Welcome to Dev Journal #20 on the designing of tribes! I know it's been a while since we had a design journal but as the vast majority of what people want to know about the tribes are their specific differences, this one should be relatively short.
Even still, I think many people underestimate how impactful the tribes will be on their overall play experience; so I wanted to use this DJ as an opportunity to prepare people a bit by doing a deep dive on the design process of the tribes. With any luck, you should walk away from this Dev Journal with a deeper understanding of why tribes exist in Elyria, how they were developed, and how they'll affect your play experience in Chronicles of Elyria.
Tribes in the context of a game, especially an RPG, may be an unfamiliar term to many. So I wanted to take a moment to describe exactly what we mean by a tribe.
First, a tribe in Chronicles of Elyria, as in our world, represents a collection of people who generally share a common set of physical characteristics, values, and beliefs. In fact, identifying those broad categories was a large part of designing the tribes. The complete set of categories are:
This means that each tribe has a unique set of physical characteristics and adaptations that separate them from other tribes. And it should come as no surprise that those adaptations are a direct result of the environment the tribe was established and evolved in.
At the same time, each tribe also has its own unique history that, while potentially influenced by other tribes, is personal to them. This history brings with it a unique culture, including a language and a set of religious beliefs that are specifically catered to the personality and the needs of the tribe.
Next, because of the environment and culture, each tribe has its own set of social conventions such as professions, levels of government, and processes by which members of the community advance within the society.
Finally, as a result of the tribes’ shared histories, each one has a relationship with one or more of the other tribes - whether that be as enemies or allies.
What does this all mean? It means you should expect the above information to be mostly spelled out for each tribe when you receive their write-ups. Be looking for that over the course of the next week!
Second, tribes in Chronicles of Elyria take the place of what would normally be considered a "race" in other games. But make no mistake, tribes in Chronicles of Elyria are far more than races in other games. Let's take a deeper look at why.
In most games, races are largely cosmetic in nature and contribute very little to the overall player experience. Because player characters are rarely impacted by their environment, the design of races is instead driven by narrative or other artificial constructs. Generally speaking, races in other games provide one or more of the following:
Beyond those things, however, the race you choose has very little impact on your day-to-day player experience. This is true at virtually all levels of play. In many MMOs, it's possible in the early game to pick up and move to a different starting area, allowing you to experience the quest chains of the other races. At later levels, the passive bonuses and activatable abilities are generally so underpowered as to become virtually useless.
The only real, lasting difference your race generally has is on your enemies and allies. Let me repeat that. The one thing that remains meaningful throughout your play experience (with respect to races) is which other races are friendly and which are "kill on sight". Ironically, this is perhaps the one thing that we'd expect to change over time.
In Chronicles of Elyria, these are virtually the opposite. First, while your tribe (or more generally your bloodline) will affect your predisposition toward certain attributes, your tribe doesn't directly control the starting values. That's established by your parents - regardless of which tribe they are. So, while being a Yoru may cause you to get stronger easier, it doesn't make you automatically stronger.
Similarly, tribes in CoE don't provide any kind of passive bonuses to skills. Instead, they tend to contribute more toward your overall survivability in certain regions. Any skills you learn at an early age are based on the biome your family is from, regardless of which tribe they are a part of.
Next, CoE has no activatable abilities associated with tribes and no starting zones. During character creation, you pick a family and wherever that family resides is your starting area. This is completely orthogonal to what tribe the family is from.
Finally, while your tribe does identify what languages you know and the relationship your tribe has with other tribes, those are completely dynamic and prone to changing over time.
At this point, I've identified what races typically provided, and I've identified how tribes are not races, but I haven't specifically addressed what tribes affect. Let's get into that now.
As I mentioned before, tribes are far more impactful than players may realize, and either directly or indirectly influence many different feature areas of the game. Let's talk briefly about those now.
While there are several things which your tribe impacts directly, the following are things mostly impacted by your biome. However, as most tribes are more suited to certain biomes than others, they're predisposed in certain ways based on the their tribe.
Note: One important thing which is not effected by Tribe is lifespan lengths. In the early designs of the game we'd had a random lifespan between 10 and 14 months to account for differences in genetics. But we've since done away with that, and given everyone a standard 52 week lifespan, regardless of bloodline or tribe.
Now that you've gotten a brief look at the things affected by your chosen tribe, no doubt it's obvious that a large part of the tribes' design hinges on their default biome. We have a saying here at Soulbound: "The truth is in the biome."
While player characters in most MMOs are largely unaffected by their environment, and races are designed via narrative or lore, in CoE virtually all the design of a tribe is based on their need to survive in their biome. That's because their biome dictates things like:
The result is that tribes in CoE should feel more like they’re a part of their world, and that the world has far greater impact on your characters.
While the mechanical design of each tribe is based on its need to survive in its biome, the aesthetic design has no such constraints. In fact, we were completely free to make the tribes look as wild and crazy as we wanted to. Despite the creative freedom, we wanted to ensure we remained on the lower end of the spectrum between low fantasy and high fantasy. While there's no hard and fast rules about what characters look like in a low fantasy vs. high fantasy setting, we did put in certain constraints which we felt were necessary to maintain the look and feel we were going after. The constraints were:
The above constraints meant that none of the tribes would have fur, scales, or hide as skin, and they would all have skin that was effectively the same type of flesh as humans on Earth. Additionally, limiting the silhouette and skeleton meant there wouldn't be tribes with extra limbs, fewer limbs, wings, tails, or anything else that would change the basic outline of the shadow.
The last constraint above meant that while not every tribe would have every animation, those animations they did have could work the same across all tribes. Now, we're still free to go back and add tribe-specific animations, but the constraint frees us up from that requirement.
In addition to the above constraints we had one other very important one - the tribes needed to be visually distinct from just their portrait or bust. In other words, you need to be able to identify someone as one tribe or another from just looking at their face, head, shoulders, and chest.
This means that to differentiate between the different tribes we effectively had the following things to work with:
When designing the individual traits for the tribes such as skin color and eye color we tried to, as much as possible, pull from our own world. For example, for skin color we pulled from the Fitzpatrick scale for human skin color, as well as Von Luschan's scale. For eye color we also pulled from human eye colors including Brown, Blue, Green, Gray, Hazel, Amber, Violet, Black, and Red.
While I've thus far spent a good amount of time talking about constraints and how we drew inspiration from humans, don't assume that the tribes are just like humans on Earth. Indeed, many of them are quite distinct. On Earth, humans effectively stopped evolving when their brains reached a point where they could create tools and technologies to overcome the challenges posed by their environment. In Chronicles of Elyria, we asked the fundamental question, "How would humans be different if they developed technology later in history, and were instead forced to adapt to their environments." The results are something on the scale of low-to-high fantasy more toward low, but different enough that they no longer feel human.
That all being said, one of the things that makes Chronicles of Elyria unique is the ability to breed with others to fulfill your genetic imperative and see your genes pass on from one generation to another. That creates a sort of final constraint we'll talk about next - the need for all customization related to tribes being able to blend smoothly between parents and children.
Procreating in Chronicles of Elyria allows players to create children which are hybrids of their adults. But this process isn't as simple as arbitrarily picking values between the parents. Indeed, while we feel breeding and genetics are important, we also need to maintain the integrity of the game world. This has required us to put constraints on the breeding system which help fulfill the following objectives:
When I'm talking about constraints I'm not talking about constraining which tribes can breed with which tribes. On the contrary, we think it's interesting what combinations of mating pairs might arise from the genetics system. What we mean by constraints are mechanics put in place to ensure breeding between all the different tribes remains achievable and believable.
While this shouldn't be new information for most people, for this design journal let me briefly re-describe how the character creation process works with respect to families.
When a character is being created they must first select which family they're part of. Once they've done that, a random sampling of the genetic markers will be taken from both parents (Remember from your biology class that everyone has two sets of genes). With a random sampling taken from both "mom" and "dad", the player will be presented with a collection of sliders that have "mom" on one side and "dad" on the other. These sliders represent the set of possible values which can result from selecting either mom's genes, dad's genes, or a combination of the two.
Now, to ensure diversity in the world, not all values between mom and dad are available. Instead, there will be a small margin around each parent that allows players to pick genes which are "more like mom", or "more like dad", but not "directly in-between." This should serve to strengthen the family resemblance and slow down the convergence of all genetic combinations toward the mean.
At the same time, to ensure we don't break the character models, some genetic sliders are bound to one another. That is, choices along one marker will often force a selection of another marker. This is to make sure we don't get grossly disproportionate characters, and to make sure there is internal consistency within the world.
As a good example, skin, eye, and hair color are controlled by the amount of melanin in a character. This means these three attributes are linked. Selecting one - such as the eye color you want, will filter the available skin and hair colors to something that makes sense. While this will reduce the number of possible combinations, it'll also ensure that, for the most part, the appearance of each character is consistent with what we'd expect to see on earth.
Now that we've looked at what a tribe is and what kinds of things you can expect them to impact in your day-to-day gameplay, I wanted to also briefly touch on why we have tribes. Despite what may appear to be one of the most complex games ever made, I'm a firm believer that systems shouldn't be added to a game unless they address multiple issues and can be used to solve multiple problems simultaneously. It should come as no surprise then that tribes address three separate issues.
Balance - First, as you'll learn more about in the next section, the tribes address the problem of balance. Because we have survival mechanics, and we want each biome to feel dramatically different, the concept of tribes is necessary in order to allow players to survive effectively within each of the biomes.
Diversity - Video games, even MMORPGs, are effectively consumable resources. That is, at some point you as a player will have consumed everything there is to consume and will, unless there's something other than raw content to keep you interested, will get bored of a game and move on. The introduction of different biomes and the accompanying tribes adds a unique element of diversity to the world, making each region and interactions which each tribe feel like all new content.
Conflict - Similar to the previous point, games without conflict become boring. As a result, CoE has been designed from the ground up to provide multiple layers of conflict - conflict between players and the story, conflict between players and their environment, conflict between different religions, and now conflict between members of different tribes.
While slightly off-topic, another thing I wanted to talk about is our general design philosophy with respect to tribes and many other areas of CoE. I'm doing this because I think many peoples' first gut reactions will be to look at each tribe and immediately identify what they perceive as (potentially unfair) advantages and disadvantages given to some tribes and not others. This is a natural response, but it's important to understand what those perceptions mean, and why they're nothing to really be concerned about.
One of the things that makes Chronicles of Elyria truly unique is our focus on asymmetric rather than symmetric design. Where many games focus on balance through equality, CoE focuses on balance through contrast. Let me give you an example.
In the game of Chess, both players start off with 16 pieces on the board - 8 pawns, 4 minor pieces, and 4 major pieces. The pieces, aside from the king and queen are completely symmetrical on the board and in the case of the king and queen, the switched positions are there to maintain actual rather than perceived symmetry.
This is an example of balance and design through symmetry. To ensure the game is fair, both sides are, as much as possible, made to be the same.
In contrast, if we were to look at a fighting game such as Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Soul Calibur, etc., you'd see a completely different situation. At the start of the game both players pick their fighters, and then enter the arena to compete. The fighters have the same health, the same general number of moves and combos, and the same timer in which to defeat the other person. However, each fighter has their own unique moves and combos, their own unique fighting styles and their own advantages and disadvantages when measured up against the other fighters.
Both Chess and the fighting games are fair, but the fairness is achieved in different ways. Where Chess is made fair through equality, the fighting games are made fair through asymmetric balance. That is, the relative strengths and weaknesses of each fighter are tightly tuned so that while they are different, they are relatively equal. I say relatively equal because it's virtually impossible with asymmetric design to ensure 100% equality, but that's not really the goal.
The goal with asymmetric design is to create interesting and unique challenges that can only be encountered when the problem space isn’t symmetrical. In other words, when the game is fair but not equitable.
Most fighting games, or really any game that use asymmetric design (MOBAs, RTSs, Fighting Games, etc.) typically include conversations around which team, champion, or hero is more powerful than others. In some cases, the perceived differences are real, but in many cases the differences are situational, and rely a lot more on player skill than people are willing to admit.
So, let me re-iterate. We recognize that each tribe has perceived strengths and weaknesses. That's by design. But don't freak out. Instead, look at the tribe holistically, think about what the play experience will be, and then decide on which tribe is best for you. If you attempt to min/max your tribe selection, you may well drive yourself crazy.
That said, why do we use asymmetric design at all if it creates such conflicted arguments? Well, for many of the same reasons we have tribes.
The last thing I wanted to underscore is that the only thing constant in Elyria is that things will continue to change. This is true both for the asymmetric design and balance of the game, as well as the mechanics themselves. Over the course of development, we will continue to tune and tweak the tribes until we feel they are balanced and fair.
In addition, as I mentioned before, the tribes affect so many things in Elyria, many of which are ultimately player controlled. Things such as the culture, social structures, and even the enemies and allies of each tribe. So, while we've worked hard to help establish their pre-existing relations, their history, and their predispositions, these are ultimately subject to change post-launch, as the tribes go from being our creations - to yours.
That's it for this design journal. If you've managed to make it all the way to what ended up being decidedly not a shorter design journal, you should be primed and excited to read about the individual tribes which will be following in additional articles. They'll start out as forum posts, but will then be moved to the Game Guide section of the website later.
Stay tuned, individual tribe writeups are imminent.
Pledged to the continued advancement of the Soulborn Engine and the chronicling of Elyria,