Mathematics of XP
The Language of Casual Gaming

Reluctant Hero: An Introduction

Alita Supposing we want an experience system, must we follow the patterns that have been used for the last thirty years? Or are their different ways we might construct an experience system which might lead to a different kind of game?

Reluctant Hero is the working title for the new cRPG we are working on with our Slovakian friends 3D People. They're small, but have been a joy to work with - a real indie company on the fringes of the industry, eking out a living on small titles and always hoping for the big score. We first worked with them on Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition (a.k.a. Kult: Heretic Kingdoms) - they called us in for some help on the design and story, and we redesigned and rescripted the entire game in a month - probably the fastest cRPG design in the history of commercial games! But obviously there were many things we couldn't do in such a short period of time, including play with the game structure.

Here is the concept for Reluctant Hero:

Your father was one of the great heroes of the Heretic Kingdoms, his name known across the land. On his death bed, he calls you and your sister to his side... he says that he regrets having wasted his life in battle and adventure, and wishes he had spent more time at home with his wife and his children. He begs you not to make the same mistake as him, asks you to get married and raise a family and not to pursue the quest that haunted him in his later years.

Will you heed your father's wishes, settle down and raise a family, work a job, become a pillar of the community? Or will you take up your father's sword and try to complete the quest he could never complete, earning your own place in legend?

You have one life to life - how will you choose to live it?

The game will be built from a number of different systems, including a variety of non-combative career paths, such as Merchant, Seer and Alchemist, and will include the capacity to play the game without fighting, if you wish. For instance, you can bribe brigands to leave you alone, or use magic to protect you when you journey from town to town, whilst learning languages and cultural practices will allow you to turn many potential foes into possible allies.

There will only be one major quest: the one that your father was unable to complete (minor quest-type activities will be generated automatically by the game systems).  This uberquest will be made very difficult to complete by means of puzzles and conundrums. The player who decides to walk this path will not find it easy - but then again, that's the challenge of trying to excel one of the greatest heroes of the Heretic Kingdoms, your own father.

You may pursue the grand quest, or develop businesses of various kinds (including thievery and courtesanry), or walk a path somewhere between the two extremes.

But at the core of the game is a slightly different kind of experience system.


The player has only one life to live - the game will start with their character at age 18, and end with their death. If they wish, they can undertake a pilgrimage to the Oracle to find out how long they will live, or they can just take life as it comes to them. There is also the possibility that the player can find a way to extend their life, but in fighting death there can be no happy ending...

There will be no experience points in the game - instead, experience is measured in time.

For instance, a player's Merchant skill path might have 3 months experience at the start of the game, and after playing the game for some time, it might have 10 years of experience. Special abilities will be generated by each skill path as the player progresses along it.

In the combat paths, the player will earn experience for each attack they render in combat e.g. 1 minute of experience per attack. There may not be a reward for killing foes, but there will be a bonus for defeating them (for instance, a foe can be driven to flee or surrender instead of killing them; any of these outcomes might earn between a day and a year of experience). Experience will be affected by relative level, so one can earn more experience by fighting harder opponents.

Because I do not wish to lose the central advantages of a level system (especially in making game balancing monumentally easier - abandon this benefit at your peril!), the player will have a level determined by the sum of all their experience in each skill path - that is, their total experience (e.g. a 30 year old character might have, say, 45 years of experience by totalling their skill paths) will be converted to a level. I have a Fibonacci sequence already drafted that I will probably use as the gearing for this mechanic.


Sword I'm planning to use the nearly ubiquitous 60:1 time ratio, i.e. 1 second of real time = 1 minute of game time (i.e. 24 minutes to a day). The more astute readers will note that at this time scale there's no chance of playing out the player character's life in real time.

Instead, a key element of the game is how the player chooses to invest their time.

For characters pursuing a life of battle and adventure, a lot of time will be acquired in healing. In the field, the player will be able to avoid damage by virtue of their skills (more on this system in the future), and will be largely unable to heal their wounds. To heal, they must find a safe place and allow sufficient time to heal. For instance, if you are beaten to within an inch of your life, expect several months of healing to accrue before you can get back to the field.

For other characters, time advances occur with the various businesses in the game, and with the player's family. For instance, a merchant character may go to their warehouse in the city and opt to manage the business. This scores a time advance of, say, 3 months - which is credited to their Merchant skill (thus earning new abilities!) Similarly, they might choose to spend 6 months with their husband or wife, which will generate a different benefit.

These time advances get longer as the player advances along a particular path. For instance, when one starts being a Hunter, time advances might be in weeks or months. Near the end of the game, time advances might be in years for this same path.

To prevent the player from performing back to back time advances, a task must be completed before another time advance is allowed, but this can be as simple as visiting their sister in the city, or visiting their spouse if they are away from home.

In this way, the game attempts to avoid the traditional grind structure - because it is not about how the player accumulates XP through repetitive activities, but rather about how the player invests their lifetime. You only have, say, sixty years to "spend", so it the game is very much about how you choose to spend this time.

The End

The game ends when the player runs out of time and dies. They will get an ending depending upon how they have lived their life.

Or alternatively, the player may attempt to fight against death, seeking magical powers to extend their life, or following the dark paths of necromancy. But how important is extending one's life? Is it worth throwing away everything of value just to live a little longer? This is the sort of question I hope to imbed into the gameplay.

The result, if all goes well, should be a cRPG with a very different feel, not at all like the classic quest-based linear game, and significantly distinct from the free roaming open structure too. We're going to be on a very modest budget, so we're hoping to court a niche market of players with the desire for something new. Let's hope some cRPG players really are looking for original ideas!

I welcome your viewpoint on this broad concept statement. Does this sound like a fun game to you? Let me know in the comments!


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I think the concept sounds great. If you produce a Mac version I'll play it ;-)

somebody needs to make this game

I'm intrigued. I can sense pitfalls lurking under the hood, but I'm sure you've thought of and compensated for them.

Mainly it's the time advances that concern me. The more quality time spent with a game character, the closer I feel to them. Missing out on large chunks of their lives in exchange for experience (I've I'm reading that right) seems a pity.

I certainly applaud the attempts to dodge the grind!

The centre concept of a life lived is one I'm very interested in seeing done. I'll more than likely buy such a game.

My worry is how do you make the game fun if you don't accept the quest. What is the "opportunity cost" of doing the quest?

Though it would be cool to complete the quest by becoming rich to the Crassus definition - capable of raising and equiping an army from your own resources. Then using the army to do it.

This sounds like what Fable should have been, bravo. I'm starting to envy your position at iHobo, after trying to organize a team and find funding in addition to writing and design (and content scripting eventually) I wish I could just to my job and work contractually with a team. Of course, my labors have a lot more long -term potential, I shouldn't be complaining.

I am not using a leveling scheme for Fianna because the characters and their abilities are idiosyncratic and heterogenous, a fleet of blind captains if you will, rather than a empty vessel defined by heirarchical progression. My balancing woes will be on par with riding a tornado and surviving (it happened for a carton of eggs once, not a single one was broken, true story) but of a different nature. Also our engine's conception of time operates on 30m action chuncks, where time "bends" around short "real-time" scaled events, so if someone does something that takes five seconds, and you show up thirty minutes later, you'll see that event happening as if by serendipity. The overall scale should add up to about a year of game time. Kind of interesting differences.

Sounds like a great system. But what about the question of talent or affinities? Conversely, a character could have weaknesses or difficulties.

Talents/Affinities could make add years onto a character's starting talent (maybe +1 or 2 months/years) or change compress the time it takes (1 month for that character's talent equals 1.5 month regular time)

Weaknesses/Difficulties would work the opposite of that.

I think adding a tweak like that could add something to an already interesting mechanic.

Thanks for the comments everyone! I have little time, so I will have to be brief.

Corvus: Think of the time advances as *being* the life of the character, and not something done to earn experience and you might have less concern. In particular, time advances with your spouse will generate story content. I doubt I've anticipated everything, but then, game design isn't so much about accurate forward planning as it is staying on top of the process during development. :)

Colm: I haven't talked about all the game systems here. Suffice it to say, there's plenty to do in this game other than fight, and not accepting the quest should be just as engaging (if not more so!) than following it. I'll probably post more details in the near future, but in the meantime imagine a cRPG crossbred with Animal Crossing or a simple collection of tycoon games.

Patrick: the Fable point is apposite. I almost made a comment about the panache with which Molyneux promises the moon and then delivers a small moonrock, but I didn't want to be unkind to a man who, although a shameless self-promoter, really does look after the employees in his company. And I don't think you need a levelling scheme in your games because your play is focussed on the social and not on the spatial. As for your current position when compared to mine, bear in mind that I have more than a decade head start on you. These things take time. I spent more than a year unemployed before I found my first videogame job. :)

Gamefiend: this point was raised in a meeting on the project yesterday; should character generation focus on the experience the character gained in their childhood, or on picking which skill paths the character has an affinity for? As we wait for confirmation of publisher funding for the project, it's premature to decide either way, but it is something we will have to address if and when the project goes forward.

Thanks again everyone!

Glad you could finally do a write up on Reluctant Hero (as well as the entertaining breakdown of XP schemes that preceded it). Approaching the monolithic structures of cRPG convention from a fresh angle really does take some doing, Chris, bravo.
What I enjoy about the potential of this idea is that it still manages to make good on the allure of a great cRPG (“Continue to play me, and you will continue to progress.”) while making taking that progression beyond the leveling grind, beyond ever increasing stat numbers or more powerful weapons/magic/armor.
Invested with real emotional currency, I could see a Reluctant Hero type game making not only a big impression because of its fresh take on progression, but also with an even deeper sense of commitment to the characters involved; and isn't that what pundits are always saying is missing from gaming?
Keep on spinning straw into gold, you clever imp :)

Well, to be fair Jack, I'm sure Reluctant Hero will have a progresion of more powerful weapons and armour for anyone who plans to fight in the game. :)

And please bear in mind that our likely budget means that game will not have the production values of the upper market, and thus our audience will be narrowed. Still, I feel the game has great potential.

Thanks for the kind words!

In a way, it reminds me of Pirates in that you have one life to live. I'm assuming that this title would have substancial replay value. In some sense, playing a single character's life is one play session. By playing multiple lives, you slowly build up more indepth knowledge of the game mechanics. You see this sort of accumulation of metagame knowledge in titles ranging from Pirates, to Nethack, to Civilization.

One lesson that I've taken from such games is the importance of nearly unreachable goals. In Nethack, you know that you must recover the Amulet of Yendor. It is something that you are told at the beginning of the game and you spend every game making the attempt.

Yet, it can take players *years* to reach that goal. Every game, some of which can take dozens of hours, gives them a bit more mastery of the system which in turn gets them a bit closer to the goal.

Call it the 'distant carrot.' Done right, such as mechanism can tie together a series of relatively lite individual experiances and help the player explore and grok the system as a whole. And it just requires an open ended gameplay system that can be played multiple times, not a series of (expensive) handcrafted levels.

take care

Sounds interesting. The time advance system is the most intriguing but also the one I'm most queazy about.

I'm a bit confused - May the player's life also be 'time advanced' or is that only for the player's level? If it's the former it makes the length (real time) of the game seem short. If I do become attached to the character I might also feel that I am missing out on parts of his/her life. I would prefer to play it all out than imagine that I missed the first two years of my child's life...

On a slighlty different note, would your time investment always turn out as you expected it to, or could you take that three month advance and find out that you are now bankrupt? It doesn't seem like it... I don't see a way to 'lose' at this game just different paths with ever increasing experience...

Danc: one of the questions remaining is how fast a single life might be completed, as this has obvious implications for replay and as you say, it should have replay value! At the moment, it's too early to tell. And yes, the quest in the game should be a 'distant carrot', precisely as you say!

Suyi: the player's level is directly calculated from their years of experience; when time is advanced, the player character ages and levels up. (To what extent we will be able to reflect the aging of the character graphically is unknown at this time and depends upon the budget!) Although I understand that you would prefer to play it all out, at a 60:1 time gradient it would take you over *a year* of continuous play to do so! That's just too long for almost all players, so it has to be truncated. At the moment, time advances will not cause you to 'lose', but since events happen all the time, you may find there are many problems to resolve after a few months have passed.


Thanks for the comments! Really glad to get some discussion on this game into the early design stages - hearing different viewpoints is always useful!

Sounds a really great concept and some refreshing ideas , hopefully it will be really included in the game :)
For example fable was supposed to have similar ideas and finally was disapointing at release

Usually developpers promise the moon and it end up vapoware or a terrible game after years of waiting.
Well you guys produced a good game already so i can hope the sequel will really happen

My advice , for what its worth , dont blow your budget on fancy graphism and focus on gameplay , we dont need oblivion graphics.
People still refer baldurs gate 2 , planescape , or fallout as best rpgs ever and they are 5 years old .

Include ton of content and give the player lot of freedom and you are about sure to have a masterpiece.

Jerome: I know that many game designers promise the moon and then deliver a small moon rock, but I don't work that way. I have a top down design method that doesn't guarantee implementation of all concept features, but it always delivers on the concept statement. My companies do not have stockholders, and I have no-one to please but myself, my clients and the people who play my games! I prefer doing business this way. :)

However, the barrier as always is budget. How far we end up falling down the "publisher ladder" depends on how much the concept needs to be scaled back. The Chapter and Experience system, however, presents no technical problems at all as far as I can ascertain - the only thing that should stop this from making it into the game would be if the game itself does not proceed for some reason.

I hope you are right about the graphics - the publishers certainly rate graphics as more important than gameplay. :(

Anyway, I'll write more about the game design for Reluctant Hero as soon as it's signed.

Many thanks for the vote of confidence! :)

Publishers rate graphics as more important as graphics are what sell games on shelves.
Gameplay is what keeps people playing and wanting the sequel (or the next game that the company makes).

Many consumers are sold on the fantasy that the world will provide. Once they learn the game mechanics, the graphics become an after thought. Hardcore gamers will look for games with interesting game play mechanics because they know that after they get over the 20 mins of cool graphics, they still want to enjoy it.

What im trying to say is that although graphics arent that important to seasoned gamers or customers that have enjoyed past products, it is important for selling the game to new customers.

Joshua: although I broadly agree with what you say here, I disagree that graphics are what sell games on shelves. What sell games on shelves in large numbers are (1) licenses (2) chart position (3) positive word of mouth.

Now it may be that graphics contributes significantly to the word of mouth, but the sheer brute selling power of IP attachment to a product so outvalues any other commercial factors that (Wil Wright not withstanding) EA - the world's largest publisher - don't see any point in developing original IP at all. They only use licenses.

Backed by intensive marketing to ensure chart position, and the graphics begin to fall in importance - except in one critical interaction: selling the game to the publisher. Here the publisher (usually facing a non-playable tech demo) has no capacity to determine anything useful about the game except the quality of the graphics. It becomes the only "quantifiable" quality that the game can be judged upon.

But I do agree with you that in reaching a wider audience, having quality graphics is essential. Although there are players in the niche markets who will play something with ropey or entirely abstract visuals, in the mass market the visuals are significantly more important.

I would argue that what is really important, however, is the sense of mimicry, rather than the graphics, per se. If the game makes you feel that it expresses its setting, the actual quality of the graphics become less important. But here, I am becoming all tangential. :)

Thanks for the comment!

"I would argue that what is really important, however, is the sense of mimicry, rather than the graphics, per se."

For most people such a "love affair" seems to start with the immediate asthetic appeal rather than with a rationalized "prediction" of the type "what the thing will do for me".

The "thing" has to engage immediately, without much prerequisites - and this means "visually" most of the time. A similar situation is observed with regard to book covers/presentations (good looking models / writers certainly help ;-) and more importantly movie trailers. In fact, good trailers compress a huge spectrum of "cultural messaging" into a small time span (anything to learn here for "game trailers"? - apart from EA's "FIFA soccer" spots of course :)

So how do you convey "mimicry" without the visual effects, how do you project your message inside a persons brain?

You are right of course to point out that the first port of call for the impression of mimicry is the art style and the graphics in general. The point I was trying to make is that it is not the quality of the graphics, per se (in terms of the number of polys, colours, quality of the textures etc), that is the important factor but rather the message that the resulting imagery sends - the fantasy that is being sold.

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