Yesterday I talked about some of the issues with Wolfenstein: Youngblood (read it here). I like the game overall, but the advancement system is absolutely intolerable and causes angst rather than helping players feel the freedom of building a distinctive and useful character.
So, being a game designer and not just a complainer, I figured I'd go about finding a couple ways to potentially make Youngblood's character advancement system something that players want to use, rather than something that feels like a chore or the only way to avoid being pummeled into dust by incrementing difficulty.
How to Fix Youngblood's Character Advancement
The first thing that I’d do to fix Youngblood’s advancement system is to tie enemies’ types and statistics to locations and narrative milestones, disconnecting them from the player’s characters.
This allows me to put higher-threat encounters in place for players who like challenges, and also remove the pressure on players who are second-guessing their decisions.
I’d reduce the number of choices in the skills tree that are things that could make sense as level bonuses (e.g. health and armor increases), and let players choose what to upgrade on their weapon per game statistic rather than per part with arbitrary associations. Some of these upgrades might have fringe effects (e.g. damage reducing rate of fire) for balance, but players wouldn’t miss out on set bonuses if they want a silencer, scope, and high-capacity magazine alongside two damage upgrades on their pistol. I’d make advancement points a universal currency; you can modify each weapon a number of times based on your total rating, rather than distributing a shared pool toward individual selections. This lets players experiment without having to feel crippled.
Some of this is contra-agile, but there’s also agile trends here. Going further to more significant changes I’d generally focus entirely on going definitively toward agile advancement principles.
I would make the characters distinctive and drop the whole stealth/fighting dichotomy. I understand that the former locks a player into a playstyle, but you can’t convince me that you can’t give two characters their own distinctive offensive and stealth-related skillsets. If you want the ability for players to choose either character’s ability set, let them do so. Another idea here would be to go away from contra-agile advancement and give a variety of powersuits that each have a distinctive ability pairing (like the smash/cloak pairing currently in Youngblood), and let players spend skills per-suit.
However, let’s look at two potential solutions and look at what they do for the game overall:
The Contra-Agile Fix
The idea with the contra-agile fix is that you say that you don’t like forcing players into choices.
What this means is that characters generally wind up equally good at everything across play-throughs, unless you’ve decided to specifically distinguish them.
To do this, I’d get rid of the skills tree entirely. To compensate, I’d split the power-suits into two, three, or maybe even four distinctive suits which occupy the same sort of space as the current skill trees.
Roughly speaking, players could choose between stealth, fast assault, heavy assault, and support options. Most of these suits would get access to a common set of abilities, but at different times; stealth would be less durable, for instance, but eventually get the same health and armor as other suits.
Stealth suits would have the camo ability, and the stealth abilities and throwing weapons of the current skill trees.
Support suits would also have the camo ability (or a new ability?) and boosts to pep abilities, scavenging, and the like. A potential new ability would be a hacking active ability that could control robots and keypads.
Fast assault suits get the smash ability, with a focus on mobility skills. They’d be well-rounded, getting some stealth takedown abilities to accentuate their first-strike role.
Heavy assault suits do the dual-wielding and heavy-weapon skills, and would be the most durable. The smash ability seems fitting, but an ammunition-generation ability could be cool as well.
Players could switch between suits at various times, making it possible to have the different roles for certain scenarios without requiring the players to commit to a particular playset. Though this is an agile advancement trait, it allows the simplicity of the contra-agile system to persist.
It also gets around the current issue of players playing with more than one other player having characters that don’t necessarily make sense together.
I think that the weapons as they are should be reworked. Give players the option of multiple weapons per slot that are similar (e.g. three types of pistol that match the current set layout) and make the advancements go for the whole class of weapons. If additional small modifications (e.g. skins, sights, muzzle devices) were desired, they wouldn’t get in the way of this design decision and could let players have their tastes met without having to deal with the current set-bonus shenanigans.
This already has a precedent in the laser rifle, which functions as three different weapons depending on how one builds it, and there’s really no reason not to just have a full set of upgrades from one manufacturer if one wants to use the weapon to its full potential.
Another upside here is that while there’s still some player selection as far as which weapon family to upgrade, they’re more flexible in the roles they can perform. They could go for a single-shot silenced heavy pistol, or a precision pistol with a large magazine that excels at taking down enemy barriers.
I’d get rid of the per-level damage bonus and weapon mastery damage bonuses, since they’re entirely meaningless except as a comparison to players of other level (moot in an entirely cooperative game). Enemy scaling to particular levels is also removed; every Soldat is the same as other Soldats, Soldat IIs are all the same, and so forth.
The decisions now open to the player are:
Which suit do I wear?
Which weapons do I like?
The only advancement currency is silver (farewell skill points), and it’s used pretty much exclusively for upgrading whole weapon families and maybe smaller customization things like sights.
This simplifies the game quite a bit, so you could even add in something like an armor module that lets people carry a special ability into any situation (e.g. a triple-jump) as a silver sink for people who decide they just want to use one weapon and have already spent all the silver they can on it, but it does away with the false choices and potential anxieties of the current system.
The Agile Fix
First we kill the skill trees.
They’re not doing anything useful as they currently stand. They’re cutesy, but they create all sorts of issues with order (to get what you want you may need to pick something you don’t care about with resources you don’t get an overabundance of), and a lot of the skills feel like they’re shoehorned in specifically to give an excuse for the trees to exist.
What I’d do is put the skills in pools, similar to the current trees, with each point in a pool giving a benefit (e.g. Mind gives armor, Muscle gives health, Power reduces cooldowns and increases pep distance) rather than having the “boring” upgrades that just give more resources be deliberate upgrades.
The solution here is also to create more interesting skills. The camo and smash abilities feel lonely in the vast field of potential powers, and while some of these would doubtless be difficult to integrate into the current system (e.g. smash being the only way through certain doors), it would still be possible to add some other abilities like a hacking ability per my suggestions in the contra-agile fix.
Then we tokenize gear improvements, and make regular intervals where players can respec their gear decisions. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six games used to include periodic places where the player would find a cache of weapons and supplies and be able to fully revamp their loadout, and that’s what I’m thinking of here.
At these points they could alter how they used their tokens to upgrade their loadout, letting them choose between not only stealthy and direct approaches but also integrate newfound weapons and gear.
This would also be a critical part of letting players join each other more smoothly. Currently the game feels like they deliberately designed it to be played with one other person, which isn’t necessarily wrong, but going in for a new game plus experience with a new friend could be difficult (a shame considering the fact that there’s a story mission replay mode, which would be perfect for a “hey, let’s play that cool level again” scenario like this).
It also gets rid of the sunk cost issues. Weapon mastery would probably also go away, or it would be shared across classes (e.g. pistols and machine-pistols, submachine guns and assault rifles, and so forth) to encourage players to have versatility. This is important because the barrier system is designed to force players to switch weapons, while the weapon mastery system exists to encourage players to stick with a single weapon most of the time.
This way weapon mastery would be shared between a heavy barrier penetrating weapon and a light barrier penetrating weapon, so that players would always have at least one option in any encounter that they were getting their bonus with.
Adding more tiers for advancement on weapons is another way to remedy this. By capping the total number of advancements that can be given to a single weapon behind skills or a level-based limit (or perhaps both; a Mind skill could allow further upgrades of weapons, a Muscle one further upgrades of the suit, should one decide to include customization options for that).
On that topic, the power tree should be expanded into a variety of suit abilities, including increased mobility, durability, and utility options. Stealth feels really unloved, so increased perception and passive camouflage abilities could be nice to extend the options beyond just the active camo ability and make that playstyle useful. These could be bought with skill points or a tokens (either from the same pool as weapons or a separate pool)
I’d consider abolishing the notion of levels altogether and instead give skill points and customization tokens as a reward for completing missions and the story. Alternatively, each level could give skill points and collecting enough silver could give a new customization token, giving a similar system without the need to manage the persnickety silver coins as they currently stand.
This would also add a degree of permanence to the gear progression. As it stands gear doesn’t feel like it gets stronger over time because it’s improved once and done. By having an increased pool size for upgrade tokens one could give players the ability to see persistent improvements even if they have to spend those tokens on weapons they wouldn’t usually use.
The big issue with Youngblood’s advancement system is that it really doesn't exist with the finished character outcomes in mind. It feels contra-agile in the sense that there's one direction you want to take your character, but it has far too many moving parts and creates anxiety about how you should make decisions, so it’s thrown away the benefits it could have had on that front.
By embracing either an agile or a contra-agile philosophy wholeheartedly, the system can be made much simpler and still give players a better experience, one which is less busy and more comprehensible while still giving a feeling of growth.