Game Development

Blog 799: The Datavault

Gosh, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? The good news is that, after changing jobs, I’m down to 4 days a week again. That means Exon is back on the menu for Fridays.

That means I need to pick up… wherever I left off.

… Where did I leave off?

Ah yes: the Datavault.

The Datavault

The final hero screen, after the Inventory and the Journal, is the Datavault. This contains all the extra information that doesn’t explicitly pertain to your quests. Superficially, it’s a place to store all the lore you’ll accumulate over the course of the game, but under the bonnet, those items of lore may have an impact on how you interact with the world…

The Datavault is a straight riff on the Bestiary of Nox. As a Warrior, collecting a Beast Scroll gives you a pithy one-liner description of the monster (including the inimitable classic “Death, not beauty, is in the eye of the Beholder.”) and a solid 20% damage boost against it. Not to be sniffed at.

Needless to say, I have no intention of being pithy.

No more passers-by telling you about monsters, you’ve gotta work for your intel now.

There are similar mechanims in other games that I feel the need to answer. The Codex of Mass Effect in particular annoys me because it is so divorced from the actual game — finding a Codex entry only pings a “Codex Updated!” notification, leaving you to manually go into the Codex and try to spot which unread entry has appeared. Needless to say, I never do this often enough and the Codex is a sea of unread entries when I do finally check it. It doesn’t help that most Codex entries have no links to the places where you find them; there are just scattered little “interact with me!” highlights that you Use as you wander by.

The opposite problem is found in other games. Baldur’s Gate, for example, has no mechanism to track books that you come across (beyond literally carrying the items), and bar a couple that foreshadow your nature as the protagonist, they offer nothing to the core game anyway. Most are interesting reads about the wider world of Faerûn far beyond the Sword Coast where your adventure takes place, and they tend towards historical accounts rather than fiction, so while they’re nice flavour, you just don’t hang onto them.

Morrowind takes the book angle further with its skill books, which improve a particular skill by their reading (or at least, by opening the front page). These don’t often represent the world, though — they tend to be fictional tales where you can take great delight in spotting the one or two paragraphs that link the tale to the skill in question. I am a huge fan of A Dance In Fire, because it’s both a great adventure story and a purveyor of precious upgrades.

Exon is focused on mech-vs-mech action though, so the justification for Nox‘s beast scrolls still works: by learning about an enemy, you know how to strike it for maximum effect, which translates into more damage. Whether that enemy is a transgenic with a soft underbelly or a mech with a weak panel behind the knee is neither here nor there.

I reckon I can take this a bit further, though. It’s one thing to find a factsheet about a specific unit type, but it could be quite another to gain a damage bonus against every vehicle made by a particular company; it’s not difficult to imagine a world where there are common manufacturing weaknesses that apply to a whole range of vehicles. If each of these factors translates into a Datavault entry with an attendant damage bonuses, then by the end of the game a thorough player might be doing 1.5x damage or even more against some enemies.

Pesky Rust Mites are basically my equivalent of rats.

There are a few things I am hoping to get out of this.

One: if the “lore” has a mechanical impact, then there’s a real incentive to track it down, ergo I can get people who might otherwise be on the fence more engaged with the world-building. Maybe it’s a forlorn hope, but either way, Exon is going to involve a lot of reading so the more I can bring that fact to the foreground and link it with the core combat loop, the better.

Two: there is no levelling up in Exon, so there is no other mechanism for persistent improvement; it’s all about the equipment you’re using. If you have a good pair of swords and you discard them, you’re effectively de-levelling yourself. Having some way to obtain passive, permanent upgrades means that even if you have to pick up a crap sword near the bottom of a dungeon (because your main one has snapped), then you can still be doing more damage with that crap sword if you’ve invested in finding datacubes along the way.

Three: it simply gives me more ways to reward the player for exploring and completing quests. In This Wreckage, Henrik could only wield Swords and Shields, so those were the tentpole rewards — the only things more exciting and engaging than cash, experience or generic consumables. That’s only two slots, however, so it didn’t leave all that much room to manoeuvre (especially since I was hell-bent on giving every single sword and shield a unique model). The Phat Lewts (“Oh no, I’ve been had!”) were literally placeholders because I ran out of ideas for rewards and figured I could come back later to add something real, until I decided to turn them into an official joke. Sure, in Exon there are already more equipment options (Swords, Shields, Undercarriage, Backpack and Pelvis), but more flexibility and variety is always welcome to rumple up the progression and obscure the numbers behind any RPG.

It looks a bit sad with one entry but it’s early days.

This all leaves behind one faint peculiarity: how do I actually deliver these Datavault entries?

In Nox, finding a Beast Scroll immediately brings up the Bestiary with the entry on show. This is fine because the Bestiary is a small book in the corner of the screen — but my Datavault is a full-screen, the-universe-is-paused affair. If you picked up a datacube and were immediately teleported to a full screen window, it might be a bit jarring, especially if you accidentally clicked one in the middle of a fight while fending off other enemies than the one that dropped it.

I also want to be able to sell datacubes from shops. Again, it would be disastrous if you bought a particular item and it suddenly whisked you away to a different screen — especially if you were swithering over buying something else after that. All right, fine: I’ll make it so that you pick up or buy the datacube, but you still have to go into your inventory to activate it, and it’s that activation that takes you to the datavault entry. That’s slightly clunky (both mechanically and narratively), but still workable.

Indeed, that then opens up the possiblity of finding datacubes without activating them, and selling them instead. This is actually great — you can hold off on that permanent damage bonus in favour of some instant cash if that’s what you need, and hopefully no datacube is unique (evil smiling face).

300 gold for a bonus against enemies I can already one-shot? HMMMM. (Hint: it also affects Giant Rust Mites and will affect any other varieties I add in future.)

Anyway. With that, I believe the hero’s lifecycle is complete. They can manage their own equipment and baggage in the Inventory, they can buy and sell and repair things at Shops, they can track their quests in the Journal, and now they can gather information about enemies in the Datavault.

… have I forgotten anything?

And you tell me...

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