Fallen London has a design problem

Fallen London, as a game, has a fundamental design problem that deeply affects gameplay at all levels, especially the highest. The problem is as follows:

Equipment can changed at any time, at any place, at no cost.

Allow me to convince you that this is a problem. Imagine a turn-based RPG where you could, at any time during combat, pause the game and change your equipment without spending your turn, even in the middle of an enemy attack. Such a game would have one dominant strategy: whenever an opponent attacks, pause the game and equip whatever gives you the most defense against the attack, then when your turn comes, switch to whatever gives you the highest attack rating.

I’m sure a good developer could make it fun, but this game would most likely be terrible. Every RPG has the obligatory sword that gives you a lot of attack but has a defense penalty. The penalty would become irrelevant. Inflicted with a status effect? Quickly switch over to the armor that gives immunity then switch back. The core gameplay of most RPGs revolves around creating a balanced build that defends and attacks well and has responses to a variety of moves the enemy might take. If changing equipment was free, the whole core would be destroyed. There would be no decisions, just computations of what is best for this immediate action.

I don’t think I need to explain what Fallen London has to do with this.

Now, put the pitchfork down, I’m not suggesting they add an action cost to changing equipment. I would riot along with all of you if they did, because it’s not the sort of thing you can really change after the fact since it would negatively affect our precious EPAs. But, just as a thought experiment, imagine a London where switching outfits cost an action. What would such a game look like?

Well, in such a London, players would probably have one outfit that they stick to most of the time, that they have carefully selected to give a good balance of the stats they like. Players of this London would only switch outfits if they got a shiny new piece of equipment that they like better than what they have, if it’s a really hard and important challenge that is worth spending an action preparing for (i.e creating a theorem with the truthbreaker machine, an end-of-carousel challenge), or if they expect they’ll need different stats for a time (i.e an extended stay in the laboratory, grinding for Poet Laureate, making a lot of skeletons…).
This London would have much less tedium than the London we have. I said that outfit switching has no cost, but this is not quite so, it does have a cost in tedium. Currently, switching an outfit requires 4 clicks and 3 loading screens. This is why sometimes I don’t bother to put on my evening outfit when the Bazaar lodgings card comes around. This is not an actual gameplay decision I have made, it’s just me being a little burned out from the tedium of constant outfit switching and deciding that I’m willing to risk the ~15% change of failure if it means not having to go through that rigmarole for the fifth time today. The worst of it was before the recent bone market update, where I counted a mind-boggling 15 clicks and 13 loading screens per action in order to get ivory humeri efficiently. It’s thankfully better now, but the fundamental design flaw persists. In current Fallen London, the only difference between optimal and suboptimal play is willingness to go through tedium. This is not good design.

This flaw has another, more insidious, effect: Most equipment is worthless. Imagine an item that gave +8 to all main stats. This item is worthless, we have items that give +10 on each stat separately. Other than collector’s instinct (which I do have), there is no reason to care about anything but the almighty Best in Slot (Although, admittedly, there are some uses for the Worst in Slot too). This severely limits the design potential of equipment, you can’t have an item that gives a lot of persuasive but kills your shadowy, because that’s effectively just a persuasive boost with no drawbacks. In the hypothetical London where changing outfits costs an action, both the +8 to all and the +Persuasive -Shadowy items would be interesting, worthwhile items to add, and there would be actual decisions to be made regarding whether you want to go with the +15 persuasive item or the +8 Persuasive, +8 Watchful item.

Recent content has alleviated this last problem by introducing more stats and items that have utility outside of challenges. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t really address the fundamental problem, just kinda works around it.

How do we fix this?

There is a fix, but it requires swallowing a hard pill: Fallen London doesn’t have an equipment system, it has a level up system with extra clicks.

If the best persuasive you can possibly get right now is 250, and you get a new item that’s 2 points of persuasive over your previous Best in Slot, that just means the best persuasive you can get is 252. There is absolutely no other gameplay effect*. Getting this new item is effectively the exact same thing as getting two levels of persuasive.

This is not a new piece of equipment, this is a level up, except that taking advantage of it may require 4 clicks and three loading screens but otherwise no other gameplay effect. I would actually say this can be a good thing. Once you reach the cap of 200 persuasive, you can continue to increase your level by working towards the Best in Slot items, which is just changing the method to stat grind. In a sense, we already have an implementation of the recent overcap changes, except, again, one with extra mindless clicks.

The fix to the fundamental design problem is to embrace this fact. The fact that this is not equipment but a level up. Concretely, the fix is to tie outfits to challenges explicitly. Persuasive challenges always use the Evening outfit, Shadowy challenges always use the Incognito outfit, etc. These outfits are not to wear, but for challenges. The outfit you actually wear would be for storylet requirements and, crucially, for roleplay, not for challenges. This is a roleplaying game where we can’t roleplay with our outfit, that’s a travesty.

A preemptive response to some objections, spoilered so this doesn’t look quite so long (I know it is very long, sorry about that):

&quotBut what about when you want low stats?&quot

Well, this solution is no worse when it comes to that than the current system, if you want to fail a persuasive challenge, fill your evening outfit with Worst in Slots. However, there is an even better solution, simply add a checkmark below &quotuse a second chance for this challenge&quot that says &quotUse your current outfit for this challenge&quot so that it forces the game to use your actual stats instead of your Evening Outfit stats.

&quotWhat about BDR?&quot

There are no BDR challenges, so any manipulations of BDR would be made on your main outfit, this is not truly ideal, but it’s no worse than what we have now.

&quotWhat about MAGCATS?&quot

We are overdue for MAGCATS outfits anyway.

&quotWhat about esoteric challenges that don’t use the main 4 stats or MAGCATS?&quot

Those are fun! I wish there were more. Those can use the current system.

&quotWhat about the technical overhead of such a project?&quot

Honestly? fair. I don’t know the codebase but I know it’s bad and implementing this would probably take weeks. But hey, a man can dream.

&quotThis sounds like a job for a script.&quot

A script that does this would be extremely useful, although I believe it would go against Failbetter’s TOS and in any case the people who use scripts are generally a minority. I do use a couple whitelisted scripts, but nothing of this magnitude. Maybe if Failbetter gives the go-ahead I’ll sit down and write it myself when the bone market breaks me.

*Okay, there is one. The one minute difference is that you can now fine tune your persuasive a bit more, but there is very little advantage to doing this with the way the game works (which is, honestly, a good thing, otherwise it would be even more tedious).
edited by NotaWalrus on 7/11/2020

Why even bother with outfits? Your maximum Persuasive was 252, and you gained a hat that’s one point better than your previous best hat? Now your Persuasive is 253. Why make you add the hat to an &quotoutfit&quot?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I started doing challenges that used the new stats, right after finishing my ambition and gaining a bunch of items with various bonuses that I didn’t remember and had no spare outfit slots to &quotset and forget&quot with my new highest Player of Chess items.

Just have a checkbox next to every challenge that says &quotMaximize success chance&quot. Have it checked by default.
edited by PJ on 7/11/2020

That’s trivial when you consider only challenges that are one stat vs. constant difficulty with no requirements.
But in FL engine, you can have challenges where the difficulty is some (arbitray?) function of any number of your stats, and then some high-success-% item combinations might be infeasible because they do not meet branch requirements … you get to the point where a general &quotmaximize&quot needs many smart optimizations so it doesn’t take minutes to check all possible combinations of equipment.I have … 32 hats * 15 suits * 13 gloves * 63 weapons * 12 boots * 115 companions * 1 destiny * 8 affiliations * 7 transports * 20 home comforts * 1 ship/spouse/club = 511160832000 combinations ; check 10M/s and you still need 51116s = 14 hours.
For a normal human, it’s almost trivial to cull the numbers in each category to just a few, every time. For the same human, it’s almost impossible to write an algorithm that can do the same thing reliably.

All we need is more outfits.

Here’s an idea: ignore all that. If the highest Persuasive bonus is +67, just act like the player always has +67 Persuasive. Then stop designing branch requirements that make that optimization incorrect.

They don’t need to stop because they’ve never done it except a few times in recent content. The only such challenge that I can think of is that one (mithridacy? persuasive?) challenge in board meetings that is easier the more respectable you are. This is the only case I can think of where shuffling your equipment in a way that isn’t just maximizing the relevant stat is needed.

There are also those terrible challenges in Required Repairs that were just flavorful luck checks.

Those few opportunities for interesting-ish challenges are not worth the tedium of outfit-switching.

More outfits doesn’t address the tedium, just alleviates it. Even if we had infinite outfits for all conceivable situations. Changing outfits is still 4 clicks and 3 loading screens. The only difference between optimal and suboptimal play is that slight tedium which adds up over the months and years. This gets especially bad when the servers are in the fritz or when my internet is slow. I’ve had occasions where changing my outfit is a 25 second process.

By the way, a pro strat: If you leave your possessions view open in a separate browser tab, you can reduce the number of loading screens from 3 to 1. It’s a little bit buggy but I use it when going through my opportunity deck and in pre-update Bone Zone. The game won’t update the display on your success chance but when you click Go in the challenge it will use the correct one.

I guess that for people with really slow internet or older devices, having to change outfits often must be a terrible drag. I didn’t think about that because I’m not affected by it.

Maybe the solution would be to introduce a compatibility version of the possessions tab, just like we have a compatibility map?

I’m sorry but I really don’t agree with anything else you said. I don’t see your &quotproblem&quot as a problem. ;) Outfits are fun, in general. They would be more fun if we had more of them. And we really do need more of them, and fast. Parabola is just about manageable, but I’m basically boycotting the Bone Market until we get more outfits.

Of course, something like PJ suggested would work too. We do have all the main stats and skills displayed in the bar at the left. Imagine if just by clicking on the &quotPersuasive&quot or &quotDreaded&quot or &quotMithridacy&quot symbols there the game would set your equipment to give you your best possible score in that stat! Not having to always change tabs to juggle your equipment around would no doubt be a huge quality of life improvement when you just want to max success chances.

I’d still want to keep outfits for roleplay reasons, or just for playing around with really. With all the stuff we have, I would no doubt set up 77 different outfits if they’d only let me :P
edited by phryne on 7/12/2020

Could just make a sidebar. Not really that big a deal.

I agree that outfits are fun for roleplay reasons and outfit switching can be made fun (look at Paisley, the best implementation of the idea). However, the mechanics of the game disincentivize any sort of roleplay with the outfits since the only things that ever matter are the Best in Slots. This is why I didn’t suggest scrapping outfits, but rather tying them into challenges in such a way that acknowledges that equipment is effectively the same thing as a stat increase and eliminates the tedium currently present.

Managing an outfit can be really fun, look at basically any RPG, but there is a reason most RPGs don’t let you change clothing on the spot. Usually you have to do it either outside of combat or use a turn.

The fun thing about managing an outfit is putting it together, i.e the initial planning of the thing. Once you have decided on an outfit, however, the process of switching to it depending on the challenge is quickly going to turn mindless and tedious, no matter how easy it is to perform it. In a game like Fallen London, where challenges are almost universally based on a single stat from a fixed set of 4 (now 11), this becomes a bad problem.

To go back to the RPG analogy, in a good RPG your first run of a boss will have you party wiped but armed with the knowledge necessary to put together a build that will counter the boss effectively. Planning that boss build will be fun in itself, and then using it to execute a strategy will be a culmination of your effort and will also hopefully be fun in itself. The same thing will happen with different zones. You’ll probably have a different build for the volcano than for the forest.

However, if the forest had two kinds of enemies that you encounter regularly and that need very different builds, having to change outfits for each upcoming battle would quickly become extremely tedious, even if the game had a loadout system. This is the situation we have right now.
edited by NotaWalrus on 7/12/2020
edited by NotaWalrus on 7/12/2020

Sorry to doublepost again but I’m actually pretty sure at least one designer at Failbetter agrees that this is a problem because they changed it in Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies. In both games you can only change your equipment and officers at port when not in a storylet. Technically in Sunless Sea you can change officers at zee, but this has a terror penalty. In both games, almost all storylets with a challenge also lock you in, in such a way that you can’t perhaps not, change officers/equipment, and go back. This was done deliberately.

In any game, having strictly beneficial actions that can be done anywhere with no in-game cost (including opportunity cost) is bad design. This is a universal design principle, such actions should be automatic always, because (since they strictly beneficial), there is no reason not to do them and as such they are not choices, they are simply steps in the optimal play process. For an example, think of any game where you can loot a room after finishing an encounter and there are no inventory limits or time pressures. Nowadays most games will automate some or most of that process, for good reason.
edited by NotaWalrus on 7/12/2020

Like Phryne above, I’m staying out of the Bone Market mostly, in part because I often don’t have the time to find the one item that gives, say, shapeling arts, and the single point just ain’t worth it.
But if clicking on the “shapeling arts” icon on the left lit up the relevant possession in a pretty colour – one other than green or red – well, that would be a nice touch.

Otherwise, hm, I live with the fact that I can’t get 15 bizarre for the time being. I may change clubs again…

[quote=NotaWalrus]They don’t need to stop because they’ve never done it except a few times in recent content. The only such challenge that I can think of is that one (mithridacy? persuasive?) challenge in board meetings that is easier the more respectable you are. This is the only case I can think of where shuffling your equipment in a way that isn’t just maximizing the relevant stat is needed.

There are also those terrible challenges in Required Repairs that were just flavorful luck checks.

Those few opportunities for interesting-ish challenges are not worth the tedium of outfit-switching.[/quote]

There are also some double-stat challenges in a few places in older content, and there are a few more examples in recent content - for example, there’s a Persuasive challenge in the Bone Market that also requires you to have high Respectable and no Bizarre or Dreaded. Working out whether I could meet all those requirements and how to maximize Persuasive while doing so was fun, and made me consider some items I wouldn’t ordinarily use since they’re not best-in-slot. I’d kind of like to see more in that vein.

Of course, if those sorts of challenges appear repeatedly, then once you’ve found an optimized outfit for one, it’s just a matter of switching to it each time you do the action, which can quickly become tedious especially if you don’t devote an outfit slot to it. This kind of design addresses the fact that items largely become irrelevant if they’re not best-in-slot, but not the fact that outfit switching adds a lot of clicks to the game.

As an aside, having the game automatically pick the highest-chance-of-success outfit out of my stored outfits (as long as I don’t have more than, say, 100), is likely very doable and feasible in reasonable execution time. While preserving the fun of actually putting the outfit together myself. And the tedium of later updating it as I get better equipment.

In any game, having strictly beneficial actions that can be done anywhere with no in-game cost (including opportunity cost) is bad design.[/quote]

I am always reminded of the old term coined for this by Jick of Asymmetric (developer of Kingdom of Loathing, now probably more known for West of Loathing) … (from bad memory) if you give your player an option to make out with the homecoming queen for 10 points, and another option to stab themselves in the dick for 11 points … there will always be players who pick the 11 points option. Because the game is about the points, not about out-of-game costs.
edited by xKiv on 7/12/2020

Also, there are a lot of ‘cross-optimal’ options that I think people would be upset about. For example, if I had the Tiger Minister of Talking I’d be pretty upset if the game favoured choosing that over my Tomb Colonist-connected Frost Moth for Talking challenges.

That said, we need at least three more outfit slots. BDR maxing, by itself, just got silly with the Ealing items.

Except those challenges in the bone market don’t actually require you to have the correct BDR. You need the correct BDR to access the storylet but once you’re in you can go to possessions and respec to full shadowy/persuasive depending on the challenge. There are two examples I can think of of a challenge where just maxing one stat isn’t the way to go: Getting a yacht and using your respectability in board meeetings.
edited by NotaWalrus on 7/12/2020

[quote=Toran]Also, there are a lot of ‘cross-optimal’ options that I think people would be upset about. For example, if I had the Tiger Minister of Talking I’d be pretty upset if the game favoured choosing that over my Tomb Colonist-connected Frost Moth for Talking challenges.

The game would choose +10, as the highest bonus. It probably wouldn’t choose either companion, actually. If I were writing the code in JavaScript, it would look something like

effectivePersuasive += companions.reduce((max, c) => Math.max(max, c.persuasive), 0);

I was reminded of this discussion by the recent changes, but I see from comments elsewhere that NotaWalrus is not a fan of what we have ended up with…

He should’ve been careful about what to wish for…

I personally hope that they reverse the equipment locks for most storylets and areas since this will lead to a lot of frustration esp. putting an emphasis on so many different types of stats for maximum gain, but let’s see how this goes.

I’ll be spending the rest of my week at the Lab and basic resource-grinding to recover from Jericho Locks expenditures so it won’t affect me too much right now, but I do sympathize with everyone still stuck with bear-hunting or other grinds that require changing their outfits often.

I am indeed quite cross about the new changes, and will quote myself:

Technically they didn’t add an action cost, but they did do the sort of change that you can’t really make after the fact and does affect out EPAs (not to mention our mouse fingers).

I’m in the camp that does think locking outfits sometimes is a good idea, just not in every storylet, that’s pretty ill-conceived.