Death and Scurvy Scallywags

Sep 20, 2013 ten to four pm

Twitter user @LordKrlhz posted the following about Scurvy Scallywags the other day:

First of all, I didn't know it was possible to get a negative review score. If I'd known that, I would have taken up the challenge years ago.  Second, his view of death in Scurvy Scallywags isn't uncommon. I've seen many tweets and gotten several emails expressing the same sentiment.

I thought it might be a good (and fun) idea to talk a little about what went into that design decision. It wasn't undertaken lightly. It's something Clayton and I talked and argued about for months.

The core of the issue is when you die, you have to start over from the beginning. But, that's not entirely true. You get to keep all the gold you collected, plus all the skills you've unlocked or bought and all the equipment, clothing and (most importantly) the shanty verses. None of those disappear on death. All that really happens is your character has to start over at level 1.

Clayton and I talked a lot about what should happen upon death and tried several ideas. We had death be a full reset of everything. We had death reduce your level by 5 or 10. We had death cause a restart of the current island or sea map. We tried a lot of things and nothing felt right. Much of the game's difficulty is dynamically tuned based on your level, so losing a few levels was meaningless. Nothing felt like it was enough of a setback to carry the auspicious name of "death".

We eventually settled on what is in the game now. The level of your pirate affects a couple of things in the game: new skills are gated on level, plus all the weapons and clothing and ship materials have a level at which they start dropping. If you die, you won't see new stuff on the roulette wheels until you get back to your previous level.

You do get to keep all the shanty verses you've collected, but new ones won't start dropping until you've reached the level you died at. This was done so players couldn't "game" the system by replaying the early (and easy) levels over and over. Whether or not a boss drops a shanty verse is completely random and not based on level, but the odds of it dropping goes down the more you have collected. It starts at 100% and ends at 14%. It is possible (although unlikely) that you could collect the entire shanty with only 15 boss kills. If this happens, you might want to think about buying a lottery ticket. Or maybe not, since you just used all your good luck on a silly game.

Enemies are also dynamically tuned based on your level, so they didn't really matter in any death scenario.

After a few weeks of testing and playing, it became apparent that leveling back to 20 or 25 was a tad monotonous. To combat this, we gave players 2x the XP until they got back to their previous level. It felt snappy and didn't take that much time to level back. I tried 3x the XP, but you started skipping over levels and it felt disorienting and broke some things I was reluctant to fix given the time we had left and the tuning that had gone into the game. Twice the XP felt right.

The mistake we made was not telling players it was happening. Other than the float text showing "2x" when XP floats off dead enemies, there is no indication or mention it is happening. Making a bigger deal of this might have deflected some of the criticism.

An early prototype of the game took it's roots from classic Rogue games, and death in those is permanent and brutal. The game evolved aways from that model, but there was something compelling about death having real meaning and consequences. You need to get good at the game to be successful. It's not a game you can flop your way through.

The other thing we've taken some flack for is allowing your pirate to resurrect and cheat death by paying gold. It was viewed as a dirty way to get players to buy In App Purchase.

The thing to understand about IAP in Scurvy Scallywags is that it was a last minute addition. The game was not designed for it, nor was the game tuned for it. During all of our testing, none of the testers were allowed to buy (or fake buy) gold. The game needed to be fully playable and winnable without spending any extra money. Clayton and I both dislike what IAP has done to game design and we didn't want to make a game like that.  IAP was for players who wanted to "cheat" and buy all the skills or ship materials they wanted. You don't need to buy very many skills to be successful and over buying skills won't help you out.

We added the resurrection gold cost as a "nice" thing to do, not something we were trying to trick players into buying.  Based on the 2x leveling and the amount and the level testers and beta testers were dying, we didn't feel like it was something that was going to happen that much anyway. If you're not binge buying skills or ship materials, the resurrection cost should be covered by the gold you have on hand.

Or that was the plan.

Did we make all the right decisions? Who knows. Is there a better solution? Who knows. But maybe this will help explain why we made the design decisions we made.

Game design is hard, thank god it's fun.

Other people's comments:

Posted by Richard Hill on Sep 20, 2013 twenty five to five pm

You made the lion's share of right decisions.... of course figuring all that out while playing the game IS a tad difficult out at first.  Still this is an incredibly well thought out game and hopefully the knock offs won't show up for a bit.  Thanks for clarity, and all the Great stuff you've made over the years.

Posted by Felipe on Sep 21, 2013 quarter to noon

At first I didn't understand, then I realized I always managed to cheat death by paying gold. I liked the decision, I always keep gold instead of go around buying every character ability.
The game is hard, which for me, specially nowadays, is something I really like and miss.

Posted by Georg on Sep 23, 2013 twenty past two am

I like your design decisions - it makes death something you fear but it's not too punishing. I've never actively noticed the 2x exp I got after dying but now that it has been mentioned I feel like it's obvious because I leveled up way too fast after a death.
I agree with Felipe - it's nice to play a "hard" game for a change even though one can always have some gold floating around to pay a little fee to death. I really enjoy the game! The information about the drop rate of chanties is also very helpful - I was beginning to wonder how that works.

Posted by Nicholas Von Doom on Sep 23, 2013 quarter to three pm

Hey Ron-

I've tried all sorts of iOS games, blah blah, etc etc.

Scallywags is the only one that I still consistently play... because it's addictive, fun, and vaguely reminds me of the lucasarts glory days.

IMO the death system is great... keeps my attention. If "death" held no consequence then what would be the point of trying not to die?

I think you made a respectable decision (and I know it keeps me playing). Perhaps it makes the game less accessible to the glommy masses, but I think the fact that you need to purchase the game in the first place negates that possibility regardless.

little proofread:
...there is *(NO??)* indication or mention it is happening...

I totally bought the gold doubler... but just so I could give Beep more $$!! Don't side with the haters on that issue. Or, if you really feel that double gold is immoral, just put in a shareware style donation system.

just 2¢


Posted by Anders Kjeldsen on Sep 25, 2013 twenty five past three am

I guess that explains why "things" suddenly stopped happening in the game.. (I did a reset)

One thing I don't understand is this: If you have a 3x3 "collapse" of (i.e.) POWER you get, in my case, 10 power. However, if I do a 4x3 it would instead be counted as two individual "collapses" (what are they called anyway?), so I get 1 + 2 points instead... It doesn't sit well with me, as 4x3 sounds better than 3x3..

Posted by Derrick on Sep 25, 2013 quarter past eight am

"Other than the float text showing "2x" when XP floats off dead enemies, there is [NO] indication or mention it is happening."

Two letters, one word, so important.  But, I think we're all smart enough to have figured it out.

Posted by Ron Gilbert on Sep 25, 2013 twenty five past eight am


Posted by Tim on Sep 25, 2013 five to ten am

This aspect of the game infuriated me when I first started playing, and the rapidly-escalating cost to resurrect the pirate annoyed me even more. This was compounded by the fact that each pirate could last multiple hours of play, so getting an effective "game over" screen was very disconcerting.

Then I finally noticed that all of the upgrades carried over, and suddenly death felt less like "game over", and more of a chance to design a new pirate..... and I haven't stopped playing since.

So yeah, it definitely feels like more of a communication issue than a problem with the mechanics themselves.

Kudos on an otherwise very enjoyable game :)

Posted by Johnny99 on Sep 28, 2013 twenty past noon

Stopped playing it.
Didn`t die.
Payed 10€ for Gold.
Enjoyed it anyway.

Posted by Jen Sward on Sep 30, 2013 eleven am

Hey Ron - loved the game. Great art, great design, lots of fun and lots of strategy in a seemingly uncomplicated game. The "all-the-way-death" is terrifyingly good - I died twice and then did everything in my power to Never Die Again. I just finished the quest for all the shanties, and (oh that last level!) came close to dying but managed, through strategy and the skills I learned in the earlier levels, to survive.

I don't ever pay anyone for skills - I would love a game that just has a "you love the game and want to send us more money but don't want to buy your success - click here!" button.

Loved the game, have told all my students about it, you guys made great design choices to improve a match-three game and take it to a new level.

Posted by Demetris Thoupis on Oct 7, 2013 twenty to five am

Ron what are you currently working on? :D

Posted by Ron Gilbert on Oct 7, 2013 ten past eleven am

Android port of Scurvy Scallywags.

Posted by Demetris Thoupis on Oct 8, 2013 ten to eleven pm

Why does nobody care for Blackberry Ports! :((((

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