Auto chess formula

Auto chess formula

25/07/2021
indiedev, ideaguying

A few days ago Baumi posted a video where he reviewed SNKRX:

It’s a very good video overall but the part that interested me the most was the one I linked above. It’s a 4-5 minutes watch and there he’s talking about how the contribution that the game made was sort of taking the auto chess formula and applying it to a different context, and how from there you could really apply it to anything because it’s such a strong and solid formula that it should work anywhere.

I agree with this idea a lot and part of what motivated me to write this post was expanding on this thought a little more. A lot of people who I see talk about the game sort of focus on the snake part a little too much, and while the snake thing is cute and it works, in my opinion it really is the weaker part of it. What really is carrying it is the auto chess formula:

Here another developer states what they consider to be the core elements of “autobattler-likes”, and I would add 2 more for a total of 5:

  • Shop
  • Shop rerolls
  • Shop interest
  • Set bonuses
  • Unit upgrades

The main thing here is that these 5 elements can be taken anywhere, as they make a set of core mechanics that are really strong and addicting by default. More importantly, automatic battles are not a part of this core set of features. So despite the examples given mostly being autobattlers, (Despot’s Game and Vivid Knight are 100% autobattlers while SNKRX kind of is but also isn’t) I personally don’t think that element is necessary.

In fact, I kind of think that autobattles are a negative. That is, if you have a game with these 5 elements and autobattles, and you have the same game but without autobattles, the one without will likely do better, in my opinion. This is because automatic combat is somewhat of a divisive mechanic and I have the feeling that most people just sort of don’t like it.

It’s possible that this is why the autochess rush by so many big companies fell short of the potential it initially seemed to have. People assumed that autobattles were an important part of the hook so they copied that faithfully, but it’s possible that what was actually important were all these other elements that weren’t explored further because people were stuck in the autobattle mentality, as Baumi says in his video.

In any case, here are a few examples of how the formula could be used elsewhere, using existing games as a template because working from something that exists is better than working from scratch:

Bloons TD #

The most obvious ones are tower defense games. I think the auto chess formula comes from TD games originally so it makes sense that it would fit better in that genre.

The transition from this to an autochess-like is very simple:

  • Towers can now be bought from a shop that offers 3-5 towers at once and can be rerolled, so the right side tower purchasing thing that gives you access to any tower at any time is removed
  • Towers have classes, if you have multiple towers of the same class on the board you gain either set bonuses or global bonuses
  • Towers are upgraded by purchasing copies of the same tower and unlock special bonuses at the highest level
  • Gold that is saved between rounds generates interest

With these small design changes you could take a normal tower defense game and make it vastly more strategic and interesting for basically no effort. Maybe there are reasons why this wouldn’t work, but I can’t really see them.

Path of Exile #

These mechanics can also be applied to pretty much any action game that has passives as just an additional power system. I’ll use PoE as an example:

  • Killing special league monsters grants you special coins
  • Special coins can be used in a shop that you can find at a fixed interval, like once every few maps
  • This shop has 3-5 options of randomly selected artifacts that can be rerolled, you’d probably need a limit on the number of rerolls per shop encounter in PoE’s case
  • Artifacts grant the player permanent buffs and you can have a limited amount of them active in your character, this amount could be increased by getting more rare league drops or by beating the league big boss
  • Artifacts have classes, having multiple artifacts of the same class grants additional bonuses
  • Artifacts are upgraded by purchasing the same copy of that artifact and unlock special effects at the highest level

Just a very direct application of the idea as an additional system that would likely be engaging by default, as the core mechanics are solid and addicting.

RPG equipment #

A more specific application of the formula for games like PoE would be to add classes and set bonuses to equipment. Most RPGs already have the notion of set bonuses like “if you have 2/4 items of this set you gain +X/Y”.

One interesting way to expand on this would be to make equipment have multiple classes. So if you’re playing a magic bow build and your bow has the “ranger, arcane” classes, you want your other equipment to also have these classes because if you have 6 ranger equips you get +100% attack speed and if you have 6 arcane equips you get +100% spell damage or something.

Equipment could also be upgraded if repeated versions of it are bought. For both PoE and simpler ARPGs like Minecraft Dungeons you’d have to consider two items the same for upgrade purposes if they’re from the same base.

So in the picture above if you have 3 soul knives, regardless of the stats of each, they’d be combined into a Lv.2 soul knife. And then if you had 3 of those they’d be combined into a Lv.3 one and so on.

Mothergunship #

This is a very cool game where you can craft your own guns:

Applying the auto chess formula to this game’s gun crafting system could look something like this:

  • Gun parts can be bought from a shop that offers 3-5 parts at once and can be rerolled
  • Gun parts have classes, if you have multiple gun parts of the same class in the same gun then it gains additional bonuses
  • Gun parts are upgraded by purchasing copies of the same part and unlock special bonuses at the highest level
  • Gold that is saved between rounds generates interest (in a game like this the concept of a “round” doesn’t really make sense, so it could be changed for “every time you open a new shop” or something)

Would this make the game more interesting? I actually don’t know, but it definitely seems interesting enough to me that I would try to make a gun crafting game like this at some point.

Noita #

For Noita the changes are similar to Mothergunship, since it’s also a gun crafting game:

  • Instead of the shop just offering spell parts or full wands, it just offers spell parts that can be rerolled
  • Repeated spell parts can be upgraded to more powerful versions
  • Spell parts have classes and when a wand has multiple spells of the same class it unlocks further abilities
  • Gold saved between floors generates interest

It’s questionable if this would make the game more interesting. I suspect the reason Noita offers both spell parts and full wands is because a percentage of the players don’t really want to interact with the wand crafting system, and if that’s the case making it even more involved wouldn’t work completely. But overall I think that the auto chess formula has some potential when it comes to gun crafting like in these two games.

ISLANDERS #

ISLANDERS is a really cool minimalist city builder:

There are two autochess-like versions of this game that come to me. One that doesn’t change much about the game and another that is more radical. The first:

  • The mechanism that gives you new buildings is a shop that can be rerolled
  • Instead of gaining points by placing buildings correctly you gain gold that can be used in the shop
  • The game ends when you run out of buildings to place because then you can’t generate more gold

This version focuses only on shop features and leaves out set bonuses and unit upgrades. The more radical version making full use of the formula could look like this:

  • Shop grants new buildings and it can be rerolled
  • Buildings grant gold if placed next to the correct structures
  • Buildings have classes and if there are multiple buildings of the same class in the map (or near each other) then they grant set or global bonuses to other buildings
  • Buildings can be upgraded by placing a copy on top of it, upgraded buildings grant more gold and also have additional special effects at the highest level

This set of features changes the game much more significantly but I can see a lot of potential for a really good and unique strategy game. These changes can also be more generally applied to

City builders #

There’s a clear opening for this set of mechanics on any city building game pretty much. Instead of the player being allowed to buy and place any building he wants at any time, you guessed it, there’s a random shop that can be rerolled. More interestingly though, buildings having classes is something that just makes sense. When you’re designing a city you want certain buildings to be close or far away from other buildings, and these kinds of ideas can be enforced by a building class system.

For instance, imagine that the university building is of classes “infrastructure, research, population”. Infrastructure’s class bonus is that it wants other infrastructures close to it, so a university would benefit from having a hospital, police station, fire station and so on close to it (and those buildings are also of the class infrastructure).

Similary, research’s class bonus wants things like libraries, incubators, laboratories and so on around. And the population class obviously wants high density residential buildings, restaurants and other types of buildings that will serve a high amount of people going through that location constantly.

This means that building a university is not just slapping down a building somewhere and being done with it, it’s this multidimensional thing where you’re having to make more choices about which other buildings will be closer to it for some very practical purposes, which is just like how it is in real life, so it probably adds more depth to the game. You could also have classes that want certain types of buildings far away, you could have classes that have interactions with roads, etc. The possibilities are really endless.

There may already be some game like this out there, I’m not a huge city builder player and the only ones I can think of that I’ve played recently are ISLANDERS and Cities Skylines, but you get the idea hopefully.

One Step From Eden #

One Step From Eden already has classes for each card, it just happens that they are used for RNG manipulation and not for a more interesting purpose.

So changing it to use the auto chess formula could look something like this:

  • Shop offered between each round that 3-5 cards and can be rerolled
  • Cards have classes, having multiple cards of the same class in your deck gives set or global bonuses
  • There’s no more focus mechanic, you can’t force the shop to give you more cards of a certain class since the mechanism to do this is now rerolls
  • Cards can be upgraded by purchasing copies of them and unlock special effects at the highest level
  • Gold saved between rounds grants interest

Here there’s a very direct application of the formula and in my opinion this is a much better game. I personally don’t like RNG manipulation in games like these and the focus system that this game uses was definitely a miss for me. This change would make it vastly more appealing and would also make it have more depth, in my humble opinion.

Deckbuilders #

Deckbuilders in general can follow the model described above. The main thing to think about is where to apply the class and set bonuses to.

For some games, like Slay the Spire and the aforementioned One Step From Eden, it makes sense to apply the feature to the entire deck itself, so, for instance, if your deck has 10 cards of class X then you get a bonus to those cards or a global one to your entire deck.

For other games, like Monster Train, it might make more sense to apply it to the units on the board itself, so if you have 3 units of class Y spawned then they all gain some bonus.

Wizard of Legend #

Wizard of Legend is a really cool game which I super enjoyed, but it has one huge flaw, in my opinion, which is that as you unlock new spells, you can choose any spell out of hundreds for your loadout of 4 spells to start the run with:

Now, choice is a complicated thing in video games. Do I want to have the ability to choose things in a game? Yes. Do I want to have to make choices about every aspect of it? No! That’s partly what the developer is there to do. He will explore the space of possibilities and give me the curated, more enjoyable version of it.

A game that suffers from this problem to an extreme extent is Geometry Arena. It’s a cool game, I can see why people enjoy it, but I just couldn’t get into it because I don’t want to have to make that many choices:

Wizard of Legend suffers from the same problem to a way milder extent. Having the possibility of choosing between hundreds of spells, four at a time, is not very enticing gameplay in my opinion. As a player I’d want this space of possibilities constrained in a way that guides me towards cool combinations. And this is exactly what set bonuses could achieve.

The change is simple: each spell has multiple classes, if your loadout has certain combinations of classes then you gain passive bonuses depending on the class. As a developer you’d have to go through the spells and make sure that you give them classes that make sense but that also serve some gameplay purpose.

For instance, there’s a combination of 2 spells in that game that makes you throw lots of rocks at enemies with basic attacks really fast. Should this interaction be encouraged through the spell class system? I don’t know, it depends on context. Maybe because the combo is already too powerful the spells should have no class interaction whatsoever. In this case the system would be used to buff other spells to bring them closer in power to this one.

The point is that now the developer has some interesting choices to make, but the players also have a lot of interesting choices to make. It’s not just “here’s 200 spells, choose 4”. You could go even further and make the spell choice process more randomized as well, where you’d be choosing your loadout based on a shop that can be rerolled and so on… But I guess that might be too much randomness for some people.

The win fiesta #

In any case, I’m out of examples. I mainly decided to write this because these are ideas I’ve been thinking about even before I released SNKRX, and now I won’t get to try most of them as I have to keep updating it.

Also, from a higher level perspective, there are two possibilities that I can see in regards to if the auto chess formula actually has something to it or not. Either SNKRX’s and Vivid Knight’s recent successes were a fluke, just random circumstance and chance, or they were part of a trend. If they were just a fluke then that’s that and most ideas in this article, if implemented in new games, won’t really increase the chances of success of those games.

But if they were part of a trend then it means that there’s an appetite for this formula in the market and that games that use it will have a higher chance of succeeding. Some people have mentioned that games like Luck be a Landlord and Loop Hero also share some autochess-like elements, and if they in fact do (I haven’t played them so I don’t know) then it’s even more signals to add to the notion that this is a trend and not just isolated events.

I have a clear bias in having it so that more games using these mechanics are made because, as I mentioned here, indie developers exist in a non-zero-sum field.

So maybe you, dear reader, an extremely intelligent, handsome and competent developer, end up making the city builder autochess-like that gets hundreds of thousands of reviews, millions of copies sold, billions of cumulative hours played, there’s a guy in Venezuela that depends on your game’s continued updates for his survival somehow, you have frankly revolutionized the gaming industry.

And your game’s players, these elite individuals, these autochess-like connoisseurs, when they’re done with your game after hundreds of very well spent hours, they will ask: “What is next? What other game will provide me with such depths of rerolling degeneracy?” And in their search they will eventually be enlightened and find the truth, as these letters are eternally etched on their minds: S, N, K, R, and X.

And I will win. And you will win. And they will win. And the guy in Venezuela will win too. Everyone wins. This will truly be a win fiesta for all parties involved. So what are you waiting for? Don’t you want millions of dollars? Then go make an autochess-like!