8 Things Not To Do… (Part II)

Continuing on from my previous post, here are four more common mistakes made by game developers.

5. Hidden code/data
Protecting your code and data is a very natural instinct – after all, you may have spent years working on the project, developing unique features, pushing the boundaries of the genre. Giving away the innards of your game is a hard step for many developers – especially executives – to take. Nonetheless, we released the game/AI source code for Civ 4 over a year ago, and – so far – the results have been fantastic. Three fan-made mods were included in the Beyond the Sword expansion – Derek Paxton’s Fall from Heaven: Age of Ice, Gabriele Trovato’s Rhye’s and Fall of Civilization, and Dale Kent’s WWII: The Road to War – and so far, these mods have been heralded as one of the product’s strongest features. To be clear, these mods would have been nowhere near as deep or compelling (or even possible) if we had not released our source code. I should specify that for many PC developers, I’m preaching to the choir, so I’d like to be very specific about which genre I am calling out – strategy games. For whatever reason (perhaps the lack of a pioneering developer like id?), strategy developers have been much more closed off to modding than their shooter and RPG brethren. Sure, there are exceptions, like Blizzard’s fantastic scenario editor for WarCraft 3, but by and large, strategy modders do not have many places to turn for platforms on which to work, which was one reason we felt compelled to focus on modding for Civ 4. Giving stuff away can feel good. It also feels smart.

6. Anti-piracy paranoia
The damage that piracy does to our industry is impossible to calculate but also impossible to ignore. Few company heads can be as brave as Brad Wardell and just leave out copy protection altogether. Thus, having some sort of mechanism to stop casual piracy is a given but what is not a given is the hoops companies will make their customers jump through just to be able to start the game. The most important question to ask when considering these protections is “will this added security actually increase our sales?” A good place to be lenient, for example, is with local multi-player games – in other words, can players without the disk join a multi-player game hosted by a legitimate copy. Starcraft let you “spawn” extra copies of the game that could only join LAN multi-player games. (Interestingly, this is the same model that Ticket to Ride employs on the Net. It is always free to join a game but only paying customers can host.) Allowing unlimited LAN play was our unofficial policy for Civ 4 as well. The game does a disk check when you start the EXE but not when you actually launch the game; thus, a group of 4 friends could just pass one disk around for local multiplayer. We do not believe players are willing to buy extra discs just for the ability to play multiplayer at a LAN party, which are rare events. However, we would love for new players to be introduced to Civ in these environments, encouraged by their friends who are already fans. At some point, they are going to want to try single-player – in which case, it is time for a trip down to the local Best Buy.

7. Black box mechanics
Sometime during the late-90’s, around when Black & White was being developed, the concept of an interface-less game came into vogue. The idea was that interfaces were holding games back from larger, more mainstream audiences. Ever since then, I have noticed a discernible trend to hide game mechanics from the player. Age of Kings shipped in 1999 with an incredible reference card listing every cost, value, and modifier in the game. With most modern RTS’s, however, you’re lucky if the manual actually contains numbers. I want to emphasize that the answer here is not to bathe the players in complicated mathematics in the name of transparency. Instead, designers should think of their interfaces as having two levels: a teaching level and a reference level. The teaching level focuses on first-time players who need to know the basics, like how to build a tank and go kill the bad guys. The reference level should answer any question the player can think of about how a game mechanic works. It is perfectly fine, by the way, to put this info inside of a separate in-game resource, like the Civilopedia. Rise of Legends implemented an interesting version of this two-interfaces idea. Most of the popup help in the game had an “advanced” mode that you could unlock by holding down a key, giving you significantly more details about the game’s underlying mechanics.

8. Putting story in the wrong places
I was tempted to come up with 7 things not to do and just leave off the story one as I’m sure it’s my most controversial point. A bunch of people will disagree with me over the place of story in games, so let me just say up front that I know that I am wrong. I still want to make my point, though. I don’t like story in games. I don’t like the boring cut-scenes. I don’t like the stereotyped characters. I don’t like the plots that I have no control over (and, sorry, the Bioware you-are-either-God-or-Satan twists count too). I especially don’t like it when games stop me from fast-forwarding through the crappy dialogue (I’m looking at you, Japan). But what I really hate is when a story gets stuck somewhere it really doesn’t belong. Like in a strategy game. After all, strategy games are the original games. Humans first discovered gameplay with backgammon and chess and go; it’s a noble tradition. The “story” in a strategy game is the game itself. Layering a story onto an RTS campaign is like putting a copy of Hamlet in my pie. I mean, sure, Hamlet is a great play, but my pie would also sure taste better without it! Put another way, how much better of a game would Rise of Legends have been (and it was already a great game) if they had given up on creating a story-based campaign and instead iterated on the cool Conquer-the-World mode from Rise of Nations? Ironically, the campaign mode was my favorite way to play RoL. I loved that you could only acquire technologies and advanced units on the strategic map between missions, which helped to simplify the core RTS game. However, I enjoyed the campaign in spite of the story, not because of it. The key point here is that, for the sake of chasing a story, Big Huge Games missed a big opportunity to match a great core RTS game with a simple, overarching strategy layer that could be infinitely replayable. They are not alone; almost every other RTS developer seems to be falling into the same trap, and I don’t know why.

Of course, if I ever made an RPG, I would probably name the bad guy Foozle, so what do I know?

Well, for better or worse, these are the eight things I hate seeing in games, especially strategy games. What about you?

26 thoughts on “8 Things Not To Do… (Part II)

  1. I am especially irritated at games that prevent free LAN play.
    I purchase about a game a month, and I’m usually the one introducing new games in my circle of friends. One of my first tests is: How difficult is in to multiplay on the LAN?
    I’ve been disappointed too many times. Battle for Middle Earth 2, C&C3, etc.
    I was pleasantly surprised by Supreme Commander, but then most of my friends need to upgrade to play it. In the end, we almost always revert back to WC3.

  2. A couple of comments, mostly about number 8 (as you might expect). A very quick bit on piracy though: the current crop of Atari games will not install on my main PC because of the piracty protection. Having installed one recently on my laptop – Dragonshard – I do not seem to be missing much. An amusing performance I went through in order to play a game that turned out to be just plain awful, the game design equivalent of drawing with crayons.

    As to story in games -it is my belief that games could tell really good stories. They just don’t, for the most part. Games are a fantastic storytelling medium that are woefully under used, perhaps because story tends to be tacked on as an afterthought rather than made part of the whole.

    CAn I suggest that it is not story in games that you do not like, but bad stories?


  3. I think your criticism of story is a fair one, but it’s not safe to overgeneralize. But I do hate when my games become an interactive movie, even if the movie parts are really cool. I want to PLAY, not WATCH. I think the real issue is that story should not trump game play. It should be a game first and foremost. It should not even be 50% game 50% movie. It should be 10% movie, if at all. I’m not sure how many people would agree, though, and lots of games are probably great BECAUSE of the story.

    Good call on making it easier to play and modify games. Piracy and security are WAY overrated — the cost of building a software fortress far outweigh the benefits. And there ARE benefits from having a looser gate, rather than an electric fence.

    The black box thing is your best point, though, IMO. I remember when I used to play Nintendo, I didn’t NEED to know “Ice will do 2x damage to fire monsters, and ice will do 1% damage to ice monsters”. I just needed to know “Fire monsters are vulnerable to ice, but ice monsters are immune.” I didn’t need to know that “the probability of a critical hit is 2% normally, and 10% with the magic sword”. I just needed to know “sometimes you will score a critical hit, and the magic sword boosts that chance”. But the best part about your point is that this information should still be available — just not necessarily right in the player’s face all the damn time.

    Most people “feel” a game’s mechanics. If they eventually want to go from intermediate to expert, then they can dig a little for the actual math.

  4. On the releasing code aspect, you have to mention what Blake did to the Civ4 AI, too – something else that would never be possible without releasing the source.

    With black boxes, 100% agreed. I just can’t play RTS games where I don’t see the amount of damage my units do and their hit points. Rise of Nations is, I think, the best interface ever designed – not only extremely intuitive, but with a good advanced mode that shows you the details.

    As far as stories go, though, I think you’re in the minority. It’s the games with a story that go on to become classics. StarCraft is a RTS cult classic largely due to its heavily story-oriented campaign. Of RTS game campaigns, people will tend to remember the campaigns from Blizzard games more than the campaigns from, say, Age of Kings.

    And in other genres, I think good stories are now critical – I’ve become somewhat spoiled as far as this goes and I now want a good story in my games. I’m talking RPG and FPS games mainly, of course. Fallout is memorable because of its story, or Deus Ex. Though dialogue you can’t skip is truly a major annoyance.

  5. One very simple feature that I wish more RTS games would implement is the ability to pause and give orders. One of my favorite ways to play an RTS is at the hardest difficulty level such that I need to closely control my units’ movements, use effective counters, heal wounded units, protect veterans, and so on. I loved Rise of Nations and the Age of [X] series because of this feature. It allowed me to enjoy the strategy side of these games a lot more.

    I really wish WarCraft 3 would’ve had this feature. There are so many cool units and spells in that game that I never used because I couldn’t keep up with all of the clicking and hot keys required. I tended to build units that were low maintenance autocasters because I got so sick of all the twitchy clicking. I think my enjoyment of the depth and variety of WC3 units would’ve gone up threefold if only it would’ve had this very simple feature. I have the same complaint about the C&C series.

    No strategy game should require you to have fast reflexes. I’m in my mid-30s, and I know a lot of people my age and older who love games like Chess or Settlers of Catan, but they won’t touch RTS games because they rely on quick thinking and reflexes more than thoughtful strategy.

  6. I’m neutral on the issue of hidden code/data; I’m much more concerned when it results in black-boxing, but that’s addressed separately.

    I’m actually not sure why the piracy/copy-protection thing is still a problem. That is to say, I don’t understand why publishers still insist on draconian measures; haven’t they figured it out yet? More often than not, copy-protection hurt the paying customer, since pirates just bypass the copy-protection anyway. Casual piracy is still a concern, but at the same time I’m not convinced that it’s enough of a problem to justify the ridiculous measures enacted to prevent it. Specifically, if I have to choose between buying one of two comparable games, I’m going to go with the one that’s more accessible and supportive of LAN play. It’s telling that the two things I do immediately after purchasing a game are: 1. look for a gameplay patch, and 2. look for a no-CD patch.

    About stories in games: good story >> no story >> bad story. The tricky part is of course how to make the story interactive in an interesting way. Some games do this by allowing the player to influence the story in a meaningful fashion, like Fallout and its wide selection of endings. Of course, other games only manage to get halfway there, with a single decision that determines whether you get the “good” or “bad” ending.

    Last but not least, and even though it isn’t covered in the original article, I want to weigh in on the strategy vs. reflexes thing. I guess I really can’t complain that modern RTS games are largely dependent on precision mouse and minimap control, except to say that I don’t care for that style of gameplay. The sad part is that they could get me interested again by doing simple things like allowing me to issue orders while the game is paused, etc. I mean, I want to play a strategy game, not a “click on the correct pixels” game.

  7. You are wrong about stories. They add to games. You don’t create value by taking away, you create it by adding. Of course, you need to be able to fast-forward if you want, but I think your comment about stories says more about you than the games. (Like you are a power gamer and all this humanity stuff that stories deal with just gets in the way.) My suggestion is that if you see games with bad stories (bad dialogue, etc), call them bad stories – but don’t just say “stories” are to blame. That’s stupid.

  8. Nice article, but Etrian Odyssey does have a sell all button. I think it’s Y, but it only says it at the top of the screen somewhere. Also if you hold down A it will issue the same orders to everyone again (and speed up the battle animations).

  9. I agree with a lot of these points. Especially #1.

    I’m currently playing Civ IV: Beyond the Sword, and it strikes me that this expansion is in many ways making the game more hardcore, and less friendly for the people who wants to have fun.

    This is especially obvious with the AI. Why on earth did someone decide that the AI in Civ IV needed to be more aggressive? It didn’t! Not for me, at least. I know the hardcore players will love it, but for me it’s making Civ IV more difficult to enjoy because I like a more relaxed gameplay where I can focus on building and not defending. At the same time I don’t want to play on lower difficulty settings that makes city management (et.c.) easier.

    I know you’re not at Firaxis any more, but hopefully some of your former colleagues will read this, and maybe realize they’ve made a mistake with the AI in Beyond the Sword.

  10. “good story >> no story >> bad story”

    Problems arise when people think that a bad story is better than no story. Or when they think their story is so awesome that it can’t be skipped. In many cases, it’s just like game music – it’s soup around the core, it might add, but if someone doesn’t like it, it should be skippable.

    The story of SupCom wasn’t particulary amazing, the whole campain was an extended training for the real fun – ranked matches. But now, as they are about to release datadisk, they have something to extend, they’ve created the universe, the context of the game that adds meaning to the single player, it gives depth to factions, it seemingly gives the units their personalities. Many people *will* prefer factions based on their sympathy to their ideology rather then real possibilities.

    But as I said, I can’t agree with Grassroots Gamemaster, because sometimes less is more. Who needs story in Mortal Kombat? It’s there, but you’re allowed to ignore it. Which would be a lot harder if they would force unskippable cutscenes on you.

  11. I agree with pretty much everything, but here’s my thoughts on #8 and #6.

    I am okay with stories in the game, so long as it’s a good story, and there’s an option to go without it. I’m a big believer in games having as many options as possible, so you can be totally free with your game, and if you want the storyline to be part of it, great, if you just want to play, you should be able to turn it off and just go at it. Obviously a storyline would’ve never worked for a game like Civ, but in a game like Age of Kings, the campaigns had great storylines that I enjoyed quite a bit, but even if you hated the story-telling part, all you had to do was hit one button and it skipped it.

    As for piracy, the problem with counter-measures is sometimes you put on so many protectoins, that it affects the honest people as much (if not more) than the pirates. I was one of many people who got the annoying problem of the false-positive with Civ4, where when I started the game it said I didn’t have the disc when I did simply because my cd/dvd drive didn’t support that version of SafeDisc. That doesn’t affect pirates because they crack games like this within a day or two of release, but I spent weeks trying to get the stupid thing to work.

  12. Again story: short and hitting one is good. Long and pointless is bad. I want to buy Supreme Commander expansion pack just because the movie trailer 40-seconds long told me the whole story I needed to hear.

    (( The previous story was a very weak one. Now, the whole 3 factions in the universe which struggled for domination are destined for destruction by a force much stronger and more sophisticaded coming from behind our universe. But we asked for it! – using their technology ))

    (( Total Annihilation had also simple story: In the future, tho ways of merging technology and humans are proposed. Player can choose which morale does he support. I don’t care adding techno interface to existing humans, but adding humans into technology and disposing of human bodies? awful! death to heretics! ))

    As for the copy protection: I decided NOT TO buy Bioshock because of it. I appreciated non-bought copy of System Shock2, so I told myself “I will repay it now”, but with all the problems and distrust they show to me, no way!

    I still want to BUY some games I was not able to afford as a kid. I still want to appeciate good genre. Give the creators some money, because they treated me so good by allowing to play their game when I was not able to buy it. (Look, it was some time ago, but on this planet there are milions in the same situation I used to be. Will you give 10-20% of your monthly income to your kid for some stupid game?)

  13. To Milan: Whoa, Mortal Combat has a story? :O
    Right, some games are better without a story.

  14. Story is a strong subject for me. I have no idea how many games I’ve played, enjoyed the gameplay, but absolutely hated the story. My time limit on RPGs seems to be about 30 hours, and then I cease playing. Usually I’m not near finishing the story at that point, but it’s usually so lackluster that I could care less. Yet there are a good many games that have no story I have enjoyed quite a bit.

    This can also go the other way! There are some games where I really enjoyed the story but couldn’t be bothered to drudge through the gameplay. Outpost 2 is an extreme example of this with a novella where each mission unlocks a chapter. Other examples include some adventure games, like The Longest Journey. Heck, even the game I dare call the best game ever, Planescape Torment, full to this flaw on the second playthrough.

    However, despite that last statement I would like to say that Planescape Torment is one of the few games that does story well. It ties into the game, is interactive (well, the game itself is linear but how the story is portrayed is different), and is just downright awesome.

    The UI is a tricky thing. Many games don’t make enough use of context-sensitive UI and commands. Civ4’s popups are a great example of this. It allows the UI to be relatively small, yet display more information with a very simple gesture.

    As for blackboxing… I was going to make a Space Empires 5 mod so I could have my own personal ring-world building empire going with super-massive dreadnoughts that actually need cruiser support and whatnot, but the game isn’t that spectacular and the most one can do is use some odd form of AI scripting and data file editing. I imagine the data files can change a lot of with the feel of the game, but they can’t quite add to it. So I picked up Beyond the Sword and now I’m modding that instead. 🙂

    I think the reason strategy games have been so much into black boxing is the same reason why I think Civ 5 is going to have a very hard time whenever it comes out. Any features that make Civ 5 to be Civ 5 might very well be backported by intrepid modders. If there are too many features (much akin to how BtS added more than it would be worth the effort to backport), then it might fall into one of the follies of making the game too complex. FPS games sell because of graphics, else we’d all still be playing Quake 2 mods.

  15. I personally like black boxes…but
    I agree that stories sometimes are so damn in the way!!
    Like in, racing games, strategy, sports, fighting, puzzle, sonic, space shooters, half the action games…I just want to play damn it

  16. StarCraft was actually a pretty unremarkable game. Nothing you hadn’t already seen in the original Warcraft, save the art design.

    But the two keys that made Starcraft such a huge success: battle.net and a highly developed story (and cinematics). Battle.net gives you great multiplayer and ultimate replayability. And the cinematics give you a memorable single player experience that is destined for web-ring status. That’s a one-two knockout punch.

    I still maintain that there is an ideal *amount* of story in games. Even good story can be bad if you’re spending more time watching than playing. Good story can’t redeem bad, short, or repetitive game play. However, great game play can redeem a bad story. Which goes to Soren’s original point: great game play lets you write your OWN great story, between the cinematics.

  17. Hi, Soren! As you recommended me, I am posting my questions to your blog!

    1) Is Spore a sequel of the early 90’s game Sim Earth?

    2) To me it’s hard to avoid a comparison, but one thing I don’t like in civilization series is production aspect! Both shield and hammer models are too generical in order to representing production! Colonization had a commodity-based economy well-represented! You have replied me first that colonization production mode was too complex! But the question is: what is necessary to do in order to have a commodity-based economy in civ series without falling the risk of being too complex?

    3) That feature that firaxis will release for civilization revolution – in that case, the graphics of units behavioring as like as you give the proper promotions as you want – when will they released to civ 4?

    4) My ninth thing that a designer should not do is that feature that was done in colonization: random founding fathers! Sometimes I was in need of a specific congressman for the next session; when it comes, there’s nothing on its name on the random list! When I have to choose a congressman, I must chose one of the five, but not necessary that congressman I really want, simply due to the he’s not on the list – that’s was part I don’t like in colo! I used to play using a plan “A” and a plan “B”, when my first one fails, i the matters of choosing a continental congressman!

  18. 1) It’s not a sequel, per se, but I’m sure that Will has worked a lot of ideas from SimEarth into how planet ecology works.

    2) Having one resource means that production can never get hung up because you are missing something. I suppose if you wanted multiple resource, you could have them accumulate and then “buy” your buildings and units and such, but that might take something away from the always-progressing-compulsiveness of Civ.

    3) Features that are unique to Revolutions will – I presume – not be ported to Civ4. I’m not privy to plans for future sequels or expansions.

    4) Hmmm… I wonder if Brian borrowed Sid’s decision to not let the player choose from all techs available but only from 4 or 5 of random ones. We jettisoned that from Civ3 and 4 even though it did sometimes lead to a very high numbers of tech from which to choose.

  19. Well, yeah, if you think of ‘story’ and ‘game’ being seperate entities sharing the same box, then what you say in 8 is totally true. However, I would argue that 8 is only true because designers have typically and historically thought of story as being something you add into a game, like adding chocolate chips to cookie dough. In my opinion, story and game need to be integrated at much more fundamental levels. You say ‘the story of a game is the game itself’ – and I agree. But as designers, we have the capability to seize control of the movements of the story that unfolds through play, the same way we seize control of the progression of difficulty and challenge and the progressive layering-in of new mechanics. Then the story becomes an element of play. Then the dramatic thrust of the game is designed, and the gameplay itself delivers more than a sequence of events, it delivers a sequence of events with dramatic meaning. Clearly when I ‘piss off’ Julius Caesar in Civ and he refuses to make peace with me, even though he will be crushed under my Panzers, this is the designer (to a certain extent) imposing meaning on a game system. Caesar isn’t really mad at me, neither the game nor the computer understand ‘anger’. But the designed mechanics that make it impossible for them to surrender only make sense when we articulate that resistance back to the player using narrative justification. If I was playing the game purely as a spreadsheet stripped of content, Caesar’s refusal to surrender would not make sense. But rather than have this very simple and rather uninteresting state triggered at some threshold on some slider, we could model – in infinitely more compelling ways than we have up to now – the personality of Caesar. Then – in playing Civ, I could come to understand Caesar as a human, as opposed to the less compelling – and frankly more niche – understanding of the Roman Legions as a force.

  20. I should probably be more specific about what I mean when I say “story” in games – I define it as a plot that the designer invented and the player does not control. And even this is not so bad for certain genres, especially first- or third-person games. My main point is that we aren’t acknowledging that forcing story into games can limit their scope, especially for strategy games. (it can be made to work, though… see SMAC as an example) As always with game design, it’s a question of trade-offs. If a game does not need a very broad scope, then perhaps focusing on a fixed “story” (by my definition) is not a bad idea.

    Story _elements_ are, however, always welcome in games: interesting setting, character motivation, good dialogue, etc.

  21. “I define it as a plot that the designer invented and the player does not control.”

    But once you stop defining it like that, then it becomes interesting. All you have to do is remove the word ‘not’, and you have something incredible. As long as you keep the word ‘not in there, you will be forever ‘slightly disappointed’ at best.

  22. That’s right… it would be a lot more interesting, but I’m not sure what games have actually given the player control of the story. Some games have multiple endings (like Bioshock or every Bioware game), but I don’t really think that counts. The closest thing I can think of may be Sid’s original Pirates! – it was a bunch of story conventions (a mutiny, governor’s daughter, evil Spaniard, shipwrecks, long-lost family members, port invasions, the Treasure Fleet) that fit together dynamically without an actual “ending” beyond when the player was ready to retire.

  23. Great article Soren. I just wanted to point something else out about your Etrian Odyssey example. You don’t have to press A twice for every member of your party to attack something, you can just press A once and hold it down during your turn to make everyone attack or use the same actions from the previous round of that combat.

    Granted this isn’t the same thing as a party-wide attack command like there was in the PS2 Wizardry game, but unless the party attack command is tied to another button like the ‘sell all’ function was in the store, just holding the A button down actually saves you button presses since you don’t even have to move the cursor to select the party attack command.

    When partnered with the cursor memory, you can just hold A down and not have to dig through the interface to reselect your spells every round like most games seem to do to spell casters. It actually makes combat a lot faster and easier on the thumbs.

    You can also do this during the combat resolution phase and the actions all go by much faster as well, making those easier encounters a lot less annoying to deal with. I only mention it because both of the points you made about EO drove me mad as well until I happened to discover someone talking about them on a message board so I thought I should share.

  24. Haha – I love the last one. While reading that I realised that I don’t like stories as well (except in Adventure games and Mafia).
    Now I know why I quit so many games. 🙂

    From now on, when playing a new game I will go to the skirmish/multiplayer mode right away.
    Keep up the good work!

  25. I just encountered a good candidate for #9:

    *Don’t assume your game owns my computer.*
    When I install a game, I don’t want the installer to run in full-screen mode, and I *especially* don’t want it to play music at me.
    Ever tried to work, or do anything constructive with half a regiment playing a military march in the background? Thank you, Company of Heroes. I wish I could say you were the only game to do this.

    And I don’t see why every game by default assumes that it should put a shortcut on the desktop. Let me make the shortcuts I want. Assume that *I*, the user, know better than the game how easily accessible each application should be.
    And what’s with the start menu location?
    If I, the user, install a game, I’d like it to go in my start menu, yes. It’s a game, so I’d probably like to keep it close to my other games. Maybe in a Games folder.
    So why is it that every game suggests putting it in a folder?
    I have to look in one folder for Firaxis games, another for THQ, a third for 2K games, and if I can’t remember who made the game, or just don’t know whether to look in the developer’s or publisher’s folder, well, I just have to trawl through my start menu until I found the game I’m looking for. And by then, I’ll probably have a start menu that’s split in two columns because of all the folders everywhere.
    (Of course like all sane people, I never actually let games install to these locations, and if they don’t ask me where to install, I move the shortcuts manually, but that doesn’t excuse the ridiculous default options)

    By default, assume that your game is *just another game* I’m going to install on *my* computer. One in a crowd. One that is not “special”, and is no more important than other games I have installed.

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