The skirmish engine, as we've planned it, is a remarkably complicated little beast. Combat is not simple, and understanding every aspect of it will likely be difficult. Mitigating this chaos has been a topic we've been going back and forth on for a while, trying to decide how to introduce the player to the various concepts in the game at a managable pace.
The obligatory reference is to Portal. Portal breaks the first half of the game into a linear sequence of separable training levels. Each level teaches the player precisely one concept, and the following levels expand on the concept (but slowly) to hammer the idea home. Most players don't realize the training, which is fabulous, since it both gives them a sense of momentum and accomplishment.
So, we decided to break up the 'timeline' of the player's gameplay by level, and decide when concepts were to be introduced. The design of the classes and skills at that level need to be built to reflect the training, so we'd better decide the progression fairly early. We'd also like it if the progression of ideas mirrored the plot development of the setting. Like portal, it would hide the complicating mechanics by masking it as a plot change. It could maybe feel more natural to have a new concept to learn, if there's a setting based reason.
With our goal in hand we look a bit at other games in a closer space. WoW always comes up, naturally. WoW staggers some new concepts throughout the game. New skills are learned slowly; more complicated skills are often in later levels. Talents are not available until level 10, and they are almost the only actual decision making a player has to make in the game! Yes, until level 10 there are no necessary decisions; it's a good thing! Certain types of more complicated equipment (verb-pieces, like trinkets) are not available until 40 or 50. These pieces are inherently more complicated than mere stat-sticks, since they need to be used, and often interact more closely with the player's behavior.
Now for Skirmish again. What decisions does the player have to make? Initially, they must decide which primary unit seeds they will be able to control. This is similar to selecting a class for WoW. Other than this, changing primary classes and selecting commander skills are the major skirmish-related decisions. The world gameplay may introduce some of its own, and we really ought to figure that out more soon, but we haven't, so be it.
Can we delay the decision making until providing a method for making the decisions? The Elder Scrolls games (or really just Bethesda games, seeing as Fallout 3 follows the same paradigm) have the player proceed through an introduction before making any decisions except for character visuals (which don't really even matter, since they are typically first-person). I often like this paradigm, although the implementation may leave something to be desired, especially with respect to immersion.
Let's have a training section, but let's ground it in setting. We haven't talked much about setting yet, but the plan is to have the player start the game exiled from home, arriving through some means into a new environment. And this exodus was not planned, which is important. Let us have our player crash land, sans equipment or training, with only a few companions together. They've landed in a hostile environment, and scavenge for tools to survive. From the environment they find basic implements for combat, something so very basic... Like a Stick. Yes. A stick. Your companions are now a new training class, 'Stick Swinger'. Or something. Maybe something a little less silly, like 'Trainee' or something more plot poignant like 'Refugee'.
The game begins, we teach you how to move. Your trainee has very little he can do, you just stick together and learn to defend yourself. Later you pick up a makeshift shield, and learn some defenses. Later, you acquire a simple ranged mechanism by throwing the stick. And perhaps later we have you sneak around a frightening collection of foes; some foreshadowing for the setting? Or just a convenient way to teach stealth? Both really.
Now through survival we've taught you the mechanics of the 4 starting classes! Aha! But now a group of settled locals encounters your group and tells you that you must flee the area immediately or be overrun. But there are several means to escape. Perhaps this is your decision point where you pick your 'class', by deciding on a way out. The means to survive in your chosen path are granted by your decision, and so the path is set.
Now, what else have we introduced? Basic equipment in theory, although that could easily be hidden from the player at this stage. Basic controls, but no active abilities, just group control. Very very basic.
Next time I'll focus more on our ideas for setting, and after that how training, progression, and setting are all tied together.