DevDiary 5 - Metagame: Legion Battles
Ave! Welcome to DevDiary #5, where we take our first detailed look at some of the metagame features of Expeditions: Rome! In our previous DevDiary, we made a brief expedition into the world of art direction to show you how we’ve approached the challenges of bringing the ancient world of Rome to life in a way that feels authentic, yet vibrant and exciting. Today we’ll return to the world of gameplay and system design as we delve into the meta systems of Expeditions: Rome and explore how we’re selling the fantasy of being a Roman legatus on a campaign of war. This time we’re dealing with some systems that are still very much under development, so buckle up for some serious inside baseball.
Our 2nd DevDiary, which focused on our core combat design, should have made it clear that while significant improvements – as well as some clever and risky innovations – have been made in the core combat, our focus there has always been to deliver a solid, challenging, and satisfying take on traditional turn-based combat. By contrast, the meta gameplay has always been the area where we’ve pushed ourselves to think differently and try crazy new things to separate the Expeditions series from other RPG and strategy games. Expeditions: Rome continues this philosophy.
Let’s start by defining what we mean when we say meta. The meta is the game systems that track your overall progression and allow you to interact with it. Our core game loops such as combat or dialogue are self-contained bubbles of content that begin and end discretely, whereas the meta spans the whole game and ties all the content together. Every core game loop always interacts with the meta in many ways, but in game development it’s useful to think of them separately.
(Side note: Although the overall story and the personal development of each character spans the whole game and ties together all the dialogue, in this diary we’re purely interested in game mechanics.)
The meta of Expeditions: Rome can be roughly divided into two parts: the character systems, and the worldmap systems. Both aspects of the meta are quite different than previous instalments, but the worldmap systems are what really sets Expeditions: Rome apart from other games.
As we showed in our story diary, Expeditions: Rome casts you – the player – as the legatus of a legion of Rome. Our foremost priority in designing the campaigns of Rome was to make you feel like you have an army at your fingertips, and to make that army feel useful and necessary. When we set out, we immediately ran into a certain important tension: as the game is fundamentally a party-based RPG, most of the gameplay will revolve around your own group of a dozen Romans meeting new people, engaging in diplomatic talks or investigating plot points, and getting into skirmishes on that small-party scale. A lot of the worldmap gameplay of previous Expeditions games has centered around resource management and survival mechanics, but when you have a legion of 6000 men at your beck and call, what difficulty is there in feeding and otherwise supplying a dozen more people?
To solve this, we have redesigned the survival aspects of Expeditions: Rome dramatically. When you return to the worldmap, you will see not just your own party represented by your character on horseback, but also your legion – typically garrisoned at a fortified camp. You can and will often visit this camp to manage the affairs of the legion as well as the status of your own party. It is here you can recruit new praetorians for your group, treat those who have been injured in combat, craft new equipment for yourself and your praetorians, and even leave behind a praetorian to rest and recuperate at the baths if their morale has fallen too low. Our aim has been for the camp to feel like a place of resources and opportunities, where you visit when you want to do something, not a chore that you have to perform at regular intervals just to survive the game.
All facilities of the legion camp can be upgraded, which changes the appearance of buildings or entire sections of the command area, but to do that you must secure the necessary resources. Fortunately, unlike previous Expeditions games, the legion is not just a narrative element in Expeditions: Rome. This time around, you can deploy it to missions all across the parts of the worldmap under your control.
The worldmap of each campaign is divided into regions. When you control a region, you unlock the ability to build farms, tanneries, iron mines, or lumber yards, which grant you resources needed to upgrade your legion’s camp. We are not building a 4X game here, so the underlying mechanics are straight-forward and easy to understand: Sending your legion on a mission takes a certain amount of in-game time, and has a cost, for example in denarii (salary) or manpower (casualties). Missions also have a difficulty rating that results in a success probability based on the current strength of your legion. If a mission is succeeded, you gain the resources you were promised.
Capturing a new region is where things get a little more complex. You deploy your legion to capture an enemy outpost just as you would send it to perform any other task – however, when the legion reaches its destination, a battle begins. First, you must select which centurion should lead this battle – your legion can have up to 4 centurions which are recruited from the same pool as your personal praetorian guard. The character class of each centurion, as well as any perks they might have to improve their suitability to command, determines the likely outcome: the probability of success, the expected loss of manpower, how much loot you can expect to get out of it, and the probability that the centurion himself will survive the battle.
Next, you select what formation your legion should deploy in. Formations are a type of stratagem, which are randomly made available to you from your strategic pool to represent the unpredictable nature of war. Once you’ve decided how to deploy the legion, the battle is on, and you can follow along as the armies are arrayed against each other and clash. At certain intervals, new decisions pop up, asking you to choose new stratagems for the different phases of battle. If you find yourself unhappy with your options, next time you’re visiting your legion’s camp, you can build a workshop and develop new stratagems to add to your pool. As the game progresses and your workshop is upgraded, you will even be able to upgrade your existing stratagems with better outcomes.
This legion battle system is our way to represent large-scale warfare in a game that is otherwise mainly focused on elite small-unit tactical combat. Our challenge has been to make a simple system with enough depth to stay fresh and interesting throughout the course of a 40-hour RPG, and which ties into the other systems of the game so it doesn’t feel too isolated from the rest of the experience.
This system is one of the areas of the game that we are most focused on expanding and improving as we get closer to finishing Expeditions: Rome. During testing, we have found that there seems to be clear dominant strategies, and that certain choices that do have valid uses don’t feel as useful as they really are – perhaps because their effects are too long-term or too abstract compared to other strategies. Often these problems are easy to solve by adding new mechanics to the system, but the ideal solution would be to address it within the scope of the current feature set, since every new mechanic we add must be supported by UI and tutorialization, which can quickly clutter the interface and overwhelm the player.
Another problem we’re working to solve is how to give the player more ways to affect a battle ahead of time. Going up against a much stronger army can feel like a slog right now, as you throw your legion against them, suffering repeated defeats to whittle down their strength. Though this is in many ways accurate to the Roman republic’s historical approach to warfare (refuse all offers of peace, and instead keep throwing lives at a problem until the enemy is worn out), it isn’t a particularly fun way to win. We want you to have many options to improve your success chance or reduce the enemy strength before you even begin the battle. We’d love to hear what you think we should do to solve this in the comments of this DevDiary – as mentioned, this area of the game is getting a lot of attention right now, and we can always draw inspiration from your suggestions and requests!
Winning a legion battle isn’t the end of conquering a territory. There are always loose ends to tie up – pockets of resistance to exterminate; local aristocrats, tribes, or clans with whom to forge new alliances; or prisoners of war to rescue. Sometimes you can send your legion to handle these things, other times you must send one of your companions in charge of your praetorian guard. A conquered region is pacified only once the loose ends have been dealt with, and then you can safely redeploy your legion to another region without losing control again.
Despite this already being our longest DevDiary yet, we have barely touched on most of the meta systems of Expeditions: Rome. The triage system from previous games makes a return, although field triage is no longer as punishing as it used to be given the existence of the infirmary tent in your legion’s camp, where injured praetorians can be treated for free. The crafting system is a complex and rewarding system in its own right, and new features for it will be unlocked by outpost upgrades all the way up to around the half-way of the game. Praetorians can mutiny if their approval of your choices becomes low enough, and the way they leave will be determined by their personality traits – but fear not, you can upgrade your legion’s barracks to increase the level range of new recruits available to replace them.
As you can hopefully tell, Expeditions: Rome is a sprawling and complex game with many interconnected systems, but we are working hard to make sure it is accessible and that every individual system is fun to play around with. We hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the innards of our worldmap systems, why they are being designed the way they are, and what we’re doing to improve them and ensure they remain fun throughout the course of the game.
Hopefully this diary has raised as many questions as it has answered! Please post all your questions as comments here, and we will do our best to address them on this week’s DevStream on Wednesday August 4th at 1:00 PM Eastern / 5:00 PM GMT on the THQ Nordic Twitch Channel: http://twitch.tv/thqnordic. This time, Senior Producer Brad Logston will once again be joined by Creative Director Jonas Wæver to delve further into the design of the meta of Expeditions: Rome.
Until then, Valete!