, where they are asked to attack Vanguard settlements and take revenge on the Vanguard leader for the past cruelties committed against the Kir’Ko:
  • What would happen if the player decides to befriend all Vanguard settlements, making it impossible for them to even get past that first stage of the quest line as there would be no settlements left to attack?
  • Or if they root for peace with the Vanguard player, undermining the entire story of taking revenge against humans? Should they end up in a stale-mate where nobody is at war, yet nobody can win?
All these questions describe scenarios that need to be accounted for in the design of the mission, and it turned out to be much more practical to handle them when the different campaign paths could co-exist, until they get either completed or invalidated by the player’s actions.

This concludes my dev diary about customizable campaign experiences in Age of Wonders Planetfall. Thanks for giving it a read and until next time!
 
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Trunting

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Great job on the campaign. I really enjoyed the world building aspect of it.

I havent fully finished the campaign as of yet, but I found it lorewise plausible and I liked the interactions. I havent played the Revelations campaign yet. I think the campaign of Planetfall did a far better job in presentation than the previous Aow campaigns (which belong to my dearest childhood memories).

Ideas for future campaigns (the Sherkan one ;)):
- a map, where you have to defeat several incoming scripted waves of attackers
- a map where a global epidemic is rampaging
- more memorable enemies (for example a mad Jon Irenicus-inspired scientist, who wants to use Star Union to become the new emperor)
- a demonic invasion
 

Eomolch

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Aug 10, 2018
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Thanks guys! You all stay healthy and safe as well! :)


Ideas for future campaigns (the Sherkan one ;)):
- a map, where you have to defeat several incoming scripted waves of attackers
- a map where a global epidemic is rampaging
- more memorable enemies (for example a mad Jon Irenicus-inspired scientist, who wants to use Star Union to become the new emperor)
- a demonic invasion

Nice list, Trunting! I'm afraid these arrive too late for the next DLC campaign, but looking at your requests, I think you will like what's coming ;)
 

Ericridge

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I remember that kir'ko campaign from last year when I wanted to go kir'ko and have him go celestian. I influenced one of the vanguard settlements into joining me but it was counted as subduing the vanguard settlement which confused me. I thought I had them peacefully join the kir'ko. I didn't sent in the kir'ko to attack them. I left all the other vanguard settlements alone for the rest of the map. Does it still count as subduing or not now?
 

Eomolch

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Hi Ericridge! Maybe there was a bug with this back when you played that mission the first time, but I double checked to confirm that in the current version of the game only settlements you attack will count as subdued for that quest ;)
 

ufozhou

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it's very clear the independ choic(ELOPE)is harder and less rewaerd. usually you have to fight more AI and achieve more objects with less help. I am enjoy this setting though, just wonder why this line is harder than ohters during the design progress.
Stay safe , stay healthy
 

Eomolch

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Hi ufozhou, the main reason for this is

that we expected the majority of players to fight CORE and Carminia once they figured out what was generally going on. If we made the play throughs with all choices equally hard, then almost nobody would ever pick the other sides and endings. This way, it is more of a challenge to go for a full neutral campaign play through where you can get all playable characters go neutral in the final mission. ;)
 

ufozhou

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Hi ufozhou, the main reason for this is

that we expected the majority of players to fight CORE and Carminia once they figured out what was generally going on. If we made the play throughs with all choices equally hard, then almost nobody would ever pick the other sides and endings. This way, it is more of a challenge to go for a full neutral campaign play through where you can get all playable characters go neutral in the final mission. ;)
got it thanks
 

Ericridge

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Hi ufozhou, the main reason for this is

I actually went full neutral/independent on my very first play through. Its because I'm the one doing all the fighting which means I get to call all the shots on what I want to happen. I still haven't done other two routes yet. Nor feel the desire to do so XD So the final battle was very enjoyable for me because of that. The choices felt very natural to me. I created the galaxy in my image.
 

Ridixo

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Hi ufozhou, the main reason for this is

that we expected the majority of players to fight CORE and Carminia once they figured out what was generally going on. If we made the play throughs with all choices equally hard, then almost nobody would ever pick the other sides and endings. This way, it is more of a challenge to go for a full neutral campaign play through where you can get all playable characters go neutral in the final mission. ;)

On the other hand there are players that would like to side even with the shadow-demons, and why not, serve some tasty pops to the Voidbringers delegation after signing a treaty to enslave the galaxy :p
 

DragonZee

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At the end of the day the game let me have meaningful enough choices that I felt I had some control over the plot and even made me think about what to do next, what choice to make. I think you guys made a solid campaign although beating more then 6 players is usually too much for me... so my choice was rather gameplay-related (you can see how many enemies/alllies your choice will make).
 

Leon Feargus

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Thanks for the hard work Eomolch and team!
I've had good fun going through the campaign, it took me ages (trying to be pacifist all the way).
Done a couple of random maps and found out that I suffer from 'can't bother to finish map' syndrome. So I went back to the campaign to try a different route. I like how the promise of even a small bit of backstory makes me want to finish the maps. Also, looking forward to the continuation of the story with Invasions.
Cheers
 

Eomolch

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Thanks guys :)

And while I cannot make any promise that you will like the next campaign, I can say that it has proven to become very popular among our internal testers ;)
 

DragonZee

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Thanks guys :)

And while I cannot make any promise that you will like the next campaign, I can say that it has proven to become very popular among our internal testers ;)

Are you kidding me? It's about freakin' cool Lizard people. It can literally be all about smacking Vanguard with lizard tails in terms of plot and still will be good. Yet I know you guys will deliver either way :D
 

Snorro Soliman

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Are you kidding me? It's about freakin' cool Lizard people. It can literally be all about smacking Vanguard with lizard tails in terms of plot and still will be good. Yet I know you guys will deliver either way :D

Indeed. I for one welcome our new reptilian overords. Slap the Vanguard with all the tails!
I'd like to put this to you though. I wonder what the scope of the Shakarn Invasion is. Should we see it as an equal star empire invading the various star nations of a shattered Union, or is the Star Union a more Stellaris-esque Fallen Empire, and the Shakarn a young upstart race. For another comparison: is the Union the Imperium of Man and are the Shakarn (evilish) T'au?
What do you think? And will it feature in the new campaign?
 

DragonZee

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Indeed. I for one welcome our new reptilian overords. Slap the Vanguard with all the tails!
I'd like to put this to you though. I wonder what the scope of the Shakarn Invasion is. Should we see it as an equal star empire invading the various star nations of a shattered Union, or is the Star Union a more Stellaris-esque Fallen Empire, and the Shakarn a young upstart race. For another comparison: is the Union the Imperium of Man and are the Shakarn (evilish) T'au?
What do you think? And will it feature in the new campaign?

There is a bit of lore around that they weren't ready to oppose SU at first, so maybe they are kinda like Kir'ko, their homeworld was invaded by SU or sth, but instead of being enslaved they withdrew to further reaches of galaxy.

Well I think the campaign will be straightforward - first Shakarn invasion but after that a fight against the common foe - Voidbringers. There might be a twist though that you'll be able to choose joining an alliance against them, or simply letting "everything burn".