Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Thoughts on the current state of 3.4 gameplay

The following are my thoughts on the current state of 3.4 gameplay. Overall the game is good. There have been many quiet improvements in this version and there aren't really any showstoppers. I think a release candidate at the end of May is certainly possible. I'll outline the rest of the post as follows:

  1. What gameplay improvements have been made
  2. Changes that still need to be made
  3. Current bad things about gameplay and where we might want to direct attention in the future.

1. The current improvements/changes in 3.4.

If you haven't had a chance to play 3.4 lately, the game is significantly different from 3.3, and mostly in a better way. Shockbolt's tiles are amazing. While I prefer ASCII, and still do, they may help in bringing new people into the game. The addition of new pits is another big improvement to gameplay. Summoning changes have made fights with summoners less tedious and more interesting (summon_hounds went from the least interesting summon to the most interesting). And lastly, the game is significantly more stingy with artifacts and good weapons. This successfully prevents the "runaway" effect that existed in 3.3 and previous where I personally found that below a certain dungeon level my character improved faster than I could descend. Currently I've found that many items and weapons that I would never use previously have a useful niche. And artifact production is way down, which means that other egos have longer lives. Lastly, in the endgame I'm spendting more time hunting for equipment than for consumables which is much more interesting (in fact I have excess consumables to be used for uniques). It's not perfect yet, but it's certainly better.

There are other changes, but these seem to be the most salient.

2. Changes that still need to be made.

From my gameplay, there is only really one change that absolutely needs to be made for 3.4 to be released, and this is:

A) remove_curse is currently useless.
Right now there are no longer any cursed jewelery, and no cursed weapons or armor that you can find (stats collection picked up 0 cursed non-artifacts). The only cursed items are the cursed artifacts, and the ones you create yourself with the curse scrolls. These are all heavy_curses which remove_curse does nothing for. The removal of light_curse on objects is probably a positive step until curses are made more interesting, but it puts us currently in an odd position because we have some useless items and spells in the game.

The simple solution is to remove all remove_curse scrolls (even *remove_curse*). We also need to get rid of the remove_curse priest spell as well. Enchant scrolls should have the curse breaking property in their text. the priest spell of dispel_curse could stay since it does have a niche use, however it's redundant because of the priest enchant spells, so it should probably be chucked also. Then we can look at curses in more detail when they've been overhauled (4.0?).

The other changes are not necessary but probably should be fixed.

B) MAX_RANGE option for large tiles/small screens.

Playing where I could only see about half of MAX_RANGE on my monitor is actually completely playable, provided you keep a sharp eye on the monster list. However, it's not ideal, and may not even be practical for phone screens (don't know if they support subwindows, probably not). The solution is to make a birth option to lower the MAX_RANGE, probably to around 10 or so. We need a couple lines of code to cap archery and throwing at MAX_RANGE, but all the devices and spells should be fine on their own. Unfortunately, this is a change that I'm not capable of coding myself. Changing MAX_RANGE requires some esoteric additions to some hardcoded values in cave.c that I don't understand. I also have no idea how this would work with an option, since these values are checked at game init. If someone wants to pick this up for 3.4, great. Otherwise it will probably need to be punted.

C) Early dungeon emptiness

I've talked about this a bit on irc, and d_m tepidly agrees that the early dungeon is too empty. In fact, it seems like it is suffering from TLJ (too little junk). Later in the game, where dragon pits and vaults spew crap all over the floor, TMJ exists, but that won't be fixed for 3.4 and I'll mention it a bit in the next section. My solution is to increase the floor drops, at least to 3.0.6 levels. This is an increase to 12 items per level instead of 9. I'd actually prefer it go up further to 15 or so, but there's some pushback to even raising it back to 12. Increasing floor drops mainly increases early game availability of items, since later in the game, you get more items from monster drops than the floor. If you oppose this, please play the first 10 levels or so of the current angband (preferably ironman style) and see how the dungeon feels to you. It's possible that we can wait until the RC is out and get player feedback, but player feedback can be notoriously skewed depending on who actually is playing it.

That's it for gameplay issues that are problematic. There's one must-fix, one easy-to-fix that we just need to reach a consensus on, and one fix that is hard, but won't prevent a release if no one wants to take it on.

3. Current problem areas

There are several longstanding annoyances with gameplay (or at least with how I play it), that we should be thinking of solutions for, preferably by poaching ideas from v4 and variants. In fact many of these problems have been focused on in v4, so we might be able to nip some of the mature ones for future vanilla development.

A) Traps are boring. CunningGabe's changes in v4 will certainly help. Although having traps being semi- or non-relevant is ok for quality of gameplay. Just because traps are boring doesn't mean I'm not enjoying the game.

B) TMJ from pits/vaults. I hate sorting through the tremendous amount of junk from pits and vaults. It's ok when you come across the lone item on the floor that's junk, but when you have 100 junk items to ID or test-wield (or even test-pickup) it gets tedious. Some solutions like auto-id on sight, or a LoS ID spell should be on the table. This is not a commonly test-played area of the game, since most test-playing doesn't simulate player-dungeon interaction at high levels. However, this is probably the least satisfying part of gameplay for me.

C) Dungeon interest wanes/game drags in the 2nd half. The game proceeds with much improved pacing between dlevels 1 and 50. Getting to dlevel 50 is a fun goal, and more enjoyable for me than killing Morgoth. There are lots of reasons for this, and no real good solutions, but it should be something to think about. This is a long-standing problem and has actually been improved relative to 3.3 with things like Ainu pits and lower artifact drop rates.

C2) There are too many uniques. Unique drops are still weak compared to the effort it takes to kill them. Uniques without a drop have no reason to be killed, besides personal pride (and the vague goal of preventing Morgoth from summoning them). This hasn't been touched in v4, except for the redistribution of monsters, which has made uniques even more out of whack with their level distributions. I don't have anything resembling a solution to this issue.

D) Caverns are still a problem. They are too dangerous, too common, and have no rewards. I may push for 3.4 to have a decrease in monster density in caverns and a increase in drop-quality (as exists in labyrinths). On the other hand, labyrinths, which I thought were fun because of the good drops are now so rare to be irrelevant.

E) I talked about curses earlier. There is potential for something interesting here, but there's a lot of inertia and a lot of resistance (and a lot of difficult coding). One improvement was recently pushed to v4 where curse scrolls either blast a weapon or make it sticky. I think this should have immediate consideration for inclusion in 3.4. However, I'm not a good judge here. Because of gameplay style, in all the games I've played, I've never once cursed a weapon or armor with a scroll...

F) Dungeon levels are too predictable. Nomad's extra rooms would be great if we could include them in 3.4. I doubt there's much opposition to this. Everyone seems to like new rooms. In the future, adjustable pit sizes, and multiple pits per level could be helpful.