Design: Powers and Classes – Part 1

Let’s take a deeper dive into the power design behind Unity. I wanted to pull back the curtain on what’s going on in my brain when I create a class or enemy power. What might seem like a simple run of the mill ability will have a lot of layers to it and it’s in this blog article that I wish to explore those nuances and how they feed into my design philosophy as a whole. This will be another two part series. We examine the fundamental aspects and questions that go into creating a power in this first part. In the second part we see how it comes together to create Emergent Complexity and provide varied and strongly themed play experiences through different class builds. This first part will be fairly basic to some of you reading this but it lays the groundwork for talking about the more advanced concepts feeding into the class designs along with the combat mechanics in Part 2.

To break things down into more digestible chunks, when I examine and consider a power I look at it from two different angles — a Functional angle and an Emotional angle.

NOTE: I wanted to apologize in advance for the strange formatting and stream of consciousness writing style. The design process is so incredibly nuanced and has many layers to it, it’s very difficult to capture all the intricacies and tangents that build upon each point. Questions lead to more questions and I could probably fill up a book with my thoughts but hopefully what’s below gives you a general idea of what to expect from Unity.



1. What is the purpose of the power?

2. How does it fit in the grand schematic of all the powers?

  • Can you combo it with another class’ powers?
  • Does it have synergy within the class’ kit?
  • Is it redundant?
  • What is the reason(s) to choose it over all the other available powers?

3. Is it exploitable?

  • Is there a flaw in the design that lets the power be abused?
  • Does it create problems and clash with other game mechanics?
  • i.e. Fly or Invisibility in more traditional tabletop games can render certain challenges nil. There is a definite certain old school charm to these type of powers though. It’s interesting to try and capture this charm without having it break things.

4. Does the power create choice either explicitly or implicitly?

  • Often there will be skills/feats/talents/powers whatever you like to call them that are truly no-brainers to grab. I’m picking on D&D a lot just because there’s greater familiarity with it. In D&D there was a feat called Weapon Focus. It added +1 to your attack roll for all attacks made with the weapon of choice. Almost any martial class would pick this feat up as soon as possible. The benefits were so ubiquitous and significant it overshadowed the majority of other cool and interesting feats. Then how is it utilized? It’s just always on and there’s absolutely zero input from the player to receive its benefits. It was a feat you could pick that provided no tactical depth, no reward for utilizing it intelligently yet it tended to be impossible to NOT pick it up just because it’s bonus was so powerful especially at lower levels. That’s a very uninteresting “power” to me. There’s no choice involved from the process of picking it to even using it.

Phantom Tumble

  • Powers that present choice are interesting, i.e. powers that are strong in certain situations or ones that require the wheels in a player’s head to turn a little bit before committing to. Let’s take a look at a very simple power belonging to the Phantom called Tumble. This is actually a class feature unique to the Phantom. Tumble allows the Phantom to expend Guile (class resource) to shake off some of the incoming physical damage they receive. The mechanic is very simple at the surface but when combined with a resource system and the availability of other powers that utilize the same resource, the player is then constantly presented with a choice of using Tumble when they take damage.
    • How much HP do I have left? Can I take another hit and save my Guile? How hard does this enemy hit? (Note how HP adds another layer of consideration to the decision making process) What about the other enemies, are they closing in and should I play it safe and just Tumble now or do I roll the bones and take my chances?
    • Will I have enough Guile left to pull off a play and help the team or end the fight?
    • I have quite a bit of Guile, I wonder if I can go for a high-risk maneuver and deliberately eat a big attack, Tumble it and then re-position myself and execute a power move? Will I survive this? What are the chances and how does Tumble help tip those chances in my favour? Is it enough?

From the stream of consciousness above, we can see that a simple power mechanic has created a lot of questions and also called upon certain faculties such as situational awareness. This leads us to the emotional aspect of power design.


1. Is the power rewarding to use?

  • Still examining our Tumble power above, there are gradients of risk involved with some of the decision making as presented, and risk generates tension. Having this tension creates a desire for release which in turn can be satisfying and connected to the player’s decision – his or her agency to affect the outcome of the encounter. Tumble is powerful regardless of how it’s used which is beneficial to a new player but it’s intelligent usage elevates the Phantom’s viability and rewards the player’s skill and thoughtfulness of when and where to apply Tumble. The “feel good” vibes of the power evolve alongside the player.
  • Reward doesn’t necessarily correlate with a power’s strength. We could have an awesome earth-splitting god mode move which is cool the first few times but the novelty wears off quickly. Anyone ever play Final Fantasy 7? Remember when you got the Knights of the Round summon? I lost my damn mind the first time it went off but after the 4th casting it rendered the entire game empty for me. For those not in the know, Knights of the Round was a spell that lasted almost 3-4 minutes and it had all the knights of the round table strike your enemy, with each knight alone doing enough damage to one shot most bosses. I go back to the aspect of tension and challenge when designing these powers. Victories are most rewarding when they are earned, having powers that walk the line the between being powerful and requiring a little extra investment from players cognitively to get there help move us towards that goal.
Phantom Sketch
What’s your fantasy?

2. Does the power fulfill the theme and fantasy of the class?

  • This aspect of design is devoid of numbers and logic. It touches upon the subtle indescribables that create that “I’m not exactly sure why I like it… it’s just cool” experience. What I try to do here when I design a power is ask the question “Does this capture the player’s imagination? Does it give them a taste of what this class is about? Is it visceral?”
  • When I was a big World of Warcraft addict, I remember playing my Warrior class and loving him to bits. I played him even when they completely nerfed them to the ground for a time and they were utter prey for other classes. I asked my fellow guildmates and friends who also played Warriors “What the hell compels us to play such a gimped class? Is it just stubbornness? Investment?” The resounding answer across the board was “Dude. Because it’s f’ing cool. And also… because beards.” What was cool? For one guy it was the fact that they were the only class that could Charge. He didn’t care if they hit like noodles or had no way to heal themselves, the feeling of charging across the screen in a flash and smashing into his enemies satisfied him on a level beyond articulation. I thought about it and realized that was a HUGE appeal for me as well. For others it was a combination of the class’ moveset and philosophy. They were hardened badass warriors who relied on pure martial skill and blunt force trauma to get the job done. There wasn’t any fancy communing with the arcane streams or nature spirits. There wasn’t any cowardly slinking in the shadows or dabbling with necromantic magicks. It was straight up “my axe, your face” and certain folks bought into that. Hard. They absolutely embraced it. Creating that kind of polarizing love is something I’m being cognizant with as I work on flavouring the classes and shaping their powers.
  • Bringing up Tumble again, it’s a power unique to the Phantom and it jives with their class fantasy nicely. They are squishy but slippery. Relying on their grace and reflexes to survive in melee long enough to bring their death dealing blades to bear. Feedback from Phantom players is that they love that Tumble is their shtick and that it’s effective but requires thoughtful use at times. It changes the way the class plays and also affects the mindset players take. With Tumble in their back pocket, they can ratchet up their aggressiveness and attempt more risky plays. More risk = more thrill. Some folks like that. As the player’s skill and understanding of the game increases, she might make decisions that are now 80-90% favourable to the intended outcome utilizing Tumble How incredibly rewarding that feels as her character becomes a reflection of her experience and skill. Her Phantom just zipped in perfectly, Tumbled at the right times, using just enough Guile to maximize damage reduction while still having enough juice for the coup de grace, slit the caster’s throat with a devastating move and disappeared back to safety with nary a scratch on her – a total badass assassin.
  • On the flip side, the powers shouldn’t require an intense understanding before they feel good to use. Tumble used willy-nilly is still useful. That’s always going to be damage the Phantom isn’t taking. It’s going to directly save their life at some point and it’s gratifying to a newer player because it still feels powerful. But as the player grows in skill, the power has a skill ceiling to accommodate that growth as well.

We will end Part 1 here as that last sentence leads us to talk about Emergent Complexity and how it’s generated in Unity.

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