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I Fell into a Burning Ring of Fire

Continuing the story of March being all about The Road, this week finds Mark Kalmes, Mike Hines, and I in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference. While we're here, we'll be investigating software to help make the game bigger, better, and faster as well as keeping an eye on the competition and networking ferociously. On a sad note, I regret to report that one of our original Goblins, character artist Stephen Minkin, has departed the team. He will be missed and we wish him well on his next adventure.

We are rushing toward our self-imposed deadline of mid-April for our first playable game environment, and the team is working long hours building all kinds of assets and code for that milestone. While they're busy making the world come alive, I'm focusing on setting up connections with members of the media who will be helping us get the word out about the game later this year and expanding our social media footprint.

We're still working on the fulfillment tool for our Kickstarter Rewards. The Paizo tech team has been fighting though a nasty outbreak of office crud, but they're battling like epic heroes to finish the system you'll use to collect your pledge level rewards and manage your add-ons. We should have more news and some specific dates to report in the very near future.

This week, designer Stephen Cheney is going to break down the ideas behind area-effect damage from spells. This is a small sample of the kind of work needed across a huge spectrum of game design issues: The need to identify a problem, discuss known challenges and industry wisdom on the topic, brainstorm some clever implementation ideas, and then bring it all to the community for discussion. We're pleased to be progressing rapidly in this area and happy to close this loop with the following materials!

Design Challenge: Area-of-Effect Attacks

As our design department expands, we find ourselves revisiting old assumptions and taking on subjects we'd previously tabled. That means we've had a lot of recent discussions where the things we penciled into the design when it was just two of us get reevaluated by the addition of new designer feedback. It also leads to fleshing out a lot of things that we hadn't had time to develop now that there are enough people to really discuss them. This discussion is a little window into the design process for something that falls into the latter category: Area-of-Effect attacks (universally referred to as AoEs in game parlance). As always, our initial solutions may change in the face of further decisions, tech capabilities, and whether it's as fun in practice as it seems on paper.

The Problems of an Area-of-Effect Attack

AoE attacks are one of the harder elements to balance in a MMO. There are a number of factors involved that create a surprisingly small Goldilocks zone between "these are so good players use them to the exclusion of other attacks," and "these are so worthless nobody bothers with them except in rare situations."

Their value to a player is very dependent on how frequently they'll be able to hit multiple targets and how easy they are to avoid. An AoE attack that is amazingly powerful against an army of mooks may be your worst attack against a single boss. An AoE attack with a long casting time might be fine if the AI is too dumb to move NPCs out of the way, but may never hit against other players. While a single-target attack is predictably useful, the value of an AoE attack changes constantly from fight to fight.

On the technical side, AoE attacks create some interesting hurdles. By their very nature, they force the system to do a lot of additional checks to identify targets, so every AoE is potentially much more server-intensive than a similarly rated single-target attack. A single-target attack can do its hit check virtually any time in the animation process without seeming too wrong based on the target's movement, but if you throw a fireball spell, the game has to check who is a target at a specific moment, which can lead to targets that seem to get missed or hit in ways that don't make visual sense—for example, a character who moves into the area after that check is made and therefore seems to be missed by the attack for no good reason, or a character who is sprinting through and gets blasted when he appears well out of the area. And that opens the huge can of worms of latency: On your screen, you saw that you dodged out of the danger zone at the last second, but the server got that message late and decided you were still in range to get hit.

Those are general concerns for any MMO, but Pathfinder Online has some specific wrinkles. Our foremost consideration is making AoE attacks "fair" in PvP. A worst-case scenario is an ambushing group with lots of AoE capability that's able to take out an unsuspecting rival group before they've had any chance to act. It's pretty easy to scale single target attacks so that you never quite one-shot an equal number of enemies even from surprise, but AoE math could make that possible if the targets are standing close together and hit by multiple AoE attacks at once. While a volley of fireballs from the bushes might be a valid tactic sometimes, we want to avoid AoE rules that completely distort how Challenge PvP is carried out. Finally, as an additional consideration, the tabletop rules for Pathfinder feature a lot of AoE spells and attacks, the majority of which have "friendly fire."

Friendly Fire Isn't Friendly... but, in Pathfinder Online, It Is Fire

A lot of players on our forums have asked for friendly fire to match the tabletop rules. This is the idea that AoE attacks damage indiscriminately, friend or foe. Most MMOs allow you to drop AoEs on your party's heads without worry, and it's actually a common tactic to have melee characters gather the enemies around them to provide a more optimal cluster for the AoE casters. Friendly fire means that if you drop an AoE on your party's fighter, he'll get hurt too. Many a tabletop character has uttered the famous last words: "Go ahead and include me in the fireball if you can hit more enemies, I can take it!"

Enabling friendly fire for AoE attacks solves a lot of concerns. It makes them easier to balance, since players are less likely to use them indiscriminately in a party. It also handles some of the peculiarities of Pathfinder Online's friend/neutral/foe identification—if an attack damages everyone, there's no need to account for weird corner cases of who is friendly to whom at any given moment. It won't matter if the game system thinks some targets you want to preemptively attack are "friendly" or if some targets you don't want to hurt are technically "enemies" to you, so use your area-effect spells with care.

This approach also creates a lot of concerns, which is why most MMOs don't use it. Hitting everyone means that we have to consider AoE attacks with the reputation and alignment systems: Are you dropping that fireball on your party member's head with his full blessing because he can take it and your enemies can't, or are you blasting a bunch of unsuspecting peers in your settlement for the lulz? And there is no doubt that it is harder to place a targeting template accurately in real time (remember potential latency!) amidst a chaotic melee than it would be in tabletop play, when you can carefully count out grid squares so that you hit the maximum number of enemies without hitting any friends.

With all those considerations in mind, the Goblinworks design team sat down to debate the best way to solve for AoE attacks. Our assumptions going into the debate were:

  • AoEs should generally be better than single target attacks if you can hit three or more enemies, but worse if you can only hit one or two. (We should rarely have situations where you can hit a half dozen or more enemies with an AoE attack unless those enemies are in formation, which changes the rules; AoE attacks that are good against three targets don't necessarily have to worry about being too good against a dozen targets.)
  • We want to try to make friendly fire work out, because that will ultimately feel more like the tabletop property, but we're aware that it's not commonly done in this space and for good reason.
  • There are a number of ways we can have AoE attacks create useful debuffs and damage-over-time (DoT) effects if we're worried about them doing too much damage up front.
  • In general, AoE attacks should be very situational rather than used constantly. You can use them to start the fight if you have enough range, and you might sometimes catch distracted ranged enemies in one.
  • All-caster artillery squads should not find it easy to flatten an equally matched group just by synchronizing their AoEs for a surprise attack.

The three options we considered as core solutions were:

  1. We deliberately scale all AoE attacks to be more about debuffs and DoTs than about direct damage. If you land a bunch of fireball spells at once, the targets have so many stacks of Burning that they're going to be dead in a couple of rounds if they don't do something to put out the flames, but they're not dead instantly.
  2. AoE attacks have diminishing returns: The first AoE hits for full effect, but, in the same way we're giving you a resistance to successive crowd control effects, successive AoEs within a short period have less effect. One fireball might do a lot of damage up front, but, a few fireballs later, they're doing so little damage you should switch to single-target attacks.
  3. AoE attacks intensify existing related effects, but are not innately overwhelming. In this case, a fireball against fresh targets would be significantly less damaging than single-target attacks. But if those targets were already Burning, either through single-target attacks or previous fireballs, then the target damage would be increased based on the existing fire-based debuffs.

We discarded option one pretty quickly: It just seemed like it would constrain our design and would result in most AoEs being more about debuffs and less about damage, which seemed weird based on the source material. It also had no built-in defense against us forgetting the rationale for all these effects-heavy AoE spells in a couple of years and inadvertently making some new high-damage AoE spells in a fit of crunch.

From that point, we seriously debated the merits of options two and three. Three had an immediate benefit in obviously ruling out an alpha strike, and being easier to explain in terms of the simulated experience (e.g., you cast a fireball on something burning, and it causes the latent fire magics to also flare up). But it tended to not play nicely with the friendly fire concept, since it would require a lot of hits before the AoE attacks started to get good, and by that point your friends are all in melee with your enemies. And in the tabletop, AoE effects are more often used to start a fight than to finish it.

So that left us with option two. The diminishing returns should mitigate the worry of a coordinated alpha strike: even if the players feel like they're hitting simultaneously, the server will process the attacks in order over a few milliseconds and correctly apply the subsequent resistances. If you have a caster or two in your group, it's definitely worth their while to bombard your enemies as your melee guys run up, after which they should switch to other attacks. However, this approach means that we have to explain why the fact that I got hit by a fireball a few seconds ago suddenly makes your lightning bolt less effective against me.

To that end, we've created an in-world concept for why this might happen. (This only applies to Pathfinder Online; it's not to be confused with something true of the Golarion setting as a whole.) Visualize an AoE spell as dropping a rock into a still pond: big, distinct ripples spread out from the source of impact. But, if you drop other rocks before those ripples have faded, all of the ripples get blurred and less impressive. Imagine the same kind of thing happening in a magical sense, and we can call the growing resistance to AoE damage "Magical Turbulence." Too much explosive magical energy in an area tends to muck up that area for similar effects—the ripples cluster around creatures that were included in the blasts, and subsequent effects can't as easily cut through the choppy interference until the turbulence calms.

This clearly applies only to magical AoEs, but we're okay with that—magic will be the primary source of area effects and have the most variety of AoE attacks.

The Current AoE Concept

So after that long insight into the design process, and a few other minor back and forths, here is where our current thoughts are regarding AoE attacks:

  • Arcane sources will have a pretty deep well of AoE options, divine sources will have a decent collection of them, and mundane sources will use them very sparingly (generally with a requirement of getting into melee range or using up a lot of arrows).
  • Melee-range and some other point-blank AoEs may not have friendly fire (as it's hard enough to deploy them and hit a lot of people anyway), but most AoE attacks will hit any target regardless of friendliness.
  • Hitting a target with an AoE will be treated exactly like a single-target attack for purposes of flagging, reputation, alignment, and so on (except possibly for members of your party, as those have the easiest recourse to deal with you if you start team killing). You'll need to be careful with your AoEs if you think there are hidden targets in the area just waiting to trick you into hitting them with an AoE you used on someone else, and AoEs may be harder to use around allied NPCs that don't know not to chase enemies into your fireball target area.
  • Arcane and divine AoEs apply stacks of the Magical Turbulence buff to all targets hit by the AoE. These stacks provide additional damage resistance to all other damage from arcane and divine AoEs, and decay over time. Effectively, targets hit by several AoEs in succession take less and less damage until they're given a few rounds of breathing room.
  • All these limitations mean that AoEs will generally be very powerful to remain attractive for use. You might not be encouraged to hit a target with an AoE over and over, but that first time you hit him, he's going to feel it.
  • We're looking into various technical features like how exactly targeting will look, what the animation timing is like, and whether red circles on the ground will give you some early warning to try to escape before you get hit. We'll have more information on those (and possibly changes to the notes above) once we have a prototype to the state we can evaluate them for fun and impact to the server.

That's all for this week!

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