Evaluating conflict games using the V4H system

The V4H system is an acronym I invented to describe the process of evaluating most conflict based games.  I came up with the system after looking at dozens of shooters, strategy, and MMO games.  I compared their features and their appeal and eventually reduced the essential gameplay to just four elements.

Each of the letters represents one aspect of the ways that a developer can appeal to a player in a conflict game. Lets take a look at them.

Harm – The developer can present the player with something that will cause harm.  Damage to the opposition in a conflict game is the direct appeal.  Give them a new sword, pistol, rifle, rocket launcher, pulse cannon which has higher damage stats than the previous sword, pistol, rocket launcher, etc.

Harm is the easiest way to appeal to the player.  It is a direct path to victory in a conflict based game.  For this reason it is usually the first stat to be presented to the player. So, if a sword does 20 points of healing to the player and does an additional 5 points of damage, it will generally be displayed as a +5 Sword.  Only when you click on the properties are you likely to see the healing bonus.

Heal is the opposite of Harm.  It is the second pillar of our four H’s.  If Harm does damage to your opponent, then Heal repairs damage to you.  Most people have little trouble seeing the advantage of powerful healing.  If I am taking damage but can heal fast enough, then I can continue to fight until my opponent falls. Healing counters the damage I am taking.  It, like harm, is a direct action.  Given the choice, most players will take Harm over Healing, and Healing over our next two pillars.

Help is the complement to Harm.  If I can’t have a weapon that does more damage, then maybe I can have one that does that damage more frequently? or has special bonuses vs. my current adversaries?  While Harm is direct, Help is indirect.  You might be able to get to your opponent faster, strike more frequently, or summon some other form of assistance.

Hinder is the complement of Heal.  If my opponent can’t reach me then they can’t do damage.  So, things which hinder my opponents progress are generally good for me.

So, now look at your typical MMO game.  Reduced to its basic components you have a set of objects – each of which will help or hinder; hurt or heal you.

Your opponent whether it is an AI bot, or an opposing player has the same set of components working for them.

Let’s look at a simple example.

You are fighting a troll.  He has a large club that will hurt you. He has a leathery hide that will hinder your ability to hurt him. He has regeneration which heals him.  He has a charge ability that helps him get to you faster.  On your side, you have an enchanted sword which hurts him.  You have a shield which hinders him by blocking his attacks and reducing their damage.  You have a potion of dexterity that helps you avoid his attacks.  And you have a  medical bandage that heals your damage.

The four H’s are the evaluators which drive the conflict game.  Almost every element of the game can be related back to one of these four essentials.  For all the rest we turn to the first letter of our acronym – the V.

The one element we have left out… the V, stands for… Vanity.

Vanity is the decoration of an object to make it appealing to the player.  It could be a flame effect on a sword, a gold color to body armor, a hefty “chunk” sound as the grenade launcher sends its payload arcing through the sky.

While your success with balancing the four H’s will determine most of the gameplay of your title, the V will determine your game’s appeal to the player.

Let’s take another look at some common elements in various games and see how they fit.

In many strategy games you create units.  Those units can attack other units, harming them.  They can repair or replace damaged units, healing you. They can defend your position, hindering your opponent.  Or they can give you bonuses helping you.

At an abstract level it does not matter what the units look like.  As long as they can be easily distinguished from each other and from opposition forces they could be anything and the game could be played.  Vanity comes into play when your naturalistic shaman creates an immense shambling tree which lumbers forward to tear down a stone wall.

The special particle effects as the creature is summoned, the colored textures and the animation movements of the tree creature, the grinding sounds as it tears loose the rock walls, are all vanity items in relation to the game.  You could play without any one or all of them and it would not impact your ability to win or lose the game.

Once the rules to the game are established and the objects in the game are balanced in term of the 4 H’s.  The Vanity element of the game will determine its success or failure with the individual player.

As a general rule, player actions within a game are generally based on the directness to achieving a goal vs. the amount of time available, mitigated by the vanity appeal of the action.

What does that mean?

Let’s take a look at two tasks.  In one task the player must craft 20 loaves of bread to gain enough experience points to reach the next level.  In the other task the player must slay a band of 5 orcs and bring back the head of their leader.  This will also result in the player leveling up.

Both tasks will yield the same result.

So, how does vanity play into the equation?  Many factors COULD come into play.  If the player likes the crafting process, and has little time they may opt to make the bread.  It takes a known amount of time and has that as an appeal.  They may be unsure if they have enough time to accomplish the second task.  They may also have a use for the bread, perhaps selling it to purchase a new weapon for later questing.

On the other hand the player may find the idea of crafting dull.  They may want the challenge of defeating a group of foes, they may want to take a chance on gaining extra items for slaying the orcs. (fixed vs. non-fixed rewards)

Note that the results of crafting are objects that USUALLY fit into the 4 H’s side of the equation.  Crafters, make armor, weapons, potions, etc.  Occasionally however, they make pure vanity items – wedding dresses, small non-combat pets, non-healing foods.

The V4H system can even be applied to a limited extent to elements outside of the core game.  The HUD and GUI system layout of the game could be considered an example of Help vs. Hindrance.  The arrangement of the HUD and GUI can help or hinder the player immensely, but it is usually the Vanity factor (how cool it looks) that drives player reactions initially.

Vanity is not the most important factor however, a truly broken HUD, or truly broken gameplay elements can never be glossed over with special effects, and still appeal to the majority of game players.

However, even where the gameplay has a bias problem or the HUD/GUI has some issues, a beautifully crafted screen can win over players.  Unfortunately, a game which lacks vanity factors will rarely get the chance to show how good its 4H’s are.  The market is too crowded with glitter for a dull, boring looking game to get a fair hearing.

So that’s it.

Take a look at several conflict based games and evaluate them for yourself.  How much time is invested in the 4 H’s of gameplay, and how much is being glossed over or polished up with the V of Vanity?

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