Dev Letter 3: The Battlefield

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The battlefield is the real heart of the game, the place where all the development and recruitment strategies are put to the test, and also the place where you can spend half of the gaming time or more. So this is an area of the design where a lot of effort has been made.

We have started making tests on this subject around February 2004, which is already more than two years ago. At that time the question was about what system we would be aiming for, how it would be shown, how cameras would benefit from the 3D action, and how the interface would bring in additional gameplay or serve the action. The underlying question was about the size of the arena.

We studied the previous games and a worrying tendency was established : the ratio of creature size to the whole combat screen was declining very rapidly with each new version. If we kept such a tendency the average creature would not be more than a speck on the screen in Heroes 5. This is something that you can accept when you have a realtime game with hundreds or thousands of creatures displayed, but not when there are about a dozen. Plus, we wanted to have multiple sizes for creatures, and that would increase this problem again, with the smaller creatures (like the imps) being only a fraction of the others.

Besides this visual question, there was also the major objective of increasing the tactics during a fight. The designers at Nival were planning to give each creature a special attack pattern, like a breath area, or a shooting line. This idea would increase the need to search for specific situations where the position of enemy units would be used against them through a death blow. But for this idea to work, the size would need to be kept under control, to force tighter hand-to-hand brawls and decision-making. This need was from the start in line with the visual issue mentioned above.

Finally, a core objective on Heroes 5 was from the start to get a faster gameplay. As the battle screen is a place where you can spend most of the playing time, it is also a place to try to gain some time, by reaching conclusions faster. Most of the early fights are usually one-sided, hence the idea to create a smaller battlefield specifically for the first part of the game.

This is how the research on variable battlefield started. We would have a small battlefield, of 6 by 8, when the army was composed of four stacks of creatures or less, and the battle would switch to a larger one, 12 by 14 for larger armies. The early fights would be done much faster this way. The siege battles would in any case happen on a larger version of the battlefield.

It seemed ok during implementation and the first internal tests. However the larger battlefield fights seemed a bit too long though, with less interest, as the tactical element was much more difficult to trigger. There were much less occasions when the creatures placement would enable a special move to become interesting.

Another problem appeared thanks to the beta test : the balancing was turning into a headache with multiple sizes for the battlefield. It is not only about giving more movement points to each creature, but also balancing area effect spells, shooter and caster capacities, plus all the side effects on attack, defense values or hit points. It appeared to be too complex to try to balance close to 100 creatures efficiently.

So we decided around November last year to come back to a single size between the small and the large one, a medium 8 by 10 size. This would allow quick fights with good opportunities of tactical effects, and was also within range of the visual limits we wanted to keep to benefit from the animations and effects.

The objective was also to limit the strategy of creature splitting, where you basically end up with only one type of creature on the field, presented in several stacks. The gameplay in Heroes 5 is built around the need to use all creatures from one’s faction. Low-level creatures are still interesting in the late game, and high-level creatures are very costly. So a small or medium sized battlefield is more interesting for a mixed lineup.

We also integrated the ‘tactics’ phase for all heroes, so you can place your troops the way you want at the start of any battle. This allows you to adapt to the obstacles on the battlefield, as well as adapting to your foe. It also avoids a very initial phase of battles where you would have to move your troops in the configuration you want.

However during the final stages of the beta test where this medium battlefield was provided to the testers, the almost unanimous feedback was that this was too small, and that the fights could quickly become cramped. A bit more freedom was needed, increasing width and height by one or more cell.

After quite a bit of discussions around the christmas period and january, we decided to increase the size to 10 by 12. This size globally retains most of the advantages of the former one, while allowing more movement possibilities.

All in all this issue strikes right into the fine balancing between conflicting gameplay objectives, and nailing down bit by bit how the game will look like in the end. It also underlines very clearly the utmost importance of players feedback !

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Thanks to ThE_HyDrA for creating and looking after the Heroes 5 section of Age of Heroes!