I saw Avengers last night and there are a lot of things to like about the movie. However, I want to focus on one thing that I think the movie did incredibly well, and talk about its implications for games of all types. In Avengers, there were four tiers of heroes. S.H.I.E.L.D and Nick Fury are the great soldiers, but still very obviously just well trained and well within what you would expect out of a nicely trained agent. You had the bad ass human tier in Black Widow and Hawk Eye. Captain America and Iron Man fill out the exceptional and truly super human tier. Finally Hulk and Thor top out in the demi-god tier. Weird, now I feel like I’m talking about DotA: Marvel. In fact, why isn’t there a Marvel MOBA? That seems pretty fucking ideal. Nevermind, that’s a different post. Anyway, with a pretty huge range of heroes, it’s difficult to make all of the heroes out to be incredibly awesome at any given time.
I strongly feel that this was not the case in Avengers. In fact, this was the thing I liked most about the movie.
The movie did an incredible job at making everyone out to be awesome at the same time. What I liked most about this is that the movie never really bothered to try and make them awesome in the same ways at the same time. What do I mean? Let’s examine a small section of a larger set piece that I can easily talk about without spoiling anything. There is a segment of the movie where Iron Man and Captain America are working together to solve a problem. Iron Man is flying around, using his suit to slice through things with his lasers, and generally do Tony Stark type stuff. All the while, Captain America needs to hang around to throw a switch at the right time. In theory, this is a pretty unequal division of awesome. However, some mooks with guns rush in and try and not only kill Iron Man, but start to try and kill Captain America. All of a sudden, Captain America is in the middle of a goal-tending parkour gun fight. Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. Meanwhile, Nick Fury and Some Agent Chick (Colbie Smulders, I got nothing) are trying to hold the bridge against waves and waves of guys. They just use their sharpshooting and basic combat skills. It’s nothing in terms of flash, but it plays very well and you get the feeling that these guys are awesome and competent. While all this is going on Thor and Hulk are being…well Thor and Hulk. They are bad ass on a pretty epic scale, quite literally. It’s a great segment for these two. Black Widow and Hawk Eye are pretty cool in their own right, though Hawk Eye gets the short end of the deal in this particular sequence. Anyway, the point is, very different scale and stakes for everyone, but these varied stakes in no way makes the focal point of those scenes any less awesome. You never want to stop and say, “Aww, Captain America was just fighting mooks with guns, big deal! Hulk was demolishing on a scale meant for natural disasters!” This is a strong testament to the movie, and it’s something that games of all types should really cannibalize.
Fighting against appropriate opponents or participating in appropriate scenarios lets everyone feel awesome at the same time. This is tricky, because while Hulk could manhandle thirty troops at once, it’s important for the people handling that situation to really come across as great at what they are doing. This is really a context issue, but it’s a relatively simple thing to understand. For example, those thirty alien troops are in a big field, unless Hulk has something else to do, there is no reason why he wouldn’t be there smashing. Now, if he has something to do, say, fight a big alien elsewhere, then someone needs to fight those alien troops on the field. The tricky part is, you are saying, in this scenario, that the other people defending the field aren’t awesome enough to fight the big alien. This could lessen the impact of the scene that follows, even if it’s a great scene, simply because the viewer knows that they couldn’t get the job done in the other arena. Is this likely to happen? Probably not, people will probably just enjoy the scene, but it’s a possibility. However, let’s take the aliens out of a field, and put them in an enclosed space with a lot of pedestrians, say an airport. Now it makes perfect sense that the Hulk CAN’T be the one to defeat those troops, because of the very real threat of collateral damage. Hulk is free to be awesome and fight a big alien without diminishing the impact of the other heroes because he couldn’t really participate in the scene anyway. Avengers does this consistently throughout its run, and it’s incredible.
Applying this to games takes some effort, but possibly not as much as you might think. In video games this can easily be designed around, as multiple people can be in multiple places and triggered events occur. There are other things to consider here, but let’s just agree to say that video games can be purposefully designed to accomplish the above, ok? Cool. So let’s look at table top games which have some interesting issues to examine on this. Conventional advice is “don’t split the party”, as it makes it difficult to have face time for all party members and it can easily impact pacing. However, in combat does it really matter? It goes round by round anyway, so what’s the big deal if they are in different places when the combat rounds start? Well, the obvious problem is “I’m not a combat character the way all comic book characters in comic book movies are action heroes”. This is a pretty fair concern, but let’s just embrace that this would occur in a table top game and solve for it. I will use a former DnD game I used to play in as an example here. This game was run by the Harbinger of Doom, and the Wombat, the Manager, Deckard, and the Monkey King were players.
Without fully devolving into a nerd that tells you about his character, let me just sum up the party make up to show you how this could have potentially worked. The party was a swordmage (damage soaking spellblade type), warlord (damage support and healer), barbarian (all the damage), bard (healer and damage support), a wizard (wizard!) and a sorceror (wizard!). We later subbed out the warlord for an assassin and the barbarian became a healer hybrid guy. It was hard for everyone to feel super awesome in a fight as there was always a lot of going on and what’s great for one type of character might totally suck balls for someone else. Suck balls is an industry term. I mean not my industry, but definitely some industry. Guys that are somewhat of a slow attrition for the barbarian and swordmage might be completely blasted by the wizard and sorcerer with no effort on a consistent basis. Dudes that can provide decent fight challenges for wizards might be annihilated by the hard to hit melee folk if they are having to close to range on the wizards. You get the point here. Generally this ends up with a mix of monsters in a given scene and everyone trying to tackle everything or at least divvy up responsibility mid fight. What if you just separated out the fights in ways that made sense? Ok, wizards take up the high position and take out the flying spitters. Melee, take out the ground forces. Healers revive and bolster the people caught in the cross fire and also have fights thrown in with your physical challenges. This would ultimately be a much easier combat to run, because numbers can be much, much lower in a game where monsters won’t be dogpiled. A challenge for one or two people of a specific type is much easier to come up with than a group of monsters for a group of players. Now, obviously this isn’t something that needs to always be done, but I think it’s pretty easily repeatable if you establish it as a model. This doesn’t mean that a few people are boss killers, obviously, but allowing players to contribute to a fight in different ways is pretty important if you are going to really attempt this model. I think this has a lot of potential and merit, but it does require a bit of timing or set up prior to each battle in order to set this up correctly. The move to encounter location part is a pretty big deal, so the system would necessarily need to support that in some way.
It’s certainly something to consider and it’s definitely a good take away as a lesson on its own. Everyone should be cool in a game as often as possible, and not just because someone else went to decide to be cooler elsewhere. It’s difficult, but this is really the ultimate goal of a a lot of games, right? Players like being awesome.