The right and wrong of game design evolution

‘Evolving’ a popular design sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. Lets look at two examples for today.

First up in the ‘doesn’t’ category is Castle Burn, a mobile game that tries to be an evolution of Clash Royale. Like CR, Castle Burn (terrible name) has you collecting and upgrading cards (troops, spells, buildings), waiting on key/chest timers, and playing 1v1 real-time matches against other players to climb a ladder.

Where CB tries to evolve is in its match gameplay/combat. Rather than the more confined/limited setup of CR (one map, two lanes, 8 card deck with a four card rotation, elixir is the only resource), CB has ‘more’. It has multiple maps with different layouts. You need to build resource collection buildings over crystal spots to increase your income. You also need to build camps to increase your unit cap. You pick a hero unit, and that unit has a special ability you can activate that is on a cooldown. You decide in each battle which units to use, which are in three tiers; tiers that unlock as you select two units from a lower tier. Units march up the field in a straight line, but can move to the side if they find a target. Units can be told to retreat using an ability that has a cooldown. There might be more, but that should give you a decent idea of what CB is aiming for vs CR in combat.

And the end result? Less tactical, more ‘spammy’ combat that doesn’t feel nearly as fun or impactful as CR (I’m currently in the second-highest league simply from using what is basically a ‘zerg rush’ strat, with goblins replacing zerglings, to the effect of like an 80% win rate). When you have so many different things happening, any one choice is less important. In CB you aren’t watching the result of a unit fighting another unit like you do in CR, because you are likely spam dropping more units, or have a different fight going on in a different part of the field, or those troops just don’t matter that much to the end result.

The beauty of CR is that every single point of elixir matters. There is a HUGE difference between killing a 3 elixir minion with a 2 elixir zap (+1 trade) vs a 3 elixir arrow (even trade). In CB that difference is negligible. In late-game matches you might have 15+ units on the field, so how much can one of those really matter?

Adding ‘more’ to CR doesn’t work for CB, because the extra stuff dilutes the core formula, rather than the intended goal of expanding it.

The second example is a new release called Graveyard Keeper, which is a game very similar to Stardew Valley, except the farm is a gravyard (which has farmland…). A LOT of the game is similar, from how movement/combat works, to having an energy bar, to talking to villagers and increasing reputation, and so on, to the point that if you enjoyed Stardew, I find it basically impossible to imagine you won’t enjoy Graveyard Keeper.

The big difference, and improvement IMO, is the passage of time. In Stardew seasons are pretty lengthy, and if you miss doing something, you have to wait a long time before that season rolls around again. In Graveyard the unit of time is a week, so everything comes back after seven in-game days. Also important is that aside from fresh corpses, nothing decays or is time-sensitive. Crops will wait for you to harvest them indefinitely with no quality loss, quests don’t expire, items don’t decay, and monsters in the dungeon don’t respawn.

This means you can’t ‘make a mistake’ that has long-term impacts, and that all progress is forward progress. This might sound like it makes the game easier, but in a game where there is so much to do, and so much progress to be made, it really just reduces the tedium (and this style of game isn’t about challenge anyway, other than the ‘challenge’ of grinding ever-forward).

If you want to focus on, say, making wine for one npc for a quest, you aren’t seasonally punished for ignoring everything else, like you might be in Stardew. I love that, because it makes it so much easier to relax and just accomplish something in each play session, rather than stress out about making sure you do all the ‘right’ things that you ‘need’ to do. This also relaxes the need to know things before you try them, like for example the fact that building item A isn’t nearly as optimal as building item B, and then getting A. In Stardew if you fell for that ‘gotcha’ design, you likely added hours and hours of work to your game. In Graveyard? Maybe 30 minutes, which really takes the sting of such things and lets you enjoy the learning process a bit more.

Graveyard isn’t perfect (the energy bar is too small, inventory management is still more of a pain than it should be, there are some seriously questionable UI design decisions), but in terms of pacing and how it affects your enjoyment, its an improvement over Stardaw Valley IMO.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
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