Design – Traits, Keywords, Factions Oh My!

This originally started out as a FB post after series of points of contact in the last week or two but I figured I could turn it into a fuller design discussion post, so here we are! In the last few days I have had several folks hit me up requesting new traits be added to the MSE template. Being honest, I’m going to be something of an arbiter and gatekeeper here, partially by necessity partially by choice and I want to elaborate on that a bit here.

Traits, also called keywords, factions, and a few other colloquial terms, are the identifiers of a character’s skills, modes, and sub-affiliations. They are the icon + text line just below the name, in the black-backed fields. The cards have 1-3 traits, but all bots have some and no one has more than 3 on a face. These play an important role in the game in terms of flagging the character for the benefit of various card abilities; they are a kind of “hook” on which to hang mechanical hats.

So, why am I advocating gatekeeping on this? Seems kinda silly yea?

First, Traits, or “keywords,” or “factions” as a few folks have phrased them, are one of the more expansive topics to implement for MSE. Each pip needs to have it applied for the “hybrid pips,”, the keyword added to a few places in the code for display and sorting, and for the text box/icon display. I’ve done a lot to make these places as few as possible within the confines of MSE’s code so I can make additions quickly and easily, but adding one still takes a good deal of time so even if I am adding these, I’ll add them in groups where I can work on adding blocks of text, images, and code, all at once, getting more done in one pass than in making several passes.

Second, folks are asking to use traits in, what I believe and feel, are inefficient and frankly somewhat lazy ways that create bloat without actually improving the game.

Breaking down what WotC has done with them, and I had to for the purposes of sorting and display, you have traits filling the following roles:

  • Combat designations; these are your melee, ranged, and specialist tags. Does your trait radically change how the character functions as a combatant? Somewhat doubtful; these are your basic designations for RPGs too: Melee strikers, Ranged shooters, and Specialists that are either switch hitters or feature unique skill sets. The bases are pretty well covered with these three and represent a wide array of possible skills and interactions.
  • Mode designations; this is somewhat clean. Just WHAT does the character transform into? Your cars, trucks, planes, spaceships, etc. There’s more room for growth here, but for the most part the real fundamentals are covered and it would have to be something truly unique to justify a totally new mode, such as my addition of “Planet” for use with Unicron and Primus. Honestly, when possible using existing modes is vastly preferred as it is taps into the rest of the framework. There’s no need to designate a “dinosaur” alt-mode, for instance, or a “bird” alt-mode when “beast” suffices AND allows you to tag in on beast-tagged cards and abilities.
  • Sub Faction/Team Designations; This has the most room for growth using the established team configurations. Lots of fun teams never made it to the game and deserve recognition. The MSE template features the Seacons, a faction I am working on for Timelines, as well as Technobots, a faction several folks were looking forward to.
  • I counted “Leader” as an odd 4th rank tag because of its significance to the game, and it put the trait at the end of sorting order under most normal occasions. This one really has no other parallels, nor a lot of room for expansion. Potentially a “God” designation could work here as opposed to elsewhere as that has been bandied about for Primus and Unicron, but there’s not a ton of consensus so I’ve left this one alone.
  • “Masters”; The last group, canonically, are the “masters.” This class typically had significant impacts on the card’s mode of operations and changed how the card flipped or what was done with it under certain circumstances. Titan Masters, Battle Masters, and Weaponizer make up the official designation here and I added Minicons to this group. Some chatter exists about “Power Masters,” which would fall into this grouping as well. Titan Masters have the Head Mode flip side, Battle Master and Weaponizer cards have the Upgrade side, and I presumed (and pre coded) Minicons would have some form of Upgrade option as well due to their design. This has SOME room for growth, more than mode and less than subfactions.

ULTIMATELY, these are the breakdown of categories for traits. For a new trait to be considered by me for the MSE template, it has to fall into one of these categories AND not simply duplicate an existing element. It has to be designed for a REASON, and it should apply to a reasonable number of bots as well.

We have a lot of talk about “unifying” the committees and design efforts, and among the hallmarks of WotC design this is a simple way to assure more cards are more compatible. Using singular traits for one bot is both a serious workload for inclusion to MSE and its somewhat fruitless in design, isolating the card from the rest of the game. The first inclination may be to make something a “trait” but its not just a catch-all bin to toss random elements at. Each trait group serves a purpose, and thinking deliberately about that will help your designs AND help me as the programmer AND help the community at large play more freely.

Examples of requests that I felt are appropriate: Junkion and Quintesson were recently suggested/requested and added in the 1.01 update. They are great examples of subfactions within the Autobots and (per the toy line) Decepticons respectively. I issued the MSE template with Technobots and Seacons; these are classic combiner teams. Minicons, as noted, were in the original release as a “Master” group, and “Planet” was added as a unique alt-mode despite it being for two characters only, though honestly they are two of the highest demanded characters imaginable. I also updated the list to include all of Wave 5’s additions such as “Wreckers.” I’ve recently been approached about Military Patrol, Terrorcons, and a couple other subfactions that are both canon and represent a number of bots for whom that subfaction is a strong part of their identity.

Examples that I do not consider appropriate; Predacon (not the combiner team) and Maximal are not simply traits or subfactions but rather an entire faction unto themselves, very distinct from the Autobots and Decepticons in all of the IP’s branding, iconography, and handling. A number of folks have suggested that they be treated as mere traits, and I would make a strong argument against that to the point I did build out both options as unique factions in the 1.0 release. There was some early discussion about the “Electrum” variants; again, a poor trait and likely a better keyword of some kind. This falls into an example of what I consider a “laziness” that doesn’t improve the game; creatively building a true keyword/mechanic would add more to the game than making “Electrum” a kind of trait. This example is not intended to disparage the design, but I have seen a more prolific card designer use “Clone” for the two Autobot clones, a comparatively poor choice in my opinion with the criteria listed above. This one is exacerbated by the Decepticon clones having already been added to the game and WotC did not assign them a “clone” trait. I have also been asked about “Shattered Glass,” which is also not a terribly great trait in this sense as it too doesn’t readily change much of the above, SG is simply the swap of color schemes (Additionally, I AM doing Shattered Glass characters as a part of the Edge of Iacon set and it amounts to a visually distinct frame with the same faction assignments, so Megatron IS mechanically a Decepticon, Optimus prime IS mechanically an Autobot, but the frame has some unique elements and swapped color palette to call out their alt-reality nature).

NOW, granted, these are all fan creations and the fans will do what fans want to do. BUT. If we want to talk about good design, a cohesive community, and keeping things balanced and well in-line with established releases, we really need to be paying attention to what has come before and how we can work within the framework that exists. Busting the paradigm should be for big, showy, unique, efforts; if we just crack the game open every time we feel like making a tweak, that big coolness loses some of its luster.

My hope is this helps make some elements clearer for new players and would-be designers and we can move ahead with more unified goals and concepts!