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HM Mules



Field Skills and the HM Mule


Today I'm going to try a shorter piece, about field skills,their quirks and how I want to use them in my game.


With field skills I mean things like the classical pokémon HM moves like surf, fly and cut, but also skills like lockpicking, or step by step regen.


Basically these fall into 3 categories:

  • Key skills : Cut, Strength, Whirlpool, ...
  • Convenience Skills : Fly, Step by step Regen.
  • Reward Skills : Lockpick treasure chests


Today I want to mostly talk about the first category.


Key skills are skills like surf, or cut. They are required to physically acces or complete areas. 
They might as well be replaced by a key somewhere in your inventory, or a boat item, yet at the same time they feel better.

Maybe it is because it feels like the character is being awesome. 
The feeling of a character smashing a rock wall does conjure other images than the same character just turning a key in a door, while it is functionally the same.


On the other hand, in games with a numbered amount of skills per character, they feel like a skill tax, leading to the HM mule : a character that is not actually part of the team, but just is there for his key skills. This is, I find a big design flaw in those type of games, as they constrict player choice for no good reason.


I have made these type of skills a key point in my game, but with a slight difference:


Each key field skill is at first unique to one character, and there is no limit to skills known. 
This seems like it solves the HM mule problem, but as my party size is a small 4 characters, 
chosen out of a possible 20, it is actually still the same, filling up one of your 4 party slots without your choice.


This I have attempted to solve by:

  •  Keeping the dungeons short, under 30 minutes short, so you are never stuck with someone you dislike using for long, and by making character swapping as painless as possible.
  • As there is no strictly better gear, there is no need for the equipment shuffle. Just toss the required character some gear he can use, and you are ready to go, no need to rob another character first.
  • The balance is also more and more forgiving for a slight level difference, a gap that widens as the game continues.
  • As the game progresses, eventually characters start learning other characters field skills, allowing you options, making the requirement sting less.
  • Especially because eventually dungeons might require up to 10 required skills, necessitating that the player actually spends a little while puzzeling together a party.
  • Because walking into the dungeon and realising you brought the wrong team, and making you walk back to the party select zone (or in pokémon, Bill's PC in the pokémon center), to go get that one character that can crush rocks is not something that I need in my game, I am being pretty explicit and forthright about my required skills for a dungeon, having the player find Enemy Intelligence on the next dungeon beforehand, to make it part of the puzzle the player can solve. It feels less like you are stuck with a character if he is there because he is part of a solution you thought of yourself, probably because it puts choice back in the hands of the player.
  •  Having an obstacle have multiple solutions. The poison gas rooms might be something for the Air mage, or the Poison-immune cyborg. The energy fields can be bypassed by either having the magic nullifying character, the electronics overloading one, or the hacker. Once again , player choice is preserved, while not negating the uniqueness of characters and the necessity to change up the party. 
  • Have them also be combat abilities. 


Things I am trying to do with this:


  • As I said before, it allows me to make party composition a puzzle that needs to be resolved over and over again. I like optimisation , but not of the set-it-and-forget-it kind.
  • Give each character his moment in the spotlight. If I make a dungeon aout a characters abilities, he remains in the players mind throughout the dungeon.
  • Easier cutscenes in dungeons , as I have a pretty good idea of who out of the 20 characters will be there.
  • Make complex dungeons that are actually fun and intuitive.


Some examples of Field skills I am using:

  • Air Bubble (Water Breathing, Smoke Screen, Survive Vacuum, reduce wind speed ...)
  • Freeze (Create steppable ice, make ice boulders, ...)
  • Absorb Magic/Energy (Bypass energy Barriers, destroy magic wards, ...)
  • Shock (Overload electronics, stun guards, ...)
  • Fire (burn bushes, melt Ice, ...)
  • Move earth (Push Rocks, ...)
  • Mind Control (Remove Guards, Have big beasts smash boulders, ...)
  • Weather Control
  • Radiation Immunity
  • Hacking
  • Give Light


What are your thoughts on these types of moves, and are you using them in your game ?


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I always liked the idea of using skills on things in the map, but I always thought pokemon did it really badly. Not only for the whole HM mule problem, but also because whenever you revisit an area you have to keep using all these skills over and over again. Plus the only way you can switch your party around is to find a PC. It wouldn't be that bad if you needed one particular party member with a skill to solve a puzzle or get through some obstruction, but I think having to keep all these skills on party members in the active party all the time is really annoying.


I actually thought about doing my own pokemon-like game at one point, though I didn't do much beyond thinking about it. An idea I came up with in the course of thinking about it was to not even have an 'active party' as such, and just let the player summon their monsters when needed as if they always had access to the PC boxes. That way there is no need to worry about having a party slot filled with a monster with just the skill you need. Of course that idea had major implications for battles too, but that's another topic. Not sure why at least being able to freely arrange your battle party while having other party members hang around outside battles somehow is a bad idea.

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Field skils are all well and good, but the simplest answer to your dilemma is to reduce how many you have. 20 is a aloooot. Push Earth can easily be changed to just being able to push/pull stuff. Require an item like the gauntlets in LoZ if you want to temporarily block the player. Radiation immunity and fire could easily be items as well. 


To me and even bigger problem than having an HM mule is how often the player will actually use them. I remember laying Pokemon Gold with it's 8 HM skills, and a couple barely used. A couple dungeons where you have to use Flash, a couple Waterfalls to ascend and Whirlpools to clear, and if you didn't have a Pokemon with the HM you need, you have to stroll your ass back to a Pokemon Center. 8 was too much in that game. You have 20.


If the field skill in question is only going to ever be used a handful of times, it's probably best to scrap it or make an item for it. 


I have a few field skills in my game:


Disperse- clear small debris piles

Grind- Destroy large boulders

Frost- Freeze patches of water

Grow- Create vines to climb

Glide- Clear large gaps, and access certain areas


My game is pretty long and just those 5 are sufficient. 

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While I certainly understand your misgivings, there are a couple of factors that I think help a lot in my game:


1. Yes there are 20 field skills, but they are all relevant combat skills too. The burn bushes spell is the same as the burn enemies spell, the hacking skill does damage to mechanic enemies, ...


2a. It's hard to have a conversation with a grappling hook.


2b. By requiring a certain character, I can guarantee the character will be present for certain cutscenes. And the journey of the characters is the important thing here. This is also why I limit party size. Kind of hard to have a deep conversation in a crowd of 20.


3. I plan on there not being a lot of retraversal of dungeons. Once it is finished, what reason is there to linger (except forgotten treasure)? Backtracking is also a thing I loathe, which is why I really like skyrim for giving us backdoor exits to dungeons. FF XII style teleporters or diablo like waypoints, that's my thing.


4. I plan on being reaaaaaaaly loud and obvious with the required characters for a dungeon , at least in testing, maybe even going as far as having a support character give a set of warning signs for a dungeon when you are making your party for it. (Warning: this obviously lava themed dungeon might contain puzzles necesitating ice/freeze spells).


5. First room princiciple : The first "room" or section of the dungeon will necessitate usage of all the skills necessary in the dungeon, so you won't be neck deep in the dungeon before you find out you missed something.



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It just sounds like a lot of hoops to jump through just to give every party member a field skill. I'm assuming that there's some story reason about all these different souls uniting for a common goal blah blah blah, but when I see that many steps in place to try to facilitate a single feature it makes me skeptical. There's always going to be some give and take between story and gameplay, but gameplay should always have priority. Fitting 20 field skills into a game where only four party members are present at a time sounds cumbersome. Golden Sun 2 and 3 each eventually had a party size of eight with four active in combat that could be swapped in and out of combat. Some skills were available via items anyone could equip. It made handling all the field skills much easier. I just played through South Park: The Fractured but Whole. Not counting your avatar, there's 12 playable characters, but only four ever in combat. Only four of them have field skills, and they don't need to be with you. They just magically appear whenever you use one of the field skills. Does it make any sense? Fuck no! But it keeps the gameplay fluid. 


There's other options available, and I'm 99% sure there's a method that will make the overall experience better for the player.

Edited by lonequeso

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I think we have slightly different visions in this.


For me, the constant partyswitching is part of the gameplay, a feature, not a bug.


It is worth it to make it work, because it is the central premise of the game : use new characters to unlock new dungeons.

The story itself is mostly to be written around the premise. I'm going gameplay before story, so I don't expect to have a coherent story before each level is at least in beta.


Might I get more players by doing it your way ? Probably, but that is not the game I want to make. Design to the common denominator, or design by comitee robs games of uniqueness. Because not every game is for everyone, but there should be a game for everyone. (*Gets down from soapbox*).


But I do agree, in that if a feature needs a lot of support to make work, it might not be worth keeping, but in my game it is the central piece, so I'm willing to fight for it. Testing will reveal more, I believe.


Again , not trying to attack you or anyone, just shining a light on why I do the things I do.





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I'm all for party switching. I like tinkering around with different combinations and strategies. I don't like having to have someone in my party just for a single skill. Having just one required character isn't too bad, but preferably more often than not, I'd like to be able to ad whoever I want whenever I want. 

I definitely don't want you to pander to the lowest common denominator. However there's a big difference between pandering and losing people due to poor design. As always it's going to take a lot of tinkering an testing to get everything to fit together seamlessly. Changing a core concept is probably the hardest thing a developer ever has to do because it changes both the artistic vision, and it's probably going to take a long time to rework systems already in place. Still, if you're testing and testing and testing and the pieces just don't seem to all fit together, something has to change. Wherever possible I personally change the story around. It's far easier (and I can whip up some bullshit story excuse and make it seamlessly fit with ease :P

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As you say, the proof is in the testing. But before the testing is the build. All of my articles up to now are theory/opinion.


And let's just say, I'm really good at fabricating a story out of nothing. Years (18+years) of real life D&D DM'ing has prepared me for this. My bullshit is next level. 5 players in a live environment, each waiting to be entertained has given me a mastercourse in bullshit.


Anyway, I'm taking requests for my weekly Blog post, If you want, suggestions are welcome.

Edited by freakytapir
lonequeso likes this

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I think it makes more sense to use party switching if you are going for a more 'all roads lead to Rome' style thing with many dungeon puzzles. Or in other words, if the puzzles are less about finding the exact right solution and more about what routes you take. I could imagine a cleverly designed dungeon that unfolds very differently depends on who you bring. Some rooms could be trivial to bypass with some characters, while being really hard to deal with with some others. Perhaps 'brute forcing' a dungeon by just tanking hits from traps or fighting monsters should be a way of overcoming most of the things in your way, but is a costly one.


That doesn't mean you can't also just flat out making some characters or skills be required for some dungeons as well, but personally I think that's at least better kept for special challenge dungeons or optional side dungeons. I at least for one don't think I ever thought putting artificial requirements or restrictions on who I can bring to a dungeon ever did much more then annoy me. It's one thing to try and make every party member useful in some way. It's another to do so by limiting player choice.


And BTW yeah, I agree with you that design to the common denominator or design by committee tends to ruin games. But at the same time that doesn't mean all game design ideas are created equal or anything. I think there is room for looking at opinions and preferences and finding your own little niche to slide into without blindly following trends because they are popular. Honestly, to me it isn't about how many players a game has, but their passion and dedication. All sorts of players can enjoy all sorts of games, from popular bog standard shooters to huge complex experimental messes like Dwarf Fortress. I am not going to say my preference doesn't lay in the latter, but even my grumpy hipster self sees that the former has it's place. The mistake the game industry keeps making I feel is to try and appeal to everyone or only the players of the most popular games rather then trying to appeal to the community of people who actually care about playing your game. But there is something to be said for just not giving a damn and just wanting to make a game you want to make too, especially if you are just doing it for fun or as a learning experience. Not every game has to be a big deal or be for other people.

Edited by Kayzee

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I had an interesting thought pop into my head. Why not just have points in the dungeon where the player can change their party? That would eliminate the need to require characters to start a dungeon, prep the player for what characters they should have, you wouldn't have to dedicate a room to show the player what skills they'll need, and you would be free to make dungeons as long or short as you want. 

It would also greatly expand your ability to add multiple field skills in a dungeon without driving the player insane. You could make some crazy cool, complex puzzles with 20 field skills at your disposal :) If party switching is going to be a feature, feature it! :P


I dare you to try and create a giant puzzle that requires every field skill to complete ;)


Edited by lonequeso

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Just to further explain , when I say "this character or skill is required", I will usually mean : find a way to deal with X obstacle.


Maybe a fully explained example will show what I am going for :


The dungeon info says the dungeon (Arctic Research station) has : Ice boulders, robotic guards, electronic doors, camera's, ice environmental damage and an underwater entrance tunnel.


Meaning that you could take :


1.  A fire Mage (melt ice and protect from environmental ice), a lightning mage (fry circuits of doors and camera's, bonus damage to robots) and the pilot (for a stolen sub),

2. But a team of Hacker (disable doors and robotic guards), Ice Mage (move Ice boulders, freeze camera's and protect from environmental damage), and Air Mage (Air Bubble for entrance tunnel) also works.

3. Mix it up, Fire, Air and Lightning is also a viable combination

4. Pilot(Entrance), Cyborg(Brute Force doors, push Ice Boulder), Healer (Environmental Damage) and Shadow mage(Camera's) also works.

5. Maybe after you've unlocked air power for the hacker, you can just leave the main air mage, or after the Air mage unlocks lightning, you can leave the hacker.

6. If you really looked for enemy intel in the last dungeon, you might have found the bonus one, that said there is an earth mover on site, so the pilot could deal with the boulders, meaning that if you can just heal through the environmental damage, a team of pilot and lightning mage might be enough.


Certainly later on in the game, when many of the characters will start to have overlapping abilities, these requirements will feel a lot less like requirements.


As I said, player perception is everything. It is indeed not fun to have a character shoved into your face, but if that character is the solution the player came to himself, does it really matter that he did not have a real choice ?


Player choice

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Yeah, needless to say I disagree with extra credits about player choice. That kind of thinking might work in the context of crafting a branching narrative, but actual gameplay is nothing without real choice. Heck, some have defined the whole concept of a game as nothing more then 'a series of meaningful choices'. That dosn't mean total freedom to mess around without rules, as that isn't meaningful. But it's equally meaningless if the choice is an illusion. Or to put it another way: If you are giving the player a choice in what party members they should bring, I think that choice should have some impact on the choices you make down the line rather then being either a binary right and wrong or not mattering at all. But that's just my opinion.

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Small aside on that extra credits video, it was part of a multipart series about choice, where they indeed do investigate what makes a choice meaningful and so on... Maybe I just chose a wrong video to show you.


There are consequences down the line for choosing one character over another : you played with that character for an hour, you got exp for that character that might otherwise have gone to the other character, some combats will be easier, some harder. When does a choice stop being meaningfull ? That is a question for smarter people than me to answer.


Anyway, thanks for all the input on this aspect of my game, this has been the most commented on article/blogpost I've written.


And as a last thing I'll say about this:


I know my system doesn't look all that promising to you right now, but I believe it will perform way better in actual play than on paper. Which is why I'm trying to get my game to a playtestable state. Paper is cheap, results is what you want.



Edited by freakytapir

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Oh I totally get what the required skills are for. That's why I suggested being having a point in the dungeon for the player to swap characters. That way when they get to the dungeon and see they need Bob to get past something, and they don't have Bob in the party, they don't have to backtrack to town to go get Bob. Having to do that once is an annoyance. Having to do it on a consistent basis is going to make me not want to keep playing. 

If you're going to have the first area of the dungeon require all skills they player will need throughout, that's fine, but a the very least let the player swap characters right there.

As I said before, it will also allow you to create larger more complex levels. It'll make designing levels easier, too. If you're in the middle of creating a level, and you have an idea for a puzzle that requires a skill other than what you originally planned, you can just go ahead and add it. Toss in a Party Change point nearby, and voila! 


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Yeah, don't let me get you down. I may have opinions, but ultimately I am just stating what I feel are relevant observations of other games I have played. This is your own brand new game, and I certainly can't predict how well it will turn out in the end. I think it's worth having a discussion over, but you are right. Paper is cheap, results is what you want.

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