Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Brilliance of Undefined Fantastic Object's scoring system.

In the last two posts I made about games I talked about level design in the Touhou series, and also mentioned two other facets of games, mechanics and avatar design. I only briefly touched on these other two aspects with respect to Touhou. I addressed that ideally I think a game's mechanics (in this case, its scoring sytem) should allow players' relative skill to be distinguished at all levels: it should be relevant both for the hardcore, high-scoring nerd and the just-trying-to-survive casual gamer. I also said that, of the ones I'd played, the Touhou games didn't really have scoring systems that excel at this. However, at the time I hadn't played the 12th installment in the series, Undefined Fantastic Object. I think this game has a system that is rewarding and intuitive, and is also useful at all levels of play.

In accordance with the title, it is focused around little cartoon UFOs that appear when specific, marked enemies are destroyed. These UFOs come in three colours, blue, green, and red, and some flash between the colours in that order.

See that big fairy in the top left with the green UFOs above its head? That contains one of these things.
The rightmost UFO is a flashing one, as indicated by the white border.

If the player collects three UFOs of the same colour in a row, a larger UFO of that colour appears (alternatively, collecting one of each colour will produce a flashing UFO).

This UFO remains either until it leaves after twelve seconds or the player destroys it, and while it is present it will draw any items dropped by enemies on the entire screen into itself (these consist of red Power items which increase the power of the player's shots, and blue Point items which award points). If it is destroyed any items it sucked in are automatically awarded to the player with a multiplied value, another small UFO of the same colour is released, and a specific bonus is given depending on the colour of the UFO. Additionally, if it collected at least a set number of total items, a further colour-dependant reward is given.

This system is useful to the player. Usually, in order to collect items they must either be touched directly as they fall down the screen, or the player must move above the Point of Collection, an invisible line about 1/4 to 1/5 of the way from the top where all items are automatically drawn to the player character. This is also the point where Point items, which are worth more the further up the screen they are, reach their maximum value. Thus, using UFOs to collect items offers a convincing alternative to this risky strategy, especially since they automatically escalate Point items to their maximum value and give a potentially hefty multiplier on top. The element of risk isn't eliminated though: in many levels the bullet patterns seem specifically designed to offer a challenge to those aiming to grab swerving UFOs, and given how many of them there might be on screen at a time, and that one off-colour collection will screw up your combo and thus your next UFO timing, excessive greed can still lead to death. Not to mention that it is perfectly possible for a UFO to simply leave before you can destroy it if you get too greedy with getting items into it, in which case you simply lose everything it had absorbed.

I think this is a good system because it feels rewarding. It offers specific things that you have to do, and tangibly rewards you for doing them. Contrast this with the game with my least favourite scoring system, Mountain of Faith. In this, the maximum value for Point items is determined by your "Faith", which is increased by collecting Faith items that are dropped from enemies in the same fashion as Power and Point items. However, your Faith also drops rapidly if you haven't collected any items for a couple of seconds. As well as often rewarding menial conservatism rather than bursty risk-taking, it feels like it's designed to punish you for not doing things, instead of rewarding you for doing things. It's important to note my use of the word "feels" here: there's technically no difference, as lost oppurtunity cost is the same whether it takes the form of directly losing resources now or losing potential resources in the future. However, I know which one feels less enjoyable. It's acceptable to feel punished for an obvious mistake, such as losing a life, but trying to figure out ways to stagger enemy destruction and item collection through dry periods feels arbitrary and tedious. By contrast, the UFOs are obvious and satisfying. They're a clear, shiny carrot on a stick, and the gratification for collecting them is near instant.

What's really best about this system, though, is that the different colours give different effects. Red UFOs grant extra lives (1/4 of a life each for filling the UFO with items and for destroying it). Green UFOs grant bombs (1/3 of a bomb for destroying the UFO and a whole bomb for filling it).

The player's stock, showing lives on top and bombs on the bottom, along with current fragments.
Flashing UFOs turn Point items into Power items, and vice versa, as well as giving two small UFOs instead of one. Blue UFOs grant the biggest multiplier to the value of collected items (8, compared to the 1 to 4 of the other colours). Lives are obviously of most interest to the casual gamer, just trying to get their 1 credit clear. Points are mostly only relevant to the high level player. Bombs have usefulness for both, as using them to avoid death means you can either get further into the game, or avoid the inevitable oppurtunity cost of dying, depending on your goal. Flashing UFOs are mostly only relevant for scoring, but must be used in very specific ways to be worth it (either for turning a large number of redundant Power items into valuable Point items, or for allowing a specific timing to get a Blue UFO in the future, due to the extra small UFO they drop).

This means that not only does the system cater to players of all levels, but it allows distinct styles of play. A very inexperienced player can focus on red UFOs, as extra lives are the most obviously useful resource to them. However, a slightly more canny player will realise that green UFOs are potentially more cost-effective (1 1/3 bombs per green UFO, compared to 1/2 of a life per red UFO), but only if they can make proper use of what they get from them: if they can successfully bomb at every occasion where they would otherwise lose a life, collecting green UFOs is an effective strategy; if they lose all their lives with 8 bombs still in stock, it obviously isn't. A player can even choose to forgoe the UFOs entirely, focusing only on dodging bullets.

And for those aiming for high scores, there is still more subtlety to the system. It might seem most sensible to focus on maximising the total number of large UFOs, to get as many x8 blue bonuses as possible with the odd flashing UFO for Point/Power item conversion when relevant. This would mean allowing excess small UFOs to bounce around the screen until a current large UFO has departed, allowing another one to be summoned instantly. However, collecting a small UFO while a large one is on-screen, rather than going into the UFO gauge and contributing to the next large UFO generated, will instead permanently increase the maximum value of Point items by 1,000. Thus, on early stages it is actually better, in the long-term, to focus on collecting as many small UFOs as possible during the duration of the barest minimum number of large UFOs. Figuring out the cut-off point, where one should start maximising Point items collected over increasing the value of future Point items, requires intimate knowledge of the spawning patterns of the UFOs, the number of Point items actually available, and a thorough understanding of the limits of one's own abilities.

When I first started playing Undefined Fantastic Object I thought the UFO system seemed a bit arbitrary and gimmicky. However, once I understood it a little I realised that it opened up a ton of fun and varied possibilities. It allows you to feel clever once you've worked out a strategy that exploits the system, and applied the skills to execute it.

This is me a bit less than halfway through stage 5 on what would ultimately prove to be my 1CC run. Note the maxed out lives and bombs. At this point, I felt like an unstoppable badass.
And this is seconds after barely taking down the final boss in stage 6, my stock long since exhausted. You can have all the Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free cards you like: in the end you're still going to have to dodge a bunch of bullets.

Thus, it is definitely my favourite scoring system in any Touhou game I've played so far.

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