For some reason I never identified before that I love games with lots of characters until recently. Shining Force, Final Fantasy, XCOM, Baldur’s Gate and other BioWare games, Crusader Kings, the list goes on. I loved Shadow of the Colossus and Journey as well, but you’re getting different experiences: the personal journey vs the shared experience. And hell, Journey was made for multiplayer, and SotC was a story about someone taking desperate measures to not be alone.
There’s probably a reason for this: there’s only so many good stories to tell with one or two characters. How many different ways can that story play out? I mean, how many movies or tv shows are based on a single person? Our species is built around understanding and caring about how people respond to other people.
In The Banner Saga, I wrote almost all of the dialogue between roughly 30 characters. It was the first time I’d be in charge of something like an HBO series. It was also exhausting, both literally and figuratively. On Killers and Thieves I’m finding myself again drawn to lots of characters, but with an emphasis on emergent story instead of explicit content.
First step, of course, is generating a lot of characters! New screenshots and design talk in the post:
Here’s some in-development work as we get closer to a final layout for the character screen. Keep in mind it’s all in pre-alpha development!
Almost everything about the characters in Killers and Thieves is procedurally generated. Each character has stats for Strength, Skill and Stealth that factor into both high-level strategy and active heist gameplay. They also have special abilities and can be promoted over time, improving their stats.
Each character generates a random name and nickname, which the player will be able to change. Their bodies and heads are randomly generated to create a wide variety of visual appearances. Pretty basic stuff… but we can go deeper.
Taking a note from old pen and paper, each thief has a positive trait and negative flaw. These are generated randomly, and can lead to some interesting combinations, like a character who is shy about working with the opposite gender or a thief who has higher morale when he’s got a high price on his head, but won’t accept missions if he’s wounded.
The idea isn’t to make a bunch of super-soldiers, but a guild of killers and thieves. Dealing with their flaws is half the game. Their weekly costs depend on what deal you can get when you hire them, and some might not be worth the price. Sometimes they have bounties before you even hire them.
Each character also has hidden stats that affect things behind the scenes. How well they take to training, their loyalty and how lucky they are on missions all come across in subtle ways that the player may only notice after using that thief for extended period of time. You might start to feel like one of your guys is especially lucky about not getting caught, or get the feeling that one might be plotting to leave the guild and take valuables with him, and you might be right.
The thing I’m most happy about is implementing a personality system (click below for larger):
Each thief is assigned their own personality at creation, from professional to crazy and several others in between. Send them on missions and they’ll report back on the outcome, in different ways depending on their personality.
On the topic of reporting back, each thief lives their own life. They don’t always return immediately after a mission, and they won’t necessarily tell you what they’ve been up to. They may go missing for days, come back wounded or end up in prison if a job goes bad. Or, they may go out of their way to find extra loot on the job and cover their tracks. It was important in my mind that they do better than you expected just as often as they screw things up.
This culminates in the biggest threat you’ll face in Killers and Thieves: your own allies. Mistreat someone or don’t pay them for too long and they might decide to disappear from the guild completely, leaving you short-handed and taking his investment with him. Hire a real scumbag and they might try to blackmail you to the city guards, exposing your headquarters and leading to a game ending base raid.
Below: in-development art showing a “threat” coin- this case the player is going to have to deal with being blackmailed within a certain number of days.
Threats to your headquarters can come from several fronts: traitors to the guild, vindictive guards or rival guilds. There’s a variety of ways to deal with them: hunt down and kill the blackmailer, pay the bribe, make clandestine deals. The goal is to give the player choices.
At the end of the day, the player shouldn’t feel paranoid about every action of every thief, or harassed by their own guild. That’s not fun. Instead, it should feel like you’re building an empire of trusted criminals with unique skills, quirks and needs, and weeding out the rats and spies on the way to crushing your rivals.
But the bottom line is create a system that feels alive and makes interesting stories. Maybe you raised a high-ranking thief from a pup that turns traitor and you send his own protege to hunt him down before he can inform your rivals. Or you’ll send your crazy-but-gifted stealth expert on a suicide mission and she returns with extra gold to boot just when you think you’re not going to be able to pay the guild dues this week.
Most of this system is already working and currently being balanced! Hopefully with the advantages of early access we’ll be able to keep expanding this into the most dynamic system of agents possible. This is just scratching the surface of a bigger espionage system I’d love to implement in the future.