After one day, my first big comment on PG is structural. When I think of an “endless” game that worked really well, let’s say Plants vs. Zombies, a key feature is that you’re carrying over a lot of game state from one wave to the next. All your plants and their locations (which is a lot of information), as well as how much money you’ve banked and whether some plants are at partial HP. The first one (the plants you’ve already set up) is the important one. In fact, the point of Endless is that you handle later waves by using the easy early waves as efficiently as possible to build up as solid of an arrangement as you can. To put a finer point on it, the early waves are still interesting because you have a big incentive to find as much slack as possible that you can use to set up plants in a way that will pay off later. For example, saving up for very expensive plants right away, which makes the early waves harder because you have almost no defenses.
To sum up in two words, I think a completely necessary feature of an endless-series-of-waves challenge is the ability to “get ahead” early on.
In Proving Grounds, almost the only game state you’re carrying from one wave to the next is your mana bar (and cooldown state, but that only has a 1-3 minute lifespan). The only others are your party’s current HP (mostly isomorphic to “mana” since you can use mana to top people off between waves though) and whether all the mobs are dead (more on this later). So at the outset of the discussion, mana is brought front and center. It’s all that connects one wave to the next. I want to point out also that I only tried healing so far, but for DPS/tanks who don’t even have a mana component, is there anything connecting a wave to the next? Or is it a series of completely independent fights?
The PvZ example is meant to illustrate the importance in an endless-waves challenge of having some continuity of action throughout all the waves. If they are truly independent, then once a player can do waves 1 through N and fails at wave N+1, there is no reason for him to keep playing waves 1 though N. In fact this is very quickly going to become boring or annoying. The player needs a reason to re-engage waves 1 through N mentally and make a continuous challenge out of optimizing his performance, such that each time he does so he improves his chances of beating N+1.
Anecdotally, I had this response as a player yesterday, literally the first time I’d ever lost in Proving Grounds. I was at Endless wave 8 and thought, “ugh, I have to do waves 1 through 7 again to try that again”. The reason I thought that (I realized later) is that nothing I saw doing waves 1 though 7 the first time made me think that doing them better or differently was going to improve my odds in wave 8. The only thing I needed in order to get past wave 8 was to try wave 8 a few times in a row to see exactly what was giving me trouble. That I couldn’t do that without replaying 1 through 7 felt tedious.
In the healing case, we have mana for some continuity. I think the ramifications of having the mana system bear this much weight in a healing challenge are something I’ll get into in a later post. It’s worth commenting in my personal example that mana wasn’t a factor at all when I failed wave 8, it was pure spike damage. And again, in the non-healer challenges–will I find anything serving this purpose or will waves 1 through N be a matter of rote repetition once I’m attempting wave N+1. All I can think of is cooldowns, but that’s only a partial solution: I can get some value out of learning to do N and N-1 without my cooldowns, but still, none of the earlier waves matter.
So this whole post was on one issue, but if I’d been sitting in the room when people first discussed Proving Grounds, this would have been a fundamental objection. Right now I’m not convinced there’s anything here that justifies an Endless mode. I know that sounds dramatic, but what I’m pushing for isn’t to delete Endless mode. It’s to think of something we can add to Endless mode that will make clear why the “Endless” structure is a better idea than say, a distinct 4th/5th difficulty level (where the final difficulty would be the same as waves 25-30 of current Endless).
PS: I framed all my thoughts in terms of Endless as I wrote this, but in retrospect this issue is not so narrow. Any additions/changes that are responsive to what I’m describing here would improve the gameplay of the other modes as well as Endless.